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Archive for the ‘Australian Classics’ Category

A House is Built by M Barnard EldershawIt’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 toAustralian Women Writers 2013 badge 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

1929

Lloyd O’Neil

359 pages

ISBN: 0855503289

Source: the local municipal library

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Maurice Guest by Henry Handel RichardsonThey say love is blind. And when that love is young love, well, the stakes are raised higher still. It’s tempting to summarise the plot of Henry Handel Richardson’s 1908 debut Maurice Guest thus: A loves B; B loves C; C loves D; D loves E; F loves E too; but E loves A. And so on. Everyone is in love with someone, but that someone is either unobtainable, or attainable and completely wrong for them.

Of course, the novel is more than that. Much more. As a study of obsession and erotic love it has few equals. Madam Bovary comes to mind as the obvious touchstone. (It could also be related to Ahab’s ill-fated obsession for the white whale in Moby-Dick.) But there’s something about the very European Maurice Guest that defies comparison, even with the great novels.

The prose, if a little overblown at times, is otherwise sublime. I could quote from any of its 631 pages. Here is a sample from the opening, where Maurice Guest, a provincial Englishman, finds himself newly arrived in Leipzig, a centre of music, to study piano in the renowned Conservatorium. He has exited a concert in which he heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, (which I am happily listening to as I type):

Maurice Guest walked among the mossgreen tree-trunks, each of which vied with the other in the brilliancy of its coating. He was under the sway of a two-fold intoxication: great music and a day rich in promise. From the flood of melody that had broken over him, the frenzied storm of applause, he had come out, not into a lamplit darkness that would have crushed his elation back upon him and hemmed it in, but into the spacious lightness of a fair blue day, where all that he felt could expand, as a flower does in the sun.  

In many ways this passage sums up Maurice in a nutshell. He is the musical scales personified, either running up in some wild jubilation (brilliancy, rich promise, flood, elation, fair blue day, expand), or plunging down in a dark despair (darkness, crushed, hemmed-in). As he walks on, pondering the music yet more, he is ‘full to the brim of ambitious intentions’.

Poor Maurice, with all his grand plans! He soon finds himself lonely in a new city, longing ‘for a familiar hand or voice to take the edge of an intolerable loneliness.’ The first chapter ends on an unsettling nightmare, setting the tone for what is to come. And if that isn’t enough foreshadowing, in the following chapter we get his mother’s view of his chosen calling as a musician, which she sees as ‘something of a tragedy’. (Mums know best, don’t they?)

There are others struggling to find their place in the high-pressure world of concert-level musicianship. It is this broad canvas that takes Maurice Guest into a place beyond Madam Bovary’s relatively contained cast. It allows Henry Handel Richardson to explore several flavours of sexual love: homosexual, sisterly, woman for homosexual man (yet another ill-fated love with a tragic ending of its own), group sex and sadomasochism. All these things are somewhat disguised by Richardson, but not to any large extent. They add a rich supporting tapestry to the main game of Louise and Maurice’s relationship.

Maurice finds some friends, including the lovelorn Dove (who, as my limited plot equation above suggests, loves Ephie, who in turn loves Schilsky) and the steadfast and hardy Madeleine, who falls for Maurice. But he is too obtuse to notice. And once he lays eyes on Australian Louise Dufrayer he can’t see anything but her…

For one instant Maurice Guest had looked at the girl before him with unconcern, but the next it was with an intentness that soon became intensity, and feverishly grew, until he could not tear his eyes away. The beauty, whose spell thus bound him, was of that subtle kind which leaves many a one cold, but, as if just for this reason, is almost always fateful for those who feel its charm: at them is lanced its accumulated force.

‘Intentness that soon became intensity’. Wonderful. He goes on to take in her appearance. This is what he notes of just her eyes:

So profound was their darkness that, when they threw off their covering of heavy lid, it seemed to his excited fancy as if they must scorch what they rested on; they looked out from the depths of their setting like those of a wild beast crouched within a cavern; they lit up about them like stars, and when they fell, they went out like stars, and her face took on the pallor of earthly dawn.  

Oh dear. ‘Smitten’ doesn’t begin to cover it, does it?! He believes he loves her, but it is something else in truth, an obsessive passion that takes control of him body and soul. Madeleine tries to warn him off Louise, all to no avail. To his thinking, not a bad word can be spoken of her, and Madeleine’s warning is nothing more than scurrilous gossip.

