Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt

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In recent times it has become apparent that Indigenous Australians were mostly welcoming and helpful to the Europeans who came onto their lands, whether by accident or design, as evidenced by the assistance offered to explorers and escaped convicts; and that narratives about ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’ were fictions designed to “justify” British occupation of Australia and the killing of Indigenous people.

In Finding Eliza (2016) Larissa Behrendt (1969 -), an “Aboriginal lawyer, writer and filmmaker”, makes a compelling case that the story of Eliza Fraser who lived with/was captured by the  Butchulla people on K’gari (Fraser Is., Qld) following the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836 was framed right from the beginning as a tale to serve colonial interests.

Eliza Fraser, aged about 38 at the time of the shipwreck, was the wife of Captain John Fraser and 20 or so years his junior. They had 3 children whom they had left behind in northern Scotland. The Stirling Castle foundered on Swain Reefs near the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, and the crew were making their way south in two boats to the settlement at Moreton Bay (Brisbane) when, after two months, short of water and with talk turning to which of them they would eat first, the captain agreed to risk the ‘savage natives’ and pull into the big sand island now known as Fraser Is.

Briefly, Butchulla people apprehended the whites. Eliza was taken off by the women, daubed with coloured earths and made to assist in the collection of food. Capt Fraser, who was with the men, died. Some of the crew – presumably in the second boat – made the remaining 220 km to Moreton Bay and after 52 days, Eliza was rescued.

Numerous accounts of Eliza Fraser’s ordeal have been produced, starting with her own Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser in 1837, in which Eliza is portrayed “as a vulnerable white woman who finds herself among villainous black people”.  In some accounts Capt Fraser is speared while Eliza hides behind a tree, in others he dies accidentally or of his illnesses. Eliza describes the humiliations of being daubed and forced to work, and claims to have been on the point of meeting a “fate worse than death” when rescuers arrived:

… visited by one of the most ugly and frightful looking Indians that my eyes ever beheld or that the whole island probably contained; with proposals that, ‘as I had lost my mate, I should become his squaw!’

The rescue party was led by a convict, John Graham, who himself had lived for six years with Aboriginals nearby on the mainland. Only a few others of the Stirling Castle’s crew survived, including Harry Youlden who, much later, published an account disputing Eliza’s version and saying that “he and his mate were offered food and that the locals seemed concerned about their welfare.”

Behrendt breaks down the Eliza Fraser story and analyses its separate elements:

White women are pure and virtuous, blacks are savage, cannibalistic, immoral – the superiority of the white is/must be asserted;

White women need men’s protection, black women are their men’s slaves – ignoring Eliza’s agency in surviving where many of the men didn’t; and overlooking women’s status as chattels in British law;

Aboriginal women: mean and jealous – they treat Eliza badly out of envy for the greater attractiveness of her white skin.

As a lawyer (a Doctor of Juridical Science from Harvard!), Behrendt of course asks cui bono, who benefits from the distortions in Eliza’s story. The list is long. Graham, the convict, is rewarded for his ‘bravery’ so it pays him to overstate the barbarism of Eliza’s captors; Eliza herself initially makes her living as the brave woman who survived unimaginable horrors; missionaries use Eliza’s tribulations as proof of the need to bring Christianity to the “savages”; colonialists justify their land-grabs by reference to the unworthiness of the original inhabitants; and above all, the British race must continue to assert its claimed superiority.

Captivity narratives form a part of Australian frontier folklore, and they emerged at a time that has more significance than we might appreciate. The clear inferiority of Aboriginal people and the barbarism of their culture as portrayed in a story like Eliza Fraser’s was relied on to justify their dispossession and to ignore their connections to their traditional country, their own laws, and their own systems of decision-making.

A contrary (and more likely) version of Eliza’s story is told by Aboriginal Elder Olga Miller, from the perspective of the people who rescued, rather than captured, her. The island was experiencing a severe drought and it is unlikely the whites could have survived without assistance. Eliza was severely sunburnt and was painted in grease and ash to alleviate this, and was daubed with a white ochre mark which said to the Butchulla men, “this woman is not to be touched”. Eliza’s fearfulness made her an ungrateful guest, and one who was unwilling to help in the everyday tasks of Butchulla women.

Behrendt then offers a striking, shaming example of a Genuine Frontier Captivity Story under the headings:

… captured by savages …

… suffered cruel abuses at the hands of the savages …

… treated like slaves …

… suffered a fate worse than death …

Under which she inserts testimony not from whites, but from Indigenous people in the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission Bringing Them Home – children torn from their mothers; children in ‘homes’ undernourished and beaten; wages paid into accounts which Indigenous workers never saw (yes, looking at you Qld Government); routine sexual abuse of children in foster care.

