Unlike many, I think, I have not read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels which, I understand are very different to her only Australian-set novel, Trooper to the Southern Cross, which, in fact, she published under the male pseudonym of Leslie Parker. It has been on my TBR for some time, so I’m grateful that Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week provided the impetus for me to finally pull it off the shelves and read it.
That said, Angela Thirkell is a bit of a ring-in. Wikipedia describes her as an Australian and English novelist, but really, she, who lived from 1890 to 1961, only lived in Australia from 1920 to 1929. All her novels were published after her return to England, so, although she did some journalistic writing in Australia, it’s a bit of a stretch to call her an “Australian” novelist. Nonetheless, I’d argue that this book, which has an Australian protagonistwas and was published in 1934, is worthy of Bill’s week, and the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Before I get on with the book, I should tell you that Thirkell’s father was William Morris’ good friend and biographer, and her maternal grandfather was Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. She had Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin as cousins, JM Barrie as godfather, and Beatrix Potter as a neighbour. She moved, then, in interesting circles.
Hilarious and affectionate satire
GoodReads writes that in Trooper to the Southern Cross, Thirkell “assumes the voice of an Australian army officer and relates an amusing, rough-and-tumble sea story about an eventful, post-World War I journey on a troop-carrying vessel deservedly labeled a ‘hell-ship.’ Thirkell’s keen ear for dialogue, and her skillful use of her own first-hand experience of a voyage on a similarly rumbustious vessel, combine to create an amusing and spirited yarn.” This is a fair description, but Virago’s back cover does a better job, describing it as “an hilarious and affectionate satire on the manners and mores of Australia”, “satire” being the operative word.
I make this point because, as Bill will be interested to know, HM Green, in his History of Australian literature, believed, says Virago, this book was written by a male, and described it as an example of “unconscious humour” rather than as satire. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly if you don’t know the full story. At this point, of course, I had to check out Trove, where I found two contemporary reviews. One, from Sydney’s The Sun (18 November 1934), is scathing, describing it as “without literary merit, with just a touch of sardonic humor and a good deal of unrestrained nastiness”. The main complaint is that the book “portrays the Australian soldier as something between a savage and a simpleton”.
The other review, from The Sydney Morning Herald (29 September 1934), is a little more positive. It has its criticism, though, saying that the “language and outlook” of its army doctor narrator “is that of the common soldier and rather difficult to reconcile with his rank and the assumption that he is a graduate in medicine of an Australian university. Our Medical Faculties hardly turn out their diamonds quite as rough as this unpolished specimen.” However, this reviewer finds the book funny, and concludes:
The voyage was full of incident, and the episodes, tragic, thrilling, or amusing, lose none of their interest in the free manner of telling. From the major’s mouth came artless revelations of opinions on all subjects that are reminiscent of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” though the artlessness has not the subtlety of the art of Anita Loos. Diggers will chuckle over this book.
Hmmm … not The Sun’s diggers, perhaps.
“a reserved kind of chap”
Trooper to the Southern Cross is based on Thirkell’s own trip to Australia in 1920 on the requisitioned German troopship SS Friedrichsruh which, like the novel’s fictional Rudolstadt, had been ingeniously sabotaged by the Germans. For example, the toilets flushed boiling water and salt water flowed from freshwater taps. Not surprisingly this added to the havoc on a ship that was carrying officers with their wives and families, “ordinary” diggers, and prisoner diggers who soon had it over the soldiers guarding them. As Thirkell tells it in her novel, there was much violence on board and at the only two stops made en route, Port Said and Colombo. All this is told in the voice of Major Tom Bowen, who is modelled on Thirkell’s husband, albeit her husband wasn’t a doctor or a major. Bowen’s wife, Celia, however, is not based on herself, says Tony Gould in Virago’s introduction, but Mrs Jerry, the Colonel’s wife, is.
The novel is interesting to read for a number of reasons, one being simply for its history, its being, according to its publisher, the first book to deal with “the repatriation of Australian troops after the war.” A very particular repatriation one would hope, but a story of such nonetheless. Mostly, though, it’s interesting for the voice of its narrator. He is quite something, and I can imagine different readers responding very differently to him. He, like George Thirkell, served in the war from the Gallipoli Campaign right through to Armistice. He’s reasonably educated, having done medicine in Sydney, but he uses Australian vernacular and his cultural tastes are popular. Virago’s Gould notes that Thirkell “became extremely well versed in Australian literature and culture and uses it to comic effect” in the book. Here, for example, is Bowen soon after meeting “the wonderfully pretty little thing” who was to become his wife:
The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain that they were way out beyond everything. I asked her if she’d read ‘On Our Selection’, because that gives you some idea of the back-blocks. But she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’, so I knew she wasn’t literary.
You can imagine the female Thirkell enjoying writing this male character – and she does it so well. He makes you cringe – with his frequently smug patronising manner, sexism, racism, and general all round chauvinism – and yet you can’t help liking him too. He has nous dealing with men, particularly the diggers for whom he has a clear-eyed affection; he is resourceful; and he shows tenderness to others in need, regardless of who they are. He’s even open to having his mind changed, such as when the Roman Catholic padre helps him out:
To think of an R.C. showing me what Christianity really was. It gave quite a shock to a lot of my ideas.
As a document of 1920s Australian manners and culture, told with a lightly satiric eye, Trooper to the Southern Cross is a surprisingly entertaining read.
Trooper to the Southern Cross
London: Virago, 1985 (Orig. pub. 1934)
(Virago Modern Classic No. 171)