This is a really odd cover image as the marriage in question definitely didn’t involve a blushing maiden in a long white dress, but was conducted by a dying missionary in an outback pub between a couple of rough nuts who probably weren’t very sober at the time. Which two rough nuts is the mystery this piece of light fiction by Australia’s most famous Bush poet sets out to solve.
I’m not a student of, or even very often a reader of, poetry and part of the reason for that is the Bush Doggerel forced on us as ‘poetry’ at school. Still, some of the Bush Ballads, in the tradition of the Scottish Borders form revived by Walter Scott, were ok, and the best of them were penned by Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson (1864-1941).
Paterson grew up on properties near Yass (300 km southwest of Sydney), in the foothills of the high country, Miles Franklin country. He went away to school at Sydney Grammar, failed to get a scholarship to uni and settled for doing his articles as a solicitor. His career as a writer began with the submission of stories and poetry to the Bulletin. He was a war correspondent during part of the Boer War and later served in the First World War. Interestingly, his entry in Wikipedia says “In 1908 after a trip to the United Kingdom he decided to abandon journalism and writing and moved with his family to a 16,000-hectare (40,000-acre) property near Yass.” An Outback Marriage was published in 1906.
Paterson was immensely popular for his ballads and no doubt hoped that An Outback Marriage, his first novel, would build on that. HM Green writes in his seminal History of Australian Literature: “Banjo Paterson and Steele Rudd each published a couple of novels of which one is worth a mention. Paterson’s The Shearer’s Colt (1936) is a slight but entertaining story …”. So no luck there!
Franklin, 15 years his junior, idolized Paterson. She writes of young bushmen taking turns to recite excerpts of his work, and in My Career Goes Bung, has Sybylla go back to the flat of Australia’s “one great literary man”. Much of An Outback Marriage is set in ‘Franklin country’, and so I wondered how Franklin felt on reading Paterson’s first novel, which is clearly inferior to her own (published in 1901). I turned to Franklin’s diaries. On 6 and 7 October 1943 she was re-reading An Outback Marriage “in connection with an ABC talk”.
It turns out that in 1903 George Robertson (of Angus & Robertson) told Paterson to take his ms “to little Miles Franklin & get her to put the blood and tears into it.” MF made some suggestions which were not well received. But, she writes, “The association then proceeded with my interested investigation of the most sophisticated man who had so far attempted to woo me sexually. It was an exciting experience – but that is another story.”
MF’s opinion, now, of the book is scathing –
It was as if he gathered up all his knowledge of bush life and carpentered it up into a longer tale than those in his bush verses. Reading it now I see its resemblance in design to Mrs Campbell [Rosa] Praed’s successes. He has an heiress who is sent home to be educated. There is a bright new chum, Jim Carew. There are love affairs but the brightness seems forced & the fun mechanical. Jim Carew and a Gordon, of the family who are managing the heiress’s station, go north to look for the next of kin to Carew’s ancestral estate. This is done creakingly to drag in buffalo hunting in the north. That sort of thing queers the whole story. The novel is cynical and shallow.
The story turns on whether the heiress’s father had earlier married up north the sister of one of his Irish neighbours, an excuse for lots of lawyering, Paterson’s other profession, or whether the blushing bride had married some other bushman, and initially at least, whether there was a bride at all. I don’t need to say any more except that Paterson deals entirely in racial stereotypes, and no it’s not just the times. The Irish settlers are thieves, liars and drunkards. The Chinese smoke opium. The Blacks, including the women, are great horsemen; they are kept working long after the (white) men have settled down for a smoke; away from white influence they are dirty and lazy; and when they get in the way they are shot.
I looked in Trove for reviews contemporaneous with the novel’s publication. Mostly they were glowing – “we do not know a better Australian novel” (Sydney Sunday Times, 25 Nov 1906), “He can tell a story in prose as well as in verse” (Albury Banner, 30 Nov 1906); interestingly, their first point of comparison was often with cowboy stories from the US. There is one suggestion that the novel grew out of an earlier serialised story, ‘In No Man’s Land’ (Orange Leader, 27 Sep 1906) – which might coincide with the section, pages 120-180. But the Bulletin Red Page says it best: “… one suspects that the author does not imagine his book a masterpiece. Yet it has its niche – a cheerful Australian yarn, lightly told.” (6 Dec 1906).
The Red Page story also criticises the book’s plain blue cover in comparison with much better presented English and American works. So it’s likely the plain blue hardback from Viking/Penguin which I read was intended as a facsimile.
AB Paterson, An Outback Marriage, first pub. 1906. Republished Viking/Penguin, Melbourne, 2009
Paul Brunton ed., The Diaries of Miles Franklin, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004