From convicts to stakeholders
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.
edited The Cambridge History of Australian Literature.
Meg and Tom Keneally grapple with colonial complexities