Behrendt goes on to discuss other stories which have demonised Aboriginal people, including a scathing review of Katherine Sussannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1928). I have criticised Coonardoo myself as not being the story of an Aboriginal woman, but the story of Hugh, her (white) sometime friend and lover, who abandons her and their son. Behrendt takes this much further and points out Prichard’s no doubt unconscious racism. For instance:

The exploitation of Aboriginal labour under the guise of Hugh and Bessie’s [his mother’s] supposed benevolence is tangible. Mrs Bessie teaches Coonardoo the management of the household and threatens her with haunting and fearful ‘guts-ache’ if she lets Hugh down, no matter what happens.

A message reinforced by the fact that Coonardoo’s mother, herself a house-servant, had been kicked to death by Hugh’s father for failing to carry out his instructions.

Coonardoo becomes ostensibly the slave in the [station] kitchen but she also does the men’s work. She is the provider for her own family in a camp that is rarely referred to in the book, as though her whole life could revolve around the homestead kitchen rather than her family and the land that she loves.

Other books are discussed, not much less extensively, including Liam Davison’s The White Woman (1994) – an historical novel around the myth of a white woman captured by savages; Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976) – which is of course a reimagining of the Eliza Fraser story; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) – a religious allegory demonstrating the superiority of the white man over the cannibals; and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).

There is also a forensic analysis of Elizabeth Durack’s appropriation of Aboriginal culture to create the Uncle Tom-ish Eddie Burrup as a marketing tool for her paintings – incidentally her best work, according to Behrendt.

Durack created a website that featured a constructed account of Eddie Burrup’s life… Eddie’s words appeared in Kriol but were interpreted by Durack, and the website was peppered with Eddie’s totem, the sand crab…

Eddie was a strong supporter of the mining and pastoral industries… Eddie accepted European occupancy as a given… And Eddie had praise for every white authority figure he’d encountered. Even his jailors were ‘all very decent fella’.

Under the headings ‘Cannibalism: Dark Acts on the Frontier’ and ‘Imagining Noble Savages’ Behrendt spreads her net wide, but she brings it all together in the end. Finding Eliza is a surprisingly easy read, a prosecutor’s summing up maybe, with much of the evidentiary heavy lifting left to others, in particular historians Kay Schaffer and Henry Reynolds.

 

Larisa Behrendt, Finding Eliza, UQP, Brisbane, 2016

Further reviews:
Michelle at Adventures in Biography here
Lisa at ANZ LitLovers here
Sue at Whispering Gums on Larissa Behrendt here

Back to Bool Bool, Miles Franklin

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Back to Bool Bool (1931) is the sixth and final novel Miles Franklin wrote as Brent of Bin Bin, though it was the third of the three initially published by Blackwoods (see here). Now I’ve read them all, it’s difficult to understand Blackwood’s decision, as Back to Bool Bool makes frequent references to the stories that precede it, particularly Cockatoos, but also to Gentlemen of Gyang Gyang. Prelude to Waking, as I’ve already discussed, although nominally a Brent of Bin Bin book, forms no part of the family saga.

The ‘back to’ of the title (we don’t have any noun for back to’s other than back to, do we?) references the celebrations surrounding the centenary of white settlement in the township of ‘Bool Bool’ – the name Franklin uses for Talbingo, her birthplace in the southern NSW ‘high country’ -based loosely, according to Roe, on the (nearby) Tumut centenary celebrations in 1924.

The ‘back to’ is used as a device to reunite characters/descendants from previous books in the series. It takes place in the year following Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang and 20-25 years after Cockatoos. Coolooluck station at Bool Bool is the home of Erik Labosseer, brother of Sylvester at Gyang Gyang Plains. Labosseer is the name Franklin uses for the Lampes, her mother’s family. (Sylvester’s principal property is on the NSW western plains, as was Franklin’s uncle Gus Lampe’s, and in researching this review I read in Roe that Franklin visited him there, at Peak Hill near Dubbo, in 1905).

I wrote in my review of Cockatoos that “Ignez [Milford] and some of her more serious friends gather out of the reach of bothersome aunts and parents to discuss books and to read excerpts from their own writings.” Ignez is of course Miles, loosely fictionalized. The two most important of her friends are her cousins Dick Mazere and Freda Healey. They are dobbed in to their parents for skipping work, and maybe even behaving immorally, by Dick’s self-righteous older sister Blanche. By the end of Cockatoos all three have escaped overseas to become writers.

Back to Bool Bool begins with two ships returning to Australia. On one, a luxury liner, are, separately, a Major-General who is descended from both the Poole and the Mazere families; Mollye, a famous opera singer; and Judith Laurillard, an actress.

Maj.-Gen. Sir Oswald Mazere-Poole, KCMG, MP, seeking adventure, his wife staying behind in London, was watching the last of his fellow passengers board:

A graceful figure swathed in veils, carrying bouquets … This must be the actress. “Not heavy enough in the brisket for a caterwauler,” was his summing-up, redolent of early environment.

[A woman] of splendid height, with pale-blue eyes and florid skin, who walked with swinging gait, taking all glances auspiciously without affectation … This was the Australian, if he knew anything. Her size and features protruding from beneath the fashionable skull-cap proclaimed one of the Brennans of Bool Bool … inevitably Molly, descendant of Timothy and Maria of The Gap, one of the old pioneering families.

