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  • Published: 18 May 2021
  • ISBN: 9781760893200
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $19.99

The Dickens Boy


A long ocean voyage seems plentiful in small incidents at the time, but is remembered as a blur when it ends. On my journey to Australia on the Sussex, a gentleman in the saloon said one day off Africa that only being wrecked would save us from the tedium. But after Cape Town it was all wind and fury as we tore across the Indian Ocean and the base of the Australian continent to our destination.

Even at sixteen, after I arrived in Melbourne I knew it was a remarkable place and that I would have no trouble writing about it to Mama, Aunt Georgina and the guvnor. A great city built on the riches provided by the gold of Victoria’s hinterland – unlike Manchester or Liverpool or Nottingham or such – it had not grown from some dreary medieval village or fearsome coalpit. It was a lively British city fifteen thousand miles from its parent.

In such a place one finds a particular kind of Briton. My Australian mentor, George Rusden, was a scholarly, British sort of Melbournian. He had come to Australia as a boy with his clergyman father and had later explored the country and driven livestock through it. As clerk of the Parliament of Victoria, he had the final say on parliamentary procedure in a booming and self-governing colony.

Rusden had somehow met up with my father in London some years past. He struck me as a Tory and was certainly not therefore the sort of fellow who would have consorted with my father – and he wasn’t pliable in the way I sensed the guvnor was, nor likely to wear a flash waistcoat nor be a critic of slums or an honest roisterer down towpaths. He was, though, a scholar and a billiard-player. The guvnor was indifferent to the sport of billiards.

Mr Rusden had done a lot for the colony – including building a statue of Shakespeare at Melbourne University. He saw the Empire as a sort of Federated States of Britain, and Melbourne sang from the south to London and Edinburgh in the north, and they – as it were – sang back. Rusden was the sort of fellow determined to ensure the chorus would continue.

But having been charged with helping me, he took his duty by me very seriously from the moment he and my brother, Alfred, met my ship and took me to the Rusden house in the Melbourne area of Brighton.

It was good to have Alfred there, sitting by Mr Rusden’s desk and winking at me now and then as Rusden spoke to me. For Alfred had become something of a sport, with none of the adolescent sullenness he used to show me when I was twelve. He had been managing a sheep station named Conoble, deep in the hinterland, for some time, and had a slightly weathered face to show for it. Corona, his new post, was a place of some thousands of acres with 100,000 sheep that needed to be shorn each year. And that was what I noticed: here tens of thousands of acres was the normal astounding fact, and everyone forced themselves to be calm about it. Alfred had written to my father saying he was happy as a king at Conoble, and now he was going to manage another station of similar dimensions, this place named Corona up in New South Wales. ‘Are you working through the alphabet?’ I asked him, but there seemed a quaver in my voice perhaps only I could hear. Like him, I wanted to be happy as a king at the sheep station I was slated for, Eli Elwah, which was five hundred square miles and had a twenty-mile frontage on a river named the Murrumbidgee.

Alfred winked at me again as Mr Rusden said, ‘Do not be seduced by the egalitarian principle here. Do not allow the men working on the station to treat you as a familiar. If they show any tendency to do so, quash it at once with firmness. Under these different stars, you must remain an English gentleman and maintain the reserve associated with that high office.’

‘I’ll remember, sir,’ I said earnestly, half still a schoolboy.

‘Make no mistake, it can be lonely on a station out in the bush,’ Rusden continued, ‘and many good men are seduced into rough company. There is an answer to this in matrimony with one of the many sturdy and handsome daughters of neighbouring squatters. But you are too young yet, and if you wish to be a pastoralist on your own terms you must maintain your distance from your inferiors. Some of the men are roguish and would not be beyond corrupting you with native women while you’re in your cups, do you understand?’

I nodded. As the youngest of ten children I could see that even jovial men might think it somehow funny, as older men considered all bullying funny.

‘I hope that advice is not repellent to you,’ said Mr Rusden. ‘But you are as good as a man now.’

‘As good as a man,’ Alfred confirmed, smoking his cheroot and calm as Socrates.

‘And of course, beware of the wretched habit of drinking nobblers.’

Seeing my confusion, Alfred said, ‘Mr Rusden means glasses of spirit. Rum or battleaxe brandy. They’ll nobble anyone.’

