Kipling once wrote a poem lamenting that the three-volume romantic novel (‘The old three-decker’) was said to be extinct. It had, he wrote, an unequalled power to carry ‘tired people’ to another world.
Tasmanian author James Talbot has proved, in his trilogy, The Alchemy of Distance, that reports of its death have been exaggerated. His books offer a rousing story, a minutely-researched portrait of high and low 18th century life, and like Kipling’s three-decker, transports the reader to another world. Sydney’s first days, we feel, must have been very like this.
The first two volumes, The Thief Fleet and A Wilful Woman, I have reviewed here previously (8 December 2010 and 18 April 2015). The third, The Devil to Pay, has now been published. It is unfortunate that, like some others in the outlying States, Talbot is separated from the contacts, support and publicity he might otherwise get from ‘Writers’ circles and the literary establishment. This is particularly unfortunate because The Devil to Pay, like its predecessors, is really excellent of its kind.
The trilogy is an imaginative recreation of the voyage of the First Fleet to Sydney, the desperate struggles to survive of the 1,400-odd convicts and marines dumped at the end of Earth with its topsy-turvey farming seasons. At last, as Governor Arthur Phillip returns to England and his well-deserved Admiral’s flag, there are the first shaky steps of the new colony on its own feet. As with the previous two books, Talbot’s descriptive writing is masterful and sometimes even magical. Kipling would have approved.
There is also a dawning realisation among the more acute of the convicts, after the initial shock of finding they have been dumped in the middle of nowhere, that the dread sentence of transportation has actually given them the chance of a far better life than they could ever have had in England. Pardoned convicts, offered passage home, refuse it. It is a significant moment when one hard-bitten convict points out that kangaroo can be had for the taking, but poaching venison at home was a hanging matter (there is in fact a letter existing from a young convict to his family at home urging them to get themselves transported as soon as possible). This is where the ‘alchemy’ comes in. Unlike the theme of Geoffrey Blainey’s excellent and ground-breaking The Tyranny of Distance, this ‘alchemy’ transforms the hopeless English gallows-fodder from the slums and prison hulks to become something new. They are racketeers still, but the best are racketeers building, as Kipling said of the early English, ‘rudely but greatly’.
There are two lots of governments central to the story, a ring of convict bosses forming an ‘interest’ in imitation of the political cliques that govern Britain, and Phillip, the ultimate Man Alone, a C.S. Forester hero of the historical world, bearing the whole fate of the infant colony on his shoulders.
There is also an explanation offered for an historical puzzle: why did Britain, near bankruptcy after the American war, go to astronomical expense to establish this colony at all? A clue is to be found in Wikipedia: a portrait of Phillip painted shortly before he left for New South Wales, and reproduced here, incautiously shows him holding the plan of an unmistakeable star-shaped Vauban Fort.
The purpose of Sydney, the books suggest, was not to relieve Britain of a few week’s worth of petty criminals. That was only a blind or furbler. The real purpose was to establish a fortress and naval base in eastern seas to protect Britain’s hold on the immensely lucrative China trade before the next round of wars with France.
Governor Phillip is finely drawn: nearly cracking up under the strain of the job, at one point forced to hang men for stealing the colony’s precious rations, sensitive about his Jewish ancestry and shaky social position, he still emerges as a great man who created a community out of nothing and in the face of impossible odds.
If Phillip (‘Sparrow Legs’) is the main historic character, the main fictitious characters are four convicts: Joe Cribb, a rough and tough ex-soldier who life in the London slums and gaols and the terrible hardships of the American campaign have not quite succeeded in brutalising, Kitty Brandon, who gives some order and protection to the convict women, and who is loved by Marine Lieutenant Watkin Tench, a real character who later rose to general and left one of the most important accounts of the setlement’s first days. Thorpe, a country boy who finds himself, as one of the colony’s few farmers, suddenly a person of consequence, and Levy, a Jewish hedge-doctor and abortionist with a store of wry and hard-won wisdom. The Aboriginal Bennelong (‘Benny Long’) is a shrewd and ambitious manipulator of the chances white settlement offers him.
We know from our history books that Phillip’s successor, Major Grose, will nearly destroy the infant colony with rum and corruption. But not quite. Phillip’s work was sturdy enough to survive the worst Grose could do. As important as anything else, he had planted in that wretched human refuse that had been wished upon him a seed of hope. After a good deal of shock and despair at being dumped at the ends of the Earth, the last fifty or so pages sounds a note of hesitant but increasing affirmation.
Building the three-decker is a job calling for massive traditional skills in what might be called literary architecture.
This trilogy, the first of its kind in Australia for some time, may be seen as a major event in the history of the Australian novel, and like its two predecessors, that recently rare thing, a thundering, unputdownable, good read. Each of the three books stands alone and any, or all of them are excellent presents for anyone interested in Australia’s birth. It also seems a natural for a feature film or TV mini-series – it should be easily adapted.
The publishers have unfortunately only a scanty distribution network but the books are available through Amazon.
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