In this author Q&A, Bethany Keats interviews Alexis Bergantz about his latest book, French Connection
According to the blurb, this is a “little known” history. Why hasn’t it been told before? Why is it worth telling now?
For a long time ‘the French’ have been written about as part of an older historiography of migration that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. This is the ‘ethnic’ or ‘contribution’ type of history that sees immigrants as a positive addition to the nation: they arrive, they toil, they contribute to our wealth and culture, and are rewarded by the dream of integration. This was a popular trope a few decades ago when Australia was actively reinventing itself as a multicultural nation. And while there have been many advances in the field since then with other migrations (the Scots or the Italians, for instance), the French have largely remained part of that older paradigm. The stories I tell in my book have remained marginal and never really entered into a productive dialogue with broader questions at the core of Australian cultural history: questions about identity formation, resistance, and the power dynamics that shaped our contemporary world. As an immigrant myself and with Covid-19 heightening the temptation for parochialism and the embrace of a ‘Fortress Australia’ mentality and policies, it seems like a good time to talk about the many ways in which Australia has always been connected to the world.
There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the politics of the Alliance Française de Melbourne. Why is it significant enough in French-Australian history to have its own chapter?
What drew me to history were early examples of microhistory like Nathalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worm (1976) and Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre (1984). In the last example, Darnton focuses on a group of apprentices in 1730s Paris who orchestrated a cruel mock trial of the cats of the household in which they lived; they put the cats on trial and tortured them to get back to their masters whom they resented for their privilege.
There are no cats in the story of the foundation of the Alliance Française de Melbourne but there is a lot of cattiness. The chapter centres around a confrontation between the first committee of the Alliance and the French consul in Melbourne, a confrontation that lasted for about a decade. For reasons I explain in the book, the French consul wanted to wrangle power away from the original committee, who were using the Alliance as a social club, without fulfilling the statutes of the society, defined by Paris, of disseminating French language and culture overseas. Now that they didn’t do that makes perfect sense, they were women of the Melbourne colonial bourgeoisie who naturally used the Alliance to guard and reproduce the boundaries of their social class. But what is significant and fascinating is that beyond the pettiness both parties displayed, and the amusing quarrel, we see two visions of France appear. For the French people involved this battle, it was about asserting the honour of their nation and about glory and patriotism. Whereas for the women of the committee, French culture was something largely detached from the reality of the contemporary French nation; it held meaning to them as a form of cosmopolitanism going back to the 18th century at a time of widespread Francophilia in Europe. This is exactly the tension in meaning that my book sets out to explore.
What are the similarities and differences between the Melbourne and Sydney French communities? Why did they evolve this way?
The French communities in Sydney and Melbourne were a relatively loose network of people, and a fairly educated and elite bunch. They tended to congregate around people of note, such as the consul, or artists like the singer Madame Alice Charbonnay-Kellerman (Annette Kellerman’s mother) and in turn they attracted the attention of Australian Francophiles. At least in my book they were really a subset of le-tout Melbourne or Sydney. There was also a lot of movement between the two cities. The one notable difference is the presence of a tightly-knit group of wool-buyers (pun intended) from northern France and Belgium and other professionals associated with the wool trade and their families. They settled permanently in Australia, first in Melbourne in the 1890s, but then moved to Sydney following capital and wool. They were an important component of Sydney society up until the 1970s, and more needs to be written about them and their influence in trade, and in fashion! They were quite civic-minded and founded and worked with several French associations created at the turn of the century; Sydney is also where the French-language newspaper (founded by a Polish man!) was based, so it might look like there was more activity in Sydney than Melbourne for a few decades.
You mention consulate archives that were languishing in a Melbourne garage, found, sorted, then forgotten. How did they end up in a Melbourne garage, how did you find out about them, and what did they tell you?
