Monthly Archives: April 2016

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: April 23 -30 1841

SUPREME COURT

Now that all the excitement of the Supreme Court opening was over, the court settled down into its daily routine.  Well, not quite.  Even though the inconvenience of not having a Supreme Court for civil cases was cited as a major reason for sending a Resident Judge to Port Phillip, there were no civil cases reported until 30th April, and even then they were rather minor matters.

The Criminal side of the Supreme Court was more active, though. The Port Phillip Herald of 27 April reported two assault cases: one involving an ‘unnatural offence’ (i.e. homosexuality), and the other domestic assault, albeit with a twist.  The first case involved ‘assault with intent to commit an unnatural offence’ when William Gemmil (or Gemmel), whose status was ‘free by servitude’, came before the court for an assault on hut keeper Richard Bell. The offence allegedly occurred in a sentry box at Roadnight’s pastoral station near Geelong. Bell swore at the committal hearing that Gemmil

put his hand on my privates; I told him I would not allow that and he said “never mind no one else will know except you and me” He then got on top of me and did the same as if I was a woman, he had his trowsers off and put his privates between my thighs in front and remained about five minutes resting upon my person…The defendant came to me every night until the following Sunday and did the same to me, he held me…I complained to my master when he came to the station. (VPRS109 Unit 1 p.537) cited in Paul Mullaly Crime in the Port Phillip District p. 482

Willis jailed Gemmil for two years with hard labour, “being the utmost sentence which His Honor could inflict upon him”.

The second case was described as “as flagrant as one as ever came before a Court of Justice.” Henry (or Harry) Agnew, a former Van Diemen’s Land convict who was ‘free by servitude’ kept a brothel in the Little Bourke Street area. He induced Sarah Chant, who had recently emigrated on the Fergusson, to come to his house as a servant, stating that she would find it the best service in the Colony.

In about a fortnight he produced an agreement and wished her to sign it, thereby binding herself to remain for three months, upon her refusal the unmanly brute knocked her down, kicked her in the side, face, breast and various other parts of her body. This course of treatment was repeated several times, the discolouration arising from the kick in the face was visible at the time of her giving evidence. (PPH 27/4/41)

In her testimony, Sarah swore that:

I left about the beginning of this month from ill-usage- because I would not sign a paper to live there- I would not live there because it was an improper house- he knocked me down and kicked me in the face and side- I got out into the street. http://www.historyvictoria.org.au/willis/book%2011.html#11

Doctor Cussen testified that he saw Chant at the watchhouse and described her injuries, but swore that “I think she exaggerated her case“. Willis underlined these words in his Case Book, which indicates that he considered the information important. Agnew was found guilty.

His Honor, who designated the assault brutal and unmanly, sentenced the fellow to be imprisoned for six months, to pay a fine of £59 and be further imprisoned until the fine be paid. (PPH 27/4/41)

POLICE COURT HAPPENINGS

There was always much more mirth to be found at the Police Court than at the Supreme Court, although of course the stakes were higher for any case that found itself in the superior court.  More properly known as the Court of Petty Sessions, this court was overseen by honorary and police magistrates and dealt with summary offence and minor civil cases up to 20 pounds.  A seemingly unending stream of minor robberies, drunkenness offences and assaults found its way into this court.  Two of the cases that wound up before the court on Wednesday 21st arose from the Races the previous week:

Geo Dogherty, an old fool, was charged with ramming-down “Bullet” an Aboriginal native upon the Race Course on Wednesday until the Bullet was ready to go off without the aid of gunpowder.  The Bullet appeared mild and forgiving before the Bench, and said that Doghery was a murry, budggery-fellow. The Bench dismissed the case.  There is no doubt Bullet had been tipped, as he took the thing in such good part.

Henry McDonald, who appeared well charged with Parkins’ compound essence of steam, was charged by Mr Michael David with calling him a Jew and then incontinently flooring him upon the Race Course, at the time there were a number of persons around Mr D, one of whom made a pull at his watch-guard but without effect.  While Mr D. was lying on the ground the fellow again struck him. The Bench sentenced him to pay a fine of £5 or be imprisoned two months.  (PPH 23/4/41)

Then followed a pig case. Ah- pigs! Not a week would go by without a mention of pigs in the newspaper and this week was no exception:

Robert Oman was fined five shillings for permitting a pig to walk about and breathe fresh air and look upon the scene in the town of Melbourne. Mr O said that the pig was of the feminine gender and shortly previous had a charming litter, which as soon as he could conveniently manage he removed to a neighbour’s, who was in the habit of luxuriating upon a sucking pig nicely browned. The mother of the pigs, having a presentiment that her progeny was to be tickled in the throat by the relentless butcher, spurned all soothing and buckets of choice mash, and with a perseverance worth a better cause, burrowed her way into the street and finding her little ones undergoing the operation of fattening in an adjacent yard, to which access was denied her, she set up a wail in that peculiar shrill key which can be only drawn forth from the Pigean bagpipes, which drew the attention of the informer.  The bench, however much they admired the maternal feelings of the pig, must inflict the fine.  (PPH 23/4/41)

ANNUAL LICENSING DAY

The primative i.e. primitive Albion Hotel Great Bourke St. Melbourne

The Primative Albion Hotel Great Bourke St Melbourne by William Liardet. Source: State Library of Victoria.

http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/151500

A bench of magistrates and worthies assembled to hear the applications for Publicans’ Licences. Headed by James Simpson, the Police Magistrate, the bench included James McArthur, F. A. Powlett, G. D. Mercer, E. Brewster, W. Verner, A. Furlong and Doctors McCrae and Martin.  Here’s a list of existing licenses they approved:

COLLINS STREET Thomas Halfpenny ‘William Tell’ (conditional);  Thomas Anderson ‘The Lamb’; John Davis ‘Imperial’; Thomas Graham ‘Edinburgh Castle’.

LITTLE COLLINS STREET Benjamin Hancock ‘Freemasons’ Arms’; William Evans ‘Builders Arms’; John Bullivant ‘Waterloo’ (conditional); John O’Shaugnessy ‘Australasian Hotel’.

BOURKE STREET  James Dobson ‘Albion’; James Jamieson ‘Eagle’; William Sidebottom ‘Golden Fleece’

ELIZABETH STREET Francis Henry ‘Irish Harp’; (conditional); James Coulstock ‘Melbourne Tavern’; R. A. Roberts ‘Union’

QUEEN STREET  John Byng ‘Victoria’; John Shanks ‘Royal Highlander’

FLINDERS STREET William Coulson ‘Melbourne Hotel’; A Greaves ‘Yarra Hotel’

LITTLE FLINDERS STREET James Shaw ‘Shaw’s Hotel’; Robert Brottargh ‘Adelphi’, Lewis Pedranna ‘Dundee Arms’ (conditionally)

MARKET PLACE  William Harper ‘British Hotel’

LONSDALE STREET William Mortimer ‘Crown’, Robert Omond ‘Caledonia Hotel’

BEACH A Lingham ‘Marine Hotel’, W.F.E Liardet, ‘Pier Hotel’

They didn’t necessarily approve all existing licence-holders.  They knocked some people back if they were persons of bad character, or if their hotels were frequented by people of bad character or, as in one case, if the applicant was living “in a disreputable state”.

