Sue of Whispering Gums has been blogging since 2009 and is now followed by probably everyone who reads and thinks about Australian books. Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill is an Austen-esque portrait of post-Gold Rush Melbourne society and I’m glad Sue chose it to review.
The first thing to say about Tasma’s debut novel Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill is that it’s rather wordy, speaking to a literacy different from that of today’s readers. For this reason, Uncle Piper won’t appeal to readers who like short simple sentences, and a plot which moves along at a good clip with little reflection or commentary. Consider yourself warned, but know also that, according contemporary reports, this novel made Tasma famous in a week.
So, if you enjoy immersing yourself in the writing of different times, and are interested in late 19th century Australia, Uncle Piper has plenty to offer, starting with well-drawn characters who, in modern clothes, would be as real today as they were in 1888.
Take father, the Uncle Piper of the title, and his son George, for example. Uncle Piper is a self-made man. In his case this involved emigrating from England, where he was poor and with few prospects, to Australia where, starting as a lowly butcher, he worked hard to establish himself as the wealthy, successful businessman he is at the novel’s opening. Now, what often happens when parents struggle to establish themselves and create opportunities for their children that they never had? Why, those children take their easy, comfortable lives for granted. That’s what! Not a new story, is it?
If I were to attempt a PhD my subject would be Daisy Bates in Western Australia. She was here for a number of years at the beginning of the last century and there is lots of material to cover. But, I have to keep working so that’s just a pipe dream. I will however, as soon as I can fit it in, review her collection, The Passing of the Aborigines.
If I just wanted a project, I’d get together Miles Franklin’s bits and pieces, the best of her short stories, journalism and plays, and publish them as a book. The closest we have at the moment is the collection of essays arising from her lectures in WA in 1950, Laughter, Not for a Cage.
This slim volume is a collection of short works by Tasma, a novelist from the generation preceding Franklin, edited and introduced by Michael Ackland. A Sydney Sovereign was originally a novella, published with some short stories under the title A Sydney Sovereign and Other Tales in 1890 to take advantage of the author’s success with her debut novel Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill a year or so earlier. In this edition, Ackland has in fact included just a few pages of the title story, to give an idea of the flavour of the original, while retaining the other short stories, written in the 1870s, plus a couple of new stories from 1890-91. All were published at the time in magazines such as the Australasian and The Australian Ladies Annual. Ackland has not taken the opportunity to include any of her other work, which is a pity as I would very much like to have read examples of her literary criticism.
Jessie Catherine Huybers (1848-1897) was born in England to parents of Dutch and French ancestry who migrated to Hobart in the early 1850s. Her father prospered and Jessie had the run of a fine, and presumably multi-lingual, library. Neither Ackland nor ADB mention her education. She married Charles Fraser in 1867 and they moved to Malmsbury, Vic, taking up a property with the auspicious name, Pemberley. Fraser however was a gambler and womaniser, and eventually a bankrupt, and in 1883 she divorced him. Jessie, who by this time was writing short stories under the pen name Tasma, had for some time been living overseas and had already met her next husband, Belgian journalist and politician, Auguste Couvreur. Her ADB entry says that some of her novels following Uncle Piper were “so obviously autobiographical that Charles Fraser must have been recognized in them from one end of Victoria to the other.”
Tasma is a lovely writer, Jane Austen-ish (dare I say it) in her elegant writing and sly wit. You know I don’t read more short stories than I can help, but she is completely at ease with the form, unlike Vance Palmer (here), say, whose struggles with both getting underway and bringing the thing to a neat conclusion are ill-concealed. I enjoyed every one of these stories, not just because their endings were difficult to anticipate and often amusing, but for their descriptions of lovely Hobart Town, Melbourne’s dirty smelly lanes, crowded Parisian streets, and wide open Australian bush.
In What an Artist Discovered in Tasmania, a young man wishing to discover the ‘perfect’ model of an evil face, leaves his sister behind in London to travel to the end of the world. ‘”Where’s that?” cried Polly’:
Kind Tasmanians – whose blossom-garlanded isle is the original Eden of the Anthropophagi; whose aromatous breezes greet the pallid stranger, and efface from his recollection the haunting odours of Yarra bank noisomeness – do not stigmatise Polly as an imbecile for her ignorance.
In another, The Rubria Ghost, the 80 yo owner of Rubria Station brings home a much younger bride:
I think the most terrible thing connected with [the groom] was the pale reflection of passion that flickered in his dulled eyes every time they rested on his wife…. And, notwithstanding, she appeared to cherish him!
The ‘ghost’ which appears to the bride in the moonlight in the path through the Murray pines (sheoaks?) is her former lover, begging her to run away with him. But this is a tale with an anti-moral. She hesitates. The old man dies. She inherits.
So for anyone who is outraged upon hearing that Emily married the ghost, and that she and he are now in the springtime of their delight, I will offer this pale reflection of a moral: Who can forsee the end? Let us hope he will beat her.
Twenty years ago I was working in a largish fleet and a new driver was employed who quickly earned the sobriquet ‘Life of Brian’. Mr and Mrs Brian had allowed a temporarily homeless mate to stay; Brian of course was often away driving; inevitably, the mate ran away with the wife; and Brian, understandably, couldn’t stop telling us about it. In How a claim was Nearly Jumped in Gum-Tree Gully, a Lawson-esque tale of two mates clearing scrub in rough country – think Castlemaine, Vic – mate two realises before it is too late, that he is falling for mate one’s new wife. It’s a lovingly described story, both of the mates’ relationship and of the bush they are working in, the huge gums along the creek bed of Gum-Tree Gully.
Tasma’s theme is always, it seems, aspects of love, and surprisingly, with little consciousness of class or class differences. If I may be allowed to describe just one more story, the only one with a totally ‘European’ setting, in His Modern Godiva an artist is searching for a model with just the right amount of experience for an illustration of Hester, the heroine of A Scarlet Letter:
True, he could find in the Quartier Latin many grisettes of the type of the heroines in Murger’s Vie de Boheme … [but] their experiences were too frequent and free to leave upon their faces such a stamp as he could imagine the Puritan maid-mother might have worn.
The artist eventually finds his model and over a series of sittings forms the desire to portray her as Lady Godiva.
It still remained, however, to make Freda hear reason, which is also a phrase that may be variously interpreted. How it came about neither was exactly aware; but before the dress – or undress – rehearsals for the pose were at an end, Edgar’s model had become his betrothed wife.
The picture is a success, but in being so, was also an advertisement for his wife’s charms, and Edgar becomes jealous. How it ends, I advise you to read and see.
Tasma, A Sydney Sovereign, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1993
see also this review by Narelle Ontivero (here). Narelle is a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University in the Writing and Society Research Centre. Her current research explores the relationship between space, gender and identity in the works of Tasma, Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge.