Rosie Milne is an English writer based in Singapore. She is the author of How To Change Your Life, Holding the Baby, and most recently, Olivia & Sophia, a historical novel describing the Southeast Asian adventures of Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) and his two wives.
What was the inspiration for Olivia & Sophia?
I am an expat British woman living in Asia. As soon as I discovered Raffles had two wives, I thought how interesting it would be to explore the experience of my forerunners, and to investigate an earlier wave of globalization, from the perspective of our own time when globalization is shaping all our lives – even if we never venture far from home.
What background reading did you do for the novel?
I read Raffles’ History of Java, and Sophia’s Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. I read John Bastin’s two biographies, Olivia Raffles, and Sophia Raffles. I read a good selection of biographies of Raffles, including the most recent one, Victoria Glendinning’s Raffles and the Golden Opportunity. I read various histories of the East India Company, and books on general background, such as Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars. And I often consulted Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell’s wonderful Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary.
Did you visit all the major locations in the novel?
Nope. I am a Londoner, and I now live in Singapore, so I had those cities down – at least in their modern incarnations. I’ve been to Malacca (now Melaka), but I’ve never been to Penang, or Java or Sumatra. Nor have I been to India.
How early on did you decide on the two-diary format?
The idea for the two-diary format came to me at the same time as the idea for the novel: it came as one package; a novel about Raffles’ two wives, each of them addressing the reader in her own voice, through her diary.
How did you decide on the distinctive writing style for Olivia’s diary?
This was one of the choices that most worried me – I was worried about falling into cod-historicism, and perhaps I did? But I took the risk because I wanted to suggest that Olivia had an eighteenth century sensibility, and so I wanted her to address the reader in language that would be distinctive from more modern ways of talking, whereas Sophia, who has a nineteenth century sensibility, talks in a way more familiar to us today.
I also wanted to show through the way Olivia uses language that she was not formally educated – at least not in my version of her. We know so little about the real woman that she may have been well-educated, but it seems unlikely.
Raffles’ first wife, Olivia, was in many ways a more colourful figure than Sophia. How did you handle that potential problem?
It was quite a problem, I agree. My Olivia is beautiful, sexy, socially irreverent, and irreligious, whilst Sophia, the plain and adoring wife of her beloved husband, is perhaps a little humourless and excessively religious. I did warm initially far more to Olivia than to Sophia, and I thought readers would too – unless they dismissed Olivia as a man’s woman? But as I wrote the novel, my feelings for the two women became more balanced. I came to admire Sophia’s courage, her audacity, her adventurousness, her dignity when her children died, her determination to ensure Raffles’ fame. Still, I wouldn’t necessarily want to sit next to her at dinner.
Did you make your main characters more progressive than they really were so that they would be more acceptable for modern readers?
I did bestow on Olivia a more doubting attitude to religion than perhaps the real woman would have displayed, but this was not so much because I wanted to make her acceptable to modern readers, but because it’s historically accurate that one of the influences contributing to undermining in the West first Christianity, and then the whole idea of religion, was early contact with religions in the East. Like Christianity, these religions claim to be true. Back then, as today, people asked how to judge between the claims of religions when they conflicted. No good answer presented itself, and some people went on to suspect that religion wasn’t something handed down from God, but something humankind had invented. I wanted to hint at those arguments – arguments which I think are really important today.
I also made Olivia have a spikier attitude to class than perhaps the real woman would have done. That was more to do with making her acceptable to myself, than making her acceptable to readers.
Learning about heroic historical figures in depth can sometimes be disappointing in what it reveals about them. However, I came away from the novel with a higher opinion of Raffles than I’d previously had. Do you feel the same way?
I was less concerned with raising or lowering opinion of Raffles, than with presenting him as a man: flawed; inconsistent; kind; loving…I felt free not to engage with his reputation, as such, because I think there’s no need now to consider him as either a hero of empire, or as a villain of colonialism. In these post-post-colonial times, we know colonialism lost the argument; when we discuss it nothing is at stake in the present. And so we can now consider its proponents just as people – people formed by their time just as we are formed by ours.
It was also because I think that, when it comes colonialism nothing is at stake in the present, that I gave my characters attitudes to colonialism prevalent in their day, whereas class and religion are still live issues, so I felt it was more important the novel take a glancing, allusive view on these things.
Why doesn’t Sophia ever mention attending Sunday services?
Ah. Now you point it out, that was an omission on my part. I probably should have had her attending the odd Sunday service when she found herself in a biggish town or city, with an established European population, but for most of her time on Sumatra she lived someway outside the nearest town, Bencoolen, and, come to think of it, Raffles probably read Sunday prayers in services at home. I do have her attending church when she’s back in England – and disparaging the local vicar, who was not one of Raffles’ fans.
I read Olivia & Sophia over the course of three days while suffering from pneumonia. I must say I’ve seldom felt so grateful for the blessings of medicine and air-conditioning. Did writing the book give you a similar appreciation for the comforts of modern living?
Yes. One of the strongest feelings I took away from writing the novel was how lucky we are to be alive now, and not then. Medicine, painkillers, air-conditioning, ease of travel, ease of communication, all these things are better now than they were then, not to mention the rubbishing of colonial ideas about the “natives”, progress towards sexual equality, and other positive changes in how we think about things.
The death toll from disease and shipwrecks is shocking. Travelling to and living in Southeast Asia seems to have been like playing Russian roulette. Raffles lost his first wife and four children. How do you think the constant shadow of death affected expats? Did they turn to religion, or the bottle? Did they seek short-cuts to riches and fame?
I don’t think it’s strong enough to say Europeans in Asia lived under the constant shadow of death; they lived under death’s vile and grubby thumb – as do we all, I know, but back then, in the Eastward, they couldn’t pretend otherwise, even when they were young. There were so many deaths in Raffles’, Olivia’s and Sophia’s stories that I cut many, many, otherwise I’d have had a death on every page, which would have been too much for readers, I thought.
For me, one of the hardest things to imagine about life back then was exactly this: how did people cope with death on death on death? How did parents cope with their children’s deaths? Sophia lost three children within six months, and another not much later. Her religious belief certainly helped her endure the unendurable – and her use of religion as consolation makes her otherwise off-putting religiosity much more understandable. I have her explicitly stating she believes that after her own death she will see her children again, playing in their bodily form: that she will know them as her children; that they will know her as their mother. It’s interesting that the decline of religion in the West coincided with advances in medicine, meaning children no longer died like flies, and their parents no longer needed religion to help them muddle through loss after loss.
As for other coping mechanisms, in England at this time people would go into mourning clothes after a death – they can scarcely ever have come out of them – and the rites of formal grieving must have offered comfort to the bereaved. But I could find no definitive answer as to whether Europeans in the Eastward went into mourning. I decided they probably didn’t – black would be so hot. But if anybody knows for sure, I’d love to hear.
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Rosie Milne runs the Asian Books Blog.