Oh, the power of a bad write-up.
While I was looking for a synopsis for Two Sides To Every Question: From a South Australian Standpoint, to accompany the recording on the Librivox site, I came across a rather condemning summary of Franc’s novel. I thought it was on Gutenberg Australia, but when I went back to find it, recognising how much it had affected my attitude towards completing the recording of Two Sides, and wanting to explore that further, I couldn’t locate it again.
The words from the summary that lodged in my mind were ‘didactic’ and ‘Christian’, and the tone was decidedly pejorative in both cases. When I read that summary, my heart sank. Oh, I thought, I don’t want to read a novel that will preach to people. I don’t want to endorse, or appear to endorse, a novel that preaches or seeks to convert.
I had originally chosen to record Two Sides because it was different to The Pioneers, principally in terms of its location and setting: South Australia and urban, as opposed to Victoria and bush or rural. However, I was also interested in the promise of some insight into the lives of colonial textile workers through the figure of Nettie Alton, who, following the death of her father, helps support her mother by taking in sewing.
Well, whatever I had initially expected, and however reading the errant summary had tarnished my subsequent expectations of Two Sides, I had made a commitment to complete the recording. I procrastinated for a month or so and then began again in earnest.
The quote in the title of Two Sides to Every Question is referred to in the novel as one of the invalid Mrs Alton’s quirks to which her children, Tom and the aforementioned Nettie, are subjected. On every occasion she urges them to think more deeply about why people make particular decisions and act the way they do and, thus, reserve judgement. Mrs Alton’s constant questioning, her allowance for context and motivations is a source of affectionate humour for her children, but her philosophy is also evident in the narrative voice of the novel; indeed, it informs the very structure of this meditation on life and fortune in colonial South Australia, where individual characters embody the state of wealth (the Clintons) or poverty (the Altons), or represent the ethical issues that arise from pursuing the former (Arthur Delta).
I’ve used ‘philosophy’ quite deliberately in the previous paragraph because, although the novel does ultimately settle on a belief and trust in Him as a way of resolving the questions raised throughout Arthur Delta’s story, in particular, it is, most often, the Sophist philosopher, Protagoras, who is credited with the ‘two sides’ quote through his ‘man-measure statement: the notion that knowledge is relative to the knower’.
By embracing the ethical questions at the heart of this novel, then, I found enough to engage me as an atheist. I was interested, for example, in the discussion of mining shares, simply because mining and who should benefit from it is still such an issue in Australia. (I also tend to be a bit sceptical about the ultimate social cost of shares, if for workers and the traditional land-owners rather than the well-being of the share-holder.) Similarly, there are some meditations on housing in Franc’s novel that I think are still very relevant to the issues around housing affordability now. I did enjoy the insight into how Nettie earned a living from her sewing machine, working from home while caring for her mother. And I confess, I don’t mind endless descriptions of flowers, although all the sweetness and perfection attributed to Nettie and some of the other women did become cloying.
The charge of didacticism is not entirely without substance. Two Sides does wear its Protestant morality on its sleeve. For example, no empathy is evident for the very poor; you could be forgiven for concluding that the inhabitants of the back streets of inner city Adelaide were all populated by drunken ne’er-do-wells and their feral offspring. Here, the Sophist philosophy seemed to be put aside in favour of fire, brimstone, and the injunction of an honest day’s work.
Overall, I don’t think Two Sides will suit the tastes of many contemporary readers, but there is enough to be gleaned about the social and economic history of some sections of pre-Federation Australian society, along with its interest as a novel by one of colonial Australia’s most popular and reprinted authors, to make it worth a glance (or an ear, as the case may be).
The summary of Two Sides to Every Question: From a South Australian Standpoint that I wrote for the Librivox catalogue:
‘Two Sides to Every Question’: From a South Australian Standpoint is a meditation on poverty, wealth, and social aspiration set in the free settlement of Adelaide in pre-Federation Australia. The novel follows the lives of a cast of characters from different social classes as they negotiate the twists and turns in their respective fortunes. The newly-bereaved Alton family—an invalid widow and her two grown children, Tom and Nettie—sell their rural property and move to the slovenly back streets of the inner-city; they are determined to hold onto their dignity and values as they turn to earning a living for the first time. The wealthy Clinton family runs the stock supply business where Tom finds employment as a clerk. Tom’s boss, Robert Clinton, supplements his business income through trading mining shares. His financial success ensures his wife and daughters, Elsie and Lily, have access to the higher echelons of colonial society. Meanwhile, the Clintons’ cousin, Arthur Delta, arrives from England to take a position in his uncle’s business. Arthur’s mother has called on her brother’s charity to help her family in their time of need. When Arthur and Elsie fall in love, the scene is set as he attempts to build his fortune to secure her father’s favour and, so, her hand in marriage.