Thursday, December 5, 2013
"Austenesque realism" (at the end of the last post) is not a stretch, and I reckon that anyone who reads Bengala is going to assume (almost without reflective thought, it seems so obvious) that Mary Theresa Vidal is paying a debt to Austen in this book, with the comedies of manners moving shiftily between the people as they eat their lunches and Isabel Lang channelling Emma from Emma as she goes around matchmaking while the level-headed older man hovers over her like the one played by Alan Rickman in the movie, and maybe even the part about the custard owes something to a scent of Austen-atmosphere or floating memory, since (I remembered when I was writing this out in the comments to Tom) it begins with Mrs Vesey insulting the Lang family by asking them to show her how they make their custard, insinuating in this way: Rich people such as myself have servants to do these jobs for them.
Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice: "The dinner too in its turn was highly admired; and he begged to know to which of his fair cousins the excellency of its cooking was owing. But he was set right there by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen."
The presence of convict workers does the following thing: it makes the Austen style vanish or warp when it touches them.
I know that people have criticised Austen for the absence of servants' personalities in her books, and my impression is that this criticism has been more of a twentieth-century phenomenon than a nineteenth-century one, but Vidal made that same point in 1860, not by actually stating it or even by giving any sign that she thought it consciously as she probably did not, but by changing her tone from Austen to melodrama every time the convict servant-workers become the focus of the book, which they do periodically because there is a sub-plot about a prisoner who can't rescue a young woman from her vicious guardians because Mr Lang won't let him have his ticket of leave.
She knew it in her bones or with a reader's inarticulate intuition.
(A ticket of leave, which Caroline Leakey in The Broad Arrow abbreviated down to T.L. or just "ticket," sometimes with a capital letter if somebody was using it as a personal description, "Oh, Bob, I couldn't! you'll do it beautiful, you says everything so clever and nice; besides, you are Ticket and I'm not," was a way of allowing a convict some independence before their sentence was up.)
On the social level Mr Lang is a good-hearted man who gives his friends toast but he's unintentionally malicious when it comes to the field of convict management. In this role of a good man with a careless flaw he is something like Mr Bennet, who only has his family to wound but Mr Lang has a large bush-isolated property inhabited by worker-prisoners who are in his power and who may run off and become bushrangers at any moment, sentencing themselves to death since they know they will be hung if they are caught.
This is a version of blindness with which Austen was not conversant and so, as Harry Haseltine has said in the introduction, the book finds another model for the convict parts. It is as if the Austen-style itself has said, "I will not describe this, I can't, I don't have the words, you have to find something else."
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Bengala was published in 1860 but it is set about twenty years in the past, before the gold rush changed the nature of the Australian colony from a gentle accumulation of people and farms into a site of hectic immigration; the general view of history lessons today is brutality followed by gold, but, reading books set in that period, I see a different point of view, a soft progress with guilty tussles to and fro about the abuse of the indigenous people and the use of convicts who were, for the length of their sentences, as good as enslaved to their farmer-masters -- this arrangement was corrupted or interrupted forever by the interior penetration of outside longings: rapid township diggings going up, the phasing-out of free land for retired military, the phasing out of transportation as well -- a free trip to Australia was not a punishment any more -- a blindsiding eruption of other manners, like the skin of a bubble being pierced, though that upper-middle life did not vanish and it's there in Martin Boyd's Langton Quartet which was published between 1952 and 1962, and the people in his books (with their picnics, their parties, their enjoyment of life) are recenter versions of the ones in Vidal but bohemian and Melburnian whereas Vidal's people are living in country New South Wales.
They are the same species, which is the lunch-eating species.
It all seemed very remote to her, as she sat with Wolfie at lunch on the verandah, while the winter sunlight gleamed on the hock bottle and tinged with pale gold the far purple forests of Gippsland.