Of course, the plotting equation will tell you Louise is in love with someone else, the genius violinist and composer (and cad) Schilsky. He treats her with contempt in the eyes of Maurice, who has to endure one torturous dinner where Schilsky complains about her suffocating him, which precipitates one of Maurice’s first explosions of rage, on this occasion at the man who is not worthy of speaking her name let alone touching her. Maurice, meanwhile, literally kisses the ground on which she walks (and I do mean literally!).

Louise is volatile, demanding and self-centred. She is an adventurous modern woman, whose life is one of ‘love, suffering and sensual abandonment’ as Carmen Callil writes in her excellent introduction to this Text Classics edition. Her ethos is summed up in this: ‘It’s myself I think of, first and foremost, and as long as I live it will always be thus.’ She is not the woman for the romantic and hitherto sheltered Maurice.

When the more-than-two-timing Schilsky leaves town, breaking Louise’s heart, Maurice picks up the pieces and attempts to put them back together with the glue of his ardour alone. He knows she cannot love him in the same way he loves her (and the way she loves Schilsky still), but he ploughs on anyway, pleading with her to be his.

At first she says no. But then, in a form of mental gymnastics I’m still trying to figure out, bends herself and enters the relationship. And Louise being Louise, this is no ordinary courting; it is a full-blown sexual affair. With the whole town whispering behind his back, Maurice sheds his studies and his friends as Louise consumes him. His tragedy is he can’t get beyond his jealousy of Louise’s past with Schilsky. She has to be his wholly, a state that is impossible.

There are so many wonderful scenes. To pick out any for mention does the others an injustice. However… the walk home from an evening concert where Maurice first talks to Louise is memorable, with all their talk of ‘peace of mind’, her overly dramatic talk of suicide, and the final ill-fated handshake. (She is not the only one to talk of suicide; Krafft, a homosexual with brief designs on Maurice and an unknown past with Louise and Schilsky, speaks of it also.)

A far more pleasant an excursion is had on the winter nights where Maurice and his loosely knitted group of friends go ice-skating along the frozen river. But even in these happier times dark clouds loom. There is the misguided Christmas Eve excursion on the ice with Louise when a snow storm blows in. Even when the two of them embark on their summer affair in a nearby town, Louise has her head turned by a female waitress who dotes on her!

Finally, the violence toward the end and the ultimate and heartbreaking disintegration of their relationship are unforgettable.

There were moments, though, where I wanted to throw the book, not so much across the room as at the characters. ‘What are you thinking/doing?’ I often wanted to scream. I found it hard to believe the way Louise commits to Maurice and then stays with him as he descends into his all-consuming, controlling and violent temper-tantrums. It was only when I allowed for her darker side toward the end that I found peace on this score. (Long before the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon there was Maurice Guest!) Even then I felt as though there would have been so many other more worldly (and more suited) persons for her to corrupt. But as I say, love is blind. And perhaps the abandonment that Louise all too often gives into is blinder still.

Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Australian Ethel Richardson, who herself studied piano at the Leipzig Conservatorium before she found the anxiety of public performance too hard to bear, at which point, encouraged by the husband she met in Germany, she turned to writing.

As befits both the writer and the story, music pervades every page of Maurice Guest, and wonderfully so. Fugues and etudes and sonatas and concertos and symphonies abound. I’ve mentioned Beethoven, but many composers are mentioned throughout, including Wagner, Mendelssohn, Vieuxtemps, Brahms, Handel, Chopin, and on.

Richardson is perhaps better known for the coming-of-age novel The Getting of Wisdom and the trilogy based on her father’s life The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Both of those novels are set in Australia. Maurice Guest is not a comfortable read at times. How can it be when, as Madeleine puts it, ‘romantic feelings of [Maurice’s] kind are sure to end in smoke’? It’s not Australian in any particular way, so I can’t call it an ‘Australian classic’. It is, instead, that greater thing, a realist European novel of the highest calibre, a forgotten classic perhaps, but a classic nonetheless.

This counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers’ challenge. Australian Women Writers 2013 badge

You can read Callil’s celebration of Maurice Guest on its centenary of publication on The Guardian website here.

In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book program, Thomas Keneally, Geordie Williamson and Carmen Callil discussed the Text Classics series, which is being released into the UK. When asked what their pick of these novels was, both Keneally and Callil chose Maurice Guest (Geordie chose Patrick White’s Happy Valley.) I’ve not read anywhere near the full list of Text Classics, but I can at least understand why Keneally and Callil opted for this particular Henry Handel Richardson work. In every sense, it’s a titan of a novel.

