Chapter 1 1
A long ocean voyage seems plentiful in small incidents at the time but is remembered as a blur when it ends. On my journey to Australia on the Sussex, a gentleman in the saloon said one day off Africa that only being wrecked would save us from the tedium. But after Cape Town it was all wind and fury as we tore across the Indian Ocean and the base of the Australian continent to our destination.
Even at sixteen, after I arrived in Melbourne, I knew it was a remarkable place and that I would have no trouble writing about it to Mama, Aunt Georgina, and the guvnor. A great city built on the riches provided by the gold of Victoria’s hinterland—unlike Manchester or Liverpool or Nottingham or such—it had not grown from some dreary medieval village or fearsome coalpit. It was a lively British city fifteen thousand miles from its parent.
In such a place one finds a particular kind of Briton. My Australian mentor, George Rusden, was a scholarly, British sort of Melbournian. He had come to Australia as a boy with his clergyman father and had later explored the country and driven livestock through it. As clerk of the Parliament of Victoria, he had the final say on parliamentary procedure in a booming and self-governing colony.
Rusden had somehow met up with my father in London some years past. He struck me as a Tory and was certainly not therefore the sort of fellow who would have consorted with my father—and he wasn’t pliable in the way I sensed the guvnor was, nor likely to wear a flash waistcoat nor be a critic of slums or an honest roisterer down towpaths. He was, though, a scholar and a billiard-player. The guvnor was indifferent to the sport of billiards.
Mr. Rusden had done a lot for the colony—including building a statue of Shakespeare at Melbourne University. He saw the Empire as a sort of Federated States of Britain, and Melbourne sang from the south to London and Edinburgh in the north, and they—as it were—sang back. Rusden was the sort of fellow determined to ensure the chorus would continue.
But having been charged with helping me, he took his duty by me very seriously from the moment he and my brother Alfred met my ship and took me to the Rusden house in the Brighton area of Melbourne.
It was good to have Alfred there, sitting by Mr. Rusden’s desk and winking at me now and then as Rusden spoke to me. For Alfred had become something of a sport, with none of the adolescent sullenness he used to show me when I was twelve. He had been managing a sheep station named Conoble, deep in the hinterland, for some time, and had a slightly weathered face to show for it. Corona, his new post, was a place of some thousands of acres with a hundred thousand sheep that needed to be shorn each year. And that was what I noticed: here tens of thousands of acres was the normal astounding fact, and everyone forced themselves to be calm about it. Alfred had written to my father saying he was happy as a king at Conoble, and now he was going to manage, and be happy as a king, at another station of similar named Corona. “Are you working through the alphabet?” I asked him, but there seemed a quaver in my voice perhaps only I could hear. Like him, I wanted to be happy as a king at the sheep station I was slated for, Eli Elwah, which was five hundred square miles and had a twenty-mile frontage on a river named the Murrumbidgee.
Alfred winked at me again as Mr. Rusden said, “Do not be seduced by the egalitarian principle here. Do not allow the men working on the station to treat you as a familiar. If they show any tendency to do so, quash it at once with firmness. Under these different stars, you must remain an English gentleman and maintain the reserve associated with that high office.”
“I’ll remember, sir,” I said earnestly, half still a schoolboy.
“Make no mistake, it can be lonely on a station out in the bush,” Rusden continued, “and many good men are seduced into rough company. There is an answer to this in matrimony with one of the many sturdy and handsome daughters of neighboring squatters. But you are too young yet, and if you wish to be a pastoralist on your own terms you must maintain your distance from your inferiors. Some of the men are roguish and would not be beyond corrupting you with native women while you’re in your cups, do you understand?”
I nodded. As the youngest of ten children I could see that even jovial men might think it somehow funny, as older men considered all bullying funny.
“I hope that advice is not repellent to you,” said Mr. Rusden. “But you are as good as a man now.”
“As good as a man,” Alfred confirmed, smoking his cheroot and calm as Socrates.
“And of course, beware of the wretched habit of drinking nobblers.”
Seeing my confusion, Alfred said, “Mr. Rusden means glasses of spirit. Rum or battle-axe brandy. They’ll nobble anyone.”
