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William Lane, The workingman’s paradise

September 28, 2009

Wealth and Poverty both seem to degrade most of us. (p. 249)

The workingman's paradise (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

The workingman's paradise (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

So says Bohemian Connie Stratton to the hero Ned Hawkins in William Lane’s 1892 novel, The workingman’s paradise. William Lane, an English-born journalist, union supporter and socialist, wrote under a number of pseudonyms including John Miller, the name he used for this novel which was re-published this year as part of the Australian Classics Library.

Lane writes in his preface that the book was titled and written “hurriedly”, in order to:

  • raise funds for unionists imprisoned during the Queensland Shearers Strike of 1891; and
  • explain unionism to non-unionists and Socialism “to all who care to read or hear, whether unionists or not”.

If this suggests to you that The workingman’s paradise is a social-realist novel, you would be right. It is very much a novel of ideas, which presents a bit of a challenge: shall I focus on the polemics or on the literary aspects? I will try to cover both – but it is worth reading this edition’s new introduction by academic, Andrew McCann, as it rather nicely explores the politics behind the novel.

As with many polemical novels, the plot is pretty minimal. It concerns two childhood friends, Nellie and Ned, who meet up again in Sydney in the 1880s having not seen each other for many years. Both are children of selectors who have struggled and both have become quite politicised, though at the beginning of the novel Nellie’s understanding of politics is broader and her commitment to the Cause (aka Socialism) more complete than Ned’s. Nellie loses no time in introducing Ned to the underside of Sydney life, and to her friends (who include the Connie of the opening quote). It is through these experiences that Ned’s political education is cemented. Oh, and there is of course an attraction between them!

The novel is divided into two parts: the first is set in the late 1880s when Ned comes to Sydney and meets Nellie and her friends, and the second takes place a couple of years later, on the eve of the Queensland Shearers Strike, when Ned returns to Sydney to garner support for the shearers. Without giving too much away, there is no real resolution to the plot, something which Lane refers to in his preface: “This plot got very considerably mixed and there was no opportunity to properly rearrange it”. If you read for plot, then, you may be disappointed, but if you read for characters, ideas and a fine use of the English language, this is well worth the effort. And there is some effort involved because, while it is not a particularly long novel, its main focus is its ideas and they require a reasonable level of concentration. There are a couple of places, such as socialist Geisner’s long discussion with Ned, which can become a little heavy-going if the subject is not to your interest.

Lane writes in a high rhetorical style that is rather typical of novels whose main purpose is didactic. He effectively uses such techniques as repetition (particularly anaphora), declamatory statements, and classical and biblical allusions to convey his message. This style can feel unsubtle and old-fashioned to modern ears but in Lane’s hands it has a certain beauty. There is, for example, a sophisticated use of repetition at the beginning of Part 2, Chapter 1: The slaughter of the innocent. Nellie is sitting with and thinking about a dying baby and, after each set of thoughts, is the following repetition:

So Nellie thought, sitting there beside it … (p. 152)

So Nellie thought, weeping there beside it … (p. 153)

So Nellie thought, the tears drying on her cheeks … (p. 154)

And that, you think is the end of them (three repetitions, after all, being the most common style), but then two pages later comes:

So Nellie thought, in her indignation and sorrow …

Through these repetitions we feel the buildup of her pain and see the progress of her thought from sadness to indignation.

The novel comprises more than simple argument though. In a nod to the romantic tradition, it is also a very visual novel with some effective descriptive passages, such as those showing us Sydney at its best and worst:

The streets, some wider, some narrower, all told of sordid struggling. The shops were greasy, fusty, grimy. The groceries exposed in their windows damaged specimens of bankrupt stocks, discoloured tinned goods, grey sugars, mouldy dried fruits; at their doors, flitches of fat bacon, cut and dusty. (p. 24)

and

At their feet the faint ripplings of this crystal lake whispered their ceaseless lullaby and close behind them the trees rustled softly in the languid breathings of the sleeping tree. Of a truth it was Paradise, fit above all fitness to gladden the heart of men, worthy to fill the soul to overflowing with the ecstasy of living, deserving to be enshrined as a temple of the Beautiful wherein all might worship together, each his own God. (p. 185)

The ideas expressed in the novel are simple, yet complex too. Through Ned and Nellie, and through discussions between two “masters”, the conciliatory Melsom and the “Capitalism personified” Strong, Lane explains the master-worker divide, the development of unions, and the “freedom of contract” idea. And through the meeting at the Strattons, and Ned’s later meetings with Geisner and then Connie, he conveys his conception of Socialism as a “religion” that “can only come by the utter sweeping away of competition, and that can only come by the development of the socialistic idea in men’s hearts”. (p. 138) True Socialism is defined by Geisner as “men working as mates and sharing with one another of their own free will [ie. not organised by the State]”. (p. 134) After reading this, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Lane ended up trying to establish a utopian community in Paraguay in 1893.

