Thursday, 7 January 2016

JESSICA ANDERSON The Commandant (1975)

Penguin Books Australia, c 1985

Frances murmured an excuse and got up, gathering her shawl tightly around her, and went to the side.  Mrs Bulwer's warning voice followed her.  'It does not do to be opinionated.'  She pretended not to hear.  On the bay were amazing stretches of turquoise and violet, and the sky was empty of everything except a dandelion of sun, mildly blazing, and a meek white crescent of moon.  From beneath the frill on the back of her bonnet a strand of dark hair dropped and was caught and extended by the wind.  The sun, the boom of sails and the race of water, would have held her there at the side, in a dream or a trance, as had happened so often on the voyage out, had not Mrs Bulwer, small and black and compact in her side vision, waited.  And with a sense of facing something lately evaded, Frances admitted that also waiting, the more insistent because only inwardly visible, was the commandant.  Deliberately, she set herself to visualise him, in five hours or so, descending the river bank to meet the Regent Bird.

The Novel:  Frances O'Beirne is the seventeen year old sister of Laetitia 'Letty' Logan, wife of Captain Patrick Logan, Commandant of the Moreton Bay penal settlement located in a remote part of northeastern Australia.  An innocent and idealistic girl lacking in neither wit nor intelligence, Frances is on her way to the settlement from Sydney (via Ireland and England) to serve as companion and helpmate to her sister, who is recovering from a miscarriage and already has two small children to care for in what is a very inhospitable environment far removed from the familiar comforts of home.  

Although delighted at the prospect of being reunited with Letty, Frances has mixed emotions about being reunited with Letty's husband –– a man she hasn't seen since childhood and whose reputation for harsh discipline and needless brutality were much discussed during the time she spent in Sydney before boarding the Regent Bird to complete her journey north.  Nor is the girl alone in harbouring these misgivings about her brother-in-law.  The Commandant is also a controversial figure in the eyes of his fellow colonists, a prime target for the reforming Sydney newspaper editor Edward Smith-Hall against whom he has recently filed a suit for libel.

Frances also has something of the reformer in her –– an attitude encouraged by her would-be suitor Edmund Joyce during the arduous voyage they shared from England to the new colony.  Having grown accustomed to Edmund's society and to that of his outspoken sisters during her stopover in Sydney, Frances has now become a little too free in expressing her opinions to those –– the officers' wives Amelia Bulwer and Louisa Harbin, the alcoholic and faintly comical surgeon Henry Cowper, Logan's new second-in-command Captain Clunie –– who are accompanying her on the final leg of her journey to what will one day become Brisbane Town and eventually just Brisbane, capital city of the Australian state of Queensland.  Frances combines this unpopular attitude with a romantic view of life which often sees her give way to 'elated trances' in which she imagines herself remaining permanently in Australia at the side of her own dashing (but as yet unidentified) 'beloved husband.'  

But these girlish dreams are tested by her arrival in what is, at best, a rudimentary township built to serve and shelter the troops and officers charged with the grim task of overseeing and doling out punishment to convicts whose incorrigible natures and unrepentant recidivism have seen them transferred to this barbaric prison on the edge of what remains a hostile, largely unexplored wilderness.  Frances's youthful idealism soon brings her into conflict with her brother-in-law –– a taciturn, difficult-to-fathom man whose moods swing between conviviality, stern dismissal of her humanitarian ideals and black despair as he seeks to impose his will on the settlement by having any prisoner who flouts the law he feels himself to personally embody brutally flogged.  And Logan's job is not made easier by the arrival of Clunie, an officer of the same rank whom he suspects of having been sent by Governor Darling –– a man he fears neither likes him nor approves of his methods of maintaining law and order – to replace him.  

Logan and his sister-in-law tolerate what they see as being each other's moral weaknesses as a 'kindness' to Letty, still recovering from her miscarriage and filled with trepidation at the thought of her husband being transferred to India to rejoin his regiment and what such a transfer will mean to his career, their children's futures and to the libel action he's shortly due to pursue against the currently imprisoned but increasingly popular Mr Smith-Hall.  While Letty remains determined to accompany her husband should he suddenly be packed off to India, she's understandably saddened at the thought of being parted from Robert and Lucy who, for their own safety, will have to be sent back to Ireland should they leave Australia to avoid diseases like cholera and typhus which run rampant in the unhealthier climate of the subcontinent.

