Book Review: French Connetion by Alexis Bergantz
‘French Connection’ is a non-fiction work about the history of French migration and French migrants in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s particularly concerned with identity; a young Australian nation finding its identity, and French migrants to Australia finding theirs. Although it’s non-fiction, it’s highly readable for general interest and non-academic audiences.
Author Alexis Bergantz is a historian from RMIT University in Melbourne, therefore this book is written not from the pen of an enthusiastic amateur, but an expert with the know-how to uncover and interpret archives—and this shows in the detail.
But that’s not to call it a dry historical read.
Bergantz uses descriptions of scenes and people that make the book come alive and set the scene similar to what is done in a work of fiction:
“The lazy blue smoke of cigars and pipes seemed to carry an ethereal parade of beards and mustaches whose shapes and sizes defied his Anglo-Saxon imagination.”
Set around the time of Australia’s federation, the book has a key theme of British-descended Australians asking themselves “who they wanted to be” and “what made them distinctly Australian”.
Enthralling: from the French consul’s Australian Guide—and on to Francophilia & French ancestry…
One of its early anecdotes comes from the accounts of Paul Maistre, the French consul in Melbourne: on his treks around Gippsland, to Melbourne’s east. His Australian guide would carry with him a book written by a celebrated French author – even though he understood limited French. What appears on the surface to be nothing more than a charming reflection of a personality quirk is actually a micro-story of what was happening in other parts of Australian society: it illustrates the adoption of a French connection to project an image of civilisation and distinction, even if it was just swapping one colonial European power for another.
I was fascinated to learn that the iconic ‘Bulletin’ magazine, a publication deeply invested in establishing Australia’s ‘bush’ identity and a romanticised idea of rural life, drew influence from what was perceived in colonial Australia as French ideals: “republican, secessionist, socialist, and revolutionary.” What’s more, the founding editor, J. F. Archibald (also the founder of The Archibald Prize, Australia’s most prestigious portrait prize), was so deeply ingrained in his Francophilia that he fabricated a story of French ancestry and changed his name.
French connection: Alliance Française
The chapter on the divided and battle-like history of the Alliance Française in Melbourne, was an interesting read for its micro example of something that was happening on a larger scale; what does ‘French’ mean and represent? It outlined the struggle between the desires of Melbourne’s high-society women wanting to enjoy an exclusive club that spoke to their sense of high class, and the wishes of the French consulate for it to convey French language and culture to anyone who wanted to enjoy them – no doubt, a similar battle continues to rage in many Alliances around the world!
I found myself recognising people in the descriptions of Australians and French migrants seeking identity.
The notion of ‘performative French’ and the negotiation of what it means to ‘look French’ is something we continue to see as people, French and non-French, navigate their identities. As a descendant of French ancestors who came via Great Britain, I recognise stories I’ve been told of my great-grandfather and his performative Frenchness, but I also recognise contemporary high school students who, on their return from a year abroad in France, perform their French connection as a mark of distinction.
Fascinating diaries: Identities and Frenchness
It was the chapter delving into the diaries of two French Australians I found the most fascinating.
Their identity of being French in Australia, even though they were both born in Australia, and yet losing that identity when they went to France and realised how different they were: “[t]heir Frenchness was an explicit marker of their personal identity deeply rooted in their family history but it did not withstand the test of time.”
It reminded me of challenges Italian-Australian friends have faced, and are likely faced by many other second-and third-generation migrants.
As with many history books, at times it feels like nothing has changed.
Not only what I’ve mentioned above, but also our relationship, or lack of, with the French Pacific, which Bergantz specifically notes in the epilogue, that both then and now we are “looking for Frenchness in France, not in its empire”. Many of the French stereotypes discussed in the book could also be drawn from today; “shallow, vain, histrionic, volatile and cowards, but also philosophers, revolutionaries and epicureans.”
Perhaps we can say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Although, of course, many things have changed – but that’s a discussion for book club.
‘French Connection’ is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of France and Frenchness in Australia.Bethany Keats
With insight, wit and humour, Alexis Bergantz explores the multi-layered history of the Australian Francophilia and Francophobia detailing how, since the earliest days of English settlement, the French in Australia, and from afar, have played a vital role in shaping the Australian identity. An absorbing read!
Margaret Sankey, University of Sydney
Here you can read a Q&A between ‘French Connection’ author Alexis Bergantz and Bethany Keats, published on the Australian Policy and History (APH) website.