On the other ship, a transport for migrants – “assisted passengers – people pushed off their densely populated native island because no longer necessary to feed either manufactories or battlefields” – are Dick, now a poet, and Freda, a go-getter who has been working in the USA. They become friends on board without realising they are cousins until they meet again in Sydney.

Both the Healeys and the Mazeres have retired from their farms at Oswald’s Ridges to cottages in Sydney, as had Franklin’s parents in real life. Dick’s mother has died and his father has remarried, his new wife content to leave the housekeeping to her unmarried step-daughters Blanche and Philippa, both in their 40s. Franklin is scathing about the house-proud Blanche’s devotion to make-work, taking out, you must feel, some of the frustrations she herself felt about having to live at that time with her mother.

There is also a younger sister, Laleen who, wishing herself to become a writer, looks to Dick as a bulwark against Blanche’s insistence on practicality. Here Freda, who has come over for dinner, gets Laleen to come outside to talk,

“It doesn’t take much persuading for Laleen to leave work to others.” Blanche’s voice followed, infuriating Laleen.

“I’d easily do the work if you’d get out of the way.”

“While I’m the one in the position of responsibility I must see that things go right.” Blanche’s housekeeping was never done under a bushel. Certain of her indispensability, she was everywhere, bustling, and fault-finding if possible.

This quote reminds me that Franklin appears to have added something to her writing, maybe she’d been reading Christina Stead. Anyway, she sets up “walls of speech”, not monologues as Stead does, but long unattributed scraps of conversation, often at cross purposes, which are very effective at conveying the impression of a crowded room.

Everyone I’ve mentioned so far (except the actress), and many more I haven’t, meet at the Mazere’s in the months before the back to. Mollye, who is mostly away in the country on a concert tour, takes an apartment in the city and makes it available to Dick as a quiet place for him to write, away from the annoying Blanche. Sometimes Freda or Laleen meet him there. Blanche follows them suspecting immorality.

There’s lots going on. Mollye is keen on Dick, Dick is keen on Freda, Freda is planning a fling with the Major-General, Laleen is keen on Mollye’s secretary Nat, Nat is keen on all the girls. Dick has taken up Christian Science, which I think Miles was introduced to by Vida Goldstein in Melbourne in 1904, and we are subject to some preaching. Miles, always happy to praise herself in the third person, is prominent in her/Ignez’s absence. Freda says to Dick:

Do you remember when Ignez Milford used to take us to She-Oak Ridge to write in the old cockatoo days of Oswald’s Ridges? I used to love you with all my childish affection.”

“I used to worship Ignez in the same way, I guess.”

“How long did you remember her? You were nearer maturity.”

“Faded in the stress of events. She was a brave, vivid creature.”

“Not coarse enough to battle from an environment so removed from art. My own case has been similar. Let’s hope Laleen escapes.”

Franklin still skirts around sex, but for the first time, with Bernice in the previous book and Freda in this one, we have principal characters with ‘a past’. Bernice gets married off, but in Back to Bool Bool, Freda and the Major General plan an affair which they discuss at some length.

Gradually, all the actors, including for some reason Judith Laurillard, make their way to the high country for the week of celebrations. Dick has an extended stay on Coolooluck about which he has dreamed throughout his exile, and is roped into writing something for the back to; Mollye of course is to sing; Nat whips up local musicians into an orchestra; Peter and Bernice from the previous novel make a cameo appearance.; Laleen is universally acclaimed as the latest Emily Mazere, the beauty who drowned on the eve of her wedding to Bert Poole (way back in Up the Country); Laleen and Nat announce their engagement.

The denouement, when it comes, is signalled early, is sidestepped, we breathe a sigh of relief, and then it crashes in, from another direction altogether, and we are devastated.

 

Miles Franklin, Back to Bool Bool, first pub. Blackwoods, 1931. This edition, Angus & Robertson, 1956

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin Central (here)

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

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Well known – to other people – US author Lionel Shriver only came up on my radar during the Shriver Kerfuffle last year, when she insisted on her right to tell stories from any point of view that she chose. It is not a ‘right’ that I contest, but nor is it one which I endorse. I believe firstly that privileged writers should leave space for less privileged peoples to tell their own stories; and secondly, that as a reader/reviewer I should point out (if I can’t avoid them) stories which are ‘inauthentic’.

With Big Brother (2013) this raises an interesting question. The narrator of this novel is a woman, not a Mexican, nor even a man wearing a sombrero, but a plump Iowan housewife and accidental businesswoman. Still, Shriver in this role doesn’t feel right. My (hastily formed!) impression of her is that she is an angular, east coast intellectual. We soon learn that Pandora, the narrator is from LA – where her father had been the star of a TV sit-com, Joint Custody, about separated parents fighting over their three children – and had moved back to her grandparents’ (and parents’) home state after College, so that is a partial explanation for her not coming across as believably  ‘mid-western’. But as well, throughout the novel I maintained the impression that Pandora was describing feelings rather than feeling them.

