Such is Life (07), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)

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.

Chapter IV, and Tom’s diary has moved us on to “SUN. Dec. 9. [1883] Dead Man’s Bend. Warrigal Alf down. Rescue twice. Enlisted Terrible Tommy.”

Dead Man’s Bend on the Lachlan River, marks the junction of three properties, Mondunbarra and Avondale on one side, and on the other Yoongoolee. Last Chapter we were down on the Murray and now we are back in the general region of Chapter III (Wilandra) though probably a little to the south.

How easy it is to recall the scene! The Lachlan river, filled by summer rains far away among the mountans, to a width of something like thirty yards, flowing silently past, and going to waste. Irregular areas of lignum, hundreds of acres in extent, and eight or ten feet in height, representing swamps; and long, serpentine reaches of the same, but higher in growth, indicating billabongs of the river. The river itself fringed, and the adjacent low ground dotted, with swamp box, river coolibah, and red gum ..

To complete the picture … you will imagine Cleopatra and Bunyip standing under a coolibah – standing heads and points, after the manner of equine mates; each switching the flies and mosquitos off his comrade’s face, and shivering them off such parts of his own body as possessed the requisite faculty. And in the centre of a clear place, a couple of hundred yards away, you may notice a bullock wagon, apparently deserted; the heavy wool-tarpaulin, dark with dust and grease, thrown across the arched jigger, forming a tent …

In the foreground of this picture, you may fancy the present annalist lying – or as lying is an ill phrase, and peculiarly inapplicable just here – we’ll say reclining, pipe in mouth, on a patch of pennyroyal, trying to re-peruse one of Ouida’s novels, and thinking … what a sweet, spicy, piquant thing it must be to be lured to destruction by a tawny-haired tigress with slumbrous dark eyes.

Tom is loafing, his next appointment a day or two ahead, reading a romance as we have just seen, and thinking of Jim (Jemima) when he is accosted from the far side of the river, a repeated call of “Ha-a-a-a-ay” which he ignores over the space of two or three pages, until finally he pays attention and a mate – the Riverina is full of Tom’s mates – tells him that the seemingly abandoned wagon is Warrigal Alf’s and that Warrigal Alf’s carrion [bullocks and horse] are on the road to Yoongoolee yards and no doubt from thence to Booligal pound.

Tom goes up to the wagon to discover Alf ill and in his own mind anyway, dying. He had tried to keep his bullocks in this remote corner but, as it turns out later, a stockman from one station had herded them onto the neighbouring station and the stockman there had herded them across the river.

Tom gives Alf some water then goes off after the bullocks. Divesting his outer clothes (again!) to cross the river, his “undergarment which I cannot bring myself to name” is ripped by a low branch and he discards that too. He catches the Yoongoolee stockman, a northern Englander whose conversation, in dialect, is incomprehensible (to me anyway), persaudes him to return Alf’s cattle and also the stockman’s wife to let him have some ‘Pain-Killer” patent medcine for Alf. For modesty and to temporarily cover his sunburn he has borrowed the stockman’s coat but for some reason I don’t follow he returns it to the stockman’s wife and rides off near-naked again.

Back on his own side of the river he persuades a Chinese stockman – the ‘Terrible Tommy’ of the heading – to let the bullocks stay a while (more dialect) and then encounters on the road a station-owner, a Scot (yes, even more dialect), who eventually volunteers to employ Alf and safeguard his bullocks.

This was a difficult chapter, both to read, and because nothing much happens. Though Warrigal Alf tells Tom four versions of one story about a wife’s adultery which I think will later prove significant. Also the annotaters point out that the text over those three pages where his mate is calling “Ha-a-a-a-ay” and Tom is lost in reverie represents one of the earliest instances of stream of consciousness – an important (though not necessary) characteristic of modernist writing, which I said earlier we should look out for.

AG Mitchell writes that we should accept such chapters: From one day to the next there can, on the face of it, be no connection except the reappearance, in fact or by report, of familiar persons and places. But as we read we discover connections … We find a thread of narrative, dropped earlier, being taken up again, puzzling events and characters explained after a long interval … Ragged ends are taken up and woven into the fabric of the book. And such is life.


Ouida. Pen-name of Marie Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908).

Tawny-haired tigress. Probably refers to the villainess, Marion Vavasour in Ouida’s novel Strathmore who “takes delight in destroying the men who are helplessly attracted by her beauty.” We must see if Tom feels ‘lured to destruction’ by Jim.

Warrigal Alf ill. Alf’s symptoms are congruent with Ross River fever, prevalent in NSW in the C19th [and more recently]

Dialect. The English stockman replies to an implied threat with “Foak bea n’t gwean ter walk on hutheh foak” which apparently means he is not a walkover.

Stream of consciousness. “Rather earlier than historians of literature usually look for it (though Randolph Quirk has found it fully developed in Dickens; see The Linguist and the English Language).”

AG Mitchell. Such is Life: The Title and the Structure of the Book. In Clement Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism, OUP, Melbourne, 1967

Buckley. The quintessentially English squatter protagonist of Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859) [which I really must write up one day]. I skipped over him in my summary above but he gets a couple of scornful mentions during this chapter and later on. Kingsley only spent two or three years in Australia and Furphy is intensely critical of his representations of outback life and of the regard in which his book was held in city circles.

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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).

This month’s cover is from the Dodo Press (here) “a Moscow-based micro-publisher, established in 2009. We all work almost entirely as volunteers, most of our publications are financed by crowdfunding. We tend to publish non-mainstream weirdly brilliant books, mainly in translation from English. The Dodo Press team consists of three people, with about 300 books translated, about 500 edited, and about 50 years in publishing, between us.”

