The Boy in the Bush was written by D.H.Lawrence, based on a novel written at Lawrence’s instigation by Perth writer M.L. ‘Mollie’ Skinner (see my post Writing the Boy in the Bush). This is an important novel, largely unrecognised in the Australian canon, but which should take its place in the line of great lyric novels of the Australian bush extending from Such is Life (1903) through Voss (1957) and including The Pea Pickers (1942) and maybe Poor Fellow My Country (1975).
The Boy in the Bush (1924) covers a few years in the life of Jack Grant, from his arrival in Western Australia in 1882, 53 years after first settlement. Mollie Skinner’s story is a straightforward bush romance. Jack has got into bad company back in England and been expelled from school. His mother is West Australian, his father a General in the English Army and when he is posted overseas, which is most of the time, mother prefers to be with the General and so Jack has spent many years alone and unhappy in boarding school.
More to have him out of the way than improve him, Jack has been sent out to spend a year with the Ellises, distant relatives clearing a farm, ‘Wandoo’, out of virgin bush 130 km east of Perth over the Darling Ranges. The Ellises consist of Dad (Jacob), Ma, Tom (Jacob’s son by an earlier relationship), Monica, Grace, Lennie, 5 younger brothers and sisters, and Gran (Jacob’s mother). Tom, Monica and Grace are about Jack’s age, Lennie 2 or 3 years younger. The neighbouring property is home to Jacob’s late brother’s sons, the ‘Red Ellises’ so named for their hair, led by the bullying Easu (a mispronunciation of Esau) who is older and bigger than Jack.
What Lawrence has done with Skinner’s story is to overlay it with Jack’s inner monologue, as Jack grows into manhood, becomes aware of women, and develops a strange spiritualism based on the courage to follow the ‘spark’ , the god within him.
So, Jack, aged 17, lands at Fremantle (at the mouth of the Swan River, Perth is 20 km upstream):
… a place of strong, ugly, oblong houses of white stone with unshuttered bottle-glass windows … a huge stone prison with a high white-washed wall. Nearer the harbour, a few new tall warehouse buildings, and sheds, long sheds, and a little wooden railway station … Right in the middle of the township was a stolid new Victorian church with a turret …
He is met by Mr George, the family solicitor, goes up to Perth on the little wood-fired train, and has dinner that night with Mr George, Mr Ellis, Mary, “a small, dark, ugly, girl” (again, about Jack’s age and also a distant relation), her Aunt Matilda and the Ellis girls, Monica, the wild one, and quiet Grace.
The next morning Jack and Mr George take the Albany coach over the Causeway, east to Guildford, over the range to Mahogany Creek, then out on the Old York Road (these days Albany Highway runs due south from the Causeway, but in those days they must of gone down, inland of the range, on what is now the Great Southern road).
The tall gum trees with their brownish pale smooth stems and loose strips of bark stood tall and straight and still, scattered like a thin forest that spread unending, rising from a low, heath-like undergrowth. It seemed open, and yet weird, enclosing you in its vast emptiness. This bush, that he had heard so much of!
Tom meets them in a shay (which I assume is a corruption of chaise) and takes them the last 60 km to Wandoo. The homestead is “a low stone building with a few trees round it. But all the life went on here at the back, here where the pump was, and the various yards and wooden outbuildings.” Gran has a room downstairs, Dad and Ma, the girls when they come up a month later, and the smaller children sleep upstairs, and the boys all sleep in a single-room shed out the back, the ‘cubby’. And here Jack spends a year, working with horses and sheep, clearing a new block Mr Ellis has been granted further south and falling in love with the family.
… he felt a sort of passionate love for the family – as a savage must feel for his tribe. He felt he would never leave the family. He must always be near them …
Skinner throws in some adventures: The Red Ellises trick Jack into riding a wild horse; Jack gets into a fight with Easu, loses and is nursed by Mary; there is a kangaroo hunt; Jack is attracted to Monica, but then spurns her and she turns to Easu; Jack sits up with Gran one night when she is close to dying and absorbs her philosophy of an inner God.
