On not writing off youngest sons

The fourth in Tinteán’s series about the works of Thomas Keneally

A review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Thomas Keneally: The Dickens Boy, Penguin, (UK), 2021.

ISBN:  9781760893200

RRP: $19.95

Like my great, great grandfather, Charles Dickens’s youngest son ‘Plorn’ (his full name was Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens), was packed off to Australia at the age of 16. He would never see his father and mother again. Unlike my GG grandfather, he had not been guilty of any misdemeanour other than not yet making good. It seems to me, and I suspect many would agree, that it was unduly harsh to have determined that a child (or even a young man?) of that age was already a failure. Thomas Keneally’s novel The Dickens Boy has some fun at the expense of Dickens’s narrative habit of despatching his characters to Australia such as ‘[h]opeless Mr Micawber and Little Em’ly who has lost her virtue’ and all her relatives, criminals, reformed prostitutes and the stupid, either to kill or get rid of them. An older brother of Plorn, Alfred, complains bitterly of his sense that he was so treated, but the more naïve Plorn insists, in his innocence, that it was to give him a ‘fresh start’. 

Dickens was not unaware of his son’s distress at being cast adrift to the other end of the universe. He wrote to Plorn’s sister, Mamie, in September 1868,

I can honestly report that he went away, poor dear fellow, as well as could be expected. He was pale and had been crying and (Henry said) had broken down in the railway carriage after leaving Higham Station, but only for a short time…

Epigraph of The Dickens Boy.

Henry was the most successful of the ten Dickens’s children, and Plorn was the much-loved youngest scion. Recent feminist biographies of Charles Dickens, especially those of Claire Tomalin (Charles Dickens: A Life and The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens), reveal a much darker story than Plorn was ever aware of – that his father had attempted to have his mother (whom he had not seen since he was six) declared mentally ill, and cast her off in favour of the much younger Irish actor, Ellen Ternan. Because of his standing as a revered Victorian writer, Dickens went to extravagant lengths to hide his adultery, burning all correspondence, but Tomalin’s book on their relationship unearths much evidence to support its existence.

The tail end of Dickens’s family were effectively mothered by Catherine’s sister, Georgiana. Catherine was never reconciled to the separation, and Plorn has affectionate feelings both for the ‘guvnor’ and his mother. Keneally is certainly aware of Dickens’s fallibility and the twenty-first-century revelations, but gives himself the discipline of remaining true to Plorn’s innocent (but puzzled) understandings of the quiet family drama unfolding in the old country. Plorn doggedly buys the sanitised myths of virtue that the hypocritical Dickens manufactured for the consumption of his readers. The implication is that the real (but unstated) reason for his exile was in fact to remove the ability of the adult children to expose their father.

Coming as I do from a deep familiarity with Joseph Furphy’s novels, and his mocking strictures against the younger sons of famous fathers not making good in Australia, I was curious to see how Irish-Australian Keneally would deal with Plorn’s ordeals in the outback. Furphy is uncompromising about what it takes to be an Australian safe to let loose in the outback (or even ‘God’s own Riverina’). If you can’t tell mallee from lignum, you’ve not earned the right to be there and you’ll most likely die, as you should. As is quite typical with Keneally, his is a gentle rather than a mocking treatment. He enjoys the fact that so many bushmen, in defending themselves against the loneliness of a vast continent, made friends with books, and that ‘Boz’ was the most popular writer of his time. Beguilingly, Plorn has to fake his familiarity with his great writerly father’s works, and only late in the novel does he get around to reading any of them. And Keneally does attempt to reclaim the mother’s reputation by having a station cook produce a Christmas dinner out near Wilcannia that adapts Plorn’s mother’s recipes for colonial conditions.

To me, this is a novel pitched at English readers in particular. It offers up the comprehensive tropes of an outback education: river-boat travel on the Darling, followed by long horseback rides to an outback station between the Paroo and the Darling; crooked stock and station agents of a particularly misogynistic kind; benign bushranger stick-ups with musical entertainment; the shearing lesson; the holiday cricket matches between stations; being sold a dud horse at a grotesquely inflated price; and inevitably and tragically, marginalised Indigenous people and a massacre of them, and to his credit Plorn performs admirably in this crisis. There are some unusual takes on this familiar fare. The station owners of Mambo, Plorn’s second and relatively successful berth, are kindly and not only to sons of famous fathers. They accommodate and value the First Nations Paakantji who do valuable work for them in guiding through Country and negotiating the peace with those nations less well-treated by settlers.

Perhaps the most horrific scene, and it’s a typical one in colonial Australia, is of a massacre of Paakantji by Queensland police who cross borders to exact vengeance on Indigenous people who are deemed to have invaded ‘private space’ or sought cattle and sheep for sustenance in recompense for Country that has been made unproductive. It’s a violent coming-of-age story for the naïve young man, and Keneally does not spare us the detail, and makes clear one of his ‘tribe’, not Irish, but a Belgian Catholic priest, is martyred among the Paakantji for his commitment to them and care of them (he ministers to them by living their life). This episode forces Plorn to reconsider his famous father’s prejudices against Papists, missionaries, and Indigenous people. Another grim episode is one in which a Britisher, to escape a peerage, commits suicide in an ingenious way to escape the House of Lords. It’s hard not to raise a smile at the extremity of his solution.

That this is not a simple imitation of a colonial novel is made clear in the scenes in which Plorn sensitively fends off a gay advance and gets to read a raunchy tale of a sexually forward woman, who does in fact escape an abusive partner with the would-be novelist. It’s to impose a twenty-first sensibility on Plorn, but it is contrived utterly convincingly, down to the syphilis she acquires from her husband and its devastating impact on her body.

Despite its open-eyed realism, this is a gentle work, often funny, in which one hears often the voice of Dickens, the master story-teller, who is the ghost of this work, and something of a hero for Keneally, one imagines, warts and all.

Frances Devlin-Glass is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.