The Iron Heel, Jack London

12 Books of Boyhood. #5

Dad’s mother was a very straightlaced lady, resolutely upper middle class, the widow of a senior-ish Canberra public servant, who never pretended she wasn’t unhappy that her oldest son had married an unpolished country girl.

I no longer have the copy of The Iron Heel which she gave me at the beginning of sixth form but I can only imagine she thought Jack London-wolves-goldmining, this’ll be safe, when in fact it’s the Communist Manifesto rendered as fiction and set me firmly on the path to revolutionary socialism.

Not suddenly, but definitely. I had been notionally anyway a Fabian for a couple of years; at uni the Fabians packed me off to the Anarchists; and the conscription/Vietnam War debate meant that I spent my second and third first years (I eventually did five before I managed a second year) mostly with SDS and the anti-war movement. After that I was married, a truck driver, and my politics went back to being theoretical.

It also led me to being a Jack London fan and seeking out information about him, though all I remember now is that he was a working class boy, self-educated, and later, when he prospered he had a big block in San Francisco with Australian eucalypts down the bottom of the garden under which lived some hobo-philosophers. The one book of his I never read and always wanted to was The People of the Abyss (1903) about the London underclass. Wiki says it inspired Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

It seems Jack London (1876-1916) wasn’t completely self-educated, but was in and out of school, making it into U. Cal. Berkley before dropping out. By the time The Iron Heel came out in 1908, London had been an oyster pirate, prospected for gold in the Klondike, reported on the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, been married twice, had 10 or so novels to his credit including Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), and had toured America lecturing on socialism. The ‘big block’ I remember was a 1,000 acre ranch on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain, now Jack London State Historic Park.

He died at age 40, on the porch of his ranch house, while ill, alcoholic, and self-administering (over the counter!) morphine and opium for pain relief.

The Introduction to the Penguin edition pictured above is written by Jonathon Auerbach who writes that the term ‘Iron Heel’ was in circulation in the latter 1800s, being used by Henry James to refer to the patriarchy – women “trampled under the iron heel of man”; and by President Grover Cleveland, who uses it much as London did 20 years later – referring to “trusts, combinations and monopolies” with “the citizen … trampled to death beneath an iron heel.” They/we don’t make politicians like that anymore.

The book tells the story of revolutionary hero Ernest Everhard (how Freudian is it to give yourself a name like that) and takes the form of a manuscript written by Everhard’s wife, Avis, and discovered and annotated seven centuries later when a utopian Brotherhood of Man has finally been achieved.

Of course the point of this is London can make his alter ego as valiant and all-seeing as he likes and then (mildly) disparage himself through his wife’s mostly hero-worshipping observations and the future editor Meredith’s detachment. I have always thought this novel the very worst example of a guy writing from a woman’s POV, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t so bothered this time around.

I’m not going to persuade any of you to pick up this book, unless there are some young radicals among my wider readership. As fiction it is barely readable. The first half is a series of lectures, framed as Avis’s university professor father inviting Everhard to dinner to debate politics with various corporate lawyers, capitalists and a well-meaning bishop.

“Amongst the revolutionists I found, also, warm faith in the human, ardent idealism, sweetness of unselfishness, renunciation, and martyrdom – all the splendid, stinging things of the spirit. Here life was clean, noble, and alive. I was in touch with great souls who exalted flesh and spirit over dollars and cents, and to whom the thin wail of the starved slum child meant more than all the pomp and circumstance of commercial expansion and world empire.”

To which the corporate lawyer responds:

“We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces.”

Throughout, London uses the historian seven centuries ahead to comment in often extensive footnotes. After this speech he quotes from Ambrose Bierce’s The Cynic’s Word Book (1906): “Grape-shot, n. An argument which the future is preparing in answer to the demands of American Socialism.”

Everhard challenges Avis to tour the slums with him, to see how injured men were discarded by the mills and denied compensation; the slave-like conditions worked by men, women and children. She (and the bishop) are brought round to his point of view. The professor is offered the opportunity to denounce Everhard, refuses, loses his position and is defrauded of his shareholdings and his home and must himself live in the slums.

London is writing at a time when revolutions were in the air, in France over the previous century; in Russia, with Feb and Oct 1917 to come; even meek and mild Australia, which had just elected the world’s first Labour government. And at a time of immensely unequal wealth. “… in the United States, only nine-tenths of one per cent are from the Plutocracy, yet the Putocracy owns seventy per cent of the total wealth.”

As it turns out, we avoided London’s revolution by the creation of a large and prosperous middle class – which eventually included the great majority of workers – who were happy to go along with Capitalism, for as long as that grotesque disparity in wealth was flattened out. Neo-liberalism, Thatcher and Regan began the end of that period in the 1980s, and now we are back with London 120 years ago, but with a more quiescent working class, possibly because of the distribution of manufacturing work to Asia and the huge and ongoing influx of migrant workers into all the western economies.

In 1912, that is, a few years in London’s future (yes, this is dystopian SF), the Socialists, and the small business Grange Party win a large part of the vote, but the Oligarchy, the party of big business, which London calls the Trusts, control the courts, as we are seeing once again, and their victories are meaningless.

A general strike in the US and in Germany, averts War, but the Oligarchy learns its lesson too well and sets out to crush the workers. First, as it always does, buy paying some workers very well so that they will act against the interests of their fellows.

Then, all over the US, agents provocateurs in the employ of the Iron Heel instigate riots and revolts which are put down with massacres of workers and farmers. It is hard for us to consider farmers as revolutionaries but look at Steinbeck, two or three decades later and the small cotton farmers impoverished and forced off their land by the coming of large mechanised agri-businesses.

Congress is disrupted by a bomb and all the Socialists are arrested. The Revolution holds its fire, while its leaders, as did the ANC in S Africa in the 1970s, maintain control from their prison cells. Soon Everhard escapes (to the Sonoma ranch of “a writer friend of mine”). Revolution breaks out, but the Iron Heel prevails. Only the editor from the future, after the Second and Third Revolutions, gives us cause for hope.


