Dick­en­sian trans­ports

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Agnes Nieuwen­huizen

JOHN Mars­den and Shaun Tan’s no­table 1998 pic­ture book The Rab­bits was de­scribed as “an al­le­gory of coloni­sa­tion” and at­tacked as “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect pro­pa­ganda”. The rab­bits (the Bri­tish colonis­ers) were the in­vaders and the num­bats (the Abo­rig­ines) the in­vaded. It’s an angry book. The Rab­bits will re­ceive its de­but as an opera at next year’s Perth Fes­ti­val.

Mars­den’s most fa­mous foray into the means and ef­fects of in­va­sion was the award-win­ning young adult se­ries that started in 1993 with To­mor­row When the War Be­gan and ran to seven books. While de­voured by the tar­get au­di­ence as nail-bit­ing ac­tion-ad­ven­ture sto­ries, pit­ting a group of teenagers against an un­named en­emy, the po­lit­i­cal un­der­tones and im­pli­ca­tions made some adult read­ers, in­clud­ing me, un­easy. The in­vaders were clearly “of Asian ap­pear­ance”. Mars­den fo­cused on the courage and re­silience of teenagers, say­ing: “the idea of peo­ple over­com­ing ad­ver­sity by us­ing their own re­sources was strongly im­printed in me [by books he’d read when young], be­cause those guys had noth­ing ex­cept their own strength and their own mind power. There’s some­thing noble about that.”

So to South of Dark­ness, Mars­den’s first novel for adults. In this de­tailed, care­fully plot­ted and re­searched his­tor­i­cal novel about the trans­porta­tion of con­victs and early Euro­pean set­tle­ment in Aus­tralia, there is lit­tle sense of in­va­sion or of the vi­o­lence of­ten as­cribed to our post-1788 his­tory. It is far from Mars­den’s pre­vi­ous character, voice and ac­tion-driven tales. Told in an ex­pan­sive 18th and 19th-cen­tury style and tone, it is rem­i­nis­cent of Henry Field­ing’s Tom Jones and, of course, Dick­ens.

Barn­aby Fletch be­gins his tale at about age 30: “Hav­ing been asked by the Revd Mr John­son to jot down a few notes about my up­bring­ing and the man­ner of my ar­rival in the colony ...” My fel­low con­victs, not to men­tion the sol­diers, marines, eman­ci­pates and free men, were and still are for the most part un­in­ter­ested in what they see as [this land’s] strange­ness and monotony. When I first ar­rived I re­garded it with much the same dis­taste. Yet grad­u­ally I have fallen un­der its spell.

We then meet Barn­aby at age 12 or so. With no idea who his par­ents are, he scrapes by, scroung­ing food, sleep­ing rough and do­ing odd jobs. Mars­den de­tails the boy’s life: sur­viv­ing on the streets, an un­ex­pected ex­cur­sion to the bizarre won­ders of the Tower of London, the hang­ings, fairs, var­i­ous crimes, the hold on many of Madame Geneva (gin) and even a hor­rific ex­am­ple of child abuse that almost en­traps the in­no­cent young­ster.

Barn­aby of­ten sleeps hid­den in a church, not re­al­is­ing that the kindly Revd Mr Had­dock, as op­posed to the aptly named Revd Mr Grimwade, is aware of his pres­ence and leaves him scraps of food. This en­counter leads to one of two life-chang­ing co­in­ci­dences close to the end of the book, per­haps in keep­ing with the lit­er­ary con­ven­tions of the times. Barn­aby re­flects: “Ev­ery day my life on the streets showed hu­man na­ture at its best and worst.”

His in­sights into the ar­bi­trari­ness of ex­is­tence and the ef­fects of chang­ing le­gal and so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions form re­cur­ring themes. Hear­ing Abo­rig­ines called bar­baric, Barn­aby ob­serves: “It is hard to con­ceive of cus­toms more bar­baric South of Dark­ness By John Mars­den Macmil­lan Aus­tralia, 375pp, $39.99 (HB) than the pro­ce­dures ... for the pun­ish­ment of crim­i­nals ... [or] any­thing more bar­baric than the con­di­tions in New­gate and on the Hulks.”