In these times you might think that the Big Brother of the title pertains to government oversight, but in fact it is meant literally. When Pandora meets her brother at the airport after they have been some years apart, she discovers he has morphed into a barely ambulant 386 lb mound of blubber. The brother, Edison, is a NY-based jazz pianist who has fallen on hard times and has come to New Holland, outside Cedar Rapids, IA, for an extended stay with Pandora, her husband Fletcher, and her teenage step-children Tanner, 17 and Cody, 13.

There’s plenty to keep you occupied over the 370pp of this novel – Pandora and Edison’s firm conviction that their father’s TV family was more real to him than his actual family, and the way they in turn seemed to match themselves to their fictional counterparts; the success of Pandora’s business manufacturing individualised dolls (for adults), which has ‘gone viral’; the relative failure of Fletcher’s business as an arty furniture maker;  Fletcher’s obsessive bike-riding, food faddishness; the children’s attempts to mark out their own space and so on. And Shriver is a fine writer, you can feel the care with which she places each individual word.

The one aspect of our father’s show that I still admired was its representation of the way siblings live in a separate world from their parents, who for kids function as mere walk-ons. Joint Custody captures the intense, hothouse collusion between siblings, while [the parents] are played for fools. Often ashamed of tugging the children’s loyalties in opposite directions, the parents fail to grasp their kid’s salvation: the children’s uppermost loyalty is to each other.

In the beginning there are the usual marital tensions which arise from one spouse having a sibling to stay (says he who would often be jealous of the times not-then-ex-Mrs Legend stayed up late talking to her sister during her infrequent visits to Melbourne), let alone a sibling who smokes, raids the fridge, is unable to contribute to the budget, leaves his stuff lying around, and breaks the furniture. For two months!

But then Shriver takes it to another level, Pandora tells Fletcher that she is taking an apartment nearby with her brother to supervise his return to his teenage weight of 163 lb. Fletcher tells Pandora that in that case she is not permitted in his house. Not much negotiation going on here, nor any thought of how the apparent abandonment/effective ban on contact may affect the children.  And Pandora still regards herself not only as married, which technically at least she is, but as able to resume normal relations with Fletcher after, as it turns out, a year of almost zero contact.

Here Pandora breaks the news to Tanner, as he waits for his sister after school:

“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” I dived in. “And maybe it’s good Cody’s not here yet. I’ll need you to look out for your sister for a while. You know, the way you used to. I’ll still be a resource of course – “

“So you’re leaving Dad,” he said – matter of fact, with a trace of satisfaction. “Guess he brought it on himself. Least he’ll be the healthiest misery guts in town.”

“I’m not leaving anyone.” Hastily I detailed my grand plan – adding judiciously that I wasn’t at all sure it would work.

He heard me out. “So you’re leaving Dad.”

Rolling my eyes in exasperation, I spotted Cody across the street. She looked stricken. I never showed up in the car like this. Obviously, someone had died.

I waved, and she lumbered up with a pack as big as she was to their Meeting Tree. “What’s cookin’?” she asked warily.

“[the doll business] isn’t enough for her,” said Tanner, “Pando’s starting a fat farm.”

The next half of the novel concerns Edison’s progress towards his target weight on a diet of four protein shakes a day; the effect on Pandora of following the same diet; lots of sibling bonding; and at least some concern for Cody who is in the invidious position of pretending to both her parents that she is on their side.

There is a short, third part, a fashionable, bullshit post-modern ending which makes the reading of all the preceding pages a complete waste of time, which I don’t suppose you can avoid, but which you would do well to skip over.

 

Lionel Shriver, Big Brother, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version read by Alice Rosengard, Blackstone Audio, 2013

Kate W’s review in booksaremyfavouriteandbest here (she likes it!)

Landscape With Landscape, Gerald Murnane

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I am, or was until now, a Gerald Murnane virgin. I had read none of his works nor knew anything about him except, from the colour supplements last year, that he had retired to the Wimmera, to a small town in wheat farm country west of St Arnaud, Vic and something, something, horse racing, something (I’ll look up a link when I’m done  … here).

Now, I know a little more. Murnane is a Melburnian, half a generation older than me and, on the basis of this book, a fine, literary writer,

Gerald Murnane was born in 1939 in Melbourne, Australia. He spent part of his childhood in country districts of Victoria, returned to Melbourne in 1949 and has lived there ever since [up to 1987 anyway, when this thumbnail appeared in Landscape With Landscape].

The thematically connected stories of this book are of a young Melbourne man, sexually immature and awkward, coming of age in the late 1950s, itself a sexually immature and awkward time in suburban Australia.  The young man in this book devises scenarios in his head, plays out meetings before they take place, builds a whole imagined life around a glance or a chance sighting. I feel for him intensely. His awkwardness, the rehearsed meetings, his holding back from ‘real-life’ interaction are mine too.