They approved new licences too, just to add to the proliferation of hotels

QUEENS STREET – W. Seymour

BOURKE STREET J. S. Johnstone, John Stevens (conditional)

ELIZABETH STREET Matthew Molony; E. Matthysons (Wine and Beer only)

LITTLE FLINDERS STREET. John Grant; Francis Hobson

COLLINS STREET  Philip Anderson; Henry Davis

LITTLE COLLINS STREET Jeremiah Coffee

LITTLE BOURKE STREET William Athorne; Matthew Cantling

ELIZABETH STREET William Smith (conditional)

SWANSTON STREET Michael Lambert

They didn’t approve any licences for New Town (Fitzroy). It seems like the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) forces were already mustering in 1841:

There were three applications for New Town but these were strenuously opposed by Mr Montgomery, the Crown Solicitor as an inhabitant of the place, backed by a memorial signed by the most respectable of the inhabitants.  The Bench would willingly grant one Licence at New Town as they thought it hard that the labouring class, many of whom reside there, should be compelled to come into Melbourne to procure their beer but… there is no constabulary force to overlook, much less look after a publican at New Town. (PPH 23/4/41)

SLOW TRAVELLING

Although there were boats buzzing backwards and forwards along the coastal ports between Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Launceston and Hobart, occasionally we are reminded that for some unlucky passengers, it could take a very long time to make the journey.

The Gem, for example, left Launceston on 4th April but did not arrive until 26th April. It was sighted by the Lady Emma on 17th April about 40 miles of Cape Liptrap, under gib and storm stay-sails.   Meanwhile, the Augustus, described as a “very dull sailer” took three weeks to sail from Sydney- so long that it had to be supplied with fresh water by the Australian Packet which ‘spoke’ it on the journey.

AND THE WEATHER?

Well, in 2016 we’ve just had an unseasonably warm last week in April with three consecutive days over 25 degrees.  In April 1841 the highest temperature for the period 22-30th was 72 (22.2) and the lowest 49 (9.8). The wind was generally light. It was dull and wet on 22-24 April, with fine weather afterwards.

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‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Fergus Hume

hume_cab

1886. Re-released by Text in 2012;  e-book

I decided to read this in preparation for reading another book: Lucy Sussex’s Blockbuster which is next on the reading pile.  I’d seen the recent television adaption but, as is often the case when I watch crime shows on television, I am left with only fleeting impressions and no memory of detail at all.

This book very much lies within the 19-20th century detective novel genre, but what is significant here is that it predates Sherlock Holmes by a year and marks the cross-over from popular 19th century sensation fiction into what we now know as detective fiction.  Moreover, it was the first internationally-acclaimed novel set in Melbourne- a feat that has not really been replicated (I’m not sure that Kerry Greenwood’s Phrynne Fisher or Peter Temple or Shane Maloney’s novels have international standing?  I could, however, be wrong).  This is Marvellous Melbourne in all her 1880s glory here, before the 1890s depression blew its cold draught into her streets and houses.  As a Melbourne reader with more than a little affection for the town, I enjoyed reading about the Little Bourke Street slums, the somnolent stuffiness of the men-only Melbourne Club, the genteel Powlett Street surroundings of East Melbourne.

The story is typical nineteenth century detective fiction fare: mistaken identities, shameful disgrace, illegitimacy, reputation etc. with the requisite fragrant young lady love-interest, the decent but wronged young man, and the Dickensian hag who holds secrets.  I must admit that, as a historian, I found the descriptions of the slums and the cockney accents of the working-class characters the least authentic part of the book.  I know that buildings were densely packed into the lanes surrounding Collins and Bourke streets, but I felt that the descriptions and dialects owed too much to Charles Dickens’ foggy London.

[Actually, this has raised quite a question for me about the depiction and reality of working-class life in early urban Australia i.e. 1840s and 1860s. I sense that it should be different from England, given hot weather, dust and the relatively small size of towns surrounded by huge expanses of countryside even in Sydney and Melbourne.  I must look more carefully for it. Martin Sullivan looked at it in Men and Women of Port Phillip (my review here) but from memory, it was more an economic and political appraisal rather than an experiential one.]

