By Amanda Lohrey
The following is a transcript of a talk given by Amanda Lohrey at the launch of The Broad Arrow: Being Passages from the History of Maida Gwynnham, a Lifer by Oliné Keese, with a critical introduction by Jenna Mead on 14 June 2019.
What I’m holding here is one of the most significant works in our national literature, one that until now has been unjustly overlooked. And remarkably, this scholarly edition is the first complete version of Caroline Leakey’s novel to appear since it was first published in 1859 in London. Since then there have been a number of abridged editions but now at last the full version has been restored after years of painstaking editorial work by Jenna Mead.
Jenna is known primarily as a distinguished mediaevalist and teacher of cultural studies. Less well known is that early in her career she was one of our best and most fearless critics of contemporary Australian writing. And in 1997 she edited a seminal collection of essays of feminist critique called Bodyjamming that anctipated the #MeToo movement by over two decades. Her interest in women’s lives, and the ways in which they are documented, and read, has been one of her abiding preoccupations, and one that many of us have reason to be grateful for.
Who was Caroline Leakey and why is The Broad Arrow an important work in the national literature?
Leakey was an Englishwoman who first came to Tasmania at the tender age of 20 to help her married sister in Hobart Town with her children and domestic responsibilities. She spent five years in the colony from1848–53 and used that experience as the basis of her novel of convict life that was ultimately published in London in 1859.
The Broad Arrow is a classic tale of the fallen woman. Maida Gwynnham is a gentlewoman seduced by a cad, Captain Norwell, and in the throes of sexual infatuation induced to collude in a forgery, after which she bears an illegitimate child that dies from an illness as a result of which Maida is convicted of infanticide and transported to Van Diemen’s Land.
The authenticity of Leakey’s portraiture, its quality as documentary realism and eyewitness account, was recognised in her own day. Part of the appeal of the novel is its fascinating detail in regard to the everyday life of Hobart Town, including the ways in which the colony fed itself. There is also a good deal on the structure of government, debates about transportation and, something historical novels invariably get wrong, the centrality of religion and the Angican Church as an agent of empire.
The novel is also a rattling good read, infused at times with a wry wit.
Aunt Evelyn was exactly the opposite to all Bridget had pictured her. She was a native, and had the fair skin, slender figure, and long limbs of the Tasmanian, with the not less characteristic, but more painful colonial feature – prematurely decayed and broken teeth. Now thirty guineas refill a mouth with as ornamental, if not as useful, a set as that provided by nature. Then Mrs. Evelyn had to bear tooth-ache and tooth want, until some years later, when an American dentist settled in Hobarton, affording the inhabitants a chance of transferring their gold from their pockets to their mouths. It was from this clever artist that she gained, not only her third teeth, but her first thoughts of the millennium. He was wont to alleviate the pain it was his profession to inflict by holding sweet talk on the blissful subject. ‘Do you believe in the millennium?’ he whispered to her, as faint from the extraction of three long roots she leaned back to yield a fourth to that cruel instrument. She nodded assent with a silent hope that there might be either no teeth or no dentists in the period so called. Others, to whom he put the same question, shook their heads either at it or at his mode of exhibiting it; whilst one gentleman, less refined or more tortured, was heard to roar. ‘Hang the millennium sir! What has it to do with my tooth or your forceps?’ (129)
This is an important book for all sorts of reasons.
It predates Marcus Clarke’s better known For the Term of His Natural Life by 15 years and is in many ways, I would argue, more interesting. There is evidence that Clarke read Leakey’s book and made use of it but there are important differences.
Clarke’s opus is a masculinist work, a gothic melodrama in the 19th-century genre of boys’ own adventures – albeit darker and with more cruelty. A more melancholy version, say, of Kidnapped or the R.M. Balantyne stories.
But The Broad Arrow is primarily about the lives of women. Rich in domestic detail, it reveals the many ways in which the lives of women shape the culture of the colony. It features a startlingly modern heroine with a strong sexuality that is never downplayed or explained away. Maida Gymnhham is proud, temperamental and defiant. Hers is ultimately an uncompromising path with no version of the tidy resolutions of most Victorian fiction.
