Sunday, June 13, 2010

a bustle and a little chearful song

Thinking about the Great Australian Loneliness -- and mourning a chance lost -- if only Ernestine Hill hadn't been a journalist, if only she'd, somehow, been able to merge (across the centuries) with Dorothy Wordsworth (died demented), who decided that she was not interested in publication, and therefore wrote freely, without the kind of journalistic latchhook that Hill feels obliged to insert. Then Hill could have concentrated on the appearances of things, and the contrasts that tickle her --

Under the baton of a Cingalese conductor, the strains of 'Dixie' are wafted across the Straits, none the less sweetly in that the ancestors of Solomon Salt, the big bass drummer, blew the conch and sounded the hide drums for the cannibal orgies of less than a century ago, and that the grandmothers of the smartly dressed audience were content with the green frilled skirt of a banana palm and a necklace of shark's teeth.

-- and there'd be no need for the propaganda parts, the lectures about half-castes, the exhortation urging city-women to travel to the outback and marry lonely men in the bush, an exhortation she sabotages in other parts of the book when she retails gruesome anecdotes of people out there suffering, dehydrating, dying, vanishing, going insane, and ending up in forgotten graves:

... many a lonely grave was by the track. Alas for man's mortality, the only one remembered was the post-and-horse-shoe monument of the engine-driver's dog, killed on the line.

She loves these stories. Here I realise, again, the intelligence of Christina Stead, who felt this excitement too, in the seething variety of human life, but, unsatisfied with the surface of her fictional earth, she dug for the core as well. Hill, too easily satisfied, or too happily engaged in her adventures, remains near the surface, pleased.

(It was only after I'd posted this that I re-read Randall Jarrell's foreword to The Man Who Loved Children and noticed: "Christina Stead can perfectly imitate the surface of existence -- and, what is harder, recognize and reproduce some of the structures underneath that surface.")

Wordsworth, in her journals, goes smoothly cleanly deep (not so much Stead's gung-ho delve), and touches -- just touches -- not hugging something as if to keep it, but touching and then releasing. She "was the very wildest ... person," said Thomas de Quincy, "the quickest and readiest in her sympathy," and the forces she writes about are wild, they move, they shift. She, in the cottage she shared with her brother William, is a steady lighthouse from which I see every aspect of the world stir and change. The moon waxes, wanes, falls behind clouds, the wind attacks a tree ("It bent to the breezes as if for the love of its own delightful motions"), and then there is rain, or a rainbow, or a storm. "The trees almost roared, and the ground seemed in motion with the multitudes of dancing leaves ..." She has a knack for the accurate word and the poetic shortcut: for example: noticing the similarity between the tails of swallows and those of fish.

They twitter and make a bustle and a little chearful song hanging against the panes of glass, with their white bellies close to the glass and their forked fish-like tails. They swim round and round and again they come.

In the first few pages of the Alfoxden Journal she sees sheep "glittering" in the sun. The sharpness of this word goes against the nature of literary sheep: usually fluffy, woolly, softly white, or, if lambs, playfully gambolling. But it is correctly evocative. Wordsworth is not unusual for the sake of being unusual, she is unusual for the sake of being right. She has her own kind of digging.

Romance got hold of Ernestine Hill, this bad habit of valuing things for the sake of the dramatic effect they cause, and she plants those effects solidly on the page, not moving them forward lightly as Wordsworth does. Hill likes to make declarations. "A hundred miles south-west of Darwin, the Daly River runs into the sea." "Honesty, humour, kindliness and discretion have made T.B. an outstanding character." "You will not find Jiggalong on any map." "The journey had a fatal precedent." "It is surprising what they fit in on Thursday." She talks about the "fires of romance" but underneath the hot language this style has a cold and uninflamed heart. Words are being used to manacle ideas in place and keep them still. Peake does this too, and part of Gormenghast castle's atmosphere of stillness comes naturally from this cold and fixed style, which he manipulates adroitly. It sympathises with his subject as naturally as Sterne's dashes suit the tangent-theme of Tristram Shandy. (Sterne's narrator, like the swallows, is always darting off. He swims round and round and again he comes.) Romantic style blockades Peake into a rare moment of ugliness when Titus reacts to the death of the Thing with a burst of egotistical and unempathetic joy. But Titus is less cold than his creator, who raised the Thing in order to kill her. And neither of them is as heartless as Ernestine Hill, who is willing to tell her unprepared urban reader that she should travel into the outback to marry a man who, if the rest of her stories can be trusted, is likely to be shy, reclusive, or mad. "No longer do they need the companionship of their fellows."

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