The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.
We are at VI, the penultimate chapter. Tom’s diary, open at Sat., February 9th, 1884, reminds him that he was once again on Runnymede, on whose home paddock the bullockies were camped in Chapter I. It is a standing joke amongst all his acquaintance that the housekeeper of Runnymede, a widow formerly of some social standing (in the bush), is intent on marrying him. And now, due to government business, he has been spending some days within her reach.
No spoilers this month, though the answer to one of the novel’s little underlying mysteries, who is Nosey Alf, is within Tom’s grasp by the end of the chapter if only he realised. In fact, it is only by reading the commentaries that I am aware of just how many mysteries run as undercurrents through the stories Tom relates and listens to. Tom knows his saddle is better than it should be, but from whom was it stolen? Where did his kangaroo dog, Pup, come from? What happened to the swagman he ‘helped’ the night he got naked? Is he still in touch with Jim (Jemima)? and so on.
Tom begins the chapter by philosophising about the minute gradations of class on a station, “The folk-lore of Riverina is rich in variations of a mythus, pointing to the David-and-Goliath combat between a quiet wage-slave and a domineering squatter …” At the homestead, each class has its own quarters, from the house for the boss and his family, to the barracks for narangies, to the men’s hut, to “the nearest pine ridge” or a hut by the woolshed for swaggies. Tom, in his official capacity, “being a little too exalted for the men’s hut, and a great deal too vile for the boss’s house” was quartered with the narrangies.
Social status, apart from all considerations of mind, manners, or even money, is more accurately weighed on a right-thinking Australian station than anywhere else in the world.
Mrs Beaudesert, the housekeeper, had made £25,000 marrying and burying her first husband, only for her second, a refugee from Belgravia, to get through it at £10,000 a year, and so she was reduced to living on the charity of her old school friend, the boss’s wife. Unfortunately for Tom, she had a mistaken belief about his lineage and prospects, and “such was her hypnotic power, or my adaptability, that in the atmosphere of Runnymede I became a Conservative of the good old type.”
Eventually, after adjudicating in an argument between Mrs B and a servant girl, he begins to make his escape. The mail brings a letter from head office, but it is only a love letter and he discards it. As he is mounting, another horseman wishes to discuss ‘Was Hamlet mad?’. There is a contretemps with a bullocky taking a short cut across the best paddocks instead of going back out the front gate and around the long way. But at last Tom makes his own way across the station to Nosey Alf’s hut on the boundary.
Nosey Alf, in fact had no nose, having been kicked in the face by a horse. Tom describes Alf variously as “more beautiful, otherwise, than a man’s face is justified in being”; with “lithe, graceful movements”; and “no scrub to burn off, except a faint moustache”; not to mention “unbecomingly clean for a Saturday”.
They exchange “swapping books” and discuss Zola, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Longfellow. Alf corrects Tom’s characterization of bombazine as “cheap, carpetty-looking fabric” for women’s gowns, leading Tom to assume Alf had been a draper’s assistant in his Sydney days.
Tom gives Alf news, at some length, of their mutual acquaintance, the misanthropic Warrigal Alf.
Alf takes out a violin –
.. he didn’t confine himself to the comfortable vulgarity of popular airs. He played selections from Handel, Mozart, Wagner and I don’t know whom; while the time past unnoticed by both of us. At length he laid the violin across his knees, and, after a pause, his voice rose in one of the sweetest songs ever woven from words.
As he takes his leave in the morning, Tom’s final, grateful thought is that never once did Alf attempt “any witticism respecting Mrs Beaudesert”.
Runnymede. At that time, in a 200 mile stretch along the Murrimbidgee there was only one station, Pevensey, that did not have an Aboriginal name. “Perhaps Pevensey, the site of a king’s victory, suggested Runnymede, the site of a king’s defeat.”
Narangy. A self-appointed boss of doubtful authority. A man who transmitted orders but didn’t formulate them. From similar Aboriginal words recorded in the Sydney region meaning small or junior.
Love letter. Possibly from Jim as her father had Tom’s work address
Was Hamlet mad? A burning question in Melbourne in 1867, following rival performances, and a spate of letters to the Argus.
Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903
FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).
Vance Palmer edited two editions of Such is Life, the second, published by Kate Baker in 1917, and the abridged edition published in England by Jonathon Cape in 1937. The cover above would appear to be of the latter (here). My earlier post, Such is Life Abridged! (here)
Last month one of my brothers (B3) wrote and said that if I was short of covers I could use his, which was a Xmas present from our parents in 1972. I had already set up my covers for the rest of the year but here’s his, as a bonus, a hardback from boutique publisher Lloyd O’Neill. The cover painting is Tom Roberts’ Charcoal Burners (1886), though the colours appear a bit off.