Mary Grant Bruce, The early tales (Review)
Around a month ago I wrote a Monday Musings post on the Juvenilia Press, and said that I would read and post on some of its publications. Well, here is the first of those posts.
While I discovered the press through its Jane Austen juvenilia, the books I ordered were those for juvenilia by Australian authors. My first reading choice was the Mary Grant Bruce volume. You probably haven’t heard of Bruce if you are not Australian, and perhaps not, even if you are. She is best known as the author of the children’s series, the Billabong books (1910-1942). They were published way before my time, but my mum knew them and gave them to me to read when I was a child. I loved them. They probably contributed to my early love of and identification with the Aussie outback.
However, the Juvenilia Press’s book, The early tales, contains two stories that Bruce wrote for an adult audience when she was working for The Leader newspaper in Melbourne. These stories push the envelope in terms of the Press’s criteria for juvenilia, which is that the works should be written when the author is 20 years old or younger. Bruce was born in 1878, and the two stories in this volume were published in 1898 (“Her little lad”) and 1900 (“Dono’s Christmas”). I’m glad though that they stretched their definition. Rules, after all, don’t always need to be slavishly followed.
I will get to the stories soon, but first, I want to comment on the quality of the publication. It might be juvenilia but it is thoroughly scholarly, as the Press aims. It contains an in-depth introduction, which, in the way of academic introductions, contains spoilers, so beware that if you don’t like spoilers. It also explains the source of the text, and the text itself is comprehensively annotated with notes explaining editorial decisions, linguistic features, and points of literary interest. There four appendices on a range of topics, including how Bruce represented the Australian voice/speech patterns in her writing. And, of course, there is a list of references.
Now to the stories. They are an interesting pair. Both were published as Christmas Supplements of The Leader. And both are stories about families – the first a poor selector family and the second a more comfortable squatter family. However, despite their difference in means, both families experience the challenge of living isolated lives in the harsh Australian bush. Money, it seems, may provide a more comfortable house, an extra room or two, but it can’t protect you from the dangers of a life lived in isolation.
The stories belong to the tradition that includes Henry Lawson’s The drover’s wife (1892) and Barbara Baynton’s The chosen vessel (1896). In both, the father must leave his family for a day or so (wife and toddler son in “Her little lad” and wife and two young sons under ten in “Dono’s Christmas”) – and, of course, a crisis ensues that the family must cope with alone. I don’t want to give the stories away but both stories involve snakes (as does also The drover’s wife). One also involves dangerous illness, and a child and a horse lost in a storm. In both stories, too, characters find themselves short of water. These are all common motifs in Australian bush literature. The introduction explores them, and refers us, for example, to other works, like Banjo Paterson’s poem “Lost” and Frederick McCubbin’s painting of the same title. (Longstanding readers here might remember my post on the lost child motif. I wasn’t making it up!)
What, though, is it all about? With so many stories – of which the four mentioned above are just a few – dealing with such similar subject matter, it’s clear that what is being portrayed is the Australian character, and what is being developed is a sense of national identity. The introduction defines this character as comprising “independence, resourcefulness and resilience”. The fiction, poetry and art of the period portray the hardship and the failures. Citing another McCubbin painting, the introduction suggests that these works don’t idealise, but they nonetheless convey a sense of nobility. (This is a generalisation, of course. Nobility can be hard to find in many of Baynton’s stories!)
I won’t write much more here because I’d love you to read them yourselves*: they are well-told stories that have an emotional punch alongside their historical interest. Rather, I’ll leave you with a couple of short excerpts describing the bush, starting with the opening of “Her little lad”:
Across the clearing fell the first rays of the sun, each laying a path of living gold upon the long, withered grass. They lit up the giant gums, and lingered lovingly in the tangle of clematis and convolvulus which wreathed their great branches; and as they fell the night wanderers of the bush – the awkward wallaby, the giddy possum, and the shy bandicoot – started in affright and fled every one to his hole. Then the sunbeams penetrated still further, through the wild scrub tangle, down to the quiet creek, and there they lay upon its surface, forming, with the reflection of the over-hanging trees, a delicate mosaic of shadow and gold. They opened the buds of the wild orchids, the swaying bluebells, and kindled into flame the orange clusters of the grevillea; and, on the hut in the midst of the clearing, they spread curiously, as who should ask by what right man, with this ungainly excrescence, so marred the face of nature.
The introduction doesn’t discuss whether Bruce also had an environmental agenda, but she clearly recognised “man’s” impact. But for now, here is the sun, in “Dono’s Christmas”:
The sun was already up, and seemed to be climbing quickly into the cloudless sky; it was going to be a real scorcher, Dono thought, and he resolved to push on as fast as he could before the great heat commenced, when he hoped to be in the shade of the bush. So he cantered sharply over the hard-baked plain, where the sun had split big gaping fissures in the dry earth …
Reading these stories reminded me why I so enjoyed her children’s novels way back when. What a thrill to have discovered this little book at the Juvenilia Press.
Mary Grant Bruce
(ed. Pamela Nutt with students from the Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney)
The early tales
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2011
* The book only costs $12 plus postage, from the Press.