There are many things to love about The Commandant by Jessica Anderson. Published in 1975 it echoes the themes in Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas Keneally (see my review here), in particular the harsh treatment of convicts at the hands of the elite. It also has the same tragic story elements, the Oh-no moments that have us shaking our heads, hoping it’s not to be, and turning the pages.
There are differences, though. Whereas Keneally’s modernism hints of Patrick White, Anderson has the flavour of Jane Austen, particularly in the scenes involving the female characters. There are key Austen elements: the planning of good matches with the available men; human comedy; and similar character traits, such as ‘absurdity’, naivety, independent thought(!), and coming-of-age with views set against the status-quo.
But Anderson’s quiet lyricism sets her apart from Austen. Her description of the Moreton Bay landscape is fantastic:
… a few clumps of tall trees, their rough bark the colour of iron, and their foliage a dun green, stood with the junction of trunk and root shrouded by tall pale grass; … It was as if everything here inclined not to the sun’s bright spectrum, but to those of the mineral earth and the ghostly daytime moon.
The opening chapter sees Frances O’Beirne, the sister of the Commandant Patrick Logan’s wife Letty, travelling the last leg of a voyage up from Sydney to the settlement of Moreton Bay (Brisbane) to join them. There are some delightful exchanges between her and the somewhat precious (and ridiculous) Amelia Bulwer, and the witty Louisa Harbin. Travelling with them is the drunkard doctor (and wit) Henry Cowper, and Captain Clunie, whose presence provokes nervousness and rumour.
One of the interesting aspects of the novel is the use of dialogue to start a scene. It’s something that modern ‘how to write fiction’ books frown upon. Better to ground the reader in the scene they say. Anderson uses it repeatedly, including the start of the novel itself, and it’s a refreshing change, getting us right into the scene from the off. On the first page Amelia is dressing up the settlement to Frances. She also establishes the ‘us’ and ‘them’ nature of the story, the elite and the convicts, commenting that ‘not a one’ of ‘us’ has died since the settlement’s establishment, and ‘only one soldier’. There is no mention here of how many convicts have perished.
Amelia explains the lack of clergy at the new settlement by saying: ‘We were sent a chaplain, but he and the commandant — We all have our failings, and our good commandant is sometimes short of temper.’ Even now we begin to form a picture of what this ‘good’ commandant must be like.
We also form a picture of the seventeen-year old Frances, who is described as ‘not stupid, but … often absurd.’ She laments the way she often acts foolishly, saying ‘I am made up of hundreds of persons, and I never know which one will come out.’ A supporter of reform of the system of harsh treatment, while in Sydney she became associated with the daughters of Smith Hall, the outspoken editor of an early newspaper. He is demanding trial by jury and sentences that do not exceed the law. And he has written a story on Logan’s methods of punishment, claiming he has killed a convict by flogging. Logan himself can’t see the trouble looming, although the arrival of another captain in the form of Clunie raises his hackles.
The convicts are held at arms’ length. Frances’s first view of them reveals much:
It was their great number, perhaps, or the clumsiness of their unfettered movements that made them appear sub-human, like animals adapted to mens’ work or goblins from under the hill.
When she sees an attack of one on another she says ‘It is said they kill because they wish to hang.’
One of the benefits of hiding the violence against convicts is that for much of the book we are left wondering just how bad it is. Are the rumours of mal-treatment that have given rise to the reportage in the Sydney press accurate? Is Logan the monster the convicts claim him to be? Perhaps we should listen to Logan’s six-year old son Robert, who tells us that the scourger (flogger) ‘Gilligan lays it on! … Swoosh!’
Viewing things from the commandant’s point of view, as well as the women’s, enables Anderson to strike an unsettling note of sympathy for Logan. We then learn the truth. Toward the end, one convict says there was a worse man on the notorious Norfolk Island penal settlement, but none of the other lags can force themselves to agree with him.
Like Phelim O’Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes, Frances’s innocence will get her into strife. Her actions have unintended consequences that leave us and her horrified after Logan shows his true self. The way she discovers this is heartbreaking. What is also moving is the way Letty’s unstinting support of her husband begins to falter through the months after Frances’s arrival. She begins to see that he is more ‘hunting dog’ than ‘shining knight’.
The convicts are tempted to steal off into the bush. Some are injured by Aborigines and return, while others join up with them. There is speculation over whether the Aborigines are violent toward the settlers of their own accord, or whether they are incited by the escapees. Either way, they are resistant toward the whites in a way that other colonial-era novels, notably Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill, do not depict. The way Anderson has her characters lay at the blame at the Aborigines’ feet for the climactic scenes of the book rather than at the convicts who incite them, in order to protect the good name of the discredited commandant, is masterful. It shows the lengths people will go to in order to edit out the lines of history they would prefer others not read.
Anderson’s characterisation is faultless throughout, from the ‘first-class’ convict servants, to the few convicts we do meet, particularly the hard man Lazarus. The understated handling of rumours surrounding Logan’s debts is pitch-perfect. Every character has their faults. The wives of the soldiers are rendered with a touch that Austen would be proud of, and Henry Cowper’s struggle with the demon drink and his religious father’s good name is memorable. His fantasy letter to his clergyman father that sets out his ‘spiritual progress’ is hilarious. In it he recounts a Sunday service he gave just after the previous scourger’s drowning. It was, he writes, the only service he has given before an enthusiastic congregation. The convicts sang their hearts out, forcing the silent and red-faced commandant to storm out of the chapel!
It’s difficult to understand why this classic Australian novel was out of print until Text Publishing got it back in the hands of readers with a beautiful cover from WH Chong. It’s accompanied by a good introduction by Carmen Callil (although it, oh-dear, mistakenly refers to Frances as ‘Francis’). No matter, The Commandant itself is wonderful. Callil believes it to be Anderson’s masterpiece. I’m not about to disagree with that.
This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge.
The Commandant by Jessica Anderson
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)