Taboo, W.E. Harney

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In putting away Kim Scott’s Taboo after reading and writing it up for my last post (here) I saw I had another Taboo, a gift as it turns out from my father to his father for Christmas, 1944, the first book by white bushman cum writer Bill Harney (1895-1962) who mixed closely with the Indigenous people of northern Australia, in the cattle and fishing industries, and at the time this book was written, as a Native Affairs patrol officer.

Let me be clear that it is not my intention to endorse the views contained in this book, nor to offer it as alternative to Scott’s, but rather to make a critical reading of an old-fashioned account by an ostensibly sympathetic observer of peoples maybe only one generation removed from the “old ways”.

Harney’s Taboo is a collection of stories with an extended Introduction by the anthropologist AP Elkin (ADB). Elkin, in his time a noted defender of the rights of Aborigines, writes:

… Harney has lived in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, for about twenty years, contracting, trading and working at this, that and the other. From the moment he realized that the natives, though different from us, were human like ourselves, he has taken a sympathetic and intelligent interest in them, seeking to understand them.

He goes on to speculate on the causes of ‘aboriginal depopulation’, citing ‘clashes’, introduced diseases, and ‘psychological’: “the upsetting of that balance or equilibrium between man, his fellows and nature, which had been developed in the course of centuries” and which the coming of the white man brought to a sudden end.

… almost every story in this book is a concrete illustration of the change wrought in the natives’ manner of life by contact with the white man and his ways, and of the disastrous consequences.

Reverie: Harney sits on the beach with trepang curing, watching an old man singing dreamtime songs to children, and muses on similarities between cultures. “Their numerous customs, so like our own, point to a common origin.”

Cananda: A legend of love and jealousy recorded in the hope it may never be forgotten, tied to a story told by a white trader on a sailing vessel in the Gulf, of hearing the spirit of a man cry out overhead at the moment of his death a hundred miles away.

The Law:  A harsh story of Ramajerrie who refused to be a stockman but instead lived by raiding the bosses’ cattle, who took leniency as a sign to continue, so his little band of marauders were shot up and the survivors tricked into eating poisoned flour; and his son Ngiaroo, who was sceptical of traditional law and was killed for failing to give up his wife to an elder, while his killer, who did respect traditional law, is sentenced to jail.

The Secret: The sad tale of a man who saves the life of the policeman arresting him out of fear of being blamed, and is honoured for it; then saves the life of a little white girl through his own bravery, but is cursed and left to die for making her cry.

And so we go on with stories and photos and a great deal of Aboriginal language and knowledge. Stories of laws abandoned because traditional punishments are illegal under white man’s law; stories of white men misusing the law to prevent their ‘house gins’ being claimed in traditional marriages; and over and over again, stories of Indigenous people being murdered in the name of justice, or more often, just to prevent them from living and hunting on cattle pasture, which of course includes all the best water:

Nugget was of a different clay from Jack; he was a hard man. Pity help the native who crossed his path. Some of them tried it once, but he gave them a feed – rice flavoured with arsenic; and …

people heard of the murder [of Jack], and a body of white men with a policeman in charge started out in pursuit of the killers – a punitive expedition, the strong chasing the weak, killing all that came in their way, the innocent as well as the guilty. [The Good Samaritan]

I think however, that in his own mind at least, Harney’s thesis is that the Aborigines are/were a primitive (but interesting) people giving way to a superior civilization,

Of course, we smile at these simple people, with their foolish superstitions; nevertheless, I have found that behind their ideas is a deal of logic. [The Mumba]

And he is fair enough to point out that “we once hung camphor bags around children’s necks to keep away sickness” and that a great many whites wear the crucifixes and medallions of their own superstitions.

Let us end with Justice, the story of a man whose mother was chased over a cliff when he was a babe in arms, was brought up ‘white’, visited the city, but in his home town –

… saw natives led about on chains, prisoners for some paltry offence, being given a feed of half-cooked rice and then a drink of water just before they got to town, so that, as they marched down the street, the people were amazed at the way they were treated – they looked so full. The knowing ones laughed at the joke – the police did well out of the native arrests, as they received one shilling a feed per man.

He saw, “and being intelligent, understood”, and ran away to the bush, raising the “standard of revolt, carrying death to the white man in its trail”, until he and his little band were chased down and killed.

So these are stories which were current, no doubt well known and thought unexceptional, when John Howard (1939- ) was a boy and yet which, when they were revived and substantiated during his prime ministership, he mendaciously labelled as a “black armband” view of history.

 

W.E. Harney, Taboo, Australasian Publishing Co., Sydney, 1943

see also my post on Ion Idriess and particularly his novel Nemarluk which is from the same period and general location (here)

 

Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, Miles Franklin

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Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) is Miles Franklin’s second published novel. It’s set where it was written – at Penrith (called Noonoon in the novel) now an outer western suburb of Sydney, but then a separate country town where Franklin’s parents had moved after leaving their farm at Thornford and where Miles lived with them for part of 1904, three years and two unpublished novels after her runaway success with My Brilliant Career. In her Introduction, Jill Roe says that Franklin …

… has two main things to say, and says them in typically forthright style. The first is that marriage is a material question and should be treated as such. The second is that women are citizens in their own right, and should take their responsibilities seriously. Both points relate to the position of women and debate about it in Australia in the early twentieth century, and reflect Franklin’s increased feminist awareness and commitment.

Roe also points out that we should do well to take notice of Franklin, rather than second wave feminists – she instances Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police, but I would add Kay Schaffer – who see women in early Australian society as oppressed or irrelevant.

By contrast, Franklin presents a progressive, self-respecting and even prosperous female culture which is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of newly attained political status, participant in, rather than victim of, social forces.

Finally, Roe says, while we should not read fiction as documentary, Franklin writes an ‘astonishingly accurate’ account of electioneering in Penrith during the NSW 1904 state election, the first in which (white) women were permitted to vote, though maybe in stressing local issues, she underplays the Conservative’s great fear of the rise of Labor and Socialism.

So, the story. Dawn is an attractive young woman, living with her Grandmother Clay who has a large, old house on the banks of the Noonoon (Nepean) River, and who takes in paying guests, mostly over summer. The other members of the household are Carry – another young woman who shares housekeeping duties with Dawn, Mrs Clay’s brother ‘uncle’ Jake, who doesn’t do much, and Dawn’s grubby younger cousin, Andrew. The narrator, an older woman – thirtyish it later turns out, but grey haired – lately retired from the stage, has had to wait till autumn to become a boarder, so there are no summer staff – cooks and waiters and so on – and only one other guest, Miss Flip, “an orphan reared by a rich uncle”. Then there’s Mrs Bray, neighbour and gossip and Ernest Breslaw, a handsome young man, previously acquainted with the narrator, who appears serendipitously to rescue her from a rowing accident.

The unnamed narrator is an observer and occasional meddler in the action. She has a heart condition and is recuperating from a nervous breakdown after heartbreak. Miles was only 25 when she wrote this, but this foreshadows breakdowns she was to suffer herself – notably after the death of her sister only a few years later, and on her return from Serbia near the end of the Great War – and also the breakdown she ascribes to her heroine Bernice Gaylord in Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (review) written two decades later.

