This book has been recently re-released as part of Sydney University Press’ Australian Classics Library. The original was published in 1975 and there are still copies of the original imprint around: mine has a particularly lurid cover that would deter any casual browser.
The penal colonies at Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land have long attracted novelists- Thomas Keneally has been writing about them for decades and Kate Grenville has been lured by them more recently. But there were other penal outposts in the Australian colonies as well: Norfolk Island, Moreton Bay in Queensland, Western Australia after 1850 and even Port Phillip, while not a penal colony as such, had convict gangs engaged on public works and the Pentonvillians in the second half of the 1840s.
“The Commandant” is set in Moreton Bay under the command of Patrick Logan. The setting of the book is fairly accurate: Logan did exist; his wife was called Lettie; he did come to a sticky and inconclusive end. But the main character of the book, Frances O’Beirne, is Jessica Anderson’s invention entirely and here Anderson can let her imagination take flight. This is a penal colony described from the domestic perspective, with the convicts not as “the men out there” but as shadowy but ever-present domestic servants. Here we can see the blurring of the lines that John Hirst writes so well about in Convict Society and its Enemies with assigned convicts occupying that here-but-not-here space of the English domestic servant whose intimate presence gave them such an ambiguous status.
This is a very ‘interior’ novel in that much of it takes place inside, and much of the text is turned over to dialogue. It is almost Austenesque in this regard, and I found it a little noisy and claustrophobic. For me, the novel really opened up once it got outside into the Australian landscape- until this point it could have been set anywhere.
Frances O’Beirne is a recent arrival in the colonies and after a short time in Sydney, she travels up to join her sister Lettie who is married to Capt Logan. While in Sydney she comes into contact with the daughters of Edward Smith Hall, the editor of the Monitor and the (real life) opponent of Governor Darling. She absorbs the ‘radical’ views circulating in Sydney, and is wary of her brother-in-law Logan, who is about to fight a libel case against the Sydney newspapers over reports of his excessive cruelty. She is uneasy about the convict presence, and appalled by her brother-in-law’s discipline.
In an interview about the writing of The Commandant in “Making Stories” by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe (generous extracts available here), Anderson talks in an interview about the character of Frances
INT: Did you consciously seek a character to, as you say, ‘identify with’ or did the character come to you?
JA: Well I came to myself. But I had to have someone who could see and comment on the action. But not just one person, and not just one point of view. So I had Frances, Louisa and Letty. Particularly Frances, although the other points of view are both well within my own range. My daughter said it was quite easy to see who I was. But she saw me as Louisa.
INT: Is Frances really, in fact, a twentieth century character?
JA: There were people like Frances, radicals and reformers , in Sydney. There was nobody like her at Moreton Bay. But I couldn’t have done it without her. I needed an opponent for Logan.
Despite Anderson’s protestations, I’m not really sure that Frances isn’t a 20th century character. I don’t think that Anderson caught the religious aspects of a humanitarian anti-transporation stance, complete with its racism, class bias and cast iron certainties. Instead Frances’ opposition to the penal system is a bit too secular and Amnesty International.
Anderson’s real stroke of brilliance is in explaining Logan’s death- which, again, is historic fact. But her explanation which runs against the popular story about how he died is, unfortunately, plausible and we can see with 20th century eyes what the implications of such an explanation could/did set in train.
I enjoyed this book and I’m glad that it has a second outing. I think that it stacks up well against Keneally’s convict works like The Playmaker and Bring Larks and Heroes and Grenville’s The Secret River and The Lieutenant (which I haven’t read yet). It isn’t as imaginatively extravagant as Flanagan’s brilliant Gould’s Book of Fish, but her twist on the narrative and history is inventive and deserves to be better known.