Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book Review: We of the Never Never, by Mrs Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn

Well, I finally changed my settings so that I can post directly from email, but it’s freaking me out a little bit because I’m not sure how the formatting will go. I also had a bad dream last night that I posted something highly inappropriate, forgetting that I’d changed my “email to draft” setting to “email to publish”. Eep! So best I read these email posts verrrry carefully, and make sure I don’t email half-finished posts and ideas to myself, believing them to be sitting safely with all my other drafts, when really they’re out there in their incomplete (and possibly inappropriate) glory for all the world to see!!!

Finally! A book I feel more enthusiastic about, and as such I am going to make more than a half-arsed attempt at reviewing it, as per my previous two (one of which I kind of sort of didn’t read – check out the review for the Awakening. Also, not the one I originally picked up to be my next read. I had decided upon Murder at Mansfield Park, and in preparation for it, assuming it to be much like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies insofar as the storyline and characters would remain intact but that frequent zombie references would be thrown in (“braaaaaaaains” Yeah, y’all know who you are!), I did a little preparation by way of re-reading Mansfield Park.

What a fool I was!

Murder at Mansfield Park was, when I put it down about half a chapter in, absolutely NOTHING like the original and was so very confusing to me when read hot on the heels of Ms Austen’s creation. Mainly, the characters are all scrambled up and the family trees are all over the place. Thus far it seems a little ham-handed as the roles are more or less reversed, Fanny Price now being the wealthy heiress to be revered (with several character traits of Mary Crawford) rather than the sweet, impoverished cousin to be pitied. DON’T BE ME!!! RE-READING MANSFIELD PARK FIRST WILL SCREW WITH YOUR HEAD, VERY, VERY BADLY!

So I decided that the most sensible course of action would be to pick another couple of books of a completely different genre and clear my mind of the original roles the Mansfield Park characters play, before re-attempting to proceed with reading it. The first of these books was We of the Never Never, the second is The Ballad of Les Darcy (Peter Fitzsimons) and the third is Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell). The latter two are still on the go (I have a “weekday” book and a “weekend” book; suffice it to say, the “weekday” book is always slim enough to fit into my laptop bag with minimal inconvenience, so I’ll give you one guess as to which of the two is my “weekend” one!), but We of the Never Never was read, enjoyed and finished in a couple of days.

I picked it up for a few dollars at a market, and the title caught my eye as I vaguely recalled that there had been a film adaptation of it and had always wanted to watch it (older-style film/TV adaptations of Australian texts such as On Our Selection and All The Rivers Run are a big favourites of mine).

We of the Never Never is based on a true story – it is more or less an autobiography over the course of one year (the year being 1902), written in the style of a novel rather than a diary with names changed. It was written by the new wife of a man who buys a share in Elsey cattle station in the Northern Territory (which in modern geographic terms was somewhere near Mataranka). Much to the dismay of the stockmen on the station and the horror of the ladies in Darwin, he opts to bring the “missus” out there with him, and that is how Jeannie Gunn came to be in the Never Never, in a place with no roads or bridges, and just a telegraph line running past their front “gate”, some forty miles from the homestead.

The book chronicles the ins and outs of station life, including musters; camps; dealings with the erratic behaviour of the domestic help (being a dodgy Chinese cook who is later replaced by a far superior Chinese cook, and several Aboriginal maids); death and illness; improving the homestead (which involved cutting and processing timber by hand); the people who visit the station as they pass through; and the privations caused by the isolation and the challenges brought by both the Wet and the Dry.
If you’re not into Australiana like I am (I’m a bit of a junkie for any book about life in the outback, and the older it is the better, probably because they tell it like they saw it and are not frightened of voicing an opinion on just about anything, a characteristic that I admire. They are also generally written with a greater regard for grammar than their modern counterparts, which I appreciate!) this probably won’t float your boat. But the day-to-day lives of these pioneers, who went through hell and high water to shape our country has always captured my imagination and always will. It is written in a style that, whilst a little quaint in the vintage of the language, makes you feel like you’re part of the excitement. The author’s shrewd observations of human nature coupled with her (apparently rare, in that time) ability to poke fun at herself endears the reader to the author.

