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
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)