Frances's arrival only escalates the tensions which already dominate the lives of those obliged by military necessity or the rule of law to reside in Moreton Bay.  Something must break and eventually it does, with Frances becoming hysterical after a young convict named Martin –– a boy roughly her own age whom she's often noticed working in the Commandant's garden –– impulsively throws his arms round her while they're helping Madge Noakes, Letty's horribly scarred convict servant, to hang mosquito nets on all the family beds.  'She had already turned to leave the room, so that it was a collision, breast to breast, his furious mouth jabbering hatred into hers and his thin arms clamping both hers to her sides.  In her first shock she thought of the knife he used on the sash cords, and fearing it in her back, sucked inwards a breath of fear, a soft scream; and when, in the next moment, the fury in his face became a sort of blind besottedness, and his imprecations a burble of love, she only screamed louderand continued to scream, and did not know why.'  

Macmillan Publishing first UK edition, 1975
The incident, soon over, creates an impossible situation, with Frances fully conscious of the fact that her hysterical overreaction to Martin's advances has placed the boy, formerly a model prisoner, in a potentially lethal situation.  She pleads with Logan to be lenient in punishing him but the Commandant is contemptuous of her pleas, his anger at what her 'Yankee talk' has led to causing him to denounce her as an interfering troublemaker who would do well to return to Sydney and marry Edmund Joyce if that young man is foolish enough to want her.

Desperate to spare Martin pain and salve her own tormented conscience, Frances turns to her sister for help, begging Letty to intercede with her husband on the boy's behalf –– a plea that leads Logan to promise his wife that Martin will receive only the punishment the law deems it fit he should receive and not a single stroke more.  This statement, conveyed to Frances by her sister, relieves the headstrong girl of some of the guilt she feels at having responded so disastrously to Martin's unsought declaration of love.  She even takes pleasure in the thought of becoming mistress of the house for the evening while Letty pays a call –– her first since recovering from her miscarriage –– on Mrs Bulwer.

But all does not go well.  Soon after her sister leaves the house, Frances is disturbed by the sounds of shouting coming the garden and rushes outside to investigate, only to discover that Robert has cut his leg open on a piece of rusty metal –– the remnants of an old convict leg-iron hidden in the uncut grass – and is now bleeding profusely from his severe and probably infected wound.  Remaining clear-headed despite the imminent danger such an injury poses to her nephew, Frances decides to fetch Dr Cowper's new associate James Murray, who's managing the dispensary while Cowper pays his regular monthly visit to an outlying settlement, in person.  Leaving Robert and Lucy in the care of Madge Noakes, whom she stumbles upon in the bath, she sets off on foot for the hospital, arriving there shortly afterwards, breathless and exhausted.  

Another shock awaits her at the hospital – the bloody, severely lacerated back of the groaning, barely conscious Martin, who's lying on a table having his wounds dressed by Murray after receiving the one hundred lashes the Commandant ordered he be given for having 'molested' her.  Overcoming her horror by recalling her reason for coming to find the surgeon in the first place, Frances tells Murray of Robert's accident, urging him to return to the house without her while she finds Letty and tells her what's happened to her son.

Her visit to the hospital disgusts and overwhelms Frances, causing her to collapse when she returns to her sister's house as the knowledge of what she's seen and, in another sense, failed to prevent combine to rob her of her final illusions about life, mercy, the Commandant and, perhaps most distressingly of all, herself.  Later that evening, Letty and Dr Murray find her in a semi-conscious state in her room, lying on her bed in a puddle of her own vomit but unable, or unwilling, to get up and clean herself.  Dr Cowper is soon called in and with him comes her brother-in-law, eager to express his gratitude for the swift action she took to preserve Robert's leg and undoubtedly save his life.  Logan also uses his visit to express his regret at what Frances witnessed at the hospital, adding that it could have been much worse had Letty's intervention not persuaded him to let Martin off 'lightly' with only one hundred lashes instead of the two hundred he originally decreed he should receive.

It's at this point, the shrewd Dr Cowper notices, that Frances's incredulity finally 'gives way to hopelessness.'  Nor is the change in her vision of the Commandant and what would seem to be his true nature confined exclusively to herself.  Letty has also seen a new side of her husband and asks him, when they find themselves alone in their children's nursery, if he's been misleading her all these years as to what sort of man he really is –– a challenge made all the more urgent by the fact that he's shortly due to depart for the bush on an exploratory expedition without having received confirmation from the Governor if he's to be replaced by Captain Clunie in the meantime.  Logan leaves the settlement soon after with neither question answered, scornful as ever of warnings that the local aborigines have been joined by several convict runaways who are eager to take revenge on him for having subjected them to such cruel and ruthless treatment.

The settlement soon receives word, via one of the exhausted soldiers who accompanied Logan into the bush, that he's gone missing after breaking away from the main party to search for one of its precious lost horses.  Clunie, nominally in command of the settlement since Logan's departure, is obliged to send a party out to search for him – a party which contains, in addition to Cowper, the convict Lewis Lazarus whose friend Boylan is one of the runaways suspected of having joined the aborigines.  