“Especially in the early hours of the working day,” Mr. Rusden told me. “Hutkeepers, blacksmiths, and other pastoralists will always offer you nobblers because it is part of the courtesy of the bush. But if you yield to the importunity of one you will not be able to refuse others without causing offense because colonial fellows have a great deal of sensitivity in these matters. If you become known for polite refusal from the start, you’ll offend no one person.”
“Very good advice,” said Alfred, winking at me again.
In a way I was pleased he did, but also confused. Alfred seemed to be implying I should have a nobbler when appropriate. But how would I know when was appropriate? I was trying to feel out the rules of the country and hold on to them in the immensities ahead.
I think my father believed that with me on one station and Alfred on another, we would be near neighbors. Now I had seen Alfred, the way his face carried my mother’s high brow but my father’s refined lower features, I wished it were true.
At last Rusden stopped telling me the facts of the bush and invited me and Alfred for tea on the veranda. Not being married, he vanished awhile to organize things, giving me the liberty to at last ask Alfred what he thought of Rusden’s pastoral advice.
“Look, he’s right, but you can’t get away without being a fellow too,” said Alfred, his full dandyish moustache quivering with conviction. “I would have said, join the jockey club, field some of your horses, and join the cricket club. They’ll all support you. Go to church sometimes and drink with the squatters at their pub in town. People will stick by you if you make the social effort.”
I was delighted to hear my brother’s simpler exhortations.
“Plornishmaroontigoonter!” he said suddenly in a secretive voice, using my father’s nickname for me, generally shortened to Plorn. “Above all, it’s important in Australia to be seen as a sportsman and a likeable chap.”
In the shadow of that nickname invented by Father, an old shame revived. My father had his empire of readers, not only in the British Empire but in America and France and Russia. But I had never read any of his novels. I had not read anyone’s novel, not even Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, which I’d been told that once begun you could not help finishing. I had told no one this but felt I must confess it to the guvnor himself before I left England. I’d intended to tell him that I hoped after I made my way to Australia I would gain in time the power to read his work and behold his great imagination.
Mind you, I was a cunning child and had put together a sense of my father’s tales. I knew Our Mutual Friend had a boatman’s daughter named Lizzie Hexam, a world-beater of a lass in the last book the guvnor had written before I left. (He told me he was too busy with readings to write a new one.) I knew that the book before had a lot to do with the guillotine, and people were crazy for it. I was able, if I needed, to pretend in front of strangers I had read at least some of his books.
I felt it was dishonorable and an insult to the guvnor to pretend to him, however. And though I meant to confess that shame to him, I was at school in Rochester and then at the agriculture college at Cirencester a great deal of the time, and he was often away from Gad’s Hill when I was home, reading in theaters or going to France for his health. There was never the right time to tell him. I had wondered whether to tell Aunt Georgie and get her to intercede for me, but I could not bring myself to tell her either.
Before I caught the train at Higham, I decided I’d confess and beg the guvnor’s pardon.
The day I left the dear, bright house at Gad’s Hill, I said farewell to Aunt Georgie, and to my big sister Mamie who also lived there. Mamie was a quiet and gracious and affectionate woman and was being courted by a brigade major from Chatham named Lynch, who would soon find there was more steel in Mamie than he might have expected. Brimming with tears, Mamie told me she had said goodbye to too many brothers. More than ten years back she had seen Walter off to India, and while she wept she had told him she could not support his loss. Walter was never to return, she said. She told me all this unnecessarily, but with grievous affection. She had seen Frank off to the Bengal Mounted Police four years back, his loss from home insupportable, she said. Then Sydney went to the navy and next came the departure of Alfred for Australia. And here I was, the youngest, the last child, the last of the insupportable losses that Mamie would have to endure.
I was accompanied by the guvnor and my brother Henry to Higham Station, and after booking most of my luggage through to Plymouth the three of us took the train to Paddington. It was a journey we made all the time, but it was elevated this time by the fact it could be my last run to Paddington. That finality demanded I notice every smallest thing along the track. Henry was nineteen and, in so far as any of us were handsome, he was handsome. He was also very bright and, after finishing school in Boulogne, had gone to Brackenbury’s military school at Wimbledon, which was considered a good school to prepare a boy for the army or the Indian Civil Service. But Henry hadn’t wanted anything to do with either of those destinies. He was going to be a lawyer and, unlike me and the rest of my brothers, Henry could afford to take his future success for granted.
