Price Warung, Selected tales of Price Warung (#BookReview)

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”.

The Riverine

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”.

Book cover

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.

Price Warung
Selected tales of Price Warung: Selected and introduced by Lucas Smith
Bonfire Books, 2020
ISBN: 9780646819273

(Review copy courtesy Bonfire Books)

Rod Howard, A forger’s tale: The extraordinary story of Henry Savery, Australia’s first novelist (Review)

Rod Howard, A forger's tale

Cover: courtesy Arcade Publications

“Name Australia’s first published novelist” is, I think, a question that would trick most Australians at a trivia night. Rod Howard, who wrote the biography, A forger’s tale, about this writer would agree, as would the writer in the West Australian in 1950 to whom I referred a couple of months ago. Henry Savery, in other words, is not a household name in Australia though, as Howard says in his Author’s Note, there are a couple of minor streets and a biennial short story competition named for him which prevent his complete slide into obscurity.

Why is this? Besides describing Savery as “a son of fortune undone by folly and fate”, Howard argues that the book, Quintus Servinton, received little attention during or in the years after his lifetime, partly because “it had neither the ghoulish titillation of a Newgate novel nor the fashionable allure of a society saga”. Moreover, its publication year, 1830, was a time he says “when public debate was dominated by Arthur’s Black Line* – a brutal but farcical attempt to corral the island’s remaining native inhabitants into the island’s southwestern corner”. Howard concludes, in the Author’s Note, that  “once you have become obscure it can be terribly difficult to enter the limelight”.

And so, as was also characteristic of the author’s life, the book’s poor “fate” was the result of a combination of factors – Henry’s own history (about which I’ll talk more next), the work itself, and external issues like the political and social situation of the day.

Who, then, was Henry Savery and how did he come to write the first “Australian-made novel”? He was born in England in 1791, the son of a generally respected country squire and magistrate. His father, Henry claimed, believed his son’s future had been foretold by a gypsy. Unfortunately, much of what the gypsy foretold did eventuate. Henry was three times “in danger of sudden or violent death”, by his own hand it must be said, and he did, at least three times, “undergo great reverses of fortune”, as much by his own poor decisionmaking, particularly regarding money, as by bad luck or the actions of others.

It’s a rather tortuous story characterised by politics, naiveté, poor decisionmaking, loyalty and betrayal. Howard manages to keep the narrative clear, though you do have to concentrate to keep all the characters straight. The Savery Howard presents is intelligent, hardworking, often foolish or imprudent rather than dishonest (though dishonest he was), and sometimes just plain unlucky. Right until near the end, he had influential friends who somehow managed to soften the legal impact again and again of his failures and misdemeanours. Howard’s book, in fact, provides an interesting and useful insight into the often grubby workings of 1820s-1840s colonial Tasmania, albeit through the specific lens of Henry’s life.

Fortunately (for us anyhow), Henry’s life was a colourful one. When young, he apprenticed himself as a gardener, but he was also interested in literature and demonstrated a capacity for business. However, it was the failure of an early business venture and a conviction for forgery that resulted in his being transported to Van Dieman’s Land in 1825 where his career, as it had been in England, continued its eclectic path and encompassed, among other things, various business enterprises alongside newspaper writing and editing.

Henry was, apparently, a good satirist. The columns he wrote anonymously for The Colonial Times while he was in prison in the late 1820s, and which were later published as The Hermit in Van Dieman’s Land, resulted in his employer being tried and imprisoned for libel. Although protected to the end by his employer, Henry of course lost the job. He couldn’t, it seems, take a trick. As soon as he got himself up, something would bring him down. Nonetheless, there were successes, one being that he established the colony’s first vegetable market. That gardening apprenticeship clearly came in handy. Howard writes at one point that “more lyrebird than magpie his situation provided ample scope for reinvention”. How, one wonders, could such a creative, hard-working man come to the ignominious end that he did? I suggest you read the book to find out more!

