The first thing to say about Tasma’s debut novel Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill is that it’s rather wordy, speaking to a literacy different from that of today’s readers. For this reason, Uncle Piper won’t appeal to readers who like short simple sentences, and a plot which moves along at a good clip with little reflection or commentary. Consider yourself warned, but know also that, according contemporary reports, this novel made Tasma famous in a week.
So, if you enjoy immersing yourself in the writing of different times, and are interested in late 19th century Australia, Uncle Piper has plenty to offer, starting with well-drawn characters who, in modern clothes, would be as real today as they were in 1888.
Take father, the Uncle Piper of the title, and his son George, for example. Uncle Piper is a self-made man. In his case this involved emigrating from England, where he was poor and with few prospects, to Melbourne, where, starting as a lowly butcher, he worked hard to establish himself as the wealthy, successful businessman he is at the novel’s opening. Now, what often happens when parents struggle to establish themselves and create for their children opportunities that they never had? Why, those children take their easy, comfortable lives for granted. That’s what! Not a new story, is it?
And so, about a third of the way through the novel, we have a wonderful scene between father and son over a girl of whom the father doesn’t approve. Feeding this scene is a two-decade history of growing frustration on Uncle Piper’s part and a learned, practised nonchalance on George’s. The scene is delicious and requires no suspension of disbelief to understand. Here’s a short excerpt of a confrontation in Uncle Piper’s beloved tower at Piper’s Hill:
So he [George] courted a personal attack … and sat caressing his moustache, as was his wont, with his eyes bent on the floor, while his father exposed his grievances in a crescendo key.
If there was anything humiliating in being rated as an “able-bodied young man who wasn’t worth his salt,” as a loafer who was hardly fit to “jackaroo” on a station, as a “lazy lubber” who would “go to the dogs if it weren’t for his father,” George never betrayed that he felt humiliated by so much as the twitching of an eyelid. Persistently stroking the ends of his moustache with an air of profound abstraction, he made it apparent, as soon as Mr. Piper stopped to take breath, that he was suppressing an inclination to yawn.
Can’t you just see it – the increasingly apoplectic father and his determinedly calmly indifferent son!
In basic plot, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill is a romance, a marriage story, set against the social backdrop of a meeting between these well-to-do parvenu Pipers, and the impoverished but upper crust Cavendishes. The lowly-born Mrs Cavendish is Uncle Piper’s sister. At the beginning of the novel, the Cavendishes are on a boat being brought out to Australia by Uncle Piper who has, in effect, been supporting them for years and who would now like them with him. He’s offered to find the reluctant Mr Cavendish a job “in the government”. The Cavendishes include two daughters, the kind, unassuming Margaret and her younger sister, the beautiful and imperious Sara. Sara follows her father’s mould of snobbish self-regard trumping any sense of human feeling or empathy, while Margaret is in her mother’s caring and hardworking mould.
Coming out on the same boat is the thirty-something Rev. Lydiat who, unbeknownst to them all, is also connected to the Pipers – this is a nineteenth century novel after all. His now-deceased mother had been Uncle Piper’s second wife. So, the afore-mentioned George is his step-brother, and Uncle Piper’s still-a-child daughter Louey, whom he’d had with the Rev’s mother, is of course his half-sister. But wait, there’s more. Also in Uncle Piper’s household is Laura, the Rev. Lydiat’s sister, whom Uncle Piper had promised his wife, on her deathbed, to care and provide for.
… a house divided against itself …
And now the plot gets complicated – though it’s easy to follow in the book. Rev. Lydiat falls (purely, of course) in love with Sara, while on the boat. And George and Laura, unrelated by blood, are in love. But, Uncle Piper wants George to marry his as-yet-unseen-to-any-of-them cousin Sara. And just to round all this off, Margaret is quietly, humbly, in love with Rev. Lydiat. Lest you give up at this point and think this all sounds a bit silly, let me say that despite its fairly traditional plot of love-triangles and interfering parents, the book has a lot more to offer.
So, where to go from here? There are many angles from which this book could be discussed. Issues like religion, money and class (as I’ve already mentioned), colonial life and the Australian landscape, and even the book’s relevance to Tasma’s biography, are all well worth exploring. I could also have fun teasing out comparisons between this book and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (my review). It’s not hard to see Sir Walter Elliot and his daughter Elizabeth in Mr Cavendish and Sara, or to see Anne Elliot in the capable Margaret. I could also talk about the style, and the influence on the style and tone of its being originally serialised in a newspaper.
However, given my previous reading of Aussie women writers at the time – of Ada Cambridge’s A woman’s friendship and Sisters, and Rosa Praed’s The bond of wedlock – I’d like to mention Tasma’s social commentary, particularly regarding women. Part of the commentary relates to the opportunities offered by Australian life. Uncle Piper’s generosity and capacity for hard work is offset against the snobbery of Mr Cavendish who is happy to take his brother-in-law’s money while continuing to hold himself “above” his host. He is snobbish, selfish and shallow, and by the end of the novel, has learnt nothing. Uncle Piper, on the other hand, along with his son George, learns some lessons and, by the end both have recognised and corrected some of their less tolerant behaviours.
For Uncle Piper much of this change relates to his step-daughter Laura Lydiat. For all his generosity, Uncle Piper has his faults. He can be autocratic, for a start. This does not sit well with the opinionated Laura. She has rejected religion, can be sarcastic, and has an “uncompromising disregard of feelings with which she does not agree”, albeit being very happy to eat at Uncle Piper’s table and wear the clothes he provides! She also does not approve of marriage:
though I abominate the system of marriage, though I think the yoking of two people together without a chance of release–as if the yoke mightn’t gall them any day–perfectly barbarous and absurd–still, in view of our ‘exceptional case’–there, don’t be demonstrative till you’ve heard me to the end–in view, as I said, of our ‘exceptional case,’ I’d have gone off with you to the registrar’s any morning–no, nothing would induce me to go to church–and have signed myself Laura Piper, instead of Laura Lydiat!
MISS THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHO MARRIES WHOM …
At the end of the novel, when the also-changed Laura does indeed marry, Tasma compares gentle, dutiful Margaret’s response to the marriage service with Laura’s:
She [Margaret] had followed the service in its most literal sense with all the earnestness of her nature, and would have had no sympathy with the half-perceptible gleam that might have been detected in Laura’s eyes at being called upon to obey George.
START READING HERE AGAIN …
The novel is not, as you can tell from this gentle hint, overtly didactic. There is some running authorial commentary, but the ideas and themes are well conveyed through the story and the characters, who are, for the most part, realistic though there are some saints and sinners among them.
Uncle Piper owes much to the Victorian novel tradition, but one adapted to an Australian setting. The plot overlays a New World made-good story over the more traditional romance narrative. The result is a novel which explores some new ideas about life within a familiar format, which makes it particularly special, I think, for Antipodean readers. Tasma should be read more.
Tasma (Jessie Couvreur)
Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill: An Australian novel
Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook, 2006
(Originally serialised in The Australasian, 1888; published as a volume, 1889)
Available online at Project Gutenberg of Australia