Reimag­in­ing fa­mous lives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Diane Stub­bings

IT is Lon­don, 1771, and Lieu­tenant James Cook has just re­turned home to Whitechapel. As Cook ap­proaches his house, he is ner­vous, un­cer­tain how he will be re­ceived by his wife and chil­dren. It is al­most three years since he de­parted, charged by the Ad­mi­ralty with sail­ing to the south­ern hemi­sphere, there to ob­serve the tran­sit of Venus.

As its ti­tle sug­gests, The Se­cret Life of James Cook aims to get be­neath the skin of ‘‘ the great­est sea­man the world has known’’, and in the open­ing pages — the hint therein of a man who has reached the pin­na­cle of his pro­fes­sional life, but who is none­the­less awkward and emo­tional as he steps over the thresh­old of his own home — there is cer­tainly a sense that a more pri­vate and un­fa­mil­iar Cook is about to be re­vealed.

Back­track­ing to 1745 — when Cook was 16 — we fol­low James from his lowly be­gin­nings in a small vil­lage in York­shire to his even­tual com­mand of HMB En­deav­our. There is his ap­pren­tice­ship to a gro­cer and hab­er­dasher, his time on the coal ships work­ing out of Whitby and his even­tual en­list­ment in the navy. De­spite be­gin­ning at the low­est grade, he soon at­tracts the at­ten­tion of his masters — ‘‘ Amid this rab­ble, Cook, you’re like a honed cut­lass in a drawer full of blunt cut­lery’’ — and com­mences his in­ex­orable rise up the ranks.

While per­fectly con­tent at sea, Cook laments the lone­li­ness of his life on land and soon finds him­self a bar­maid, El­iz­a­beth, to marry: ‘‘ How lovely she is, he thought, so fresh and whole­some. A fine ex­am­ple of young English wom­an­hood.’’ They pro­duce three chil­dren in quick suc­ces­sion, their fourth due days af­ter Cook takes up com­mand of En­deav­our.

New Zealand author Graeme Lay has writ­ten widely on the his­tory and cul­ture of the Pa­cific is­lands, and that fas­ci­na­tion is ev­i­dent in The Se­cret Life of James Cook. Much of the sec­ond half of the novel is given over to de­scrip­tions — and sump­tu­ous de­scrip­tions they are — of the var­i­ous Pa­cific is­lands Cook and his men visit.

This is clearly a story that is dear to Lay’s heart, and the nar­ra­tive is de­voted to tick­ing off the facts of Cook’s life. How­ever, the merg­ing of fact and fic­tion is not al­ways as seam­less as it might be and — de­spite his best in­ten­tions — Lay strug­gles to drag his sub­ject free of the his­tor­i­cal record. Cook him­self comes across as a well-mean­ing and prin­ci­pled man, but not much more. In fact, apart from the laboured han­ker­ing of the younger Cook for parts un­known, and his re­it­er­a­tion of his af­fec­tion for his wife and chil­dren, there is lit­tle here of the in­ner man.

While a ge­nial, very read­able work — a boy’s own ad­ven­ture of the sea — The Se­cret Life of James Cook is, in the end, un­able to breathe new life into ei­ther the man or his times. And it is a some­what old-fash­ioned his­tor­i­cal novel: it sits very much on the preHi­lary Man­tel side of the genre and has none of the con­tem­po­rary over­lay that can be found in, for ex­am­ple, the most re­cent nov­els of Kate Grenville.

Game, Trevor Shearston’s ac­count of the bushranger Ben Hall, takes a dif­fer­ent tack, im­me­di­ately po­si­tion­ing it­self at the lit­er­ary end of the fic­tion spec­trum. A dour, shad­owy novel, it es­chews Lay’s more chrono­log­i­cal ap­proach, in­stead fo­cus­ing on the fi­nal months of the bushranger’s life to prof­fer a sense of the man Hall was.

We first meet Hall when he is about to am­bush a coach near Ju­giong, NSW. He and his gang — Jack Gil­bert and John Dunn — are al­ready no­to­ri­ous, but there is still a code to which they ad­here: they keep their coats on in front of the women trav­ellers and refuse to rum­mage through the purses of the fairer sex.

But the am­bush goes wrong — Dunn kills a trooper — and Hall and his men know if they are caught now, they will hang.

The bushrang­ing and the killing con­tinue, punc­tu­ated by pe­ri­ods at safe houses to gather food and strength. The gang is gen­er­ous with those who choose to help them, but re­cently en­acted leg­is­la­tion, al­low­ing troop­ers to ar­rest any­one sus­pected of har­bour­ing out­laws, makes it per­ilous to take them in. And as more and more coaches are ac­com­pa­nied by po­lice — and less cash trans­ported, cheques and ban­knotes be­com­ing the pre­ferred way of trans­fer­ring cur­rency — Hall and his gang grow ever more dar­ing.

En­closed within this tale of the ex­ploits of Hall and his gang is the more in­ti­mate — and more sat­is­fy­ing — story of Hall and his son, Harry. Still a young boy, Harry lives with his mother and her new part­ner, and a good deal of the nar­ra­tive here is given over to prob­ing the bruise that is Hall’s loss of his child. As he ten­ta­tively tries to re-es­tab­lish their re­la­tion­ship — even seek­ing to coax Harry to come away with him — we see in Hall a man des­tined for­ever to be bur­dened by his past. There is a quiet yearn­ing on both sides of this bond; and that it’s a yearn­ing that can never be an­swered is the tragic heart of the novel.

For a work that seems to want to sep­a­rate it­self from ro­man­ti­cised por­tray­als of Aus­tralia’s colo­nial his­tory, it’s ironic that Shearston’s ac­count of Hall is so ide­alised. Game clings to the his­tor­i­cal legacy that ac­claims Hall for be­ing less blood­thirsty than many of his fel­low bushrangers, and the man we’re of­fered here comes across as, pre­dom­i­nantly, hon­ourable and de­cent, if slightly trou­bled. There are only glanc­ing al­lu­sions to what might have mo­ti­vated Hall and what keeps him in the game — ‘‘ bet­ter than walkin the day be­hind a plough mare’’ — and even in those episodes where troop­ers are shot, Hall comes out of it all as ‘‘ more sinned against than sin­ning’’.

The writ­ing has its mo­ments: ‘‘ In those ten min­utes the val­ley grew into be­ing, dark blurs be­com­ing shrubs, pale humps boul­ders, the line of the stream from the spring a green scrib­ble through tus­socks.’’ But in striv­ing for a rhythm that sug­gests some­thing of the terse, al­most la­conic de­meanour of th­ese men and their time, the nar­ra­tive too of­ten loses clar­ity.

Com­pared with Lay’s bright and shiny ver­sion of Cook, Shearston’s por­trait of Hall is his­tory seen ‘‘ through a glass darkly’’. It’s a con­flict­ing sort of vi­sion, one that se­duces and ir­ri­tates in al­most equal mea­sure.

Cap­tain James Cook

De­tail from

(1782) by James Web­ber

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