The cover image is from the painting The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair by French realist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).

Such is Life (06), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)

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.

06, we should be half way. Of course we’re not, but I’ll get a move on. Though not straight away, let’s go back to the beginning. This month’s cover, and I hope I manage to come up with 12, is of the latest edition, from Text who are doing us all a favour and simultaneously, I hope making money, publishing old, out of copyright, Australian classics. The photo of course is of Furphy and the text around his head is the book’s opening line. His meaning is that he will now have time to write.

… my enforced furlough tacitly conveys the responsibility of extending a ray of information, however narrow and feeble, across the path of such fellow-pilgrims as have led lives more sedentary than my own – particularly as I have enough money to frank myself in a frugal way for some weeks, as well as to purchase the few requisites of authorship.

“[A] ray of information, however narrow and feeble, across the path of such fellow-pilgrims as have led lives more sedentary than my own” sounds a bit like me and Journals, but neither I nor Furphy had enough money to frank ourselves, and are/were obliged to keep on working, the task taking not “weeks” but years.

The authority I have chosen to consult this month is HM Green’s A History of Australian Literature. Green’s History, if you don’t know it, is 1500 pages of almost continuous text, broken into a few sections and only occasionally into paragraphs. One man giving his opinions on every book and writer from 1788 to the 1950s. Luckily Vol II contains an Index, so not completely unmanageable. A good deal of the 20pp he devotes to Such is Life is based on Miles Franklin’s biog., Josephy Furphy, and on critics like the American Hartley Grattan “who knows more about Australian literature than most Australians”, who considered Furphy a great writer and Such is Life “a superb book”.

Green’s opinion is that “Furphy is the most original writer that Australia has yet produced, and one of the most vital and unrestrained”, though he ranks him second in talent behind Henry Handel Richardson. Such is Life, says Green, “may be described as a novel only in a very extended sense of the term”; Furphy, writing to a friend, referred to it as “one long, involved lie.”

Such is Life may be compared to a great smooth boulder composed of a number of strata: the principal strata consist of masses of outback experience and fireside yarns; but interspersed with these are other strata which consist of moral, philosophic, and scientific observations … on subjects as different as Religion and Irish History, Freewill and Destiny, Buckjumping, English fairplay, Music and Mathematics, The Larger Morality and Man ‘o War Hawks. Through these diverse strata, fastening them together, run not only the personality of the narrator, but a number of stories and sketches, broken but quite traceable, like veins or filaments of metal injected into the stone.

Green, p661

Last month we left Tom naked and on the wrong side of the Murray River. He becomes increasing forceful in accosting men and attempting to steal a pair of ______ to cover his modesty. Interestingly the theme of the night becomes his extreme courtesy towards women. When one young man reacts to being forcefully undressed by screaming, “the thought flashed through my mind he was one of those De Lacy Evanses we often read of in novels; and in two seconds I was fifty yards away …” because of course only women react to outrage by screaming.

After falling over his dog into more thistles and standing on a snake, he accosts a woman in her home, presumably alone, and she of course replies that if he doesn’t go away she will wake her husband, which is what he wants, as he couldn’t ask a woman for _____.

Luckily he finds an abandoned camp fire, which he covers with green branches to keep off the mosquitoes, and sleeps away the rest of the night. In the early morning he sees that he is opposite a farmhouse with (male) clothes on the line and an approaching horseman. The farce continues – he approaches the horseman, Jim; Jim turns out to be Jemima, riding astride “like a clothes peg”; throwing himself behind an inadequate log he lets her pass; she calls her father who rushes out with a shotgun; Tom sets fire to an old haystack to create a diversion and steals the clothes off the line.

Tom is free but the farmer has his dog. He returns to his camp, dresses in his own spare clothes, and returns to the farm where he has a friendly meeting with Jemima – who tells him that the neighbour’s white pig had broken through the fence but her father had failed to shoot it in the excitement of the haystack catching fire; a less friendly meeting with the farmer; and recovers Pup.


Text Classics (here). I know, I can’t really say what proportion of Text Classics’ list is not covered by copyright, which persists until 70 years after the death of the author, if named, otherwise until 70 years after initial publication. The Text Such is Life, with an introduction by David Malouf (which I have not read) was published in 2013 and is available as an ebook.

a pair of ______. Mock delicacy, and as HM Green points out, a bit of fun at the expense of Victorian sensibilities. In case you’re still wondering – trousers.

De Lacy Evans. A (not fictional) woman in Victoria living as a man. Or possibly a man living as a woman. See Edward De Lacy Evans (1835?-1901) (wiki).

Frankenstein. Tom mentions Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a few times: in the context of looking into windows (to learn how to behave as a man); stealing his maker’s clothes, and the difficulty of an 8 ft monster finding breeches to fit; and cleverly looping back to the first man to befriend him – De Lacey.

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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).

Such is Life (05), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)

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.

Have I persuaded you yet that Such is Life is a major work of Modernist fiction, and probably the only reason Joseph Furphy is not up there with Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence is, you know, cultural cringe.

Such Is Life … “was instantly seen as a major example of the “radical nationalism” of the time and praised for its realistic representation of life on the frontier in the 1880s. But it was forty years before many readers realized that the novel was also a subtle comment on fiction itself and that within it were hidden stories that revealed a world of “romance” within its “realist” representation of life. Such Is Life can be read as the first experimental novel in Australian literature and the first Australian literary expression of a twentieth-century sensibility of the provisionality of life and reality.”

Julian Croft, ‘Joseph Furphy.’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 230

On with the show, to Chapter III, another month on, in which Tom goes for a swim and causes a minor sensation.

