A tale of two Charlevilles
A poetic quest from outback Queensland to northern France
DRIVING idly around Ireland recently, we pass a sign to Charleville and I think: Oh, three Charlevilles! But I decide to let it pass and focus on the other two. One will be familiar to Australians, while the other is in the Ardennes, northern France, and is the true excuse for this story.
Amateur historians of Qantas like to say that it was conceived in Cloncurry, born in Winton and grew up in Longreach, but that leaves out Charleville.
The first Qantas airmail flight took off from Charleville in 1922, on what became the airline’s first scheduled route — Charleville to Cloncurry via Longreach and Winton — and the town continued to be of importance in the airline’s early years.
As well, Charleville was a compulsory checkpoint on the 1934 London to Melbourne air race, while other pioneer aviators, including Amy Johnson and Ross and Keith Smith, landed there through dire necessity.
On the banks of the Warrego River in south-central outback Queensland (to have a stab at its position), Charleville is a town I have travelled through often on journeys to relatives scattered along the Tropic of Capricorn between Longreach and Barcaldine.
The town’s pride is the heritage Hotel Corones, famously known as the Raffles of the inland, while its historic aviation links live on in the Royal Flying Doctor Service base it hosts.
Staying there once at a not exactly Raffles of the inland motel, I marvelled at a plaque at shoulder height marking the great 1990 floods. At the time almost all of the west was in severe drought, the fighting Warrego reduced to pits of dried mud and the Matilda Highway, from Cunnamulla to Charleville and on to Barcaldine, running through a scorched, sheep-ravaged desert abandoned even by emus.
The floods returned in 2010, proving what those of us descended from the bush know to be true: it is, as Dorothea Mackellar put it, ‘ ‘ a land of drought and flooding rains’’.
Mymother’s parents were both from outback Queensland; her maternal great- great- grandmother, Marie Rens ( she used other names, often Josephine and Widow Rens), had come from France with her 12- year- old daughter Jeanette in 1827.
Life was challenging oceans away from the court of empress Josephine (thus the name) and the aristocratic fringes she claimed to have occupied, and her reasons for exiling herself at 40 to Australia remain obscure.
Jeanette married Gilbert Cory, a Hunter Valley farmer, and produced 10 children, several of whom became pioneer settlers in the 1850s on land in the vicinity of Stonehenge, which surely everyone will know to be a dot more than 400km northwest of Charleville, between the Barcoo and Thomson rivers.
This really is remote, arid country of never-ending horizons; 160 years ago its isolation would have been as forbidding as that of Australia from France.
Travelling by train across northern France last summer, through a harmonious landscape of verdant, well-tended farmlands and vibrant villages, I thought of Marie Rens and her past in what is now Belgium. I was heading to Charleville- Mezieres ( as it is known today) in search not of her origins, but those of her compatriot Arthur Rimbaud ( 18541891), the enfant terrible of French literature whose poetry, revolutionary in its vision and form, has influenced artists and dreamers from the French decadents and surrealists to Picasso, Brett Whiteley, the beats, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison.
You leave the station at Charleville and walk on to a spacious square where stands a bust of our hero. A poem, To Music, is set right here: ‘‘On the square, tailored into meagre lawns/where all’s as it should be, flowers, trees/ Chesty bourgeois stifling in Thursday-evening heat, parade their small- town spite and jealousy . . .’’
This verse, written when he was 15, ferociously satirises all of the familiar goings-on and personages of this humdrum place, letting us see why the inscription on the bust is laughable: ‘‘To JeanArthur Rimbaud, His Admirers, The State’’.
Rimbaud’s admirers have been plentiful, but here is a prizewinning pupil who outraged the adults in his life with his irredeemable attitude to everything that underpinned the certainties of French provincial society. He was often in trouble with the law and ran away repeatedly before disappearing at the age of 20.
Charleville’s heart is the completely unanticipated Place Ducale, a magnificent version of the Place des Vosges in Paris, attesting to a past aristocracy with visions way beyond the provincial.
The poet is remembered at the splendid Musee Arthur Rimbaud in a 17th-century millhouse on quai Arthur Rimbaud, which runs along the picturesque River Meuse (beautiful in a way that our poor Warrego, battered by all manner of natural and man-made assaults, can but dream of) and in the graveyard where stand his tomb and that of his longsuffering mother, Vitalie, known by choice as Widow Rimbaud.
Rimbaud’s Charleville, despite his preference for exile, qualifies as one of France’s immemorial fictional places along with Balzac’s Paris, Proust’s Combray and Sartre’s Bouville.
His hybrid origins, urban and rural, peasant and bourgeois, jump from his verse, along with his familiarity with, and antipathy to, everyday things, scenes and people of his home town.
The collection A Season in Hell was written in 1873, following a period of vagabondage in France and London with a fellow troublemaker, the poet Paul Verlaine (who actually shot Rimbaud during one disturbance).
Rimbaud describes the prose poem Second Delirium: Alchemy of the Word as ‘‘the history of one of my madnesses’’. ‘‘I got used to hallucination, pure and simple: I would see a mosque where there was a factory, a drum-corps of angels, coaches on the roads in the sky, a drawing room at the bottom of a lake; monsters, mysteries; horrors . . .’’
Rimbaud was not yet 20, and his imagination, linguistic dexterity and alienation from the self-satisfaction of life in Charleville were at fever pitch.
On the eve of leaving forever, he composed Illumination’s dazzling, dream-like poems, which teeter on the edge of chaos. They represent his final gift.
Rimbaud died in Marseilles at only 37 after picaresque wanderings in Ethiopia and Yemen in the guise of explorer, gun-runner and Arabist. His doting sister Isabelle observed that on his death bed he ranged from the oracular to the obscene, still, as ever, pushing open windows to a wider world.
As I walk about this attractive Charleville, contemplating the poet’s audacious, short life and brilliant writing, I recall that many extraordinary people have emerged from out-of-the-way places and everyday families.
I wonder, though, whether the other Charleville could have produced a Rimbaud. My ancestors who settled in the Queensland outback were salty, hardworking types who probably would have regarded a Rimbaud in their midst as a raving ratbag.
Finally, a role for the third Charleville: Charleville, County Cork, Province of Munster, Ireland, gave its name to Charleville, Queensland. A link with France is embedded, nevertheless, in the name of the Irish town, and also in the name Munster. Translations from the French by Martin Sorrell, 2001.