Miles Franklin was a fine literary stylist as the opening lines to Old Blastus attest:
It was in those days, so lately fled, when horseless carriages were a curiosity beyond the seaboard. Some young bloods had made the journey from Sydney to Melbourne in one as the most enterprising adventure at command following the picturesque performances of the Boer War, and had thereby rendered themselves as glamorous as minor fighter pilots of later years.
However, by 1931 when Old Blastus of Bandicoot came out Franklin was 52 and only just beginning to achieve critical success, as Brent of Bin Bin, after decades in the wilderness. Commercial success was something else, as these were Depression years and in any case British publishers paid a discounted rate for sales in Australia (Franklin’s publisher was Blackwoods of Edinburgh). Old Blastus, the first novel to be published under Franklin’s own name since Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), arose out of one of her many unsuccessful attempts to write and have staged a play in London in the years after the War, and is dedicated “to Annie, May, Leslie, Ethel & Ruby who first heard this story in its original dramatic form”.
Shockingly, my 1945 Australian Pocket Library edition is ‘by Miles Franklin, Author of “Bring the Monkey”, “All that Swagger”, “Joseph Furphy” etc., etc’. No mention of the famous My Brilliant Career! Franklin was prominent in the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Jill Roe writes, “FAW plans to ensure the survival and development of Australian literature when the war [WWII] was over took several forms” including the Australian Pocket Library which had print runs of 25,000 “an astonishing figure”. There is more (here) in this 1946 essay from the University of Toronto Quarterly:
The Commonwealth Literary Fund, since 1908 an active force in furthering the cause of Australian culture, aided by an annual government grant of about $15,000, agreed to underwrite the reprinting of standard, out-of print books, in cheap editions, in order to alleviate the book famine. Arrangements were made with publishers, an Advisory Board selected twenty three initial titles, and in 1944 the first of the reprints began to appear.
The book famine was the result of paper shortages during the War. Other FAW authors to have books published in this series included M. Barnard Eldershaw (The Glass House), and Frank Dalby Davidson (Man Shy).
Despite the silly title – and Franklin’s neologisms while they sometimes add colour, more often act to prevent her writing being taken seriously – Old Blastus is an interesting and often amusing account of farm life in Franklin home territory, the plains south of Goulburn, NSW now home to Canberra, in the first decade of the C20th.
Interestingly, to describe the country she re-uses a phrase from Ten Creeks Run: “Over the nearer rolling widths the spire of Canberra church came to view in its Plain, and Mount Ainslie”, rendering it this time as: “all the way across the rolling treeless plain guarded by its lone English spire, till leaving the shouldered masses of Black Mountain and Ainslie …” And she’s still fussed about her young heroines kissing: “‘Oh, people don’t kiss unless they’re engaged or something deadly,’ laughed Dora, her light words disguising her fluttering pulses.”
The story begins with Old Blastus, William Barry, upset that one of his neighbours has brought back the district’s first automobile after a visit to Sydney. “Nothing had so titillated the neighbourhood since Mabel Barry ‘went wrong'” which is a clue to the reveal at the end. Mabel is Barry’s oldest daughter. She was “thirty-seven and looked forty-five, and thought of nothing but work”. Dora, the Miles Franklin figure, is the younger daughter, verging on 18. “She sang with natural ease and her voice was much admired by those who heard it raised in the tuneful Weatherly melodies.” Of course she rides like the wind, and is sometimes allowed to ride unaccompanied “contrary to custom” into Queanbeyan for singing lessons. In case you haven’t been keeping up, Miles Franklin was both a horsewoman and a singer and so are all her young heroines. The other family members are Mother, and Arthur, a brother ten months or maybe fewer Dora’s junior. And there’s another clue.
Barry lives in a state of feud with his neighbours but Dora is oblivious to what is openly discussed by everyone else, and admires not just the car, but also the car-owner’s son, Ross Lindsey. Dora is restless, her father forbids socialising, she lacks occupation, does not really think she’ll make it as a singer, nor “did she feel capable of writing a book as that other girl, about whom everyone, even the old bushwhackers, made such a fuss” (Miles herself, of course!).
The situation is brought to a head when Ross is injured near the Barry property and has to be put up for a week while he recovers. Barry is forced to be polite to the Lindseys, Mrs Barry entertains hopes of resuming her old friendship with Mrs Lindsey, Dora sees enough of Ross to entertain hopes of her own, Ross’s older sister Kate and Dora’s absent older brother Bob resume contact after a 17 year hiatus, and Mabel begins to see a way for her and Arthur out of their unrelenting, and unpaid, drudgery.
Then follows a bazaar during which Dora sings to Ross’s accompaniment. Dora is a hit and is asked to stay with other young ladies in town. Barry is losing control:
What on earth was he to do? The idea that Dora might be able to hold her own – her own virtue, be safe within her own cleanly courage, did not occur to him. His idea was to guard her by main strength. His previous experience of freedom for daughters had been disastrous.
Dora sneaks off to attend a ball in the Lindsey’s woolshed. Her father catches up with her and drags her home, the old kitchen is in an uproar:
“Father came roaring over to Chesham Park.”
“With a buggy whip as if I were a slave in a harem.”
“That’s what you will be if you go the ways of harlotry.”
“He called me dreadful bad names before everyone and tried to thrash people with his whip as if he was drunk.”
“I pray God I was not too late. By God if I was …”
Franklin has been painting Old Blastus as all bluster, and although no-one actually gets whipped, Dora does get pushed to the ground. I’m not sure Franklin appreciates just how violent the old man’s behaviour is. None of her other (fictional) fathers is like this but it is possible her model was Steele Rudd’s rambunctious ‘Dad’. She was surely aware, and probably envious, of how financially successful Rudd had been with his ‘Dad and Dave’ books.
Lisa (here) and Sue (here) have been discussing bushfires in their recent reviews of Karenlee Thompson’s Flame Tip: Short Fictions and it’s a bushfire which is the climax of Old Blastus. Barry is obsessive about keeping his land cleared, and ploughing and burning firebreaks. Lindsey is rather less so, with long grass right up to the flash new homestead. The scene in the Barry kitchen is brought to an abrupt end when it becomes known that a fire on the boundary of Lindsey’s Chesham Park, driven by rising winds, threatens to engulf the whole community, though not before Dora finally learns Mabel’s secret.
Franklin’s writing is at its best in her descriptions of the fire and the efforts to control it:
… the fire seemed to carry in the air, or to start of spontaneous combustion, straight towards the Lindsey home paddocks. Flames ran up green gum trees as if they were tinder and sent crashing blazing tops in a vast shower of brands and sparks to set alight hundreds of yards around.
Old Blastus is the hero of the hour. Various love lifes are resolved. The community rope in a visiting Lord to present Barry with a car of his own. Mabel leaves Bandicoot for the first time in 17 years and the family find they miss her.
Old Blastus of Bandicoot was a popular book in its day, and a favourite of my father’s as it happens, probably because Franklin combines her always lively writing with likeable characters and a believable plot, which was not a combination she always achieved.
Miles Franklin, Old Blastus of Bandicoot, First pub. 1931. My copy (above) Australian Pocket Library ‘by arrangement with the Commonwealth Literary Fund’, Melbourne, 1945
For a list of all my Miles Franklin reviews and posts go to Miles Franklin Central (here)