Thursday, October 3, 2013

receiving its finishing touches from convict labour

(Just a note: Blogger is not allowing me to update the sidebar).

The presence of a convict town spreads corruption everywhere in one form or another, sometimes violent, sometimes not; Charlie is "a bright, glowing, bouncing boy of six years"; adult prisoners are so natural to him that he assumes he's going to be one when he grows up, as if convict is a profession.

When taken by his father to see some public work, which was just receiving its finishing touches from convict labour, he admired in silence for a long while, and then broke out:

'When I'm a prisoner, won't I build a beauty!'

Charlie is a merging agent: he is amoral, he never sees the corruption (I mean that he does not witness the dichotomy that his author sees, and on which she dwells; he has a Rabelaisian acceptance, he is free of her devils), he is pragmatic: the imprisoned people, the alcoholic people, the mad people, they are his surroundings, and once he works out that the "howl" from the "drefful wild beasts" is only a convict lunatic then he's fine:

But when Miss D'Urban told her that, wild beast or not, they had been alarmed by the most doleful wail that ever mortal heard, the wife began to wonder whence the noise could have proceeded, and wondered on until her eldest boy burst into a laugh.

'Oh! 'twas nothing, mother; 'twas only from the Cranky Yard.'

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. His acceptance is the cure that Leakey sees but does not want. She would rather be sick than cured like him. (There is a story that is not being spoken here, about a healthy boy whose adults are trying to make him moral, therefore ill.)

But she never changes him, which is interesting in itself: she doesn't reform him by bringing him over to her own point of view. He was not invented to be reformed then, he is not like Maida Gwynnham, who was invented for a purpose (to carry the load of the book, in other words to suffer) or like the man who seduced her (who was invented so that he could seduce her). Charlie was invented to be himself, because that is how he remains.

Why does Maida Gwynnham need to suffer? Leakey was not writing The Broad Arrow to turn people against transportation. Transportation was over before she began. Tasmania received its last convict in 1851. She started the book in 1858 and published in 1859. If she is not trying to end transportation or to titillate people with prison stories then what is she doing? Is it a warning to seducers? (The seducer suffers at the end. It is a warning to seducers.) Why doesn't the story take place in England, where she spent most of her life? Why does she see life in this torn-apart or separated state? She was evangelical and her family was evangelical: is that part of an answer? She was a migrant for a few years: the place she visited is the place she describes in detail, her homeland is a caricature.

The wrong is nebulous: it is corruption in toto, it is life, which is a mixed substance. Tasmania in this book is the place where life is strongest because it is the place where it is most mixed. The convicts exist casually next to the upper classes. Leakey herself came to the colony to replace the convict who was nursemaiding her sister's children. She chases the riven around but she can't corner it. The dichotomous crack exists intimately in the senses:

Lessons of morality and piety, listened to with reverence on the mother's lap or father's knee, were contradicted by the practices of convict life, so that Charlie was puzzled to know which was the correct path -- that commended to him by precept, or that chosen by the multitude. In fact, he had to decide between seeing and hearing.


  1. While I've heard of Marcus Clarke - hard not to have - I've never heard of Caroline Leakey. Is this unusual or is it evidence of misogyny in Australian literature and how come you've heard of her - and generally how do you know about all sorts of writers I'd never hear of were it not for your blog?

    1. The internet. I hunted through Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg Australia for Colonial Australian writers and these people started coming out of the woodwork. The Australian Digital Collections page at Sydney Uni is nice but I only found out about it after I'd exhausted the Gutenbergs:

      The Internet Archive has a few things too.

      When I started looking I realised that there was a whole body of pre-1920s writing that never makes it into schools. Not any school I ever went to, anyway, or else it wasn't mentioned so forcefully that I remembered it. The 1800s gets sold to us as Clarke, followed by Paterson and Lawson and maybe Barbara Baynton if we're lucky, with some Henry Handel Richardson and Furphy if you really want to get in-depth. But there was a body of suburban and urban fiction that we never hear about. There are women whose names nobody ever tells us. Why don't we balance the homespun son-of-the-bush thing by pointing out that you had Catherine Martin writing poems about Burke and Wills based on the Lusiad? What about all those characters who visited mansions in Toorak? (Visiting mansions in Toorak is actually a minor trend in Australian books between 1880 and 1900.) We're more complicated than we let ourselves believe. (Vance Palmer's Legend of the Nineties looks at the triumph of bush fiction as it happened: The Bulletin shaping literature in the 1890s.)

      That non-fiction I mentioned a few weeks ago, Dale Spender's Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers, is a good summary of those books by lost women. She says herself in the introduction that this is more of an 1800s book than a 1900s book, in spite of "two centuries" in the subtitle, which is fine by me, because I knew about Christina Stead already, but Annie Baxter (1816 - 1905)? Had never heard of her. She wrote diaries about Tasmania. Wonderful excerpts.

      Spender suspects sexism in the case of Leakey. It's easy to believe but hard to prove because it hasn't left a discernible trail as far as I can see. There weren't people in 1880 writing, "Ha, ha, we will deliberately ignore Caroline Leakey's convict book now that this Clarke fellow has put something out, for he is MAN and she is WOMAN." But when you have two books about convict life, and one is written by a woman and the convict is a woman, and the other written by a man and the convict is a man, and the one about the man is not better (not more insightful, not less melodramatic), and yet everybody knows about it and they don't know the woman one, then you start to wonder what exactly is going on here.

      Clarke is more action-packed, and if you wanted to be kind you could say, "Well, people like action and love affairs, it's got nothing to do with the sex of the author. Plus his sentences are shorter and he's less pious." But if a person's got any interest in literature as a process of thought on a page, and not as an adventure story about guilty clergymen and little kiddies jumping off cliffs and Rufus Dawes versus the cayenne pepper, then I don't know what their excuse is. Leakey is a harder sell, but why is she not sold at all?