Many convicts, the surgeon informs Clunie, already believe that Logan is dead –– a belief it does not take long to confirm.  A few days after leaving Moreton Bay the search party discovers the Commandant's naked corpse, stuffed face-downwards in a shallow grave where it was left by those who killed him –– a group which clearly included at least one white man because the blacks, as a soldier soon reminds Cowper, never bother to bury the dead.  The convicts in the party are delighted, barely able to conceal their glee at seeing their tormentor receive what they unanimously feel to have been his just reward.  They refuse to carry or even touch his rotting flyblown corpse, prompting a soldier to suggest that it might be best, given the sub-tropical climate, to bury the Captain where he is.  But Cowper will not permit this.  He insists on returning Logan's body to his widow for a proper Christian burial and, in the ultimate irony, it is Logan's sworn enemy Lazarus who agrees to transport his corpse back to the settlement after being promised a remission of his sentence for having done something no other prisoner has the will, the stomach or, indeed, the physical strength to do.

The return of Logan's body to Moreton Bay coincides with the arrival of Governor Darling's long-awaited letter, officially relieving him of his command and ordering him to India.  But neither Letty nor her children will now be forced to undertake this journey, with the widow choosing to return to Ireland –– and an uncertain social and financial future given her husband's unpopularity and his many unpaid debts – rather than remain in the colony where it seems Frances will remain, perhaps to marry Edmund Joyce provided he agrees to her condition that they must never employ convicts as servants in their home.  Although Frances makes the expected show of grieving for her brother-in-law, it is really for his dead horse –– a grey pony named Fatima that she was fond of and was given permission to ride a few times –– that she finds herself shedding her bitterest tears for.  'She was shocked that she could grieve for the mare, and not for the man, and it was this shock, and her self-condemnation, that made her compose herself at last.'  

The Text Publishing Company Australia, 2012
But the last word belongs to Captain Clunie who, when Frances asks him if Martin will be allowed to resume working in the garden now that her brother-in-law is no longer in command, tells him this will be impossible as the boy has become incorrigible and fallen into the company of the settlement's worst, most unrepentant prisoners.  When Frances asks if he blames her for this, Clunie replies that she must accept part of the blame for it, just as Martin himself must accept his share of blame as well.  'Then let me take mine,' she tells the reproachful officer, 'and let him take his.  But let King George take his share, too.'  Clunie, who has never liked Frances since they travelled to Moreton Bay together so many months earlier, then asks her if she would have everyone take a share.  'I should, sir,' she calmly answers him.  'It is the whole of my argument.  Except my sister I don't blame my sister.'  

It is for Letty's sake that Governor Darling sends the colony's best ship to bring herself, her children and her husband's body in its lead-lined coffin away from the settlement –– a gesture that seems to suggest she'll now receive the Civil List pension she'd been doubtful of receiving prior to this unexpected act of kindness.  Clunie spends the day of their departure writing a report to his superiors about the death of Logan and the role the soon-to-be released Lazarus played in the recovery of his body, his work accompanied by the sound of convicts building a gallows to hang two of their number whose death sentences his predecessor refused to commute to life imprisonment.

Historical fiction is one of the most difficult genres to master, particularly when the narrative requires the author to re-imagine real people as fictional characters in an 'invented' story.  Captain Patrick Logan was a real British Army officer who served as Commandant of the Moreton Bay penal settlement from March 1826 until October 1830, when he was murdered (most historians believe by aborigines rather than by convicts) while leading a routine cartographical expedition into the surrounding countryside.  Like his fictional counterpart, he had a wife named Laetitia (or Lititia, sources disagree) and was renowned for his brutality, punishing men with up to a hundred strokes of the bullwhip for the most trifling infractions.  Jessica Anderson's genius allowed her to take these bald historical facts and use them to create something that takes us beyond history into an entirely convincing nineteenth century world that is, as it must have seemed to those who inhabited it, an unsettling mixture of the beautiful and the abhorrent, the liberal and the dogmatically tyrannical.  That she does this largely through dialogue –– much of it of the sparkling Jane Austenish variety –– only makes The Commandant that much more remarkable and, for me, one of the greatest historical novels ever written by an Australian or, for that matter, anybody else. 
The WriterJessica Anderson was born 'Jessica Margaret Queale' on 25 September 1916 in the small country town of Gayndah in south-eastern Queensland.  Her father Charles Queale was the only member of his large Irish Catholic family to be born in Australia while her mother Alice Hibbert had emigrated to the new colony of Queensland with her English Anglican family when she was three years old.  Alice's mother, shocked by her daughter's decision to marry an Irish Catholic, refused to see her again following her marriage and consequently never met Anderson or her three elder siblings.

