Sunday, June 9, 2013

flashing her keen eyes upon Gertrude

Louisa Atkinson, twenty-three, gave her prose its fictional bodily shape (this is how it felt to me, reading Gertrude the Emigrant Girl), by swallowing up the clichés that were living with her in the mid-1800s, this whale drinking in the krill, one example, flashing eyes, "Mrs. Doherty, flashing her keen eyes upon Gertrude," and a brown cheek for a person who worked outdoors, "a healthy glow upon his brown cheek," other habits that appear in other novels establishing themselves in hers, phrases that must have melted easily out of her, familiar words that felt inextricable from one another, "wept bitterly," "plied her needle," and the "musical babbling" of a brook, all of them sustaining her confidence, I'll imagine, letting her make her way forward, clichés being a mechanism by which people advance ("... such old friends, the clichés in our life, are the only strangers we can know," writes William Gass in The Medium of Fiction), a progression that in Henri Bergson's formulation could be described as instinctive, rather than intelligent, the instinctive in this case being the use of tools already to hand, the established ones that fit their purpose, the intelligent being the construction of complicated tools that are excessive to their purpose and offer scope for improvement, two examples, the internet or The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.

The language that might have been silenced by indecision and worry leaking out like this, through cliché, so as not to go silent, and Louisa Atkinson with relief (I'm still fantasising) able to glide on to the next part. "Yes," she thinks, "that's what I mean, that's what I wanted to say" -- as the cliché slips out -- feeling the satisfaction of being very nicely aligned with the nurturing atmosphere that hangs around a phrase like "flashing eyes", the lushness of that, the homeland of language saluted by its citizen, the writer unexiled -- encouraged she runs her plot though scenes and figures -- the British immigrant, the native-born European, the native-born Indigenous, a bushfire, a cattle stampede, a sheep shearing, a dance, a funeral, a wedding, the child struck by the branch ("here was a folded sheet thrown over the crushed little body, but the crimson tide had dyed the covering, and all that kind, and loving hands could do, availed not to stem it"), the gold prospector, the stockman, the new chum, a corroboree, a fish-catching expedition, a murder mystery, lyrebirds, flowers, teacups, sunsets, Sydney, pigs, the ocean ("Is she near the ocean," M. asked me, "is she Gert by sea?" -- an anthem joke --), a dead horse, a dead kangaroo, a dead wallaby, and home life as it was lived in the bush, in the city, and in a town.

Under the tent of cliché she will introduce not only sermons but also young new words from the country where she's found herself, "they dashed through the heavy stringy bark forest, and belts of scrub, in pursuit of two young kangaroos, or flyers," as well as details that are idiosyncratic enough to have been observed, giving her a kind of life that is not borrowed from another place; it does not even seem to be generally Australian; it seems to be hers:

M'cMaster was a sawyer and employed in the “gullies” at the back of Mrs. Doherty's property; here he lived in a “shanty,” or roof-like tent, of sheets of bark; a sheet of the same material supported on four saplings set in the earthen floor, served as a table; a four legged stool, one leg of course too short, and always falling out when the stool was moved, completed the furniture: an iron tripod, a tin mug, or two, and a couple of common cracked blue earthen-ware plates completed the inventory; for the rest the canvas ticking filled with dry grass, and the dingy blankets and rug, could be laid down anywhere: gloriously independent of mahogany and chintz drapery.

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