Reimagining famous lives
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.
(1782) by James Webber