Refiguring historical fiction in Australia
International recognition was accorded to Lucy Treloar for her first novel, Salt Creek (2015), when it was short-listed for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. (Hannah Kent was the second Australian author to be short-listed, in the next year, for her novel The Good People). Thus Treloar was placed in the nominal company of the great writer who invented the historical novel and whose literary influence—at least in the nineteenth century—surpassed all others.
Certainly the private and lending libraries of the colonial Adelaide of Treloar’s novel would have been well stocked with Scott. To what extent the overseas jury recognised Treloar’s signal and unusual contribution to historical fiction in Australia is doubtful. Her ambitious endeavour in Salt Creek was in significant measure to engage in the refiguring of such fiction in her own country. This was not to do with any quixotic use of source materials from the past, for in this her procedures were orthodox, but rather in her revision of literary history, in particular as this related to colonial and inter-war sagas of Australian pioneering, and to the British novels that had such importance for readers in nineteenth-century Australia. For Hester Finch, heroine and narrator of Salt Creek, pre-eminent among those novels was not Scott’s Waverley but Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1848).
Treloar offers us two historical documents before the narrative proper, which is to a degree framed by them. In effect these official proclamations function as sardonic epigraphs. Each concerns the establishment of European settlement in South Australia. In the beginning there was the South Australia Act of 1834—‘to erect South Australia into a British Province or Provinces and to provide for the Colonisation and government thereof’. What is South Australia? Evidently it comprised ‘waste and unoccupied lands which are supposed to be fit for the purpose of colonisation’. But what if the lands were occupied? The Letters Patent of 19 February 1836 seem in part like a corrective afterthought: ‘Provided always that nothing in those Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own purposes.’ What Treloar has called ‘the ruin of the Ngarrindjeri culture and land’ was evidently not foreseen.
Besides these official words, Treloar draws on family history for her novel. Born in Malaysia, she grew up in Melbourne, but the family regularly holidayed at a beach shack on the Fleurieu Peninsula, often passing through the Coorong (where most of Salt Creek is set) to get there. In addition, Treloar’s ancestors were among the South Australian pioneers, especially John Barton Hack, from whose schemes and misadventures Treloar substantially borrows in her portrait of the Finch patriarch in the novel. Hack and Finch were both of Quaker background. Each suffered substantial losses through shipwrecks in which flocks of sheep from Tasmania perished and then from the failure of a whaling station at Encounter Bay. Hack tried his luck on the Victorian goldfields (as two of Finch’s sons do in the novel), but what he gained there was lost through a dairy-farming venture in the Coorong. There Finch remained, desolate and bereft of his family. Hack made yet another beginning in Adelaide.
Hack’s story, with its fictional variations, is the bedrock of Salt Creek in respect of its uses of recorded history. Other instances show Treloar’s fidelity to the sources upon which she drew. Consider these four cases. In the first of them Bridget Finch, anxious about the Indigenous people whom they will encounter, says to her husband: ‘People are killed. What about the Maria?’ This was the ship wrecked in July 1840. There were 25 survivors, who were first assisted and then murdered by the Aboriginals of the Coorong. The ship is called the Mary in Simpson Newland’s novel of South Australian pioneering, Paving the Way (1893). In Treloar’s story, Finch was among the members of the punitive raid led by Sergeant Buchanan in which two Aboriginals were hanged. Buchanan’s instructions had been to find the perpetrators but to hang no more than three of them. Finch becomes part of the grim Aboriginal recollection of these events, the more pointedly after his return to the district. As for the narrator, Hester Finch, ‘I couldn’t remember a time when I had not known how the survivors of a shipwreck had been helped by natives on the Coorong and after a time had been turned on and murdered.’
In the second case, there really was a Malachi Martin, malevolent and murderous publican of the Travellers Rest in life as well as in fiction. He was hanged in the 1860s. That the Coorong, and Salt Creek in particular, has recently been the site of other attacks on women we are all aware. Third is the place of Kangaroo Island in the novel. That is Karta to the Aborigines, ‘the island of the dead people’. The local woman Rimmilli was abducted from the Coorong by sealers and taken to the island from which eventually she escaped with her son Tully, who becomes a pivotal character in Treloar’s novel. It is also Finch’s suggestion that Kangaroo Island—despite their dread of it—would be a suitable place for the resettlement of Aboriginals.
Sealers from the Bass Strait islands, accompanied by Aboriginal women whom they had forcibly taken with them, settled Kangaroo Island. It was to Flinders Island in Bass Strait that George Augustus Robinson, their self-styled ‘Protector’, deported numbers of the surviving Aboriginal Tasmanians. There most perished. This is the history that Finch wants to repeat. Nothing comes of this plan of his, or of any of the others, although the destruction of the Aboriginals is not averted. Finally, there is a minor detail from the historical record. We read of ‘the new hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”, which had been all the rage in Adelaide when we left’. That was in 1855, but the hymn was not written until 1865 and not set to music—by Arthur Sullivan—until 1871. Did Treloar nod, or is she teasing the historical pedants among her readers?