I have no idea how the archives of the Melbourne French consulate ended up there, but I’m glad they did! They were found in 1988 and were briefly looked at by members of the Institute for the Study of French Australian Relations (ISFAR), of which I now co-Chair the Research Committee, before being sent back to France. So I had some broad idea of what they contained thanks to a very short but tantalising article written by Emeritus Professor Colin Nettlebeck back then. I’m also glad they were cleaned up before I got to them, as some of the boxes contained reports of the bubonic plague, along with rodent droppings.
The archives were very rich. What I found interesting was to use diplomatic archives to write a cultural history. So I put to the side trade and shipping reports (though I’m coming back to them now), and focused on the human stories: the Alliance story, stories of migration, stories about escaped French convicts from New Caledonia… stories that would fit the framework of the different ways people thought about, and used, what I’ve called Frenchness.
I enjoyed the idea of “performative French”, which you mention a few times. Why was the performance important? How did performative French interact with genuine French?
Frenchness in my book is not something the French inherently possess. It’s a performance, a doing rather than a being. Thinking about it this way helped me create a conceptual framework that could incorporate the stories of (some) French and Francophone migrants and those of Australian Francophiles who might not ever have set foot in France. French culture in the nineteenth century is a global disembodied culture, particularly in the British world, insofar as it exists outside of the French nation, and does not, in fact, need the French to proselytise it. Going back to the microhistories I mentioned before, this is where the crunch is. If Frenchness is not something simply defined by a passport, then there’s going to be conflict and contradictions as to what it means, for whom, and why. I used those points of friction to make the subjects talk and flesh out, in the larger analysis, what a connection to France could mean for colonial Australians, particularly at a crucial time of conscious nation building.
Where did you come across the Delarue family diaries? What do they bring to the history?
The Delarue family was a bit of an archival gift. I initially only had Lydia Delarue’s diary, which recounts her trip to France in 1903. I found it in the manuscripts section of the Mitchell Library in Sydney within the Delarue family papers. They came to my attention simply because of the family’s French connection (Lydia’s grandfather had migrated to Australia in the 1850s). Lydia’s diary is interesting but it really follows the tropes of the pre-marital diary and the travel diary: it starts with her travel to France from Australia (she was born here and did not speak French), her realisation that even though she thought of herself as French because of family lore, she really felt more Australian when she was abroad, and ends with her trip back to Australia. Her story became far more interesting when I found her father’s diary, held in a private collection, which also recounts his trip to France thirty years before Lydia (he was also born here but did speak French and identified much more with France). So retracing their steps, decades apart, I was able to see how images of France shifted within one migrant family over two (or three, really) generations. This is a story about fading ties to a mythologised country of origin, and the changing meaning of Frenchness over time for migrants, as they became Australians.
What are the implications for Australia that we “look for Frenchness in France, not in its empire”?
One thing I found fascinating researching this book was the discrepancy between ideas people had about French culture (gastronomy, food, sensuality, decadence and more), and the reality of France as a geopolitical power. This is all the more fascinating considering that in the nineteenth century France was an enemy empire in the Pacific. When the French claimed New Caledonia in 1853 many people in the Australian colonies were outraged, with some alarmist reports warning of an imminent French invasion. The situation became even more complex and fraught when France started sending convicts and political exiles to New Caledonia, essentially emulating the British model just when the Australian colonies finally won the end of transportation here. And yet, these realist concerns had very little bearing on the stories of distinction I discussed and the enduring allure of French culture as a tool for social distinction, or as an alternative to what some perceived as a stodgy Victorian moral and artistic culture.
The book is set during a period where Australian identity was being explored and crafted. What, if any, lasting legacies did the French migrants leave on Australian identity?
It was difficult to choose a timeframe for the book. Ultimately it was a historiographical choice. As you point out, the 1890s was a period of conscious crafting of a national identity and mythology which continues to have an influence on the way we talk about ourselves as a nation. The Australian legend has been dissected and rewritten many times, but ideas about egalitarianism, mateship and masculinity that culminated in the image of the digger fighting at Gallipoli are still very much with us. So focusing on the period before the war made sense as it allowed me to start looking at a national history from the outside in, and to think about Australia’s engagement with its region, and the world, outside of the British empire.