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)

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)

The Independent Woman in Australian Literature

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In my reviews of Australian books, especially those with women authors, I refer quite often to my thesis that, just as Russell Ward identified the ‘Lone Hand’/independent bushman as the basis for depictions of maleness, and by extension Australianness, early Australian women writers had been developing a parallel, though largely unacknowledged paradigm, the Independent Woman.

I undertook my M.Litt at CQU a decade or so ago – it took a while and I should thank again my supervisor John Fitzsimmons for his patience and my tutor Ayesha Hall for her persistence – and, because I do refer to it, I have decided to put up a cut down version of my dissertation as a ‘page’.

I say ‘cut down’, but it’s still 16,000 words, plus links to books that I’ve already reviewed. Read it at your own peril!


 

Abstract

The starting point for discussions of Australianness has long been Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) with its account of the myth of the Lone Hand, from which women are almost entirely absent. Even in the subsequent Pioneer myth, women have only a subsidiary role.

This absence of women has often been decried, but any reading of the large body of literature by and about Australian women, particularly in the first half of the 20th Century, clearly demonstrates that a case can be made for a parallel myth, the Independent Woman, who makes her way without, and often despite, men.

In the first chapter I discuss the development of the Lone Hand myth, its importance to how we see ourselves as Australians, and, particularly, how women have responded to their exclusion from this myth. The remaining chapters are basically chronological, showing how the fiction of each period, and biographies of the women of those periods, can be read in such a way as to contribute to the development of the counter-myth, the Independent Woman.

So, Chapter 2 covers the blossoming of women’s fiction in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the principal women of ‘first wave’ Feminism in Australia. Chapter 3 is devoted to Miles Franklin, her partly autobiographical heroines, and her connections to first wave Feminism. Chapter 4 covers women’s writing between the Wars and up to the 1950’s, and, in particular, the development of Eve Langley’s heroine, Steve, in direct response to her reading of the bush stories and poetry of Henry Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. Chapter 5 is of a similar period to Chapter 4 but is centred on women whose independence carries them into Lone Hand territory and into the deserts of Central Australia. Finally, Chapter 6 discusses some developments in depictions of the Independent Woman since the sexual revolutions of the 1960s.

 

21 February 2011

W.A.D. Holloway


The Independent Woman in Australian Literature page (here)

The World Repair Video Game, David Ireland

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David Ireland (1927- ) had his first novel published in 1968. He put out five more, three of them Miles Franklin award winners, over the next dozen years –and one of those, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), is in my view a serious contender for Great Australian Novel – and kept going into the 80s, but his popularity was waning, and he has since had trouble getting published. Geordie Williamson writes that “the violence and misogyny that characterised Ireland’s earlier novels – such as The Glass Canoe (1976) and A Woman of the Future (1979)[My review], on which rested his reputation as a defiantly proletarian novelist who employed a feral version of literary modernism – began to erode his standing as intellectual fashions changed…”

Spoilers: The violence which is the ostensible subject of this novel is gradually revealed throughout and is intrinsic to any understanding of it.

So The World Repair Video Game (2015), published in Hobart by Island Magazine Inc, is an old man’s (ie. Ireland’s) cry of rage against fashionable opinions. His psychopath protagonist, 42 yo Kennard Stirling, whose first murder was as a schoolboy, has set himself the project of murdering slackers and incorporating their remains into the pathway he is building to the lookout on Big Hill on his 50 hectare, NSW south coast hobby farm.

A hammer blow in a night train. How I hate the sight of bodily organs, the insides that ought not be seen, the greasiness of blood and how good it feels to wash hands and arms and feel clean once more.

The novel takes the form of Stirling’s journal, interspersed with random thoughts generated by his subconscious (which he calls Pym after the Edgar Allan Poe novel). Ireland at one stage has Stirling reading Richard Brautigan, and his daily entries – from Sept 8 to Dec 21 – could be said to mimic Brautigan’s often very short chapters. The entries themselves are discursive, rather than formal, and inclined to head off at tangents, so the whole is very much stream of consciousness.

That said, not much happens. Stirling, who lives on a remittance from his wealthy Sydney-based family, is a volunteer four mornings a week in the nearby town of ‘Pacific Heights’ delivering meals and gardening for the elderly and so on, and otherwise spends his time regenerating bushland on his 50 hectares, that is, when he is not rendering down bodies and incorporating them into wet cement and compost.

My family Protestantism, alive when I was a child, suggested we are all free and equal, that power rests in the people, but now we know the sovereignty of the people is an unproductive joke, that democracy has few virtues and can’t take difficult steps in hard times and doesn’t reward courage.

