Rosetta: A scandalous true story by Alexandra Joel
Last month I went to WA to research my current work-in-progress. It is set in Dongara, a coastal town in the mid-west, and set in 1932. Why Dongara? Why 1932? as the people I met there asked me. Because several years ago I began tracing my grandmother’s family history using newspaper articles on Trove (save Trove, sign the petition) and discovered that my great-grandfather, Fred Wetters, had run a general store and butcher’s shop at the Dongar[r]a beach settlement between 1927 and 1932. He seemed a bit of a ne’er-do-well, having already been in bankrupt court. Last year, when mulling ideas for a new novel, my great-grandfather came to mind and I spun a fictional story around a character with very similar attributes. It has to be fiction because my family knows little about my great-grandfather’s life, and his daughter, my grandmother is now dead.
Walking the beachfront at Denison last month, it was difficult, then, to compartmentalise my family history research from my novel’s historical research. I began to introduce myself to old-timers in terms of tracing my great-grandfather, hoping to then extract details of daily life about the town and local personalities. What I did not expect was to find myself in a retirement flat, face-to-face with an upholstered mahogany chair that my great-grandfather had sold to my interviewee’s father in 1932. It was like chilled water ran through me.
This is a feeling Alexandra Joel describes in her new book, Rosetta: A scandalous true story, as “the uncommon emotion evoked by holding in her hand something precious that was once pressed against the lips of the [great-] grandmother she never knew.” Joel’s family history research of her great-grandmother, Rosetta, frames the narrative of the book. However, neither her mother, nor her grandmother Billie, knew anything of Rosetta’s life as Billie was abandoned by her mother at the age of five. This poignant fracture carries through the story as the reader learns that while Rosetta lives a colourful and bohemian life in Sydney and England, her unacknowledged daughter languishes in a convent boarding school. There are brief moments in their lives where they might have intersected, as Joel imagines with a literary sleight of hand.
For Rosetta is a “conjuror’s dream”, an illusion created by weaving fact with fiction, embellishing, re-creating and invention, a penchant for which Joel admits in the postscript to have inherited a little from her great-grandmother. The facts upon which the story lie are contained in a child’s suitcase filled with photographs and letters, discovered by Joel’s father when he undertook the initial family history research two decades before. He made transcripts of interviews and searched newspaper archives until the trail ended. It was he who suggested that Joel write the book. Joel approached the story with a question—how can a woman abandon a child?—one which holds personal significance.
But as Joel progresses in her search for the answer, she becomes entranced by the “almost mythic quality” of her quest. “I desire to inhabit the same rooms, walk in the gardens, stand as Rosetta did when, flanked by a princess and an empress, she sipped Turkish coffee and looked out upon a foreign sea.” There are princesses, empresses, and all manner of fantastical folk in this fairy-tale. There are queens of industry, such as Helena Rubinstein, and knights of literature, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom Joel weaves into her great-grandmother’s story. That such relationships actually existed is a matter of belief. As her great-grandmother’s husband, Zeno the Magnificent says, “if there is one thing I have learnt during my years of fortune telling it is that what people really want, indeed yearn for, is another reality.”
Joel’s story is a personal one, a “fruitless search for meaning…to make sense of something where there is no sense to be made”, yet through digressions (a magician’s trick) into vignettes of famous personalities, world events and social spectacles, the reader “feels as if transported to another place and time. Afterwards, nobody can quite recall the details, or even decide on exactly what it was that occurred, though all agree that they have witnessed something extraordinary occur.”
I won’t reveal how I felt with Joel’s description of her “mechanics of the trick” in the postscript, but I will say I commend her audaciousness in walking a narrow tightrope between fact and fiction. Joel agrees that “when real events seem impossible and fantasy all too likely, separating the two is challenging.” I, too, have a grandmother who lived a larger-than-life existence, only some of which is known to the family through snapshots, newspaper articles, and correspondence (and court records). Over the years, many people have told me to write the story of her life, but I have protested that it is too complex, too huge a task and there are so many unknowns. She was an unreliable narrator of her own life.
Is Rosetta a story about family history research? Is it a fairy-tale? Sometimes the search for an ancestor is illusory; but the desire to see, to touch and feel places they inhabited becomes the story. Sometimes you drive down too many farm roads to find a gate that once stood in front of your great-grandfather’s house, only to give up. But I still have my story of a chance encounter with an old fisherman in the Denison general store who said, “Wetters? I remember him. He was a gumtree butcher. His title was at the back of our old place just past eight mile beach. There’s a gate there still.”
My copy courtesy of netgalley.
Alexandra Joel, Rosetta: a scandalous true story, Random House Australia, 28 March 2016, pb. 336 pp., R.R.P. $34.99