Sunday, November 24, 2013

those who really cannot quite understand as they look round them

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.)

No comments:

Post a Comment