The stories ostensibly concern his approaching, or not approaching, women. In some of them he meets a woman and marries her, but this woman, his wife, is rarely the point of the story, she is there, perhaps as a marker of his manhood, but playing very little part in his life, in the important part of his life, his imagination. More importantly, the stories are a writer practising his craft, effectively telling the same coming of age story six times from six different perspectives; a cycle, each story referencing the next, and the last the first; and at the same time developing and discussing the theories of his craft.

This was a time when people married young, my own parents, who married in 1950 were 23 and 18. Murnane – or the young man who is his surrogate in these stories – finds himself, positions himself, as the heavy drinking loner bachelor in the lounge rooms of his married friends, until he too has an (unnamed) wife. But his principal life – we might say the life he is reduced to rationalising as his principal life by his failure to make meaningful contact with eligible women – is in the space between himself and the Other.

At some time in my imagined future I would have wanted to see my landscape as a private place marked off from all others: a place that distinguished me as surely as a pattern of freckles could distinguish a woman.

There was such a place, although I did not recognise it for some years afterwards. By then it seemed less a landscape than the ending of the only fiction I could write. It was the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me. [Landscape With Freckled Woman].

He imagines an Australian landscape that has him leaning on a bar in far north Qld, drinking beer (which he is forcing himself to like), a romantic, Kerouac-ian wanderer. He tells this dream to Carolyn, a kindergarten teacher with a Morris Minor, but after four dates with lots of kissing he still hasn’t put his hand on her breast. She tells him she has been sleeping with a married man and he throws her over. His friend, Durkin starts taking her out, sleeping with her, discussing him with her, her with him. Durkin and Carolyn marry, still he remains in Melbourne, getting married himself, visiting them, drinking. Carolyn exposes her breast to him to breastfeed her third child, surely a sign. Durkin and Carolyn move north. To Grafton in northern NSW. Twenty years have passed. Carolyn leaves Durkin, moves north again, to Brisbane. Carolyn’s single, waiting for him, for them both to enter the landscape of his dreams, the far north… [Sipping the Essence]

In another story, he is a descendant of the utopian New Australia settlement in Paraguay, looking for other Australians amongst the Paraguayans, but afraid of course to approach them directly and ask; an extended metaphor for his search for like-minded people in Melbourne suburbia.

I was never sure what value to attach to what Paraguayans called the emotions. (How much, for example, of what I felt for my wife and children was truly derived from my Australianness and how much was derived from my being exposed all my life to overly demonstrative Paraguayans?)

His son, who is far more important to him than his daughter, becomes seriously ill and must be entrusted to Paraguayan doctors. During the long night watches he demonstrates to  hospital staff his seriousness, his separateness. [The Battle of Acosta Nu].

In A Quieter Place than Clun Murnane attempts and largely fails to meet women – he describes his pick-up technique as: “Sometimes I did go [to parties], and sat drinking in a corner, hoping some perceptive young woman would notice about me the faint aureole from my fiery pattern of nerves.”

The Clun of the title is from a poem by AE Housman – “‘Tis a long way further than Knighton/A quieter place than Clun” – with which he becomes obsessed, imagining that his literary landscape must be coloured the brilliant green of southern England.

But in Charlie Alcock’s Cock, it is the spaces between things, the ‘gaps’ in reality, that form his landscape. At first he thinks he’ll find another way into reality from under the lemon tree in his aunt’s Hawthorn back yard where he and his younger cousin compare cocks, while he wishes he knew more about his older girl cousins. Over half a lifetime, the cousin becomes a priest and then a marriage counsellor, while he (Murnane) gets to 30, marries a nice, young Catholic girl, has children, decides to leave.

Now I knew that those dark spaces were part of myself. They were a huge projection of some intricate pattern behind my eyes, and it would be my life’s work to explore those dark spaces and to interpret the pattern that gave rise to them. The dazzled and half-blind people of Melbourne’s suburbs would lose sight of me.

Finally, and still sabotaging himself (his fictional self, how he was in ‘real’ life of course I cannot say) with drink, he attends a party in the hills north east of Melbourne, in the house of a successful artist (painter) who has become his friend, who pairs him off with a blonde to whom he is able to declaim the latest iterations of his theory of writing, but of course with whom he fails to go home.

She … asks me to tell her more about myself. I tell her I am a writer, but one whose best work is still unpublished. I say my writing is too complex to talk about. I write fiction in order to discover the pattern of myself and my life. At first sight, a piece of my fiction might seem to describe only a few figures in a landscape; but on closer inspection it reveals extraordinary depths – another dimension perhaps. If she read my fiction closely, I tell her, she would seem to be stepping inside a painting of a landscape with one or more figures and walking back as far as the furthest painted detail and then seeing still further off other landscapes rising to view [Landscape With Artist].

Elsewhere he writes he would “devise a new form of prose fiction – neither short story nor novel -with a shape to match the pattern of my life” and that, I guess, explains why he has chosen this form for this book. And yes, I’m embarrassed; Landscape With Landscape is brilliant and I should have read it years ago.