The book commences with the quite modern touch of a newspaper report and at times combines notional non-fiction elements alongside the standard plot-driven narrative novel. The story moves along at a cracking pace, with a surprise or dangling thread at the end of most chapters.  There’s a chuckling, rather condescending omniscient humour that pervades the book, with its observations about Fate and human nature.  I enjoyed his observations of people- most especially the desiccated, crackling landlady Mrs Sampson. It’s all brought together with the written death-bed confession and everyone lives happily ever after with the truly deserving maintaining their respectability.  It is a nineteenth-century novel after all.

Sue at Whispering Gums also reviewed the book, which has been re-released recently.

Movie: Rams

The setting is often a powerful force in a movie and this is certainly the case in ‘Rams’, set in a small rural town in Iceland.  The local economy and community identity revolve around sheep. When scrapie is diagnosed among one of the flocks, it spells ruin for everyone, including two estranged brothers.  Although they live next door to each other, conscious at all times of each other’s movements, they have not spoken for decades. The bleak, unforgiving environment is an unlikely but memorable setting for an  unexpected love story.

‘Victoria at War 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan

mckernan3

2014, 221 p.

I always think it’s interesting when a writer returns after many years to something that they had created much, much earlier in their career, and takes up the topic again with the benefit of years of experience, reading, and later research.  This is the case in Michael McKernan’s book Victoria at War which was commissioned by the (then Liberal Party) Victorian Government of Victoria to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.  McKernan had written Australians at War over thirty years earlier (which I reviewed here), a book that had been reissued unchanged in 2014 albeit with the author’s own awareness of its inadequacies, but no major rewriting.

However, with this 2014 book, McKernan had the opportunity to revisit his earlier book, within the specific context of Victoria and in the wake of the deluge of World War I research that has been undertaken in recent years, especially leading up to the Gallipoli centenary.  Not only was the scope and purpose of the book different, but he himself as a historian and writer would have been influenced- as have most of us- by the trend of using smaller stories to tell larger ones and the emphasis on emotions.  I finished this book with a deep sense of what a good writer McKernan is; something that did not particularly strike me with the earlier, more utilitarian, book.

McKernan starts this history by reminding us that, at the time war was declared, Melbourne was the capital city of Australia.  The parliament sat  here; the governor lived here and the federal bureaucracy was based here.  This, perhaps combined with early twentieth century ‘liberalism’, may have contributed to  a deeper commitment to the war effort in Victoria than in other states- something McKernan hints out but does not state definitely. Certainly the school effort was strongest here, and Victoria did vote ‘yes’ at the first conscription referendum (alongside Western Australia and Tasmania) although it rejected it by a small majority in the second 1917 referendum.  Melbourne was also the home of Archbishop Mannix, the most prominent anti-conscription voice.

Although Victoria may be more closely settled than other Australian states, with the seat of political power based in  Melbourne, McKernan places much emphasis on small Victorian towns and the impact of enlistment on the emotional and economic life of small country towns.  In particular, he looks at Casterton as a microcosm.  He brings forward the stories of specific families where several sons enlisted, or where older men left several children.  There are urban vignettes as well, but it is probably the country ones that seem most plangent. He notes the role of the local clergy who were charged with delivering the telegrams bearing bad news, and your heart sinks at the thought of families receiving two, three, four such visits.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that battalions were broadly geographically based, most particularly the 14th Battalion.  He follows Victorian volunteers to the army camps surrounding Melbourne, most particularly Broadmeadows, and across to the theatre of war. His book does trace the progress, or lack thereof, of the Victorian battalions, but most particularly in regard to how the news was received back home.

