Review: Naomi Riddleon historical novels

History Is A Many-Sided Thing: Wild Island, Skylarking & Music and Freedom

I like the certainty of the washing cycle. There’s a comfort that comes with the feel of kneeling down on cold white tiles and piling dirty laundry into a washing machine. I tend to be a bit ad hoc in the sorting of colours, and I know that my mother is horrified by the way I bundle everything in together. I can tell which stage the machine is up to from the bounciness of the water, the heaviness in the slop, and the whirring acceleration of the spin. And I am never calmer or more content than when picking up a damp sock from the washing basket with one hand, grabbing a peg in the other, and pinning it on the line. It’s the regularity of it all, the constant rhythm, the feeling that it will go on forever and ever – wash the clothes, wear the clothes, wash them again.

Vida Lahey’s 1912 painting Monday morning is an impressionistic scene of two young women doing the laundry. One is bending over a sink, her hair piled on top of her head, as she suds and scrubs dirty petticoats, jackets and linen. Her tall companion has her back turned to us and is wringing out damp fabric at the end of a pole. The painting is a bustle of activity, with water flowing readily from the tap and the air is thick with fog and heat and steam. It’s hard work, but a window is open and warm morning sunshine is streaming into the room – here Lahey both reveals a hidden domestic labour and bestows value upon it.

For many women across history, their experience of the world was through this lens of domesticity and labour. Theirs was not the bustle and spectacle of the city or open field, but rather the interior, a series of enclosed rooms filled with cleaning, washing, sewing, stitching and mending. ‘History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men,’ quips Alan Bennett in The History Boys. ‘What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.’ There is a gendered collision at work here, an intermingling between what Julia Kristeva terms ‘women’s time’, and the cursive progression of history – where women’s experience of space-time is diagonal or parallel to ‘time as project, teleology, linear and prospective unfolding’.

Three new Australian titles from debut novelists prompt just such a consideration of the connection between monumental and historical time, and its relationship to femininity. All three novels bestow a value and significance on women’s experience across two centuries: from the early penal settlement of Van Diemen’s Land in Jennifer Livett’s Wild Island to the ferocious and tragic friendship of two girls at the foot of a lighthouse in Kate Mildenhall’s Skylarking, and a pianist’s entrapment within an Oxford terrace from the 1950s to the present day in Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom. These novels all consider  the domestic, with a weightiness given to private scenes and the interior – and alongside this, a feeling of movement, of an unsettled and unmoored female independence. Far away from the colonial centre, a certain wildness and abandon comes to the fore.

Jennifer Livett’s Wild Island draws the fictional characters of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre into a historical rendering of Sir John Franklin’s time as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1837-44. Known as the ‘Arctic lion’, Franklin’s position, and that of his wife Jane, was mired  in controversy, with his tenure as governor sparking a political battle over the future of the colony and its place as a penal settlement.

Like Jean Rhys before her in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Livett must perform a difficult balancing act, contending with the well-known narrative of Rochester, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason. In extending this tale and weaving it together with her researched account of the early penal colony and its complicated political intrigue, Livett must still maintain an overarching narrative that brings everything together into a coherent whole. That Livett is able to achieve this is testimony to her sure-footedness, to the delicacy of her prose.

The characters of Rochester and Jane are significant, providing the impetus for the journey to Van Diemen’s Land, but they figure only briefly in the larger narrative. Instead much of the novel oscillates between the perspectives of Harriet Adair, the companion of Jane Eyre and the resurrected Bertha Mason, now known as Anna Rochester, and Captain Charles O’Hara Booth, the commandant of the Port Arthur penal station. It is the movement between the two that allows for their opposing experiences to be brought together – one more public, negotiating the incarceration of prisoners at Port Arthur, the Hobart newspapers, escapees and the Arthur faction, and the other private and domestic, moving between grand houses, inns, horse-drawn carriages, sitting rooms, conservatories and churchyards, searching for Anna Rochester’s missing husband and embroiled in Jane Franklin’s inner circle.

A focus on the act of writing and its connection to history frames the novel. The prologue announces Harriet’s intention to write the story some forty years after the events have taken place. This announcement is followed by an account of her discovery of Jane Franklin’s niece Sophy copying her aunt’s letters for publication:

[Sophy] is editing them ruthlessly, deleting whole paragraphs and pages. She destroys each original as she finishes it. Some she burns without copying… She gave me one of her steely looks, half amused, half irritated.