But now, the novel, Quintus Servinton (available at Project Gutenberg Australia) which was written in 1830 after a stint in gaol for debt. It is an autobiographical novel in which, Howard writes,

Henry had taken the Hermit’s merciless gun, and turned it, with deadeye aim, upon himself.

Henry, himself, writes in his Preface:

Although it appears under this shape,—or, as some may perhaps call it, novel,—it is no fiction, or the work of imagination, either in its characters or incidents. Not by this, however, is it pretended to be said that all the occurrences it details, happened precisely in their order of narration, nor that it is the mere recital of the events of a man’s life—but it is a biography, true in its general features, and in its portraiture of individuals; and all the documents, letters and other papers contained in its pages are transcripts, or nearly so, of originals, copied from the manuscript, which came into the author’s hands ….

In his Author’s Note, Howard writes of the challenges he faced in researching the book due to the paucity of primary source material. He recognises the dangers in mining fiction for fact but he discovered that “many important aspects of Quintus Servinton (subtitled A tale founded upon incidents of real occurrence) could actually be verified as fact”. Fact in fiction, fiction in fact. It was ever thus, eh?

I would love to report that after writing this – our first – novel, Henry went on to have the happy, successful life that he envisaged for himself in his book and as had in fact been foretold by the gypsy, but that’s not quite how it turned out. Henry, described as “a man of talent” by the last judge to try him, ended his days in the notorious Port Arthur gaol.

Despite being published in an unusual, diminutive format, A forger’s tale is a traditional biography. I appreciated the Author’s Note and list of sources at the end, but would have liked an index. This though is a minor quibble. Howard has an engaging style making the book an enjoyable read for anyone interested in Australian literature, colonial Australia, convict stories or Tasmanian history. Thanks Brother Gums for a great Christmas gift!

Rod Howard
A forger’s tale: The extraordinary story of Henry Savery, Australia’s first novelist
Melbourne: Arcade Publications, 2011
ISBN: 9780987171481

* The Black Line has been the subject of some recent Tasmanian fiction, including Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Rohan Wilson’s The roving party.

Margaret Mendelawitz, Charles Dickens’ Australia. Book 1, Convict stories

Charles Dickens' Australia, Book 1

Book cover (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

So true may fiction be in the hands of a genius
(from “Convict in the gold region”, by Richard Horne)

Richard Horne, in his article “Convicts from the gold region”, describes a scene from Don Quixote in which Quixote meets and sets free some convicts by driving away their guards, only to have his generosity (which included delivering them “a noble speech”) met by ridicule and “a volley of stones”. Horne suggests that the convicts he met would do “the same thing to any eccentric philanthropist in a broad-brimmed hat who should set them free and make them an address on liberty and humanity”. An interesting analogy to draw and one, I might add, that he doesn’t test, but I did like the way he used it to see the truth in fiction!

Anyhow, I have now read Book 1 in this fascinating set of books from the Sydney University Press, and it pretty well does what Mendelawitz says in her introduction. That is, it provides a first-hand, informative and entertaining insight into mid-19th century Australia – in this case, relating to the role of convicts in that society. The focus is on social conditions and social justice but there’s no heavy-handed proselytising. Dickens’ aim was to create a magazine that would be “cheerful, useful and always welcome” but that would also “assist the reader’s judgement in his observation of men”. Badness and wrongdoing aren’t glossed over but, wherever possible, mitigating circumstances are also provided.