Jack London, The Iron Heel, first pub. 1908, this edition Penguin, 2006. 255pp

June’s “books of boyhood” will be Edgar Allan Poe. Specifically, The ‘Imp of the Perverse’ because I am often afflicted by it, but probably one other as well, maybe ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.

The Broad Arrow, Caroline Leakey

It seems, although it wasn’t my intention, that I am filling in the gaps in my reviews of Fifty Books you must Read. First The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, now The Broad Arrow: “being passages from the history of Maida Gwynnham, a lifer (1859). The illustration above is Maida mourning the death of her (illegitimate) baby which is an early event, I guess her seduction, which occurs off-screen, is the initial event, in the chain of events which leads to a well brought up middle class young woman being transported to Hobart Town in the early 1850s.

Caroline Leakey was only in the colony for a few years, staying with her sister in Hobart and recuperating from illness at Port Arthur – she describes Emmeline, who more or less represents her in the novel, looking out her bedroom window across to the front gates of the famous prison, with all its comings and goings. I’m not sure she found it very restful.

To spare Emmeline the fatigue of a rather steep flight of stairs, Mrs. Harelick had devoted to her special service a large front parlour on the ground-floor. It opened on the station, and had by no means the pleasant landscape which enlivened the upper apartments. The lovely Bay, and the Isle of the Dead were not to be seen; but some gardens intervening, beguiled the more immediate sight from the prison apparatus, unescapably conspicuous on a prolonged survey from the bow-window.

The Broad Arrow is a very sermonising work, the way so many worthy nineteenth century novels are, but Maida’s story is well done; there is a wealth of detail about the interactions of free settlers and their convict servants; and the descriptions of place, it seems to me, would be familiar to current residents. I said this to Pam/Travellin’ Penguin and she segued to the Broad Arrow Cafe, the site of Australia’s last mass shooting, in 1996. Pam, I’ll make it to Tassie one day, and we’ll definitely meet over coffee and cake.

I am writing last Sunday, so to speak, as I have work during the week, a road train load for a construction company up the coast to Cape Preston, this side of Karratha; and if I am to post anything at all it will have to be this pointer to my review on the AWWC site.

The last few weeks of work have been very Goldilocks, not too much, not too little, but enough to keep the bank balance ticking over. And speaking of my shaky bank balance, yesterday I got a firm offer for my remaining ‘spare’ trailer – payment due this coming weekend – which I should have sold before buying my new trailer, my new toy Melanie says (rightly!), last September.

You’d think the days off in between jobs would be enough to keep my reading and reviewing up to date, but sadly not. The last few ‘guest’ posts on the AWWC have involved huge amounts of editing as I attempted to abridge 4,000 word papers to meet our 1,500 word standard (I failed. They all came in at around 2,000). But the two ‘projects’ they covered – women’s service in WW1 and female servants in nineteenth century Australian women’s Lit were both enormously interesting.

[Now, today as I post, I’ve come north to Port Hedland to pick up a couple of tray trucks to take back to Perth]

Not the first novel of Australian convict life, that was Quintus Serviton (1831), but a vivid, and the earliest, picture of female convicts in domestic service. Read on …

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Doomsday Book (1992) is an award winning SF work by a (female) US author, which is mostly a stock standard Oxford University don adventure story/Hist.Fic, which Melanie/Grab the Lapels and I agreed to read together and review in the first week in May [Since I wrote that, Melanie has pulled out. We are struggling to find books we both like].

The SF bit is that it is set in the future (the 2050s) and that ‘historians’ have access to software which will transport them into the past (and hopefully bring them back).

The uncanny bit, given when it was published, is that there is an outbreak of a fatal influenza virus centred on Oxford which causes the government to immediately contain Oxford within hard borders – which works, given that the virus doesn’t break out – but mask wearing is pretty laissez faire, and within the hard border the virus spreads alarmingly. As we experienced/continue to experience with Covid-19, doctors and hospitals are overrun.

The Hist.Fic section, which feels like the majority of the novel, is life in a C14th village 30 or 40 kms outside Oxford. I’m not sure about the name (of the book). The original Doomsday Book was the record of a survey of all the shires undertaken in 1085. Kivrin, the young female historian who takes a trip back to just before Christmas 1320, has access to descriptions of all the villages she might land amongst, including an archeological dig taking place outside Oxford in the ‘present day’, and also makes a record of her own – speaking as though praying, to a recorder which looks like a bone spur (in case she dies, is unable to return).

As usual, I am reviewing an audiobook from imperfect memory, supplemented by Wikipedia, weeks later and with many other books in between. But this is my overview. Once Kivrin has been transported we switch backwards and forwards between the parallel stories of Oxford in the 2050s and the same part of England in the 1300s, at the same time of the year, the days before and after Christmas, though, for no doubt historically accurate reasons, the calendars don’t line up, or at least the Christmas Days don’t.

Kivrin’s superior in the History Dept is Prof Gilchrist at Balliol, but her friend and mentor is Prof Dunworthy (from another College). The actual time transfer is done by Dunworthy’s tech, but from Balliol. Immediately after the transfer that tech gets seriously ill and is hospitalized in a coma. Gilchrist, who is a pompous ass, closes down the transfer site and it eventually appears, thereby loses all the data needed to return Kivrin to the ‘present’.

Dunworthy’s best friend is the doctor, Mary Ahrens, who is in charge of controlling the epedemic, whose outbreak coincides with Kivrin’s time travel. Her 12 year old great nephew, Colin, is travelling by train to spend christmas with her when the hard border is imposed, but he sneaks through it anyway. Dr Ahrens is naturally fully occupied, so she offloads Colin onto Dunworthy, and he spends the whole course of the novel doing boyish adventurous things in that old Enid Blyton spirit. As Dunworthy does in a more John Buchan-ish way.

