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Price Warung, Tales of the early days

October 14, 2009
Tales of the early days (Cover: Courtesy Sydney University Press)

Tales of the early days (Cover: Courtesy Sydney University Press)

Okay, I admit it, I have convict ancestors (plural even!). Consequently, I was particularly interested to read Price Warung’s 1894 collection of short stories, Tales of the early days, when I discovered it was part of the Australian Classics Library recently published by the Sydney University Press. My convicts include John Warby who, with another labourer, stole two donkeys and was transported to Australia on the Pitt in 1791, and Sarah Bentley who stole several items of clothing from her mistress in 1795 and was transported on the Indispensable. In 1796, John married the 16-year old Sarah. Fortunately (for me and for them), they were a hardworking pair. John had been given land by Governor Phillip in 1792, and he and Sarah made a good life for themselves, so much so that there is now a primary school named after him, the John Warby Public School in the Campbelltown area west of Sydney.

Enough about my family, though. What about Price Warung? He was, in fact, William Astley, and was born in Liverpool, England, in 1855 but came to Australia with his family in 1859. He became, according to the succinct little biography at the back of the book, a radical journalist and short-story writer, with particular interests in transportation (or, convict) literature, and the Labour and Federation movements.

Now to Tales of the early days. This was his second published collection, and comprises 8 stories set in Norfolk Island, Hobart, Sydney and London. They explore various aspects of convict life, and many draw on real people and events. In fact, my city’s new (and first) prison is named after the penal reformer/prison commandant, Alexander Maconochie, who features in the first two stories. The eight stories are worth listing for their titles, most of which convey a strong sense of personality:

  • Captain Maconochie’s ‘Bounty for Crime’
  • The Secret Society of the Ring
  • In the Granary
  • Parson Ford’s Confessional
  • The Heart-Breaking of Anstey’s Bess
  • The Amour of Constable Crake
  • The Pegging-Out of Overseer Franke
  • At Burford’s Panorama

These stories can be described as “historical fiction”. In a new introduction to this collection, Laurie Hergenham quotes Thomas Keneally, who has written a deal of historical fiction. Keneally says:

the novelist need not prove his reliability to scholars … the only warrant a writer needs for his ideas about the past is that they reek of human, poetic, dramatic, symbolic veracity and resound in his imagination.

Like many writers of historical fiction, Warung draws on documentary fact. He writes largely in the social realism style that was typical of the nineteenth century. A strong theme runs through the book, and it can be best described by quoting Robert Burns’ “man’s inhumanity to man”. Warung’s particular argument is that this inhumanity is worse in the “System” (aka The Establishment) than in the convicts.  As one of the convicts says in the longest and, generally regarded to be, the best story, “The Secret Society of the Ring”:

Th’ System finds orl its orf’cers men, an’ leaves ‘em orl brutes. Orl o’ we don’t get ‘ardened, but there ain’t one o yer wot doesn’t.

And so Warung, with his own apparently anti-British sentiment in the lead up to Federation (and Australia’s independence), perpetuates the myth that the convicts were poor souls turned bad by the System: “the beast-nature with which the System had superseded that granted unto him by his Creator”. It is true, if you read the histories, that some (many?) convicts were victims of poverty in Britain and were transported for comparatively minor offences, but there were also many who were violent, serial offenders. It is also true, though, that the treatment of convicts in Australia was, overall, very harsh – particularly in the secondary penal establishments like Norfolk Island and Hobart (at nearby Port Arthur). It’s not for nothing that Warung, with the fire clearly in his belly, chooses these as the settings for most of his stories of horror.

The first story, “Captain Maconcochie’s Bounty of Crime” serves as a useful introduction to the longest and most complex in the book, “The Secret Society of the Ring”. It introduces us to Maconochie and his desire to improve “the monstrous conditions of penal life at Norfolk Island” but, we are told, the System does not want him to succeed because his failure would mean “that the System was right and its administrators were wise”. And so, the cynicism (or is it simply realism?) starts:

Therefore the failure was only to be expected. Men do not care about being proved wrong, even if it could be shown that a few dozen souls were saved in the process of correction.

This truth, as Warung conceives it  and which encompasses related truths relating to the behaviour of men in power, is played out again and again in the stories that follow – but it is no more ironically conveyed than in “The Secret Society of the Ring” in which the Ring, which is the convicts’ own “system”, turns out to be every bit as cruel and inflexible as the System that controls them. Maconochie’s attempt to appeal to convicts’ (“society’s wrecks”) sense of fraternity and loyalty to each other – and along the way provide them with a more comfortable prison life – is undermined by the loyalty demanded of the Ring. This is a devastating story – and the most sophisticated in the collection in terms of style and structure.

The third story, “In the granary”, is no less devastating, and turns on the irony of a granary, designed by “a genial officer”, being put to far from genial purposes. This story has an interesting, given Warung’s own work as a journalist, discussion of the power of newspapers. “Parson Ford’s Confessional” is the only one of the collection that doesn’t focus on convicts. Rather it explores corruption among those in power just, I suppose, to make sure we know that this corruption does not only occur in relation to convicts. The next three stories chronicle events in the life of a particular character: Anstey’s Bess, a convict woman whose maternal love nearly brings her down; Constable Crake whose lust does bring him down; and Overseer Franke, the ironically nick-named Cherub who selects the architect of his downfall (but the triumph here is rather Pyrrhic). The final story is set in London and nicely shows us what those “at home” were seeing of the colony while also providing a final opportunity for corruption and power to again ensure that the downtrodden remain that way. (It is also the only story to refer to the Aboriginal people of Australia – and the reference is surely ironic when he describes the “Savage King” Bennelong’s recognition of “the new era of civilisation”!)