The pages of the —— Express, the journal of record of a town on the Murray River, between Echuca and Albury, report two apparently unrelated stories from the night of 9th of November, 1883. In one a naked man, a “Lunatic at Large”, was sighted in various locations along the river. An ‘Inspector Collins of the NSW Public Service’ told the paper that he believed the man was an escapee from Beechworth Asylum who must subsequently have drowned. And in the other, Mr Q____ , a farmer lost a valuable stack of hay by fire.

Tom, as is his wont, takes his time relating his part in these stories, but on the afternoon of the 9th he was camped near a mate’s place on a bend in the river, on the NSW side. It is germane to this story that the Murray takes such a convoluted course that there are places along the river where Victoria is north of NSW, and this was near one such place. After several pages of smoking his pipe and philosophizing, and several more having a cup of tea with a swagman, he is accosted from the other side of the river by a farmer, B____ he knows and is persuaded to cross to the Victorian side using an improvised ferry – a bark canoe and a wire across the river between two trees.

Once again, he chooses between seemingly inconsequential alternatives and fate has him in its grip.

Halfway across the river a huge log is bearing down on him; he stands in the canoe and lifts the wire above it; Pup, his kangaroo dog chooses that moment to join him in the canoe, overturning it, and leaving both of them stranded on the log; no worries, he’ll strip off his clothes, tie the bundle to his head and swim for it; once more Pup intervenes, leaping from the log to his head and the clothes are lost; Tom swims to the northern shore thinking to walk back to his campsite; and finds himself on the Victorian side, after nightfall, stark naked.

His adventures as he accosts each passing traveller in the dark, most of them spooning couples from a Sunday School reunion picnic, is constantly attacked by mosquitos and walks through nettles and into unseen fences, are of course farcical.

Such is Life has seven chapters so for a couple of months I’ll have to cover a whole chapter, but not this month. I’ll leave you hanging with Tom naked by the roadside, or as he puts it, “into which, according to immemorial usage, I had been born without a rag of clothes”.


B____ – named later as Binney. The owner of the burned haystack, Q____ is likewise later named (though instead of giving the name the annotations point to 131:49 (page:line) where I find Jim Quarterman who no doubt turns up again later).

Victoria to the north. This puts the location of Tom’s adventure in the vicinity of Barmah (map). As does his mention of the locality ‘Moira’. I probably shouldn’t point out that heading downstream NSW is always on your right, why spoil a good story. Let’s say Tom was momentarily confused and swam with the setting sun on his left.

Quotations. Every third or fourth line seemingly, Furphy uses a phrase alluding to some other literary work. For example Tom looks in a cottage window seeking a man to help him out but sees only a woman and her children. “Like Enoch Arden (in my own little tin-pot way) I turned silently and sadly from the window, for I wasn’t wanted in that company.” In Tennyson’s ‘Enoch Arden’, Arden, believed lost at sea, returns to see through the window his wife re-married.
As Tom turns away he treads on a cactus (of course) and falls to the ground “comforting myself with the thought that a brave man battling with the storms of fate is a sight worthy of the admiration of gods”. From “Pope’s Prologue to Addison’s Cato“.

according to immemorial usage. cf. Job 1:21 – “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.”

.

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).

The book cover at the top is the 2nd Ed., published by Furphy’s literary executor Kate Baker in 1917 using pages printed for the Bulletin’s 1st Ed., but not used, and with the addition of an Introduction by Vance Palmer. See the UNSW Digital Collections Library (here).

Such is Life (04), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)

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 resume near the end of Chapter II with Tom visiting an old friend, Rory O’Halloran and his wife and five year old daughter, Mary, who live in a shepherd’s hut in a remote corner of Willandra Station. Tom spends the evening talking to Rory and Mary – Mrs O’Halloran is taciturn, no doubt unused to company. The next morning he accompanies Rory on his rounds, but the sight of a particular tree recalls to Tom’s mind the traveller he saw resting, and who hadn’t after all come up to the house for tucker.

Suddenly a strange misgiving seized me, and I asked involuntarily, “Do you have many swagmen calling round here?”
“Nat six in the coorse o’ the year, ” replied Rory … [who then relates that someone from the station had told him a couple of weeks ago that there was a man blind with sandy blight, making for Ivanhoe “fur till ketch the coach”]
“A found a swag on the fence a week or ten days ago, an’ a man’s tracks at the tank a couple of days afther; an the swag’s there yit ..”

Of course they find the traveller, under the tree, dead that morning, in sight of safety if he could have seen. “Such is life, and such is death.”

AG Mitchell in Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism (1967) writes –

there is an appalling incongruity between the trivial, light-hearted reason for Collins’ checking his natural impulse to speak to the man, and the consequences of his action …

Such is Life abounds in incidents of this kind, on larger and smaller scales; happenings which not only mock the most careful judgement and patient forethought but which twist themselves into stranger shapes than invention could contrive.

Mitchell argues that the underlying thesis of the novel is, What is the nature of Providence? and that this is a question which Furphy is never able to resolve to his own satisfaction. There are, Mitchell says, four “qualities attributed in literature to the spirit or force sustaining and governing the universe in its relationship to man:
Benevolence, Malevolence, Indifference and ‘Sport'”
And the author “represents all four ideas, either explicitly through one of his characters or implicitly through a series of events seen against a background of individual character, motive, responsibility, intention.”

