Trooper to the Southern Cross, Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) was born in England of good upper middle class stock. Her father was professor of poetry at Oxford, Rudyard Kipling was a rello and her godfather was JM Barrie. She was tall, good looking and rebellious, married a bi-sexual, professional signer to disoblige her family, as they say, had two sons, divorced him, and near the end of the Great War, married George Thirkell, a captain in the AIF who had served right through from 1914 – Egypt, Gallipoli, France. Thirkell’s family had land in Tasmania, but he was an engineer.

“Early in 1920 the Thirkells returned to Australia aboard the Friedrichsruh, a horrendous voyage when rank-and-file diggers became increasingly assertive. After a sojourn at Hobart, the family settled in suburban Melbourne. In January 1921 a son, Lancelot George, was born. Thirkell’s business activities as a director of a small engineering firm won only modest rewards.” (ADB)

Angela, needing money, began writing satirical essays and short stories. In 1930 she made her second visit home and stayed there. From 1931 on, for 30 years, she published a novel a year, middlebrow stuff set in Trollope’s Barsetshire, which she said she wouldn’t want her friends to read.

Trooper to the Southern Cross (1934) is something else, a fictionalised account of her post-war voyage to Australia, biting in its contempt of incompetent officers and sometimes laugh out loud funny, which was originally published under the male pseudonym Leslie Parker.

The story is written in a chatty tone in the first person, by Major Bowen a doctor in the AIF who had, like Capt Thirkell whom he no doubt represents, served right through the War.

I have always wanted to write the story of the old ‘Rudolstadt’ which took a shipload of Australian troops home after the War, but there were so many reasons against it. At the time we were all very angry, because it isn’t a fair deal to put families on a troopship where there isn’t any dicipline ..

opening lines

Bowen’s background is as the son of a Western District (Victoria) property owning family with whom he has only distant relations. I was impressed by Thirkell’s local knowledge, though I waited until I had finished the book to look up her history. It doesn’t say, but perhaps she travelled a bit during her 10 years in Australia. Bowen talks of his mother cooking for shearers – chops for breakfast, a roast joint for dinner and the shoulder for tea. Do people still eat like that! My grandparents did, and sandwiches for morning and afternoon lunch in between, and tea, tea, tea, and maybe a slice of cake for supper.

Still, that’s only the first few pages, and a couple more to deal with the War. But because Bowen mentions fighting in Egypt (in 1914, though it was actually 1915) before Gallipoli, I had to look that up too (here). The AIF landed in Egypt for training at the end of 1914 and some must have taken part in the defence of the Suez when the Turks attacked from Palestine to retake Egypt from the Brits.

After the Armistice, Bowen takes a position at a hospital in Leeds, meets a girl, Celia, to whom it turns out he is related, marries her and after a year or so the Army tells him he is to be repatriated on the Rudolstadt along with many other officers with their wives and children and hundreds of diggers (troops). He wrangles a decent cabin for himself and Celia. His mate Jerry has a suite for his wife, two children and young nanny, but the junior offices are crammed into small cabins below decks not necessarily with their wives; the diggers are a level further down, and beneath them are the cells for hardened criminals who soon have their jailers bluffed and the keys to the cells chucked overboard.

I don’t have to tell you the plot – they sail to Australia, the men cause a lot of trouble, and despite an incompetent CO and his adjutant, Owen and Jerry with the assistance of a few loyal sergeants, save the day. Repeatedly.

The pleasure of the book is in the humour, a lot of which is the author slyly making fun of her husband (whom she had already left). Here they are on first meeting –

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain they were way out beyond everything. So I asked her if she had read ‘On Our Selection’ … but she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’ so I knew she wasn’t literary.

And here, on wifely duties –

As for Celia, the poor kid didn’t know the first thing about cooking, but she soon got the hang of it, and I can tell you it was good-oh to know there would be a nice hot supper my little missis had cooked, whatever time I got back from the hospital … [he and a mate would] go off somewhere and get a drink and get yarning, and often I’d bring the chap home with me … It was great to walk into our own little sitting room and say “What about some tea, babe?” and introduce her to my pal.

Sometimes I’d take my boots off after supper and Celia would give them a shine for me … She was a great hand at polishing boots, as good as a batman, and it’s a job I’ve never liked somehow.

There’s all that stuff of my father’s and grandfathers’ generations about not swearing in front of women, not even hinting at sex. One bounder shows some officers’ wives a pornographic Indian carving which accidentally ends up overboard. And a great deal of racism about unwashed Egyptians, ‘gyppos’ and Irish Catholics, though the RC chaplain on board shows he’s made of the right stuff.

All in all a fun, nostalgic, read.

.

Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross, first pub. 1934. Sun Books (pictured above, right), Melbourne, 1966. 177pp. ex libris J. Terry

see also: Sue/Whispering Gums’ review (here)

21 thoughts on “Trooper to the Southern Cross, Angela Thirkell

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the read too Bill. Thirkell seems to be in that tradition of English women writers, of whom Austen is an early example, who can write satirically about the society around her. I think Elizabeth Von Arnim is another. And EH Young fits here too I think.

    BTW I like the ex libris inclusion in your book citation!

