By Angela Comer, Dover Campus Parent PACE Board Member
The Parents’ Action for Community and Education (PACE), recently held the first in a series of Meet the Author events in the new High School library. The inaugural author was Rosie Milne (UWCSEA's very own Rowena Paul!) and the book up for discussion was Olivia and Sophia. The session was moderated by Andrew Fielding from the English Department, whose insightful questions made for a very informative and spirited exchange.
Olivia and Sophia is of great interest to the Singapore reader. Written in diary form it follows the remarkable adventures of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as seen through the eyes of his two wives - the first, Olivia, beautiful and free spirited but the subject of scandalous gossip. The second, Sophia, plainer but courageous and utterly devoted to Raffles. The book is rich with historical detail and the reader is transported back over two hundred years to the era when the British were establishing trading posts in South East Asia. Life in the 'Eastward' was not for the fainthearted and we learn about the dangerous sea voyages, the hardship of the sweltering heat (no change there) as well as the limitations in managing disease and the risk incurred in giving birth. The latter part of the novel especially makes for heart wrenching reading as we know events were based on the tragic facts of Sophia and Raffles' lives.
In the question and answer session Rosie was able to give the audience a great insight into what life was really like for expatriates during the founding of our island home Singapore. I think most of the participants came away with an appreciation of how lucky we are to live here in 2016 and not 1819.
Here is an excerpt from the interview.
Andrew: Can you tell us some of the advantages and restrictions of writing in the diary form?
Rosie: The restrictions were the same as any writing in the first person: your character only has access to the content of his or her own head, his or her own visual field, and what he or she can hear, feel, taste or touch. And so what happens when you want to tell readers something a character wouldn't know? I had a couple of instances of characters overhearing conversations, when I couldn't think how else to convey essential information.
Andrew: How did you think readers would react to the new protagonist?
Rosie: I hope readers miss Olivia, and mourn her, and remember her, but are open to meeting Sophia, and coming to understand her, fingers crossed, even though she is, on the surface, a far less compelling character.
Andrew: Were you concerned about tinkering with history?
Rosie: Yes and no. No and yes. I wasn’t really worried before I started, I just plunged in. But I got more and more worried as I went on – this is the first historical novel I’ve written and it could well be the last – I’m not an historian and I did feel a bit fraudulent, messing around with history.
Andrew: How did you think readers would respond to the two distinctive voices moving from the more to less modern?
Rosie: I hope they get that Olivia is supposed to have an 18th century sensibility, and that she lacked formal education, hence all the grammatical errors and whatnot. I also hope readers realise that Olivia is using a personal shorthand, for her diary entries, which I think is what people do in diaries – all the contractions, and so on. The Sophia diary is more conventionally written, for a more conventional woman. And to suggest a more 19th century voice.
Andrew: How did you manage the structure of the book especially with so many deaths coming close together?
Rosie: The deaths were a nightmare, in terms of pacing. They came too thick and fast for characters to be able to even begin to think about moving towards assimilating them. I chopped out many deaths – even so, I’ve been criticised for not giving my characters time to come to terms with deaths. Just think what it must have been like to live through all those bereavements. We are so lucky we have the luxury of grieving, today.
On behald of PACE, thank you to both Andrew and Rosie for their participation in this event.