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
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