I make Tom’s account of a few hours in the evening and the following morning sound very straightforward, but in between he’s discussing with us the beauty of Mary’s Celtic features –

Mary O’Halloran was perfect Young-Australian … she was a very creature of the phenomena which had environed her own dawning intelligence. She was a child of the wilderness, a dryad among her kindred trees. The long-descended poetry of her nature made the bush vocal with pure gladness of life …

the history of the Celts in Ireland, England and Europe; Rory’s writing – a twenty page treatise titled A Plea for Woman

.. no mere abstract can do justice to the sumptuous phraseology of the work, to its opulence of carefully selected adjective, or to the involved rhetoric which seemed to defeat and set at naught all your petty rules of syntax and prosody.

then there’s Eyre’s expedition along the shores of the Great Australian Bight; American Presidents; the Massacre of Cawnpore; the real location of the garden of Eden. Rory has questions for Tom which he answers off the top of his head: the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (6 miles); Renaissance painters who painted Calgary with a skull at the foot of the Cross (Schoen, Limousin, Durër).

Kerryn Goldsworthy writes in The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000) “Such is Life [is a] sprawling, opaque and very funny novel … at once a late experiment in realism and a very early anticipation of postmodern techniques of fragmentation, allusion, pastiche and authorial self-consciousness.”


The next morning – Tom, at the beginning of this chapter, determines to relate the events not of one week, but of one day of each month. But now: “I have already exceeded the limited exactions of my diary record”.

Swagmen – men walking the backblocks looking for, or avoiding, work. Barbara Baynton, often left on her own (as it happens, nearby-ish and at this time) was understandably terrified of them – see her short story, The Chosen Vessel. A swag is a bedroll, maybe containing as well a change of clothes.

Ivanhoe, NSW – is north west of Willandra, so O’Halloran’s hut would have been on the blind swagman’s way. There must have been a coach service from Wilcannia, north of Ivanhoe, to Hay (map) which is due south and probably on to Deniliquin and Echuca. And no, Ivanhoe’s one place I’ve never been and have always wanted to (if only for the romance of the name).

Sport – As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport (King Lear).

.

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).

The book cover at the top is from US publisher Standard Ebooks. Their ebooks are free (here). They say they have made very few changes (eg. Mahomet to Muhammad) but they don’t say if they were working from the “standard” version – Angus & Robertson, 1944 – but from what few checks I made, they appear to be.

Cover image not credited, but appears to be from:
Frederick McCubbin, Down on his Luck, 1889
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia

Such is Life (03), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)

We’re at Chapter II which begins with Tom giving up on his idea of describing minutely every day of one week and instead determining “to pick out of each consecutive month the 9th day for amplification and comment, keeping not too long in one tune, but a snip and away”. This “transports” us to 9th October 1883 and a hundred miles northward, to Willandra Billabong, real black-soil desert country on the middle reaches of the Lachlan River which in dry times peters out and in flood spreads across country as far west as the Darling.

On the verandah of the Willandra Station men’s quarters an argument breaks out as to whether cattle can smell water. This leads of course to a story, in this case of Tom as a bullocky delivering fencing wire to Willandra two years earlier (his bullocks dying of thirst stood next to water without realizing it was there), and on to a second story of meeting an Irish shepherd at that time whom he had previously known when he (Tom) was a settler in northern Victoria, and thence to a considerable digression on the British fomenting trouble between Irish Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers.

Tom determines to call in on the shepherd again on his way northwards and soon he and his horses are fed and he’s ready to depart –

A few minutes afterward, Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down by means of the exercise with which he habitually opened the day’s work. But this was to be expected in the same spirit as the abusive language of a faithful pastor, It was all in the contract. ..I dare say I might have gradually weaned him from his besetting sin, but I didn’t want to be pestered with people borrowing him.

Travelling through “the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub” which he clearly loves, “painted by nature in its Impressionist mood”, he muses on its virgin state “sheltering little of animal life beyond half-specialised and belated types, anachronistic even to the Aboriginal savage” before running into the Irish shepherd, Rory O’Halloran, some miles from his hut. They travel together until a Rory sees some task to be done and sends Tom on ahead.

A half mile or so from the hut Tom espies a traveller resting under a tree. Etiquette stops him from hailing the traveller who would probably prefer to arrive at the hut after dusk when there was no danger of his having to chop the wood in exchange for a feed. But the author wants us to mark that this was a decisive turning point, and then discourses for some pages, citing Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet to make his point, that an option once taken cannot be reversed and will always have unexpected consequences.

Or put it in allegorical form. The misty expanse of Futurity is radiated with divergent lines of rigid steel; and along one of these lines, with diminishing carbon and sighing exhaust, you travel at schedule speed, At each junction, you switch right or left, and on you go still, up or down the way of your own choosing. But there is no stopping or turning back; and until you have passed the current section there is no divergence, except by voluntary catastrophe. Another junction flashes into sight, and again your choice is made; negligently enough, perhaps, but still with a view to what you consider the greatest good, present or prospective.

So Tom goes on, to meet the unwelcoming Mrs O’Halloran and their five year old daughter, Mary whose fate rings down through the novel.


transports you (saving reverence of our ‘birth stain’)” – A small pun on our origins as transported convicts

as far west as the Darling – The Lachlan nominally runs into the Murrumbidgee but this country is very flat.

Willandra – near present-day Hillston, in the middle of this map, and on the road-train route from Melbourne to North Queensland which I know well.

Willandra Station – have I made it clear that in Australia a ‘station’ is a very large grazing property on unimproved country, running sheep or cattle. Squatters are station owners. The state governments at various times – as late as the 1950s – made the squatters give up portions of their land to Settlers, but the squatters generally managed to hang on to the best watering places; and would sometimes put in Dummies to act as settlers on blocks they wished to retain. In passing, this policy of breaking up stations is why the anger of white commentators towards Zimbabwe’s Mugabe was a total confection. Yes, his execution of the policy was corrupt (or corrupted) but it was a policy common in all settler countries.