There are 15 articles in the book, written by 9 different authors, some in collaboration. The last 6 are written by Australian-born barrister, journalist, novelist John Lang and are short case studies of individual convicts, including those who were unjustly (or, at least, unfairly) transported, those who deserved what they got but made good, and those who couldn’t give up their criminal ways. Representing this last group are the convicts described in “Three celebrities”. Fox, Pitt and Burke were three thieves who were “transported under the names of the three most celebrated orators of their time”. For whatever reason, they did not knuckle down to honest work in the colony, but instead escaped and operated as bushrangers. Even in their story, though, a positive is given: by the time they were captured they had set up a well-stocked farm with an abode that “was in the neatest order” and land that “was very well-tilled”. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the rather melodramatic tale of star-crossed love and a stolen horse resulting in the transportation of young “Kate Crawford”. Noticed by Mrs Macquarie, the wife of Governor Macquarie, and placed in the home of the chief constable in Parramatta, she was pardoned within three years and (eventually) died a very wealthy woman. These 6 stories are told with a light touch and in a conversational tone as tales relayed by a woman who knew the convicts in question.

A few of the articles are set in – or tell of – the Norfolk Island penal colony, a colony I have written about before in reviews of Jessica Anderson‘s The commandant and Price Warung‘s Tales of the early days. Both of those were written after the events and people they describe, and it is reassuring to our search for the “truth” that the articles here basically confirm the worst and best of the colony as conveyed by Anderson and Warung in their fictional pieces.

The centrepiece of this volume though is the story of William Henry Barber, who was transported to Norfolk Island in 1844. The story, told over two articles “Transported for life [Part One]” and “[Part Two]”, chronicles his imprisonment, trial and conviction for a crime he claims he did not commit,  his transportation to Norfolk Island (including details of the long boat journey) and subsequent removal  to Van Dieman’s Land from where he was, in 1847, released. Not long after, he received a free pardon with acknowledgement of his innocence. The articles are told first person but in fact were written by journalist and novelist William Moy Thomas. The Notes on Contributors suggest that the articles were based on the account Barber wrote in 1853 of his experiences, an account which is known to have been in Dickens’ library. The aim, as stated at the beginning of the first part, was to show “what transportation, at the present time, really is”.

In my overview of this set I wondered whether Dickens’ tight control over style would result in the articles being somewhat formulaic but I’m pleased to say that they aren’t. While the tone is overall more light than heavy and the content informative with a light persuasive edge, the style does vary. Some are factual chronicles of a life or situation while others have a more literary bent, some use dialog while others comprise descriptive prose, some are a little more obviously didactic while others simply present the situation for the reader to draw conclusions. The message, though, is always there, whether stated or not, and it is essentially this:

It is no miracle that has been here performed; men bred to crime in England by the ignorance and filth we cherish, are bred out of crime again in Norfolk Island, by a little teaching and a little human care. (from “Norfolk Island”, by Irwin and Henry Morley).

I must add, in the services of “truth”, that Norfolk Island had a mixed history regarding treatment of convicts but there was a short period, under Alexander Maconochie, when rehabilitation was taken seriously.

To conclude I can’t resist a quote from pickpocket Barrington in another of John Lang’s case studies, “An illustrious British exile”:

There was a time when ladies boasted of having been robbed by Barrington. Many whom I never robbed gave it out that I had done so; simply that they might be talked about. Alas! such is the weakness of poor human nature that some people care not by which means they associate their names with the name of celebrity.

And we thought the celebrity culture was new? Once again history tells us otherwise!

Margaret Mendelawitz
Charles Dickens’ Australia: Selected essays from Household Words 1850-1858. Book 1, Convict stories
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781920898670

(Review copy courtesy Sydney University Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from our Deep South

Yes, Australia has a “deep south”, though we may not necessarily call it that. It’s Tasmania, an island hanging off the southeast of mainland Australia. Like Western Australia, it can sometimes feel like another country. You have to go over the sea to it – and when you get there, you sometimes find yourself saying, “In Australia …”. Very embarrassing when you catch yourself doing it, but it does reflect how “different” Tasmania can seem. It can feel a bit English – it’s cooler, greener and more compact. And, because of its relative insularity, there are, I have to say, jokes about the mental acuity of its inhabitants (like those you also hear of about places like Appalachia). Totally unfair of course! Not only does my brother live there, but Tasmania is home to some significant Australian writers, not to mention creators of all persuasions. Peter Sculthorpe, who is arguably our most famous composer, is a Taswegian.