Kivrin’s landing date, 1320, has been chosen to avoid the Black Death, which arrived in England in the 1340s, and she has anyway been fully vaccinated and pumped full of anti-virals. On arrival though, she, like the tech, is seriously ill. She is found in the woods and taken to a (pretty rough) manor house some miles away. Which means she has only a vague idea of her landing point, to which she must return on a given date if she is to be recovered to the 2050s.

She is accepted into the household as a lady with amnesia who has been set upon by brigands, and, when she has recovered, takes a role of something like governess. From there, the bulk of the novel is to do with her discovering where and when she is, and her growing relationship with the family – all women, the men have been detained in Bath for a lawsuit, but also for other reasons which slowly become clear – and with the primitive village priest.

Dunworthy meanwhile must defeat Gilchrist’s obstruction in order to effect Kivrin’s recovery; must keep his college, which has been filled with refugees, including a party of stranded American bell ringers, fed and happy; must of course deal with the epidemic gaining strength around him, and with the strong rumour that it was caused by ‘leakage’ from Kivrin’s time-travel.

There is another strand to do with an American grad student who has the ‘dig’ excavating the village and church which was Kivrin’s objective, and who begins to look in the churchyard for Kivrin’s skeleton (and the tell-tale bone spur).

And like all good Oxford don adventures, it all ties together in a satisfactory, intellectually stimulating, and entirely non-sexual way. Warmly recommended.

My reaction though, was that I had had enough of well-written, character-driven women’s SF (thinking also of Margaret Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time) and so I immersed myself for a satisfying 18 hours in the ‘straight’ (ie. boys’) SF Zero Point by Neil Asher; with a wicked, Stalinist Earth Government seeking to gain control of a space station whose ‘owner’ has expanded his mind throughout the ship; and a rebel base on Mars. It felt like home!


Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, 1992. Audible version, 2008, read by Jenny Sterlin. 26 hours

The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, Henry Kingsley

For a long time in Australia, up until at least the 1980s, the only Nineteenth century Australian books in print were Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1870), Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1882) and, to a lesser extent, Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859). Even today, along with Lawson and Paterson, these three are the only ‘old’ books you will consistently come across in bookshops.

I have written often enough about the role of Dale Spender in getting our early women writers back into print, in Pandora and Penguin in the 1980s, though whether they still are is another matter, and maybe all we have left is Virago. Whatever we might tell ourselves about our urbanity and sophistication, Australians have an endless fascination with men being virile in the Bush.

The Recollections must have remained pretty well-known for at least half a century after publication, as Furphy in Such is Life (1903) went to some pains to express his contempt for the Buckleys – Kingsley’s English gentlefolk who take up a grazing property in the Australian Alps. In fact, a search of Trove shows that The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn ran as a serial in country newspapers in 1871 and again in 1894.

Written in 1859, after be had been five years in Australia, Henry Kingsley’s Geoffry Hamlyn, now appearing in a new edition, published by Ward, Lock, and Bowden Limited (of London and Melbourne) deserves the welcome which one gives to an old and cherished friend. [from The Australasian (Melbourne), Sat 8 Dec 1894].

I can’t find any reviews, but in 1910, the novel was being run for a third, or more likely, fourth, time. One introduction concludes: “It is almost unnecessary to note that the justly celebrated author of Westward Ho !, Charles Kingsley, was our author’s brother”. I’m afraid I only know Charles for The Water Babies which Gee insisted I read to her over a long series of nights, protesting if I ever seemed to be ‘skipping’ (which I would if I could get away with it).

Joseph Furphy writes: “Those whose knowledge of the pastoral regions is drawn from a course of novels of the Geoffry Hamlyn class, cannot fail to hold a most erroneous notion of the squatter. Of course we use the term ‘squatter’ indifferently to denote a station-owner, a managing partner, or a salaried manager”. There are “a thousand types”, but none of them include “the slender-witted, virgin souled, overgrown schoolboys who fill Henry Kingsley’s exceedingly trashy and misleading novel with their insufferable twaddle.” (Such is Life, 164)

Langa-Willi, Skipton, Vic.

Henry Kingsley (1830-1876) left Oxford without graduating and came out to Australia in 1853 to join in the Gold Rush. “For some time Kingsley had little or no money and carried his swag from station to station. Philip Russell stated in 1887 that he employed Kingsley at his station Langa-Willi, and that Geoffry Hamlyn (1859) was begun there. Miss Rose Browne, daughter of Rolf Boldrewood, stated it was on her father’s suggestion that Kingsley began to write. Russell’s story is confirmed by her further statement that her father gave Kingsley a letter to Mr Mitchell of Langa-Willi, that he stayed with Mitchell, and there wrote Geoffry Hamlyn.” (wikipedia). Kingsley returned to England in 1857, wrote some more, and died of cancer of the tongue aged 46.

If you’re wondering about that photo, Victoria’s Western District, the home of our squatting aristocracy, looks more like England than it does like the rest of Australia.

The novel begins with some very tedious, and very Victorian – meaning the era – opening chapters. Introducing first Hamlyn and the Buckleys, in 1857, in oldish age on the verandah of an Australian homestead, about whom Hamlyn has written a book; and then going back half a century to establish the various families on their estates in England.

We’ll ignore their antecedents, and by say, the 1820s, all the principal characters of the novel were gathered in or around a Devon village, Drumston. They are the Buckleys, who, no longer able to afford its upkeep, have given up their ancient estate, Clere and moved into (youthful) semi-retirement; their baby son, Sam; the widowed vicar, his spinster sister Miss Thornton, and his wilful daughter, Mary; Mary’s cousin, Tom Troubridge; Hamlyn; his friend Jim Stockton; Dr Mulhaus, a German aristocrat; George Hawker, son of a villianous farmer and his gypsy ‘housekeeper’, Madge; William Lee, a convict escaped from Tasmania and his off-sider Dick.

