Following a failed love affair in England, Lady Bridget O’Hara accepts an invitation to travel to colonial Australia as companion to Lady Rosamund Tallant, the wife of the newly-appointed governor of Leichardt’s Land. In Leichardt’s Town, Lady Bridget, also known as Biddy, is reunited with her old friend and collaborator, Joan Gildea, special correspondent for The Imperialist newspaper. While visiting Joan, Biddy meets Colin McKeith, a roughly-hewn, Scottish-born pioneer, drover, miner, sometime-politician, and magistrate in the north-eastern colony. Biddy and Colin fall in love: she with the adventure a life with him promises, he with an ideal of her noble heritage. In spite of Joan Gildea’s misgivings, Biddy and Colin are soon married and leave Leichardt’s Town to travel several days north to Colin’s cattle property in a region known as the Leura. As Biddy and Colin embark on their life together, the contemporary issues of colonial Australia are revealed: the extreme environment, labour shortages and organisation, police brutality, immigration policy, and the plight of Australia’s First Peoples. The couple discover fundamental differences in their perspectives on many topics. When Bridget’s former love, Willoughby Maule, newly-widowed and affluent, visits her in the Leura, the couple’s strained relationship is further tested.
That’s the summary I wrote for the Librivox catalogue of my next audiobook, Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land by Rosa Praed (aka Mrs Campbell Praed). I’ve just finished uploading the final chapters to the Librivox database for proof-listening and cataloguing, which makes it time to write my reflection for the AWW2012 Challenge.
I took a different approach to documenting my experience of recording this book than I adopted for the previous two audiobooks. I decided to create a dedicated Reading Sheilas Twitter account to make shorter observations about the book along the way, with the aim of looking back over the tweets to inform my writing of the final review. You can see the most recent tweets from that account in the right-hand margin here, or click through to read back further over the time-line. I’ll be doing the latter myself, while I write this post, because it’s taken me four months on-and-off to complete this recording; I got distracted by book club novels in between, so I often went off-topic.
I can see from one of my earliest tweets about Lady Bridget that I was immediately taken with Biddy’s propensity for grand statements. She said the following in reference to the mores of the upper class marriage market that dogged her independent spirit:
‘I’d rather follow the fortunes of a Nihilist and be sent to Siberia…! ‘ Lady Bridget LOLs.
— Reading Sheilas (@ReadingSheilas) June 11, 2012
Certainly, later in the novel, during Biddy and Colin’s courtship, I did wonder whether Bridget might never have married if it weren’t for social pressure on a woman of her rank to do so. Indeed, much of her motivation for travelling to Australia seems to have been to escape from the sense that her family and society regarded her as something of a lost cause in that endeavour. Without any marriage prospects, she had little choice but to serve as a companion to Lady Rosamund Tallant in order to secure her keep.
Bridget’s initial attraction to Colin is surely largely physical and perhaps metaphysical, in an esoteric fashion, for they rarely agree on matters of social justice affecting Australian life in the colonial era. From the beginning, they are at odds over his attitude towards Aboriginal people generally and his treatment of particular individuals who work for him. Praed gives Colin a back-story which explains his animosity to the ‘blacks’ in part; but, in colonial society, surely no individual settler’s personal tragedy is sufficient to expurgate the systematic dispossession of Aboriginal people upon which European settlement is founded. As Biddy protests in a conversation on the occasion of their first meeting: ‘How cruelly unjust! It was his country you were stealing.‘ And moments later:
‘I don’t admire your glorious British record, I think it’s nothing but a record of robbery, murder, and cruelty…
— Reading Sheilas (@ReadingSheilas) June 17, 2012
… beginning with Ireland and ending with South Africa.’ #ladybridget
— Reading Sheilas (@ReadingSheilas) June 17, 2012
While Praed, through Lady Bridget, offers a necessary and still relevant criticism of established colonial practices in the figure Colin McKeith, her writing also bears evidence of the less transparently discriminatory attitudes of her era (and perhaps ours). The narrator refers abstractedly to the ‘less developed brain’ of Oola, a young Aboriginal woman, and the spoken dialect of the Indigenous characters is on par with that of the housekeeper’s small son.
I suppose the similarities between the infantile English of Oola, Wombo, and Cudgee and that of Tommy Hensor struck me particularly as I had to vocalise the utterances of each character. I felt embarrassed as my mouth formed the broken, pleading utterances of Oola and Wombo as they sought protection at the McKeiths’ property. The same is true of the voices of other non-white characters in McKeith’s employ: the ‘Chinamen’ cook and gardener, Chen Sing and Fo Wung; and Kuppi, ‘the Malay boy’, as they performed unstinting servitude. Like every textual form, Lady Bridget is a product of its social and cultural context, so perhaps what is most important for now is that this characterisation, even as it was sympathetic and progressive for its day, does jar, just as many widely-held convictions today will be revealed as prejudices to future generations.
By way of contrast, there were some parts of Lady Bridget that I felt immediately at home with. When I read the opening chapter, I knew the setting was Brisbane by another name:
From where Mrs Gildea sat, she had a view of almost the whole reach of the river where it circles Emu Point. For, as is known to all who know Leichardt’s Town, the river winds in two great loops girdling two low points, so that, in striking a bee-line across the whole town, business and residential, one must cross the river three times. Mrs Gildea could see the plan of the main street in the Middle Point and the roofs of shops and offices. The busy wharves of the Leichardt’s Land Steam Navigation Company—familiarly, the L.L.S.N. Co.—lay opposite on her right, while leftward, across the water, she could trace, as far as the grape-vine would allow, the boundary of the Botanical Gardens and get a sight of the white stone and grey slate end of the big Parliamentary Buildings.
Later, when Lady Bridget is rowing around the point from Government House to Joan Gildea’s home, I could picture in my mind’s eye the spike of land, fringed with mangroves, on which the city campus of QUT now sits, abutted by the Queensland Parliament on one side and and the Botanical Gardens on the other. I think Joan Gildea must have lived somewhere on Kangaroo Point (indeed, I’ve just realised the name Emu Point is a clear allusion).
You can explore this map on which I’ve marked my understanding of the places mentioned in the description of Joan’s view.
Of course the other clue that Lady Bridget is set in Queensland is the reference to the explorer Ludvig Leichhardt in the colony’s name. As I was reading, I wondered whether McKeith’s property wasn’t somewhere in the Darling Downs region, from where Leichhardt embarked on his first expedition that took him from Moreton Bay, inland up to the Gulf of Carpenteria and eventually to Port Essington in the Northern Territory. There’s mention of Bunya nuts at one point too, which further narrows the location down to the Bunya Mountains area. If you’re interested in seeing some photos of that area, a few years ago now I wrote a series of blog posts about a long weekend I spent in the Bunya Mountains, which ended with a visit to the property (and now winery) Jimbour Estate–Leichhardt’s official departure point.
Overall, I found Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land to be a somewhat mixed read. For me, the romance between Biddy and Colin wasn’t compelling, but the middle-section of the novel, where Bridget becomes increasingly isolated from her husband–who hitherto has been her only ally at the property–moved me immensely.