Tom, a settler – In 1868 Furphy, his father and brother took up land at Sand Hills between Bendigo and Shepparton but Joseph was unable to make a go of it (see Such is Life (01)).

The Irish question – Tom is presumably English Protestant but the Furphys (as was the shepherd) were Irish Catholics, from Tandragee, County Armagh in 1840.

“Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down” – you might recall, Tom’s horse responded to being remounted by bucking.

Tom in his musings “appears to subscribe to the Terra Nullius theory that completely disregards the long history of the country’s Aboriginal inhabitants, but this is at odds” with Furphy’s own published views. (annotation 66:7)

On re-reading, this is a very slow post, and it reflects the book’s slow build up to the underlying dramas. What I have failed to convey is the amusement derived by the reader from the individual stories as Tom wends his discursive way.

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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).

Small Town Rising, Bill Green

Note: This review talks about rape and sex with children.

A couple of years ago a post of mine about the Mallee (Victoria’s semi desert north-west, if I haven’t made that clear by now) inspired Lisa/ANZLL to buy and read Small Town Rising. She then sent it on to me and now I’ve read it. For that reason I went back to her review before writing my own – I am sometimes careful about what I say. Lisa’s verdict was “This is a well-intentioned novel but there are some flaws.” My verdict is that this is a racist and misogynist book, which should not be excused for being of its time -1981 – and I intensely disliked reading it.

Bill Green (1940-2011) grew up in the Mallee, went away to school at Geelong College, worked in Australia and overseas as a journalist before settling in a small country town down south (Camperdown, Vic) with his wife and children. I look that stuff up because I always wonder what sort of feel the author has for his subject.

Now, to be fair to Lisa I think the author’s intention was to shine a light on small town racism, not something we generally think about in Victoria. And that he was just totally ham-fisted about it. There’s an Indigenous family, the Stirlings, – who might “pass for white” – living in town. The local police sergeant would like to pin something on them. There’s an Aboriginal community living in a camp on the NSW side of the river. The sergeant would like to stop them hanging around the town and Mayor Blossoms is willing to go along with him. Doctor Cavett, thinks ‘something should be done’ about police racism. His son John aged about 11, is friends with Chasa, the youngest Stirling.

Green is uninhibited about the racist language used by the cops, the mayor, and anyone else they rope in for assistance and we might put that down to that’s just the way people speak (unfortunate but true). Where he comes completely unstuck is in his treatment of women. He has a thing about legs. Girls barely in their teens have short skirts and long legs; a girl getting a lift home lets her skirt ride up which the driver, the doctor I think, totally gets off on; a teacher in her twenties sits so that her 11 and 12 year old pupils can see up to the tops of her stockings. The same teacher, called in to babysit, wrestles with John in his bed, and goes back for a second go when he, did I say he’s only 11, gets an erection.

This is all made worse by the author’s third person omniscient point of view which means we get told what everyone, mothers and daughters, victims and perpetrators are thinking.

The plot is basically this: John and Chasa do various YA things. John thinks more about sex than an 11 year old should. The mayor’s daughter Kay, in John and Chasa’s class at school, wanders away from an evening picnic…

[Mayor Blossoms] had flushed and shifted uncomfortably as the boong had passed his girls in their short dresses. Their long straight legs were beginning to give them problems: Kay’s especially. He had seen her looking at the boong as he passed.

Once in a childish game he had moved his hands beneath her knickers and over the tiny perfection of her buttocks. It could have been an affectionate fatherly caress, but he now thought of it as uncontrolled masculinity. Her cry of delight had affronted and frightened him.

… When Mayor Blossoms comes looking for her, Kay’s lying on the river bank some metres from Linny, Chasa’s older brother. The mayor rushes at Linny, treading on his daughter, and Linny understandably dives in the river. Kay says nothing happened. The doctor determines Kay is still a virgin and is unmarked (except for the bruise caused by her father). Linny is charged with molesting her.

The police sergeant gets up a party to burn down the Aboriginal camp on the other side of the river, ie. not in his jurisdiction. Chasa’s sister aged maybe 14, is invited to the movies by her young boss, who takes her home and rapes her. She tells her parents, who have been expecting it to happen sooner or later, and she’s not sure she feels terribly bad about it. The next picnic Kay is at she invites John down the river bank and they do some mutual touching inside knickers etc. Chasa goes missing. Life goes on.

I’ve thought a bit about the setting and it’s probably the early 1960s (John goes to see a re-release of The Maltese Falcon which first came out in 1941), and that Strong Lake is most likely based on Swan Hill, which as it happens I occasionally visited at that time, from my grandparents’ farm, and remember seeing Aboriginal people in the street and sitting in the parks, the only place in Victoria I ever did so.

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Bill Green, Small Town Rising, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1981. 167 pp. Cover illustration – it wraps around the back -‘Monto in Landscape’, Gil Jamieson (1978) [as it happens, Monto is in Queensland, near Bundaberg, and 2,000 km north of the Mallee]

see also: A Literary Tour of the Mallee (here)

A Literary Tour of the Mallee

Sue/Whispering Gums a year or so BC set me the task of devising a literary tour of the Mallee – the northwest corner of Victoria, a triangle bounded by the Murray River to the north and northeast, the South Australia border to the west and let’s say to the south the 36th parallel, so a line from a bit north of Route A8 to the Murray north of Echuca.