George Hawker is led, rather willingly, into a life of crime and gambling by William Lee. Mary is an heiress twice over, and moreover is keen on Hawker, who can act the gentleman as necessary; so Hawker runs off with her to London where they are married, she gets pregnant and he runs through her first fortune. Mary finds her way home, running into Hawker’s cousin and the mother of another of his children along the way. The Vicar dies.

Stockton, who Mary should have married, goes to NSW with Hamlyn, where they take up land and prosper. The Buckley’s decide that sounds like the way to revive their own fortunes and head off after them. Dr Mulhaus, Troubridge, Mary with her son Charles, and Miss Thornton, her aunt, decide to accompany them.

You may remember that when the various sides of Miles Franklin’s family arrived in Sydney, they were forced to go south, into the mountains at the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, for free land. Hamlyn and Stockridge have land further south again, on the far side of the mountains where the Snowy rises and rushes south into Bass Strait. Out one day looking for a lost bull, they come across, purely by accident, a party of travellers. Yes, it’s the Buckleys.

Mary Hawker and Tom Troubridge (he’s her cousin remember) take up land on the edge of the mountains, and the Buckleys take up land some miles further out into (relatively) open country, in what is today East Gippsland (Victoria). Dr Mulhaus lives with the Buckleys, and the reformed William Lee is their overseer. Dick turns up one day in the bush, and he becomes Hamlyn’s manservant, because of course he does.

There are a couple of aristocratic families nearby – a widow with a son and two daughters, Capt Brentwood with a son, and a daughter, Alice, away at school, and some Irish families who of course are not aristocratic (and have rather more children). Listen, it’s just an ordinary British adventure book, with all the prejudices that implies. But it also just happens to be the first set in the Australian bush, which is rather better described than you might hope.

A new heaven and a new earth! Tier beyond tier, height above height, the great wooded ranges go rolling away westward, till on the lofty skyline they are crowned with a gleam of everlasting snow. To the eastward they sink down, breaking into isolated forest-fringed peaks, and rock-crowned eminences, till with rapidly straightening lines they fade into the broad grey plains, beyond which the Southern Ocean is visible by the white sea-haze upon the sky.

The properties prosper. The young men grow up together, with little education except that Dr Mulhaus acts as tutor to Sam Buckley. Alice comes home and is of course the most beautiful, intelligent and good natured girl that Hamlyn has ever seen. A notorious bushranger turns out to be another native of Drumston. There’s an exciting battle (if you want some real colonial bloodthirstiness check out the rape of the bridal party in Ralph Rashleigh).

Everyone makes their fortune – without the Goldrush being mentioned, though much of Sam’s comes from speculating in Melbourne property (plus ca change, what) – and they all go back to Britain (or Germany) and resume their rightful titles.

Seeing as these fortunes have all been made on someone else’s land, let’s have a look at that. “The land referred to as ‘East Gippsland’ is country that spans three indigenous nations, these are the nations of Bidewell, Yuin, Gunnaikurnai and Monero (Ngarigo). These nations never ceded sovereignty and continue their custodianship of the land of waters within so called ‘East Gippsland'” (here).

At this point trucking calls. I have two trips back to back, and no time for writing. As I have quite a bit to say about Hamlyn’s unselfconscious settler-colonialism, I will post at this point and write up his representation of settler-Aboriginal interactions as soon as I can.


Charles Kingsley, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, first pub. 1859. 474pp.

The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler

12 Books of Boyhood. #4

The Way of All Flesh (1903) is a searing indictment of Victorian (era) thought and parenting. Apparently. Which had to wait until after the author’s death to be published. I say apparently because it is hard for us at this distance to understand what a profound effect Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859), in particular, had on Church of England orthodoxy, though maybe not so hard for those living in America’s bible belt.

Commenting on her own blog recently, Melanie (Grab the Lapels) wrote “if I look at a character like Mrs. Jellyby [Dickens, Bleak House], I might assume all Victorian parents were horrible, neglectful religious zealots.” If you read The Way of All Flesh, you would be certain of it.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902), the freethinking Victorian whom George Bernard Shaw deemed “the greatest writer of the latter half of the nineteenth century” was … the son of an Anglican clergyman … In 1858 he earned a degree in classics from St John’s College, Cambridge, but after a crisis of faith, he refused ordination in the ministry … Following a bitter quarrel with his father … he immigrated to New Zealand and soon prospered as a sheep rancher … During this period his study of The Origin of the Species caused him to further question the tenets of Christianity.

introductory bio.

Butler returned to England in 1864, studied without great success to be a painter, then “in 1872 published Erewhon, a Utopian satire on Victorian society that EM Forster later called a work of genius”, but which led to him being banned from his parents’ home. “About this time he began writing The Way of All Flesh, a thinly disguised account of his own upbringing aimed at exposing the self-righteous hypocrisy underlying Victorian family life and its bourgeois values.”

He wrote no other fiction, rather concentrating on a series of works on the implications of Darwinism.

I read The Way of All Flesh for my matric, at a time when my relations with my ambitious, remote father were frosty to say the least, and it reinforced everything I felt.

The central character of the novel is Ernest Pontifex born in 1835, the same year as the author. But the author sets up the story by having the narrator, Edward Overton, b.1802, grow up, the vicar’s son, in the same village as Ernest’s great-grandfather, John Pontifex, an old man by the time Overton remembers him. John Pontifex, a carpenter, had prospered and become a land owner. His son, George, had been sent to be apprenticed to a publisher of religious works, had inherited the business, and he too had prospered. So that George’s children, all around Overton’s age, and whom he knew from their infrequent visits to the older Pontifexes, felt themselves to be rather above their grandparents.

George’s wife dies early on and his children – Eliza, Maria, John, Theobald and Althea – have only a remote relationship with their father who all their lives holds over them the threat of censure and disinheritance. Eventually John is taken into the business and Theobald goes up to Cambridge to become a clergyman. Eliza and Maria become spinsters and in old age are quite poor. Althea is loved by Overton, but she insists on being ‘just friends’. She doesn’t marry, but is well off.