Gran and Mr Ellis die during the same night. As she is not Tom’s mother, Mrs Ellis and with her all the children, are theoretically homeless but Mr George advises Tom and Jack to go up north for a year or so, leaving Mrs Ellis in charge of the farm until Tom is 21, has arranged berths for them on a ship out of Geraldton (400 km north of Perth). And so the boys make their way across country, staying with relatives; Jack gets drunk and has his first night with a woman; they run across another, old, mad, Jack Grant who makes out a will in Jack’s favour to stop his farmland reverting to the Crown. And then, at the beginning of the next chapter it’s two years later and Tom and Jack are back in Fremantle having worked and drunk their way around the north-west.
Tom and Jack attend a ball at Government House with Mr George and Mary, who is being encouraged to marry an older (37!) widower. Mary is still attracted to Jack but he tells her she must wait, he must have Monica first.
‘Why can’t I have both these women?’ he asked himself. And his soul, hard in its temper like a sword, answered him: ‘You can if you will.’
Back at the farm, Monica is missing. She has had a baby girl and gone down south to Albany with a neighbouring farmer, Percy. Jack heads off, but in passing the Red Ellises’ property he meets up with Easu, taunts him, Easu attacks Jack with an axe and Jack shoots him. Jack continues on but gets lost in the bush and is found, unconscious, days later by Tom who takes him back to Wandoo to be nursed by Mary. Even so, he nearly dies:
‘Y’ aren’t desertin’ us, are y’?’ said Tom …
It was the Australian, lost but unbroken on the edge of the wilderness, looking with grim mouth into the void, and calling to his mate not to leave him…
The boy Jack never rose from that fever. It was a man who got up again. A man with all the boyishness cut away from him, all the childishness gone, and a certain unbending recklessness in its place.
Spoiler Alert! We’re getting close to the end.
A brief court case comes up with a verdict of ‘self defence’ and Jack, once again telling Mary to wait, is off to Albany where Monica is waiting for him with a second child, Percy having gone off to Melbourne. They marry, sail up north, live like swaggies as Jack takes casual work while searching for gold, the baby dies. Eventually Jack stakes a claim, builds Monica a one room hut, she has twins, he strikes gold, Tom and Lennie come up to help him, they are all rich. (The goldfield is not named, even in the Cambridge editor’s copious notes, but may have been based on the Halls Creek “Kimberley Gold Rush” of 1885)
Jack returns to Perth, he has been left old Jack Skinner’s farm (old Jack is the illegitimate son of Jack’s mother’s older sister). Mary and a friend, Hilda, come to dinner at Mr George’s where Jack expounds on the forces driving him:
‘… in life one can only be true to the spark.’ …
‘But said Hilda Blessington, with wide, haunted eyes, ‘what is the spark that one must be faithful to? How are we to be sure of it?’
‘You just feel it. And then you act upon it. That’s courage.’ …
‘And if I felt I really wanted two wives, for example, I would have them and keep them both.’
Mary goes with Jack and Mr George to visit his new farm. Jack asks Mary to sleep with him and to come back up north with him, but Mary refuses to “give in to her animal nature”.
I think Mollie Skinner’s plot might have ended with Jack inheriting old Jack’s farm. Lawrence’s final two chapters, which Skinner wished removed, are short and mostly philosophising. But right at the end, as Jack is riding out of town, a young woman rides after him. Not Mary but Hilda (based apparently on Dorothy Brett who came to live with Lawrence and Frieda in New Mexico), who wishes “to be free”. Free for anything. “Free to breathe. Free to live. Free not to marry.” Who will join Jack and Monica in the north ‘at Christmas’.
D.H.Lawrence and M.L.Skinner, The Boy in the Bush, Penguin, Melbourne 1984 (first published 1924)
Historical Panoramas from the Perth Town Hall, including 1885 (here)