In a rather curious synchronicity, the last three books I’ve read have all had single word, multiple-meaning, titles, all relating to the colonial settlement of Australia – Gay Lynch’s historical fiction Unsettled (my review), John Kinsella’s memoir Displaced (my review), and now Julie Janson’s historical fiction Benevolence whose title drips with irony.
Recently, I commented that it would be good to see an Indigenous Australian novel responding to Kate Grenville’s The secret river. Well, it appears that Benevolence is that novel. In her Acknowledgements, Janson, of the Darug Nation, writes that Benevolence is “a work of fiction based on historical events of the early years [1816-1842] of the British invasion and settlement around the Hawkesbury River in Western Sydney, New South Wales”. Protagonist Muraging, renamed Mary by the colonisers, is based on the author’s ancestor, Mary Ann Thomas, just as Grenville’s novel, set around the same place and time, was inspired by, though not exactly based on, her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman. There, of course, the similarity ends, because while Grenville’s protagonist becomes a “big” man in colonial Sydney, Muraging’s experience is very different.
Benevolence starts in 1816, when the motherless Muraging is “about 12 years old” and handed over by her father to the British to be taught English at the Parramatta Native Institution. She is, says her father (naively we now know), “to be an important part of helping their people and she must learn their language and their ways”. Thus begins Muraging’s life of being caught between two cultures. Early on “she thinks she can be in two worlds and not have to choose”. However, she is never properly accepted by the British (of course) and, while accepted by her own Darug people, it is clear very early that Indigenous culture is being dismantled by dispossession, dispersal and death (through disease, murder and massacre), resulting in Indigenous people’s lives (already) becoming one of survival rather than of living fully.
And so, as the novel progresses through the years, we follow Muraging as she leaves or escapes the British settlement to find comfort, support and/or protection within Indigenous communities, only to return for one reason or another to the settlement, with the cycle starting all over again. Each time she returns to the settlement, the brutality and humiliations ratchet up. It’s a terrible story, but a credible one based on Janson’s detailed research, part of it done while she worked as a senior researcher for Professor Peter Read at the University of Sydney. This research resulted in the creation of the History of Aboriginal Sydney website.
However, this book is not history but historical fiction, so the characters are inspired by a mixture of historical fact and Janson’s imagination – and it is her imagination that brings these characters to life as authentic beings, particularly Muraging, her mixed-up friend Mercy, the weak-if-well-meaning reverend Henry Smythe, and to a lesser degree Captain Woodrow. The grotesque reverend Masters is another matter altogether.
Muraging is established from the start as a person with agency. She does not want to be a “servant” or “a fine maid”. Rather, she wants, she says, to ‘”improve my situation” … but she is ignored’. She never gives up her search for an independent life, and, though she makes poor decisions at times, she behaves courageously, loyally (sometimes at great risk to herself), and in a way determined to be true to herself and her people.
“You have no home” (Masters)
While the personal implications of colonialism and dispossession are conveyed through Muraging’s story, Janson reinforces this with historical fact, including references to documented massacres, discussions between characters about current events, and the occasional appearance of a governor (like Macquarie, like Gipps.) Janson also opens selected chapters with specific historical information. Chapter 4 (“1818: White people things”), for example, begins with an excerpt from the Sydney Gazette reporting massacres from, of course, the settler perspective. Chapter 20 (“1835: Deerubbin, The Hawkesbury River”) commences with a statement about Governor Bourke passing “the Proclamation of terra nullius”. And so on. These occasional documentary facts anchor Muraging’s story in the historical timeline.
The biggest villain of the piece is the appropriately named Reverend Masters. He represents the worst of British power, conveying or enacting British policy with little thought for the humanity of those he deals with. Like a certain world leader today, it’s all about him.
And this brings me to the writing. Janson’s descriptions are beautifully lyrical, though not always simply so. The novel opens with:
The grey-green eucalypts clatter with the sound of cicadas. Magpies and currawongs warble across the morning sky as the sun’s heat streams down. It is eaglehawk time …
Almost idyllic Australia, except “eaglehawk” time suggests the idea of violence … of hunter and prey!
There are also wry ironic touches, such as Captain Woodrow’s comment, “I have fought savages on the Indian frontier and I know that no honour exists among savages”. Hmm, who are the savages without honour here? Or, good guy ex-convict Ferdinand, with his Darug wife, defying Masters with “This is my land. My grant.” Whose land? In such ways, Janson encourages us to think behind the words of waibala people.
I also like the way Janson used local Indigenous language throughout the novel, enough to convey (and promote) local culture and language, but not so much as to impede understanding.
I was less comfortable, however, with the writing about actions and events. It can be quite cut-and-dried, with a disjointed or staccato feel that, for me, broke the flow of my reading. Maybe this was intended, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has suggested, to convey the violence – or, at least, the instability – of that world. I can see that, though I’m not sure it fully worked that way for me.
And finally, of course, there’s that powerful title. Who thinks they are benevolent, who pretends to be benevolent, who really is benevolent, not to mention what is benevolence anyhow, are the questions that confront us on every page of this timely novel.
“You won’t win, you know” (Masters)
Benevolence, then, is a compelling and worthwhile read. The history is good, offering Indigenous readers something that more closely accords with their understanding of what happened, and non-Indigenous readers a corrective to the history we’ve been fed most of our lives. The story is engaging, with Janson treading a fine line between utter negativity and unrealistic hopefulness. I particularly liked the tone struck by the ending, but that’s for you to find out!
We need more books like this …
Broome: Magabala Books, 2020
(Revieve copy courtesy Magabala Books)