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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 1837, 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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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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