According to Ian Saunders “the crux of Marxism is … the way in which it insists that the economic, political and social be read interactively, and its recognition of the powerful ideological function of cultural texts.” (Saunders, 1993, p. 70) David Malouf’s novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek falls as easily into this category of cultural text as it does as an historically fictional text.
Whether the location was Australia or Ireland, the division of wealth and health was allotted to a small class-based portion of the community. Arranged in conversation-induced flashbacks to Ireland, interspersed throughout the social and historical representation of Australia via the character identities, Malouf’s text deals with socio-economic beliefs and values. I will deal first with Adair’s childhood home in Ireland.
Orphaned by the death of his lower class travelling opera-singing parents – his mother originally from a higher class having attended Miss Bonnifer’s Academy for young ladies in Dublin – Adair was taken in by her old schoolfriend, Aimee Connellan. Within the household of Ellersley there were a mostly absentee Master, and Mistress, the Connellans (lower upper class); butler, coachman and chief counsellor to the Mistress, Paddy Mangan; the housekeeper, Mrs Upshaw (upper lower class); and the maids/kitchen hands, Lizzy and Katie (lower class – no surnames for them!).
This household heirarchical arrangement was typical of the class structure that permeated all English and hence Irish society at the time. A similar arrangement prevailed at the neighbouring landowner, Eamon Fitzgibbon’s property, the Park, a richer, larger and consequently higher class establishment. Adair and later Connellan’s son, Fergus, were sent there for their education with Fitzgibbon’s daughter, Virgilia. An understanding of the precarious position in which Adair stood socially was provided by Malouf.
Adair had always understood that the position he occupied in Mama Aimee’s household, however completely he was accepted and however fond they might be of him, made his prospects very different from those that Fergus [the heir] could look forward to…. ‘…I may have to go away … I can’t live off Mama Aimee all my life. I have to make my own way in the world. You will inherit Ellersley -‘ (Malouf, 1997, pp 92 & 93)
Another example of the power that the moneyed upper class had over the lower classes was supplied via Carney’s conversation of an Irish memory to Adair. He acknowledged that Adair might not know how men were employed, a blatant affirmation of their social difference:
‘That’s how it happens, sir, in case you don’t have experi- ence of it. You stand there and the farmers come, or the stewards if it’s a big place, an’ they look you over like, to see what you might be good for…’ (ibid, p. 56)
He goes on to tell Adair how he was scrubbed, clothed and taken to see a young blind woman. As he was forbidden to speak, deception was obviously the motive, and the experience made him feel low and degraded. This incident not only shows the exploitation of the lower class by their moneyed ‘superiors’, but also the exploitation and subjugation of the women who had less rights no matter what their class than the men.
A glimpse at the lives of the lowest class people was given to Adair, Virgilia and the reader, via a visit with Fergus to the hovel of the O’Riordans, turf-cutters living on the edge of the peat-bog. Within the strong-smelling daub-floored hut, which housed Mrs O’Riordan, “a shapeless woman with thin hair and no teeth who might have been any age from thirty-five to sixty” (ibid, p. 154) and her five children, were the meanest furnishings and a tethered cow.
The poverty and degradation was suffered stoically by these people, resigned to their lives without husband and father – transported to New South Wales penal colony for alleged involvement in sheep-stealing – and sustained by her basket weaving, and her elder sons, “Donagh and Sean [who] worked fourteen hours a day cutting turf to keep a roof over their heads and to feed them.” (ibid, pp. 157-158) Later the girl Marnie, at Fergus’s urging, went into service as Virgilia’s maid, where her attitude was fierce: “she ha[d] her dignity to protect. She remember[ed] the conditions” she came from. (ibid. Pp 171-172)
This inequity of socio-economic class structure was transported along with the first fleet to Australia. As a cross-section from highest to lowest class citizens. there were the powerful administrators, the officers (usually the second sons of upper class families – like Adair whose orphaned position placed him in that category), the ticket-of-leave business and trades people, the freed convicts, and the still imprisoned convicts. According to Saunders:
the colonising of Australia seemed perfectly reasonable to the British because they read their actions through an ideology which included a belief in the intrinsic superiority of European culture, and an assumption that land not ited to the legal system of one or another of the European nation- states was in fact unowned, and therefore available for appropriation. (Saunders, 1993, pp. 49-50)
This sociological arrogance was the possession of the upper class British, the ruling moneyed class – not the marginalised (by economic disadvantage) lower classes.
Malouf provided in his fictionalised history several examples of the class structure in Australia. The indigenous inhabitants of the land, like Jonas the Aboriginal tracker, had no status at all which meant they had no class standing within the social structure. Carney was at the bottom of the white heap – a condemned escaped-convict bushranger, originally from the working lower class of Ireland. The other bushrangers in his gang, except Dolan (if he was Fergus), were of the same class.
Next in status were the troopers, the young Garrety, and Langhurst, and the near forty year old Kersey:
recruits to the new force that was to police the colony and keep a watch on the western [Aboriginal] tribes …. Before Jed Snelling was killed they had been four – the black who was with them, Jonas, did not count. (Malouf, 1997, p. 7)
Brought up in Australia Garrety lived alone by his wits in the city streets “sleeping in bins and doorways and in odd corners …. his lips were sealed … on the worst things that had happened to him.” (ibid, pp. 8 & 9), while Langhurst grew to manhood with his family on a farm. Like most lower class, working class, uneducated people at the time these troopers were superstitious, believing easily the tales of retributive ghosts told around the campfire. Jonas too knew them to be true. By informing us that Langhurst’s twin sister was “an old married lady of nineteen” (ibid, p. 15), Malouf demonstrated the fate of all women of the era, no matter what their class.
Adair, in his position of officer, and therefore of the upper echelon of society, was given begrudging respect by troopers under his brief command, and by Carney condemned to hang next day under Adair’s official edict. He suffered the same physical discomfort as his men, but that was temporary – theirs was not. In the ‘Epilogue’ we are introduced to a member of the middle class, the professional workers – doctors, solicitors, teachers. At a dinner, surrounded by the trappings of the moneyed class of England – imported furniture, paintings, engravings – the guest is Adair, “the host, an ex-army surgeon and veteran of the Peninsular, James Saunders.” (ibid, p. 203) At table they are waited on by “a dark young woman, whom the observant guest suspects of standing in a closer relationship to the other than might be suggested by the eyes, in both cases lowered” (ibid, p. 202) – a fate of indigenous women, giving them an apparent ‘working’ class in which to fit – yet did it?
Within his historical narrative with its twin settings, Malouf juggled the interaction of the socio-economic beliefs and values of the era with his development of personal and national identities for his characters.
(C) Jud House 16/11/1997
Malouf, D. (1997) The Conversations at Curlow Creek. London: Vintage
Saunders, I (1993) Open Texts, Partial Maps. Nedlands: Centre for Studies in Australian Literature
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