He places much emphasis on the role of the Red Cross, which was organized through Government House, and for some reason I found this description of ‘comforts’ brought me to the verge of tears:

How a man living in the barbaric conditions of the dugouts of Anzac responded when he received a parcel from one of these groups can only be imagined.  His normal food was hardtack biscuits, bully beef and tea- when there was water available.  Imagine opening a parcel from the Red Cross or the Australian Comforts Fund, to find clean, hand-knitted socks, a couple of lice-free, for the moment anyway, pairs of underpants, a fruitcake, possibly some tobacco or cigarettes, some dried fruit and ‘sweeties’, and writing paper for a letter to the folks at home.  The love and commitment that was poured into these parcels would have provided, to even the hardest lag on the Gallipoli battlefield, the whiff of home and of peacetime civilities, the gentler ways of life. (p. 121)

This is a beautifully presented book.  The idea of a coffee-table WWI book seems a bit glib, but the beautiful layout of the book and the large, crystal clear photographs that adorn nearly every page are a form of tribute in themselves.   The end of each chapter is marked by a khaki-coloured,stand-alone reflection on an individual or a specific theme.  Most of all, this book is marked by its respect for individuals, some of whom we have encountered several times in various places throughout McKernan’s narrative.  Their sacrifice is noted with humility and a sense of shared humanity, but not ‘celebrated’ with chest-beating or overt sentimentality.  It is a mature, thoughtful, appropriate response.

 

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: April 15-22 1841

OFF TO THE RACES

While the serious work of opening the Supreme Court was under way, there was another more lighthearted occasion unfolding during the post-Easter week in Port Phillip: the District Races!  The three-day racing carnival, held under the auspices of the Port Phillip Turf Club was held on 13th, 14th and 15th April “on the same course as last year”, ie. along the banks of the Maribyrnong River in what would come to be known as Flemington.  This was the fourth time the autumn races had been run, after initially being conducted on the swampy ground at the base of Batman’s hill in what is now Southern Cross Railway station. In 1840 ‘The Melbourne Racecourse’ shifted to what would become Flemington, which continues as a racecourse to this day.

Flemington racecourse 1867

Flemington Race Course 1867 Artist: Thomas Hamilton Lyttleton. (Note that this painting depicts the raceourse 25 years on). Source: State Library of Victoria [http://slv.vic.gov.au]

http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/298477

The Melbourne newspapers (and most especially The Port Phillip Herald) and that wellspring of all things Port Phillipian,  The Chronicles of Early Melbourne (available online here) by ‘Garryowen’ devoted many paragraphs to the races.  We tend to forget that until about 20 years ago television newscasts did too, before yielding the racing time-spot to financial news instead when we all found ourselves to be investors instead (another form of punting, perhaps?)  I won’t bore you with the details of the race, but the report of the weather on the first day is rather poetic:

Day broke on Tuesday, the Fourth Anniversary of the Melbourne Races in a remarkably ‘skittish’ humour, a strong north-wester scoured the streets at a ‘hard gallop’ while a heavy fall of rain completed the unpromising aspect.  As the day advanced, Sol drew his curtains, and plucking off his night cap, inbued himself in his most gorgeous robes, and mounting his car, smiled propitiously as he touched up his steads. This change of affairs caused sundry of the good folks of Melbourne to rub their hands, look very knowing, and giving their collars the extreme altitude, sagely remark there was a prospect of a very fine day’. PPH 16 April 1841

It seems that a good day was held by all, particularly on the more numerous attended first Tuesday of the racing carnival:

The course exhibited a gay appearance from the numerous pennants fluttering from the booths lining one side of the course, while cheering strains poured forth at intervals from two band, one at the grand stand, and the other in the William Tell booth, all of these receptacles of good cheer contained the usual quantum of viands and fluids, the latter of which must have been poured forth copiously, judging from events towards the end of the day. (ibid)

Well, yes. Obviously the ritual of finding oneself tired and emotional at the racetrack has a long history and this 1841 racing carnival was no exception.  One of the Border Police became drunk and “drawing on his butchering knife, [cut] one person through the hat to the skull, until the blood flowed in torrents”.  One unfortunate man was trampled and later died.

RETURN OF THE GIPPS’ LAND OVERLANDERS

You might remember that after the wreck of the Clonmel in January 1841, a number of men returned to Gipps’ Land to scope out the potential. In late March   three of the men returned by sea, bringing early positive reports, leaving the others to return overland. The Port Phillip Herald of 16 April 1841 carries news of their return in a day-by-day description of their journey.