As in nearly all Franklin’s fiction there is a matriarch who is central to the action and usually from the NSW high country. In this case it is Grandma Clay, whose late husband had been the driver/operator of the mail coach servicing ‘Gool Gool’ (Tumut), the nearest town to Sybylla’s grandmother’s property in My Brilliant Career.

The various story lines are: the narrator’s attempts to match Dawn up with Breslaw, with more discussion on making a sensible match, rather than no match as in say My Career Goes Bung; Miss Flip’s “uncle” proves to be no uncle; and on choosing/voting for a good candidate rather than a particular party.

Franklin always struggled with plots but her descriptions are wonderful. And evocative – when I was little my grandparents’ farm didn’t have electricity, a lot of the outbuildings were thatched, horses were still used, cows were handmilked and grandma made her own cream and butter. Franklin writes of the daily ritual of pulling apart and washing the cream separator, which grandma would do in the outside laundry. It’s all so familiar (and I’m so old!). Here she describes the trains pulling through Penrith and heading up the mountain to Katoomba:

The little town retained a certain degree of importance as one of the busiest railway centres in the state, and its engine-sheds were the home of many locomotives. Here they were coaled, cleaned and oiled ere taking their stiff two-engine haul over the mountains to the wide, straight, pastoral and wheat-growing West; and their calling and rumbling made cheery music all the year round, excepting a short space on Sundays; while at night, as they climbed the crests of the mountain-spurs, every time they fired, the red light belching from their engine doors could be seen for miles down the valley.

Romances go as romances go; Grandma Clay is concerned about the perils of girls  marrying ‘up’; Dawn is inclined to marry any local yokel rather than be stuck at home; and the anti-marriage sentiment is mostly in the context of the election – men expecting that the women of the household will vote as directed (by them).

In fact, most of the book centres on the election, and when it was eventually published 4 or 5 years later, Franklin requested that publicity be directed at the women’s suffrage campaign in England where women were not to receive the vote fully until 1928.

There’s unfortunately quite a bit of gratuitous racism of the “even a gin wouldn’t behave so badly” variety, or the woman campaigner whose children were left to run about “so untended as to be indistinguishable from aboriginals”, and even if these are typical men’s views, Miles makes no attempt to counter them.

The incumbent makes his pitch to men in the bar where he can buy their votes with free grog, while the women mostly support the opposition candidate who is for temperance – a strong stream in the women’s movement when drunken husbands were a major problem. “The men on the Ministerial side were nearly gangrene with disgust, because, as one put it, “nearly all [the opposition candidate’s] men were women”.

Dawn becomes overwrought when one man, a neighbour, goes down the pub and leaves his wife to give birth alone, until Grandma comes to the rescue, and takes it all out on Ernest, who must be mollified by the narrator:

“Can you not grasp that she was irritated beyond endurance with the unwholesomeness of the whole system of life in relation to women, and that for the moment you appeared as one of the army of oppressors?”

After this, the “uncle”, whose perfidy has become known, is tarred and feathered (literally!) by Dawn and friends. Shades of #Harvey Weinstein, they tell him,

“Yes, good women have to continually suffer the degradation of your type in all life’s most sacred relations. They have to endure you at their board and in their homes, and leering at their sweet young daughters …”

Then the election. Miles is more concerned with women voting, and parliament therefore having to consider their interests than in who actually gets in. Then as now, there was no real difference in their policies, nor in the self interest of members on both sides. Interestingly, on the night following, the newspaper office has a scoreboard in the window, just as we do today on television, with the names of winners going up as they are declared elected.

The story glides slowly to its natural end. Miles Franklin is not a natural story-teller and this is a typically awkward account of love making (in the old fashioned sense!) though for once she has marriage on her mind, she was only 25 after all.What little narrative tension there is is in Dawn’s choice of suitor. But Franklin believes very strongly that the groom should be as pure as the bride and this limits her choices somewhat.

Overall, Franklin’s detailed account of electioneering and town meetings, of ‘everyday folk’ serving the railways and farming on the banks of Nepean, paints a brilliant picture of a few, important months in the life of one of Australia’s oldest white settlements.

 

Miles Franklin, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, first pub. 1909. This edition Virago, London, 1986 with introduction by Jill Roe. Cover painting, detail from “Cove on the Hawkesbury”, Charles Condor.


For links to all my other Miles Franklin posts I’ve replaced my Miles Franklin Central post with a page – ‘Miles Franklin’ in the menu overhead – or click here

Bohemians at the Bulletin, Norman Lindsay

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Illustration: Henry Lawson reproves Bert Stevens [clerk]
The founding of the Sydney Bulletin in 1880 by JF Archibald (and John Haynes, who does not appear to have played a part in its day to day operations), as a magazine of news, comment, short stories and poetry, marked a turning point in Australian nationalism, expressed in its banner “Australia for Australians” – famously changed in 1886 to “Australia for the White Man”. In 1894 Archibald employed AG Stephens, already a well-known literary critic, who began soliciting and commissioning literary works for his famous ‘Red Page’:

What readers could expect in the ‘Red Page’ was a potpourri of articles, reviews, extracts, letters, paragraphs, anecdotes and notes, occasionally with photographs or cartoons. The poem of the week, starred to indicate its quality, appeared in a top corner and in the bottom corner might be blunt, cruelly witty advice to rejected contributors. Stephens’ common practice was to spark controversy by attacking an established writer, such as Burns, Thackeray, Kipling, or Tennyson, thereby enticing correspondents as varied as Christopher Brennan or George Burns to attack and counter-attack, sometimes over weeks. It was heady stuff. (ADB)

In 1901 Norman Lindsay, then aged 21, came to the Bulletin as an illustrator, from Melbourne where he had been at art school. Although already married, he fancied himself as a carouser, a Cassanova, and produced endless drawings of naked women. Later in life he wrote some interesting fiction, mostly semi-autobiographical and boastful of his conquests, and of course the wonderful children’s book, The Magic Pudding (1918) prized by generations of young Legends.

In 1911 Lindsay went to England for a while and returned suffering a nervous breakdown -which he is happy to talk about in this book – which led him to buy Springwood in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney where he was to spend the rest of his life, and which was the setting for the movie Sirens (1994) starring Sam Neill (as Lindsay), Elle Macpherson and a young Hugh Grant.

In Bohemians at [orginally ‘of’] the Bulletin (1965) Lindsay writes short sketches of his interactions with Archibald, Stephens and some of his fellow contributors. Lindsay admires Archibald with whom he is largely in accord – including on the related subjects of buxom 14 year old girls and the entrapment of men by Rape Laws – and ends his piece on Archibald with:

We know that Archie endowed Australian art with the Archibald Bequest and bestowed on Sydney the splendid Archibald Memorial fountain, the only truly fine monument the city possesses… But he wrote his personality deeper on this country’s culture when he sought for and published the best poetry and prose and draughtsmanship it could produce, and fostered in it the spirit to envision life in its own terms and not on any culture borrowed from other countries.

