There’s a certain synchronicity about finishing this book today, the very day on which I attended the History Writers’ Festival at Readers’ Feast, where one of the topics under discussion was the issue of historical truth. Because this novel, The Profilist, is a splendid example of playing with the historical truth to tell a riveting story, the story of our fledgling nation, through the observant eyes of an artist. This novel brings history alive…
Samuel Thomas Gill was a real-life English artist who migrated to Australia in 1839 with his parents and siblings, and you can read all about him at the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online. You can also see dozens of his goldfields landscapes if you do an image search using his name. What Adrian Mitchell has so cleverly done is to imagine the voice of a character called Ethan Dibble who’s a man ‘very like’ Samuel Gill. He travels to the same places, he paints the same scenes, he suffers very similar setbacks in his life, and he dies the same undignified death on the steps of the Melbourne Post Office. But where the real Samuel Gill’s legacy comprises wonderful sketches, lithographs and watercolours of life in the new Australian colonies, the imaginary Ethan Dibble’s droll observations form a journal that is a delight to read, each chapter introduced by a relevant painting from Gill’s oeuvre.
Here is he is, writing about the races in Adelaide:
And most of the crowd, in between the actual races, circulates about the refreshment booths and the dancing pavilions. This race meeting is after all held in the New Year heat, with the sun not only brilliant but relentless; and truth to say there is more time between the races than in the actual racing. In fact it might be more accurate to say that the taking of refreshments throughout the afternoon, when the day has arrived at its highest temperature, is the primary activity, punctuated by a race or two. the Nobs of course has their drinks brought to them by waiters, a different sort of steward.
Mr Fisher, a leader in all matters to do with horse racing, is much in evidence on occasions like this. He is no longer the mayor. Governor Grey has scuttled Adelaide’s brief experiment with local authority. He could see how well Mr Fisher enjoyed the status and was not going to encourage an old Company hand. You can imagine Mr Fisher is not well pleased with Government House. But that does not inhibit him from dressing up to the nines. As so there they all are, up in the box seat, and it is like the old days, with the Government party all in a coterie, and the Company loyalists all somewhat askance, and yet to look at them you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them. The Nobs and the Snobs, two sides of the same golden guinea. (p. 78)
While in South Australia Dibble – like the real Samuel Gill – travels into the Flinders Ranges with the explorer Mr H (John Horrocks) and a camel called Goliath, and similarly he witnesses Horrocks accidentally shoot himself. While they wait for help he has nothing to do but look about him, and he begins his discovery of the Australian landscape. A place of dancing mirages, those shadows of silhouettes. And the Australian light fascinates him: a strange feature out there, of light consuming itself. And more than that:
Here the world was all before us. It was all endless horizon, fully around us in every direction. As far as I recall, you get no such horizon in England, no horizon at all. You are always enclosed by a valley, or a forest, or a fold of hills or something That makes for a limited field of vision, comfortable for us to strut our brief hour in, no doubt. Out in the Australian inland – an apt incongruity of expression – the world is a very much larger space, so big as to pay no attention to us at all… (p.104)
Fate didn’t favour either the fictional Dibble or his real-life counterpart, and both made a prudent exit to the Victorian goldfields. Dibble’s distinctive voice records the chaotic scenes in Melbourne, the drudgery of the trip to the goldfields, the diversity of the canvas towns, the success and the failures of the diggers, and their battles over licence fees culminating in the Eureka Stockade. His folio of pictures brings success, so much so that a fraudster named Flock takes advantage of him and appropriates some of his work. His sorrows are alleviated somewhat by falling for a woman called Elizabeth… and to preserve their reputations, since they are ‘handfasted’ rather than legally wed, it seems prudent to do a bunk to Sydney.
But that doesn’t work out either, and Dibble returns to Melbourne, only to find that Marvellous Melbourne isn’t interested in the goldfields any more, even though the gold is the source of its wealth.
Adrian Mitchell is the author-historian of three works of non-fiction, two of them reviewed on this blog, but in this novel he has made a smooth transition to fiction. In tracing Dibble’s decline into drink, sickness and poverty, he has maintained the self-deprecating humour of his character, without a trace of maudlin or melancholy. As we read on we become aware of Dibble’s inevitable fate, but his final days are marked by the friendship of a good-hearted sculptor called George which ameliorates the tragedy somewhat.
Oh dear, I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression. Despite Dibble’s travails, this is not a sad book, far from it. The Profilist is a sparkling, witty novel, telling a history we all know (or jolly well should know!) and peopled with a parade of historical figures ranging from Marcus Clarke to Ned Kelly and Sir Redmond Barry. Dibble is an incurable optimist, with a knack for observing foibles and folly as well as the progress of the colonies towards wealth and stability.
Like an old wheelbarrow Fortune’s squeaky wheel trundles on, if you give it a big enough heave. But it proceeds as if under protest.
The colony has been plodding at a lumbering pace, and yet at every turn its luck builds. the difficult years have been followed by a succession of bumper crops, and now the farmers strut about the streets like so many turkey cocks. They ram their beefy fists into their pockets and glare triumphantly at the passing throng, and jingle their coins. Their waistcoats strain across their bellies, their flat straw hats are tilted back. They have become wealthy men in just a few years. The common joke is that wheat is growing out of their ears, though what I observe in fact is a sport of vigorous wiry hairs in the same locality. (p. 111)
It’s a delightful book. Sasha Grishin at the SMH enjoyed it too.
Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: The Profilist
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press