Here we get a glimpse at the ruthless edits and deletions that erase the specifics of history. Harriet’s narratives fill in some of these gaps but also gesture to the absences that remain. The telling of history is a difficult business, and Sophy’s response to Harriet’s horror at the burning of Jane Franklin’s letters is to exclaim – ‘Our history?… I was always taught, Harriet, that history is the record of great men’s achievements.’

Harriet spends much of her time writing and reading letters as well as waiting for their arrival. The acts of recording and storytelling are not only important drivers of the plot, but also serve to highlight the way in which these acts are gendered: for women, writing can be dangerous. Indeed Jane Franklin’s position as governor’s wife is ultimately undone by her letter writing, in the rewriting of the governor’s records and correspondence, and the burning of the mysterious ‘Barrow Letter’.

We encounter Lady Franklin through Harriet’s eyes – and we see a woman who is frustrated and frustrating, intelligent, childish, independent, callous, humorous and whimsical. One of the final images of Lady Franklin in the novel is of her stranded and bewildered in the remote Arctic, searching for her missing husband and his crew, looking for letters and records, anything in writing that would explain the loss:

‘We have discovered nothing here,’ Jane whispered. ‘It is my fault.’

She felt that if only she tried hard enough, she should be able to will the objects to reveal themselves. They must be there. Two hundred metal canisters for messages, a thousand volumes of reading matter on each ship.

Lady Franklin is one of Livett’s most moving characters, not only because she is a woman who is often disparaged and ridiculed for merely showing intelligence and interest in men’s affairs, but because she is portrayed in all her flawed complexity. It is harder to form an emotional connection to Anna Rochester, who remains at arms length. As in Jane Eyre, we are never fully given access to the woman who was so abruptly transplanted from the West Indies to Thornfield Hall. But I think this is part of Livett’s point – as much as we want to get inside Anna’s mind, we are always denied entry. Instead we must come to terms with a woman who has ‘never known a home of her own, or children, or the satisfactions of learning’. Just as in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, where the madwoman in the attic is remade into Antoinette Cosway, she is remade again as the muted Anna Rochester, a victim of colonisation who stands in for the many colonial ‘others’ who were at the mercy of empire.

There is a reverberating drone of colonial anxiety that runs alongside the main narrative of Wild Island. On the voyage out from England to Hobart, the character of Mr Chesney reflects on his vast trove of baggage and cargo, arguing that ‘you have to furnish a whole country… If the colony has no history, bring the history with you.’ Yet on their arrival, the boat suffers a fire and all is lost. Here the objects of a transplanted empire, ‘the printing press, the harp, the steam engine’ go to a watery grave. Harriet repeatedly returns to Hobart as a kind of ‘stage set’, a deceitful illusion: ‘I wanted the solid weight of history in brick and stone all around me and beneath my feet, holding me steady.’

The Indigenous people of Van Diemen’s Land are also muted in Wild Island, as Indigenous history does not play a part in Harriet’s colonial account. But again, like Livett’s construction of Anna, this absence is not accidental. To introduce an Indigenous presence into an historical novel set in a colonial milieu that denied and avoided Indigenous people would be jarring and insincere. And, as readers, we are constantly aware of the settler violence that is taking place as Captain Booth expresses concern for the wellbeing of his predominantly white prisoners. That is to say that Indigenous history is present in its absence, that as readers we are encouraged to pick up and track these gaps, the ‘whole paragraphs and pages’ that have been deleted alongside Harriet’s broader narrative.

Whilst Livett’s sprawling novel contends with an ensemble of characters, Kate Mildenhall’s Skylarking is tightly bound. Set on a remote lighthouse station on an Australian cape in the 1880s, Skylarking tells the tale of a ferocious friendship between two young girls, Harriet Walker and Kate Gilbert. We see them move from childhood to adolescence, and witness how their lives are upended with the arrival of the solitary fisherman Mr McPhail. The novel is told in first-person from the perspective of Kate, who is unstitching the memories of her past, both remembering and memorialising the young Harriet:

I remember our chatter. I remember her grip on my wrist. I remember her veering from the track…I remember the way Harriet turned, breathless, laughing, a strand of her golden hair caught on her bottom lip. After that, I try not to remember.