On the other hand, Lindsay didn’t get on with AG Stephens and the things he writes about him are mostly spiteful – Stephens scuttling back to his office in the face of danger, and so on. Henry Lawson, Lindsay did not know very well, mostly seeing him as angry presence dashing in and out of the Bulletin offices, or cadging money for grog, and in fact he knew Bertha (Henry’s estranged wife) better, as she managed a picture gallery for George Robertson next door to Angus & Robertson’s bookshop:

I was holding a one-man show at the gallery, and happened to be in Mrs Lawson’s small office, finishing a pen sketch which had been commissioned, when she dashed in exclaiming breathlessly, “I can’t go out there. He’s only come in here to annoy me.” I glanced out to discover that “he” was Henry Lawson, who was going around making a pretence of looking at the pictures …

Steele Rudd, Lindsay met just the once (oddly, as Rudd lived in Sydney from 1903-08) seeing him as a yokel, though he was in fact a senior clerk in the Qld Public Service, but at least has this to say of him:

In his Dad and Mum and Dave and Joe he created idiosyncratic characters … and not just types as Lawson did with his Bills and Jims and Andys, who are all out of one mould, indistinguishable as personalities from each other.

With Banjo Paterson, an ‘aristocrat’ according to Lindsay, he was much more in sympathy and they would go horse riding together, having stables, paddocks (and grooms!) at their north shore properties.

I can’t ever recall discussing literature with him, nor did he place any accent on his contribution to it, which was a considerable one, and now seen in its significant relation to a national culture. By the fine quality of his ballads, he compressed into a few years the bridge between the folk-lore ballad and major poetry which the early Scotch and English balladists made for the great Elizabethan poets.

There are other once notable and now largely forgotten writers – Victor Daley, Rod Quinn, Jack Abbott, Bernard O’Dowd, Randolph Bedford, Hugh McCrae, Louis Stone (whose novel Jonah I must read) – many of whom Lindsay knew well. Lindsay is knowledgeable about poetry, as I am not, and gives a lively account of a period – more than a century ago now – which was still central to the study of Australian literature when this little book came out in the sixties.

He ends with thumbnail sketches of ‘Tom Collins’ (Joseph Furphy) and Miles Franklin, whom he met only briefly. Of Furphy, to whom Lindsay must have been introduced soon after he arrived at the Bulletin, he writes “I don’t remember a single thing he said”, though he does remember the fuss AG Stephens made publishing Such is Life and the great expectations he had for it.

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Miles Franklin in 1902 by Norman Lindsay

But Miles definitely made an impression!:

I came across gaping at this bright vision of girl in such a drab and dusty setting, and was introduced to her by A.G. [Stephens] – Miles Franklin! reality far outshone fancy’s portrait of her inspired by her novel [My Brilliant Career], and I went straight up in the air, bubbling an extravagant tribute to that work.

I have written before that Stephens, fearing Lindsay’s predatory disposition, would not let Lindsay see her downstairs, so he “never saw Miles again till she returned to Australia, and we were both middle-aged”, when she tells him he was the one member of the Bulletin staff whom she wished to meet, which he says he does not believe. However, in her own work, My Career Goes Bung or Cockatoos, I forget which, she has him present her with a book of his sketches (Jill Roe says the book was by Stephens but signed by Lindsay who had illustrated it). Strangely, this brief meeting, or at least its sequel, is described/imagined also by Kylie Tennant who has Franklin running into Barbara Baynton at a tram stop outside the Bulletin offices, by which time Franklin is carrying a box of chocolates.

 

Norman Lindsay, Bohemians at the Bulletin, first pub. 1965. This edition Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1980.

see also:

Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (review)

Richard Fotheringham, In Search of Steele Rudd, UQP, Brisbane, 1995 (review)

Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds, Penguin, Melbourne, 1989 (review)

Kylie Tennant, “Miles Franklin: Feminist whose men were men”, SMH, 23 Jul 1974.

Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here)

Human Toll, Barbara Baynton

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Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) was born and grew up in the Hunter Valley region of NSW, well watered farming country a couple of hundred km north west of Sydney, but in her late teens began working as a governess further out and in 1880 she married Alex Frater, older brother to some of her charges, and they took up a largely uncleared property near Coonamble in western NSW, “the nearest neighbour a day’s ride away.” Frater was often away and eventually he ran off with Baynton’s niece who was helping in the house, leaving Baynton with three children to support. Over time, Baynton got a divorce, moved to Sydney, married Dr Baynton and so on (more here) and began writing, under the influence of the Bulletin’s AG Stephens.

The intense isolation and fear that Baynton felt, alone in the bush in the outback, is reflected in all her (relatively few) stories, and it is often remarked what a bleaker view she brings to the mostly male Bulletin school with all its mateship and good cheer in adversity.

By 1909 when her only novel (or novella, it’s 180 pp),  Human Toll was published, Baynton was a widow, living in London. Stephens was not available to provide advice or editing as he was for Bush Studies (1902), her earlier collection of short short stories, which I think had all appeared in the Bulletin during the previous decade, and this might account for the structure of the story being relatively difficult to follow, although individual passages are often excellent.

Human Toll commences with a little girl, variously Lovey, Ursie and Ursula, already motherless, coming to terms with the death of her father. She is on a remote, semi arid sheep property in the care of her father’s mate Boshy and an Aboriginal couple Nungi and Queeby. Boshy wishes to continue as the girl’s guardian but their nearest neighbour – yes, “a day’s ride away” – Cameron and his daughter Margaret come and take her (and all the father’s papers). Ursula is sent to Cameron’s sister, a widow in a small country town, who also has the care of Cameron’s son Andrew, a few years older than Ursula, to attend school.

The widow marries a grasping Presbyterian preacher, Mr Civil. Andrew often has to stand between Civil and Ursula when the former is handing out punishments. Boshy sometimes comes to town and later provides the money for Ursula to attend boarding school. Mrs Civil dies and Civil becomes ‘nicer’ to Ursula when he thinks she might inherit her father’s property (which Cameron seems to have taken over), or Boshy’s mysterious “fortune”.

Spoilers: It all comes to a head at a town dance when Andrew ignores Ursula, gets drunk, and in the morning is found to have “married” Ursula’s friend, Mina. Mina is thrown out of home and Andrew and Palmer, his brother in law, take the two girls back to the original property (where Nungi now has a new and less amenable wife). There the two young woman – with no love at all lost between them – are abandoned; Nungi refuses to continue seeing to the sheep; his new wife is of little assistance around the house; Mina has a baby which she attempts to kill; Ursula runs off with the baby and becomes hopelessly lost in the bush.

Human Toll makes clear – by contrast – how much Australian fiction is written with a niceness, a middle class sensibility, that underplays people’s essential selfishness. Ursula is your ordinary moral, right-thinking heroine but all the supporting cast are nasty and brutish. Cameron apparently steals Ursula’s property; the preacher lives off the money Cameron pays for Ursula’s support, and later enters her bedroom:

He advanced to her, misled by her passiveness. She aimed a heavy blow at his leering face with the candlestick, but he dodged it, and, terrified of a noisy scene, he rushed to his room.

The townspeople are all at each other’s throats, though at least at the dance, they enjoyed themselves:

Then Neddy Neale, dragging his dazed partner, swished past where Palmer and Ursula stood. Gus Stein, with Pat the Jew’s daughter and Andrew with Mina, still kept the floor, but now the rat-tat-tat accompaniment knuckled from the bottom of a tin dish by Dave Heeley, Neale’s drover mate, till, tired out, even he ceased.

Then the dancing husband of the singer, importuned, momentarily disengaged his partner to grab his concertina, and with this resting on the girl’s back, he kept the dancers going, till he, though much encouraged, wearied. Dry-throated and panting, some of the wine-maddened performers tried to hoarsely bellow independent tunes, which in turn yielded to impotent yells.