(Martin Boyd, Outbreak of Love)
Patrick White goes to that class for characters as well, looking at the extreme uppers and extreme lowers, the people living in manors and the people living in shacks (The Riders in the Chariot), and food has a regular integrated walk-on part in all of his books though slimy when he writes about it (wet caramels pushed into mouths: The Vivisector): still: food: grossness, lowness, farts, and then the elevation of a character having an insight, the Vivisector son struggling for transcendent paintings, or Miss Hare in the Chariot.
Vidal never makes a fart, nor does she make an ecstasy.
However she does have agony and madness.
Harry Heseltine describes the milieu of Vidal's book like this in the introduction: "Bengala does not sit easily within the conventions of Austenesque realism, colonial romance nor melodrama, though it has elements of all three; and it links contemporary English literary, moral and religious debates with social life in Australia during the short period when hopes were entertained for the creation of a colony fit for English ladies and gentlemen."
So there was a phantom nation in the collective mind, and this country may remain forever in the future, which is the place where we are not and have never been.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Bengala by Mary Theresa Vidal (1860)
The characters in the early parts of this book like to visit each other's houses and eat. They are always together. "A long discussion soon arose about shrubs and plants, which continued till they were summoned to luncheon." I felt such a longing for that pointlessly friendful existence, steady denseness and every moment filled, Vidal noticing that the discussion went on till they were summoned to another activity which would also have consumed them completely for another stretch of time, the author leaving no gaps in the chronology and elsewhere tracking the behaviour of each group, though some characters do vanish eventually without any explanation; mainly children.
The discussion was stopped by a summons from Mrs. Lang for all the ladies who wished to help in the custards. Mr. Fitz insisted that he should be very useful in beating up eggs, and made them laugh by tying on one of the little girls' pinafores and tucking up his sleeves. All went to the store but Isabel.
They explain themselves through their food. "Mr. Lang was ruffled, and found fault with the coffee and the toast." That null serenity could have lasted forever, for me; and if the rest of the book had consisted of people in this small middle-class bushland community coming around for coffee and toast, mutton, pumpkin pudding, custard, "biscuits and grapes, bread and butter, colonial wine, and lemon syrup" then it would have approximated my ideas about Der Nachsommer, by Adalbert Stifter, a book I haven't read, but which I imagine as a long period of static, sunny and finely-detailed peace and a self-hermiting. If Vidal could have written nothing but sentences like this for three hundred pages then I would have called her the greatest colonial author I had ever read:
He put his arm on Isabel's shoulder as he spoke, and so, talking and laughing, they all turned into the garden, where they strolled about it in a leisurely way; now plucking a grape or a bud -- now stopping to watch the regiment of ants, which in spite of gunpowder and tobacco and all the various war waged against them, persisted in destroying the gravel paths.
If absolutely nothing more consequential than that had happened then I would have been full of respect whenever I thought about her stubborn or thick adherence to minute occurrences (the kind that create barely more than a bubbling motion, which would eventually, by accumulation, seem to be full of subdued terror, or not terror but repressed meaning; the meaning would seem repressed because it would never be stated).
I wanted to reach the last page still waiting for an event to make a violent impression and stick up like the nail that gets hammered down, but instead I would be astounded when I found Mrs Lang talking about custard. "'Pray, Mr. Lang, don't talk about custards; I dare say Mrs. Vesey is not very much interested in custards,' said Mrs. Lang."
I would have been baffled and suspended on such an intensity of impenetrable lightness. It would have been a triumph for her, who died in 1873. "I want to write that book," I think, "that's the only way it will ever exist," even though I know that the action of creating the book would also be the action of removing the ignorance or innocence that I would need before I could start to read it.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Tales for the Bush by Mary Theresa Vidal (1845)
If you were going to be an early Australian novelist and a woman and you were born outside Australia, then a good thing you could do was attach yourself to a religious man, because Caroline Leakey's sister's husband was a Reverend, and Ada Cambridge was married to a Reverend, and so was Mary Theresa Vidal, all of them starting with religious books and growing into less-religious ones: Ada Cambridge writing her hymns, Leakey writing her poems, and Vidal writing Tales from the Bush which considers itself a sermon or series of sermons and sees the reader or congregation leaving the room when it has finished one of its stories.