This country is all sand over limestone, rainfall around ten inches (250mm) per year, and of course mallee gums along all the roads and throughout the desert national parks which comprise probably half its area. In the towns and around farms the most common trees are sugar gums, peppercorns (introduced from South America, probably via California) and jacarandas (ditto) and along the river, river red gums. Though I should probably include red flowering gums (from WA) which schools seemed fond of planting.

I am struggling to identify the region’s Indigenous people. It seems the Wergaia occupied the main part, with a number of other groups along the river, before they were forced onto Ebenezer Mission to the south and then, later to Lake Tyers way over in eastern Victoria. The Indigenous people along the river most likely retreated to the NSW side which was much less settled.

The arable country was broken up into square mile (640 acre) blocks in the 1890s and allocated to selectors on easy terms – as long as they established a home and began clearing and fencing they could repay the government over 40 years. Most farms were mixed sheep and wheat (though my grandmother’s family, the Coxes, had a Clydesdale horse stud at Culgoa). Mum was indignant to learn at school that the Mallee was flat when she could see that it had hills, albeit gently rolling sandhills which when stripped of cover move across paddocks engulfing fences and becoming the source of choking sandstorms.

The Mallee country along the Murray, known as Sunraysia, is heavily irrigated for citrus, stone fruits and grapes. As we all learnt at school, irrigation was begun in 1887 by the Chaffey brothers. There is no other fresh water except bore water which was ok when we lived at Murrayville but was elsewhere mostly salty. During the Depression channels were built to carry water from reservoirs in the Grampians (a couple of hundred kilometres south). These were replaced by pipelines in 2010 which, as we are learning, greatly reduces water to the environment, though I’m pleased to hear Green Lake (one of a number of ‘Green Lakes’) near my grandfather’s old farm south of Sea Lake is once again being filled for recreation and to preserve the surrounding woodlands (mainly sheoaks from memory).

Sea Lake is named for Lake Tyrell, a large salt pan and one of a number throughout the Mallee, most notably Pink Lakes near Underbool, between Murrayville and Ouyen.

The tour for the Gums begins in Melbourne where they wave goodbye to younger Gums and head out through the western suburbs towards Bendigo. Bourke and Wills set off in this direction on 20 Aug. 1860, camping the first night at Moonee Ponds (about 10 kms out) so the flamboyantly incompetent Robert O’Hara Bourke could ride back into town to farewell (again) opera star Julia Matthews (Frank Clune, Dig, 1937), and maybe because a number of the wagons were bogged and/or broken down. The expedition with its 27 camels and six wagons passed a little east of Bendigo after 6 days and reached Swan Hill – where they camped at Booths & Holloway’s Station – on 6 Sept. (Alan Moorehead, Cooper’s Creek, 1963) And from there they headed north into eternal notoriety (and are much criticised for their incompetence in the first chapter of Such is Life).

There had been two earlier explorers through the Mallee. Major Mitchell in 1836 came down the lower reaches of the Murrumbidgee to its junction with the Murray (between Swan Hill and Mildura), down the Murray to the junction with the Darling (just west of Mildura) and then back up the Murray – where he attacked and killed a party of local Kureinji and Barkandji peoples at Mt Dispersion (so-named by him) on the NSW side of the river – to the Loddon, past Swan Hill, from whence he headed south. (Mitchell wrote his own account of these expeditions but there must be others).

In 1838 Joseph Hawdon drove a mob of cattle almost the entire length of the Murray River, on the Victorian side until Mildura, eventually delivering them in Adelaide (Joseph Hawdon, The Journal of a Journey from New South Wales to Adelaide, 1952).

Meanwhile, the Gums have probably stopped already to have coffee with Michelle Scott Tucker, author of Elizabeth Macarthur, who lives that way, not far out of town. In the distance they can see the looming shape of Mt Macedon, named by Major Mitchell on his way home, and just past it Hanging Rock (Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1967). Still not 100 kms out of Melbourne, we should mention Kyneton, home (for a while) of turn of the century authors Joseph Furphy and Tasma, and a little further on Malmsbury, the setting for Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Pipers Hill (1888). Closer to Bendigo, and off the highway a bit, are old gold mining towns Castlemaine (Mt Alexander in Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morrison, 1854) and Maldon, childhood home of Henry Handel Richardson. In Bendigo my cousin Kay gives the Gums a tour of the School of Mines’ famous domed library, then it’s back on the road and at last we’re in the Mallee.

From here I’m a bit lost, not as to where to go: Big Desert Wilderness Park (no glamping, sorry WG) , Pink Lakes, Lake Tyrell, the Murray River, Wycheproof where the steam trains once ran down the main street (which fascinated me as a boy); but what books I can reference.

My Auntie Win wrote an account of the early days of Berriwillock (south of Sea Lake): Winifred Nixon, While the Mallee Roots Blaze, 1965. My father’s books include another account of early settlement: Allan Keating, And then the Mallee Fringe, 1983. Fiction seems a bit light on. Two courtesy of Lisa/ANZLL are Bill Green’s Small Town Rising (1981) and Wearing Paper Dresses (2019) by Anne Brinsden. I gather Sophie Laguna’s The Choke is set on the river but further east. There must be stories set at Lake Boga, where Milly’s grandmother’s boyfriend worked on Catalinas during the War, or Mildura or somewhere. Help me out!

