by Melissa Nesbitt
In her eponymous novel, Olivia & Sophia, Rosie Milne brings to life Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ experiences in the Far East through the eyes of his two wives. Through diary entries, we follow both brides from their urban homes in 19th century England to the jungles of Penang, Malacca, Java, Sumatra, India and, eventually, Singapore.
Raffles’ first wife, Olivia, is ‘the beauty’ with a soiled past (a grown, illegitimate daughter). She struggles with the fear that her secrets will be discovered and she will bring shame to the family. Ironically, this does not prevent her straying from the marriage bed. Olivia is prone to illness, an affliction of the liver, which recurs throughout her time in Asia and eventually kills her. As the author notes at the end of the novel, Olivia’s narrative is highly fictionalised.
Sophia, by contrast ‘the intellectual’, wrestles with jealousy over Raffles’ undying fondness for his late wife. Triumphantly, Sophia provides him with his dearest domestic hope: a houseful of children. By the time of their final journey home to England, however, we see the hopes of the Raffles family dashed time and again by death, disaster and debt.
While the voices of Olivia and Sophia are distinct, they serve as authorial tools. Typically, with a diary-entry format, there is opportunity for the reader to become entrenched in the hearts of the characters. In this case, the entries focus more on day-to-day experiences and less on emotional fall-out. When Olivia receives news of her daughter’s death, for example, she sums up her devastation in a handful of short entries before refocusing her attention on the arrival of new British forces, “…dashing in their tight-fitting scarlet coats”. However, their voices are lively and engaging, breathing life into a bygone era.
Milne is particularly adept in her world building. Her descriptions of the region’s geography and climate coupled with the everyday interactions between the colonials and locals are notably effective. Sophia notes, of the air in Calcutta, it “smells bad, feels greasy, and has a sour taste” and then gruesomely compares the dilapidated buildings and their likeness to the many lepers and beggars. Milne artfully balances the ghastly with the enchanting, lending depth and dimension to the tapestry upon which the characters’ lives unfold, another time describing Calcutta, in Olivia’s words, as the “jewel of the East…a lively, vital city, seething with people, irreverence, ideas, lies, scams, stories, languages, possibility.”
Olivia & Sophia is a surprisingly relevant read. While today’s expats rarely espouse Georgian sensibilities (most notably the bigotry that coloured much of the decision making), we continue to encounter some of the same frustrations and obstacles met by yesteryear’s global nomads. Thankfully, we no longer worry that we and our children may not actually survive a five-year assignment. We receive news from home almost instantly and need not fear that the ship carrying precious letters from loved-ones may sink during the crossing. But some challenges remain current: of huge concern to Raffles (and to the women with whom he shared his hopes and fears) were the misconceptions held by those in his company’s head office ‘back at home’, and the consequences of their misjudgement. Decisions Raffles made ‘in the field’ were turned over by his superiors in England, who felt they understood the situation more keenly (observing it from thousands of miles away). Of course, Raffles alone was held accountable for any repercussions. Sound familiar?