‘Especially in the early hours of the working day,’ Mr Rusden told me. ‘Hutkeepers, blacksmiths and other pastoralists will always offer you nobblers because it is part of the courtesy of the bush. But if you yield to the importunity of one you will not be able to refuse others without causing offence because colonial fellows have a great deal of sensitivity in these matters. If you become known for polite refusal from the start, you’ll offend no one person.’

‘Very good advice,’ said Alfred, winking at me again.

In a way I was pleased he did, but also confused. Alfred seemed to be implying I should have a nobbler when appropriate. But how would I know when was appropriate? I was trying to feel out the rules of the country, and hold onto them in the immensities ahead.

I think my father believed that with me on one station and Alfred on another, we would be near-neighbours. Now I had seen Alfred, the way his face carried my mother’s high brow but my father’s refined lower features, I wished it were true.

At last Rusden stopped telling me the facts of the bush and invited me and Alfred for tea on the veranda. Not being married, he vanished a while to organise things, giving me the liberty to at last ask Alfred what he thought of Rusden’s pastoral advice.

‘Look, he’s right, but you can’t get away without being a fellow too,’ said Alfred, his full dandy-ish moustache quivering with conviction. ‘I would have said, join the jockey club, field some of your horses, and join the cricket club. They’ll all support you. Go to church sometimes and drink with the squatters at their pub in town. People will stick by you if you make the social effort.’

I was delighted to hear my brother’s simpler exhortations. ‘Plornishmaroontigoonter!’ he said suddenly in a secretive voice, using my father’s nickname for me, generally shortened to Plorn. ‘Above all, it’s important in Australia to be seen as a sportsman and a likeable chap.’

In the shadow of that nickname invented by Father, an old shame revived. My father had his empire of readers, not only in the British Empire but in America and France and Russia. But I had never read any of his novels. I had not read anyone’s novel, not even Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which I’d been told that once begun you could not help finishing. I had told no one this but felt I must confess it to the guvnor himself before I left England. I’d intended to tell him that I hoped after I made my way to Australia I would gain in time the power to read his work and behold his great imagination.

Mind you, I was a cunning child and had put together a sense of my father’s tales. I knew Our Mutual Friend had a boatman’s daughter named Lizzie Hexam, a world beater of a lass in the last book the guvnor had written before I left. (He told me he was too busy with readings to write a new one.) I knew that the book before had a lot to do with the guillotine, and people were crazy for it. I was able, if I needed, to pretend in front of strangers I had read at least some of his books.

I felt it was dishonourable and an insult to the guvnor to pretend to him, however. And though I meant to confess that shame to him, I was at school in Rochester and then at the agriculture college at Cirencester a great deal of the time, and he was often away from Gad’s Hill when I was home, reading in theatres or going to France for his health. There was never the right time to tell him. I had wondered whether to tell Aunt Georgie and get her to intercede for me, but I could not bring myself to tell her either.

Before I caught the train at Higham, I decided I’d confess and beg the guvnor’s pardon.

The day I left the dear, bright house at Gad’s Hill, I said farewell to Aunt Georgie, and to my big sister, Mamie, who also lived there. Mamie was a quiet and gracious and affectionate woman and was being courted by a brigade major from Chatham named Lynch, who would soon find there was more steel in Mamie than he might have expected. Brimming with tears, Mamie told me she had said goodbye to too many brothers. More than ten years back she had seen Walter off to India, and while she wept she had told him she could not support his loss. Walter was never to return, she said. She told me all this unnecessarily, but with grievous affection. She had seen Frank off to the Bengal Mounted Police four years back, his loss from home insupportable, she said. Then Sydney went to the navy and next came the departure of Alfred for Australia. And here I was, the youngest, the last child, the last of the insupportable losses that Mamie would have to endure.

I was accompanied by the guvnor and my brother Henry to Higham station, and after booking most of my luggage through to Plymouth the three of us took the train to Paddington. It was a journey we made all the time, but it was elevated this time by the fact it could be my last run to Paddington. That finality demanded I notice every smallest thing along the track. Henry was nineteen and, in so far as any of us were handsome, he was handsome. He was also very bright and, after finishing school in Boulogne, had gone to Brackenbury’s military school at Wimbledon, which was considered a good school to prepare a boy for the army or the Indian Civil Service. But Henry hadn’t wanted anything to do with either of those destinies. He was going to be a lawyer and, unlike me and the rest of my brothers, Henry could afford to take his future success for granted.