In 2019 I wrote a post about Sea Lake, which is when the idea of a literary tour came up, and there followed a quite extensive discussion. Sue put up Mallee Boys (2017) by Charlie Archbold, which seems to be yet another set on the river. Lisa put in the hard yards and “consulted Peter Pierce’s Oxford Literary Guide to Australia” for the following list:
Boort: (80 km west of Echuca) birthplace of poet, short-story writer and novelist Myra Morris, 1893
Chinkapook: (a tiny locality between Ouyen and Swan Hill) John Shaw Neilson’s family farmed here. Also mentioned in Douglas Stewart’s poem about the 1917 mice plague ‘The Mice of Chinkapook’
Hattah (between Mildura, Ouyen and the river): Ben Eggleton was a ranger in the national park and wrote such titles The Bull Ant Country (1980) and The Little People of the Kulkyne’(1983). Alan Marshall often visited [his The Aborigines’ Grave appears to be set there]. Mary Chandler wrote ‘Tribal Lands to National Park, 1980.
Murrabit (on the Murray, 50 km upstream of Swan Hill): Rolf Boldrewood had a sheep farm there from 1858 until forced to sell out in 1863. JJ Healy, Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (1978) makes the case that Boldrewood covers up the realities of squatter/Aboriginal confrontation in his fiction and dates this from his time in the Western District in the 1840s. But Boldrewood would also have had to deal with local Indigenous people at Murrabit.
Red Cliffs (40km south of Mildura): Site of the largest of the soldier settlement schemes after the Great War. Mary Chandler wrote its history in Against the Odds (1979). See also Marilyn Lake, The Limits of Hope (1987).
Sea Lake: John ShawNeilson and his father took up uncleared land north of Sea Lake in 1895 and saw ‘rabbits by the hundred thousand’, before moving after 5 years to 2400 acres at nearby Chinkapook (parish of Eureka).

Poems set in the Mallee generally, include: CA Sherard, Lost in the Mallee (1884), Nancy Cato, Mallee Farmer (1950), and Tractor Driver in the Mallee; by Cyril Goode (ADB).

I checked Nancy Cato’s All the Rivers Run (1958) and it’s set just outside our area, at Echuca, as are parts of Furphy’s Such is Life and Rigby’s Romance.

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Picture credits: Map is a screenshot from Google Maps. Bendigo TAFE library by Kay Smith.

Such is Life (02), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)

One of my intentions in doing this slow read is to make the argument that Such is Life is the first major modernist text in Australian and one of the first in World Literature. As seminal in Australian Lit as Ulysses was later to be in English.

The predominant view of Such is Life would have it as Bush Realism, showing us real Aussie bush workmen from the late C19th. Of course it does no such thing – there are not many working men then or now able to converse at length on world affairs, philosophy and literature, in English and in Latin. Furphy’s project in fact was to disrupt the tropes of bush life, the Bulletin version of what it is to be Australian, AND to disrupt the tropes of writing about Australian life.

To further my argument, today I am reading a 2003 essay by Stephen Cowden, Colonialism, Nationalism, Modernism: Rethinking Furphy’s Such is Life . Cowden argues that the 1890s saw the end of Victorian certainties; the rise of Socialism and Feminism (Suffragism); and saw too for the first time the working classes and rural battlers being written about by writers of their own class, writers like Furphy, Henry Lawson and Miles Franklin.

So, when we left Tom he had caught up with some bullocky mates, one of whom was his old schoolmate Steve Thompson. They are discussing where to camp for the night. The Riverina has just returned to drought and the only grass and water has been fenced off by the local landowners who tend to regard bullockies as the enemy rather than as their partners in getting wool to market. The feeling is reciprocated – this is very much a novel of class struggle (see quotes from Cowden below).

It is also a novel of digressions, and most of the plot, such as it is, is carried forward in the yarns the men tell each other, so that characters and episodes rise and fall in importance and often without forewarning.

In this context, some men roll up heading the other way, and of course stop to talk. One of them is Warrigal Alf who is later important (and not to be confused with Nosey Alf), then comes along McNab, a fencing contractor, who talks Tom into trading horses with him. An exchange in which Tom for once comes out on top. The new horse is misleadingly named Cleopatra (hint: it’s not a mare) which “will necessarily play a certain part in these memoirs”.

There is one more point I need to make before we let the teams move on to their camp for the night and that is that most Australians swear almost constantly and Furphy has great fun with this without ever writing an actual swearword. So …

“You got Nosey Alf, an’ Warrigal Alf, an’ (sheol) knows how many other Alfs.”
“I ain’t (adj.) fool enough to believe in curses.”
“Well,” said Price emphatically, and qualifying every word that would bear qualification ..

The Palmers’ abridgement (see below) made the mistake of removing much of the ‘swearing’ and thus much of the humour.

The men break down the fence to the ‘home’ paddock and after a long and philosophical discussion about what makes a gentleman – Willoughby, travelling with them, is an English gentleman entirely without funds (or saleable skills), but a nice bloke – fall asleep under the wagons while the bullocks help themselves to feed and water. In the morning they are roused by a worker from the property and scramble to get their cattle out before the arrival of the foreman; Tom finds Cleopatra likes to buck; a bullock has to be dragged out of the dam; they hitch up and head off; one wagon becomes bogged, is towed out; and then another …

Thirty-six picked bullocks planted their feet and prised, and a hundred and seventy feet of bar chain stretched tense and rigid from the leaders’ yoke to the pole-cap. The wagon crept forward. A low grumble, more a growl than a bellow, passed from beast to beast along the team – sure indication that the wagon wouldn’t stop again if it could be taken through. The off front wheel rose slowly on the harder ground; the off hind wheel rose in its turn; both near wheels ploughed deeper beneath the top-heavy weight of thirty-eight bales –
“She’s over!” thundered Cooper …

The wagon slowly settles on its side and the wool – which goes about six bales to the ton – must be laboriously reloaded by hand. And so we reach the end of Chapter 1, 50pp supported by 36 pages of annotations, so I still have some reading to do!


