She’s known for her biographies of writers but Victoria Glendinning has switched to writing about a British imperialist. She tells Lee Randall why
Victoria Glendinning is a prize-winning biographer renowned for her studies of fellow writers, including Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Trollope, Leonard Woolf, Edith Sitwell and Rebecca West. She describes hers as the best job in the world, yet she’d reached the point where, she tells me, “I was a bit stifled by studies of the individual sensibility, which is what biographies of writers have to be about, because their most intense moments are spent sitting at their desks.”
She delved more into historical works, and found herself increasingly interested in the notion of writing about a character in a landscape. Fortuitously her husband, Kevin O’Sullivan, had returned from a business trip to south-east Asia carrying a copy of Sophia Raffles’s memoir of her late husband, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore.
“I thought, this is completely fascinating but it’s not the whole story. It was too, ‘my husband the great man’. I wanted to know more. I discovered that Raffles had a first wife, called Olivia, and Sophia had completely written Olivia out of history – it was as if Raffles had no private life at all until he met her. There is one footnote, and it’s inaccurate.”
The urge to find out more led her to write Raffles and the Golden Opportunity, the first biography of Raffles in 40 years. It not only chronicles his short, hectic life, but contextualises him, delineating how the machinations of the powerful East India Company (“too big to fail” until, of course, it did), and the conflicting interests of big business, government and the military converged to create remarkable opportunities for a man who, Glendinning writes, “was not a genius, but like all ambitious visionaries, had a streak of genius”.
The name is instantly familiar, she acknowledges in the book’s introduction: “Everyone has heard of Raffles Hotel in Singapore. There are also in Singapore schools, colleges, businesses, medical centres, auctioneers, investment management companies, shopping malls, clubs, streets, squares, landmarks and serviced apartments all bearing the name ‘Raffles’ or ‘Stamford’. ‘Raffles’ is a brand that belongs to no-one and everyone in Singapore. . . ”
Glendinning spent four years chasing her energetic prey, who was born on the high seas on 6 July, 1781, off the coast of Jamaica. There was no family fortune – his father wound up in an alms house, and Raffles had to provide for his mother – and he was barely educated. At 14 he became a clerk at the East India Company, begun as a group of merchants granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I, to have a monopoly on all English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. Initially that meant spices, but eventually it included tea, opium, silks, porcelain, patterned wallpapers, ivories, and lacquer-ware.
After ten years as “a human word processor”, in 1805 Raffles became the Assistant Secretary for Penang and with his bride Olivia, shipped out to Asia.
“And Olivia turned out to be the most fascinating character!,” says Glendinning. “She was ten years older than Raffles, had an illegitimate daughter by a sea captain, and had been married briefly, I think just to be married to somebody, who rather conveniently died. She’s a kind of a party girl, and a lot of his employers in higher echelons of the East India Company disapproved of her. But he adored her.”
Though delighted by the way the internet has transformed the biographer’s life, Glendinning knew it was essential to spend time in south-east Asia. “I was able to work in the Singapore archive, and went to Penang, Melaka, Bencoolen, Java and Jakarta, all the places he was. I couldn’t have written the book as I wrote it without knowing the smells and the tastes – and been bitten by the mosquitoes that bit him.”
It must have taxed her imagination, picturing Singapore as was? “Ah! There’s a wonderful description in one of his letters. He built himself a bungalow on the hill and describes seeing from his hill down the little High Street, out to the harbour.
“But now if you stand on that hill you can’t even see the water because of the great clusters of high rises that have covered the island. Singapore is the most successful city state in the world.”
Time and distance are critical to Raffles’s story. Everything – communications with employers, news of births and deaths – came via sea, taking as long as ten months in transit. Thus, “All stories were back-stories, all responses retrospective. Out East, one lived in the present, waiting for the past to catch up. The resulting psychological dislocation contributed to the often irrational behaviours of the servants of early Empire.”
