CHRISTINE : A memoirBy confluence | July 23rd, 2009 | Category: Book Reviews |
Although understated, Christine comes across as an indomitable character. The book is warm and intimate, without being sentimental,
I have only a nodding acquaintance with Christine Wilson, the writer, having seen a reference to her novel The Bitter Berry many years back. As a schoolboy, I vaguely remember reading excerpts from writings of her father, Dr R.L. Spittel, the eminent surgeon and the chronicler of the lives of Veddahs, the aborigines of Ceylon.
Christine Wilson’s memoirs, only 262 pages long, span the years 1913 (the year of her birth) to the present. She has lived and worked in three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe, more specifically in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kenya and Britain. She has travelled widely in Ceylon, the country of her birth, especially in the hill country and the jungles where the Veddahs had their abode. She enthuses over the flora and fauna of the country with which she is well acquainted. While she was in Kenya with her husband Alistair, she travelled widely on safari in East Africa. She has also travelled with her parents and later with her husband in most countries of Western Europe.
While she travelled, she wrote, at one point in her life she tells us, compulsively like a woman possessed. She had to carve out an identity for herself. Because of her parents’ extremely busy lives, as an only child (a sister, Yvonne, died very young) she grew up lonely and emotionally neglected. The emotional distance from her mother grew with the death of her younger sister. Her father brought her a Veddah child Kaira, as a companion when they were both about 7 years old. How important this event was to Christine is summed up in the short italicised passage beginning ‘Last night I saw Kaira again’ placed at the front of the book.
For me, this is one episode that exemplifies the unwitting cruelties practised by the ruling classes of colonial Ceylon on the ‘natives’. Kaira ended up a criminal, most likely became destitute, perhaps with no other recourse than to beg on the streets of Colombo. In an italicised piece depicting a conversation between Christine and her father (pp.72-73), Dr Spittel is quoted as saying ‘Civilization was too much for him. He became involved with an underground group, went to prison and disappeared. He died of syphilis, they said.’ Kaira’s end in this account appears to be pure conjecture as he is glimpsed in a Colombo street much later by Christine. There is a photograph of him ‘about 7 years old’ (p40), dressed in a sarong, not his native dress, which may have been a G-string, if at all. There had been no attempt to integrate him to life with the family. Was he to be a domestic servant, or merely a pet? His status appears to have been somewhere in-between.
Later, he was supposed to have stolen a wristwatch belonging to a nurse at Dr Spittel’s private surgery and was charged with the offence and jailed. That obviously was the end of Kaira as far as the Spittels (senior) were concerned. When there were many more valuable items in the Spittels’ possession, why only a watch? This to me looks like a disturbed child’s cry for help rather than a crime. It is a shame that a writer of Christine’s standing appears nowhere in the book to appreciate that the guilt lies mainly with them.
This book resonates well with the experiences of the reviewer. I was born in rural Ceylon when the author was about 23 years old, my now deceased mother only five years her senior. I spent the first 26 years in Ceylon, the latter half in Colombo, and except for a three year stint of work in Zambia (further south of Kenya); I have lived in the UK. I am therefore familiar to some degree with most of the settings the author describes, except alas, the vibrant jungles of Ceylon.
In a lifespan of nearly a century, it is of course necessary to be selective in what is documented, especially in a relatively short piece of work like the book under review. Christine’s time at school and any significant interactions with her classmates or teachers appear to have been overlooked. At the best and most exclusive public school for girls in England, Rodean, what was she like? It is only later that we learn that she learnt riding there. What about other extra-curricular activities? Were there no sign of her future literary career? Were her parents disappointed that she did not make it to Oxford or Cambridge?
She returns to Ceylon aged 18 and soon after marries the first guy (his name happens to be Guy) who asks her. Apart from the fact that Guy appears to have been a good dancer and a hit with the ladies, nothing much is revealed about him. Even with a daughter (Anne) from the marriage they draw apart and finally divorce. While Christine’s second husband Alistair’s parents are drawn in loving detail, guy’s parents do not get a mention at all. It is curious that Anne becomes her mother’s and maternal grandparents’ responsibility without even a whiff of objections from her natural father. Perhaps it is too painful for Christine to revisit this period.
Christine finds true love with Alistair, a World War 2 hero, if ever there was one. Anne fits in well and there is domestic harmony, first in Scotland and later in Ceylon and Kenya. In Scotland, Christine becomes a writer in earnest and Alistair retrains to become an engineer. Except in Scotland, when they were relatively poor, the Wilsons are seen to lead the charmed life of the rich and powerful, with loyal servants at their beck and call. But, they are not without their problems. First, there are health problems common to us all. Then, there is the changing political and social landscape of former colonies asserting themselves and no longer treating the former ruling class with reverence. The Wilsons were subject to armed robberies in Kenya and to official harassment in Sri Lanka. The author appears to have got the date of the name change of ‘my island’ wrong. In ‘…1948 gained it’s (sic) Independence and was now called by its ancient name, Sri Lanka.’ (p. 146). The island remained Ceylon until it became a Republic more than two decades later.
Although understated, Christine comes across as an indomitable character. She has bravely admitted the mistakes she may have made and given thanks to the many kindnesses she was shown throughout her life by friends and strangers alike. Her love for Alistair, although under strain at times, shines through in the pages of this book. Her love for the country of her birth is ‘indestructible’, and, ‘most rare’ (frontispiece). The book is warm and intimate, without being sentimental.
The only blemish appears to be a reference by the publisher to the Veddahs on the back cover as ‘the indigenous people of the island’ implying that the Sinhalese and Tamils were not, even with over 2500 years of recorded history.