It’s also very interesting from an historical perspective. I suspect many a feminist would be up in arms at the way the Missus is spoken to, and about, by the people on the station, generally in terms of her (in)capabilities, so here comes my anti-feminist rant. I think it was okay that they didn’t want her there or poked fun at her or expected to have to look after her. Let’s face it – she was a city girl, thrown into the bush with zero preparation. She was hampered by long skirts and long hair (seriously, has anyone been to Darwin in summer, or any time of year for that matter? Try doing it in a heavy floor-length skirt, petticoats, long sleeved shirts, hats, gloves and boots!) and city expectations and had a lot to learn in a very short period of time.

I think that it’s okay that they didn’t want her there initially, because the respect the stockmen had for women meant that they knew she may have other (and probably mysterious!) needs that they weren’t accustomed to catering for (for starters, I’m sure, no more peeing on trees or taking shirts off at will), and that they knew they would have to curb their behaviour and language around her. I work in the construction industry and have on multiple occasions very clearly busted the boys talking about something filthy, because they will fall silent as I approach. And you know what? I’m okay with that. In fact, I really appreciate it. I don’t need to hear about their conquests or desires. Eeuw. The stockmen were also concerned that she would be the sort of missus to try and change the way the station was run, or the sort who would be “too good” to lend a hand, which were both quite legitimate fears. Luckily for them, she was neither of those things.

I think it’s okay that they poked fun at her, because she really did have some very odd (although unsurprising) ideas about life in the Never Never before they “Educated” her. She poked fun at herself, too. And she learnt a lot, with a sense of humour. It didn’t mean they thought she was stupid, it meant they acknowledged she was green.

And I think it’s okay that they perceived her to be a weak little thing that needed to be taken care of. She was a five-foot-nothing city girl (from Carlton) with no idea how to survive out there, and who wasn’t hardened to physical labour or tough conditions. If I were her, especially back then, I would love it if six men and a tribe of Aboriginals decided that they were my personal protectors and kept an eye on me.

Maybe I see it this way because I am quite often the only woman in an all-male working environment, and I encounter chivalry on a daily basis. I don’t think it’s sexist to hold open a door, or help me carry something, or be polite to me, or buy me a drink, or offer to see me home instead of letting me wander the streets alone at night. It’s manners, and consideration of others, like they had back in 1902, and it’s sad that it’s dying out. Perhaps it’s controversial to say, but I can nearly guarantee the divorce rate would be lower if men and women were both a bit more old-school. Jeannie Gunn’s marriage didn’t work out because Mr Gunn died of malarial dysentery shortly after 1902, not because they fought over the remote or he forgot to ask if she needed a hand cleaning the gutters. Maybe if more men took a leaf from this book, and more women swallowed their misplaced pride and accepted help when it is wanted or needed and not just when it is demanded, we’d be better off. I can’t say I blame the men, mind you, because they keep getting abused for trying to be considerate and then abused when they’re not. Poor bastards.

Heh heh, way to turn a book review into a rant on the shortcomings of modern society!

That is all.


  1. I read this book several years ago and loved it. Seeing your review has made me think of picking it up again! Glad you enjoyed it. Have you read any of the "Billabong"series by Mary Grant Bruce? It's more of a teenagers series I suppose, about a young girl growing up on a station ~1910, then her and her brother going off to WW1, then life after the war. Anyway, its a nice, easy and entertaining read :)

  2. Have I read the Billabong series??? Uh, YEAH! :) :) :) Love 'em to bits, and are easily my favourite books ever. I'm glad to know that someone else has actually read them! I own the lot of them, in varying editions, including some hand-cut first editions I picked up for a few bucks from a second hand store in Bendigo. It's quite amazing to compare the first edition to the newest release, because they very heavily edit it to eliminate anything that could be construed as racist or sexist. Apparently we as readers are not intelligent enough to recognise that they're not contemporary texts...


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