The guvnor was proud that “H,” as we called Henry, was going to Cambridge in the new year, an institution which, along with Oxford, had gone unadorned by the shadow of any Dickens progeny before.
I cried on the way to Paddington because I feared I might not manage to tell my father the truth about my failure to read his books. H and Father did not reprimand me for my tears but pressed my shoulder at various points, with Henry telling me, “After you make your quick fortune, Plorn, you should just come back to us. You’ll be playing for the Higham cricket team at Gad’s Hill again before you know it.”
This was good brotherly comfort. And Henry was coming all the way to Plymouth to keep me company onto the ship. Yet it was not entirely cricketing comfort I needed. I felt that without having read my father’s work I was going naked and barely formed into the wilderness. I could not believe that at this late hour of departure I had been so negligent as not to speak to him about it before.
At Paddington we went towards the boat train and there by the gate Father stopped. Though he was wearing a sportive hat and a good satin vest of colorful design, he looked tired and thin, as if he hadn’t eaten enough lately. His face was seamed, and his dark curls and beard were lank and streaked with an unhealthy gray. But his gift for being there, his advanced power to occupy a place, was still intact. He had been going away to France, where he was not as well known, to have quiet times, but he seemed to come back more restless. He still held his weekend court at Gad’s Hill, and all his faithful friends turned up, the barrister Le Neve Foster and the painter Augustus Egg. The great tragedian Macready and his young missus also often came.
But since the guvnor had returned from his readings in the United States in the spring, lame, he’d excused himself from the long walks he used to go on. Yes, his life, I see now, was restless and he remained absent a lot and when there were no visitors at Gad’s Hill, talked a lot about the charges on him. I hated it when he mentioned how much it cost to keep Mama. He’d even talked about coming to Australia to do readings, to which John Forster had said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Dickens. It will kill thee.” (Forster was a Northerner and said “thee” all the time.) But I hoped the guvnor would come, and Alfred and I could protect and guide him.
And I must now tell him of the sad state of my reading. The confession would man me for the new world. “The traveler!” the guvnor said when we paused closer to the barrier for the boat train. “The colonist! The King of the Bush!” He had tears in his eyes as he extended his arms, but I shook his hand instead. Henry hung back and seemed to study the contents of a porter’s trolley to allow the guvnor and me to talk. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry. I haven’t read any of your books. But I will when I learn to penetrate those armies of paragraphs you put in them.”
I knew he was famous for not being conceited, not in that way anyhow. But I felt I would expire with shame if I said it. I simply sweated.
“You have everything you need?” he asked.
“Adequate clothes to cut a dash in the cities and on the sheep stations?”
“That’s right,” I said, still unable to tell him. “Papa, I’m sorry you have the cost of the cabin on the Sussex.”
He reached out and took my hand and kissed it. “Don’t be ridiculous, Plornish. I would not have it otherwise.”
“I was not a good student.”
“Yes, but you can be a good man.”
Tell him, tell him! went the terrible imperative in my mind. I began to cry, not caring who saw me on the platform. I was going away, and as an undeclared entity.
“Dearest boy,” the guvnor said, extracting, as if just remembering it, a letter from his pocket. “For you, my dearest Plornishgenter! You must apply yourself, Plorn. That is all. You have all the gifts but that one.”
If I read one of your books, if I penetrate all that text… would that count as application? I wondered.
I got on the train to Plymouth with Henry, who said, “Cheer up, old fellow. I don’t doubt Australia’s the go. You’ll come back able to buy and sell us. Have you read David Copperfield?”
“Of course,” I claimed through my tears.
“Then there you are! And what about Great Expectations?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Well, there you have the convict Magwitch, disqualified from life in England, giving our hero Pip his colonial fortune. Have you ever noticed how close to Plorn is Pip? It’s my theory the old man wrote it specially for you.”
This idea served to dry up my tears.
“If Magwitch could make a fortune in Australia,” said H, “how much more could a robust and free and well-founded boy like you make?”
We went through to the boat train, with a final wave to the guvnor. There were tears in his eyes, but I knew the busy city day at the premises of his magazine in Wellington Street would seize and console him.
