Margaret Mendelawitz, Charles Dickens’ Australia. Book 1, Convict stories
So true may fiction be in the hands of a genius
(from “Convict in the gold region”, by Richard Horne)
Richard Horne, in his article “Convicts from the gold region”, describes a scene from Don Quixote in which Quixote meets and sets free some convicts by driving away their guards, only to have his generosity (which included delivering them “a noble speech”) met by ridicule and “a volley of stones”. Horne suggests that the convicts he met would do “the same thing to any eccentric philanthropist in a broad-brimmed hat who should set them free and make them an address on liberty and humanity”. An interesting analogy to draw and one, I might add, that he doesn’t test, but I did like the way he used it to see the truth in fiction!
Anyhow, I have now read Book 1 in this fascinating set of books from the Sydney University Press, and it pretty well does what Mendelawitz says in her introduction. That is, it provides a first-hand, informative and entertaining insight into mid-19th century Australia – in this case, relating to the role of convicts in that society. The focus is on social conditions and social justice but there’s no heavy-handed proselytising. Dickens’ aim was to create a magazine that would be “cheerful, useful and always welcome” but that would also “assist the reader’s judgement in his observation of men”. Badness and wrongdoing aren’t glossed over but, wherever possible, mitigating circumstances are also provided.
There are 15 articles in the book, written by 9 different authors, some in collaboration. The last 6 are written by Australian-born barrister, journalist, novelist John Lang and are short case studies of individual convicts, including those who were unjustly (or, at least, unfairly) transported, those who deserved what they got but made good, and those who couldn’t give up their criminal ways. Representing this last group are the convicts described in “Three celebrities”. Fox, Pitt and Burke were three thieves who were “transported under the names of the three most celebrated orators of their time”. For whatever reason, they did not knuckle down to honest work in the colony, but instead escaped and operated as bushrangers. Even in their story, though, a positive is given: by the time they were captured they had set up a well-stocked farm with an abode that “was in the neatest order” and land that “was very well-tilled”. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the rather melodramatic tale of star-crossed love and a stolen horse resulting in the transportation of young “Kate Crawford”. Noticed by Mrs Macquarie, the wife of Governor Macquarie, and placed in the home of the chief constable in Parramatta, she was pardoned within three years and (eventually) died a very wealthy woman. These 6 stories are told with a light touch and in a conversational tone as tales relayed by a woman who knew the convicts in question.
A few of the articles are set in – or tell of – the Norfolk Island penal colony, a colony I have written about before in reviews of Jessica Anderson‘s The commandant and Price Warung‘s Tales of the early days. Both of those were written after the events and people they describe, and it is reassuring to our search for the “truth” that the articles here basically confirm the worst and best of the colony as conveyed by Anderson and Warung in their fictional pieces.
The centrepiece of this volume though is the story of William Henry Barber, who was transported to Norfolk Island in 1844. The story, told over two articles “Transported for life [Part One]” and “[Part Two]”, chronicles his imprisonment, trial and conviction for a crime he claims he did not commit, his transportation to Norfolk Island (including details of the long boat journey) and subsequent removal to Van Dieman’s Land from where he was, in 1847, released. Not long after, he received a free pardon with acknowledgement of his innocence. The articles are told first person but in fact were written by journalist and novelist William Moy Thomas. The Notes on Contributors suggest that the articles were based on the account Barber wrote in 1853 of his experiences, an account which is known to have been in Dickens’ library. The aim, as stated at the beginning of the first part, was to show “what transportation, at the present time, really is”.
In my overview of this set I wondered whether Dickens’ tight control over style would result in the articles being somewhat formulaic but I’m pleased to say that they aren’t. While the tone is overall more light than heavy and the content informative with a light persuasive edge, the style does vary. Some are factual chronicles of a life or situation while others have a more literary bent, some use dialog while others comprise descriptive prose, some are a little more obviously didactic while others simply present the situation for the reader to draw conclusions. The message, though, is always there, whether stated or not, and it is essentially this:
It is no miracle that has been here performed; men bred to crime in England by the ignorance and filth we cherish, are bred out of crime again in Norfolk Island, by a little teaching and a little human care. (from “Norfolk Island”, by Irwin and Henry Morley).
I must add, in the services of “truth”, that Norfolk Island had a mixed history regarding treatment of convicts but there was a short period, under Alexander Maconochie, when rehabilitation was taken seriously.
To conclude I can’t resist a quote from pickpocket Barrington in another of John Lang’s case studies, “An illustrious British exile”:
There was a time when ladies boasted of having been robbed by Barrington. Many whom I never robbed gave it out that I had done so; simply that they might be talked about. Alas! such is the weakness of poor human nature that some people care not by which means they associate their names with the name of celebrity.
And we thought the celebrity culture was new? Once again history tells us otherwise!
Charles Dickens’ Australia: Selected essays from Household Words 1850-1858. Book 1, Convict stories
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2011
(Review copy courtesy Sydney University Press)