Lisa at ANZ Litlovers felt much the same as I did. Read her thoughts here.

Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson

First published in 1908; this edition, 2012

Text Classics

631 pages

ISBN: 9781922079473

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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The Commandant by Jessica AndersonThere 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 fewAustralian Women Writers 2013 badge 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

1975

Text Classics

457 pages

ISBN: 9781921922138

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas KeneallyFor 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

1967

Text Classics

369 pages

ISBN: 1921922237

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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The Magic Pudding by Norman LindsayI don’t know why the classic Aussie children’s book The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay passed me by in childhood. As an adult, the Norman Lindsay I knew was the painter of risqué female nudes (immortalised in the film Sirens) that shocked the prim and proper folk between the wars. I had no idea he had written novels and children’s books.

Then, like London buses, references to it kept popping up: firstly in Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics, in a newsletter published by the Australian Society of Authors, and as one of the top ten picks of the reading public for the ABC First Tuesday Book Club’s ‘ten Aussie books to read before you die’ list, by which time I had already picked it up for a change of pace.

And what a fabulous time I had acquainting myself with the savvy koala Bunyip Bluegum, the pugilist Bill Barnacle, the sidekick penguin Sam Sawnoff, and the cantankerous pudding that never runs out no matter how much of it is eaten!

It’s an absurd rollick as the band of four travellers fall prey to the wily, well-disguised and recalcitrant puddin’ stealers. Alongside, there is a raft of other characters our travellers meet, such as Finglebury Flying-fox, who, outraged after being measured by Bill on suspicion of being a puddin’ stealer, says ‘I shall have the Law on you for this, measuring a man in a public place without being licensed as a tailor.’

Further along they come to the town of Tooraloo, ‘one of those dozing, snoozing, sausage-shaped places where all the people who aren’t asleep are only half awake…’. They’re (again!) set upon by the puddin’ stealers, but this time they are ready for them. They cause a bit of a scene, at which point the pompous mayor and lily-livered constable debate about who will read them the Riot Act, only to find that neither of them have the Act in their possession. The resulting courtroom scene is classic farce and great fun.

The story is interspersed with an abundance of verses which are sung with gusto by whomever is making their point. The sailors’ ditty Salt Junk Sarah, a song with no beginning and no end recurs throughout.

There is also a wealth of wonderful drawings, done by Lindsay himself, and though they were black and white in this edition, they’re still a joy.

Norman wrote the story after betting a friend that children loved food and fighting more than they did fairies. Out of the peculiar Lindsay kitchen came this gem, much loved by so many Australians.

And not just Australians: Philip Pullman, author of the wildly successful His Dark Materials trilogy, has been quoted as saying ‘The Magic Pudding is the funniest children’s book ever.’ It’s hard to disagree.

I’m not sure what books parents read their kids these days, but The Magic Pudding, (even with all the fisticuffs!), is a delight and should be on every bookshelf.

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

1918

Text

172 pages

ISBN: 0207188645

Source: the local municipal library

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A muse on tonight’s talk at the State Library of NSW entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, featuring Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Presented in conjunction with the Stella Literary Prize, there was a lively discussion of several Australian women authors who deserve a wider audience for their work. There couldn’t be two better-placed people to discuss the topic than Jane, blogger at Bookish Girl and author of the very accessible Australian Classics (see my review here), and Geordie, chief literary critic at The Australian and author of the recently published The Burning Library.

Jane aptly started off proceedings by declaring 2012 the year of the woman writer in Australia, with so many awards won by the likes of Anna Funder and Gillian Mears (see my review of Foal’s Bread here). The subsequent discussion touched on the issues of the imbalance of women-to-men in publication and reviewing statistics, and how even some of the published women’s stories in the twentieth century were edited by men for a particular assumed audience, during which the essence or flow had been excised and the story sadly depleted. As a bit of an idealist, I just find this sort of bias mind-bending and terribly sad. Anyway, we soon dived into a discussion of the following authors and their works:

