Price Warung, as I wrote in my previous post on him, is the pseudonym used by English-born Australian writer, William Astley, who came to Australia with his parents in 1859 when he was still a child. Astley became a radical journalist and short-story writer, with particular interests in transportation/convict literature, and the Labour and Federation movements. Tales of the early days, the book I reviewed in my first post, was republished by the Sydney University Press, and was entirely convict-focused.
I didn’t expect to see Price Warung again, but here he is, a few years later, in a book containing a selection from three of his five books: Tales of the convict system (1892), Tales of the early Days (1894), and Half-crown Bob and tales of the riverine (1898). Given I’ve already devoted a post to the convict stories – four of which are included in this collection’s eleven, including the well-regarded “Secret Society of the Ring” – I will focus here on editor Lucas Smith’s introduction to the collection and Warung’s riverine stories, which are new to me.
The first thing to say is that these stories were written between 1888 and 1898, but are mostly set decades earlier.
Smith starts by stating that, after Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life (1874), “no writer did more to forge the myth of Australia’s convict heritage than William Astley”. However, Astley’s work a journalist included rural newspapers, like the Riverine Herald in Echuca, where gathered material for his “poignant and humorous stories about early steamboat traffic on the Murray River”. Smith says that these stories, which were “reminiscent of Joseph Furphy*”, were “his only departure from depictions of the convict system’s grimness”.
Astley’s popularity was brief, but it did make him a prominent “literary and political figure”. He is, claims Smith, “our Chekhov to Clarke’s Tolstoy”. Big claim, eh? Smith says that, with Clarke, Warung “is responsible for our colloquial [my emph.] understanding of the convicts as victims (although usually not innocent ones) of an inhuman system.” While historians like Russell Ward describe “how Australian convicts often enjoyed higher-quality food and working conditions than the labouring classes in England”, the brutal images of “striped backs”, “broken bodies” and “unrepentant gangs bent of revenge” persist. They are based in fact but were “a small aspect of the transportation system”.
Smith goes on to briefly discuss the origins – the facts and fiction – of the “convict myth”, before explaining why Warung is worth reading:
Warung is far from the supreme stylist of colonial Australia. He is often sub-Dickensian in his sentimentality, and rigid in his humour. Nevertheless, his realism, irony and humour, as well as his diligent research, exhaustively undertaken from both archival research and his associations with “the ghosts of Old Sydney”, make him worthy of reintroduction to a contemporary audience.
This collection, he says, represents “a cross-section of his work: the lured convict tales, the laconic riverboat yarns, and the anti-System diatribes”.
Regarding Warung’s reputation, Smith says that unlike some of the other men and women of the Bulletin school of the 1890s, Warung has attracted little academic attention, being seen, with a few exceptions, as an also-ran. One of these exceptions is, intriguingly, an American, Edward Watts, who believes that Warung has been “unfairly marginalised”. While not quite convinced by Watts’ suggestion of a “faint comparison to the infamous neglect of Herman Melville prior to the 1920s”, Smith argues that Warung is “more than a penny-a-liner and well deserving of further study”.
Smith says of the riverine stories that, “freed from the grim and technical language of the penal system”, they contain Warung’s “most fluid and picturesque writing”. He’s right, though these stories have their own technical language to confront. They are more humorous, but can also be “political”, with issues like labour practices, land-deals, political bribery, and so on, revealed through their narratives. Smith suggests that the convicts were violent to authority, while the riverine folk were “merely contemptuous”.
The four riverine stories – “The last of the Wombat Barge”, “Dictionary Ned”, “The incineration of Dictionary Ned”, and “The doom of Walmsley’s Ruby” – all concern the steamboats that plied the river system, carrying cargo, particularly wool, from producers to ports, and bringing needed goods back. Given this industry’s demise by the 1930s, Warung’s stories offer insights from one who knew (versus Nancy Cato’s more romanticised historical fiction, All the rivers run trilogy). Echuca, where Warung spent some time, was a major port on the Murray.
“The last of the Wombat Barge” revolves around a woman working on the boats. While Jim, who managed the river pontoons to let boats through, was partial to “womanines”, others were not impressed by a woman taking a man’s job (whether it directly concerned them or not). Indeed, “the whole river population … were in agitation”:
The mate, whom Mrs Kingsley had displaced had almost as much to say as Sooty Bill the loafer, who never had a wash except when he was thrown in the river in a squabble, and who never did an honest day’s work out of gaol.
Various men try to change Captain Kingsley’s mind, but things turn to custard when the deckhands, for whom “the idea of being bossed by a woman galled their manhood” quit, and he is forced to employ scab Chinese labour. While “missie mate” was good at her job, the Kingsleys are, ultimately, brought down by pride and greed. However, the language used to describe the Chinese is shocking, with the novel’s moral being not to employ the Chinese, whose intelligence was limited to “imitation”, who lacked “initiative and readiness of wit”, and who brought disease.
“Dictionary Ned” is my favourite riverine story. Bargeman Ned buys a dictionary when he’s around forty years old, “in the vain hope of making up the deficiencies his early education”. He carries it everywhere, studying it, rigorously, at every opportunity, “when other men smoked, or swapped yarns, or drank”. He is also scrupulous about keeping his person and clothes clean. He is noticed by College Bill who, in addition to being of “odorous carcass”, has squandered his education. He accosts Ned, but comes off worse in a game of words, resulting in Ned’s star rising among his river peers, who had previously ridiculed him. The story’s end, though, is one of kindness and redemption. “The incineration of Dictionary Ned” is an entertaining tale about Ned’s desire for cremation, but it also exposes some of the politics and land deals between squatters and selectors in colonial Australia.
Warung’s stories aren’t particularly subtle but even the more gruesome ones exude a life and energy in their characters that engaged me. The stories also offer insights into the times about which he writes, and the times from which he writes! Worth reading.
* You can follow Bill’s current slow reading engagement with Furphy here.
Selected tales of Price Warung: Selected and introduced by Lucas Smith
Bonfire Books, 2020
(Review copy courtesy Bonfire Books)