It’s some time since I wrote a Delicious Descriptions post, but these three paragraphs from Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (beginning of Pt IV, CH 3, “Laura does penance”), which I reviewed a few days ago, are too delicious not to share:
THE remark that Voltaire made about the great Russian Empire, when he compared it to a pear that was rotten before it was ripe, might be applied with equal truth to many a Victorian township. But the comparison, let me hasten to add, only holds good as regards the buildings and general aspect of these places. That “peace and contentment reign” therein, and that the small storekeeper and cockatoo farmer have nothing in the way of extortionate taxation or prompt knouting to fear in the land of democracy and universal suffrage, may be taken for granted. Nevertheless, as I said before, in the matter of their arriving at decay before they reach maturity, there are many Australian townships that might take Voltaire’s remark to themselves.
Barnesbury is one of these. Its oldest inhabitants, still in their prime, look back with regret to the days when it was the railway terminus; when all the coaches, and buggies, and bullock-drays, and four-in-hands, and squatters and diggers made it their head-quarters; and money spending and money-making, and consequent joviality, were the order of the day. Then it was that the three banks were built, in front of the largest of which the cows and geese graze peacefully today. Those fine-sounding names were given to the broad tracks leading away into the bush, which a few years more (it was fondly imagined) would transform into bustling streets. The great bluestone publichouse, designed for a monster hotel, was completed as far as its first story, but as it was never carried any farther, it naturally possesses at the present time a somewhat squat appearance, with a suggestively make-shift roof, and a general air of having been stopped in its growth. The church, too, was begun upon quite an ambitious scale, for to the credit, be it said, of Victorian country-folk, they pay as liberally for their religion as for their beer, and the Barnesbury spire was to be a “thing of beauty” in the eyes of all men. But the church, unhappily, shared the fate of the public-house and the banks. The spire that was to have been a “joy for ever” to the residents of Barnesbury shrank into a small wooden bell–tower, not unlike a pigeon house, and the incumbent deemed himself fortunate when a weatherboard verandah, without a floor, was affixed to the modest bluestone cottage dignified by the name of the parsonage.
The same evidence of having been brought to a sudden halt in by-gone years, and of having never been set going again, clung to the commerce of Barnesbury. The one and only street ran down and up a hill, which is not the same thing as to run up and down one. In the hollow mid-way was a row of shops of the most casual order, in one or any of which you might purchase almost anything from a bonnet to a wash-hand basin. On race-days, or tea meeting evenings at the school-house, it was not unusual to see as many as three spring-carts, with a bush-buggy and riding-horses, fastened to the posts in front of the one bit of wide pavement that remained. On election days the crowd was even greater, but its chief scene of action was the afore-mentioned Junction Hotel, which made up in extent what it had lost in height, and which could have gathered almost all the population into its bar.
I chose this excerpt for a few reasons. The allusions to Voltaire in the first paragraph and to Keats in the second reflect Tasma’s erudition, but they are used to effect rather than simply to show off. The Voltaire reference in the first paragraph underpins her promotion of Australia as a good and fair place to live, an idea which some commentators see as a theme throughout her works. She says that it is a place of “peace and contentment”, that “the small storekeeper and cockatoo farmer have nothing in the way of extortionate taxation or prompt knouting to fear in the land of democracy and universal suffrage” – unlike the Russian Empire, for example, as described by Voltaire.
The language, throughout, is clever, wry, cheeky, such as the description of the town’s main (only) street: “The one and only street ran down and up a hill, which is not the same thing as to run up and down one.” In other words, the main part of the town is probably at the bottom and indeed it is, in “the hollow”, which supports the suggestion that this is a struggling town. Other examples are that on race days you can expect to see “as many as three spring-carts, with a bush-buggy and riding-horses” (a whole three!) in the town, and that Victorian country people pay as well for religion as their beer!
This is the town where our main characters will learn something about themselves, and thence deserve their happy endings. It’s a great setting.