French Connection by Alexis Bergantz

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

When I first saw the cover of this book, I had no idea as to the narrative that would be revealed. The cover depicts the painting Down on his Luck by Australian artist Fredrick McCubbin which has superimposed on it, Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing, one of the best-known pieces of what we expect from French art in the Rococo period. Once into the book, the relevance of the cover is seen.

Through sharing personal experiences of many people living in Australia who have in various ways connections to France, the author of French Connection, Alexis Bergantz, explores the term Frenchness in relation to Australia. Alexis is an historian in Australian entanglements with France and the French Pacific. Currently a lecturer at RMIT University of Melbourne, he moved to Australia in the early twenty-first century and admits that, like many before him, he often uses his Frenchness to court favour (4). This publication has sprung from research for his PhD.

The French have been part of the Australian story since the beginning of white colonisation (2) and indeed, at the time of the first fleet, two ships from La Perouse’s expedition were seen in Botany Bay. From lowly cooks and those hoping to make their fortune on the gold fields to entrepreneurs who ‘formed the social mortar of an elite francophone world’ (2) Australia has seen many French migrants although there was never a flood.

The author has presented his findings in six chapters covering the period from the 1850s to the present day. Issues that are highlighted include French culture which Australians have readily embraced – food, fashion; concerns about sovereignty and morality from French convicts in the Pacific when Australia was trying to outgrow her own convict past (71); to welcoming the ‘crème de la crème’ French migrants who were ‘good contributing migrants’ (82).

The reader also learns that not all who came from France were happy to stay and those who did sometimes clashed with others from their own culture, as was the case with the organisation, Alliance Français. Chapter 2, titled Alliance and Misalliance, reveals that a battle for control ensued. The true tenets of disseminating French language and literature worldwide to ensure French men and women living overseas remained faithful to their nation (37) were in question.

This is an academic book based on interesting personal experiences and each chapter has intriguing sub-headings. Examples of these are: Here be dragons (36), An invasion of the ‘moustachioed sons of Gaul’ (61), Scapegoats and straw men (73), An indivisible people divided (111), and They used a bidet (120). Eight pages of appropriate pictures split the text titled Frenchness on Trial in Chapter 5.

I enjoyed learning that the French bank in Melbourne reportedly financed the introduction of asparagus into Geelong (90); that during the 19th and 20th centuries the ‘overseas trip’ became a rite of passage for middle class society when the men were sent to England while the women headed to the continent to acquire the veneer of European refinement and culture (123). I wasn’t aware before reading the book that there was such a strong association between Australian and Dior fashion. The David Jones black and white houndstooth check logo is linked to Dior and, apparently, Australia is Dior’s third biggest spender- relative to income – for women everywhere in the world.

In the Epilogue, written from a mid-pandemic perspective, the reader is reminded that World War One was greatly responsible for bringing the two countries closer together (137) and that today France and French culture continue to be a mirror to reflect our own Australianness (144). I had to smile at the constant comparison between Britain and France. In the 19th Century, particularly, Australians were fascinated by all things French. Many recognised a way of life that offered ‘an alternative to the future laid out by their fealty to Britishness’ (8). Many well-known names from varied walks of life cropped up throughout the text.

The stories recounted in this book show how people’s ideas are greatly influenced by their gender, nationality, education, social aspirations and, dare I say, class. This book goes some way in trying to understand the complicated relationship Australia has had, from the early days of colonisation, with a country that lay on the other side of the world – a country that commanded a competing empire in the Pacific.

The author leaves the reader with the understanding that Frenchness remained a largely unchanged tool of social mobility that played on ongoing images of luxury, taste and aristocratic refinement (138).

Readers interested in Australian history and real-life human experiences will find much to enjoy in this book.

French Connection

(2021)

by Alexis Bergantz

Paperback | Jul 2021 | NewSouth | 9781742237091 | 208pp | 234x153mm | GEN | AUD$34.99, NZD$39.99

French Connection | NewSouth Books

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