So Butler’s first step is to build up a picture of Theobald – who will eventually be our hero, Ernest’s, father – as brought up without a mother, by a stern and effectively, unloving parent; sent off to a boy’s boarding school and then Cambridge; and knowing little of either affection or women; “… he had come to dislike women, as mysterious beings whose ways were not his ways, nor their thoughts as his thoughts.” Which was pretty well the conclusion I had reached about both the author and his narrator by the end of the book.

Theobald, after a number of years of being engaged to Christina, the daughter of another vicar, is finally brought to the altar. He takes a living, and Christina bears him three children – Ernest, Joseph and Charlotte. And so, from pages 60-200, we deal with Ernest’s unhappy childhood and school days. (Studying for the clergy at university takes another 50 pages, and the remaining 180 or so take us through the first decade of his adulthood).

Until he was old enough to go away to school, Ernest was taught by his father, who made rules in the expectation and hope that they would be broken and who rewarded all infractions with whipping (I assume the author means caning).

Christina did not remonstrate with Theobald concerning the severity of the tasks imposed upon their boy, nor yet as to the continual whippings that were found necessary at lesson times. Indeed, when during any absence of Theobald’s the lessons were entrusted to her, she found to her sorrow that it was the only thing to do, and she did it no less effectually than Theobald himself; nevertheless she was fond of her boy, which Theobald never was, and it was long before she could destroy all affection for herself in the mind of her first-born. But she persevered.

My case wasn’t so bad, but reading this you could weep for the author.

Christina is pictured as silly and sly, getting on Ernest’s good side only to betray him to his father. Ernest goes away to school and isn’t popular. Many pages later Overton says, “I may spare the reader more details about my hero’s school days” and I will too.

At university Ernest starts off with the Evangelicals and ends up with the High Church. The arguments that go with this no doubt reflect Butler’s own at the same time, but the secular reader will find them hard going. Ernest is ordained, and chooses to live in the slums in the parish (in London) where he is one of two curates. He is fleeced of the money he had from his father; feeling his oats and coming belatedly to understand that the young women in the rooms above him in his boarding house are prostitutes, he propositions/assaults a young women who isn’t; is sent to jail; and emerges to find that he is destitute.

He has more to bear, quite a bit of which is driven by Butler’s dislike of women it seems to me; but eventually Ernest finds his way through; comes into an inheritance and settles to a life of bachelorhood writing on science and philosophy.

Stuck as I was at 17 with a distant and autocratic father, and looking for a way out of the Church of England which religion my father preached but rarely practiced (he was a lay preacher), I can why The Way of All Flesh appealed so strongly, but I can’t see that its relevance has extended into the twenty first century.


Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, first pub. 1903. My ed. The Modern Library/Random House, New York, 1998. 430pp.

Book #5, to be reviewed at the end of May will be: Jack London, The Iron Heel

For future months I will select from:
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Leslie Charteris, Enter the Saint
Georges Simenon, Act of Passion
Jane Grant, Come Hither Nurse (jointly with Doctor in the House?)
Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil
William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: the Left-Wing Alternative

LM Montgomery

Journal: 101

I don’t usually read or review children’s fiction, but Naomi at Consumed by Ink recently announced a Jane of Lantern Hill read-along, and I am happy to publicize it. I must have been bored, or just unable to sleep when I read her post as I found JoLH on Project Gutenberg and read it overnight.

Melanie would ask, Did I like it? It was ok. I don’t mind YA but this was younger again. Still, the story made sense and held together well with the right number of ups and downs (and a soppy ending).

LM Mongomery is famous of course for the Anne of Green Gables books set on Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, Canada (map), just north of Nova Scotia. Not having sisters I never read Anne of Green Gables as a kid but listened to it as an audiobook a few years ago when Melanie was having a big LM Montgomery splurge.

I’ll link you to the eighth and final AoGG review on Grab the Lapels, which has links to all the others, and to Melanie’s (scathing) review of Montgomery’s autobiography/puff piece, The Alpine Path. Melanie’s take on the pressures leading Montgomery to write books she didn’t particularly like is worth reading.

Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942) had published the eight Anne of Green Gables books between 1908 and 1921. Wiki says she wrote 50 novels in all, plus short stories and poetry. Jane of Lantern Hill (1937) appears to be her last novel (bar a ninth AoGG, The Blythes are Quoted, published in 2009).

So what can I say about Jane. She’s 11 and lives with her mother in her grandmother’s posh house in a once grand street in Toronto

[Grandmother] had come there as the bride of Robert Kennedy when Gay Street was the last word in streets and 60 Gay, built by Robert’s father, one of the finest “mansions” in Toronto. It had never ceased to be so in her eyes. She had lived there for forty-five years and she would live there the rest of her life. Those who did not like it need not stay there. This, with a satirically amused glance at Jane, who had never said she didn’t like Gay Street. But grandmother, as Jane had long ago discovered, had an uncanny knack of reading your mind.

1927 Cadillac sedan

Jane’s beautiful mother, seemingly, lives the high life, out to dinners and parties every night, though it soon turns out that she, like Jane, is unhappy under Grandmother’s iron fist in a velvet glove rule. Jane is driven to school each day in an enormous Cadillac, but has no particular friends there.

Her dearest friend is the orphan Jody, also 11, who works as a maid at the faded mansion next door, now a boarding house.

Various circumstances lead to Jane spending her summer holidays on Prince Edward Island, in a house on a little farm at Lantern Hill. There’s a duplicitous though seemingly nice aunt in the picture, lots of island children who think Jane is the bees knees. And of course, happy endings for Jane, Jody and Mother.

I will be interested to see what memories this brings back for Naomi and her friends who read it as children.

As for Journal stuff, I’ve had two or three weeks without work since my last report. The mid-west is still wet, too wet for me to get in with a second load, and today (Thursday as I write) there is a cyclone coming in over the coast to the north which will probably make the mid-west wetter still but hopefully will not prevent me doing the wide load to Onslow I have booked for the weekend.