The guvnor was proud that ‘H’, as we called Henry, was going to Cambridge in the new year, an institution which, along with Oxford, had gone unadorned by the shadow of any Dickens progeny before.

I cried on the way to Paddington because I feared I might not manage to tell my father the truth about my failure to read his books. H and Father did not reprimand me for my tears but pressed my shoulder at various points, with Henry telling me, ‘After you make your quick fortune, Plorn, you should just come back to us. You’ll be playing for the Higham cricket team at Gad’s Hill again before you know it.’

This was good brotherly comfort. And Henry was coming all the way to Plymouth to keep me company onto the ship. Yet it was not entirely cricketing comfort I needed. I felt that without having read my father’s work I was going naked and barely formed into the wilderness. I could not believe that at this late hour of departure I had been so negligent as not to speak to him about it before.

At Paddington we went towards the boat train and there by the gate Father stopped. Though he was wearing a sportive hat and a good satin vest of colourful design, he looked tired and thin, as if he hadn’t eaten enough lately. His face was seamed and his dark curls and beard were lank and streaked with an unhealthy grey. But his gift for being there, his advanced power to occupy a place, was still intact. He had been going away to France, where he was not as well known, to have quiet times, but he seemed to come back more restless. He still held his weekend court at Gad’s Hill, and all his faithful friends turned up, the barrister Le Neve Foster and the painter Augustus Egg. The great tragedian Macready and his young missus also often came.

But since the guvnor had returned from his readings in the United States in the spring, lame, he’d excused himself from the long walks he used to go on. Yes, his life, I see now, was restless and he remained absent a lot and when there were no visitors at Gad’s Hill, talked a lot about the charges on him. I hated it when he mentioned how much it cost to keep Mama. He’d even talked about coming to Australia to do readings, to which John Forster had said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Dickens. It will kill thee.’ (Forster was a Northerner and said ‘thee’ all the time). But I hoped the guvnor would come, and Alfred and I could protect and guide him.

And I must now tell him of the sad state of my reading. The confession would man me for the new world. ‘The traveller!’ the guvnor said when we paused closer to the barrier for the boat train. ‘The colonist! The King of the Bush!’ He had tears in his eyes as he extended his arms but I shook his hand instead. Henry hung back and seemed to study the contents of a porter’s trolley to allow the guvnor and me to talk. I wanted to say, ‘I’m sorry. I haven’t read any of your books. But I will when I learn to penetrate those armies of paragraphs you put in them.’

I knew he was famous for not being conceited, not in that way anyhow. But I felt I would expire with shame if I said it. I simply sweated.

‘You have everything you need?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Adequate clothes to cut a dash in the cities and on the sheep stations?’

‘That’s right,’ I said, still unable to tell him. ‘Papa, I’m sorry you have the cost of the cabin on the Sussex.’

He reached out and took my hand and kissed it. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Plornish. I would not have it otherwise.’

‘I was not a good student.’

‘Yes, but you can be a good man.’

Tell him, tell him! went the terrible imperative in my mind. I began to cry, not caring who saw me on the platform. I was going away, and as an undeclared entity.

‘Dearest boy,’ the guvnor said, extracting, as if just remembering it, a letter from his pocket. ‘For you, my dearest Plornishgenter! You must apply yourself, Plorn. That is all. You have all the gifts but that one.’

If I read one of your books, if I penetrate all that text . . . would that count as application? I wondered.

I got on the train to Plymouth with Henry, who said, ‘Cheer up, old fellow. I don’t doubt Australia’s the go. You’ll come back able to buy and sell us. Have you read David Copperfield?’

‘Of course,’ I claimed through my tears.

‘Then there you are! And what about Great Expectations?’

‘Yes,’ I lied.

‘Well, there you have the convict Magwitch, disqualified from life in England, giving our hero Pip his colonial fortune. Have you ever noticed how close to Plorn is Pip? It’s my theory the old man wrote it specially for you.’

This idea served to dry up my tears.

‘If Magwitch could make a fortune in Australia,’ said H, ‘how much more could a robust and free and well-founded boy like you make?’

We went through the boat train, with a final wave to the guvnor. There were tears in his eyes, but I knew the busy city day at the premises of his magazine in Wellington Street would seize and console him.

The Dickens Boy Tom Keneally

In the late 1800s, rather than run the risk of your under-achieveing children tarnishing your reputation at home, you sent them to the colonies. At least that is what Charles Dickens did with two of his boys. (And Trollope did it too.)

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