The one great difficulty is that throughout, all speech is rendered as dialect, and between a childish Ursie, the Aussies, the Aborigines and the Germans, this is often quite hard to follow.

The novel ends with an astonishing tour de force, a stream of consciousness, over 20 or so pages, as Ursula struggles, increasingly crazed by thirst, disoriented and incoherent, through the bush:

What a most peculiar thing that was, the leaning tree which earlier she had passed – oh, surely long ago – days and weeks ago; and why did she pass it? Why? she wondered, and her enfeebled mind rested in this futile query. Oh – screaming – she knew why. She was lost in the Bush, and, as long ago she called, “Andree, Andree!” Now, now, she was growing like a child. A child! Worse, for when a child she had conquered herself …

Baynton was a writer for only a brief period of her life, and this is a shame. She apparently commenced another novel, a comedy of manners set in England, which would at least have provided an interesting contrast to her earlier work, but it was never published.

 

Barbara Baynton, Human Toll, first pub. 1909, republished in Barbara Baynton, edited by Sally Krimmer & Alan Lawson, UQP, Brisbane, 1980

see also:
Barbara Baynton, Between Two Worlds (1989) by Penne Hackforth-Jones (here)
Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s Mate – a comparison with Henry Lawson’s Water Them Geraniums (here)

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week

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AWW Gen 1 Week, 15-21 Jan. 2018, is an opportunity to discuss the first generation of Australian Women Writers. First though to be clear, I love and support the AWW Challenge, but this is NOT one of their events (though I think they’re happy for me to do it). I hope you will use the period between now and then to read/review works from this period, putting a link in the Comments below. Then on 15 Jan I will launch an AWW Gen 1 page  to serve as a resource into the future.

I guess the definitions of generations or schools in writing, or any artistic endeavour, are arbitrary, especially at the edges, but I define Gen 1 as those Australian writers who began writing prior to the 1890s and the Bulletin. The fiercely nationalist (and misogynist) Sydney Bulletin and its writers were pretty scathing about this first generation, based mainly in Melbourne, whom they dismissed as anglophile and in the case of the women, purveyors of romance.

But in fact, that first generation were as conscious as their successors of the need to define what it meant to be (a white) Australian – people of British descent but rapidly acquiring independence throughout the latter half of the C19th, and with Melbourne one of the richest cities in the world. The women writers were often fiercely feminist, suffragists and outspokenly anti-marriage (anti men’s domination of marriage), one of the reasons they provoked such outrageous attacks from the Bulletin.

My other generations are as follows. Feel free to argue!

Gen 2, the Bulletin crew, mostly men, but including Barbara Baynton.

Gen 3, in many ways the glory years of women’s writing in Australia, starting with Miles Franklin (who published from 1901 to 1956), KS Prichard, Christina Stead, Kylie Tennant, Eve Langley, Barnard and Eldershaw, Dymphna Cusack, Florence James, Elizabeth Harrower. Lots of social realism from the women, while the men mostly harked back to the Bulletin years (as some still do).

Gen 4, the baby boomers, the great wave of writing beginning in the sixties, more men than women, though we could name Helen Garner, Janette Turner Hospital, Thea Astley.

Gen 5 finally brings us a more cosmopolitan Australia, beginning with the Grunge movement in the 1990s – Justine Ettler of course and many others.

Gen 6, too early to say, I think, except that we are experiencing a wave of great Indigenous Lit which interestingly at least some of its practitioners say is separate from Oz Lit.

But to get back to Gen 1, to get us started I will over the next few weeks reread and put up a review of the seminal text on early Australian women’s writing, Dale Spender’s Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers (1988).

The Australian Women Writers Challenge have put up an excellent site (here) where they are listing all books by women, available online, sorted by decade, up to the 1930s. And in an earlier post (here) I listed the main authors and those few books from this period which have been reprinted, mostly thanks to the efforts of Dale Spender –

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910)

Clara Morrison (1854) Seal Books, 1971
Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865), Penguin, 1988
A Week in the Future (1889), Hale & Ironmonger, 1988 (Review)

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872)

Gertrude the Emigrant: A Tale of Colonial Life by an Australian Lady (1857), Canberra School of English & Australian Scholarly Editions Centre reprint, 1998

Ada Cambridge (1844-1926)

The Three Miss Kings (1883), Virago, Modern Classics #244 (Review)
A Marked Man, Some Episodes in his Life (1891), Pandora, 1987
Sisters (1904), Penguin, 1989

Tasma (Jessie Couvreur) (1848-1894)

Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1889), Pandora, 1987
A Sydney Sovereign, short stories, Imprint, 1993 (Review)

Catherine Martin (1848-1937)

An Australian Girl (1894), Pandora, 1987 (Review)
The Incredible Journey (1923), Pandora, 1987

Rosa Praed (1851-1935)

The Bond of Wedlock (1887), Pandora, 1987 (Review)
Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893), Pandora, 1987
Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land (1915), Pandora, 1987

Mary Gaunt (1861-1942)

Kirkham’s Find (1897), Penguin, 1988 (Review)

So, to steal a line from Lisa at ANZLL, bookmark this page, pop the date into your reading diary and drop back here with a link to your review when you’re ready!

Mr Jelly’s Business, Arthur Upfield

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Born in England, Arthur Upfield (1890-1964) moved to Australia in 1911, enlisting with the first AIF in 1914. Demobbed in London in 1919, he returned to Australia in 1921,  travelling and working extensively throughout the bush. According to the ADB, he began writing in the late 1920s. His first novel, The Barrakee Mystery (1929), originally had a white protagonist, but influenced by an Indigenous friend, Leon Wood, it was rewritten and became the first of 29 ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ detective novels. Bony is mixed race identifying as Aboriginal, as is his wife, university educated, and a Detective Inspector in the Queensland police force – although his long-suffering chief often has to lend him out to other forces around Australia.

Mr Jelly’s Business (1937), which appears to be number four in the series, is set at Burracoppin in Western Australia, a hamlet of half a dozen houses and rail siding/wheat storage facility between Merredin and Southern Cross, on the main east-west rail line, highway, and water pipe-line. Also the location, near enough, as I commented in my review, of Stephen Daisley’s (much less convincing) Coming Rain.

Bolinda Books commence all their Bony mysteries with a warning that the language used (about Aboriginals) reflects common usage at the time. Upfield has an obviously loving attitude towards his protagonist and means only to point out the strengths of Indigenous culture. But still. They are very enjoyable novels to listen to, but I sometimes wonder what or how much acceptance of casual racism that implies.

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Upfield’s map of Burracoppin

Upfield worked around Burracoppin, clearing bush (probably along the rabbit-proof fence which runs north-south on the right hand side of the map), and except that the rail line was relocated to the north of the town and a modern silo built when the line was converted from narrow to standard gauge, very little has changed since he was there more than eighty years ago.

The ostensible mystery is that a farmer, George Loftus, well under the weather, left Leonard Wallace’s hotel at 1 am, forgot to turn off towards the Old York Rd at the end of town and instead continued along the track to the rabbit-proof fence. Attempting to turn around, he backed his car into the ditch along which ran the Goldfields water pipeline, abandoned it and was never seen again.