 

Gerald Murnane, Landscape With Landscape, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987. Cover painting Contemplating the Faithful by Neil Malone

See also these posts on Murnane:
Lisa, ANZLL, the first two are stories from Landscape With Landscape (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)

Housekeeping

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The author when young

Laws governing truck driving in Western Australia allow us to work 17 hours per day – 15 hours driving, 2 hours breaks – up to 12 days a fortnight, and when we’re busy that’s what we work. I’m not complaining, I’m 66 now and seven hours mandated sleep per night suits me fine. The problem is, last year we weren’t busy and I got in the habit of writing and posting a couple of thousand words every week.

Since I got back from holidays I have been busy and today, for the first time in a while, I found myself with nothing ready to publish. I think that is going to happen more often. At the moment I have the last Brent of Bin Bin novel, Back to Bool Bool read, with lots of notes and ready in my mind to write up. I’ll probably get it done today for posting next Tuesday, and the way things go, I could easily get tomorrow off as well and another post knocked up, and be temporarily back on track for two posts a week. As x-Mrs Legend texted recently “It’s always a flood or a droubt with you” (she uses the same spell “checker” as Sue Whispering Gums).

I’m not just getting behind with my writing, I’m getting behind with my reading. In Seasons Greeting 2016 I listed half a dozen new books I had on my shelves waiting to be reviewed. They’re still there. I mostly carry old books around with me and my next review will be Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape, I’m about half way through and so far I’m loving it.

While I’m working, my best reading time is if I’m stuck in a queue waiting to load, and while I’m unloading (I’m a tanker driver and the unloading largely does itself) but  my first priority – since I ditched newspapers – is emails and news, generally Crikey, then books, though the last two ABRs are also sitting in the truck unread.

Luckily I get to spend a lot of that 15 hours a day driving time listening to audio books. And I’ve joined a new library, Vic Park. So this week I’ve listened to Mr Darcy’s Daughters (a romp, though I don’t believe Elizabeth would have let her daughters get that wild), Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Jo Nesbo’s The Son (a Norwegian thriller), and I’m currently a few chapters into Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, which I plan to review.

Over the rest of the year I’ll get to those six books at the head of the ‘new book’ TBR and to which I have added The Museum of Modern Love and Bloodlines; I’ll press on with Miles Franklin – there’s Old Blastus, All That Swagger and Joseph Furphy to go (and I’ve never directly reviewed My Brilliant Career); there’s new and secondhand books which will leap out and bite me – I bought half a dozen oldish Australians from Save the Children this morning; and there’s libraries full of audio books.

So, I’m sorry to let you down today, I’m sorry to let me down, I enjoy what I’m doing here but unfortunately not driving is not an option. Not yet anyhow.

 

Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, Miles Franklin

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Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (1956) is the fifth Brent of Bin Bin novel chronologically, though it was the sixth and last published. The ‘Gyang Gyang’ of the title refers to the station (grazing property) Gyang Gyang Plains where the action is set – the ‘Gentlemen’ are the workers on the station – which is in turn named for the ubiquitous gang-gang cockatoos.

I read this and the final Brent of Bin Bin novel, Back to Bool Bool, on my kindle while I was away – they’re not formatted (or proof-read) very well and I ended up reading in landscape to make the lines wrap properly. I will review this one direct from kindle but have located via Abe Books good copies of both – I’m a book collector at heart, just masquerading as a reviewer – and should have them in my hands before I review Back to Bool Bool and wrap up the series.

Apart from Prelude to Waking, which I can see now forms no part of the high country families saga either stylistically or by subject matter, the Brent novels were written in the order I have discussed them, in the latter years of the 1920s. Jill Roe writes that GGG, full name Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang: A Tale of the Jumbuck Pads on the Summer Runs, is the novel of Franklin’s return to Australia, “and should be read as such”. In February 1928 Franklin, who had returned from England the previous year to care for her parents in Sydney, “caught the night train for Cooma and beyond”, to spend time with her Lampe (Labosseer in this series) uncles, firstly at ‘Gooandra’ in the Monaro high plains north of Kosciuszko, then for two months on the western slopes of the Great Divide, at Talbingo where she was born. Here she wrote both GGG and the first draft of Back to Bool Bool.

That she was there shows in both her detailed descriptions of the country, the setting for GGG is based on Gooandra, and in the knowledge she displays of the then dominant wool industry.

Gyang Gyang Plains station is maintained by Sylvester Labosseer to provide summer feed for sheep from his ‘home’ property in central NSW. The living conditions are relatively primitive, but summers in the highlands are mild, and since the death of his wife, Labosseer has preferred to spend much of his time there. Peter Poole, his foreman, is a grandson of the legendary Bert Poole (Ten Creeks Run) and apart from a tendency for unexplained ‘walkabouts’ is a true chip off the old block. The villain of the piece is Cedric Spires, a womaniser (of course) who appears to have a hold over Poole and is his rival for the affections of …

Bernice Gaylord, an artist (and a beauty), who had been the lover of another artist in Paris until he left her and broke her heart –

had reached a dead end which she mistook for the end of all things. The doctors spoke of a strained heart and hinted at TB, a diagnosis welcome to Bernice. it camouflaged her secret and explained the suspension of her career to her family and the Australian public interested in her unusual promise, which had suddenly dried up.

