Thursday, December 5, 2013

besides, you are Ticket and I'm not

"Austenesque realism" (at the end of the last post) is not a stretch, and I reckon that anyone who reads Bengala is going to assume (almost without reflective thought, it seems so obvious) that Mary Theresa Vidal is paying a debt to Austen in this book, with the comedies of manners moving shiftily between the people as they eat their lunches and Isabel Lang channelling Emma from Emma as she goes around matchmaking while the level-headed older man hovers over her like the one played by Alan Rickman in the movie, and maybe even the part about the custard owes something to a scent of Austen-atmosphere or floating memory, since (I remembered when I was writing this out in the comments to Tom) it begins with Mrs Vesey insulting the Lang family by asking them to show her how they make their custard, insinuating in this way: Rich people such as myself have servants to do these jobs for them.

Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice: "The dinner too in its turn was highly admired; and he begged to know to which of his fair cousins the excellency of its cooking was owing. But he was set right there by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen."

The presence of convict workers does the following thing: it makes the Austen style warp a little when it touches them. The comedies of manners leave the story; that area of sensitivity is gone. (The sensitivity becomes a sensitivity to the characters' suffering, which is a form of pity and therefore different to the sensitivity that flavours the Austen-parts, which is not pity.)

I know that people have criticised Austen for the absence of servants' personalities in her books, and my impression is that this criticism has been more of a twentieth-century phenomenon than a nineteenth-century one, but Vidal made that same point in 1860, not by actually stating it or even by giving any sign that she thought it consciously as she probably did not, but by changing her tone from Austen to melodrama every time the convict servant-workers become the focus of the book, which they do periodically because there is a sub-plot about a prisoner who can't rescue a young woman from her vicious guardians because Mr Lang won't let him have his ticket of leave.

Vidal knew it in her bones or with a reader's inarticulate intuition, that absence in Austen.

(A ticket of leave, which Caroline Leakey in The Broad Arrow abbreviated down to T.L. or just "ticket," sometimes with a capital letter if somebody was using it as a personal description, "Oh, Bob, I couldn't! you'll do it beautiful, you says everything so clever and nice; besides, you are Ticket and I'm not," was a way of allowing a convict some independence before their sentence was up.)

On the social level Mr Lang is a good-hearted man who gives his friends toast but he's unintentionally malicious when it comes to the field of convict management. In this role of a good man with a careless flaw he is something like Mr Bennet, who only has his family to wound but Mr Lang has a large bush-isolated property inhabited by worker-prisoners who are in his power and who may, if they are feeling desperate, run off and become bushrangers at any moment, sentencing themselves to death since they know they will be hung if they are caught.

This is a version of blindness with which Austen was not conversant and so (Harry Haseltine touching on it in the introduction) the book finds another model for the convict parts. It is as if the Austen-style itself has said, "I will not describe this, I can't, I don't have the words, you have to find something else." The style has a personality; it speaks.


  1. You are beginning to make this novel sound Neglected, like a book many people would be able to use and enjoy.

    1. I wouldn't go so far as Neglected Masterpiece, but I think it would be useful and enjoyable to a larger readership than it has at the present, which is Me and a Few Academics cribbing papers in a garret. I haven't mentioned this, but the kind of attention that the Austen-style makes the author pay to hypocrisy and snobbery makes her very pungent when she's delineating different species of expat. (Mrs Vesey is the species who arrives in a new country with the idea that everyone in it is stupider than she is.)