One day when he was observing how much more comfortable and tidy every thing was about them than in the other cottages, and how much more leisure they seemed to have; Anne colored up and said “Ah sir, it is you, next to God and my poor mother, we've to thank. It is all owing to keeping the Sabbath day.”
Readers go and do likewise.
The short stories begin and end with poems, too, like songs: you sing as you go out and the lesson adheres like that. (Not all of them begin and end with poems but some of them begin with poems but don't end with poems and other ones end with poems and don't begin with poems but the idea of poems or, in other words, silent songs, coming at the opening and shutting of a thing or address, is there.)
You could look at the book as a parasite vine of the new young colony erecting itself up the trellis of ideas that have been established elsewhere: it take its points of view from sermons, it cannibalises the Bible to make sense of a bleakly-ended story called The Little Cousins. "To those who really cannot quite understand as they look round them, why we so often see the good suffer and evil prosper, I would say, read the 73rd Psalm." One cousin is good and the other is indifferent, and the indifferent one has ended the story warm and rich and the good cousin has ended the story crippled, orphaned, living in a Sydney slum, and "poor, with scarcely sufficient to support her, though she worked hard all day, often in pain from her leg and otherwise broken in health."
In one story, therefore, the person who does the right thing receives a "more comfortable and tidy" life than the unrighteous people who live around them, whereas in the other story it is the other way around, and the same uncertainty characterises the rest of the stories in the book, characters either failing or succeeding in a material sense more or less independently of how righteous or unrighteous they are which might well leave the reader with a feeling of vertigo and unmooring or, in short, horror, for if Kitty in Cousins is destined to suffer because she is righteous and her cousin Jane unrighteous then why does Anne in the earlier story not also suffer, or why does Kitty not live a more comfortable and tidy life than Jane?
It is like the short story Podolo by L.P. Hartley in which one character follows the kitten onto the island and wants to die at the end while the other character falls asleep on a boat and goes home. Hartley never explains why the kitten-character should have attached herself so persistently like that to the kitten: she doesn't have a history with pets; the other character might as well have attached himself to the kitten instead and it would have made exactly as much sense. The author leaves you a gap in his explanations where you can intuit an unstated mesmerism. The religious story and the horror story are both haunted. (The force that haunts the religious story does not appear to be God.)
Thursday, November 21, 2013
One more post on Watkin Tench from me, at least one more because I know that Robert Hughes, who must have read or reread Tench for The Fatal Shore, called him "An eye that noticed everything" with "a young man’s verve, a sly wit, an elegant prose style," and Tench's posthumous editor L.F. Fitzhardinge wrote in 1979, "Less detailed than Collins, less matter-of-fact than Phillip or White, Tench is the first man to mould Australian experience into a work of conscious art," but, putting aside the accuracy of that statement, it's the consciousness of his art sometimes that troubles me, or makes me feel betrayed, and why betrayed?
Betrayed because of this sentence: "He was a man of middle age, with an open cheerful countenance, marked with the small pox, and distinguished by a nose of uncommon magnitude and dignity." (Emphasis mine: from A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson.)
The nose cuteness exists primarily in the word "uncommon;" take away that word and it is almost gone although it would leave some of itself behind in the words "magnitude and dignity." "Uncommon" makes it opaque. Why do I not like the nose cuteness? Because it betrays itself: because it puts a magic-making word ("uncommon," exceptional, magical) in a miniaturised or disrespected position where it is funny. It makes fun of the quality that it is pretending to represent: the extraordinary.
I read it and I see a little person being fooled.
I see someone turning to a Christmas tree and saying, "You know, you're made of plastic."
Sunday, November 17, 2013
A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay by Watkin Tench (1789)
A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson by Watkin Tench (1793)
Watkin Tench sailed in the First Fleet with Arthur Phillip but he does not write about "order and useful arrangement, arising gradually out of tumult and confusion" in the settlement; he describes a group of characters making progress at different speeds in the direction of more or less the same objective, or not personally and individually the same objective but one that they are all bound to by the presence of the country that they inhabit.