This is as close as we get to a Franklin figure in this novel. Roe writes that MF too had returned to Australia with supposed health problems that were really a cover for stress.

Gaylord, who is Labosseer’s god-daughter, has been invited to spend the summer at Gyang Gyang Plains while she recovers her health. Camping out on the side verandah, walking and riding around the property, she not only recovers her health, and develops a healthy interest in Peter Poole, but also recovers her motivation to begin painting again.

This is an excuse for Franklin to get on a hobby horse she has hitherto concealed – naturalism in art:

There were those who maintained … the Australian atmosphere could not be painted, it was too brilliant; the life could not be convincingly told in fiction, it was too monotonous and lacking in that kind of action which the elementary reader calls plot. The need was for painters and novelists, as well as the ungifted, to break out of  the established rut … a fresh contribution must be made to technique.

In short, over summer Gaylord produces a portfolio of portraits and landscapes that ‘revolutionise’ Australian painting.

We could point Franklin towards the late C19th Heidelberg school of Australian Impressionism (who would be brave enough to direct her gaze to more current movements like cubism or surrealism!) and towards those writers roughly contemporaneous with Streeton et al whose work redefined realism in Australian writing – Lawson, Baynton, Rudd, Furphy and, yes, Franklin. But now, a year or so short of 50, she really was a very old fashioned woman.

Franklin proceeds by “possuming”, that is discursively or by story telling, with plenty of description, at which she excels. Here, Gaylord gets inspiration:

She walked out in the dew-drenched tussocks under the gums standing like snow queens in perfumed bridal dress. Never was such colossal yet honeyed loveliness for miles, and miles, and miles, She was out of herself with joyous excitement.

The men on the isolated station are all fascinated at having a beautiful woman in their midst; the publican’s daughters do their best to put forward their own attractions; various rural catastrophes threaten and are averted; as in all the best romances, true love is achieved at the last possible moment.

In 1928 Franklin submitted GGG to the Bulletin‘s novel competition for that year* under the further pseudonym ‘by Australian Born’ and that was the last that was seen of it for nearly 30 years.

Gang-gang-Cockatoo
Gang-gang cockatoo, photo JJ Harrison

Miles Franklin, Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1956

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin Central (here)


*The joint winners of the 1928 Bulletin prize were A House is Built by M. Barnard Eldershaw and Coonardoo by KS Prichard.

My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson

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My Henry Lawson, published in 1943 and never republished as far as I can see, is a memoir of the great short story writer by his wife. I read other works about Lawson during my studies, particularly City Bushman by Christopher Lee and Louisa by Brian Matthews, which I plan to re-read and review in the next few months, but this one makes a nice entry point. Briefly, Lee argues that the mythologising of Australian bush workers was a product of city-based writers, in particular Henry Lawson; while Louisa is an account of the life of one of our great Independent Women, who also happened to be Henry’s mother. Bertha writes of her mother in law:

If there is anything in heredity, Harry’s literary talents undoubtedly came from his mother, who fifty years ago, owned and published the first women’s newspaper in Australia. It was called “the Dawn – a Journal for Australian Women.”

Lawson, then quite young and not yet a published poet, was working elsewhere at the time and “had nothing to do with it, not even as a contributor”. Later in the same chapter Bertha writes:

Louisa was a remarkable character, a very determined woman and she and her poet son could never see eye to eye. Apart they remained friendly; together they were at daggers-drawn. They had many and fierce arguments and eventually Harry left home.

Henry Lawson was born at Grenfell [NSW], in a tent, on June 17, 1867. A “birth in a mining camp … was such a novelty, that every digger visited the home to ask to see the baby and to leave generous presents.” Bertha describes Lawson’s antecedents and upbringing, and it is important in light of Lee’s argument to emphasise just how much time Lawson spent in the bush, both growing up and as a young man.

Lawson spent some time in bush schools, though was often truant or helping his parents with work, and then his deafness, caused by illness, also intervened. Louisa had some poetry published in a local paper and Lawson, aged around 10 or 11, attempted some as well but his father objected to his “vaporisings” and they were thrown in the fire. At 14 he was working full time for his father who was a building contractor in country towns west of the Blue Mountains. His education was only resumed after Louisa left her husband and moved to Granville where Henry, then 16, was able to attend night school 3 nights a week. Within a year he had a poem about a shipwreck then in the papers (The Wreck of the Derry Castle) accepted by Archibald for publication in the Bulletin.

Lawson made a number of attempts to matriculate so he could go on to university, but failed, about which he was always bitter: “I was taught too little? I learnt too much/To use a pedant’s diction” (Lawson, The Uncultured Rhymer to His Cultured Critics). He drifted in and out of employment until at 19 he returned to working for his father, at Mt Victoria. There “he learnt to drink and found that under the influence of liquor he forgot his shyness”. When his father died at the end of 1888, Lawson completed his contracts and returned to Sydney, drifting again, but keeping on writing, and for a while working as a columnist in Brisbane.