  • Barbara Baynton: short stories, particularly, as Jane noted, the ‘chilling’ The Broken Vessel.
  • Judith Wright: how her second intimate poetry collection ‘Woman to Man’ was not published because it was considered ‘too obstetric’.
  • M Barnard Eldershaw: this was one of Geordie’s picks… or should I say two? -for, as Geordie explained, MBE was actually two women: Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both highly intelligent, Geordie explained the cruel curtailing of Barnard’s dreams of taking up a place she won at Oxford by her father. She said, ‘Life is backed up in me for miles and miles’, such a heart-rending expression. Their novel A House is Built was discussed. Set in 1830s Sydney, it is the story of a successful early merchant – and sounds just up my street – expect a review of this soon(ish!). Other works include Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Geordie described how these women authors worked within the masculine rule book of publication, but did so with a very feminine focus as well as a subversive (and therefore much more interesting) streak. They were hugely influential on a certain Patrick White, too. And it wasn’t just their fiction, for they also wrote a lot of critical work, including reviews of the young Christina Stead. Marjorie Barnard went on to write solo; her works include The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories.
  • Henry Handel Richardson: Jane commented that HHR’s Maurice Guest is perhaps her favourite novel by an Australian author (to which she quickly added Voss and Carpentaria!). Her debut novel, it is, in Jane’s words, an ‘overblown, passionate, Wagnerian story. Set in Leipzig, it centres on a love triangle, with poor Maurice the hapless dupe who’s in love with the gifted music student, Louise Dufrayer. For Jane, it shines every bit if not more than HHR’s more recognised ‘Australian’ works The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
  • Christina Stead: Geordie said the neglect shown to HHR’s Maurice Guest applies to all of Christina Stead’s work – cue much nodding of knowledgeable heads in the audience! Jonathan Franzen is not the first to acknowledge Stead as one of the great twentieth century novelists, said Geordie. Many other critics and authors have said much the same thing. Yet still Stead sits in the shadows: she sold 199-odd books in 2008 and was only taught in one Australian University. Why? Is it because of her ‘intelligent ferocity’ an approach she had to life and to writing? Is it because ‘we like our modernism light and our Booker Prize novels well edited? Jane agreed that Stead can be difficult, admitting it had taken her a few attempts to get through The Man who Loved Children, but now adores her. Other titles of Stead’s mentioned included For Love Alone and The Salzburg Tales, a book of short stories.
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, and how the Indigenous voices are starting to pick up the stories written in our landscape, by writers such as Alexis Wright (see my review of Carpentaria here) and Kim Scott (see my review of That Deadman Dance here).
  • Amy Witting: the first Aussie to sell two stories to The New Yorker, a writer whom Barry Oakley called ‘the Australian Chekhov’, and yet she is not even mentioned in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian authors and her works are all out of print. Her works include I for Isobel, which Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers has reviewed here.
  • Exiles at Home by Drusilla Modjeska was also mentioned as a great way into this world of neglected Australian female authors.

An hour well spent!

It was a shame there weren’t more literature lovers in the audience this evening. I hope there’s a similar session at next year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, as the topic deserves as wide an audience as the female writers discussed.

In the meantime, there’s so many Australian women authors demanding my attention, it’s hard to know where to start…

Happy reading…

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The Plains by Gerald MurnaneThe Plains by Gerald Murnane is a hallucinatory novella. It is narrated by an unnamed man hailing from the coastal region of Australia who is recounting the time he travelled to the inner plains in order to seek a patron amongst the almost mythical ‘plainsmen’ with the goal of making a film about the plains. The film is to be called The Interior.

It’s a mysterious read, one that draws you into a very interior landscape—a chief concern of Murnane. Indeed, reading the first-person story, one feels that Murnane is talking, and talking as much to himself as the reader. It’s the interior in every sense of the word, and the fact it was part of an intended larger work reinforces this notion: Murnane has pulled the interior out of a greater whole. The filmmaker writes: ‘I had sometimes thought of The Interior as a few scenes from a much longer film that could only be seen from a vantage point that I knew nothing of.’

It’s all so post-modern, no?

For lovers of ‘story’, of plot, of characters with actual names actively engaging with each other using, oh, I don’t know, let’s say dialogue, look elsewhere: this is not the book for you.

It opens with the narrator recounting the day he came to the plains. He describes the gathering of wannabe artists looking for a patron amongst the plainsmen, how they gather in a pub where they are called one-by-one over the course of several days to present their ‘pitch’ as it were. The plainsmen drink themselves into a stupor of sobriety. While our filmmaker waits, he recalls the bizarre conflict between different plainsmen, the Horizonites and the Haremen, and the colours of the two sides, one green-gold, the other blue.

… the whole matter had begun with a cautiously expressed manifesto signed by an obscure group of poets and painters. I did not even know the year … only that it fell during a decade when the artists of the plains were finally refusing to allow the word ‘Australian’ to be applied to themselves or their work.