“My dearest Plorn,” his letter read,
I write this note to-day because your going away is much upon my mind… I need not tell you that I love you dearly, and am very, very sorry in my heart to part with you… It is my comfort and my sincere conviction that you are going to try the life for which you are best fitted. I think its freedom and wildness more suited to you than any experiment in a study or office would ever have been; and without training, you could have followed no other suitable occupation.
What you have always wanted until now has been a set, steady, constant purpose. I therefore exhort you to persevere in a thorough determination to do whatever you have to do as well as you can do it. I was not so old as you are now when I first had to win my food… and I have never slackened in it since.
The guvnor’s letter then urged me never to take mean advantage of another, and never to be hard upon people in my power.
As your brothers have gone away, one by one, I have written to each such words as I am now writing to you, and have entreated them all to guide themselves by this book [the New Testament]… as questionable as the barbaric Old Testament might be, and putting aside the interpretations and inventions of men.
You will remember that you have never at home been wearied about religious observance or mere formalities.
He concluded by asking me to say night prayers, as he did, writing, “I hope you will always be able to say in after life, that you had a kind father. You cannot show your affection for him so well, or make him so happy, as by doing your duty.”
As it turned out, my stay at Eli Elwah would last only twelve hours in all, and even now my memories of the place are painful. After traveling north by train, then west on the long Murray River, I arrived at a little town named Moama where I made arrangements for the bulk of my firearms and books and bush saddles, my clothes and tools and other impedimenta, to be taken to Eli Elwah by dray. After that I traveled north by coach until it stopped, then continued on my mare, Coutts, a bay with a white blaze. I had bought her in Melbourne on Alfred’s advice and named her in honor of the guvnor’s friend Miss Coutts.
Coutts appeared to have great stamina, which the man who sold her to me said was because she had some Waler in her, explaining “Waler” was the name of the New South Wales breed of horse that had emerged from a melting pot of thoroughbreds, Arabs, Cape of Good Hope Dutch breeds, Timor ponies, with a little Percheron or Clydesdale thrown in for ruggedness.
My thoughts on horseflesh were interrupted when I came upon a lantern-faced boy drover who was very amiable and forded some creeks and lagoons with me, which he told me the colonials called “billabongs.” According to the drover they were astonishingly full for this time of year.
And so I rode into Eli Elwah Station one morning to see a fine old homestead house, with drovers’ huts, a blacksmith forge, cook and carriage houses, with a camp for blacks off by a fringe of trees along a creek. It seemed to me that everyone had visible, understandable functions, and I liked that. An ageless-looking manager with a mahogany face welcomed me in a looping accent that showed he was born here or had been here a long time. He told me his name was McGaw and that I had better stay in the homestead with someone called Britton. He informed me, I thought unnecessarily, that if he let this man Britton loose in the drovers’ huts half of them would bugger him and he wouldn’t even notice.
He told me the time for dinner, and that his wife was away so I needn’t dress in either a formal or semiformal way. A drover’s wife who was McGaw’s housekeeper then showed me to my bedroom—a pleasant room with a bed, a desk, and a long window giving onto a veranda.
I changed my boots in the long melancholy twilight and wore a tie and jacket to dinner. There was another young man with gingery hair, moustache, and complexion standing behind a chair at the set table in the dining room. This was clearly the earlier-mentioned Britton, who was probably two years or so older than me.
Soon after, McGaw entered in shirtsleeves, as was his managerial right, and riding boots. He looked distracted and was holding a cut page of newspaper thick with text, which he put on the table by his plate and continued to read for a while from above, before looking up at me and asking, “You met Archie Britton?”
After Britton and I made affirmative noises McGaw nodded and sat down in his place, where he continued to read the newspaper.
“How are things at the new dam site?” he asked Britton without looking up.
“The men are working with a will,” said Britton with an accent that had a bit of Yorkshire in it. “The Chinese men working on the scoop are thorough tigers.”
“I was told they were good before I hired them,” McGaw murmured, his gaze still on the newspaper. “I wanted a depth of seven feet at the wall. Are they delivering that, do you think?”
“According to my measurements, Mr. McGaw,” said Britton, who seemed at home here, which I felt a bit cheered by.
McGaw now looked at me from dark creases within his leathery face. “I think Britton’s a bit overawed, Dickens. You are very clear proof that the great man exists.”
