Ralph Rashleigh has been one of the emergency books at the bottom of my work backpack for a number of years, 5 probably, in reserve for a particularly long breakdown, closed road, or other hold-up. And it’s been on my mother’s shelves nearly all my life so I probably should have read it before this. But here we go.
It appears to have been written in the 1840s, about the adventures of a convict transported to Sydney in 1827. The ms was brought to the attention of the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1920 under the title Ralph Rashleigh or The Life of an Exile by Giacomo di Rosenberg. The ms was submitted to a London publisher who brought out a version in 1929 extensively rewritten as memoir. This version is the one pictured on the right, republished in the Australian Classics series in 1981.
The Australian literary scholar Colin Roderick obtained possession of the ms in 1949. He established that the author was the convict James Tucker, and that the work was clearly fiction although based in part around Tucker’s own experiences and more generally on well-known aspects of colonial life. Roderick provided a sympathetic edit and the restored work was brought out by Angus and Robertson in 1952. (My copy was published by Pacific Books in 1962 and cost 7/6d. I’m sorry now for how badly I have treated it.)
The version I review here is that edited by Roderick. Compare their opening paragraphs, the bowdlerised version is first:
Ralph Rashleigh was the son of London shopkeepers of decent rank, received a sound education, and at the end of his schooling he was articled to an established conveyance in the vicinity of Chancery Lane.
Respecting the parents of Ralph Rashleigh, little needs here to be said save that they were of a decent rank as London shopkeepers, and that they were thus enabled to afford their son the advantage of a good plain English education, upon the completion of which he was articled to a conveyancer in extensive practice, who resided near Chancery Lane, a romantic neighbourhood to which Ralph was compelled to restrict his rambles for the first two years of his servitude …
Obviously, I preferred the latter. Roderick’s introduction reads like the preamble to a C19th mock biography – I have in my hand a mysterious lost manuscript etc – and my first inclination was to Google for any hint of a controversy or hoax, but there appears to be none so Ralph Rashleigh, to the best of my limited knowledge is therefore the first novel written in Australia. Having written this I thought to turn to HM Green, A History of Australian Literature, Vol I, and he gives that honour to Henry Savery’s Quintus Serviton (1830). Green goes on to mention authors “Rowcroft, Harris and Mrs Vidal”, of each of whom I know nothing, but then cites Ralph Rashleigh as the second of “only three [early] novels that are of any intrinsic importance” (p.85).
The novel begins with Rashleigh’s decline into criminality in England, an escape from jail and a pretty stock encounter with smugglers while hiding near the coast which leads to another conviction and eventually to transportation to “New Holland” (not New South Wales, which surprised me). His first sight of Australia is the approach to Sydney Heads which implies that ships sailed well south of the Bight to stay in the Westerlies until it was time to catch the SE Trades and sail up between Tasmania and NZ.
Before daybreak the next morning the light of Port Jackson was visible from the deck of the Magnet, and shortly afterwards that trusty vessel entered the Heads – two bold, bluff precipes, between which lies the entrance to that spacious harbour, supposed to be one of the finest on the surface of the globe… The shores of Port Jackson then possessed few charms, either natural or acquired: sandy bays opening to great distances inland, bordered apparently by stunted trees; rocky headlands between each inlet, crowned with similar foliage; and far away, on either hand, a background displaying dense forests of sombre green… Not a single patch of cultivated soil appeared in those days to refresh the sight of wearied voyagers with evidences that here the foot of civilised man had ever trod prior to their arrival. [On entering Sydney Cove] the dwellings appeared to be chiefly of one story; in fact, most of them deserved no better name than huts. The streets were narrow and straggling; nor did there seem to be more than half a dozen good or convenient private buildings in the town. There was no cultivated land to be seen …
And this was 39 years after First Settlement, although later in the novel it appears that there are reasonably established farms around Paramatta and further inland on the Nepean.
Rashleigh is allocated to a penal farm and works there under conditions of harsh and arbitrary punishment – in fact his insistence on the arbitrariness of punishment throughout is probably proof enough of the amount of time that the author spent as a convict – briefly gains ticket of leave status, through unlucky coincidence is kidnapped by bushrangers and forced to partake in their crimes, is reconvicted and so on. At one stage while making his way to a new situation near Liverpool he is “sheltered” by an Irish farming family. His description of their living conditions is a precursor to the similar description by Miles Franklin of the McSwats, and is symptomatic of the prejudice against Irish Catholics up until the 1950s: “… [the remains of dinner] were equitably shared among two or three pet pigs, which enjoyed the privilege of entree into this Australian dining room, where, indeed, if certain indubitable symptoms on the floor might be credited, they felt themselves, if anything, rather more at home than the inmates”.
The bushrangers Rashleigh is with raid a remote farmhouse and rape the women who are preparing for a wedding. Rashleigh does not take part but he is hunted down with the others and is convicted and sent to the coal mines at Newcastle where the men are made to work six days at a time underground without clothing or bedding, with the Sabbath reserved for worship and whippings.
He escapes again and is eventually taken up by a tribe of Aborigines on the coast north of Newcastle and with whom he spends the next four years in reasonable comfort, until his principal protector dies and he is once again on the move, this time with two Aboriginal ‘wives’ for company. Over the following six months they walk the length of (present day) northern NSW and Qld.”At length he reached the utmost north-eastern point of land on the coast of New Holland and just at the entrance of Torres straits. From the summit of a lofty mountain he could see many small islands, which he doubted not formed part of the Indian archipelago.”
A shipwreck is spied, Rashleigh’s party rescue the only three survivors, two women and a child, and Rashleigh is finally rehabilitated and his wives are taken in by the women’s family as servants (and will no longer speak to Rashleigh except in English). Tucker himself was not so lucky, he was never able to stay completely out of trouble, or to hold down a clerical position suitable to his education and so, “… the author of Ralph Rashleigh slipped out of ken, a pitiful relic of a wasteful system, a piece of human wrack without will to direct himself or to master his environment.” Born in the early 1800s, he died in 1866 at Liverpool Asylum from “decay of nature”.
My verdict: this is a book well worth reading, although an ordinary Victorian melodrama in its plot, or more correctly, series of plots, its detailed descriptions of the early years of white settlement are fascinating. And his descriptions of Aborigines, ‘savages’, while probably not the result of first hand experience, are not uniformly unsympathetic and contain some insights, from the bloodhounds used usually to “hunt blacks”, to details of camp life.
Rashleigh does not spend much of his time in the company of women, but let me end with these descriptions of farmers’ daughters who, due to the labour shortage were ‘bred’ to work outside.
Thus masculine in their labours, their persons were scarcely less so. Though their features in numberless instances, might be considered positively handsome, as are in fact the general race of fair Australians, yet exposure to the sun and wind completely tanned them and gave them a weatherbeaten tinge in their youth; while their forms, unrepressed by any confinement of clothing, acquired all those ungainly attributes which characterise the clown.
And their morals weren’t too hot either:
The long-continued evil habits of their parents, who generally on both sides had served sentences of transportation, had rendered them quite indifferent to virtue and inured to vice. Means of instruction there were none, and the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, either at work, at their merry-makings, or bathing in the rivers, which last the heat of the climate renders indispensable, all these very early destroyed any innate principles of modesty.
James Tucker, Ralph Rashleigh, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1952 (Colin Roderick, ed.)
James Tucker, The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh (abridged), first pub. 1929