Saltwater River penal settlement ruins

Ruins of penal settlement at Saltwater River

Tasmania has a rather dramatic history, from the early days of white settlement when it was home to some of our worst convict prisons to more recent times when it has been at the centre of some of our most dramatic conflicts over the environment. It is also where one of the worst shooting rampages in the 20th century occurred (in 1996). Add to this the fact that it contains some of Australia’s most beautiful and inaccessible wilderness, and you can see why gothic is part of its literary tradition.

Probably the state’s two most famous writers are Marcus Clarke and Richard Flanagan, and Gothic influences can be found in the writings of both. Marcus Clarke wrote what is probably regarded as the Australian convict novel, (For the term of) His natural life (published in 1874). It tells the story of a young man wrongly transported for murder, and it documents the worst of the convict system. It is an Australian classic – and has been adapted to film and television.

Richard Flanagan is a contemporary writer and environmental activist. Most of his books are set in Tasmania. Gould’s book of fish (2001) is another convict novel and is inspired by convict artist, William Buelow Gould. It’s some years since I read it but I’d recommend it for its evocation of the horrors of colonial Tasmania in a voice you don’t quickly forget. Here he is on George Augustus Robinson (Chief Protector of Aborigines in Tasmania, 1839 to 1849):

Robinson treated the savages as though they were his entourage, & the savages treated him like he was one of the many stray dogs they picked up on their travels. Neither seemed to notice the earth falling away beneath them as a breaking wave.

No indeed… Gould’s main subject, though, is not the plight of “the savages” but his own survival in a world not kind to the poor and powerless:

For as Capois Death said, if shit ever becomes valuable, the poor will be born without arseholes. That was our fate, & I didn’t pretend I could alter it. I only wished to survive as best I could …

It is hard to find excerpts from this wild novel that make sense out of context, but I hope these two will give you a sense of the language and black comic tone. Flanagan’s latest novel Wanting (2008) also deals with Tasmania’s early colonial days and is similarly worth reading.

As with my post on Western Australian writers, I’m not going to give you a long list, so I’ll just mention a few other writers. High on my TBR is Jessie Couvreur (or Tasma). She migrated to Tasmania with her family as a young child in the early 1850s and lived there until her marriage. The book I have is her A Sydney sovereign and other tales (1890), but she also wrote novels. Anyhow, the first story in my book is titled “What an artist discovered in Tasmania” and concerns one Richard (“who is an artist, perhaps, more in sentiment than in execution”) and his trip to Tasmania (from England) to find “the most hardened criminal on earth” to sit for a portrait. When he announces his plan, his sister Polly asks where Tasmania is, and here is the narrator’s response:

Kind Tasmanians – whose blossom garlanded isle is the original Eden of the Anthropoghagi; whose aromatous breezes greet the pallid stranger, and efface from his recollection the haunting odours of Yarra* bank noisomeness – do not stigmatise Polly for her ignorance. She had been through a course in  school geography, and had mastered, you may be sure, the latitude and longitude of Hobart Town, just as she had mastered the latitude and longitude of Acapulca; but somehow the whereabouts of Tasmania had escaped her.

There is a delightful tongue-in-cheek tone to the story of an artist who doesn’t quite find what he went looking for … I must read the rest of the book.

Other writers from Tasmania worth checking out (but they aren’t the only ones) include novelist-essayist Amanda Lohrey, poet Gwen Harwood, and novelist Helen Hodgman (who emigrated from Scotland with her family, when she was a teenager, and some of whose novels are now being re-released by Text Publishing).

How I dreamed of Paradise,
this southern land at the world’s edge,
weeks of blue water separating old from new.
I tasted air in my dreams,
faint hills, mounds of whales;
the beginning of things.
(from Jane, Lady Franklin, by Adrienne Eberhard)

For all its ferocious past, Tasmania is a place many Australians dream of as our little Paradise down south. If you never have a chance to get there, you could do worse than check out some of its writers.

