It’s apt that in the week of the Sydney Writers’ Festival I’m musing about A house is built, the story of the Hyde family’s rise to wealth in mid-1800s Sydney. Published in 1929, it was the first novel written by collaborators Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw under the pseudonym M. Barnard Eldershaw.
The authors met at Sydney University and together wrote five novels, three histories, a radio play, a collection of short stories and several collections of critical essays. Both were very active in the literary scene in the 30s and 40s, and were early feminists. They were instrumental in the development of a supporting structure for writers in Australia, through the Fellowship of Australian Writers.
The story commences in 1827, with the irrepressible ‘Quartermaster’ James Hyde arriving into Sydney, a port wryly described as ‘thick with pubs’. He is struck by ‘the finest harbour in the world’ and the sense of possibility. He says to a friend, ‘Any man with energy could get on.’ Two years later he returns with his life’s savings and a bellyful of vitality. He finds a spot to set up a wharf and store (a little around from the finger wharves where the writers’ festival is held).
He also brings with him his daughters Fanny and Maud, and drags his taciturn son William behind them. William is aghast at the prospect of living in this uncivilised town, and pines for his love Adela, who is still in England, being at that stage too young to come out and marry him. The Quartermaster has to convince William to stay, to see the opportunities beckoning in this prosperous New World.
William stays, applies the brake to the quartermaster’s schemes, and over time the two become successful business partners. As soon as she is old enough Adela is sent for. She arrives but finds herself in a passionless union, for William has changed in their time apart.
Their first son James, named after the quartermaster, is seen as the golden child, the heir to the family business. He is a Hyde, and in a way Adela feels as if her firstborn has been stolen from her. She never really loves him in the way she does her second, and weaker, son Lionel. The differences in treatment of James and Lionel are stark, and serve to create a difficult relationship between them. But it’s only in the story’s second half that the strained relationships in the family are maximised by the authors.
Having been made a fool of in her first encounter with love, Fanny lets her pride stifle all her relations. She is a capable woman who, having withdrawn from society, has no outlet for her talents. She longs to help the Quartermaster in the store but he refuses her on account of it not being the proper place for a woman. It would be a poor image for a respectable family in those prim and proper days. (Although true of the mid-1800s, some of the earliest entrepreneurs in New South Wales in the late eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries were in fact women.) The question of a woman’s role forms one of the threads of the narrative, and is a marker of Barnard Eldershaw’s collective feminist ethos.
The risk with family sagas is a lack of central driving action, and to some extent that’s the case here. The plot is episodic, flitting from one character to another, though always around the central fulcrum of the driven Quartermaster. There are parts of the story that worked better than others, that were more ‘involving’. I found some of the early sections of the novel uneven, at times ‘cold’, and wanted to give up more than once, but I’m glad I persevered. Although there’s a strong flavour of the development of Sydney during the mid-1800s in the first third, it wasn’t until the middle—and the chapter on the Gold Rush in particular—that the story came alive for me.
The Gold Rush passage is a standout. We see the influx of people into Sydney from abroad due to the hype, the exodus of everyone out to the goldfields of Bathurst and beyond, the fact few realised how hard the work was, and so on. Most importantly, we get to see the Quartermaster’s drive and business acumen at work.
The Rush provides other opportunities. With the shortage of skilled workers to fill positions in the store, Fanny grabs her chance and again offers her services to her father, who cannot refuse her. Once she learns the ropes she proves herself the equal of William. However, although she works there for seven years, she is eventually pushed back out. One feels her defeat as acutely as she does.
As a Sydney-sider I found the history of the development of Hunter’s Hill, where the Hyde family move once they have made their pile, interesting. The descriptions of the grand house named Firenze are wonderful, as are the pointed (and accurate) digs at those well-to-dos who compete with their neighbours through, in this case, more ornate and elaborate fountains for their gardens!
In their well-regarded Essays on Australian Fiction (1938) Barnard Eldershaw wrote critical essays on several contemporary authors, such as Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark and Henry Handel Richardson. I get the sense they must have admired Maurice Guest by HHR (see my review). When Lionel is being tutored at a neighbour’s house in Hunter’s Hill he hears Margaret, one of the daughters, playing piano in another room, and the descriptions of the music and the effect it has on Lionel are beautiful. Lionel is said to ‘read English poetry by the light of Beethoven, and history according to Bach’.
Lionel subsequently asks Adela if he might learn piano, which leads to this predictable and painfully funny response: “‘He’s not musical is he?’ asked the Quartermaster in alarm. ‘Or artistic, or anything like that?’” Oh dear! He’s a very different boy from his brother James.
The second half has a great number of compelling elements, including an almost Shakespearean entanglement between two lovers from rival households, treachery, and drama upon drama. As with most fictional stories that trace the building of wealth and success, there is a disaster looming, and the way it’s brought to the Hydes’ doorstep is ingenious.
A house is built is very much of its time. There’s a lot of ‘telling’ over ‘showing’ from our omniscient narrator. There are also moments where the narrator ‘breaks frame’. Modern readers might find these moments annoying. One such instance is where the narrator breaks out of describing part of Sydney’s ‘Domain’ as where the Art Gallery of New South Wales ‘now stands’.
One interesting historical aspect is seeing the words borrowed from other languages that were new to English at the time of writing. Grammatical practice dictates such words are italicised until they become widely accepted, after which they appear in roman typeface. I unfortunately didn’t keep track of the words, but they included dénouement, papier-mâché and bric-a-brac. Châtelaine is another, less well-known word (a woman who owns or controls a large house).
The unevenness kept me wondering how the two authors combined to write it, who was writing which part. There are many reasons most novels are written by one person, but not many to recommend a combinatorial approach. (Still, we could look at the story as an achievement given there were two writers at work, and maybe the first half’s lack of drive was just two authors find a way to work together on their first novel.)
A house is built is imperfect, and not in the same league as Maurice Guest. That said, latter parts of it deserve the title of classic, and it is, I think, an important early Sydney work. And its authors deserve praise for their work in developing Australian literature.
I didn’t set out to write so much, but it seems A house is built demanded it. And another AWW2013 read. I wonder if it should count as two?!
A House is Built by M Barnard Eldershaw
Source: the local municipal library