For school excursions we used to go up to ‘Old Sydney Town’, in the hills on the Central Coast, north of Sydney. There we would see how the early convict settlers of New South Wales lived. It’s hard to recall all the details, but apart from women wearing bonnets and fulsome dresses with lots of frills, and a tall ship that became the centrepiece of some sort of acrobatic show with muskets firing and smoke and men diving into the water, possibly to escape the dastardly redcoats.
The only other thing that is seared into my mind was the re-enactment of a convict’s flogging. Much discussion ensued over what the actors used for blood. Was it tomato sauce? Strawberry jam? Some form of red dye? It was a garish red, almost as garish as the howls of the poor man enduring the indignity of having his back slashed for our entertainment. It was entertainment, at least that’s how I remember it, precisely because it wasn’t real. Perhaps the act itself was so alien a concept that my schoolboy mind couldn’t grasp the innate horror of it. Yet it resides in my mind still, the clearest image of all I took away from several visits.
There’s no playacting in Thomas Keneally’s Miles Franklin-winning novel Bring Larks and Heroes, especially when it comes to flogging. Set in an unnamed penal colony in the South Pacific in the late eighteenth century, it offers a stark and harrowing portrait of a settlement in which humanity and justice have been disavowed. The floggings metered out run into the hundreds of lashes. The descriptions of the suppurating wounds are indelible.
The story centres on Irishman Phelim Halloran, a soft-souled man in a hard world. Having joined the marines from prison he finds himself at ‘world’s worse end’, a place where sunlight ‘burrows like a worm in both eyeballs’, and vegetable gardens are described as ‘futile’.
He cannot marry his sweetheart Ann Rush, a convict servant, because there is no Catholic priest in the settlement. He identifies with the revolutionary Irish prisoners more than he does his Protestant English superiors. He feels himself to be living in a legend ‘because he underwent all the fervours set down in legends and in poetry.’
Things begin to change for Halloran when he escorts Ewers, a convict artist, upriver to what appears to be a fictional Rose Hill (Parramatta). There, Halloran finds Mealey, an Irish felon who has been so badly flogged he cannot move:
… Mealey’s unspeakable wound. It was so huge an injury that you needed to verify your first sight of it, were compelled towards it, pushing your nose through its solid reek. … Mealy was half-way wrapped round by a fat, black, vampiring slough.
The smell of it makes Halloran throw-up.
It is here that Halloran meets the Irish political prisoner Robert Hearn, a man who will seduce him into a conspiracy to steal provisions and a promissory note from the Commissary. Halloran argues with Hearn over the issue of justice, but in his heart he knows that Hearn is right, that something must be done to change the status-quo. His rebellious feelings are stirred when Ewers is arrested for raping an officer’s wife; it’s to Halloran Ewers turns, proving in the process that he is a eunuch. Nonetheless, Ewers is hanged.
It is not the only injustice that Halloran witnesses. Quinn, a convict whose term has expired asks Halloran to write a petition to the Governor. He ends up getting an interview with His Excellency, but finds the convict records back in England. (This actually happened in the early colony of New South Wales.) His Excellency cannot approve Quinn’s honest petition. When Quinn then slanders an officer, he is flogged. He blames poor Halloran because, as Ann notes, he couldn’t see clear to blame anyone higher up.
These injustices pile one on top of the other until the silver-tongued Hearn twists Halloran’s hand. The tragedy that transpires as a result is incredibly moving.
Written in omniscient narrator in a modernist style, it’s very much a product of its time. (All that ‘hissing’ that characters do!) Although the parallels are obvious, Keneally eschewed setting the tale in Sydney Cove, in part because in 1967 when the book was published the question of our convict past was still a fraught topic for readers. In an author’s note Keneally writes that he used the word felon in preference to convict because the latter ‘possesses pungent overtones and colours, a word loaded with distracting evocations, especially for Australian readers’. Of course, nowadays we are more likely to boast of convict ancestry than deny it! It’s a fascinating measure of how far we’ve come, and shows how a novel like Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (see my review here) can find the stage to be written (although it’s worth noting that Grenville’s work also plays around with the historical timeline, though to a much lesser extent).
In any event, it allows him to play around with events and historical truths. The failed Irish uprising of 1804 is decoupled and pulled forward into the late 1780s, allowing it to be connected to the French revolution.
There are other oddities which only make sense in a fictional settlement, such as the early arrival of an East Indiaman—a ship of the East India Company. ‘Natives’ are mentioned only in passing and only around three or so times. We do get this early, though significant, nod:
They would see no black people, Ann and he. Somewhere between the skirting-board and carpet-edge of the land, the black race, with the secrecy of moths, was dying of smallpox. Or, perhaps, dying out.
So much for the fictional setting: it’s clear he’s writing of Australia. There are many similarities with the early colony of New South Wales, such as the smallpox epidemic of 1789 that wiped out a significant percentage of Sydney-basin Aborigines; the way Aborigines used fish oil to ward off insects; the failed crops and reduced rations of a populace heading toward starvation; the terrible fact of early convicts serving their sentence out only to find their records had not been brought out from England to confirm their claims, forcing them to remain in servitude way beyond their original sentence; and the harsh environment (one of the highlights of the prose), and the borrowed landscapes: for example, ‘the Crescent’ was the name given to the curve of the river as it bends near Government House in what was Rose Hill (later renamed Parramatta).
There are some very droll moments, such as Mrs Blythe’s maladies, and the delightful scene with Ewers and Mrs Dakar, the woman who would subsequently claim he raped her, in which a captured kingfisher adds his own voice with ‘a talent for supplying affirmatives for Ewers’ in the form of deliberate ‘ucks’! But overall they feel few and far between because of the thrust of the story.
Bring Larks and Heroes is Keneally’s third novel. Geordie Williamson, in his excellent introduction, recounts a critic’s comments on Keneally’s second book: that the former seminarian would only produce ‘something lasting’ when ‘he wrote the Priesthood out of his guts’. Williamson argues that Keneally has overcome the Catholic dogma which allows him ‘free play of his imagination’. Well, Catholicism is still front and centre in this novel, although Halloran’s conscience is driven not only by his faith but by what he considers just. It is in this way that Keneally overcomes dogma.
Stylistically, Keneally is still finding his voice. The lighter prose evident in later works stands in stark contrast to the ebullient modernism on show here, replete with unusual words to test the reader’s personal dictionary (contumaceous anyone?!). It reminded me of Keneally’s words in a typically engaging Sydney Writers’ Festival discussion last year, in which he discussed how in ‘his day’ a publisher would allow a writer three books to find their groove; they would invest in their potential. He went on to lament the lack of time and investment given to new authors today.
We are fortunate that Keneally, at least, was given the time to find his voice. He won the Miles Franklin again the following year for Three Cheers for the Paraclete, and of course went on to write many other bestsellers, including the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark. His style may have changed, but his concern for the individual hasn’t. Those images of flayed backs will stay with me for years, the perfect answer to my long-held question of what substance marked the convicts’ backs: blood.
Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas Keneally
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)