I’ve read through Naomi’s post a number of times and I’m blowed if I can work out when the read-along is to take place but maybe she’ll see this post and let us know.


LM Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill, first pub. 1937

Marshmallow, Victoria Hannan

April 1 was release day for Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy. Off I went to my local indi, who disappointingly as usual, had Wright tucked away in a corner and a (presumably) new Atwood front and centre of New Releases. One book is never enough and so I picked up Marshmallow and a new to me Octavia Butler, Fledgling. It’s an expensive hobby, not much change out of a hundred bucks there.

You’ll remember I reviewed Hannan’s debut, Kokokomo, just a few weeks ago. In Comments, Kate W said that she had read Marshmallow (I’ll find and link to her review at the end) and thought this time Hannan had spread herself a bit thin, writing from the perspective of each of the five protagonists. I on the other hand (unexpectedly) enjoyed it and thought it the right approach for a novel whose subject is the effect of a tragedy on a friendship group.

Of course friendship groups are something I only know about from watching Friends and Big Bang Theory – which I still do on Facebook, more often than I like to say. Russell and Cam and Di and so on who were my friendship group for the three years I was at or around uni were never anything like Nathan, Annie, Ev, Claire and Al in this book; and anyway, even leaving aside me getting married and going off truck driving, the others soon all went their separate ways (The following year I was meant to come back from Queensland for Cam’s wedding but YB was crook, it would have involved hitchhiking, time off work; and that was the end of that).

Once again Hannan uses the setting she seems to know best, Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, this time mostly Brunswick and North Fitzroy, along St Georges Rd. Plus a look at Toorak, Melbourne’s most expensive suburb, which Nathan comes from (and Russell too from my own friendship group – Nathan’s parent’s house seemed very familiar). The timing is just two days: from the morning of the day before, to the evening of the first anniversary of the tragedy. But of course, using recollection to circle round and round, from their first days at uni together – they’re now in their late thirties – to close in on the tragedy itself.

All five were there when the tragedy occurred, and feel some level of blame. Nathan and Annie, childhood sweethearts now married, were at the centre of it; Ev to a large extent, is the rock as the others fall to pieces around her; Al and Claire, a couple since uni, are spiralling apart, with Al routinely drunk and Claire, a high-powered lawyer, working ridiculous hours.

[Al] read the same articles with the same photo of the smiling boy. Nothing new. Nothing damning. Yet it bought him no peace, no solace. It didn’t change the fact of what had happened nearly a year ago.

He knew he should stop and look through his inbox, write a to-do list, get his shit together. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t stop looking, couldn’t stop venturing off his now-daily anxiety tour of the internet.

That’s from chapter One. There are 27 chapters in all, averaging eleven pages per chapter. Each chapter a close third-person perspective on one protagonist. Some start out observational and it takes a minute to work out whose chapter it is. Annie, who is closest to the tragedy, gets just one or two pages each time, and we see her mostly from the ‘outside’.

I guess the central theme is that one grief brings out another. To deal with the immediate grief you have to deal with everything. Al with a friend who died when he was a teenager; Nathan with remote and controlling parents; all of them with guilt.

‘Why did you lie to old what’s-her-chops about how they’re doing?’ Al asked.

‘Because I don’t think either of them would appreciate me telling Patti fucking Saunders that they’re not coping at all,’ Claire said. ‘That Ev’s not coping, that we’re not coping.’ Al didn’t say anything. Claire kept going. ‘Grief is a rollercoaster ride, Al. And it’s cumulative. These feelings … they can bring up stuff about others you’ve lost.

She heard Al sigh.

Like your mum. for example,’ Claire added carefully.

‘Don’t bring her into this.’

Right at the end, it all comes together a bit too neatly for my taste. Life’s just not that good, even when mummy and daddy have given you (Nathan) the money to buy a million dollar inner-suburban terrace.

As I said, I enjoyed it, but for me Marshmallow was ‘just’ Grief Lit., well written general fiction. Hannan is now at that point in her career where she must decide if she wants to go down the popular, and profitable, Liane Moriarty path or if she is to use her considerable skills as a writer and observer of Gen whateverthisis behaviour to be the next Charlotte Wood, say. (I suppose I could say the Australian Sally Rooney, but to do that she would have to do away with the prop of ‘issues’ and I’m not sure she can, or will).


Victoria Hannan, Marshmallow, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 292pp

Kate’s review in BooksareMyFavouriteandBest (here)

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

It seems to me that many of the commentators on Cold Comfort Farm (1932) missed the Note at the beginning: “The action of the story takes place in the near future”.

One set of notes for students says “The events described in the novel take place over a five-month period from February through June. Given the book’s publication date, the reader can assume that the year is 1931”, ignoring that one character is mentioned as having fought in a war in 1946.

What made me go back and check though was when Flora, our protagonist, phones a friend in London from a phone box in the wilds of Sussex, he is able to observe her on his television screen, talking and fidgeting. Could I write a review of Cold Comfort Farm as Science Fiction? I thought about it but it was beyond me.

By being set in 1946 or 7, Gibbons’ failure to predict WWII leaves a hole, which of course most readers, ignoring that it’s set in the future, don’t notice. But there is also the absence of the Depression, which I and many readers know best through Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London set at about the time this was being written. Not that conditions at the eponymous farm are much above Depression-level!

It’s possible also that Gibbons saw her use of aeroplanes for personal transport as futuristic, though she doesn’t really describe anything that was not possible at the time of writing.

Gibbons, born in 1902, was a poet and journalist, London born and bred, bought up amongst the comfortable middle classes. Cold Comfort Farm is a parody not just of rural dramas, which were popular at the time, but of authors as notable as Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence, and I imagine Gibbons writing it from the comfort of home, making up plants, farm implements and regional dialect as she goes.

