Women on the Frontier

Book Review of New Irish-Australian novel by Frances Devlin-Glass

Gay Lynch: Unsettled, Ligature, Balmain (Sydney), 2019. 428 pp.

ISBN; 978-1-925883-23-7

RRP: $35 (print). Also available as an e-book at https://www.ligatu.re/book/unsettled/

Gay Lynch’s novel, Unsettled, is aptly titled. It deals with an emigrant family from Galway who settled in the border districts of South Australia in the 1850s. The living is hard near current day Mt Gambier (Gambierton, its earlier name and the name used in the novel), and much is in turmoil for the original inhabitants of the area, the Booandik (modern spelling is Bungandidj), as well as settlers. A speared bullock may precipitate the destruction of homes or worse, a genocidal atrocity. But the title also encompasses the radical restlessness of the central figure of the novel, Rosanna, to whom the reader is introduced as a young teenager, fretting and chaffing at her position in the world as a woman (she is painfully aware she means less to her father than her brother does), as a member of an underclass (a transplanted Irish cottier who has to deal with upper-class exploitation).

Rosanna fits to a tee the prototypical ‘new Australian girl’, anti-imperial and anti-feminine, which became popular in the character of Miles Franklin’s Sybylla (My Brilliant Career) and in the young adult novels of Mary Grant Bruce.  But in this novel, Gay Lynch goes a step further: she interrogates the baggage imported into Australia of Irish misogyny, cunningly deploying an intertextual narrative device, a found version of Fr Geoghegan’s historical play, The Hibernian Father (1840). This device allows Lynch to analyse men’s harshness to women (and subordinate or weaker men) because the main character in Geoghegan’s play is a father who, as Galway mayor, feels obliged to execute his son for an alleged murder. The autocracy and inhumanity of this action is very clear to the women, and much less so to the men of the narrative. Australia, the novel makes clear, is a place where, in a generation, a more secure and freer life may be found (though they remain struggling farmers in thrall to the ‘big house’ of the area), and part of that improved amenity entails women painfully striking out for freedom from patriarchal oppression, as Rosanna feels impelled to do. She will not endure without protest what her defeated and largely defeatist mother does.

As you may be already gathering, there’s a lot going on in the novel. The narrative makes use of real historical events, places and people, like steeplechaser and poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and the wreck of the Admella, as well as settlers inflicting violent atrocities on Aboriginal communities and individuals. It’s a world in which it’s difficult for women to survive with any dignity, and the narrative perspective in the novel is designed to underline that point. Rosanna is a ‘fresh gum shoot strangled by her family’, mostly the men in it who expect her to work to cover their own bad judgment, and to be servile to them. There are other disadvantaged people in the novel too, like Skelly, Rosanna’s brother who is in the parlance of the Victorian novel a ‘cripple’. He is taken advantage of by a Catholic teaching order whose brief is to extend his archaeological and drawing gifts and protect him, but who sexually abuse him. Rosanna is up to this challenge, in a way that reminds one of the role of women in bringing the current clerical abuse scandals to notice and justice in the criminal courts. She is also able to seek justice for her child from the parents of the father of the child. She is no shrinking violet.

Because Rosanna arrives in the colony as a ten-year-old and has ready access to the Booandik children, and especially her closest friend Moorecke, a young woman, she grows up colour-blind, but the novel makes much of her anxiety for her friend, as she gradually comes to understand the very real risks the Booandiks face from white settlers. It’s sensitively written, demonstrating the very different cultural contexts of the Irish girl and the Aboriginal woman married to a much older man and already the mother of a child who has died. Clear-eyed Skelly, the artist-brother of Rosanna, documents the burial of the child in the cave in one of his sketches, a moving scene. The child’s place between three languages – Irish, English and Booandik – is casually, and without translation, rendered.

The novel treads a clever path between documenting a not-too-distant past and making it relevant to current social concerns. It has many of the features of the Victorian family epic in covering a big expanse of time, from the 1850s to the deaths of Dickens and Adam Lindsay Gordon in 1870 and in telling its story in short chapters, which are reminiscent of the serial-isable novel so common in the period. It looks like a pioneer novel, but is doing much more work than that in taking up feminist and social justice issues unthought of or discussed in the period depicted.

It also makes strategic use of a real colonial play by Edward Geoghegan (mentioned above), the communal reading (and copying) of which is intercut with sex scenes of a distinctly un-Victorian nature. The play is used as a bribe by the owner of the manuscript to extract sexual favours. These sex-scenes are not phallocentric, but told from Rosanna’s point of view and are very emphatically both natural and desired: she is depicted as open to her body’s impulses and feelings, and unusually resistant to church moral imperatives, even when delivered in the confessional to her by a priest, Julian Tenison Woods (Saint Mary McKillop’s defender) whom she loves and respects.

Rosanna is a perpetual victim to ‘restlessness’, the sense that there is a ‘piece missing’: she is hungry for a life beyond the strictures of the farm, and dreams of acting the main character in the play, and perhaps marrying the exotic actor. Her desires are fulfilled, but not in the ways or to the extent she hopes, but she does make a much more viable life for her son.

This is a novel that breaks new ground in Irish Australian fiction. It is successful in giving its main protagonist a voice and a reality that history has occluded, and it inscribes a grounded believable history and a particular place in Australia, south-east South Australia, in fresh ways.


Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances has taught Literary Studies since the 1970s and is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.