There is a second mystery, which only gradually becomes apparent, and that is where does farmer and widower, Mr Jelly go when he disappears for days at a time, even during the harvest, without telling his daughters.

Bony embeds himself in the town as a worker for the State Rabbit Department, living in the working men’s quarters and eating at Mrs Poole’s boarding house.

Mrs Poole was about forty years old, tall and still handsome … Into her brown eyes flashed suspicion at sight of the half-caste, at which he was amused, as he always was when the almost universal distrust of his colour was raised in the minds of white women.

The country, through which I drive nearly every day while I’m on the Kalgoorlie run, is lovingly and knowledgeably described.

They had reached the summit of the long slope. Before them lay a great semicircle of low, flat country chequered by wheat and fallow paddocks: to the east and south-east reaching to the foot of a sand rise similar to that on which they stood; to the south far beyond the horizon; to the south-west extending to a sand rise which drew closer the farther north it came… The [Loftus] house lay not quite half a mile from the road at the foot of a long outcrop of granite with oaktrees [sheoaks] growing in the crevices.

A little like Maigret (my other favourite), Bony works his way into a case by absorbing all the details, though of course Bony is the better tracker, and allowing intuition to build. Over the days he works on the fence, felling timber, splitting posts, drinks (sparingly) at the pub, goes to the local dance, gets to meet all the locals.

I don’t know what I enjoy more, the gentle progress of Bony’s detectings, or the descriptions of a way of life not so long gone that I don’t have my own memories of harvesting and carting bagged wheat, of an Australia, particularly in the bush, before widespread mechanisation. You can take it as read that Bony makes friends with Mrs Poole, the Wallaces, the Jelly girls, his workmates. That he uses his tremendous powers of observation and deduction to come up with solutions to both the mysteries and to a third – who milks Mrs Poole’s cow in the early mornings? My interest today is the implied racism.

To Bony, used to the solitudes of the eastern side of the great heart of Australia, the bustle and noise [of the harvest] seemed to push him spiritually farther away from his aboriginal ancestry than at times had the roar and bitter grimness of the cities. Here was the white man’s life in all its naked virility, all its indomitable courage, its inventive genius. From the spot on which he was standing he could see mile beyond mile of land, which had been abandoned in its desolation by the hardy nomadic aborigines and now was one huge chequered garden. This morning Bony was proud that he was half white and wistfully longed to escape the environment of the mid-race for the upper plane of the white.

What is left unsaid? First of course that the Queensland and West Australian police forces were and are hotbeds of institutionalised racism, in which Bony could not possibly have survived. That in the Depression when all workers (in this town) other than returned servicemen had been sacked, there would have been active hostility to an Aboriginal man employed ‘out of turn’. That the Noongar people didn’t abandon their land, they were forced off it. That it was illegal to serve alcohol to Bony unless he produced his citizenship papers. That most white women wouldn’t have danced with Bony however well he spoke.

Michelle/Adventures in Biography and Sue/Whispering Gums, with posts on respectively Maxine Beneba’s The Hate Race (here) and the Boundless ‘multicultural’ festival (here) earlier this week, have also been discussing who should speak for Indigenous people and perhaps, how should white authors speak about Indigenous people. Whether Upfield was right or wrong to write in the way he did all those years ago I’m not sure. Certainly his heart was in the right place, as they say. I think he is still worth reading, but critically. I don’t read anything unquestioningly any more, but questioning is doubly important in this fraught area of race relations.

 

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Sunrise, Burracoppin, 2 Nov. 17 (looking south from highway over former railway easement and Goldfields pipeline to hotel)

Arthur W. Upfield, Mr Jelly’s Business, first published 1937. Audio version, Bolinda, 2012, read by Peter Hosking. My library’s paper copy was published in 2013 by Read How You Want which I think must be print-on-demand.

Laughter, not for a cage, Miles Franklin

MF Laughter

Truly there are no nightingales to enchant the night, but the mellow carillon of the magpies enlarges the spacious sunlit days and the mocking laughter of the kookaburras is not for a cage. Miles Franklin, 1956.

In 1950 Miles Franklin, approaching her 72nd birthday and not in good health, travelled across Australia – by plane from Sydney to Adelaide and train across the Nularbor – to give a series of lectures at UWA, Perth, which were subsequently expanded into the book Laughter, not for a cage: Notes on Australian writing, with biographical emphasis on the struggles, function and achievements of the novel in three half-centuries, and which came out in 1956.

In the background was the introduction by the Menzies Liberal government in April of that year of a bill to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia. Miles wrote to Katharine Susannah Prichard that “People seemed unaware of the danger of ceding freedom of association and expression to a conservative government. No doubt it would take the restriction of beer, tobacco or cheap women to arouse them.” Miles was not a member of the CPA, though Prichard was, but was generally of the left.

Miles arrived in Perth on 1 July, breakfasted with Henrietta Drake-Brockman and was taken to the Highway Hotel, Claremont (which would be near UWA but it’s not a hotel I know) where she had a room “next to the bathroom”. “The following day, Sunday 2 July, Henrietta and her mother, the pioneer feminist Dr Roberta Jull, took Miles to see a frail-looking Katharine Susannah at [her home in the outer suburb] Greenmount.” KSP, four years Miles junior, had had a heart attack, though as it happens she carried on for another couple of decades.

Miles gave four lectures over two weeks before her voice gave out and she went to stay with Sylvia Pallot, the daughter of Joseph Furphy (1843-1912). After a week she gave the remainder of the eight lectures she had planned, the last on 2 August (all of the above is from Roe, 2008).

D.S. in the West Australian of 5 Aug 1950 (here) wrote:

MILES FRANKLIN, probably the most controversial figure in the Australian literary field today, has been in Perth lecturing to members of the public and university students … She is a controversial figure because she has written and published in Australia one of its most brilliant novels, “All That Swagger”; one of its cleverest satires (with D. Cusack) “Pioneers on Parade”; two enchanting autobiographical books, “My Brilliant Career” and “My Career Goes Bung,” and a slender pioneering novel, “Old Blastus of Bandicoot.” Yet between each of these books are years of silence, a silence which is not consistent with her genius for story-telling, her ready and edgy wit, her passionate enthusiasm and support for giving tongue to the Australian story. Her long silences are only accounted for by crediting her with being Brent of Bin Bin …

Her lectures at the University were probably some of the most brilliant delivered there and this brilliance lay not so much in the subject as in the manner of Miles Franklin’s delivery and of the subtle exercise of her own judgment. Her wit kept the audience in a constant simmer… Challenging from the start those who say there is no such thing as Australian literature and that there are no Australian writers, she began her lectures with: “I stand before you, an illiterate, to lecture to you on a subject that doesn’t exist.”

I’m not sure what the (8) lecture titles were but her chapter headings are:

1. Invasion of Aboriginal Australia. The convict brand.

2. The forerunners: Henry Savery, Major William Christie, Charles Rowcroft, Mrs Francis Vidal, Alexander Harris, W.C. Wentworth.

3. First Novel by a Native-born: Gertrude the Emigrant. First four novels of adequate tonnage.

4. The Anglo-Australians: Mrs [Rosa] Campbell Praed, Ada Cambridge, Tasma, Catherine Edith Martin; also Simpson Newland, Fergus Hume, and Nat Gould.