The story is that Flora Poste at age 19 loses both her parents and finds that the £100/year left to her is rather less than she expected, and so she must impose herself on distant relatives, settling on the Stackadders at Cold Comfort Farm in the wilds of Sussex, near the village of Howling; although hardly remote by any other than English standards, the nearest station, Beershorn, being 4½ hours by slow train from London Bridge (Google Maps says 50-60 miles).

**Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.

The farm was crouched on a bleak hillside, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village at Howling, a mile away. Its stables and outhouses were built in the shape of a rough octangle surrounding the farmhouse itself… The outhouses were built of roughcast stone, with thatched roofs …

That para, beginning **, is the first of quite a number spread through the book, never explained that I can see, but looking like insertions from Flora’s writing journal. A page further on, “Under the ominous bowl of the sky a man was ploughing the sloping field immediately below the farm” with what appears to be a single furrow plough drawn by two beasts, horses or oxen, Gibbons doesn’t say. “Every now and again, when he came to a corner of the field and was forced to tilt the scranlet of his plough almost on to its axle to make the turn, he glanced up at the farm where it squatted on the gaunt shoulder of the hill.”

Scranlet is a made-up word, one of a number. Searching the internet you can see the puzzlement of readers coming across them. The best known is “sukebind”, a weed whose voluptuous flowering is symbolic of the reign of the family’s reclusive matriarch, Ada Doom.

There are a number of generations of Stackadders at the farm, forbidden to ever leave by Ada Doom who has been deranged since seeing something nasty in the woodshed as a child; various servants, farm labourers, and as it turns out, secret wives.

Flora is met at Beershorn station by 90 year old Adam, in a horse and buggy; arrives to find the great rambling house in the final stages of dirt and disorder, but has been granted her own bedroom and parlour, perhaps to right the ever unnamed wrong done her father (ignoring the fact that it was her mother who was connected to the Stackadders); and promptly sets about insinuating herself into the running of the property.

The people of the farm are as dark and moody as the farm itself. Amos, the elder under Ada, is a hellfire and damnation preacher; his son Rueben, has ambitions for the farm which he is prevented from carrying out by Ada’s tight control of the purse strings; there is a young maidservant living in a shack in the fields, barely able to work she is so constantly pregnant; Adam the yardman is responsible both for the four cows – who are constantly losing bits: legs, hoofs, horns – and for the dishes from which he cletters dried porridge with a thorn twig; Seth, who must beat off women with a stick, “off a-mollocking in the village”, an activity which results in pregnancies, when he would rather be watching movies; Elfine, 17, a fine beauty ” wild and shy as a Pharisee of the woods”.

The expectations I had at this point, early on, were for a farce, a series of rural disasters, as indeed there might have been as various animals and workers are lost down wells, and the farm itself seemingly operating under one or more curses; but I was overlooking the opening epigram, from Mansfield Park, “Let others dwell on guilt and misery.”

Flora glides through all opposition, not least from Ada Doom and the fear she engenders in all her family, to arrive at not one but half a dozen happy endings.

Cold Comfort Farm would have been a wonderful book to have grown up with and to have become more familiar and more loved with each re-reading but I have, sadly, come to it only in old age. Ms 10 will be 11 in October and this must be her present.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, first pub. 1932. 233pp

The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham

12 Books of Boyhood. #3

John Wyndham (1903-1969) is the one Science Fiction writer most of us have read. I was probably introduced to him by having to read The Kraken Wakes in fifth form. I can’t say when I first read The Midwich Cuckoos but the edition I have now, with the cover above, is a 1976 reprint.

Mainstream SF begins, I think, in US, and specifically New York, pulp magazines after WWII. We were wondering where Wyndham, who is of course English, fitted in with this: if he was part of that mainstream or a side track carrying on after HG Wells (1866-1946). But there is more of a crossover than you might think (than I thought, anyway). So Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) for instance, was serialized in magazines in both England and the US in 1897. And Wyndham also was published initially in US pulps.

‘Worlds to Barter’, Wyndham’s first story, 1931

[Wyndham] first started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1925. From 1930 till 1939 he wrote stories of various kinds under different names, almost exclusively for American publications…. In 1946 [after War service] he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’. (Penguin bio.)

The Day of the Triffids (1951)
The Kraken Wakes (1953)
The Chrysalids (1955)
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
The Seeds of Time (1956) short stories
The Outward Urge (1959) with Lucas Parkes
Trouble with Lichen (1960)
Consider Her Ways and Others (1961) short stories
Chocky (1968)
were all subsequently published by Penguin.

Two further novels were published posthumously, Web (1979) and Plan for Chaos (2009) (Wiki)

Despite his publication in the US, Wyndham writes a very English story, set in English villages with English upper middle class, male heroes.

The English village of fiction consists of a pub, a church, houses and surrounding farms. The lower classes – the tradesmen, farmworkers, shopkeepers, farmers, all their wives – are rarely named, forming a bucolic background for the people that matter: the squire, the vicar, two or three genteel spinsters, a writer maybe, bankers and other city chaps commuting to the city, and of course their wives and older daughters. And so it is with Midwich, though, as it has no access to a railway, instead of city chaps there is a nearby research establishment in a converted Victorian mansion, the Grange.

Richard, our narrator, and his wife return from a trip to London to discover a police road block preventing them from reaching home. They can see ahead of them on the road a pile up of a bus and a few cars. When they attempt to walk home, cross country, first the wife collapses, then Richard. Eventually a policeman with a canary in a cage determines that there is a perfectly circular boundary around Midwich which may not be crossed by man or beast without the man or beast dropping to the ground unconscious, and on retrieval, unharmed. And it is further determined this boundary is almost certainly a dome, a hemisphere.

The airforce is called in, and photograph, at the centre of this containment zone, a large egg. A day later, the egg and the containment zone are gone. Most of the inhabitants awake unharmed, though one family has died in a house fire and five or six others having collapsed outside have died of the cold. One man has died in the garden of a woman whose husband was away, and she cops a beating for her trouble.