Raffles was many things, but he wasn’t a company man, content to support the status quo. “It was difficult for him to square the circle,” she says. “He wanted success and fame, and he wanted to do good, equally much. Those are quite hard to put together. He struggled with that all his life. In Java, for example, he was much more interested in improving the lot of the peasants, by putting their economy in their own hands. But it didn’t really work. The only thing the East India Company were interested in was the bottom line – was he making money for them? He said well, ultimately it will make money. Of course, he didn’t have time because he was only there for a few years, because the island was given back to the Dutch. And he was, frankly, sacked.”
Raffles returned to Britain for good – and in some disgrace – in 1824.
Nevertheless, he accomplished a tremendous amount, considering that he died on the eve of his 46th birthday. “In those days you got it all in very quickly,” says Glendinning. “People were given responsibility much younger. Now, a person of 25 is quite often still thinking about which side of the bed they’re going to get out of in the morning. Then people were ruling whole communities, or having responsible jobs, or being cabinet ministers.”
His approach was to do what he wanted first, and write to England for permission afterwards. “They would say no, but by that time he’d done it. Also, death came so early and so soon. You could dine with somebody in Sumatra one day and he’d get sick of a fever and you’d be burying him the next afternoon.
“The other interesting thing was that nearly everybody in the book was Scottish!” she says with a chuckle. “Most of the medics, most of the engineers, an awful lot of administrators and civil servants were Scots, a lot of them from really quite humble beginnings, and they achieved these fantastic things. And I also discovered that there’s a farm called East Raffles, in Dumfriesshire.”
A friend of hers tracked the place down. It’s still a working farm, overlooking the marshes of the Solway Firth. He spoke to a local who said, “hail part of this land is called Raffles and has been for mony a day”.
Could it be? “It’s just possible that maybe the Raffles family came from there, maybe he was a Scot as well.” He never visited, but certainly had friends in Edinburgh, one of whom secured him an honour from Edinburgh University. And Raffles, an avid collector, sent a great many samples to Edinburgh museums.
Is there any single achievement Glendinning admires above the others? “I think it’s his huge range. Students of ethnology and music owe an awful lot to Raffles. It is worth noting that one of the objects in that programme A History of the World in 100 Objects was a great Buddha head that Raffles lifted from Borobudur. Only a small amount of what he collected is on show in the British Museum. I went to a great depository where drawers and shelves were full of shadow puppets and art and craft work that he brought back.
“But the reason this collection is beautiful is why he did it. He did want to make an impression on what he called the great men of the time, but he wanted to prove that the people of Java and other countries in the region had evolved civilisations, and that these were a people to be reckoned with and to be revered. In the context of his times, that is wonderful.
“The other thing we must always be proud of is that he freed the slaves wherever he went. The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but there were still slaves everywhere, and in fact there was a helluva lot of trading as well. He freed the slaves and then was damned for it by the Company for being incautious and precipitate and unwise.”
One could write a golden or a black portrait of Raffles with equal ease, but sitting in judgement doesn’t appeal to Glendinning.
“I’m interested in saying this is as near as I can get to what he was like, and what it was like to be with him. As near as I can get to the most interesting and extraordinary and happy and sad things that happened to him. I also think you have to stand by your man, and see things through his eyes. You have to have a double vision. It’s an impossible thing to do and that’s why it’s so fascinating to try and do it. And fail yet again.”
Don’t believe Glendinning for a moment. Her gift is delivering a story that moves with the alacrity of an absorbing novel.
Well, she says, “I’m not an academic so I haven’t got the academic discourse. I write as I write, but it’s very hard work, whereas the research is pure heaven. I keep saying I would like to write an easy book now, please. I’m not sure what it would be, but there’s no way there won’t be another one. I’ve got a magnet of a mind but I’m not an academic. It’s just a fact, darling.”
• Raffles And the Golden Opportunity is published this week by Profile Books, priced £25 . For more details, visit www.rafflesbook.co.uk