Besides the deployment of these historical sources, Salt Creek is rich in allusions to other fiction, but not subject to them. When we read of ‘a flock of pelicans flying in’ we think, anachronistically, of Colin Thiele’s much loved novel of the Coorong, Storm Boy (1963). When we read of the love affair of Addie and Tully, we might think of the furore that accompanied Katharine Susannah Prichard’s depiction of miscegenation, or rather interracial romance, in Coonardoo (1929). One consequence was that the book was not published in Australia until the 1960s, when it was deemed fit for secondary school syllabuses in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. Then there is Thomas Hardy, whose fiction is a felt presence in not exactly corresponding scenes in Salt Creek of cheese-making, the disaster with Finch’s sheep, the portrait of a man against whom circumstances relentlessly conspire even as he contrives his own doom. This is also a patriarch who in effect sells his children—Albert to farm labour, Addie first to Martin and then to Finch’s creditor and her unwanted husband, Mr Stubbs. Incidentally we might think of another domineering patriarch who finds the limits of his will—Sam Pollitt in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940).
Salt Creek is also in significant measure a reconsideration of the saga tradition that dominated Australian fiction between the wars, but it also nods to a previous revision of that tradition, Patrick White’s The Tree of Man (1955), which begins with Stan Parker, at first just an anonymous figure in the landscape, seen felling a tree. This event, refigured, becomes crucial in the family dynamics and conflict in Salt Creek, not least as a sign of Finch’s destructive exercise of his will.
This brings us to Jane Eyre and the serious fun that Treloar has with Brontë’s novel, and with notions of the cultural importance for the colonies of maintaining connections with the centre of the empire. For not only is this a central book in Hester Finch’s life, the Brontë sisters also make an appearance in Salt Creek by proxy. Before the Australian climate lured him away from England, Mr Bagshott senior paid a visit for the General Board of Health to a small town called Haworth in North Yorkshire. There he encountered two Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily: ‘Writers they were. They wrote under other names.’ About which Hester reflects, ‘Of all strange things, that this man in the wilds of the Coorong had met the author of Jane Eyre: An Autobiography’. Moreover, he did not regard Brontë’s novel as suitable reading for young colonial women.
For all her willed affinities with Jane, Hester is aware of the differences. She is not altogether an orphan. She is not little and plain, but tall and red-haired, mocked as ‘Craney’ by her brothers. This is a name that she will drolly adopt as Hester transforms herself from Miss Finch into the supposedly widowed Mrs Crane. In the manner of Jane Eyre, she makes many declarations about her will to independence and complaints of her solitariness and supposed oddity: ‘There is nothing worse than to be unusual’; ‘One day I will leave here, and it will not be with another man or because of a man’; ‘I never met a man I would care to obey.’ And yet ‘Jane Eyre ran across the moors and made her own way; I lacked her courage and she had not been with child.’ Hester has previously spoken of ‘my cage’, asked herself ‘how could I, a girl, hope to escape?’ That she does is due to the almost providential intervention of her grandmother. Emily Brontë deserves a mention too. There are wisps of Wuthering Heights in Treloar’s novel—Tully as a benign Heathcliff figure, while Addie resembles the feckless Isabella who elopes with him.
Treloar’s novel begins not in Australia, but in November 1874 in Chichester, England, birthplace of John Barton Hack. Hester has been able to go to ‘that lost green world where we had never been’ because of the generosity of her maternal grandmother; travels to and settles in her mother’s, if not originally her own home. She reflects, ‘I am a lady now and have a fine house and a garden and a long walk to the gate’, although by spatial contrast she thinks of ‘my father’s property which stretched as far as a person could ride in a day’. There is a key piece of literary revisionism here. In one of the earliest novels of Australian pioneering, Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), the plot involves the reclaiming of a lost ancestral English estate and the consequent abandonment of the life and property that a family has built in Australia. As the hero declares (with no foreknowledge of what satirical use Joseph Furphy would make of him in Such is Life (1903): ‘I don’t want to be Sam Buckley of Baroona, but the Buckley of Clere.’