Warung’s style is not subtle – he uses irony heavily, foreshadowing, symbolism, some wordplay, the occasional repetition and understatement, and authorial intrusion – and he can over-explain at times, not trusting always that the reader gets it. It would be a very dull reader, though, who didn’t! The tales are, it has to be said, pretty black and white. The System is demonstrated again and again to be corrupt and cruel, with no attempt made to explore the privations those in power also suffered. That said, the stories are powerful and, despite their lack of “balance”, convey enough truths to make reading them worthwhile for both their narratives and the messages underpinning them. It is good to see them brought to life again.

(Review copy supplied by Sydney University Press)

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2009 4:04 pm

    How intriguing. I had assumed that the author was Indonesian, because ‘warung’ is an Indonesian word meaning ‘shop’. I wonder why he chose that for a pen-name?

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    October 14, 2009 4:15 pm

    Yes, I discovered that (the Indonesian word I mean!) when I did a bit of a search. The bio at the back of the book says Warung was an Aboriginal name for Sydney but I didn’t read that in the ADB bio of him. There are some references in Google to the word but mostly word of mouth types of refs eg one says the Aboriginal people called the north of the harbout Warung because it means “the other side”. There’s a Warung State Forest but it’s quite a bit Northwest of Newcastle. Presumably it was a term more well-known in his time. His mother’s maiden name was Price.

  3. October 16, 2009 5:50 pm

    Fascinating, and what a full review you have written. Another book I’m unlikely to encounter over here in the UK though!

    I am sure most “convicts” had committed only very minor or non-existent crimes. The British justice system was not noted for leniency in those days. A mother stealing a loaf of bread to feed her starving children did not receive clemency

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      October 16, 2009 6:09 pm

      You are right – they weren’t lenient and their gaols were full (wonder why?)! I think the review is a bit too full actually…but it’s hard to cut down a review of a short story collection. Of course I could have cut out my personal history but I couldn’t resist. Do you try to keep your reviews to a certain length? My aim was 500-1000 wds but this did creep a little over that.

  4. November 29, 2009 5:23 pm

    What fun, to know one’s heritage like that.

    And the Warung stories sound fascinating, frustrating, and heart-rending. I wonder, in a “chicken or the egg” sort of thought of which came first, did things begin to escalate at this period because, just before Australia was settled, you had the American Revolution (and few know the horror stories there — more Americans died in British prisons than on the battle field) which was followed, in England, by the pitched battle in Parliament, led by William Wilberforce, to end the horrors of slavery (with the opposition led by Banastre Tarleton, the British “hero” of the American Revolution who was known by his own men as “Bloody Ban the Butcher”). So did the battles in America and in Parliament lead to escalating brutality in Australia? Or were all of these simply manifestations of the day? After all, Britain didn’t have a Reign of Terror, like France, so maybe it just came out a different way. Of course, there were fabulous people at the time trying to end the evils — Burke, Pitt, Wilberforce, and more. I suspect it was a sort of dawning, with a few great minds (and I include in this the creators of the US Constitution) awakening to the possibilities of doing something that wasn’t horrific, while most of the world was still giving in to the baser instincts and dealing out brutality, whether on the guillotine or the transport ship. Certainly a tumultuous time, everywhere.

  5. November 29, 2009 7:57 pm

    Now that’s a complex question and a half. I’ve just read a more contemporary novel (The commandant – I’ve blogged it too) about the penal settlement in Moreton Island in 1830 which had quite a brutal commandant (true figure). One of the issues underpinning it is the increasing criticism in the colony (expressed through the press) of brutality – and one character suggests that he may be judged by the views of the present for acting according to the views of the past. There’s some truth in that isn’t there? Still, that’s not an excuse for cruelty really – since there were, as you say, those who recognised the cruelty and fought against it. Did you see that movie Amazing Grace about Wilberforce?

    • November 30, 2009 6:50 am

      Yep — saw Amazing Grace, and then bought the DVD. A lot of strong performances, and a remarkable testimony to what one person can do if he or she does not give up.

  6. November 30, 2009 7:44 am

    It is astonishing isn’t, the degree to which some people, essentially, put their lives on the line for a cause. So impressive, and as you say strong performances. I’d happily see it again.

  7. July 25, 2010 10:11 am

    I found your post fascinating-in the last few months I have posted on 6 Australian Bush Writers (Barbara Bayton, Henry Lawson, Andrew “Banjo” Patterson, Marcus Clarke, and Rudd Steele and Louis Becke)-

    Reading Life Australian Bush Writers Project

    I am very glad to see some else posting on this era and if you have time please look at my post on this fascinating era

  8. July 25, 2010 11:14 am

    Hi Mel, thanks for popping by. Glad you liked this post. You will see that I’ve posted on a few other writers around the turn of the century. I’ve yet to read Baynton but must rectify that. Have popped by your blog – and commented on your The doctor’s wife post, as I’ve also reviewed that here.

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