Australian Period Piece
Graceful Eighteenth Century Engraving
Under Capricorn, by Helen Simpson. (Heinemann, 7s. 6d.) John Cornelius, by Hugh Walpole. (Macmillan, 8s. 6d.)
The Wooden Spoon, by Wyn Giiffith. (Dents 7s. 6d.)
reedom's Crooked Stars, by Alexander Henderson. (Hamish Hamilton, 7s. 6d.) Reviewed by FRANCIS BURDETT Under Capricorn has the charm, the brilliance and the learning that Miss Simpson's readers have come to expect. It is a period piece and reconstructs the rising Sydney of 1831 with all the glace of an eighteenth century engraving.
We assist at the landing of the new Governor, Sir Richard Bourke. Able and experienced, he had no illusions about the difficulties ahead. The new colony had been too much for some of his predecessors; one was got rid of by the simple expedient of playing Over the Hills and Ear Away instead of For He's a Jolly Good Fellow after his health had been dutifully drunk. But Sir Richard was made of sterner stuff.
Charles Adare, his cousin, who had been something less than satisfactory at his home in Ireland, came avith him and, though he was the cause of some anxiety to the Governor, he it is who brings romance and fun into the book. Presentable and an inveterate talker, it is perhaps the conversations throughout the book that are its greatest attraction, his irresponsibility leads to his speedy dismissal from Government House.
Chance acquainted him with Sam Flusky, once a convict but now a wealthy citizen. When he was still a groom Flusky had married Lady Henrietta Considine, and in the turmoil of that marriage her brother had been shot. Lady Hattie followed him to Australia and remained a faithful wife; but isolation and strain made her surrender to drink, which at this time had almost ruined her. Carles. struck by her beauty and the pitifulfiess of her position, determined to redeem her.
It was, he found, an extraordinary household at Woolloomooloo. There were the assigned convicts in the kitchen, the blacks in the garden, Flusky himself, silent and apparently impervious towhat went on in the house, and Miss Maly, the housekeeper, who presided over everyone and
everything. Charles sets about his selfimposed task with competence and charm. He succeeds, or almost succeeds. only to find that Milly is the villain in the piece.
Adventure. pathos, romance are all skilfully blended into the background of the colony with its sharp social distinctions. Apart from the Government officials there are the "currency " folk, that is, those born in the colony, the convicts. .Emancipists or assigned, and. not least, the blacks:
An immense arnotiratof inforMation
imparted in the course of the book but it is never eatranothis to the story and never dull. There is a certain robustness of detail to add flavour to the whole but it is, I think. without Offence and necessary to the period.
Sir Hugh Walpole has devoted a great deal of space, for John Cornelius is a novel of over 500 pages. to the portrait of his hero. What is most successful, or at any rate most interesting, is the description of Port Merlin, a small seaside town
not far from Polchester. The town and Johnny's parents and some of the neighbours have something of the vitality we enjoyed so much in The Inquisitor.
Johnny himself 1 could not bring myself to believe in. His mother was a washerwoman, large, generous, and weighed down by the knowledge that she had married a gentleman. The gentleman was a small, insignificant and unsuccessful artist who died from the despair, engendered by his want of success. There are two frightful neighbours, Mrs. Hoskit's and Mrs. Gar riman. They drank and gossiped and egged Mrs. Cornelius on to her final ruin.
But Johnny, himself, lanky, boastful, vainglorious, generous, and always a child, remains an unconvincing figure. He believed so utterly in his success as an author, he worked so hard and failed in his work, he was exuberant, high-spirited, and beset by despair. Success came at last, but in a form and way that made it worthless to him. Loyalty tied him to a wife whose only bond with him was that success he so despised.
It may be that he found peace at the end; there is the curious and moving episode. at Baupon, but even that leaves us doubting. He could never accept the world, he died baffled as he had lived,
Ned Roberts was an ageing man when he returned to his beloved Wales. He had travelled, been to America, made money, and then yielded to his nostalgia. Returning to Llyn he began The Wooden Spoon. He describes himself " Pride. a bundle of dark hates. and an emptiness lvhere. at the :-ore of me. there ernght to he warmth enough to fill the heab-1. I swore I would Jefend Jny. solitude, My private knowledge he-.sill %4itli paper before himand 'ponder's his life.
The publishers tell us that Mr. Henderson was a former Berlin Correspondent of Reuters. In writing Freedom's Crooked Story he gives full rein to his dislike for modern Germany.
John Elwin was an English journalist in Berlin. He has a love affair with a singer at a night club. he indulged himself in most ways and not least in his provocative speech. He seems singularly unintelligent and there is never an attempt to see beneath the surface and to connect cause and effect.