Hav­ing heard New South Wales de­scribed as “Par­adise”, Barn­aby con­trives to have him­self sentenced to seven years trans­porta­tion in the 1790s. After a grim spell in New­gate, he is dis­patched to the Ad­mi­ral Bar­ring­ton. The mid­dle sec­tion doc­u­ments the long, ar­du­ous voy­age to Aus­tralia where, while there were cruel and cor­rupt sailors and mem­bers of the su­per­vis­ing New South Wales Corps, and some preda­tory and un­savoury be­hav­iour among the lags, the cap­tain and sur­geon in this in­stance were en- light­ened and just: “the con­stant in­sis­tence by Sur­geon Gos­sam on hy­giene and clean­li­ness, the daily scrub­bings, the fre­quent baths and reg­u­lar meals ... slowly brought about a no­tice­able im­prove­ment in the health of most men aboard”.

Barn­aby finds a pro­tec­tor in Carmichael Lance, who teaches him to read us­ing the only avail­able book, Bun­yan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Barn­aby con­cludes that “it is thanks to th­ese two un­ortho­dox teach­ers, Mr Bun­yan and Carmichael, that I be­came a great lover of lit­er­a­ture and lan­guage, and hold the po­si­tion I have to­day — and have been em­bold­ened to write this sim­ple ac­count of my own begin­nings.”

The fi­nal sec­tion re­counts Barn­aby’s ex­pe­ri­ences after ar­riv­ing at Port Jack­son. The re­ceived wis­dom of the un­al­loyed hor­rors of trans­porta­tion and of set­tle­ment ex­pe­ri­ences are chal­lenged. Were some ac­counts ex­ag­ger­ated for ef­fect and sym­pa­thy? Un­doubt­edly it was a tough ex­is­tence. Which trees yield the best tim­ber? Which crops to sow and where? What to eat? Barn­aby’s first task is car­ry­ing wa­ter to ax­e­men and builders.

When he of­fers wa­ter and steals food for Johnny, an es­caped con­vict, the pair must flee to avoid pun­ish­ment. After desperately try­ing to sur­vive in the bush, they live for some time with an Abo­rig­i­nal tribe. Barn­aby notes with fascination the affin­ity of the “In­di­ans” with the land: their knowl­edge, hunt­ing and sur­vival skills, their rit­u­als but also their fre­quently con­fronting so­cial mores. The story gath­ers pace as the two fugi­tives de­cide to re­turn to the colony and find an un­likely, but dra­matic, means to sal­va­tion. Here Barn­aby hints at a se­quel “telling of sub­se­quent stages of my life, and in­deed of Johnny’s fur­ther ad­ven­tures”. Meet­ing Johnny is the other big co­in­ci­dence in Barn­aby’s life.

Early in the story, while hid­den in “his” church, Barn­aby lis­tens to a ser­mon from Revd Mr Had­dock based on the bib­li­cal tale of Job. This in­forms Barn­aby’s think­ing and ac­tions and is used as a guid­ing and uni­fy­ing thread through­out the book. Job, “a man of to­tal in­tegrity”, is sorely tried by God at the be­hest of Satan. He suf­fers ter­ri­bly, los­ing ev­ery­thing but re­gain­ing much be­cause of his stead­fast­ness and faith. Mars­den’s ap­proach here is ques­tion­ing and com­plex, of­fer­ing a pow­er­ful sub­text, not least to Barn­aby’s un­der­stand­ing of this new land where “in­stead of feel­ing ex­hil­a­rated by be­ing per­mit­ted to stand erect in that im­men­sity, many cow­ered un­der it”.

Barn­aby strug­gles with his de­sire for or­der, cer­tainty, faith and in­tegrity; with his belief that re­li­gion should of­fer suc­cour, not fear, and his in­creas­ing cer­tainty that: “We are sub­ject more to capri­cious im­pulses and be­hav­iour than we are to im­mutable univer­sal laws.”

There’s a deeper, gen­tler no­bil­ity in how Barn­aby faces life than in many of Mars­den’s ear­lier books in­clud­ing The Rab­bits and the To­mor­row se­ries.

John Mars­den has writ­ten his first book for adults

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