“I’m afraid I’m a very ordinary fellow,” I said, long practiced at people making a nod towards my father’s literary fame as a prelude to addressing me.
“I’d say I was overawed!” declared Britton. “Who wouldn’t be?”
“Well,” I assured the two men again, “I don’t have my father’s gifts.”
“But what sort of a pater was he?” asked Britton, wanting, good fellow that he was, only to hear the best of my immortal sire.
“We used to have plays and cricket matches in the garden. When boys from school visited us they would be in awe and trembling, but after an hour or so of fun and games they’d say, ‘By Jove, Dickens, your guvnor is a stunner and no mistake!’?”
This was exactly what Britton wanted to hear, and he laughed as if reassured that God in his heaven and Charles Dickens’s power to charm boys in the garden were two signs that all was right with the earth. Even McGaw looked amused.
“And you play cricket?” Britton asked.
“Yes. I’m told by kind people I’m an all-rounder. Middle-order batsman and medium-paced bowler.”
“We have a station team,” Britton told me. “We’re playing Burrabogie a week from Saturday.”
It felt as though things were falling my way. The cricket team at Higham had asked me to bat for them whenever I was home during the past two years. My batting figures were better than I had implied.
“I read this surprising press report,” McGaw said, looking at me and tapping the newspaper clipping by his plate.
McGaw’s reflections on what he had read had to wait awhile due to the arrival of the drover’s wife and a little black girl carrying dishes.
After serving the three of us soup, the woman called, “All set, Mr. McGaw?” to which he replied, “Set as houses, thanks, Molly.” She and the black girl disappeared.
“Yes,” said McGaw, patting the newsprint again, “there were some troubles in your house, I believe. With your ma, was it? I wouldn’t mention it except—well, here it is. In your pa’s words.”
“My parents separated years ago,” I said, blushing. “And the press make too much of it,” I added. Generally when I blamed the newspapers people nodded sagely and said, “Well, we all know about the press, don’t we?” And the conversation then moved blessedly to other matters, but McGaw wasn’t finished.
“This is a piece in the Argus,” he said, “but reproduced from something called the New-York Tribune. It quotes your pa as saying, ‘Mrs. Dickens and I have lived unhappily together for many years. Hardly anyone who has known us intimately can fail to have known that we are, in all respects of character and temperament, wonderfully unsuited to each other.’?”
McGaw turned his dark, lizardy gaze up at me again, saying, “Did he really write that, d’you think? ‘Wonderfully unsuited?’ Or is that made up?”
“He would put it differently now, I think,” I replied. “But, you see, at the time there were so many rumors around.” I despised myself for defending the guvnor as if he were the accused. “I was only six, but even I knew people made too much of it all.”
McGaw slowly returned his gaze to the text, and again read. “?‘I suppose that no two people, not vicious in themselves, ever were joined together who had a greater difficulty in understanding one another.’?”
“All this is exaggerated,” I said, as if it might save me, or as if McGaw would pity me and leave off.
He did not.
“But they say that these are your pa’s own words. Are they wrong?”
“No, but you have to understand… when he wrote that he was in a desperate state… And people were being mean towards my aunt Georgie. I don’t know… I was a child, as I told you, Mr. McGaw.”
“I mean, we all know about troubles in marriage,” he continued, sniggering. “You don’t get to know a person by marriage but only by staying married. But if it was as bad as your pa says, why did he marry your mama in the first place?”
Before I could answer, he read on. “?‘For some years past, Mrs. Dickens has been in the habit of representing to me that it would be better for her to go away and live apart; that her always increasing estrangement made a mental disorder under which she sometimes labors—more, that she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife and that she would be better far away. I have uniformly replied that we must bear our misfortune and fight the fight out to the end, that the children were the first consideration, and that I feared we must bind ourselves together “in appearance.”’?”
Britton looked away and concentrated on the prints of stallions on the wall, embarrassed for me.
“Mr. McGaw,” I began sternly, before being interrupted by the housekeeper and the girl coming back to set up our plates with roasted lamb and vegetables.
Britton took the time to discuss my ship with me, and I tried to give a polite account of my voyage on the sailing ship Sussex, mentioning my good cabin and my friend, William Dempster, who’d been on board with me. I lamented I wouldn’t see much of him because he was bound for Western Australia.