5. The Nineties and the Bulletin. Vigorous self-assertion in politics and writings. Short stories and ballads run ahead of the novel. Minor novels. Steele Rudd.

6. The new century. The established trend. My Brilliant Career. Such is Life. Human Toll. Jonah. Mr Moffat. Norman Lindsay. Other novels.

7. Relapse into old ruts. Anzac – the Australian’s Baptism of Blood – writings by Anzacs. The Australian novel goes into recess. The interim with The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney,The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans. A Miscellany: Paul Wenz writing in French, DH Lawrence, Havelock Ellis.

8. Reappearance of the Australian Novel in force. The Bulletin’s first literary competition. Flesh in Armour and Her Privates We, Seven Poor Men of Sydney. Work in progress by Brent of Bin Bin, Brian Penton, John K Ewers, Jean Devanny and Others. Some expatriates – The Montforts and Lucinda Brayford, Pageant.

9. Aborigines as a theme: Desert Saga, Coonardoo, Capricornia, The Timeless Land, Others.

10. Novels by younger writers. Avoidance of the present tense. Kylie Tennant, Margaret Trist, H. Drake-Brockman.

11. Where does the Australian Novel stand today? Not yet regional. Criticism. Old Australia: New Australians. Whither now? Swan song or advance the Commonwealth?

Well! There are a lot of names of books and authors there which I haven’t heard before, or about which I know nothing. I will have to follow these up. Where I have already written I have put links. Franklin’s ‘first four novels of adequate tonnage’ are: Geoffry Hamlyn, Henry Kingsley; For the Term of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke; Robbery Under Arms, Rolf Boldrewood; and Clara Morrison, Catherine Helen Spence.

Despite that promising title for Chapter 1 she writes very little about ‘Aboriginal Australia’, regretting only the squandered opportunity to record languages and stories, particularly in the “area around Port Jackson, where the tribes, being the first to meet the Europeans, were the first to become extinct.” Later, in Chapter 9 she writes more fully while discussing those novels with Aboriginal protagonists. Desert Saga (1933) by William Hatfield is one of those which I haven’t previously heard of. It is the story of a tribe of ‘Arunta’ in the NT, who are displaced by fossickers, the Overland Telegraph and cattle herders but who finally make a place for themselves under the leadership of Grungunja and an anthropologist who knows their language.

Desert Saga came early in a rising flood of books which contradict an embedded theory that the first Australians were among the most backward of primitives … Today it is conceded that the aborigines had high codes of artistic sensibility and skill.

Other novels discussed in this chapter include The Timeless Land (1941) and Storm of Time (1948) by Eleanor Dark, ‘one of our most brilliant writers’, which stand apart ‘in the attempt to capture what might have been the emotions of the aborigines when the first sail flecked the Pacific.’; Katharine Sussanah Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties (1946): ‘Only a poet could have concentrated so much of their distress under invasion as this writer does in the first chapter’, and Coonardo (1929); and Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1938) of which Franklin writes:

On walkabout with [Herbert] the reader can be lost in gilgais, lagoons, anabranches, billabongs and estuaries, each equally lush, and all leading back to the main river or theme, which is the arraignment of the author’s own race or nation for their relations with the aborigines.

Overall, what is her conclusion? We are a new, little nation without the population or the traditions yet to produce truly great writing: “Being so few in a wide clean land we have not had time to develop those fetid jungles and ancient sinks of poverty and vice which writers in other lands have grown notable by exposing.”

Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life (1903) she discusses in terms of its Australianness but not what I regard as the revolutionary nature of its discursiveness, so that is something I will have to return to later.

Of Christina Stead she writes, “[Brian] Penton and Miss Stead brought here some belated latest cries in regurgitations of psychoanalysis and James Joyce, since widely diffused in fiction… Christina Stead has since been lost to Australian novels… Abroad she has written fiction as impressive as any of the top shelf… Will she, one day, like Henry Handel Richardson return to her birth soil to reach full stature?”.

Patrick White, who by 1950 had written Happy Valley, The Living and the Dead and The Aunt’s Story, she mentions not at all.

 

Miles Franklin, Laughter, Not for a Cage, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1956
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to Miles Franklin Central (here)

The Salzburg Tales, Christina Stead

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The Salzburg Tales (1934) is a collection of often fantastical tales told to each other by a group of visitors to Salzburg, there for “the August Festival, the great event of Salzburg men”, and with spare time during the seven days of the Festival to wander in the woods and pastures outside the town. We know that Stead is a wonderful writer, but the virtuosity of these tales with all their different styles and settings is amazing. And Stead’s daring in making her first published work a take on The Canterbury Tales, one of English literature’s earliest and best-known works, is breathtaking.

The story behind the book is that for some years Stead had been working on, and her partner Bill Blake had been attempting to find a publisher for, Seven Poor Men of Sydney. Eventually Blake came up with Peter Davies – apparently the adopted son of JM Barrie and the model for Peter Pan – who gave her a contract with the condition that she write something else as well, which she did, taking about a year.

When she presented this second work to Peter Davis he said that his company did not like to begin with a book of short stories, to which she replied ‘too bad’. He did however publish The Salzburg Tales first and it was a succès d’estime. (Williams)

We know, in later years at least, that Stead always had two or three manuscripts on the go, and my guess is that that was the case then too. She had already begun on ‘Lovers in Paris’ that was to become her third novel, The Beauties and Furies, and I’m guessing that she had also already begun the stories that make up The Salzburg Tales, enough at least to make an informed pitch to the publisher.*

The Canterbury Tales begins with a Prologue which includes portraits of the travellers, and then goes on to the travellers’ tales. The Prologue begins: “When April with his showers sweet with fruit/The drought of March has pierced unto the root/And bathed each vein with liquor that has power/To generate therein and sire the flower …”.

The Salzburg Tales begins also with a Prologue, with the opening lines:

Salzburg, old princely and archiepiscopal city, and its fortress Hohen-Salzburg, lie among the mountains of the Tyrol, in Salzburg Province, in Austria. The river Salzach, swift and yellow from the glaciers and streaming mountain valleys, flows between baroque pleasure-castles standing in glassy lakes, and peasant villages pricked in their vineyards, and winds about to reflect the citadel rising in its forests, single eminence in the plain.

Here is a photo, though with words like that you hardly need it.

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Salzburg

Stead, then living in Paris with Blake, had holidayed in Bavaria and Austria in the summer of 1930, spending August in Salzburg for the Mozart Festival. The publishing contract was secured the following April, and Stead:

… sat down in the kitchen of her flat and immediately wrote The Salzburg Tales, one day a story, the next day editing and ‘connective tissue’ … from beginning to end ‘because I’d just come back from Salzburg and was inspired by Mozart, because he has the most marvellously connected and creative brain in the whole world, I think.’ (Williams)

The Prologue is short and is followed by a chapter on The Personages. Stead describes actors and audience entering an open area before the cathedral for a performance of Jedermann (Everyman) which she herself had attended on August 1, 1930, and provides vignettes of all the ‘personages’ who will meet over the following seven days and tell stories for the amusement of their fellows.