In Treloar’s novel, the English family property is regained for Hester’s succour, but she does not repudiate Australia: ‘I never felt so alive as then, when we had so little.’ For her, England seems the dream world, to which at much cost, but not without gratitude, Hester and her son, Joss, have escaped for the time being. Here is complicated and compromised the archetypal story of the return to a European ‘home’, a matter that still exercised the fiction of Martin Boyd in novels published from the 1930s to the 1960s that dealt with family history of the Langtons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Besides its specific and implicit literary allusions, Salt Creek employs two of the traditional modes of historical fiction. The first is melodrama. Consider first not a work of fiction, but Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s 1862 moralising narrative painting The Last Day at the Old Home, which is held in the Tate Gallery. Here we see in the foreground a feckless squire, from the pictorial evidence a drinker and gambler, corrupting his son, ignoring his imploring wife and apparently indifferent as the house and its contents are readied for sale. This depicts the central business of melodrama—dispossession—the loss of property, family, reputation, liberty, perhaps even life. Also exposed is the fragility of bourgeois appearances.
All that seems so solidly present is about to be lost. In Treloar’s novel, Finch has successively lost his whaling station, a flock of sheep drowned, his house in Adelaide and—as he fears—his public esteem. As Hester remembers the house it was ‘two storeys and a cellar. The wainscots were fine cedar wood and the walls whitewashed within and stonework without. There were sixteen paned windows …’ All that has gone. Now Finch lives on credit and self-delusion. Another melodramatic facet of the novel is that this God-fearing Quaker harbours guilty secrets, hence the constant threat of exposure. Not only was he part of the Maria reprisals, but evidently he also inducted his two older sons into sex with women from a nearby Aboriginal settlement.
The other and more obvious narrative mode in the novel is its version of an Australian pioneering saga. By these tales of triumphs of masculine will over the natural forces of fire, flood, drought and the Aboriginal population (White’s novel gives us the first three) colonisation is depicted as a self-legitimising enterprise. Through such novels, which were most influential between the wars, Australians acquired some of the best remembered versions of their history. Among a number, its notable practitioners included Eleanor Dark, Xavier Herbert, Ernestine Hill and Brian Penton. Salt Creek is different, unfixing as it does assumptions concerning frontier life, masculinity, relations in families and between Europeans and Aboriginals.
Treloar dispenses with natural catastrophes. She depicts sympathetically not only the slow destruction of Aboriginal life in the district, but also Finch, the hapless pioneer. As Hester says, ‘He has spent most of his life hoping, I think.’ In Treloar’s nuanced reading, pioneers are as likely to be doomed dreamers as ruthless exploiters. Pioneers can also fail, as Finch does, reduced to living with a couple of Aboriginal attendants, deserted by his children, in a house made of driftwood. Treloar’s revision of the saga tradition, not least in the use of a young female narrator, is more thorough-going than White’s, whose The Tree of Man was partly in love with the enterprise that it so caustically analysed.
The essence of the success of Salt Creek as a historical novel is Hester’s voice. This is the triumph of the book—to catch the voice of an intelligent, resilient outsider, much burdened by responsibility, apparently trapped by domestic circumstances and her sex. In finding this voice from the past, Treloar avoids the pitfalls of either anachronism or fustian. Hester’s words are contested by often strident, competing voices that speak—as in the cases of her father, brothers Hugh and Stanton, the older Mr Bagshott, Martin the innkeeper (all men, that is)—out of their ambitions, ideologies, prejudices. Yet Hester triumphs, not only because of the salvation after travail that she secures for herself and her child (the name she bears is of fiction’s most famous Hester, from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, though too much cannot be made of this) but also because of her analytical and empathetic intelligence. For instance, ‘I wondered what it would be like to be a man … I thought lonely; they are solitary creatures for all they work in each other’s company.’ Hester’s voice resounds from the first words of the novel until the last.
Here she speaks of travelling to the Coorong: ‘the journey to that place was like moving, knowingly, dutifully, towards death’, yet on arrival ‘we boiled over the edge of the dray’. The voice of an Aboriginal man ‘moved like close thunder’, while another’s made ‘a sound that was as incomprehensible as birdsong or waves hitting a shore’. Of the house that her father and brothers built in the wilderness: ‘In South Australia we lived in the bones and skins of doomed ships.’ Brother Stanton, who with Hugh will be tempted by the promise of riches elsewhere in the Victorian gold rushes, had ‘the swagger of a person who lived in expectation of admiration’. And then there is the Coorong light, so different from that of England: ‘sometimes it seemed that every grassy head, every insect claw, every tree root, every fleck of slobber about the bullocks’ mouths had been carved by miraculous chisel’. Finally there are the cheeky, thrilling last words of the novel: ‘Perhaps we will go to sea.’ Treloar sustains the brio and disturbance of Salt Creek in a performance that makes one seek comparisons with other writers who have refigured Australian historical fiction, which brings her at least into the distinguished company of the David Malouf of Remembering Babylon (1993).