My dad was, like, to­tally rad­i­cal

Peter Cor­ris

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THIS well- re­searched and briskly writ­ten his­tor­i­cal novel is only avail­able on­line. It is, in ef­fect, self- pub­lished, Traf­ford be­ing a ser­vice of that kind, al­though the term is care­fully avoided on the com­pany’s web­site. Like many books of this sort, Bligh’s Daugh­ter is plainly but pro­fes­sion­ally pro­duced in terms of cover, bind­ing, type­face and lay­out.

William Bligh is an en­tic­ing char­ac­ter for fiction writ­ers. Bligh’s life and times — span­ning the Napoleonic Wars and ex­plo­ration of the Pa­cific Ocean — are com­pelling. Five films have de­picted him as a lash- ob­sessed sadist who brought the mutiny on the Bounty, the Rum Re­bel­lion and other pro­fes­sional calami­ties on him­self. This is ex­cit­ing but un­fair. Bligh was not an overly harsh com­man­der or a tyrant, but he was rigid, com­pletely un­able to see an­other’s point of view, and foul- mouthed and abu­sive when crossed.

Through the years, Bligh has had his de­fend­ers and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tors. A re­cent, in­ept, ex­am­ple is Ir­ish nov­el­ist John Boyne’s Mutiny on the Bounty . Pene­lope Nelson’s ef­fort in this vein is more suc­cess­ful. The story is cast as a mem­oir by Mary, Bligh’s eldest daugh­ter, who ac­com­pa­nied him to NSW as a sort of stand- in first lady, Bligh’s wife be­ing oc­cu­pied at home with a brood of younger chil­dren. It’s per­fectly nat­u­ral that a loyal daugh­ter should de­fend her fa­ther and over­look or min­imise some of his short­com­ings.

Bligh’s Daugh­ter By Pene­lope Nelson Traf­ford, 240pp, $ US19.50 ($ 20.90)

In al­most all re­spects, Nelson has got the voice right, and Mary’s ac­count of the voy­age out, her mar­riage, the strug­gles of her fa­ther with the Rum Corps and John Macarthur has a ring of truth as the char­ac­ter would have seen it, and is nicely drama­tised. Mary, a de­voted daugh­ter, nev­er­the­less has a mind and life of her own and is not un­crit­i­cal of her fa­ther’s ex­cesses when they bring the Bligh en­ter­prise to dis­as­ter. Wid­owed soon af­ter her ar­rival in Syd­ney, she later falls in love and re­mar­ries.

Nelson has done de­tailed re­search but it sits lightly, as it should. Her pic­ture of the in­fant set­tle­ment sprawl­ing un­tidily around the har­bour, with farms es­tab­lished in ar­eas we now con­sider in­ner sub­urbs, is con­vinc­ing and at­mo­spheric. Life was cheap among the con­victs; in­fant mor­tal­ity was high; child­birth was no pic­nic; tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and var­i­ous fevers were fa­tal.

Class di­vi­sions broke down, de­spite the ef­forts of many to up­hold them. Re­li­gion con­soled some but by no means all. With this, her deft cap­tur­ing of the tex­ture of colo­nial life, Nelson does the es­sen­tial job of the his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist: to trans­port

the reader to the scene and the time. It’s not widely known that Bligh was kept un­der house ar­rest for a year by the re­bel­lious sol­diers, nor that on his re­lease and in vi­o­la­tion of a pledge, he hung around Van Diemen’s Land un­til Lach­lan Mac­quarie ar­rived to re­place him. Fol­low­ing that, Bligh and his daugh­ter lived in a mod­est, rented house near the Tank Stream while the for­mer gov­er­nor ma­noeu­vred for a pas­sage home be­fit­ting his rank. This is a good story, with per­son­al­ity clashes, con­spir­a­cies and love in­ter­est all well, if mildly, por­trayed.

So far so good, but this in­tel­li­gent and ami­able book is se­verely dis­fig­ured by anachro­nisms and poor proof­ing. The words teenage, wisecrack, stoush, stan­dover man and show­down could not have fig­ured in the vo­cab­u­lary of a gen­tle­woman of the pe­riod. Nor would a wo­man of that time think that her mother — hav­ing given birth to eight chil­dren — had died pre­ma­turely at age 56. The writer’s ear and his­tor­i­cal grasp are at fault here, but a com­pe­tent ed­i­tor would have picked up th­ese mis­takes and saved her from em­bar­rass­ment. No pro­fes­sional proof­reader could have missed the line where eight words are run to­gether. Self- pub­lish­ing has its pit­falls. Peter Cor­ris has writ­ten about William Bligh in his novel The Jour­nal of Fletcher Chris­tian ( 2005). His most re­cent book is Open File, the 33rd in the Cliff Hardy de­tec­tive se­ries.

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