Tag Archives: 19th century Australia

The Burning Island: Jock Serong

Jock Serong’s historical novel The Burning Island is narrated by Eliza Grayling, a 19th century Australian woman who has left the prospects of marriage behind. But in spite of not being married (and no children), she’s weighed down by responsibility to her drunken, blind father Joshua, a hermit who lives with rage and a burning desire for revenge. One day, at the marketplace, Eliza realises she’s being followed by Srinivas a man who’s looking for her father. Srinivas makes a proposal to Joshua: he will outfit a ship for a voyage to recover or discover the truth about the Howrah, a ship that disappeared along with its crew and passengers. It seems a strange task for an elderly, blind, drunk infirm man, but Srinivas has a bitter tale to tell. He suspects that the Howrah has been captured and sunk by Figge, a sinister figure in the Sydney Cove shipwreck. Joshua, as a “young lieutenant working as an aide to Governor Hunter” investigated the shipwreck and came to believe that Figge was responsible for the deaths of many of the survivors. Figge escaped before he could be brought to trial but since then Figge “was a tumour” in Joshua’s soul.

Srinivas, another survivor from the Sydney Cove shipwreck, claims that Figge has dogged him relentlessly over the years and, further, that every bad thing that has occurred in his life has somehow been orchestrated by Figge–a man who lurks near in the background and yet never shows himself. Srinivas argues that Joshua will be able to sniff out the truth about the missing ship and also be able to identify Figge if necessary.

Of course there so much wrong with this plan, but Joshua who is already in self-destructive mode fueled by a single minded drive for revenge agrees to go, and Eliza choses to accompany him on the trip.

The Burning Island is a rip-roaring adventure tale, but it’s not non-stop action. A great deal of the book’s focus is on the sea voyage and Serong’s evocative writing brings the wonder of the voyage to life. As expected, animals do not fare well in this tale and some sections were hard to read. As with many historical novels, there are some anachronisms, and Eliza’s character is somewhat unconvincing. There’s a captain who dresses in women’s clothes and I found this ridiculous, although it is explained later, and there’s a sleazy doctor on board the ship who seems a blend of Svengali and vivisectionist. The Great Reveal is screamingly obvious but then one of the book’s subthemes in blindness–literal and figurative. Finally, the sufferings of the aborigines under the guise of the steamroller of progress in well integrated into the tale.

Preservation concerns the Sydney Cove shipwreck and Joshua Grayling.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction

John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope

“Most of us would have to blush if the worst of our actions were brought out before us in a court of law.”

Time for another Trollope, and I selected one of the author’s Overseas Novels. John Caldigate is noteworthy for two reasons: part of the novel takes place in Australia and another large section concerns a criminal case involving postal stamps. Indeed the unsung hero of the story is Bagwax, a humble yet obsessive and conscientious postal office clerk. There’s a lot of Trollope in this novel–after all, he was a post office clerk who rose, eventually, within the post office ranks, and Trollope and his wife traveled to Australia, the first time in 1871 to visit their son Frederic who had become a sheep farmer in New South Wales.

The novel concerns a young man, John Caldigate, the only son and heir of a country squire who is set to inherit his father’s Cambridgeshire estate, Folking and an income of 3,000 pounds a year.  Unfortunately, while at Cambridge, John developed some bad habits and fell foul of money lenders. When the novel begins, John ‘cashes’ out his inheritance, pays off his debts and intends to sail to Australia to make his fortune in the gold mines. John’s father, so disappointed in his son, has mortgaged the estate and given his son his inheritance in advance. With a breach between them, John’s father contemplates making his nephew his heir instead.

john caldigateVery early on, the novel establishes that when it comes to women, John has a problem. Before he sails to Australia with his best friend, Dick Shand, the son of the local doctor, John has managed to somehow become engaged to one girl and left another with the impression that some sort of ‘understanding’ exists between them. But these two girls have no idea that John has also set eyes on Hester Bolton, the daughter of the local banker, and carries her image in his head when he sails for New South Wales. Ok, that makes three women, but then on board the ship, aptly named The Goldfinder, both Dick and John are attracted to a somewhat mysterious young woman who calls herself, Mrs. Euphemia Smith. Mr. Smith is conspicuously absent and it’s rumoured that he was “a ne’er-do well” who “drank himself to death within a year of the marriage.” Mrs. Smith dresses very poorly, and yet would seem to be a lady:

The woman was so constantly alone! And then, though she was ill-dressed, untidy, almost unkempt on occasions, still, through it all, there was something attractive about her. There was a brightness in her eye, and a courage about her mouth, which had made him think that, in spite of her appearance, she would be worth his attention–just for the voyage.

Dick and John, eager to begin their lives as Australian miners, are second class passengers on the ship, and yet when they mingle with the others, they fail to blend. They’ve outfitted themselves in what they think are the clothes that miners wear, and consequently they look more as though they are in costume  than anything else. With many months spent on board ship sailing to Australia, John’s relationship with Euphemia grows–in spite of the fact that passengers, Dick Shand and even the captain warn him that he is making a fool of himself.

They were about a week from their port when the captain,–Captain Munday,–was induced to take the matters into his own hands. It is hardly too much to say that he was pressed to do so by the united efforts of the first-class passengers. It was dreadful to think that this unfortunate young man should go on shore merely to become the prey of such a woman as that.

John sees the general disapproval of his relationship with Euphemia Smith as snobbery, and that is certainly part of it, but there are depths to Mrs. Smith that are unfathomable, and young John Caldigate, an innocent with a number of scrapes to his credit, cannot see the warning signs. Part of Euphemia’s attraction is that she is worldly and therefore much more interesting when compared to the other young women John has known. At one point Euphemia Smith makes the following speech:

If you had made a false step, got into debt and ran away, or mistaken another man’s wife for your own, or disappeared altogether under a cloud for a while, you could retrieve your honour, and, sinking at twenty-five or thirty, could come up from out of the waters at thirty-five as capable of enjoyment and almost as fresh as ever. But a woman does not bear submersion. She is draggled ever afterwards. She must hide everything by a life of lies, or she will get no admittance anywhere. The man is rather the better liked because he has sown his wild oats broadly.

As in Can You Forgive Her? and The Claverings, Trollope examines the issue of choosing a marital partner–a crucial matter in Victorian England. What’s so interesting in this novel is that John is a young man whose prospects change. At first he’s the only son set to inherit a respectable estate and income. Then he abandons his home, sells out his inheritance, and sets out for Australia to make his fortune. When he returns, he returns as a success. His past is his past. But is that entirely true?

Trollope relishes enriching the plot with scenes of rigid religious intolerance seen mainly through the single-minded Mrs. Bolton, a very taxing woman, and the self-satisfied, slimy clergyman of Plum-cum-Pippin, Mr. Smirkie–a man who lives up to his name. As the novel develops, Trollope also gets on his soap box and delivers a couple of lectures about the efficiency of the much-under-valued civil servant which is accompanied by the general benevolence of government seen through a subset of characters at the London post-office: Mr. Curlydown and the indefatigable Mr. Bagwax.  It’s through these characters that Trollope slips in a criticism of Dickens: a “popular novelist” who “endeavored to impress” the ‘”public” “that the normal government clerk is quite indifferent to his work.” John Caldigate doesn’t rank as one of my favourite Trollope novels. It waxes on too long at the end, but it was enjoyable and a change of pace for this author. The novel’s deeply intriguing undercurrent, and one that isn’t addressed directly in the novel is the question: Does what occurs in the wilds of distant Australia have any bearing on English law? After all: “it was a wild kind of life up there.”


Filed under Fiction, Trollope, Anthony