Stirling is a loner, private-school educated and a once talented (rugby) footballer. As a refugee from the regimentation of the family business his “family” is now his kelpie-cross Jim, his ute Brian, a cat, and a majestic manna gum, Big Manna. He has had a girlfriend, or at least a love interest, at some stage, Leonora, “daughter of a judge, executive on a management team, retired footballer, weekend painter”, but she has left him, without word or backward glance.

His victims are recognisable by their slack and impoverished appearance, their dismissal of ‘reasonable’ proposals for work, and by the birds which sit on their heads and shit down their backs. They are clearly of the underclass. “The layer above is the working poor, the middle class is miles above”.

They are caricatures, never worked, never wanted to work, refusing to be tied down and experts at ‘claiming’. “This is a non-worker, healthy, uninjured. A non-cooperator, he consumes without producing, as Orwell says… He stinks of failure, stale and sour. He is less a prole and menial toiler and more a chiseller than a drudge, and lives on that edge where the crypto-criminal lives.”

… not far ahead I see a kookaburra riding on something. I get closer and see the bird is perched on the head of an angular man in Jesus sandals and unwashed Judas feet, a silver nostril ring, hairless chest, mauve shirt open to the navel, red tattoos and lemon shorts. He’s my man

I lost track of how many men are killed, six I think, five stabbed with his homemade stiletto and one upended and dropped on his head, all loaded onto Brian for the trip to the farm, then boned and rendered down.

The novel peters out with the completion of the path. The farm is sold. Stirling gets a terse note from Leonora. A new project beckons, eliminate those parasites at the other end of the pecking order, “not the many honest CEOs rewarded for performance, but the few among the top money people whose greedy domination in dysfunctional capital markets weakens the spirit of social fairness.”

Leonora, my light, how I treasured the twins Iphigenia and Chloe, and the potential of dear Clytie, and imagined Andromeda’s warmth. And didn’t tell you. Simply thinking your name creates music in me.

Forget what you have read, The World Repair Video Game is only incidentally a novel about serial killing. Ireland’s concern is politics, the gaming of the welfare system, the shortcomings of socialism, the restrictions political correctness imposes on a right-wing misogynist loner. I can’t agree with him, but at 88 he remains a brilliant writer.

 

David Ireland, The World Repair Video Game, Island Magazine Inc, Hobart, 2015. Afterword by Geordie Williamson

Kindly loaned to me by Lisa at ANZLL, her review here.

The Breaker, Kit Denton

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Edward Woodward as Breaker Morant in the 1980 Bruce Beresford movie ‘The Breaker’

Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was a disagreeable man, and The Breaker (1973) is a disagreeable book. It seems to me author Kit Denton has gone out of his way to provide a textbook case of all the worst elements of the ‘Australian Legend’ – misogyny, violence and drunkenness, not to mention bush doggerel and militarism.

The Breaker purports to be a ‘life’ of Breaker Morant. The author writes ‘Before you begin’:

There was a Breaker Morant. He lived his life in the times and company of many of the people mentioned in this story, and he went through much of the action in these pages. I had hoped to write a true history … but the obduracy of the British Government in refusing to release a number of essential documents has made this impossible… I’ve departed from history only when the facts weren’t discoverable or when I felt it was necessary in the interests of a good story.

This is the weakness of historical fiction – if the author admits some of the claims in his book are false then we have no way of knowing which claims are true.

According to Denton, Harry Morant (1864-1902) was born into the English gentry, his father an Admiral with an estate near Exeter. Morant followed his father into the Royal Navy, rising quickly from midshipman to Lieutenant, but at about the age of 19 left the navy in disgrace, secretly recovered some belongings from the family home, and emigrated to Australia (Wikipedia says all of this false, a story made up by Morant to obscure his more humble origins).

In Australia he teamed up with Irishman Paddy Magee – indeed they formed one of those indissoluble mateship bonds which are staples of the Legend – to roam inland eastern Australia for the next 17 years as itinerant drovers. Harry turned out to be an exceptional horseman, hence his nickname, able to put on and off his upper class persona as the company required, and a notorious pants man – Paddy holding the horses while Harry screwed anything in skirts.

Early in the novel he stays for some time at the property of Robert Lenehan, with of course a bedroom in the main house while Paddy waits in the men’s quarters, romancing Lenehan’s niece Julia until, believing they are about to announce their engagement, she begins sleeping with him. When next we hear of Julia, she is married to someone else, with a son named Harry, and Harry is far, far away.