According to Williams, many of the characters were based on people Stead knew. The Centenarist, who tells a number of stories, ‘was not pleased to find a copy of himself in print’; though the English Gentleman and the New York Doctor of Medecine were flattered. Bill Blake was the model for the Critic of Music as well as for some of the characters in the stories – Ernest Jordain, a polymath and Isidor, a poor Jewish boy. There is also a Little Old Lady in two of the stories who is probably Bill’s mother Rosa, who was living with them at the time, and with whom Stead had a difficult relationship.

The ‘connective tissue’ of the stories is that a few people gather and call on one or another of their number to tell a story. So, on the first day “a party from the ‘Hotel Austria’ went up into the monastery wood on the Kapuzinerberg in the morning to listen to the bells of the town and rest for some hours on the wooded height” and the Town Councillor tells the first tale, The Marionettist.

The tales themselves are difficult to place in time, most of them have a nineteenth century feel, though every now and again a car or even a television is mentioned. Only right near the end does the 1914-18 War come up, and even then it’s just mentioned in passing. I’m sure you could do a PhD on themes in the stories and their relation to stories in The Canterbury Tales, and for that matter in the Decameron and the Arabian Nights, but it is beyond the scope of this review, and beyond what I could glean out of a single reading (fractured over the past month).

Mostly the stories have the feel of tales being told, rather than the mixture of speech and action which characterises ordinary novel writing, but Stead is very clever at differentiating the tellers’ styles one from another. The tales are from all over. Some probably come from Blake’s Jewish heritage, some involve magic or ghosts, some are straight accounts of small incidents in the teller’s life, and there are two or three in which it gradually becomes apparent that the setting is Australia.

[Two young women mistake their way while walking in the Blue Mountains] They looked down and still saw the rolling ravined bottoms, full of tree-ferns, eucalypts and patches of burnt-out scrub.

“We will follow the same path tomorrow. I have heard of a new path for the descent: we strike off to the left and reach more shortly the Burrogorang Valley; there, where you see a clearing glimmering in the forest.”

Lilias looked down at the night assembling and massing in the gullies. It was there in its cohorts; its sentinels were climbing to the eyries of the cliff, it reconnoitred in the lofty escarpments. It was there in the clefts and scoriations of the precipice: it was running instantly and languorously, with the movement of irresistible floods over the endless sky. (The Schoolteacher’s Tale, On The Road).

If you are at all interested in Christina Stead, or if you are a fan of Angela Carter, say, then read this book. You don’t have to rush, read it one or two tales at a time before you switch out the light at night. I think there are more than a hundred, so it will take a while, but you won’t be disappointed.

 

Christina Stead, The Salzburg Tales, first pub. 1934, My edition Sirius, 1989

I have reviewed Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here) and a number of her novels (click on ‘Stead’ under Tags in the sidebar) but the best place to start is at ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page (here)


*Modgeska, in Exiles at Home, says that Stead offered these stories to Angus & Robertson before leaving Australia in 1928, and was knocked back.

Diary of a New Chum, Paul Wenz

Paul Wenz (1869-1939) was a Frenchman who became an Australian grazier and author, contributing to the myths of the Australian Legend, in French. Diary of a New Chum and Other Lost Stories (1990) is the first collection of his stories in English. Frank Moorehouse contributes an unnecessary Preface which indicates some points of interest in the various stories, but happily there is a much more interesting Introduction by the collection’s editor, Maurice Blackburn.

Blackburn describes Wenz as “a good storyteller with the right mix of wry humour and sentiment … the first, and so far the only, writer to give the French reader a true picture of Australian bush life. His stories bespeak an ambiguous feeling towards the outback, and he always seems to maintain an ironic distance from his characters.” Blackburn writes for a number of pages on whether, as a writer, Wenz is Australian or French. Wenz was well-read in French and his most obvious influence was Guy de Maupassant. He was also friends and corresponded with his schoolmate André Gide. However:

Wenz the horseman and sheep farmer personally appreciated the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon and the bush balladists, like the rest of his class, and was a regular reader of the Bulletin… he knew well and greatly admired the stories of Henry Lawson, and recommended him to Gide; his own bush stories show that he was certainly influenced by the new Bulletin school of writing that was at its peak in the period 1890-1905.

Blackburn also detects elements of Steele Rudd, Barbara Baynton and Joseph Furphy.

Wenz’s contemporary, linguist and arbiter of Australian Lit., Nettie Palmer, commented in a Bulletin article in 1929 that Wenz was able “to use the essential rhythms of Australian life”, and that the bushmen whom Furphy “saw from within … Wenz draws as silhouettes with bizarre, decorative effect.”

Diary of a New Chum, which is less than 40pp, and is the one story originally written in English, was first published in 1908, apparently as a book, under the pen-name Paul Warrego. Until this edition it had not been republished since the 1920s.

The protagonist attends a fancy dress ball (presumably in England) and after too much champagne falls hopelessly in love with a French peasant “displaying pretty arms and very shapely legs”. The next morning he discovers that he is engaged to be married to Miss Mary Smith and that his only recourse is to flee to Australia. As a ‘new chum’ on an Australian sheep station he recounts his trials with understated humour, in short episodes, as he learns on the job and attempts to escape his engagement.

The remainder of the collection consists of 8 short stories, first published in the collections A l’autre bout du monde (1905) and Sous la Croix du Sud (1910), three previously unpublished texts, including an account of his meeting Jack London in Sydney in 1909 (Wenz subsequently translated London’s Love of Life into French), selected letters, including to André Gide and Miles Franklin, and some photographs of Wenz and his property near Forbes, NSW, and including, again, Miles Franklin.

Most of the short stories are fairly ordinary, not up to the standards of Henry Lawson, nor even Steele Rudd. Charley for instance, notable only for being translated by Margaret Whitlam, is just a few pages leading up to the pathetic death of an old rabbiter. The story I liked the best, The Waggoner, which left me with a tear in my eye, tells of a young girl growing up as her father’s companion as he services the stations out past the Darling in northern NSW, carting supplies out and wool back in, with his heavy red gum waggon and team of 18 horses.

One other story I must discuss is Picky, which is set on a station in the back blocks of Queensland. Picky is an Aboriginal girl who along with her grandmother, Old Mary, has been rescued by a station owner and his religious daughter after a massacre. Some of the racism is ‘standard’: “Picky made progress and showed an intelligence and memory which might not have been expected in her thick myall skull”; there is a brief moment of enlightenment in what I would have thought was an early highlighting of the euphemism “dispersed”, as in:

Old Mary … recounted how her tribe, accused of having speared to death several head of cattle, had been ‘dispersed’ by the police; and except for herself and Picky, the whole camp, eighteen men, women and children, had been killed by the troopers.

And some of the racism is plain gratuitous, for instance: “Thompson knew the natives, and had killed two or three out of necessity, yet he wasn’t a cruel man.” The early part of the story recounts the efforts of Thompson’s daughter to make Picky a Christian, despite Picky’s clear preference for the company (and tucker) of her grandmother, and the latter part how Picky and Old Mary gain their revenge on a ‘blacktracker’ who had participated in the massacre of their (and his) fellows.

The letters too are interesting as Wenz discusses with Gide his writing, problems with getting published, and meeting other authors such as Joseph Conrad and JM Barrie. In 1933 Gide worries that Wenz’s French is becoming too Australianized – “some errors or infelicities of expression lead me to think that many of the sentences have first been thought in English” – and gives him some examples, with corrections, from his latest ms.