It is some weeks before the realization sets in that every woman of the appropriate age in Midwich, 65 in total, is pregnant. (In passing I am pleased that Wyndham made the lower limit of this appropriate age 16 or 17). Of course quite a number of especially the single women and girls are suicidal (and that wife cops another beating).

Richard is asked by his friend Bernard, who is in one of those ministries covered by the Official Secrets Act, to act as the ministry’s eyes and ears. The squire, Zellaby, is a philosopher of some note and the three, with sometimes the Vicar and sometimes their various wives, when they are not off making tea, attempt to nut out what is going on.

The vicar’s wife and the squire’s wife call a meeting of all the women, explain the situation as best they can and they all undertake to support each other. When the children are born, the squire’s wife, Angela, has an ordinary son but all the rest of the children, or as they become, the Children, are identical – 30 boys and 28 girls (there’s a couple of deaths) – with large golden eyes.

It slowly becomes apparent that the Children are able to exert control over first, their mothers, then, over anyone nearby. The wifebeater’s child is discovered with a bruise to his cheek and the wifebeater nearby having apparently beaten himself half to death. As the children get older, growing at twice the rate of normal children, the Ministry converts the research establishment to a residential school and all the Children move there.

When a Child’s life is threatened and one of the villagers dies, Zellaby deduces that the Children are thinking as one – or rather, as two: all the boys and all the girls.

I won’t spoil the novel for you. Wyndham utilizes Zellaby to do a great deal of philosphizing about the nature of Evolution, the unsatisfactoryness of ‘missing links’ and whether or not the Children represent the next step up, a replacement for Homo Sapiens. It becomes clear Bernard hasn’t been telling Richard and Zellaby everything that the Ministry knows. It all comes to a climax very quickly.

I’m still not clear whether I’ve read this before, but it takes the reader back a long way, to those few brief years after WWII when Britain thought it was still the centre of the world. What the Americans thought of it I can’t imagine.


John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos, Michael Joseph/Penguin, London, 1957. 220pp,

Kokomo, Victoria Hannan

Bodies in the sand, Tropical drink melting in your hand
We’ll be falling in love, To the rhythm of a steel drum band.
Down in Kokomo

[Beach Boys, 1988]

Not deathless prose (or verse) Not sure why Hannan’s novel has that name; neither the name nor the cover do the novel any favours. As various characters point out, Kokomo qua tropical resort is not even a place, the only real Kokomo is a middling industrial city in Indianna. Have you been there Melanie? Is there a statue to the Beach Boys?

So the name’s a distraction, doubly with its vaguely Japanese feel. This is a novel set in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Northcote or Preston, I forget now, about a thirtyish (Anglo) woman dealing with her widowed mother dealing with grief and guilt; dealing with glass ceilings (and glass walls); dealing with her unsatisfactory love life; dropping – at least temporarily – a lover and a good career in London to return home, to her mother and to the Chang’s across the road whose house she grew up in as much as her own, whose children were effectively her only brother and sisters.

I read Kokomo as an audiobiook, a freeby from Audible. I thought last trip I would listen to it again, refresh it in my mind, but more exciting options intervened, so I will have to make do with what memories looking stuff up prompt. First cab: Kate W. Surely “dealing with grief and guilt” means she’ll have a review and she does (here), from nearly two years ago.

Kate discusses Hannan beginning with a “sex scene”. In fact, the novel’s first words are : “Mina knew in that moment what love is.” The protagonist Mina (Jasmina) is about to take her lover and workmate Jack into her mouth when the phone rings. And she answers it!

Next we know, Mina is on a plane from London to Melbourne, and Jack has been left hanging (or standing). Her mother has been seen down the shops, at the chemist, having apparently gone outside her suburban home for the first time in 12 years, since the death of Mina’s father. Over the next two thirds of the novel, Mina waits, increasingly frantically, for Jack to answer her texts and emails. And I thought guys were thick.

Arrived in Melbourne, plopped down on her old bed, in her childhood bedroom, Mina finds her mother won’t talk to her, doesn’t want her there, is perfectly happy with daytime soaps and grocery deliveries to the door. Mina is forced into an aimless existence of polite small talk with her mother; hanging around the Chang’s; going out with Keira Chang, her lifelong Best Friend, whom she had left behind; running into the boyfriend she left behind; chasing up Shelley, her and Keira’s friend from university, now hopelessly lost to them in marriage, motherhood and upwardly mobile suburbia.

All this time Mina’s head is still in London. In her flat and Jack’s flat. In the advertising agency where she and relative newcomer Jack are joint department managers. Jack geeing up the troops, playing golf with the boss, screwing Mina. Mina falling in love, working back, getting presentations out on time and perfect. There’s a promotion coming up …

One day Mina sees her mother walking in the street with Arthur Chang, Keira’s father.

The voice of the novel changes from Mina’s first person to Elaine, her mother, in third person (and switches back briefly to Mina right at the end). And so Hannan slowly unravels the mystery of Elaine’s agoraphobia.

If you haven’t already read Kate’s review, do. She captures stuff that I (may have) thought about but couldn’t/didn’t commit to paper –

“Where this book really succeeds, is in how recognisable the uncertainties, introspection, and tensions are – a pause in the conversation that is a beat too long; a work colleague quietly but determinedly undermining you; the poorly disguised dismay of a friend when you drop in unannounced – in fleeting scenes, Hannan creates a gripping emotional narrative. And it culminates with the question, how do we manage the gap between what we have and what we need or want?”

And, like me, Kate loves that the author gets the feel of Melbourne just right.

Victoria Hannan is a Melbourne-based writer and photographer (website). Kokomo was her first novel. She now has a second out, Marshmallow (2022). I must read it.


Victoria Hannan, Kokomo, Hachette, 2020. Audiobook read by Liesl Pieters. 9 hrs 35 min.