My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was astounded at how much this book had to offer and how relevant it still is – from the complexity of Sybylla’s feelings and the urge to take her own life at times, to the joy she feels when her shoulder is bruised by the too-rough touch of a man. Instead of a dry tale, filled with flowery prose and outdated concepts, I read a beautiful, mature, insightful growth into adulthood.
Franklin’s grasp on the human condition – in particular the inequities of females and peasants – is extraordinary. Yet this is not a ‘feminist’ novel, nor is it filled with the anger and self-pity I think I’d be feeling if these conditions were forced upon me: this is a gorgeously honest, darkly comedic, facetious (if not satirical) and soul-searching journey of self-acceptance.
At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour.
Sybylla is a girl of contradictions. Initially she seems almost as her mother describes her – wilful, stubborn and prone to idleness: so much so that when she is forced to spend some months living in a house of utter squalor, it’s almost easy to think she’s exaggerating (in today’s money though, the poverty she resents is akin to moving into the house from Trainspotting, drugs, excrement, and all), yet she has memorized countless plays, poems, and piano pieces, and is a fine singer.
She bemoans the ignorance of the squalid family – the dirty barefoot half-naked children, the pigs and fowl foraging on the packed earth kitchen floor – and yet envies them for their bliss:
Do not mistake me. I do not for an instant fancy myself above the M’Swats. Quite the reverse; they are much superior to me. Mr M’Swat was upright and clean in his morals, and in his little sphere was as sensible and kind a man as one could wish for. Mrs M’Swat was faithful to him, contented and good-natured, and bore uncomplainingly, year after year, that most cruelly agonizing of human duties – childbirth, and did more for her nation and her Maker than I will ever be noble enough to do.
And in the end, when contemplating whether to marry her sweetheart Harold, her maturity, intelligence, and presence of mind assure her she should not even though he is likely the best match she could ever make:
Under a master-hand I would be harmless; but to this man I would be as a two-edged sword in the hand of a novice – gashing his fingers at every turn, and eventually stabbing his honest heart.
Through it all, our unique Australian landscape is vividly and emotively portrayed. This was, in many ways, the most heartbreaking part of the story because much of this is gone now:
The sun has sunk behind the gum-trees, and the blue evening mists are hanging lazily in the hollows of the hills.
The fish-hole was such a shrub-hidden nook that, though the main road passed within two hundred yards, neither we nor our horses could be seen by the travelers thereon. I lay on the soft moss and leaves and drank deeply of the beauties of nature. The soft rush of the river, the scent of the shrubs, the golden sunset, occasionally the musical clatter of hoofs on the road, the gentle noises of the fishers fishing, the plop, plop of a platypus disporting itself mid stream, came to me as sweetest elixir in my ideal, dream-of-a-poet nook amongst the pink-based, grey-topped, moss-carpeted rocks.
Not to mention the Australianisms! Sayings even we Aussies hardly ever hear anymore:
‘Tame as a clucking hen’
‘It’s a blooming girls’ work’
‘Made a croker of it’
‘Fancy a cove sitting down every morning and evening pulling at a cow’s tits fit to bust himself’
In short, this is a warm, vivid story and one I happily recommend as a reminder of Australia’s lost beauty and still-present poverty. A truly timeless classic.
This book is part of my 2017 Reading Challenge – A Book Published Over 100 Years Ago