From con­victs to stake­hold­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

n The Sol­dier’s Curse, Tom Ke­neally has re­turned to the early years of the Aus­tralian colonies, and in par­tic­u­lar to how they were formed in sig­nif­i­cant and am­bigu­ous mea­sure by the con­vict sys­tem. This was the time and ter­rain of one of his ear­li­est and finest nov­els, Bring Larks and He­roes, first pub­lished al­most a half-cen­tury ago.

In this lat­est book Ke­neally has not re­turned alone but in the com­pany of his el­der daugh­ter Meg, who is co-au­thor. The time is 1825 and the set­ting is Port Mac­quarie, a re­cently es­tab­lished place of sec­ondary pun­ish­ment for re­frac­tory con­victs. North of Syd­ney, it is hemmed in on one side by moun­tains, on the other by the sea.

Find­ing him­self here is the dis­con­so­late, ed­u­cated felon Hugh Llewe­lyn Mon­sar­rat, ‘‘caught in a sad time­less­ness’’, but at least not forced to the road gang or lime burn­ing. In­stead he is clerk to the en­light­ened com­man­dant, Ma­jor An­gus Shel­borne. And, if the Ke­neallys ful­fil their in­ten­tion, he will be the hero of what is pro­jected as a se­ries of his­tor­i­cal nov­els.

As the au­thors note, Mon­sar­rat is in­spired by ‘‘a real gen­tle­man con­vict’’, James Tucker, who spent time at Port Mac­quarie and is gen­er­ally reck­oned to be the au­thor of one of the first Aus­tralian con­vict nov­els, Ralph Rash­leigh (mid-1840s).

Fo­cus­ing on de­pri­va­tion of lib­erty, the power of the state and wrong­ful con­vic­tion, the mo­tif of im­pris­on­ment pow­er­fully im­pelled some of the great works of the 19th cen­tury, among them Beethoven’s Fide­lio, Alexan­dre Du­mas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Charles Dick­ens’s Lit­tle Dor­rit and Vic­tor Hugo’s Les Mis­er­ables. In this coun­try, two nov­els stand out: Caro­line Leakey’s The Broad Ar­row (1859), with its fe­male con­vict pro­tag­o­nist, and Mar­cus Clarke’s For the Term of His Nat­u­ral Life (1870-72).

Nor has in­ter­est among Aus­tralian writ­ers in the na­tion-shap­ing of con­vic­tism abated. Ke­neally’s ca­reer is ev­i­dence of that, as was John Mars­den’s first adult novel, South of Dark­ness (2014). In the vi­o­lent, claus­trated en­vi­ron­ment of the pe­nal set­tle­ments, ques­tions of what can sur­vive of hu­man­ity, be­sides hope, jus­tice or con­science, come vividly into fo­cus at what Ke­neally once called ‘‘the world’s worse end’’.

When The Sol­dier’s Curse opens in win­ter 1825, Honora Shel­borne, the young wife of the com­man­dant and daugh­ter of an im­pe­cu­nious Ir­ish peer, has been ‘‘stricken by an un­known af­flic­tion’’. Now all her spir­ited work for the con­vict com­mu­nity — ‘‘education can raise a per­son’s eyes’’ — has ended. In a line that has the im­print of Ke­neally se­nior’s prose, we read that ‘‘with her in­ca­pac­ity, the set­tle­ment’s small diet of grace had van­ished’’.

Honora is tended by the house­keeper, Mrs Mul­rooney, a for­mer Ir­ish con­vict who has gained an un­con­di­tional ticket of leave and who har­bours the no­tion of in­stalling her son Padraic (presently gone drov­ing) in a pub, where she will be ‘‘the power be­hind the ale­house throne’’.

Mean­while the com­man­dant is dis­tracted not only by his wife’s mal­ady but a planned ex­pe­di­tion ‘‘in search of a river, on a ru­mour from an ab­sconded con­vict’’. This is Kier­nan, an­other Ir­ish­man, who lives with im­punity among the Abo­rig­i­nal Bir­pai peo­ple and who will be par­doned if in­deed there is a river. In Shel­borne’s ab­sence, the set­tle­ment is in the charge of the sadis­tic and tor­mented Cap­tain Di­a­mond, who also hap­pens to love the com­man­dant’s wife.

Into the nar­ra­tive the Ke­neallys bring an­other Ir­ish­man, the pri­vate sol­dier Fer­gal Slat­tery, a joker and card player who yet has ‘‘a seam of dark­ness in him’’. He is moved by the mem­ory of an­ces­tral and re­cent wrongs in­flicted on the Ir­ish poor, and his fam­ily in par­tic­u­lar, by the rul­ing class. An at­tack by one of the gen­try has scarred his sis­ter for life. He seeks a de­layed and round­about vengeance.

It is Slat­tery who men­ac­ingly writes in Gaelic on the wall of the sick woman’s room: ‘‘Our day will come’’. The au­thors take time as well to pro­vide a back­story for Mon­sar­rat that ex­plains his present ex­trem­ity. That is, the lost English past and the rea­sons it has been lost be­come vi­tal el­e­ments in the tale. Mon­sar­rat falls once for am­bi­tion and the sense of slighted worth that leads him to forge cre­den­tials as a bar­ris­ter; the se­cond time for love when the chance of colo­nial re­spectabil­ity is taken from him.

Meg and Tom Ke­neally em­brace the set­piece scenes that go with their ma­te­rial: court­room con­vic­tions, flog­ging, hang­ing. When a con­vict is flogged, ‘‘by fifty lashes … [his] back was more welt than wound’’, ‘‘now a gelati­nous, glis­ten­ing red field, dot­ted with snowflakes of ex­posed rib’’.

Else­where the au­thors poignantly reg­is­ter the re­la­tion to the land of those who are los­ing it and oth­ers who feel dis­com­forted there: ‘‘the na­tives seemed to nav­i­gate us­ing a sys­tem of songs and sto­ries … The songs and sto­ries of the pale-faced in­hab­i­tants be­longed in which may as well not longer ex­ist.’’

The com­plex­ity of con­nec­tions be­tween Abo­rig­ines and Euro­peans, con­victs and jail­ers, alike vic­tims of their con­junc­tion, are ren­dered with em­pa­thy for mis­un­der­stand­ing, in­equal­ity and their costs. The Ke­neallys have done a great deal of able and un­ob­tru­sive re­search (al­though Van Diemen’s Land would have to wait an­other 30 years to be­come Tas­ma­nia). With The Sol­dier’s Curse Mon­sar­rat is fairly launched into what prom­ises to be both a trou­bling fu­ture for him and a sure en­ter­tain­ment for read­ers.

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edited The Cam­bridge His­tory of Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture.

Meg and Tom Ke­neally grap­ple with colo­nial com­plex­i­ties

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