The problem with blogging about The Pioneers as I record it is that there’s a greater risk of me dropping spoilers as I reflect upon chapters I’ve not long read. If I were recording one of Jane Austen’s novels, I wouldn’t be so concerned, since the minutiae of her five main works are very well known. With Prichard’s first novel, however, I feel I have to tread more carefully.
In general terms then, Prichard is a master at conveying place and atmosphere. Her descriptions of pioneering life in the Gippsland region of Victoria are replete with the sounds, smells, and sights of the stockyard and the school room, the dance-hall and the pub, the hearth and the bush setting.
Here’s quite a long section from Chapter 21:
The one street of Wirreeford had been cobbled for some distance on either side of the sale-yards because the cattle and horses made a sea of mud about them when the spring rains had soaked into the soft earth. The stores and shanties were full on sale days.
Drovers, rough-haired, hawk-eyed men, with faces seared and seamed with the dust of the roads, hands burnt, and broken with barcoo, slouched along the streets, or stood watching their cattle, yarning in desultory fashion, leaning over the rails of the drafting yards. They smoked, or chewed and spat, in front of the shanties, and at night sprawled over the table at the Black Bull, playing cards or tossing dice.
A mob that had travelled a long way was often yarded the night before the sales. When the selling for the day was over, the beasts that had come down from the hills were driven out along the Rane road, and got under Way for the northern markets; but sometimes they were left in the yards, lowing and bellowing all night, while the stockmen who were going to take charge of them spent the evening at the Black Bull, or Mrs. Mary Ann’s.
The township was full of the smell of cattle and dogs, and of the muddy, slowly-moving river that had become a waste-butt for the houses.
In the early spring, breezes from the ocean with a tang of salt in them blew right through the houses, and later, when the trees by the river blossomed, and bore masses of golden down, a warm, sweet, musky fragrance was wafted to their very doors. It overlaid the reek of the cattle yards, the fumes of rank spirits and tobacco that came from the shanties. And in the long glimmering twilights when the light faded slowly from the plains and the wall of the hills changed from purple to blue and misty grey, they were caught up into the mysterious darkness of the night—those perfumes of the lightwood and wattle trees in blossom—and rested like a benediction in the air.
I find myself getting very caught up when I read passages like this out loud.
Something that has intrigued me as I read The Pioneers is how very much more it has in common with something like Deadwood, rather than any sense of the glory days of bush life promulgated by the The Bulletin school of Australian literature.
There’s not much evidence of the romantic bushman in Prichard’s account of colonial times. It’s all land-grabbing, miserliness, cattle-rustling, manipulation, threats, and violence that characterises the relationships between the men of the Wirree River region. Mateship? What’s mateship?
I’m interested to know how Prichard’s novel was received at the time, especially since it dates from those early days of The Bulletin school of thought. I know it won a prize that allowed Prichard to pursue her writing, but was this alternative vision of life in the new settlements deemed ‘true’ according to the dominant values of the day, or was Prichard’s work seen to focus too much on non-bushman, and therefore unimportant or trivial, perspectives?
I will investigate.