Such is Life was first published by the new books division of the Bulletin magazine in 1903. It was immediately recognised for the masterpiece it is but gained no great readership. A second edition (using sheets left over from the first) was brought out by Furphy’s literary executor, Kate Baker in 1917 with an Introduction by Vance Palmer. In 1937 Jonathon Cape of London published an abridged version with Vance Palmer named as the ‘editor’ although the actual abridging was done mainly by Nettie Palmer and daughter Aileen (Such is Life, Abridged!). Angus & Robertson then brought out an unabridged version (pictured above) in 1944 and only then was the novel’s future assured. The most recent version apparently is from Text, 2013 (here).

“The opening page of [Such is Life] is thus one which suggests an openness to an exploration of the ‘relation between reading, interpretation and writing’ (Devlin-Glass et.al, 315), which, as other commentators have noted, anticipates the high modernist literature of writers like James Joyce.” Cowden p. 152

“Socialists argued that unemployment, poverty and criminality, were not failings of individual ‘character’, but were a product of the immiseration created by capitalism. In its day this link offered a profound and fundamental challenge to ideas about ‘character’ which were cornerstones of Victorian morality.” ibid p.153

“Furphy clearly saw these acts of sabotage [thefts from landowners] as a form of working class resistance, and hence the newness of his perspective is both literary and political; in a political sense he is trying to work out on an intuitive basis how a different form of morality might operate. In a literary sense he is trying to work out a new way of telling a story that will reflect this” ibid. p.156

50:32 belahs. Bilaar is a Wiradhuri word used for several [types of] trees. Here is it probabably a sheoak (casuarina). There are annotations for everything! I give this one as an example because I have written quite often in the past that there are no Indigenous people in SIL, so one of my tasks over this year is to see how correct that assertion is. I can’t believe there weren’t Indigenous communities along all the rivers. There are now and there were in the 1950s when I was a boy. I must also mention that the rider on Cleopatra when Tom obtained it was an Indigenous man working for McNab.

McNab. The edition I am reading renders this M’Nab, but as with Miles Franklin I am certain this comes from older printing presses not having a raised lower case ‘c’ (and nor does WordPress).

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Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, first pub. 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).

Stephen Cowden, Colonialism, Nationalism, Modernism: Rethinking Furphy’s Such is Life, Kunapipi, Vol 25 (2003) (here)

Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy (here)
theaustralianlegend, Such is Life, Abridged! (here)

The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021

The Timeless Land.... eleanor dark ..1960

It’s Saturday as I type and I’m on the road home. But an email has come in (or to be honest, I have just checked yesterday’s emails) from Neil@Kallaroo. We’ve done very well with Eleanor Dark this week. Here you go Neil, the space is all yours.


Let’s cut to the chase. I read about one third of The Timeless Land before I gave up. That’s not a reflection on the book so much as a reflection on what I enjoy reading. Once upon a time I read a book from cover to cover, but there are so many books to read, so nowadays if I’m struggling I give up and move on.

The Timeless Land is the first in a trilogy about the European settlement of Australia. It is told from many viewpoints, such as Governor Arthur Phillip, Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Trench of the Marines, the Reverend Mr Johnson, Andrew and Ellen Prentice, convicts, and the indigenes Bennilong and Barangaroo. There are plenty more!

The different viewpoints expose us to the many issues around the settlement, from concern with the food supply, convicts trying to escape, and interactions between Europeans and First Settlers. The story progresses chronologically, with minimal flash-backs, and even though the viewpoint changes frequently, it is not hard to keep track of what is going on.

So why did I struggle with the story?

I guess I knew the plot already, though not the nitty gritty. So there was minimal novelty to engage me. The writing is a bit dry and academic (possibly as a result of Dark’s extensive research), and there wasn’t much witty repartee to humour me. I didn’t crack many smiles.

I was uncomfortable with the thoughts and actions attributed to the indigines. One phrase in particular caught my eye:

“Arabanoo, who was so gentle and so patient that he hardly ever beat his wife.”

Ouch. Did indigenous husbands beat their wives regularly? I know that alcohol currently contributes to domestic violence (universally!), but I am not at all sure wife-beating was a feature of the indigenous population in 1788. Mind you, Dark has a rather sly comeback:

“Bennilong, therefore, had felt no pity for the woman, but he wondered why she had been so held up to the execration of the whole tribe instead of being privately beaten by her husband in the normal way.”

And finally, I struggle with historical fiction in general. Is it fiction or faction?

So should you have a read of The Timeless Land? If you are looking for something light and fluffy, with witty repartee and plenty of action, probably not. But if you are interested in a warts and all approach to the problems of settlement, offering more than a European-centric story, then definitely have a go. Hopefully you can make more progress than I did.

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Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land, first pub. 1941. Cover image Collins, 1960

see also reviews of:
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (1) (here)
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (2) (here)
Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur (here)
James Tucker, Ralph Rashleigh (here)

The Pea Pickers, Eve Langley

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

Brona of Brona’s Books has set herself an ambitious schedule for AWW Gen 3 Week for which I am extremely grateful. First up she has written about one of my favourite authors, Eve Langley, and her first and most famous novel.


178d3c9b3c81ff378159e63c4ba1500a Brona’s Books

My first illness was that one most common to the children of the poor…a bad education and, like the bite of a goanna, it was incurable and ran for years.

Ethel Jane (Eve) Langley was born in Forbes on the 1st September 1904. After her father, Arthur died in 1915, her mother, Myra moved her small family back to Victoria…

In 1924, Eve and her sister June … travelled and worked around the Gippsland countryside as farm labourers and pickers for the next four years. She kept a diary during this whole time of her doings, her thoughts, poems and stories. Read on …