Revisiting Ruth Park’s ‘The Harp in the South’

The Harp in the South was the July selection for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle. I read all three books in the trilogy back in 2010 and had read The Harp in the South (the first written but second book in the trilogy) decades before that. So this book and I go back quite a way.

At the Ivanhoe Reading Circle, it is the practice for one or two people present a paper on the book under discussion (and after tracing through the 102 year old history of this book group – Melbourne’s oldest- I can tell you that this was exactly the procedure they followed back in 1920 too). The first of the papers was about Ruth Park’s own biography and the writing of The Harp in the South. She was Catholic herself, and had had a Catholic education. She grew up in New Zealand, but on shifting to Australia in 1942 and marrying, she and her husband lived for a time in Surry Hills in Sydney. It was this experience that she drew on in 1946 when writing The Harp in the South as an entry in a writing competition with the Sydney Morning Herald. It was published in twelve daily installments in the newspaper, and attracted both criticism and praise for its depiction of slum life, right from the start. It was reluctantly published by Angus & Robinson as part of the prize.

The second paper dealt more closely with the book, and opened it up for discussion. It is rather confronting reading of the prejudice towards Chinese and Indigenous people, and the words with which it is expressed in this book, but the group felt that it was realistic for the time. (Indeed, I would suggest, today. Didn’t one of the Royal Family express concern about the colour of the Royal Baby when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle?- just as Mumma did in this book when Roie married the indigenous Charlie). Indeed, the title itself which references the Irish immigration to Australia, and Park reminds us that Surry Hills contained people of many cultures. Despite cringe-inducing slang, she treats these characters with respect and nuance.

Some of the group felt that the book lacked plot, but others would describe it as ‘domestic realism’. For myself, it was the lack of plot that appealed to me. People who didn’t enjoy it were even more repelled by the tidy ending. I must confess that I found the ending rather too saccharine as well.

The group had read Shuggie Bain last month, and several people mentioned similarities and differences between the two. Both involved dire poverty and alcohol, but in Harp it is Mumma who holds the family together instead of dragging it down with her. Some readers noted the Irish Catholic fatalism of that time which made a virtue of lack of aspiration. This was not a feature of 1980s Glasgow in Shuggie Bain: in fact, there is a sense of grievance and thwarted ‘effluence’ (to quote Kath and Kim) in the more recent book.

For me, reading this book in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on abortion made me even more aware of just how regressive this decision is. Even though Park took the narrative easy way out in her book, she still captured well the fear and desperation that drove women to backyard abortionists in a time when there was no other choice. I had to remind myself, too, that in 1946 this book would have been writing about contemporary lives, not history. Indeed much of the criticism of the book was her depiction of slums at a time when many people declared there were no slums in Sydney. Not so – the book is credited (for better or worse) for driving the slum clearance movement in Sydney. I appreciated the historical detail that was conveyed almost in passing – for example, in describing rubbish collection when Dolour picked up a paste brooch- having found myself trying to investigate this in 1920s Heidelberg.

Anyway, I loved this book just as much on this third reading as I did on the first. The discussion of Ruth Park tempts me to read her autobiography A Fence Around the Cuckoo (1992) and Fishing in the Styx (1993). Just add it to the pile.

One response to “Revisiting Ruth Park’s ‘The Harp in the South’

  1. Fiction as activism, I wish more of our authors cared about this today!

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