They all want to go on living, some of them by farming, some of them by stealing, some of them by escaping: there is the convict who stole a boat and sailed away into oblivion, never seen again, and there is a set of cows that left as well, and were never seen again, no sign of them, no sign that any convict or indigene had killed or eaten them, no trace, no hoofprint, a band of lost cows gone forever and immortal. No doubt they wanted to live too. In pursuit of this aim they allowed the continent to swallow them. They have haunted us ever since (not only Australians but potentially the entire reading world); they are there in Tench, they are there in The Voyage of Governor Phillip, they are a literary and historical presence, their exterior presences or physical spirits having been transferred into books and never into the slaughterhouse or, if you believe the evidence, into a human mouth, or the mouth of any animal.
But into the maw of books, which will never finish eating them.
In my former narrative I have particularly noticed the sudden disappearance of the cattle, which we had brought with us into the country. Not a trace of them has ever since been observed. Their fate is a riddle, so difficult of solution that I shall not attempt it. Surely had they strayed inland, in some of our numerous excursions, marks of them must have been found. It is equally impossible to believe that either the convicts or natives killed and ate them, without some sign of detection ensuing
The nation should be haunted by a terrible symbol of cows, and there should be a cow statue or cow monument. The lawn that grows over parliament in the garden city capital is waiting for its ghosts. The static cattle -- the Dororthy Wordsworth cattle, "which accident stamped a character upon places, else unrememberable," the Beckett cattle -- have walked off.
"We have finished being your message to the landscape or the landscape's message to you: we're away," they said. Then there are Ernestine Hill's dried cattle around the dead waterhole in her travel records; there is Clancy in Banjo Paterson, gone droving "and we don't know where he are." "As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,"
They have become everyday life, "the measure of all things" (Guy Debord) and the buttress of the extraordinary.
The writers that Stockdale excerpted in Governor Phillip liked to stay at the level of an observation or a fact, and record the plumage of the parrot without recording also their own personal encounter with a parrot (or Stockdale cuts out the story and yet I don't think so for their tones are so military and so scientific) but Tench has his own natural authorial motion, which is a vibration between anecdote and fact.
Proceeded to the settlement called the Ponds, a name which I suppose it derived from several ponds of water which are near the farms. Here reside the fourteen following settlers. [list of settlers] The Prospect Hill terms of settlement extend to this place. My private remarks were not many. Some spots which I passed over I thought desirable, particularly Ramsay's farm; and he deserves a good spot, for he is a civil, sober, industrious man. Besides his corn land, he has a well laid out little garden, in which I found him and his wife busily at work. He praised her industry to me; and said he did not doubt of succeeding. It is not often seen that sailors make good farmers; but this man I think bids fair to contradict the observation.
So all his facts spread out around an "I" who is involved in fact-generation, who measures the facts, who inserts himself into the facts, I spoke to him and he confirmed it ..., or on my observation or I saw or I went or I measured. "The natives around Port Jackson are in person rather more diminutive and slighter made, especially about the thighs and legs, than the Europeans. It is doubtful whether their society contained a person of six feet high. The tallest I ever measured, reached five feet eleven inches, and men of his height were rarely seen."
He is an agent of population, like the cows, who have multiplied themselves by roaming out. He is in the beetles -- he will live in the beetles -- he will abide in them -- he will plant his I -- with instruments -- with rum --
The hardiness of some of the insects deserves to be mentioned. A beetle was immersed in proof spirits for four hours, and when taken out crawled away almost immediately. It was a second time immersed, and continued in a glass of rum for a day and a night, at the expiration of which period it still showed symptoms of life. Perhaps, however, what I from ignorance deem wonderful is common.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
(I said I'd cover two books per post but I'm exhausted for reasons that have nothing to do with the blog, so I'm reverting to a single book.)