* With apologies to Melburnians. This is Tasma writing, not me!

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The pioneers


Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8, by May Moore (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) is probably not as well-known in Australia, let alone internationally, as she should be. She was born in Fiji, but grew up in Tasmania and Melbourne, travelled overseas and in other parts of Australia, before settling in Western Australia in 1919. She was a founding member of the Australian Communist Party (1920) and also of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Politics and literature, then, were the twin passions of her life. Her most famous novel and the only one I’d read until now, Coonardoo (1929), was remarkable in its time for its exploration of the relationship between white men and black women.

I don’t usually commence a review with a biography, but it felt appropriate in this case – partly because she is so little known despite her significance and partly because her politics were an intrinsic part of her literature. In the foreword to my new edition of the book, her granddaughter describes Prichard’s values as:

a huge love of and respect for the bush; the importance of living your life with integrity; of caring and fighting for the underdog; of holding strong principles and remaining true to them; and of embracing life with passion.

These values are evident in The pioneers, her first novel which won the Hodder and Stoughton All Empire Literature Prize for Australasia in 1915. She went on to write over thirty works, including novels, plays, short stories and poetry. But, perhaps that’s enough prelude for now – on with the book.

It’s a simple tale really, plot-wise. It starts with a couple, Donald and Mary Cameron, arriving by wagon in an unsettled area of Gippsland (in eastern Victoria) in the early-mid nineteenth century. They clear the land, build a home and establish a successful farm. Very early in the story, while Donald is away getting supplies, Mary is “visited” by two desperate men, Dan Farrell and Steve. A tricky situation for a woman on her own but she manages to win them over and they leave her, unharmed. The novel tells the story of these people – and the others who move into the district – over the next two decades or so, as they work to make lives for themselves, some honestly and some not so.  There are archetypal characters here – the hard-working, tough, taciturn farmer; the loving, but wise and stoical wife; the loyal but unappreciated-by-his-father son; and more. There are escaped convicts, cattle rustlers, and a thoroughly bad man.

This may all make it sound rather typical and a bit melodramatic. And, in fact, it does have its melodrama. But the book is more than this. Its overriding style, or approach, is social realism, as Prichard explores the hopes and wishes of a new country struggling to come to terms with its origins and forge a more positive future. Her style is not particularly innovative and, while the combination of social realism and melodrama is appropriate for a novel set in the nineteenth century, the melodrama was a little discordant to my modern ears.  Take this, for example:

It was as if that encounter in the valley of shadows had brushed all misunderstandings from the love that was like the sun between them. Deirdre had wrestled with death for possession of him.

A contemporary review suggested that the romance – which drives most of the melodrama – was included primarily to attract readers who may not be interested in the history. This could very well be so.

Despite not being particularly innovative, Prichard’s writing is sure and shows that while this was her first novel she’d been honing her craft for some time. I particularly loved her language. It is gorgeously descriptive. She perfectly captures the paradox of a place that is both beautiful and harsh – and effectively conveys the physical and emotional impact of the landscape:

The bright hours were rent by the momentary screeching and chatter of parroquets, as they flew, spreading the red, green and yellow of their breasts against the blue sky. At sunset and dawn there were merry melodious flutings, long, sweet, mating-calls, carollings and bursts of husky, gnomish laughter. Yet the silence remained, hovering and swallowing insatiably every sound.

The plot, as I’ve suggested, is a little melodramatic and fairly predictable but it’s a well-told tale, nonetheless, of good forces fighting bad, of compromises that are sometimes made, and of bad judgement calls that come back to bite you. The characters, while tending to archetype, are nonetheless real so that you believe them and their various plights. There is, I think, something reminiscent of Dickens here.

The themes reflect very much the values identified by her granddaughter in the foreword. The main characters are imbued with a strong sense of principles that they try to live by. When Mary meets the convicts early in the novel, she says:

But if you will believe the truth it is this: My heart is with you and all like you.