Wenz also corresponds with AG Stephens (of the Bulletin) and with Miles Franklin. The latter who has met Wenz on his sheep station while travelling with Frank (and Mrs) Clune, sends him a copy of Back to Bool Bool “which I consider goes more beneath the surface than the general run of Australian novels.” A month later Wenz asks her, “Does anybody know who the author is?” (It is of course MF under the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin). Wenz also reads My Brilliant Career, MF’s copy presumably as by 1937 it had been long out of print, and puzzles “to get the ‘real’ out of the imaginative – so naturally and vividly it is written.” MF has read some of Wenz’s novels and they discuss MF translating them, which indicates that at some stage after leaving school MF has become fluent in French.

The book ends with 20 pages of Notes dated from 1834 – the birth of Wenz’s father – to 1959 – the death of his wife. Wenz was only a minor author but he was nevertheless a valid contributor to the Legend and a genuine member of the Australian, French and to a lesser extent, the English literary scenes.

 

Paul Wenz, Diary of a New Chum and Other Lost Stories, Angus & Robertson/Imprint, Sydney, 1990. Edited and translated by Maurice Blackburn. Translations by Patricia Brulant, Margaret Whitlam and notes by Jean-Paul Delamotte.

The Honey Flow, Kylie Tennant

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Painting: Black Mirror, Lina Bryans, 1964

Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was a novelist for the battlers. Probably best described as middle class – her father was a clerk and later a company executive; she was educated Brighton College, Manly and subsequently enrolled in Arts at Sydney Uni (which for financial reasons, she was unable to complete); and her husband was a school teacher (ADB) – nevertheless, she immersed herself in depression-era working class life, and her books reflect this.

I have written already on her most important novel, Ride on Stranger (1943) (here) and briefly on the Honey Flow (1956) in my dissertation (here – in Chapter 4, if you really want to go and look), where I summarised it as “the story of a young woman, Mallee, who takes on her late grandfather’s beehives and an old truck, and so takes on also the very male world of itinerant apiarists moving and tending their hives in the NSW southern highlands”.

My Imprint Classics edition has an Introduction by Jean Bedford which is really just a review of the novel itself rather than any extra material about the author or a wider view of the issues discussed or of the book’s place within either the author’s work or the wider Australian literary scene. I was and am interested in The Honey Flow for its heroine’s independence. Bedford is maybe not as impressed as I am, writing:

Little more than cursory lip-service is paid to the wider social issues that informed Tennant’s earlier work. There is an underlying feminist precept – that a young woman can break the barrier of social expectations and succeed in a male world on her own terms – but it is a precept applied specifically to Mallee, and it is part of her individual oddity…

Yet The Honey Flow remains an engaging, funny and rewarding novel, despite its avoidance of the deeper motives and consequences of human behaviour … Mallee is an attractively lonely and gallant figure and we can forgive her face-saving flights into wry humour. (1991)

In my magnum opus, I wrote further, that: “In many ways this is the novel Miles Franklin might have written if she’d stayed in Australia. The setting is Franklin country; Tennant, like Franklin, writes with a breezy style and doesn’t look too far beneath the surface; but unlike Franklin, Tennant, while sharing Franklin’s moral view, is able to look sex in the face and not be frightened”.

The novel begins:

Every time my memory opens its mouth it dribbles roads. Not so much the great bitumen and concrete flanks that cut the mountain spurs and plunge over the edge of plateaus, but bush tracks that suit a kangaroo or a rogue bullock, but look incredible to drivers who have never had to force a great truck loaded with bee boxes or honey tins through the forests, over corduroys where the forestry gangs have thrown down a few trees to make a footing in a swamp, down into steep creek beds, over places with names like Muldoon’s Mistake or The Downfall.

That’s exactly it! Us drivers, we open our mouths and dribble roads. Mallee is a truck driving apiarist, travelling her bees, competing with her fellows for the best sites up and down the east coast. “You sweat and lie exhausted and swear and talk obscenities and live on bread and corned beef and creek water with a little tea to disguise the taste of mud. The professional name for all this is migratory bee-keeping.”

Mallee, and her step-father who travels with her for a while, are script writers for a radio serial and that gives both a certain literary feel to the writing and positions Tennant/Mallee as middle class observer/participants in a working class environment. Mallee inherits some hives, borrows an old Ford truck and sets off for the bush, joining up with the well set-up outfit of the Muirdens, brothers Blaze and Joe, their father and their offsider in the Pilliga Forest in north central NSW. They subsequently journey back down to the Southern Alps – Miles Franklin country – and then up to the Brigalow scrub of south central Qld, following the seasons, the blossoms and water. You learn a lot about what bees need.

Blaze is the male lead, though hardly the ‘love interest’. He has a fiancée back home who is sick of him being away all the time, is a bit of a “ladys man” and anyway, Mallee is mostly too busy to be interested. The setting is the years immediately post-WWII – which is only referred to with the briefest references to men who have been living under canvas – and although we think of the 50s now as a prosperous time, the roads, the rough and ready vehicles, the primitive living conditions in camp are all reflective of a people, a way of living which had been tempered by years of Depression before the War (Are you old enough to remember when a bottle of dry sherry was a cheap substitute for beer? I am, and I can’t touch it now!)

Let me briefly address the points raised in the introduction: Bedford dismisses Mallee’s independence with faint praise, but at a time, the 1950s, when ‘every’ woman was married with 3 children in a little suburban house with a white picket fence, Mallee’s rejection of marriage – like Shannon and Sybylla before her – and her determination to succeed on her own terms is inspirational. Further, the work in classic Australian Legend style is set firmly in the bush, which in many places is lovingly and knowledgeably described, but with a female protagonist.

Franklin rediscovered her muse writing about the exploits of her mother’s and father’s families as pioneers in southern NSW. Tennant, born and raised in Sydney, famously walked with the unemployed and the battlers in the bush during the Depression, she lived the lives she wrote about and it shows. She writes of tying down a load, something I have spent years doing, drive tankers now to avoid:

It was daylight before the trucks were loaded, the ropes braced over, and the last double sheepshank knotted round the metal rod that ran along under the sides of the big table top. [It’s called a “tie rail”, Kylie.]

Mallee, like Franklin’s heroines and Eve Langley’s too, is surprised when her virtue isn’t obvious to others. She “gets a reputation” as did Langley’s Steve and Blue before her, for sharing her hut with men.

Franklin struggled not so much to write about sex, which she didn’t, but to portray relationships which were sexual. Tenant is much more relaxed. Here Blaze has put the hard word on Mallee: :“Would you ever just act human? Would you come over to my tent some night and say, “Well, you bastard, you win. Move over”?” So that night she does, “It would be nice to give Blaze a pleasant surprise. Well, I thought, what does it matter?” But without entering the tent she can hear that he is in bed with another woman. Mallee laughs and walks away. “Dear old Blaze! How I like that man! A heel if there ever was one.”

If I haven’t made it clear already, The Honey Flow is written with a light, sure touch and is well worth reading.

 

Kylie Tenant, The Honey Flow, first published A&R, 1956. My edition Imprint Classics, 1991

See also my review of Ride on Stranger (here)

Tennant later wrote the introduction for a reprint of Mary Gaunt’s 1897 novel of another woman seeking independence through bee-keeping, Kirkham’s Find (here)