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    • Elizabeth von Arnim seems to be in the air at the moment, perhaps I’d better read something she’s written. And EH Young! Who’s EH Young?

      Credit where credit’s due. And you didn’t even have a go at me for enjoying WWI historical fiction. You’re slipping WG.

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      • I was on holiday Bill so was in a holiday mood. But, actually, I don’t think Trooper is technically historical fiction. It was published only a bit over a decade after it was set.

        I think you’d like EH Young – read about her at Wikipedia. She had an interesting Jolley-ish situation. I’ve read most of her novels. I started with Miss Mole. She has a quiet Austenish subversiveness. (Hachette has apparently republished her. I read her in Virago.) I’m pretty sure you would like Elizabeth von Arnim too.

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      • My brother (B3) has been commenting on Facebook and he thinks I probably have this somewhere amongst my father’s war books. He wrote: [Dad] told me it has been given some credit for its insight into soldiers life at the time, despite (or because) it was written by a woman.

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  2. LOL Bill, timing is all… in the wake of Remembrance Day, a story about Anzacs not quite as noble as Australians would like to believe… I love it!
    (Remember the recent fuss when ?Paul Daley at the Guardian wrote about what those diggers #Euphemism got up to in Egypt, and there were howls of outrage about despoiling their memory?)

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  3. Interesting the Tasmanian connection. Trying to imagine being on that ship. What a nightmare. I do like the term “yarning”. I might try to work it into my vocabulary a bit more. Such an old term. My grandfather told a good yarn of his experience in France during WWI. I enjoyed this review very much. 🤠🐧☕ Will share a coffee…☕

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    • I think of yarning as Australian, but Conrad frames Heart of Darkness as a yarn. My (paternal) grandfather was in France but he barely spoke to me at all. On mum’s side I heard some stories but I wish now there had been more. Granddad’s oldest sister would sometimes talk about arriving in the Mallee from the Goldfields, in a fancy sulky, in the 1890s when the Mallee was opened up for farming.

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  4. Had no idea of Thirkell’s Australian connection. Sue bet me to it, but as I was reading your review I was thinking of Von Arnim and her ability to slowly poke fun at society (and men) around her.

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  5. A lot of Tasma’s work apparently contained salacious details about her ex-husband (in late C19th Victoria) so perhaps it was a way of getting revenge. I wish we knew what Thirkell’s reaction was to seeing himself in print. He must have been recognisable even before his wife was revealed as the author.

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  6. I knew that one of Thirkell’s marriages was to an Aussie, & unhappy, but I didn’t realise she lived in Australia for so long.
    Elizabeth von Armin referred to her husband as the Man of Wrath throughout Elizabeth and Her German Garden – these smart, literate women endured a lot in these unequal marriages. Their discontent emerging as biting satire and scathing fiction as bio or bio as fiction.
    I really must read Tasma and Young to compare.

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    • I didn’t know Thirkell at all till this year.
      Tasma’s ex-husband appears in her later novels which aren’t readily available, though Uncle Piper does include a line about being nice to wives in public and knocking them about in private.
      It seems we will both have to locate and read Young.

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  7. I know my grandfather was told to limit his salt intake because he had high blood pressure, and he got SO MAD because he was nostalgic about when his own father would eat this big, greasy “farmer dinner” and then take a piece of bread, run it through all the fat in the meat pan, and eat it. My great-grandfather was not a fat man, nor was he short (if I remember correctly, he was 6.5 feet tall), so my grandpa felt that this was the best way to eat. He forgot his dad died in his 60s from a heart attack. Those early 1900 meals are no joke!

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    • I’m a hearty eater like my grandfather. Except I’m a vegetarian of course. Even when I was a kid I wouldn’t go with the others to watch him kill a sheep. Every now and again I give up bread but cheese on rye is my favourite food group. Four months to go now and I’ll have made it through my sixties. Granddad died in his mid-eighties so I should be ok for a while yet.

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      • I haven’t had rye bread in ages. Two of the most popular breads you can buy in the store out of a bag in the Midwest, I kid you not, are Hillbilly Bread and Wonder Bread. Both sell, you may have guessed, white bread.

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  8. I’ve seen this a lot over the years but haven’t read it. She’s pretty racist and sexist but with some OK padres etc in her Barsetshires – a reason I’m stopping them after the last three WW2 novels, which at least have the bonus of being contemporary almost-reportage.

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    • I had better read August Folly – 7 couples fall in love according to Goodreads – in the next few months while I’ve got all this in mind. I enjoyed the mixture of memoir and sly digs at her ex-husband in this one, though she only lightly sketched in herself. I wonder if she put more of herself in her other works.

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  9. The first in her Barsetshires is High Rising (1933). Her entitlement/privilege is (as Liz mentions) hard to take at times. Her characterization is often humourous though, and I do enjoy the idea of a woman writing and negotiating the publishing industry (such as it is). It’s been awhile since I’ve read one of them though. (I think August Folly is actually the “next” one for me, but it’s a few books along in the series.) This one sounds very different; I have a copy (and a few Barshetshires, but out of order) for whenever I’m next in the mood.

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    • My Viragos are on a shelf near my desk and at eye level, not that that has guaranteed so far they’ll get read before all the TBRs behind me, but I guess I may as well read August Folly while I still remember something about Thirkell.

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