Finding Love in the Stacks

I fell in love in the State Library of Victoria.

No, I didn’t see his calm, bespectacled, bookish face across a crowded enquiry desk or sheepishly lock eyes with him while thumbing through the card catalogue (I’m showing my age here; my love affair began in the mid-1980s, when computers belonged to NASA space stations).

I didn’t brush his fingers while handing in my request slip or ask him to get me down a Hansard from that impossibly high reference shelf.

The object of my affection wasn’t a he.  Or even a she.

In the spring of 1985, when I was 17 years old, I fell in love with history.

In the September school holidays of 1985, while most of my friends were enjoying the first rays of spring sunshine, I took my notepad and pencil case and entombed myself within the gloomy inner sanctum of the domed reading room. I parked myself on a hard-as-nails silky oak chair and there I sat, besotted, for the next fortnight. My parents — in their usual trusting, benign negligence — thought I was with my boyfriend.

My HSC Australian History class required me to write an original research essay, based entirely primary sources. I chose for my subject ‘How the Yarra River went from being a babbling brook to a fetid cesspool’.  I tested the waters, and realised the State Library was my best bet for finding archival bliss. Then, as with all great love affairs, I dove in way over my head.

I spent the next two weeks stooped over microfilm readers, pouring over parliamentary debates, hunting through boxes of manuscripts and reading, reading, reading. I would pursue my hypothesis to the ends of the earth. I would forgo food and sleep (and certainly light) on my quest for certainty, for security, to know that I had called and the archive had responded. I was truly, madly, deeply besotted by the historical record.

Over that fortnight in September, I began a long-term relationship that has continued to provide me with emotional, intellectual and professional fulfillment. Occasionally, there have been others in my life. Other repositories of manuscripts and newspapers and photographs that add spice and vigour to my seemingly unquenchable desire to uproot, unearth and exhume the past.

But I keep coming back to the one place that fits me like a glove. The place that makes me feel both alive and at home.  Every single time I enter the marbled foyer and slip past the forbidden stairs to Queen’s Hall, funnelled in through the buzz and pop of the Information Centre, back to the hushed epicentre of the Heritage Reading Room, then the final ascent to the Dome, every single time I simultaneously get a tingle up the back of my spine and breathe a sigh of relief.

The State Library of Victoria is the place where my love is always requited.  The place where no question is too vexed, no hunch too shameful and no itch too unreachable.

It’s been over thirty years since I first contracted what the French theorist Jacques Derrida called archive fever, that incurable lust for pursuing the past through its primary sources. For at least a decade of that disease, I’ve been researching the early gold rush period of Victoria’s history.

It was this dalliance that led to my book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. For that project — originally my postdoctoral studies — I wanted to know not only whether there were women at the Eureka Stockade, and, if so, what they were doing … but also, what the good people of Ballarat were eating and wearing and reading and drinking and smelling.  How they were giving birth to their babies.   How they were earning a living — when so many of them obviously weren’t finding gold.  How they felt about the journeys they’d taken to get here, the promises they were made before they came and the colony they encountered when they arrived. I wanted to understand their bright visions, from the inside out.

To this end, I read literally hundreds of gold fields diaries and letters, daily and weekly newspapers, police gazettes and rare books.

If the gold rush immigrants rarely found pay dirt, I found a treasure trove of riches in the State Library.

There are a couple of finds that I’d particularly like to share with you tonight.  One was pivotal to my research.  This was truly my Eureka moment.  The day that I rolled up my sleeves and set to work on one of the most precious items in the State Library’s manuscript collection: what was known at the time as the Lazarus diary. This was a little leather bound diary supposedly penned by a 19 year old Liverpudlian school teacher who was working in Ballarat when the deadly massacre of miners occurred in the early hours of Sunday morning, 3 December 1854.  It was in this disinterested onlooker’s journal that I learned that a woman had been killed that fateful bloody Sunday.

The diarist notes on Monday 4 December that he watched the passing of a funeral procession for a number ofpoor, brave fellows who fell in yesterday’s cowardly massacre. This conforms to what we think we know of the affair:  male miners and the male military, gunning it out on the Victoria’s alluvial frontier.

But the diarist also tells us that one of the coffins trimmed with white and followed by a respectable and sorrowing group was the body of a woman who was mercilessly butchered by a mounted trooper while she was pleading for the life of her husband.

This revelation changes our iconic foundation story forever.  Such is the power of the archive.

I’ve written a lot about that journal and its significance to Australian history — including the particularly feverish 6 month period of my research when I set about disproving that Samuel Lazarus penned the diary, and identifying its true author, Charles Evans, a 26 year old printer from Shropshire — but it’s the story of a completely unknown item that I want to tell you most about tonight. It’s this item’s seeming irrelevance that I love most about it.

Tucked away in the Australian Manuscripts Collection here at the State Library lies a slim folder.  In the folder rests a cache of yellowing letters.  They are love letters.  Passionate, desperate love letters full of striving hope and tortured emotion.  They are the love letters of Robert Rede.

Who was Robert Rede?

Well, Rede was no incidental fellow.  He was the Gold Commissioner at Ballarat in 1854. The Gold Commissioner was the government’s chief man on the ground on each of the diggings.  Rede was master of his Ballarat domain.

In 150 years of Eureka historiography, Rede has always been painted as the arch villain.  Italian miner Raffaelo Carboni described him as a tolerable young pig with a white-washed snout and the brains of an ass. German miner Frederick Vern called him a well-intentioned man, but pompous and weak.