No mention, more’s the pity, amongst all the roaming and womanising, of Daisy Bates, briefly Harry’s wife according to Susanna de Vries in Desert Queen (2008).

Having established that Harry is a devil with the women, handy with his fists (and boots), and a very heavy drinker, on top of his all-round skills as a horseman, it comes out that he is also a ‘poet’, with a ballad, The Brigalow Brigade, published in the Bulletin. It begins (if you can stand it), “There’s a band of decent fellows/on a cattle-run outback –“. How ‘decent’ may be judged from this verse:

The Brigalow Brigade are
Fastidious in their taste
In the matter of a maiden
And the inches of her waist;
She must be sweet and tender
And her eyes a decent shade …
Then her ma may safely send her
To the Brigalow Brigade.

In 1900 Paddy and Harry acquire a small property near Renmark in South Australia. Having ridden his previous good horse to death, Harry leaves Paddy there with his current favourite, Harlequin, and goes down to Adelaide to enlist in the Second South Australian Yeomanry (mounted rifles) to fight for Queen and Empire in the Boer War.

We move to South Africa and over the period of a year or so we establish – in line with that version of the Legend which began when the Bulletin’s ‘Lone Hand’ was incorporated into CEW Bean’s (and Keith Murdoch’s) ‘Brave Anzacs’ – that the British general staff are incompetent, that the Guards and Hussars charging uphill on horseback into machine gun fire are brave but stupid, and that Australian irregulars are impossible to direct but are nevertheless highly effective soldiers. Oh, and that the Boers are tricky and immoral but, individually at least, are all rugged individualists like ourselves.

Harry moves up from private to corporal to sergeant, serving mostly as a despatch rider. Then, when his unit is due to return to Australia, he transfers to Baden-Powell’s Transvaal Constabulary with the rank of Lieutenant, before sailing to England on leave. In England he is improbably accepted back into the bosom of his family, begins a round of social engagements, meets, begins sleeping with, and becomes secretly engaged to Margaret Hunt, and bosom buddies with her brother Percy, a captain in the Hussars. When Kitchener calls for volunteers for a ‘guerilla’ force to take the war up to the Boers, Harry and Percy return to South Africa and join a 200 man unit, The Bushveldt Carbineers, under the command of Robert Lehman (Yes, the same Lehman, now a major, who apparently bears no grudge for the deflowering and abandonment of his niece).

As you no doubt know – Spoiler Alert – Harry ends up, with 3 fellow officers in the BVC, being charged with murder. Denton is, if not dishonest, at least partisan, in his treatment of the events leading up to the charges and describes the actions which give rise to them entirely from the point of view of the defendants –

A Lutheran travelling pastor, who had been stopped by a squad being led by Morant, is later found dead; an 11 year old boy shoots an Australian soldier in defence of a cart load of guns, is shot and killed in turn, and his body is carried by Morant into a Boer church, during a service, and dropped onto a table being used as an altar; Percy Hunt is shot during a night attack on a Boer position and is subsequently found dead, his naked body mutilated. Some days later an ‘idiot’ is stopped and found to be wearing Hunt’s clothes, an enraged Morant puts him up against a tree, puts a gun in his hand to provide a figleaf for his actions, and shoots him dead.

Even by Denton’s account, the last was clearly murder and so Morant was rightly convicted. The three charged with him may have been unlucky, it’s hard to tell. And yes the hypocrisy of the British, busy with their own war crimes, clearing the countryside of inhabitants and inventing the concentration camp, was monumental.

This book was written during the Vietnam War and it is impossible not to draw some parallels between Harry Morant and Lt Paul Calley of My Lai massacre fame. Denton’s thesis could be taken to be that troops operating ‘at large’ as the BVC did, and as was common in Vietnam, are forced into difficult ethical decisions; that their actions are justified by their operating outside the ‘normal’ rules of engagement. Calley too was found guilty – but was later pardoned by President Nixon.

Conscription and the Vietnam War led to militarism becoming unfashionable, and to returned soldiers feeling unloved. 1973  was the first year of the Whitlam Labor government, too early to say that prevailing  anti-war sentiments were waning; but if not the book then perhaps the movie in 1980 along with Roger McDonald’s 1915 which came out in 1979 and became a popular tv series in 1982, mark the beginning of a (regrettable) return-to-normal for Australian patriotism.

 

Kit Denton, The Breaker, A&R, Sydney, 1973. Audio version Bolinda Classics, 1997, read by Terence Donovan

See also: Review by Lisa at ANZLL here