In 1921 the Queales left the farm of Charles's father for the Brisbane suburb of Annerley in the belief that a move to the city would enhance their children's educational prospects.  Brisbane was to remain Anderson's home for the next thirteen years.  Following a brief period of home schooling necessitated by what was deemed to be an incurable stammer – an impediment that was to remain with her, in varying degrees, for the rest of her life and gave her speech, in the ears of some listeners, 'a careful and deliberate air' –– she would go on to attend and graduate from the city's Yeronga State Primary School, its State High School and its Technical College Art School. 

Although she wished to become an architect, this was not a practical career choice for a young woman living in the parochial and still semi-colonial Brisbane of the 1920s and early Depression years –– years made harder for the family by the death of Charles Queale from emphysema and related respiratory ailments in 1932.  Anderson left the Queensland capital in 1935, bound for Sydney and what would be several years of odd-jobbing that saw her work in shops and factories and also as a slide painter and, briefly, as a designer of electric signs while she shared what she later described as 'big seedy mansions with gardens running right down to the harbour' with friends in eastern city suburbs like Potts Point and Rushcutters Bay.  During this period she also began to write and publish articles and stories under a variety of pseudonyms – a practice that makes it impossible to know how much she published and in which newspapers, magazines and periodicals her early work appeared.  By the end of the 1930s she'd gained enough confidence to write under her own name, producing a variety of half-hour radio plays for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that allowed her to hone her skills as a masterful writer of dialogue.  

In 1940 Anderson married Ross McGill, a painter she'd met in 1937 and had travelled to London with that same year in the belief that doing so would be beneficial to their respective careers.  This did not prove to be the case, with Anderson doing what she described as 'donkey work' as a typist and magazine researcher while McGill worked in advertising and struggled to find the time to create the serious art he yearned to create.  The couple's return to Australia –– not an easy journey to undertake during wartime –– saw them resettle in Sydney, with Anderson volunteering for the Australian Women's Land Army soon afterwards.  In 1946 she became a mother, giving birth to a daughter named Laura who, under her married name Laura Jones, would go on to become one of Australia's most respected screenwriters whose credits include the adaptations of An Angel at My Table (1990), Oscar and Lucinda (1997) and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1996).

Anderson's marriage to McGill ended in 1954 and a year later she married Leonard Anderson, a Sydney businessman.  The change in her financial circumstances meant she was now free to devote herself to the novel she had begun to write in her late thirties, work on which had been sporadic up till this point as the need to earn money from her radio writing had taken precedence over her 'literary' projects.  In 1960 she and her new husband bought a small home in the northern Sydney suburb of Hornsby and it was here –– living what her eulogist described as being 'a calm, domestic, isolated life' –– that she completed An Ordinary Lunacy, her debut novel published by the UK firm of Macmillan in 1963 when she was forty-seven years old.  

The book, while not a commercial success, was well received by the critics a reception that did not help when it came to trying to publish her second novel, A Question of Money.  The book was rejected and remains unpublished to this day despite Anderson's lifelong belief that it deserved to find an audience.  She would not publish again until 1970, when the detective tale The Last Man's Head was accepted by Macmillan who chose to market it as a cheap thriller rather than as the psychologically complex work of literature it was.  The company made the same mistake with Anderson's third published novel The Commandant, which was issued in 1975 with a cover which gave the impression that it was a bodice-ripping romance rather than a subtle, exquisitely written historical tale with much to say about the nature of innocence and evil and their sometimes inexplicable intertwining.

In 1978, two years after her divorce from her second husband, Anderson published Tirra Lirra By The River –– her greatest commercial success and the novel she's now best remembered for.  Originally starting life as a short story, she expanded it to novel length on the advice of her publisher and later adapted it for radio.  When asked to explain its popularity –– it was a bestseller and became a set text in many Australian schools –– Anderson offered the typically modest answer that it was 'easier to read' than her other books.  Although she went on to publish four more books –– The Impersonators (1980), Stories from the Warm Zone and Sydney Stories (1987), Taking Shelter (1989) and One of the Wattle Birds (1994) – it was the only one of her seven published titles to remain in print until The Commandant was reissued by the Text Publishing Company in 2012, two years after her death from a stroke at the age of ninety-three. 

Click HERE to read more about the life and work of Australian novelist JESSICA ANDERSON on Wikipedia.  You can also click HERE to read her obituary by journalist CATHERINE KEENAN, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 9 August 2010.

You might also enjoy:
HENRY HANDEL RICHARDSON The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1917-1924)
ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)
WILLA CATHER A Lost Lady (1923)

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