In her twenties, Prichard apparently met the Austrian sociologist, Rudolph Broda, who introduced her to the ideas of socialism and suggested that, as a new country, Australia was leading the world in social legislation. This idea is reflected in the novel. Early on, Mary says to Donald:

It’s a new country and a new people we’re making, they said at home, and I’m realising what they meant now.

Little did she know, then, what this “making” would really involve but defining “a new country” is clearly the goal Prichard set for herself. The novel concludes by suggesting that the new generation will

be a pioneer of paths that will make the world a better, happier place for everyone to live in.

Corny? Or aspirational? Take your pick … but whichever way you see it, this novel makes a significant contribution to the development of the Australian psyche, to our transition from colonial convict-fearing past to an independent self-realised future. I am glad it has been re-released and hope that more people read it.

Katharine Susannah Prichard
The pioneers
Singapore: Monsoon Books, 2010 [first ed. 1915]
ISBN: 9789810848804

NOTE: An ebook version of the novel is available at Project Gutenberg.

Jessica Anderson, The commandant

Jessica Anderson, The commandant Book cover

Cover image for The commandant (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

When I first read about Sydney University Press’s Australian Classics Library, the book I really wanted to read waThe commandant by Jessica Anderson. It’s her only historical novel, but its subject matter doesn’t stray much from what she told Jennifer Ellison in an interview many years ago, “I was very much, and always have been, preoccupied with people who are strangers in their society” and “I am interested in families… They are interesting – you know, the tangle” (Rooms of their own). This is a clever and thoughtful novel by yet another much overlooked Australian woman writer.

[WARNING: SPOILERS, if you don’t know the history on which this is based]

The plot is pretty simple. It is set in Queensland’s penal settlement of Moreton Bay in 1830. It draws from the real story of the commandant there, Patrick Logan, who was noted for his harsh methods and who was murdered while out on an expedition. In the novel, Logan’s family is joined by his wife’s young sister (“the stranger”), Frances, who, on her way up to the settlement via Sydney, has been introduced to “radical” ideas critical of Logan’s regime. The scene is therefore set for potential conflict either between Patrick and Frances, or within Frances herself, or both.  In the end, it is a bit of both as Patrick finds his practices questioned and Frances confronts the realities of living in a penal settlement.

Except for Frances’s boat trip up to Moreton Bay with some of the settlement’s residents, the novel is set entirely in Moreton Bay. The characters include Logan’s household (family and servants), his wife Letty’s two women friends, officers of the settlement including two medical officers and the man sent to replace Logan, and of course some prisoners. There are also some characters in Sydney – Frances’ would-be beau and the sisters of a newspaper editor jailed for his criticism of the regime and against whom Logan is bringing libel action. The characters are well-drawn, with the significant ones nicely complex. You get a good feel for life in the settlement.

I would love to write about many of the characters as there are some wonderfully meaty ones, but I’ll just focus on Frances, the only character, really, who changes during the course of the novel. At the beginning, she “was seventeen; she was not stupid, but was often absurd”. She is also sympathetic to the idea of reform, which she says she developed through seeing servant life and poverty first-hand in Ireland and which puts her at odds with many in the settlement. She has a lovely ability to question herself, to see her failings, and it is this which enables her to learn from her several painful experiences. By the end, she is wiser in the ways of the world and has learnt to live with “incurable knowledge”, but has not lost her commitment to the cause of humanity.

Much of the story is told in dialogue – in fact, it wouldn’t be hard to turn it into a play/screenplay. Anderson handles this dialogue well, nicely differentiating the characters, from Letty’s lisp to officer Collison’s uneducated speech patterns. Letty’s lisp is an ironic touch – it lulls us into thinking she is one of those superficial flirtatious women but we soon discover that she is more complex than just a pretty little wife. Characters are nuanced by their reactions to each other  as well as by what they say, rather than by a lot of specific authorial comment, though there is that too.