They started off on March 23rd , where they encountered a tree marked by Mr Macmillan in his expedition, before camping the night at a swamp in extremely barren land. On 24th they followed the treeline to a hill where they could see Wilson’s Promontory and a portion of 90 Mile Beach. On 25th they reached a peak from which they could see the fertile plains forming the interior of Gipps’ Land before travelling to the La Trobe River. They followed the La Trobe on 26th where they found yet another marked tree and a carved message “this is the Ross River, a north-east course will bring you to the plain”. From here they could see the peaks of the Snowy Mountains, before reaching the Maconochie River. On 28th (was 27th a day of rest?) they crossed the Maconochie and reached Count Strezlesci’s encampment on the Barney River, which they crossed, later arriving at the Dunlop river where they camped. On 29th they perceived Lake Wellington,  a large inland lake which received the waters of the La Trobe, Maconochie, Barney, Dunlop and Perry Rivers. On the 30th they began their journey to Melbourne, tracing back and encountering the same rivers, encountering the Kirsopp River on 3rd, and finally arriving home in Melbourne on 13th April.

Their summary of what they found was:

The general character of the new country which the party explored is, that it is well watered, the banks of the rivers are lined with the finest of every description of timber, and the intermediate land either gently undulating or quite level plains of rich alluvial soil, supposed to be in consequence of the deposits of the numerous rivers from the ranges of the Snowy Mountains. Throughout the whole of Gipps’ Land scarcely a rock was visible.

THE ‘RULES’

One of the early tasks that Judge Willis undertook was defining the ‘rules of the debtors’ prison’. In a small town with severely limited prison facilities, it was not practical to lock up all debtors,and it became even less feasible as the District plunged into widespread insolvency over the next few months. Instead, people were ‘confined to the rules’ by being restricted to a defined part of town. They were not allowed to visit any hotels or houses of ill-repute that might be in that area.  Willis defined the Rules as follows:

The rules of the debtors’ prison in Melbourne shall be comprised within the bounds following, that is to say, all that part of Collins’street which lies between Spencer-street and the north east side of William’s street, so much of William’s Street as lies between Collins Street and the north west side of Little Collins street, so much of Little Collins street as lies between Williams street and the north east side of Queen street, so much of Queen street as lies between Little Collins street and the north west side of Lonsdale street, so much of Lonsdale street as lies between Queen street and the south west side Spencer Street, and that part of Spencer street which lies between Lonsdale street and the south east side of Collins street, together with the area comprised within and bounded by the portions of streets aforesaid; and all the houses (except as hereafter is excepted) on each side thereof.  Provided that all taverns, victualling houses, ale houses, or houses licensed to sell spirituous liquors, houses of public entertainment and also all disorderly houses, and houses of ill fame shall be excluded out of, and form no part of the said rules.- JOHN WALPOLE WILLIS, Resident Judge, March 31st 1841.

Here’s a rather wonky diagram drawn onto a present-day map:

Rules

Although today this area is dominated by offices, at the time most of the settlement was located in this area so it was not necessarily a hardship to be ‘confined to the rules’.

A CHILD ABUSE CASE

With our present-day attention drawn to the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to child abuse, it is interesting and sad to read of a child abuse case in 1841. In this first week of Supreme Court hearings, Henry Watson was indicted for an assault with intent on seven-year old Imogene Liardet, the daughter of the publican and artist W.F.E. Liardet, whose illustration heads this blog.In hearing the case, Willis, like all other judges, had to determine the fitness of the child to take the oath, a decision based on the child’s understanding of God and truth.  In this case, Willis decided that the case could not proceed. The papers reported the case delicately:

There can be little doubt but for the tender age of the child, who could not understand the nature of the offence brought forward, that the charge would have been brought home to the miscreant, and that an exemplary punishment would have followed. His Honor himself felt morally certain of the fellow’s guilt.  We cannot pollute our columns with details so disgusting.  The prisoner was acquitted and discharged. (PPH 16 April)

Judge Willis’ casebooks, available at the RHSV Judge Willis site, give more information. http://www.historyvictoria.org.au/willis/book%2011.html#4

Her description of the offence is poignant in her innocent retelling:

The Pris’r took me into the Stable after the time of the Regatta & pulled up my Petticoats, put his in mine – his – Cockadoodle – he lay on my person – he was long on me ab’t half an hour – after that he took me out of the Stable I told Mama wh’t had happened – When I went out I told Mama directly –

On 30th April the Port Phillip Herald reported that Henry Watson was captured again “endeavouring to commit a similar assault on a woman at the wharf”.

EARTH-SHAKING NEWS!

Quite literally. An earthquake was reported at about 3.00 a.m. on 21 April. It’s an interesting thought that in these early years of white settlement, people wouldn’t really know what could be expected in terms of earthquakes, floods, droughts etc.

AND SPEAKING OF THE WEATHER…

During the week there was a light wind, freshening at times with generally dull weather and occasional rain. The top temperature for the week was 74degrees (23.3C)

Other references:

Lemon, Andrew ‘Inventing the Melbourne Cup’ La Trobe Journal 88, Dec 2011

Macdonald, Judy, ‘James Watson and ‘Flemington’: a Gentleman’s Estate’, pp.1-25. Latrobeana Vol 8, No 3 November 2009

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

wood1

2015, 313 p.

As it happened, I was exactly half-way through Charlotte Wood’s book The Natural Way of Things when I learned that it had won the Stella Prize.  I was already engrossed in it: staying up way past my bedtime to read just a few pages more. After it won the Stella I felt that the noble thing to do was to stay up until 1.00 a.m. this morning finishing it so that I can return it to the library for others to enjoy.

Although is ‘enjoy’ the right word? Probably not, because this is a bleak book set in outback Australia where young women who have been publicly shamed through the media and corporate power networks have been incarcerated and ‘removed’ from society’s gaze and conscience.  Real-life parallels spring to mind: Monica Lewinsky, the St Kilda School Girl, women on reality TV.  In its depiction of the paradox of bleak openness and yet claustrophobia, it reminded me a little of Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster ( a book that I felt didn’t receive sufficient recognition) and of course has resonances with Lord of the Flies and other such books.

What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing?…Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said that they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. (p. 176)

The book is divided into three parts, tracing the progress of the year Summer, Autumn and Winter, and the book is so grueling in places that it felt as if the action took place over a much longer period. There are no numbered chapters as such, and the sections vary between present and past tense.  The book opens from the drugged, disoriented point of view of one of the captives and this confusion takes some time to clear for the reader as well, as the reason for their incarceration emerges.  There is throughout the sense of suspended menace- not enough to make the book unbearable, but sufficient to compel you to keep reading in horrified fascination.  It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that it’s this horrified fascination that we often feel when watching a public shaming occurring throughout media.

In awarding the Stella Prize, the Stella Prize judges described it as ‘a novel of – and for – our times’ and ‘a riveting and necessary act of critique.’  I’m mindful that this book has been awarded in a climate of heightened awareness of domestic violence and misogyny, but I don’t think that topicality is its only virtue. I’ve found myself thinking about the book all day, and I think that its bleakness and power will make it memorable and uncomfortable in the future, much as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does in a different genre.

It’s good, and it deserves the acclaim it’s receiving.

aww2016

I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.

Movie: The Lady in the Van

A very British movie which I doubt could be made anywhere else, combining as it does that English reserve with a similarly English tolerance of eccentricity. The technique of double narrators captured well Bennett’s ambivalence and archness. I was disappointed that it descended into whimsy in the last scenes, though. Perhaps I should have left three minutes before the end.