Bertha doesn’t say so, but Lawson was becoming well known (see my earlier post Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson). In 1892 he borrowed some money from Archibald and took off for Bourke and subsequently Hungerford in far north-west NSW looking for work. His mate Jim Grahame wrote in the Bulletin in 1925 that he and Lawson tramped around the country west of Bourke working as rouseabouts (picking up fleeces, not shearing as was sometimes reported) for six months, before Lawson returned to Sydney by train as a drover with sheep going to the abattoirs at Homebush.

In 1895 Bertha was an 18 yo nurse from Bairnsdale, Vic, in Sydney visiting her mother. A friend introduced her to Lawson who became very persistent in pursuing her and they were soon planning to get married. By this time he had two books of short stories and poetry to his credit and a third, In the Days When the World was Wide, was with the printers. The future was looking rosy. After a couple of hiccups, Bertha’s mother gave her consent and the two were married on April 15, 1896.

In her description of a rowing excursion on Middle Harbour we are given a privileged view into their lives and Lawson’s writing:

Harry took pencil and paper, and while I sat and sewed, or rowed slowly, he wrote verses, chanting them softly to himself, to get the beat and rhythm. This was different from when Harry wrote verse at home, for then he would dictate it to me in that sing-song way of his, and after I had written it down, while he paced to and fro, he would correct it and read it to me.

With money in his pocket, an advance on his book, Lawson was restless and so they sailed for WA where Lawson hoped to become a gold miner, though as it happened they never made it past a camp on the hill near the cemetery in East Perth. When their money was about to run out Bertha engineered a return to Sydney. We get a glimpse of how famous Lawson was becoming:

… in Melbourne, the pressmen came down to interview us; and although we were travelling in the steerage, the captain allowed us to use the saloon, for Harry to entertain the press. It was the grand finale to our tour, and we landed in Sydney with two shillings in the exchequer …

In Sydney Lawson’s drinking mates were a problem, and with an introduction to the Premier, they moved on again, to New Zealand. A job was found for Lawson, as the teacher at an isolated Maori school where Bertha conspired with the locals to make it difficult for Lawson to get to the ‘bright lights’ of Kaikoura 12 miles away on the coast. Here she says, Lawson did some of his best work, all of Joe Wilson and His Mates, a play, and some poetry, including Written Afterwards in which he jokes about the restrictions imposed on him by marriage.

At the beginning of 1898 they returned to Wellington where their son, Jim was born and on to Sydney, where Lawson freelanced for a while till he found work as a clerk with the Government Statistician and gave up the grog. Despite his boss telling him he only had to show up during working hours and he could write what he liked, this lasted just one week!

Another book came out, there was another advance to spend, and another baby, Bertha (b. Feb 1900). Lawson was getting good reviews in Britain, the State Governor offered to pay his passage, and soon the family were on the move again (taking with them of course the ms for My Brilliant Career).

He had become one of the literary lions of London. A dinner had been given to welcome him, at which the leading literary men were guests. The world was at Harry’s feet…

Lawson however made little attempt to take advantage of the opportunities opening up for him. And after two years on the wagon, on arrival in London he started drinking again. Friends had found housing for them, but “with all this appreciation we still had not enough money to buy food”. Mary Gilmour, her husband and child came to stay (after the failure of New Australia). “We were all in deep financial difficulties”. Then Harry got an advance from Blackwoods (publishers) and Bertha “lost no time buying passages for myself and the children for Australia”. Lawson followed soon after.

They met up again in Colombo but by the time they were back in Australia the marriage was very nearly at an end. Bertha stayed in Melbourne for six weeks, while Henry went on to Sydney; they lived together for a while in Manly, but first Henry, then Bertha, was hospitalised for long periods; their furniture was seized for arrears of rent; a third baby died at birth.

Bertha found employment as a travelling saleswoman for Stuart & Co., booksellers while Lawson took lodgings, “it was useless taking up house again as he was quite penniless and the children had to be provided for.”

He had his happy times and I think those periods were usually associated with absolute freedom from responsibility and full expression of his genius. He hated to be tied down.

In this period, immediately before the Great War, Lawson had published a prose volume “The Rising of the Court” and a book of verses “Skyline Riders”. For a while during the War, the government gave him make-work, writing advertising for the Leeton irrigation area.

Bertha goes on to analyse Lawson’s writing, his connections to the working class, where she and he fit into his stories, particularly the Joe Wilson stories, and his links to the Australian ‘Bohemians’. Lawson died in 1922, of cerebral haemorrhage. He was given a State Funeral and according to Bertha, was buried in the grave that had been prepared for Henry Kendall.

This excellent little book ends with a previously unpublished Lawson short story, A Wet Camp.

 

Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (the drawing reproduced on the cover is signed McCormack)