Rede’s virtually unbridled power over the disenfranchised and aggrieved miners had made him vigilant, reactive and guarded in his affairs. By the Spring of 1854, he was loathed by the diggers for his arrogance and self-importance, his failure to listen to the people.  He was distrusted by his brothers-in-arms.

If you just read the official correspondence and secondary accounts of Eureka, you certainly won’t find much to like about Rede. You may pity him for being the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time, but there’s little beyond charity to warrant your compassion.

But there’s another side to Robert Rede — an aspect of his personality apparently confined to that folder of yellowing letters.

In 1859, after Rede had been transferred from Commissioner of Ballarat to Sheriff of Geelong, he married Isabella Strachan, the nineteen year-old daughter of a Victorian MP. Rede was forty-four.  In 1861, they had a son, Robert Jnr.  The following year, Isabella died. The official cause of death was anasarea, or ‘cell dropsy’, symptoms of which include swelling around the feet and ankles.  Dropsical feet are cold to the touch.  As the disease advances, the legs become hard and shiny, and cracks open up to let out fluid caught beneath the taut skin.  In the final stages, the sufferer is short of breath, feels claustrophobic and is constantly thirsty. Robert Rede would have watched his young bride and mother of his infant son suffocate from the inside out.

Mourning periods were often short and sharp on the colonial frontier.  New partners were quickly found, particularly if there was a baby to nurse.  But Robert Rede took a decade to replace his lost love. When he fell, he fell hard.

The sepia-stained letters in the unassuming buff folder here at the State Library were written in 1872.  Rede had by now returned to Ballarat as its Sheriff.  (It’s unclear what happened to little Robert Jnr.) Back in what had once been enemy territory, he re-acquainted himself with former townsfolk of his station. One of these people was Margaret Clendinning, the daughter of Dr George and Martha Clendinning.  Martha was an entrepreneurial shopkeeper at Ballarat who is a major figure in my Forgotten Rebels book.  Margaret was six years old when Robert first left Ballarat in disgrace.  Now she was twenty-five, still Martha and George’s one and only child, their pride and joy, lovely and accomplished. Robert was smote.

My darling … He wrote to her in a tremulous hand … before going to bed to dream of you I must repeat and repeat again and again how I love you how my every thought is of you how I trace your every look and gestures in my mind how I listen with eager ears to the echo of the words you have spoken.

Hang on. Is this the same man of steel who sent armed troops to hunt for the mining licences of the hungry and forsaken? Rede is painfully aware of the chasm between the public and the private man.

If you could look into my soul and see how you are worshipped if you could feel the pulsations of my heart and know that each passionate beat was for you then you might know what you are to me and yet when with you I cannot speak I cannot pour out all the hot passionate thoughts that are surging to my lips but some day they will overflow when shut out from sight and the ears of men.

But for all the hot surging, Margaret was not convinced.  She decided to spend a week in a remote shepherd’s hut with a friend to cook and be quiet on her own.   Rede is distraught at the separation. I will never know a moment’s peace happiness or contentment till you are in these arms of mine, he moans, for all my anxiety my fears my earnest yearnings you are my blessing.

Rede is dogged.  He sends Margaret pressed flowers in tiny envelopes.

And it was the petals of these flowers —now as delicate as dust — that fell into my lap while I sat in the Heritage Reading Room. Petals so fragile it breaks your heart to hold them. Such a gift. Here I was, holding Rede’s offering to an unconvinced Margaret in the palm of my hand some hundred and forty years later.  Margaret might not have been moved, but I was reduced to tears.

So what happened next?  Well, in real time, I carefully put the flowers back in their tiny envelopes and put the envelopes back in the folder.

Margaret was not so gentle.  She refused Robert’s hand. He is now at tipping point: So much do I feel that I would wade through a sea of blood of my own shedding rather than lose you.

Is this a threat?  Could such a man of the world be so undone by the unrequited love of a woman half his age?  It seems so.

Margaret I simply idolize you. This love has caused a great revolution in me. I should explode if I did not give some vent to my pent up feelings. I would fight like a tiger I must have you. Never did woman pervade a man as you do me.

Line after line of ardent striving for advantage and possession.  The love letters of Robert Rede are a study of fervency and obsession to the point of lunacy.  Unlike the Lazarus diary, the Rede letters are not even a footnote to any history of Eureka – mine included.

But  I do believe they are a  fitting symbol of the drive and passion that made Victoria both the richest and the maddest place on earth in the mid-nineteenth century.

Maybe he just plum wore her out.

On 9 January 1873, Robert Rede and Margaret Clendinning were married at St Paul’s Church of England in Ballarat, followed by a garden party at Lal Lal Falls.  Margaret was twenty-five, Robert fifty-eight. The guests included the cream of Ballarat society.  Margaret resigned from her long-standing position as Sunday School teacher at St Paul’s, and later that year their daughter, Geraldine, was born.  The couple had six children, the last of whom, Fairlie Rede, after whom a species of rose is named, was born in 1884 when Robert was a year shy of his seventieth birthday.

Robert Rede’s pent up explosions could clearly have long reaching consequences.

Geraldine Rede, incidentally, became an artist whose work is in the State Library’s collections. She was also a political campaigner and friend of the suffrage leader Vida Goldstein, who is the subject of my next book, You Daughters of Freedom, published by Text this October.

And that is another symptom of archive fever: it’s contagious.  One outbreak tends to lead to another, like cells mutating in a Petri dish.

I hope that tonight I’ve managed to convey some of the ardour that this Library and its collections have inspired in me. And I hope, for your sake, that you too get bitten by the library love bug.