Sunday, 20 April 2008

Miles Franklin's Old Blastus Of Bandicoot (1931) bristles like a Banksia in bloom with "good writing" - this from Furnley Maurice's testimony on an inside page in this edition's front matter. It is the 1945 Allied Authors and Artists' ("The sign of a good Australian book") edition, on fox-prone paper yellow with age.

While Franklin doesn't swerve to avoid emotion - there are as many teary moments here as in Bleak House - she avoids at all costs extraneous verbiage. This book is tight as a drum and, like that instrument, responds to good reading with gusto.

Written on the eve of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the book ends with a bridge opening. But this is a dry event compared to the desertion that greets the Barrys when they return - in a car awarded to Old Blastus himself for services rendered during a recent bushfire.

Franklin's subtitle - 'Opuscule on a Pioneer Tufted with Ragged Rhymes' - serves two purposes. It downplays her art - which is fiercely and attractively evident - and brings attention to the poetry clips that serve to introduce each chapter. These are furiously relevant but I'm half convinced that they were written by the author herself, expressly to accompany her beautiful prose.

But it also does something else. It highlights the matter of 'beards' (see yesterday's post), and feminine aversion to large growths which Franklin cheekily presents as analogues of old-fashioned thinking.

The book is set on the eve of federation and its action takes place near Queanbeyan and the future capital, the site of which had at the time not been decided on. It works on so many 'levels' that your head verily spins.

In addition to notions of respectability and the very real feeling that the nation needed improvement - if only to erase the stain of transport on a government ticket - it touches very deliberately on the issue of women.

While Ross attracts Dora, she is, by the end, in no hurry to marry, preferring to go off with brother Bob until old enough to apply to become a nurse (the one job respectable women could take up, in those days). Dora is as tough as her dad - who has feuded with Lindsay, a neighbour, for decades since the man's son got his daughter pregnant and married another - and possibly tougher than any in the book.

But there's lavish helpings of humour. Especially near the beginning of a book concerned very much with female honour and with feminine participation in the public sphere, Franklin pops tiny, inconspicuous, erotic markers in the text. Code, perhaps, for future generations to decipher.

The problem of Mabel is tied closely to the problem of money. Her son Dora has always thought of as her brother (the hint near the beginning gives the reader no doubt about the truth). And in a sense the book is 'about' how to cope with loss of face in a society where communal action (fighting bushfires, for example) could mean the difference between survival and destitution.

Without trust, Franklin says, there is no community. But what about Mabel? Is she to pay, forever, for a single night's impropriety? Is she to blame when the man refused to acknowledge her? And what about Arthur? Are the sins of the mother forever visited on her son?

Franklin is, in fact, Dickens in the Bush. But she's got the sharp eye and biting wit of Jane Austen. This is a treasure, and will propel me to getting more books by Franklin.

Her economy - perhaps learned from habits instilled by life in the hot Australian bush - is endlessly exhilarating.

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