Tragedy is foreshadowed from the outset, and the novel pulses with foreboding and dread.  If Livett brings a deftness in touch, Mildenhall’s style is dreamily rhythmic with tumbling sentences that often overlap, repeat and cross over one another. The effect is like riding a strong current or tacking a sail into a heavy breeze, and Mildenhall’s prose mimics Kate’s adolescent rage, her bristling sexuality, her well of confusion and fear.

Anne Carson’s line ‘girls are cruelest to themselves’ kept returning to me when I read Mildenhall’s novel, as Kate moves between feelings of obsession, love, jealousy, rage and guilt about her best-friend. Carson was speaking of Wuthering Heights, and it seems to me that it is Emily in this case who is haunting Mildenhall’s narrative. Harriet’s ghost, like Catherine Earnshaw, taps at the window, and Kate must reckon with her anguish, holding her memory ‘in a deep recess in my mind’: ‘I take it out and examine it, again and again and again. The light in it has grown old and worn.’

Kate’s memories of her youth are ‘filled up with fetching and mending and washing and baking and hanging out the laundry’ and these domestic tasks are often lit with portentous meaning. Kate is overcome  with shame and embarrassment at her failure at ‘matters of the hearth’ and the changes in her body. This shame, furthered by the talk surrounding the possible romance between Mr McPhail and Harriet, and Kate’s lack of proper female decorum, serves to align private adolescent feelings with a public and almost political significance. Kate knows that ‘it [is] to do with my body, my womanhood’: ‘Were all these things the same? Did they threaten the good order of the cape, of me, of the world in the same way?’ Here Mindelhall carefully reweights the importance of Kate’s burgeoning womenhood, gesturing to a loneliness and insecurity that is too often cast aside and ignored, not only by family but by society at large.

Indigenous people shadow Kate’s home on the cape. Kate makes reference to the dwindling number of Aboriginal people who are living in a small community near the lighthouse, mentioning a reverend who tells her ‘that the remaining few were being rounded up to live down on the Mission at Lake Myner’. Indeed, the narrative is punctuated by a series of brief but significant encounters between Kate and a young Aboriginal girl. Any research-driven novelist must reckon with the need to portray the history of the time of writing, and as such, Kate’s initial disgust and dismissal of the Indigenous community, and particularly of the young girl stealing her vegetables, is historically astute. However, given the fact that the girl features so heavily in the conclusion to the novel, that her encounter with Kate offers a salve to her grief, I would have liked to have known her character more fully, for her to have been given a voice.

When the novel leads us to its inevitable conclusion, and we reach the disaster towards which we have been propelled, it is still unexpected and horrifying; it is a sudden drop. I was jolted by the shock, as although I knew that the event would involve Kate, Harriet and McPhail in some way, I was not prepared for the tragic and swift accident that takes place. Like Kate, I thought it would all turn out to be a mistake. But Mindelhall pushes this moment forward and I found the scene when the meaning behind the novel’s title is revealed to be truly devastating. Ultimately the novel is an affirmation of the significance and depth of girlhood and femininity, in the time spent mending dresses or reading or imagining, in the confusing first flushes of lust and love.

‘Why does tragedy exist?’ asks Anne Carson, ‘because you are full of rage’: ‘Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief.’ Both Mindelhall’s Skylarking and Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom are tragic tales, and a dark grief rages beneath their prose.

Morrison’s tale is told from the perspective of Alice Tucker, and the novel is driven by her desire to write down her memories of the past. The seventy-year old Alice announces: ‘my aim was to die slowly so that I could organize the house’ – and then recounts how each day she performed four tasks: she burnt her deceased husband’s books and papers, filed sheet music, played a single note on the piano and made anonymous phone calls. This series of actions repeats across the novel, but they are increasingly interrupted by the sound of another piano that appears to be coming through the wall, echoing through the rooms of the cold terrace Alice has contained herself within.

Morrison’s novel is carefully crafted, as, like Livett, she must contend with multiple narrative strands: we jump between Alice’s early childhood in rural Victoria, her time as a piano student at the Royal College of Music in London, her marriage to Edward Haywood in Oxford in the 1950s, the older Alice hearing music through the wall, and the seventy-year old Alice who writes it all down. I came to think of Morrison’s style as akin to a musical fugue, where several contrapuntal and distinctive melodies run alongside one another, and the effect is of multiple voices overlapping all at once.

