This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 10, July 2012. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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Frances O’Beirne, the young heroine of The Commandant (1975), offers a key to the genius of Jessica Anderson: ‘I am made up of hundreds of persons, and I never know which will come out.’ Open Anderson’s eight published works of fiction and you’ll be presented with different worlds, all-encompassing, entirely absorbing, real.

Nora Porteous, the narrator of Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), Anderson’s most popular novel, though not her finest – because The Commandant is that – adds clarification: ‘We were all great story-tellers.’ The happiness a consummate novelist bestows upon a reader – the feeling that under no circumstances can you bear not to know what happens next, nor can you bear to come to end of the tale – this was Jessica Anderson’s great narrative gift.

She possessed many others: a precise command of the ironic and descriptive word and an observant eye that contemplated human inadequacies in the manner of a knowing yet sympathetic bird. Observing and listening gave her a formidable grasp of dialogue and the human comedy inherent therein. To all this she added a prose of simplicity and elegance, capable, as it is in The Commandant, of great lyrical beauty. For all these reasons Jessica Anderson was a most astute chronicler of the Australia of her time.

She was born Jessica Queale in a rural Queensland town in 1916, but grew up in Brisbane. She read omnivorously from the age of three. She was a child with a stammer, but one bursting to tell stories, always writing. Her stamping grounds were the states she knew and loved best: Queensland, and Sydney to which she moved when she was eighteen.

In 1916 Australia was a recently federated nation bristling with religious hostilities, exacerbated by the vicious conscription debates of World War I. By 2010, the year of Anderson’s death, its small cities had exploded into tarmacked metropolises, rattling with computers and other godless inventions. Anderson was an Australian of English and Irish descent, a creature of those years when travel overseas, often to countries mysteriously called Home, together with some years as an expatriate there, was a part of life for so many. She wrote of exile and return.

Anderson once remarked that, with the exception of Christina Stead, she was almost entirely uninfluenced by other Australian writers, little realising that when she also said, ‘I was very much…preoccupied with people who are strangers in their society’, she was following a centuries-old Australian literary tradition, one celebrated in so many bush ballads and stories. The loner, the swagman, the convict, the remittance man, the single women hauled out from the old country to serve the early settlers: all were outsiders, all onlookers. Anderson found their natural successors, in modern times, in her warring Sydney families, her divorcées, her bohemians, her children. These are novels of Australia in the twentieth century. To see her dissect the vicious pull of sex and money, read her first novel, An Ordinary Lunacy (1963); to see her at play amidst the carnage of sibling rivalry and dysfunctional families, read The Impersonators (1980). Her writing is at its most elegiac in Tirra Lirra by the River, at its most lucid and wise in her Stories from the Warm Zone and Sydney Stories (1987). Social satire is her forté. The harshest stories shimmer with her sense of humour and her singularly empathetic understanding of character. This kaleidoscope of attributes moves through all her work, but only in The Commandant does she combine them all.

First published in 1975, it is one of the best historical novels we have about colonial Australia in the early nineteenth century. A rarity too because it tells of the penal settlement that became Brisbane, rather than once again rehearsing the well-trodden paths of convict Sydney. Moreton Bay penal colony was founded in 1824. Under Captain Patrick Logan, who assumed command in 1826, it was one of the worst, for it took repeat offenders. His brutality was recorded forever in the famous Australian folksong, ‘Moreton Bay’:

For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay

Anderson does not disguise that she is basing her characters on historical figures and events. Logan, a rigid army man, married Letitia O’Beirne of Sligo, Ireland, the daughter of a fellow officer, a member of that select band of Irishmen, Anderson implies, who sold their patrimony to the devil by fighting for the British. The novel opens at sea, as Letitia’s sister Frances ends the long journey to Moreton Bay, where she is presented with ‘another kind of country’, its convicts ‘sub-human, like animals adapted to men’s work or goblins from under the hill’. From the deck Frances views the wharf, small houses, chimneys, gardens, barracks: solid British settlement. In the surrounding wilderness, evoked with the lightest of touches, are dark presences watching the construction of frightening objects on precious land.

This was the astonishing epoch when imperial Britain presented the original inhabitants of Australia with two invading species: ragged white men in chains and shackles accompanied by uniformed white men bearing muskets or prayer books. What the Aboriginals saw is barely described but throbs through the narrative; something achieved by Conrad in his similar contemplation of Africa, Heart of Darkness (1902).

 

Jessica Anderson has said how much she relished the historical investigation required, and it shows in every meticulously researched episode, in understanding lightly conveyed. Moreton Bay was a penal colony governed by Scots and Irish of the Ascendancy. The convicts they brutalised were mostly Catholic Irish. Here are the origins of the rigid division between Protestant and Catholic that was to continue in Australia until well into the second half of the twentieth century.

As deftly achieved is the vivid accuracy of Anderson’s historical figures. Henry Cowper, an alcoholic doctor and wit, and the Jewish convict Lewis Lazarus, a Magwitch- like personage worthy of Dickens, are creations of grand – and on occasion comic – opera. There are many more.

Frances arrives in 1830. It is the early age of science; reform is in the air in England, and in Australia Captain Logan has become notorious for his unquestioning use of the tortures permitted by law, loathed by all those who watch Gilligan the Scourger at work with his lash. A liberal Sydney editor accuses Logan of murder: the matter is to come to trial. Logan is a man of the past devoted to the ‘system of punishment and reform’ that he is ‘privileged to serve’. Anderson portrays a monstrous product of his age, yet one for whom she evokes some sympathy.

His tragedy is played out within a domestic story that reads like a Jane Austen novel transported to strange lands. Bonnets, shawls, muffs and the twittering of the Logan children are juxtaposed with the genteel social life of the settlement, with its servants, wives and medical officers. Frances is an idealistic seventeen-year-old when she arrives, with an admirer met on the journey who might offer her everything a young woman should want. There are echoes of the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice in Letitia’s homily to her sister: ‘Ev’wy woman who wants a husband is in some degree a husband hunter… If she is pwetty, so much the better. If not…’ Anderson has transposed her stammer into a lisp for the delightful Letty, as she gives the red hair to be found in every one of her works to the lieutenant’s sardonic wife, Louisa Harbin, adorned with ‘a hairpiece like six red dead snails’. Frances, more intelligent than Louisa, must follow the fate of the convicts, blacks and runaways, and face the sights she is forced to see. Her moral self-education is the dramatic lynchpin of the novel.

The novel closes, as it should, in the Australian bush, and once again, at sea: those two defining elements of our national story. Anderson writes of the natural beauty offered, then and now, to every immigrant Australian, whether convict, commandant, male or female. Lines of inspired description about her native land are threaded through The Commandant like an exquisite embroidery, writing rarely to be found in her other work:

On Henry’s right hand a few clumps of tall trees, their rough bark the colour of iron, and their foliage a dun green, stood with the junction of trunk and root shrouded by tall pale grass; and although at his left the river marked out a fissure of brighter greens, none among them were the sappy greens of England and Ireland… It was as if everything here inclined not to the sun’s bright spectrum, but to those of the mineral earth and the ghostly daytime moon …

The Commandant was published in England in 1975 when its English publisher stuck a bodice-ripper jacket on it. Today it can be published in a different way, in a different country, and be seen for the masterpiece it is.