Thursday, June 6, 2013

hours passed in idling, are for ever lost

The Colonial era attempting to translate itself through those two books, Gertrude the Emigrant Girl and Romance of a Station, or helplessly reminding you of itself, the tin bath, the slab hut, the action of fetching water and lighting a fire (and as I read I can't stop remembering that those movements of the firelighting arm are absent now, unresurrected on the island off the coast of Queensland where the Romance is set and where Rosa Praed autobiographically lived during the 1870s with the husband she married in 1872; the movements are ready to be revived at any moment, they are possible and yet they are unrealised, and how many other action likewise, the invisible not-weight of the possible squatting on the world) -- the goat that lived in the pantry and slept in the bath, "he took up his quarters in the pantry by day, and made his couch in the bath by night," things trying to make a home in written language, like a dog getting into a heap of clothes and going round to make a bed, these things becoming the excuse that language has made for itself here, they are its excuse for being on the page, Somebody had to let you know, they say to you, shrugging and spelling goat: something that must be spoken, and that deserves to be spoken (it says, by being so). History is an old book's prosthetic limb.

Reading the sentence about the goat, "he took up his quarters in the pantry by day, and made his couch in the bath by night," I become aware of a thought like an echo, persistant taste on the tip of my mind's tongue, so I summon the brain's-prosthetic known as Google, I track down Exodus 13: 21-22, "And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night; the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people" -- a rhythmic copying by Praed, maybe unconsciously but it doesn't matter -- the Old Testament drawn into the expressive matrix that Romance of a Station can be observed to inhabit, even though Rosa Praed is not a religious writer, and does not make any overt references to Christianity anywhere in the book, not like Louisa Atkinson, whose Gertrude is characterised by "intrusive explicit moralising," says the critic Elizabeth Lawson, quoted to me by Sue from Whispering Gums who once added that same piece of information to Atkinson's Wikipedia page.

Atkinson loves to segue into a moral lesson, she tells her reader that they shouldn't be shirkers in their everyday lives, and she puts her scenes to work -- no event too small for a homily -- gold-prospector buried down a hole? -- homily! -- child bingled by a branch, dies in agony under a bloodstained rug? -- homily! -- tea on the verandah? -- homily! --

She used to exert herself much through the day, that she might have the evening hours free from interruption; and by allotting each occupation its fixed time, and doing it with all her might, she succeeded. Those who systematically employ time, live really speaking, twice as long as the trifler, moments glide on so swiftly, and noiselessly, that we do not mark their flight; until the grave encloses us, and the hours passed in idling, are for ever lost.

Think of an accent as a set of habits and Gertrude's accent is a Homily Accent. One person with a different kind of accent can say "fink" instead of "think" no matter what they're talking about, Louisa Atkinson can move into a pious lesson no matter what she's talking about: it could be anything, fire, flood, flowers, the goat in the bath, which, all right, it's Rosa Praed's but if you gave it to Atkinson it would be primed for a moral lesson, it would not be able to enter a paragraph without a message hovering around it, waiting to be delivered -- maybe never delivered, but the potential for it to be delivered would never leave. Every book is a field of likelihoods, I open, I read, I pass over an event horizon into a field of restricted probabilities, a mathematical alteration of perception, XYZ ideas removed from the world, ideas ABC emphasised and promoted, as the enormous possible proliferation of words is corralled, repressed, and forced into life through a tube.

My tube, says Atkinson, will be a pious tube. (She didn't have to take that route. She was a student of botany. You wouldn't guess. But it could have been a botanical tube.) Gertrude is the eternal present likelihood of Message.

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