The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay with an Account of the Establishment of the Colonies of Port Jackson and Norfolk Island; compiled from Authentic Papers, which have been obtained from the several Departments to which are added the Journals of Lieuts. Shortland, Watts, Ball and Capt. Marshall with an Account of their New Discoveries, embellished with fifty five Copper Plates, the Maps and Charts taken from Actual Surveys, and the plans and views drawn on the spot, by Capt. Hunter, Lieuts. Shortland, Watts, Dawes, Bradley, Capt. Marshall, etc.
The current of order was running through these people (the belief in order, and the trust in it: I think it was a current of trust), or so I can imagine when I read them and perceive that theme recurring, a mental liquid that could fill any balloon: it ran through Caroline Chisholm in 1842, it ran through Mary Gaunt and Catherine Helen Spence, it runs through Arthur Phillip when he writes his portions of The Voyage Of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay, which says that it has been edited by a publisher named John Stockdale who pulled material from different authors, sometimes paraphrasing them and sometimes printing them verbatim. The difference is not always acknowledged but the tenses and references change and by this I believe that I can pick him out.
Order sees its opportunity and pounces or flows in a greedy or anarchistic way, it is a vapour or a droplet; in Phillip it comes to fruition not through female immigrants as in Chisholm or fictional characters finding work as in Gaunt and Spence, but through an adventure.
There are few things more pleasing than the contemplation of order and useful arrangement, arising gradually out of tumult and confusion; and perhaps this satisfaction cannot any where be more fully enjoyed than where a settlement of civilized people is fixing itself upon a newly discovered or savage coast. The wild appearance of land entirely untouched by cultivation, the close and perplexed growing of trees, interrupted now and then by barren spots, bare rocks, or spaces overgrown with weeds, flowers, flowering shrubs, or underwood, scattered and intermingled in the most promiscuous manner, are the first objects that present themselves; afterwards, the irregular placing of the first tents which are pitched, or huts which are erected for immediate accommodation, wherever chance presents a spot tolerably free from obstacles, or more easily cleared than the rest, with the bustle of various hands busily employed in a number of the most incongruous works, increases rather than diminishes the disorder, and produces a confusion of effect, which for a time appears inextricable, and seems to threaten an endless continuance of perplexity. But by degrees large spaces are opened, plans are formed, lines marked, and a prospect at least of future regularity is clearly discerned, and is made the more striking by the recollection of the former confusion.
Order in this instance is a way of measuring time. It is a clock or a calender for the colony. Phillip never wants to end anything, he only wants to order it; he does not want to stop the Eora people living along the coast, he only wants fair conduct between them and him, he does not want to end sex among convicts, he wants to direct it. "He particularly noticed the illegal intercourse between the sexes as an offence which encouraged a general profligacy of manners, and was in several ways injurious to society. To prevent this, he strongly recommended marriage ... we are informed, that in the course of the ensuing week fourteen marriages took place among the convicts." John Latham, the ornithologist whose descriptions of birds have been borrowed by Stockdale for the book, does not want to end birds, he wants to describe them.
The colour of the head, neck, and under parts of the body are dusky brown, inclining to olive, darkest on the belly: the feathers of the top of the head and back part of the neck are edged with olive; the rest of the plumage on the upper part of the body, the wings, and tail, are of a glossy black; the last is pretty long and a little rounded at the end; the two middle feathers are wholly black; the others of a fine vermilion in the middle for about one-third, otherwise black; the outer edge of the exterior feather black the whole length. Legs black.
The connection between Ruskin's moral noticing and the contemporary upsurge in scientific philosophy becomes very bare to me now, this same science that created his dark cloud as well as mountains in the form that he looked at them (both massively and smally), and if you hate those things that are closest to yourself as they say you're supposed to do then I might imagine that I'm being illuminated when I remember that Thoreau said he hated scientists for the way they ordered and categorised things, and I could think, "Of course, since he and they were both in the business of noticing. But the expression or ordering was different."