Using a variety of narrative techniques – including stories of characters met along the way – Lane manages to present a broad picture of working class 19th century Australia: the marine strike, the girls who end up on the street, the piece-workers at home, and the struggle to farm are just some of the stories woven through the book. Reading all this, you would think that Lane was the epitome of all that is humane, but for all the idealism – the arguments for gender equality, for the socialist ideal of equality between worker and master – the book has its discomforting side and this is its racist (specifically anti-Chinese) overtones. From very early in the book, the Chinese are held up, essentially, as the enemy in both city and country:

The fruiterers seemed not to be succeeding in their rivalry with each other and the Chinese hawkers. The Chinese shops were dotted everywhere, dingier than any other, surviving and succeeding, evidently by sheer force of cheapness … The day grow (sic) hotter and hotter. Ned could feel the rising heat, as though he were in an oven with a fire on underneath. Only the Chinese looked cool. (p. 24-25)

and

Then down would come the wages, up would go the hours and in would come the Chinese. (p. 238)

Even idealists, it seems, have their feet of clay!

This is the sort of book that can be read as a work of literature and as a work of political philosophy. While it can happily stand on its own as a literary classic for the quality of its writing, its prime value for me is its evocation of late nineteenth century Australia – an Australia which, you will have realised by now, was no “workingman’s paradise”!

Note on the text: The title page verso advises that the book is “a repaging of text files on SETIS, itself input from the 1892 edition …” I understand this text was input via OCR which is a boon for publishers wishing to reproduce pre-electronic texts but which can also result in a significant number of “artefacts” (misread characters). Sydney University Press has clearly worked hard to clean up the text but a number of these artefacts have slipped through. I understand they will be corrected for future printings.

(Review copy supplied by the Sydney University Press)

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2009 1:43 pm

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to read what Nettie Palmer thought of it in her survey of ‘Modern Australian Literature 1900-1923’ ? She was very political as well.

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    September 28, 2009 2:18 pm

    It would indeed be. She and Vance were an interesting couple weren’t they?Apparently Dame Mary Gilmore went to Paraguay with him. And they say he influenced writers like Katherine Susannah Prichard. He’s a very interesting character I think. Apparently he reverted to a more conservative stance later – but I haven’t really had time to follow that up. Twould be interesting though.

  3. Lithe lianas permalink
    September 28, 2009 5:13 pm

    I love your quotes – sounds like beautiful writing but re Lane’s ‘feet of clay’ regarding the Chinese you have to remember that this was the time of the White Australia Policy when cheap overseas labour was the greatest fear of the Australian working man.

  4. whisperinggums permalink*
    September 28, 2009 5:22 pm

    Thanks Lithe lianas. You would enjoy it I think. Yes, you are right and I thought about mentioning the general cultural context re the Chinese but decided (1) the review was getting too long; and (2) as an idealist, he should have been able to see that mateship is about all persons regardless of class, gender or race, and so I decided that I didn’t really want to give him that out!

  5. Lithe lianas permalink
    September 28, 2009 7:08 pm

    I didn’t think you were such a hard woman!

  6. whisperinggums permalink*
    September 28, 2009 7:45 pm

    Well, now you know. Beware!

  7. October 1, 2009 3:50 pm

    On Radio National in July, the “Life and Times” program had a two part series on William Lane and Paraguay, originally recorded by Ann Whitehead (who wrote a book about it) in 1990.
    It seems it’s still available for download at
    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifeandtimes/stories/2009/2616280.htm

  8. whisperinggums permalink*
    October 1, 2009 4:04 pm

    Thanks Janine … that’s great. I will try to find time to listen to it! Why oh why aren’t there more hours in the day?

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