Is this Murnane thinking of himself? Is he classifying his work? Shaking off the cultural cringe that was still in place in the early 80s? Or is he just a fan of irony given the concern over the hard physical landscape that forms the backdrop to so many of our great Australian novels? I have no answers.

This is what makes The Plains so beguiling. I felt like I was walking through a rather pleasant fog in which I occasionally spotted something concrete, only for it to disappear as soon as I could focus on it. The more I walked toward this something, the further away it seemed, just like will o’ the wisp.

Even the two warring factions acknowledge this ‘haze’ in the plains themselves, with one group saying ‘the zone of haze was as much a part of the plains as any configuration of soil or clouds.’

There are separatists and splinter groups of splinter groups, with the extreme position being to deny the existence of any nation with the name Australia, because ‘the boundaries of true nations were fixed in the souls of men.’

A wry humour is never far from present. Once our narrator gets in to see the plainsmen, he finds them having three different conversations at once, each ‘advancing steadily’. Pity the poor wife of ‘2nd Landowner’, for he seems destined to see everything through the prism of bustards, a type of bird than he seems quite enamoured with! This section gives us some of the only dialogue in the book, presented like a farcical play, as they circle around the topic of a classic poem about the plains entitled ‘Parasol at Noon’. The 4th Landowner recalls the scene of a plainsman looking at a girl in the distance with all the paddocks (unsurprisingly) swimming in heat haze. The 6th Landowner says:

That is the only scene as I recall the poem. Two hundred stanzas on a woman seen from a distance. But of course she’s hardly mentioned. It’s the strange twilight around her that matters—the other atmosphere under the parasol.

The 4th Landowner says:

[The poet] asks impossible questions: which light is more real—the harsh sunlight outside or the mild light around the woman? isn’t the sky itself a sort of parasol? why should we think nature is real and things of our making less so?

Later, the 5th Landowner speaks of how he retained a surveyor to map the settled districts of the plains:

When the map is finished I hope to plot the route of a journey of a thousand miles. And when I make that journey I want to see, just once in the distance, some hint of land that could be mine.

There are some quite lyrical moments. Take for instance the musician who developed a composition that tried to find the musical equivalent of his district. When the piece was played by an orchestra, its members were positioned far apart among the audience, and ‘each instrument produced a volume of sound that could be heard only by the few listeners nearest it.’ The audience was free to move around, but they only ever heard snatches of melody, and ‘most heard nothing at all.’

Any of these excerpts could be a summary of The Plains itself. There’s just layer upon layer of the same sort of impossible task of pinning the interior landscape down.

Another intriguing fragment comes after the filmmaker secures a patron and moves out to his palatial digs. There he ensconces himself in a library that sounds every bit as large as the State Library of New South Wales. In a different part of the library is the plainsman’s wife, reading about Time. There is a strange love that develops between her and the filmmaker, or a longing on the part of the filmmaker at least. He wonders how he might communicate with her and derives ever stranger options for doing so. Talking to her seems to be too trite. He must write a book of essays which will then be catalogued as part of the library to which she might one day get around to reading! I could almost feel the touch of Garcia-Marquez here, right up until the moment that nothing actually develops. Gabo would have seen to it that the love played itself out!

In the final scenes the filmmaker’s patron conducts what he calls ‘scenes’(!), in which he arranges people in a landscape in order to take a photograph that others will look at and interpret incorrectly in future years. And what a wonderful final sentence, in which our failed filmmaker grips a camera and asks his patron to take a photo of him looking into darkness. The ultimate ‘fade-to-black’, as it were.

I’m embarrassed to say that I only came upon Gerald Murnane when reading Jane Gleeson–White’s Australian Classics (see my review here). The Plains is one of the 29 novels to make Jane’s 50 classics. I have set myself the task of reading most of the ones that I’ve not yet read, as well as some other classic Australian authors I’ve yet to sample, such as Elizabeth Harrower, and any others I may come across in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library … hence the ‘Australian Classic’ part of the title for this review. Expect to see many more Aussie classics here over the next couple of years. Speaking of which, tomorrow, (Wednesday 5th December), I’m off to a talk at the State Library with Jane Gleeson–White and Geordie Williamson entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, which will cover some of the unsung female authors in the Australian canon.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely review of The Plains penned just the other day, which you can read here. Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is also a fan.

Me? I can count the books I’ve read twice on one, if not, two hands. The Plains will be one of them. In fact, I’m not sure whether I’ll ever fully leave it behind. I’m still in its pages now, chasing that will o’ the wisp.

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