The woman and child served our meal, and we discussed my journey out under sail, and the fear many had of steamships being set alight by a spark from the engines.
After the women left we set to on our dinner, and even McGaw spent time purely relishing it. But after a while he looked down at the newspaper report again.
“Edward,” he said, “I trust you’re willing to discuss these matters. You are not so tender in feeling as to avoid these issues, are you?”
“No,” I declared. I didn’t feel I had had the chance to say otherwise. “But—”
“What about this then?” he interrupted. “?‘Nothing has, on many occasions, stood between us and a separation but Mrs. Dickens’s sister, Georgina Hogarth…’?”
“My auntie Georgie,” I said wearily, hoping it might remind him he was addressing living and breathing entities. It didn’t.
“Why would she stay on after your father had sent her own sister away?”
“For us,” I cried. “Purely for us.”
But the beggar went on reading. “?‘From the age of fifteen she has devoted herself to our house and our children. She has been their playmate, instructress, friend, protectress, adviser, companion. In the manly consideration towards Mrs. Dickens which I owe my wife, I will only remark of her that the peculiarity of her character has thrown all the children on someone else, indeed on her sister. I do not know—cannot by any stretch of fancy imagine—what would have become of them but for this aunt, who has grown up with them, to whom they are devoted, and who has sacrificed the best part of her youth and life to them.’?”
I knew the guvnor had written a letter for the papers, but I hadn’t heard it read so coldly and so cruelly.
Again, he raised his eyes to mine. “Manly consideration towards Mrs. Dickens…?” he asked with a frown.
“You need to understand, Mr. McGaw,” I warned, “he was provoked by malicious people. You see, he was answering the most malicious rumors at the time.” But had the guvnor not realized that papers would republish his letter whenever they were short of copy?
“?‘I hope that no one who may become acquainted with what I write here can possibly be so cruel and unjust, as to put any misconstruction on our separation, so far. My elder children all understand it perfectly, and all accept it as inevitable.’?”
McGaw breathed in emphatically. “But let me see here, Edward. It gets very confusing. First he defends your aunt, and then he goes on to mention another ‘spotless young creature,’ someone as innocent and pure as your sisters, and malicious persons who spread rumors about her. Very confusing to a colonial reader, I would say.”
I was not about to tell him the “spotless young creature” was Miss Ternan, who the guvnor had tried to help in her career as an actress. Now and then she visited Gad’s Hill, but she was bad at cricket.
My dinner lay cooling before me, but molten steel had begun to flow through my veins. Two of the malicious persons referred to were Thackeray’s daughters, Minnie and Annie, who we’d been friends with when we were little. During his life Mr. Thackeray would come to Gad’s Hill and play cricket. He and my father would also devise plays and give all us brats a part in them. Then, one day when I was six, the guvnor called us all together and told us that our former friends the Thackerays had betrayed us with vicious rumors. That was the year everything changed, with Mama going back to her other family’s house, taking my eldest brother, Charles. It was also the year the guvnor grew old.
“Do you know who this ‘spotless young woman’ is?” McGaw asked, bully that he was.
“You are not a gentleman, Mr. McGaw,” I declared, choking with something broader than rage, more demanding than panic. I wanted in truth to kill him.
“I am a bloody gentleman, you know,” McGaw insisted. “I was quoting your own deathless pa, after all. Come on, Dickens, don’t be like that. You need a thick hide to be successful in the bush.”
“Damn you, Mr. McGaw. I won’t stay under your roof and I will not stoop to work for you.”
“You’ll feel different in the morning. Look, let’s have a nobbler and make peace.”
“You are lucky I don’t demand honor,” I said furiously.
“A duel, a trial of honor.”
McGaw turned to a flushed Britton, who was sitting, looking at us wide-eyed. “A trial of honor? Can you believe this bloke?”
“My father is a gentleman, Mr. McGaw, whereas you are a lout.”
I got up and walked away from the table and was in the corridor before he called out after me, with some anger in his voice, “I’ll let all that guff go till tomorrow. We’re all bloody human, you know. Me, you, your immortal pa.”
It felt like shame was devouring me from inside—shame for my guvnor, for my mama, for Aunt Georgie, for myself, for the entire breathing world. I had to leave McGaw or kill him.