This is yet another excellent book that I would never have discovered if it hadn’t been chosen by my 19th century bookgroup. The Hidden Force is set in late 19th century Java, part of the Dutch East Indies which is now Indonesia. It’s a story of colonialism, of the essential lack of understanding between the rulers & the ruled & a story of family drama & tension.
Otto Van Oudijck is the District Commissioner of Labuwangi, a district of Java. He is a conscientious administrator, rather fond of his own importance, bur hard working. He lives with his second wife, Léonie, & the two grown-up children of his first marriage, Theo & Doddy. Léonie is a beautiful, languidly sensual woman. Younger than her husband, she lives for sensation & deceives him regularly. She spends months at a time in Surabaya or Batavia, the provincial capital, pursuing her affairs although she isn’t shy of taking lovers at home, including her own stepson, Theo. Theo is an idle young man, content to allow his father to provide for him & increasingly obsessed with his affair with Léonie. Doddy is infatuated with Addy De Luce, a young man from a Eurasian family who have made their money in sugar. Addy is handsome & knows it. Every young woman in Lubuwangi is attracted to him & he takes advantage of it. He hasn’t seduced Doddy because of her position as the Commissioner’s daughter but Léonie is a different matter.
Van Oudijck’s deputy is Onno Eldersma who, like all the Dutch in the Indies, works only for promotion. Promotion to a higher rank in a larger district will allow him to eventually retire to Holland where they all long to be. Elsersma’s wife, Eva, is a cultured woman who has never grown accustomed to the Indies. The climate is unforgiving, the society is mediocre & she is bored. Only her friendship with Van Helderen, a colleague of her husband’s. Léonie Van Oudijck is too lazy to carry out the social duties of her position so Eva has become the leader of their circle. She gives dinner parties that are as European as she can make them, organises charitable galas & theatrical entertainments, even agrees to a little table rapping to contact the spirit world when her guests are bored with everything else.
Van Oudijck has a cordial but patronising relationship with the former Prince of the district whose family was supplanted by the Dutch colonisers. He respected the prince’s late father & the current Prince, Sunario, & his mother perform their ceremonial role with dignity. The prince’s brother, however, is a disgrace. He drinks & gambles, spends the taxes he collects instead of passing the money on to the government. Tension between the Javanese & the Dutch intensifies when Van Oudijck decides that the prince’s brother musty be removed from his position. This leads to an extraordinary scene where the old princess, his mother, prostrates herself before Van Oudijck, offering to become his slave if he will not dismiss her son. The loss of face she would suffer would be crushing.
This is the beginning of a period of unrest where the delicate balance between rulers & ruled begins to disintegrate. Van Oudijck’s blind adoration of Léonie is affected by the anonymous letters he receives accusing her of having affairs. Mysterious happenings at the Commissioner’s residence seem to have no logical explanation. Stones are thrown on to the roof, Léonie is attacked in her bathroom by a shower of betel juice spat all over her body but the source is never discovered. The servants leave & Van Oudijck is eventually left quite alone, growing more despairing & disaffected.
The Hidden Force is a fascinating exploration of colonial life. The rulers are determined to keep up their European standards. They dress for dinner, afraid that if they let their standards drop, they will be lost forever. The fear of “going native” is everywhere, although there are many mixed marriages, including Van Oudijck’s own first marriage. The disapproval of Eurasians was, in part, a fear of the perceived taint of native blood. The Europeans never understood the people they ruled. The Javanese are polite & deferential yet their real thoughts are always hidden. There is a whole world, with its own aims & contempt for the colonisers seething underneath the surface. Couperus knew the Indies & lived there for many years. He captures the tropical intensity of the climate, the monsoon season that brings such humidity that clothes & books are covered in mould & the most correct European begins to relax their rigid standards. He also writes beautifully of the boredom of provincial society & of the tensions in relationships & families that result from living so far from what most of them think of as home. The Hidden Force is yet another example of the richness of European literature that I would never have come across without the 19th century bookgroup. I enjoyed it very much.