When new publisher Grattan Street Press offered me a review copy of John Lang’s The forger’s wife last November, I couldn’t resist, even though it is from their Colonial Australian Popular Fiction series. I say “even though” because, had it been written now, it would probably not have come under my radar. It’s very much in the popular vein. However, as a piece of work first published (in serial version) in 1853, it has much to offer modern readers.
It raises the question, in fact, of why read historical fiction when you can read from the time itself. I’m being a bit flippant here, I know. There is reason – there’s value in looking back, in revisiting the past with eyes from the present – but the question is worth asking, if only to focus our minds on context when we read.
Enough pontificating though, let’s get to the book – or, first, to the author. According to Grattan Street Press, John Lang was Australia’s first locally born novelist. I have in fact written about him briefly before, in a Monday Musings post, but I hadn’t had a chance to read him, until now. I mentioned in that post Victor Crittenden’s biography, because its title says a lot – John Lang: Australia’s larrikin writer: barrister, novelist, journalist and gentleman. Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver’s Introduction to The forger’s wife provides interesting background to his life, some from Crittenden’s work. Lang, it seems, lived quite a peripatetic life, and had had a few books published by the time The forger’s wife was serialised.
Gelder and Weaver write that it’s generally accepted that The forger’s wife is “the first novel by an Australian-born novelist to feature an Australian detective.” They go on to suggest that it is “the first detective novel in the Anglophone world” arguing that it predates by around ten years The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix which has been seen as the first detective novel in English. The rest of their introduction – naturally, because the series is about popular fiction – focuses on the book as a detective novel. However, I’d like to discuss other things.
The novel is essentially a melodrama which, say Gelder and Weaver, follows “the fairly familiar pattern of a female emigrant’s tale.” It tells the story of Emily Orford, the rather spoilt only child of a well-to-do British army officer. Eschewing more suitable suitors, she falls for a man whom she believes to be Captain Reginald Harcourt, but who is, in fact, the forger Charles Robert. Immediately after their elopement, he is arrested and convicted of forgery, and transported to Australia. Emily, believing that Reginald is innocent, follows him to Sydney. Here, she luckily finds a few friends amongst the colony’s rough and tumble, one being the convict turned policemen-and-thief-taker (our detective), George Flower. She also reconnects with the scurrilous Reginald/Charles, who, despite getting into increasingly outrageous scrapes, manages to keep Emily believing in him. This is a 19th century melodrama so it all turns out alright in the end, though not necessarily exactly as readers might expect.
What I want to talk about now, though, is why this novel is worth reading – besides its credentials as a pioneering detective novel, that is. My reasons have to do with the insight it provides into colonial life. Think how much we learn about life in mid-nineteenth century England from Charles Dickens’ novels. So …
“this uncouth and cruel land” (Emily)
We learn a few things about early to mid-nineteenth century colonial Australia, starting with some vivid descriptions of town and country. We learn about the roughness, the struggle to survive which results in various combinations of theft, corruption, bribery. The novel’s themes include the survival of the wiliest, and the challenge of identifying who you can trust. The naive, trusting Emily would not have survived a minute without the initial help of Captain Dent from Lady Jane Grey, the boat she arrived on, and then George Flower who looks out for her.
We learn about how women make a living – some via the oldest profession. Emily, though, gives piano lessons. However, when she becomes persona non grata because of Reginald, she’s “compelled to do needlework, to knit socks and comforters”. We learn about convicts who become policemen versus those who become bushrangers. We learn about settlers taking the law into their own hands. George Flower, on the hunt for Reginald now turned bushranger, tells a well-to-do settler that settlers need to learn to protect themselves:
The Gov’ment’s a fool for paying for mounted police. You ought to learn the value of combination, and how to protect yourselves.
Later on the same page he says:
I wish to teach you settlers, and the Gov’ment, and bushrangers, a great moral lesson. I want to make you more independent and secure – bushrangers less numerous and daring – and Gov’ment more economic and sensible.
And, of particular interest to me, we learn about attitudes to the original inhabitants. In between the above two comments, Flower says:
You can club up to get rid of the blacks, when they spear your cattle or kill your sheep. Why can’t you capture your own bushrangers?
So, the settlers clearly have no compunction about getting rid of the blacks themselves. Presumably they are “easier pickings” and don’t warrant the respect of a lawful process? You don’t always need to read history, then, to know what went on. Sometimes fiction contains useful truths.
There are other references – or not – to indigenous people. A little earlier than the above scene, Flower is enjoying a lovely moment in a remote spot, where:
he discoursed for some time with [bushranger] Millighan on the grandeur of the scene, and the sweets of liberty. It was a beautiful warm day, and not a cloud in the sky. The foot of man had never before trod the ground on which Flower and Millighan were then standing.
I don’t think Lang was being ironic here!
Later, Flower returns to the same spot, where Millighan’s skeleton now lies. He treats the skeleton of this “brave” adversary with respect, leaving a note to ensure that when, in the future, the remains might be “stumbled across”, the finders will “not suppose he was some black fellow”!
And yet, a page later, there’s recognition of learning from these same “black fellows” when he makes a fire “as the Aborigines do, by rubbing two pieces of dry stick together until they ignite.”
The final reference to indigenous people also refers to cultural learning. We are told that Flower, now back in England, had become very “‘colonial'” not only in “outward appearance”, but also in “parlance”. “He had mixed a good deal with the blacks” and, while the Aboriginal language was not “thoroughly understood by the Europeans”, it had contributed “sundry worlds and phrases” which Flower used, to the incomprehension of his listeners.
So, while I found the story itself entertaining – indeed a thoroughly enjoyable read – it’s these unconscious insights into the times by a writer of the times that has made this book memorable. I would love to read more in this series.
The forger’s wife
Parkville: Grattan Street Press, 2017 (Orig. serialised in 1853)
(Review copy courtesy Grattan Street Press)
PS: I apologise for overwhelming your inboxes/reader feeds this week. There’s been a lot on. I’ll return to situation normal next week.