In psychiatry the word ‘fugue’ is also used to describe ‘the loss of awareness of one’s identity’, and for Alice this rings true. Much of the novel charts the gradual erosion of her independence, agency and ability to play the piano in the face of an increasingly violent and manipulative husband. Morrison constructs a sense of numbness and isolation with her sparse and condensed prose, as Alice confesses ‘sadness is demanding. It demands your entire body, the way it asks you to carry its burden.’ And yet, Morrison’s novel will often erupt with a sudden force, when Carson’s grief and anger find their way to the surface in streaming sentences:

I tried to forgive them for not seeing the blood pouring out of my ears, the water pouring from my mouth, for not realizing that the pain this was causing me was so extreme it had stopped me thinking or seeing anything else; for not knowing the significance of two people dying in a faraway land.

The time period is important here, as Alice’s narrative speaks to the limited agency and opportunities for post-war women. In some ways Alice’s experience of the modern world seems far more constrained than that of Kate in Skylarking or Harriet in Wild Island. Decisions are often taken without her consent or offer limited opportunities for freedom: she is sent to an English boarding school far away from home, and her decision to marry Edward Haywood is made in the throes of grief and driven by financial necessity. Whilst talented enough to achieve a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, her tutor is sexist and there are few options available to her after graduation. This makes it all the more wretched when her desire to play is finally defeated.

Morrison could have provided some sort of easy and romantic flight to freedom for Alice, and part of the novel’s strength lies with its denial of this fantasy. There are no affairs. There are no rescuers who turn up at her door. Her desires go unnoticed. There are no police and no one is held to account. There are brief moments of hope, tiny encounters and the light that comes with the birth of Alice’s son. Everyday household tasks bring with them opportunities for control and strength, as Alice suggests, ‘I was drawn to the catharsis of a clean surface, of limbs moving strong and fast. The claim of command, however transitory and unreal, that a mop can bring.’

But stasis, shock and indifference prevail. Music and Freedom is a heartbreaking account of the reality of domestic abuse: signs are often ignored or smoothed over, even by those closest to us. As witnesses to the turmoil behind her façade, readers are both dismayed and disturbed by Alice’s inability to speak, to convey what she wants to those around her.

It is the music heard through the wall and the young woman who plays it that ignites the reclamation and rediscovery of Alice’s identity. As she befriends the young woman, Alice is propelled out of the confines of her house,  walking the streets and sitting in cafes, just to ‘sit in the noise and warmth, solitary and undisturbed, yet not alone’. But eventually she must remove herself completely, returning to Australia and to the orange grove of her childhood.

Alice’s journey back to Australia reverses the trip made by Harriet in Wild Island in more ways than one. In England Alice is a colonial outsider, and she is filled with the desire to return to ‘the beauty of the wide open land, the big, hot, white sky, the birdsong.’ If Harriet accuses Hobart of being a poor imitation of England, Alice finds herself performing a kind of Englishness in the imperial centre: ‘It was easy in the end to assume a different accent, a different way to be.’ It is when she returns to her family’s vacant block of land with its row of stunted and dying orange trees that Alice is able to find some sense of peace. In this space Alice is able to begin the task of writing and reconsidering her personal history. Here the act of writing, like the performance of music, becomes a kind of indentation, an opportunity for Alice to reclaim a sense of purpose and meaning by carving it into the page –

These blue biro words cover the paper, they indent it; I can feel them when I touch the page with my fingers. When I write I am better at telling the difference between something and what is nothing. And when I am doing this, I am not dead anymore, or dying. I am here.

There is a moment early on in Wild Island when Harriet describes one of her favourite paintings, ‘Still life with Bird in a Gilded Cage’. She is drawn to this particular painting because of its ‘quiet interior scenes – and yet the painter [has] imbued her work with a mysterious light which [makes] you imagine a window just outside the edge of the canvas.’ For Harriet, the effect of this painting is to reveal ‘the glorious breadth of the world and our little knowledge of it.’ It struck me when reading these novels as a trio that this is the task that Livett, Mildenhall and Morrison have set themselves.

Across all three novels there is a sense of breadth, of expansive monumental time – and yet their protagonists experience this only partially, in tiny slices and fragments. All three authors turn their focus inwards, reweighting the private against the grand narrative of history, allowing for a careful consideration of our personal and everyday tragedies.

Works Cited:

Alan Bennett, The History Boys, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)
Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’ in Signs, 7.1 (1981), pp. 13-35
Anne Carson, Glass, Irony and God, (New York: New Direction Books, 1995)
Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays, (New York: New York Review of Books, 2006)