Missus was the last written in Ruth Park‘s Harp in the South trilogy, but is the first in terms of chronology. The first two novels, Harp in the South and Poor man’s orange, were published in 1948 and 1949 respectively, while Missus was not published until 1985.
These first novels, which met with some controversy on publication, are set in early post-war Sydney, the tenements of Surry Hills, and deal with the lives of Mumma and Hughie Darcy and their daughters. Missus is set in the 1920s, in country New South Wales, and relates Mumma and Hughie’s youth and courting days. I have only just read Missus, partly because I read the first two in my teens which was, I have to admit, before Missus appeared on the scene.
You can tell that the writer of Missus is the writer of Swords and crowns and rings (1977). The latter is larger scale – and deals more consciously with its historical time-frame. That is, it more specifically addresses the wars and the Depression, and their impact on the main characters. However, the First World War and the coming Depression do provide the backdrop to Missus. Both books depict rural life and characters with convincing realism.
WARNING: SPOILER, IF YOU’VE NOT READ HARP IN THE SOUTH
Now, the plot. For those who’ve read the first two novels, the interest here is not whether Mumma (Margaret Kilker) and Hughie get together but how they get together and who they are. The first chapter – after a brief introduction to the town of Trafalgar including how the early settlers cruelly despatched the Indigenous inhabitants – introduces us to Hughie and his family. We meet his brother Jer (Jeremiah), who is born with “his feet back to front”, and we learn of the failure of his parents marriage, his mother’s early death and his being turfed out by his father when he was around 14 years old. Jer goes with him, and becomes both millstone and support from then on.
In Chapter 2, we are properly introduced to Margaret (who makes a brief appearance in the first chapter) and her family. Unlike Hughie, she grew up in a large, loving family, though not one without its stresses and losses. Margaret, we learn, has taken a shine to Hughie, much to her mother’s concern, because she sees Hughie for what he is, “a wild goose of a boy … [who’s] got flighty feet”, a “shifty article”. This mother (Rowena) is, in fact, a powerful presence. I love this description of Rowena after she decided to give up on (“on” being the operative word) her first true love:
Her chest ached as if it had a skewer stuck in it, but she tossed her head more often than she hung it.
From here on the story progresses chronologically as Hughie moves around the countryside obtaining and losing or leaving jobs, while Margaret stays at home waiting for Hughie’s occasional visits. The characters of our characters, if you know what I mean, are illuminated by the actions of, or their interactions with, other characters. Margaret’s younger sister, the jealous Josie, provides an interesting foil for Margaret as well as an opportunity for Park to explore women’s lack of rights. Josie marries young – for the wrong reason to the wrong man – and the marriage fails. She’s intelligent and manages to obtain accountant qualifications, but her attempt to set herself up as an accountant in the town fails because no-one will use a woman accountant. Other characters include Alf, Margaret’s long-suffering but sensible aunt who works as a housekeeper for the local priest and who, at different times, provides shelter and monetary support for Josie and Jer; the Biddles (the mustard-gas damaged Joe and his common law wife) who take in Hughie and then Jer at one time in their lives; and the redoubtable Bids Tookey who … but that might give away what little plot there is.
In just 250 pages Park paints a rich picture of 1920s life in rural Australia while at the same time developing Hughie and Margaret’s characters. Her characters are all flawed, some more than others, but she draws them with a clear-eyed warmth. She sees them for who they are but she respects them nonetheless. There’s no sentimentality here, but neither is it cynical or bitter. Her themes are universal ones: innocence and experience, familial and romantic love, deception and loyalty, most of it overlaid with that pragmatism that is necessary for survival in a hard place in hard times. As I wrote in this week’s Monday Musings, it’s not surprising that these books still resonate.
Finally, the language is lovely – simple, direct and evocative. Read this from the last few pages of the novel:
In the unkempt garden bloomed freesias and grape hyacinths. The eucalypt twig flushed red, the four creeks overflowed, lambs appeared on the hills, white as mushrooms and as sudden.
‘Them two had better wed quick,’ said Eny ominously, ‘or I won’t answer for Margaret’.
Ha! I think I’ll leave it there – pregnant with possibility …
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1985