Like Clarke, Leakey can convey the intensity of the physical suffering endured by the convict, but what I found most remarkable about her writing – and this could only, or most tellingly be revealed in domestic scenes – is how affectingly she portrays dthe peculiar and uneasy intimacy of the colonists with their convict servants, a very strange intimacy indeed because it was a form of slavery.
And what it gives rise to is a subtle psychological climate in which the free settlers and colonials are at all times uneasy and insecure in their physical and moral station. Nothing, for them, ever feels quite right, and it’s not just because of the alien landscape but because their day-to-day relationships with their convict servants are fraught with contradiction.
This unease is not something you can render when writing as an historian. Only in fiction, where it can be represented, and embodied, as it were, in character, can it be captured with any degree of success and Caroline Leakey had the skills to do it.
Which brings me to the scholarly achievements of this edition.
What Jenna has accomplished in this edition is the restoration of the original text, the first and full edition that appeared in 1859. But in 1886 the publisher commissioned an editor to cut the original text by a third, amounting to 40,000 words, and the novel was republished in an abridged version that reduced its original breadth and complexity to the genre of exotic romance.
What Jenna has done, in a painstaking labour that is frankly awe-inspiring, is restore the complete original text and, in a stroke of editorial genius, she has laid the two novels out in an integrated text.
The cuts of the abridged novel are reinstated but printed in shaded text so that you can – effortlessly – read both at the same time. And this I might say doesn’t make for difficult reading, it makes for fascinating reading. Because what it reveals is the politics of narrative.
Thanks to Jenna’s work here, what might have been a purely literary project becomes a broader cultural enterprise.
What is published, how it’s published and marketed, when and where it’s published, what the general population gets to read or doesn’t read – all of these are factors that shape the way we think and feel. And all are at play in the abridged version of The Broad Arrow in which one kind of novel is turned into another, and lesser kind, one with less historical and political import.
Literature too often tends to be studied as a branch of sociology, i.e. in terms of themes and issues, rather than as a textual study, i.e. of the way in which formal considerations in the use of language influence our thinking, and it is these considerations that Jenna addresses in her extraordinarily rich and detailed introduction to the novel.
So with its dual text, The Broad Arrow offers a rich teaching text that could be taught not just in English courses, but in history, cultural studies, editing, media studies and journalism courses.
There’s another reason why this book is important.
I refer here to an aspect of the local political setting, and recent developments in the Tasmanian cultural landscape which have not been sufficiently commented on, and that is the ongoing neglect of and, worse, strategic occlusion of, the convict heritage of this state. Who would have thought that all these years after transportation ceased we would be in this position?
I’ll give one primary and dismaying example: the relatively recent renovation of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. What happened to the convict room? Remember that? It was old, it was dusty, but it could still produce a frisson in visitors and was available to be expanded and improved on. After all this, it seems that we are still unable to do justice to our history as a penal colony.
Into this disgraceful neglect, this silence, comes The Broad Arrow.
In 1998 a short-lived local history collective based at the University of Tasmania, called the Wapping History Group, produced that wonderful book, Down Wapping. The Hobart City Council subsequently mounted an exhibition based on the book and it was the most popular exhibition in terms of public interest in the council’s history. I’d like to see a similar exhibition mounted based on The Broad Arrow, which, among other things, would not only fill a gap in the historical records but act as a corrective to the dishonest convict sagas on TV, and in film, that grossly distort the past.
Anyway, enough from me, and congratulations to Jenna on her superb work in giving us back The Broad Arrow.
Amanda Lohrey is a Tasmanian-born writer. Some of her novels include Camille’s Bread (1995), The Philosopher’s Doll (2004), Vertigo (2008), Reading Madame Bovary (2010) and A Short History of Richard Kline (2015). Amanda has won a number of awards including the Patrick White Award in 2012.