Review: Capital by Kristin Otto (AWW Challenge #3)

For my third book of the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, I decided to go non fiction, and picked up Kirsten Otto’s Capital. The book traces the political and social life of Melbourne from 1901 to 1927, the years that Melbourne was Australia’s capital city while Canberra was being built.

As you can tell from the dates, this was a tumultuous period of Australia’s history. The joy of becoming a single, federated nation with our own parliament led to a robust and thriving society. Patriotic feeling was still surging when hostilities in Europe broke out in 1914 and Australia went to war in support of Great Britain, still considered the Motherland at the time. The war years were brutal, but in many ways they helped to form Australia’s image of itself, and of course its image to others. Post-war reconstruction of a shell-shocked country occurred against events like the influenza epidemic that killed more people than the war had, and the police strike of 1923, which led to three days of rioting in the streets.

Before I picked up the book, I was hesitant, thinking it might focus on the political arena in those nearly-three decades. However, Otto has done a marvellous job of bringing the whole era to life. It’s not just the story of the men who built this city and nation. Significant men and women in politics, business, architecture, the arts and sciences are all followed.  The story of Melbourne is the story of people like E W Coles (of the Coles Book Arcade), HV McKay, Janet, Lady Clarke, Dame Nellie Melba, Helena Rubenstein, Violet Teague, Percy Grainer and his father John, who built the Princes Bridge, architects Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin and newsman Keith Murdoch.

Melbourne’s story is told through these ‘characters’, most of whom I know something about—but in these pages I learned more! Of course, these great entrepreneurs and philanthropists all knew each other, and names weave in and out of different aspects of the history. When some of them, and their sons, go to fight at Gallipoli or at the Somme, you feel very invested in their fates.  Sometimes it’s a little hard to keep track of everyone and how they know each other, and a fold out diagram of the names would have been helpful, at least for me.

Each chapter covers a chunk of years, and starts with a chatty precis about the significant events in those years. The tone is brisk and informative and occasionally humorous. In the first chapter, several pages are devoted to analysis and art appreciation of the two major portraits painted of the opening of Parliament in May 1901. In some chapters, she touches on how events are affecting sections of the Indigenous community, particularly the community that lived at Corranderk. Visits from folks like Harry Houdini and Nellie Melba’s frequent ‘farewell tours’ are all given space alongside the politics and business of the city.

Otto’s history is lively, and while it’s not delving into the everyday life, it gives an excellent account of the men and women who built and influenced Melbourne in the first three decades of Australia’s nationhood. Those names and their achievements still resonate today. If you are keen on Australian history, and on Melbourne in particular, this is a lovely addition to your reading.

From here, I need to find John Monash’s biography: he was an engineer as well as a general, and sounds like a thoroughly interesting man.

Capital is published by Text Publishing. You can get the book from them directly, as an ebook from Readings or as a Kindle edition at Capital: Melbourne When It Was the Capital City of Australia 1901-27.