There is also description, including some particularly beautiful ones of the bush during the search expedition for Logan, such as:

…a few clumps of trees, their rough bark the colour of iron, and their foliage a dun green, stood with the junction of trunk and root shrouded (my emphasis) by tall pale grass; and although at his left the river marked out a fissure of brighter greens, none among them were the sappy (again my emphasis) greens of England and Ireland or the dense fleshy greens of the coast … Among and behind this scrub stood big trees with foliage in similar colours, and with trunks of grey, or silvery grey, or of mauve shading to grey or rust, or of the beautiful colour of pink clay. It was as if everything here inclined not to the sun’s bright spectrum, but to those of the mineral earth and the ghostly daytime moon.

This is not an entirely benign landscape she is decribing – but neither does it hang heavily on her tale: her main focus after all is people. Here is an evocative description of Letty:

She fragmented the worry with her laugh, and waved it away with her hands, but it always seemed to reassemble, out there in the air, and float back to resettle on her.

One of the things that intrigued me most about the novel as I was reading it was the narrative form. It is a pretty straight chronology, but with many small flashbacks that help illuminate the characters. Most interesting though are a couple of slight but meaningful foreshadowings which, before the novel’s end, give us a sense of the sisters’ futures. This makes us realise that the novel is not really about them…it is about humanity, about how we treat each other – and, about that special word, mercy. You will have to read it for yourselves to know what I mean.

Jessica Anderson
The commandant
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781920898946

(Review copy supplied by the Sydney University Press)

Price Warung, Tales of the early days

Tales of the early days (Cover: Courtesy Sydney University Press)

Tales of the early days (Cover: Courtesy Sydney University Press)

Okay, I admit it, I have convict ancestors (plural even!). Consequently, I was particularly interested to read Price Warung’s 1894 collection of short stories, Tales of the early days, when I discovered it was part of the Australian Classics Library recently published by the Sydney University Press. My convicts include John Warby who, with another labourer, stole two donkeys and was transported to Australia on the Pitt in 1791, and Sarah Bentley who stole several items of clothing from her mistress in 1795 and was transported on the Indispensable. In 1796, John married the 16-year old Sarah. Fortunately (for me and for them), they were a hardworking pair. John had been given land by Governor Phillip in 1792, and he and Sarah made a good life for themselves, so much so that there is now a primary school named after him, the John Warby Public School in the Campbelltown area west of Sydney.

Enough about my family, though. What about Price Warung? He was, in fact, William Astley, and was born in Liverpool, England, in 1855 but came to Australia with his family in 1859. He became, according to the succinct little biography at the back of the book, a radical journalist and short-story writer, with particular interests in transportation (or, convict) literature, and the Labour and Federation movements.

Now to Tales of the early days. This was his second published collection, and comprises 8 stories set in Norfolk Island, Hobart, Sydney and London. They explore various aspects of convict life, and many draw on real people and events. In fact, my city’s new (and first) prison is named after the penal reformer/prison commandant, Alexander Maconochie, who features in the first two stories. The eight stories are worth listing for their titles, most of which convey a strong sense of personality:

  • Captain Maconochie’s ‘Bounty for Crime’
  • The Secret Society of the Ring
  • In the Granary
  • Parson Ford’s Confessional
  • The Heart-Breaking of Anstey’s Bess
  • The Amour of Constable Crake
  • The Pegging-Out of Overseer Franke
  • At Burford’s Panorama

These stories can be described as “historical fiction”. In a new introduction to this collection, Laurie Hergenham quotes Thomas Keneally, who has written a deal of historical fiction. Keneally says:

the novelist need not prove his reliability to scholars … the only warrant a writer needs for his ideas about the past is that they reek of human, poetic, dramatic, symbolic veracity and resound in his imagination.

