While the focus of Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, which I recently reviewed, is the role of women in the Eureka Stockade, the book offers a wealth of wonderful insight into the times. As regular readers know, I have a specific interest in descriptions of landscape so I greatly enjoyed contemporary descriptions of the environment that Wright includes in her book. I can’t resist sharing some with you.
In the first chapter, Wright quotes from the diary of Englishman Charles Evans who walked to the diggings with his brother and another companion. He wrote of one place along their journey:
the scene from the hills was lovely beyond expression—the sun had set and a mellow twilight and the silvery rays of a full moon shed a soft light over the beautiful landscape … I cannot remember any scene in my own country … to excel it—I was going to say, perhaps even to equal it. (from his diary, 1853-55)
By contrast, English journalist William Howitt comments on the destruction of the landscape in the service of digging for gold:
The diggers seem to have two especial propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees … Every tree is felled, every feature of Nature is annihilated. (from his book Land, labour and gold, 1855)
According to Wikipedia, Howitt’s body of work draws from “his habits of observation and his genuine love of nature”. Environmentalism, as we know only too well, didn’t spring up in the twentieth century, but I always enjoy, albeit with a certain chagrin, coming across concern about environmental degradation in writings from the past. Wright, with her characteristically evocative language, writes that several diarists and letter-writers comment on the ugliness of the diggings. They “emphasise”, she says, “the conquest of culture over nature, the bulldozer urgency of conquest.”
For some reason that doesn’t fully make sense to me, Wright also quotes Mrs Mannington Caffyn from a book published in 1891, but I’ll share it because Wright did and because it is such an evocative description of Australian sunlight:
Australian sunlight is quite original, and only flourishes in Australia [me: Funny that!]. It is young and rampant and bumptious, and it is rather cruel, with the cruelty of young, untried things.
Many – though of course not all – of the 19th century sources Wright quotes in the book have a picturesque way with words. Mrs Caffyn’s example here was written for publication, but I enjoyed the expressive language used by several of the diarists and letter-writers too. The aforementioned Charles Evans, for example, says this of the plains between Melbourne and Ballarat:
stretching as far as the eye could reach were immense grassy plains undulating in emerald folds like the swell of the ocean.
I may write another more serious post on this book, if I can get my head into gear, but hope you enjoy these little descriptions in the meantime.