Like many writers of historical fiction, Warung draws on documentary fact. He writes largely in the social realism style that was typical of the nineteenth century. A strong theme runs through the book, and it can be best described by quoting Robert Burns’ “man’s inhumanity to man”. Warung’s particular argument is that this inhumanity is worse in the “System” (aka The Establishment) than in the convicts.  As one of the convicts says in the longest and, generally regarded to be, the best story, “The Secret Society of the Ring”:

Th’ System finds orl its orf’cers men, an’ leaves ’em orl brutes. Orl o’ we don’t get ‘ardened, but there ain’t one o yer wot doesn’t.

And so Warung, with his own apparently anti-British sentiment in the lead up to Federation (and Australia’s independence), perpetuates the myth that the convicts were poor souls turned bad by the System: “the beast-nature with which the System had superseded that granted unto him by his Creator”. It is true, if you read the histories, that some (many?) convicts were victims of poverty in Britain and were transported for comparatively minor offences, but there were also many who were violent, serial offenders. It is also true, though, that the treatment of convicts in Australia was, overall, very harsh – particularly in the secondary penal establishments like Norfolk Island and Hobart (at nearby Port Arthur). It’s not for nothing that Warung, with the fire clearly in his belly, chooses these as the settings for most of his stories of horror.

The first story, “Captain Maconcochie’s Bounty of Crime” serves as a useful introduction to the longest and most complex in the book, “The Secret Society of the Ring”. It introduces us to Maconochie and his desire to improve “the monstrous conditions of penal life at Norfolk Island” but, we are told, the System does not want him to succeed because his failure would mean “that the System was right and its administrators were wise”. And so, the cynicism (or is it simply realism?) starts:

Therefore the failure was only to be expected. Men do not care about being proved wrong, even if it could be shown that a few dozen souls were saved in the process of correction.

This truth, as Warung conceives it  and which encompasses related truths relating to the behaviour of men in power, is played out again and again in the stories that follow – but it is no more ironically conveyed than in “The Secret Society of the Ring” in which the Ring, which is the convicts’ own “system”, turns out to be every bit as cruel and inflexible as the System that controls them. Maconochie’s attempt to appeal to convicts’ (“society’s wrecks”) sense of fraternity and loyalty to each other – and along the way provide them with a more comfortable prison life – is undermined by the loyalty demanded of the Ring. This is a devastating story – and the most sophisticated in the collection in terms of style and structure.

The third story, “In the granary”, is no less devastating, and turns on the irony of a granary, designed by “a genial officer”, being put to far from genial purposes. This story has an interesting, given Warung’s own work as a journalist, discussion of the power of newspapers. “Parson Ford’s Confessional” is the only one of the collection that doesn’t focus on convicts. Rather it explores corruption among those in power just, I suppose, to make sure we know that this corruption does not only occur in relation to convicts. The next three stories chronicle events in the life of a particular character: Anstey’s Bess, a convict woman whose maternal love nearly brings her down; Constable Crake whose lust does bring him down; and Overseer Franke, the ironically nick-named Cherub who selects the architect of his downfall (but the triumph here is rather Pyrrhic). The final story is set in London and nicely shows us what those “at home” were seeing of the colony while also providing a final opportunity for corruption and power to again ensure that the downtrodden remain that way. (It is also the only story to refer to the Aboriginal people of Australia – and the reference is surely ironic when he describes the “Savage King” Bennelong’s recognition of “the new era of civilisation”!)

Warung’s style is not subtle – he uses irony heavily, foreshadowing, symbolism, some wordplay, the occasional repetition and understatement, and authorial intrusion – and he can over-explain at times, not trusting always that the reader gets it. It would be a very dull reader, though, who didn’t! The tales are, it has to be said, pretty black and white. The System is demonstrated again and again to be corrupt and cruel, with no attempt made to explore the privations those in power also suffered. That said, the stories are powerful and, despite their lack of “balance”, convey enough truths to make reading them worthwhile for both their narratives and the messages underpinning them. It is good to see them brought to life again.

(Review copy supplied by Sydney University Press)