Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2010

The Harp in the South, by Ruth Park #BookReview

The Harp in the South  (1948) was Ruth Park’s first novel and is, I think, the best-loved of all her books.  While her two small children slept, Ruth Park wrote it on the kitchen table of her parents’ home in New Zealand while she was visiting from Australia.  She and her husband D’Arcy Niland were determined to make a living from writing, and the Sydney Morning Herald’s literary competition with a prize of £2000 propelled her into using her experiences in the slum Sydney suburb of Surry Hills for a novel.  As she recounts in Fishing in the Styx, this award brought criticism as well as much needed money…

It is a simple tale,  told without narrative tricks or complex structure, with the focus firmly on the characterisation of an Irish Catholic family living in the post-war slums of Sydney.  It was the warts-and-all depiction of this underclass which offended some readers, and in later years Park feared that the publicity from this book had triggered the demolition of a vibrant community as well as slum-reclamation works.

These controversies are long over now, and the book is a treasured Australian classic.  It was made into a popular mini-series starring Anne Phelan as the indefatigable Mumma, Martin Sanderson as her drunken husband Hughie, Anna Hruby as their fragile daughter Roie, and Kaarin Fairfax as the clever and irrepressible Dolour, perhaps modelled on Ruth Park herself as a child.

The story traces their everyday lives over a few years: their trials and tribulations; the tragedy of little Thady who vanished from the street aged just six and never seen again;   Granny Kilker’s slide into dementia; Roie’s first love and its aftermath; and Dolour’s triumph in a radio quiz program.  Their poverty colours every aspect of life: the struggle to put food on the table, patched and darned clothes, grubbiness, bed bugs and dingy housing.  Always there is embarrassment when anyone comes to visit; always clothes for a special occasion are a problem.  There is no romanticising of their prospects: generations have lived in these slums, and the children’s fate is to maintain this intergenerational poverty.

What saves this fine novel from being a dreary misery is the humour and the insistence on the value of family and community.  For all its faults, this family is bound together by a powerful love, best exemplified by the staunch figure of Mumma, but also by the affection between the two girls and the fierce pride that Hughie feels for his family.  And while they live in one of the roughest parts of Sydney, and there is drunkenness and violence, theirs is a community which will offer friendship and compassion when it’s needed.

It’s unashamedly sentimental in places, but this does not detract from its honesty and charm.

The sequel  Poor Man’s Orange was published in 1949, and quite a long time later in 1985 , Park wrote a prequel, Missus, (about Mumma and Hughie’s courtship in rural NSW).

©Lisa Hill

Author: Ruth Park
Title: The Harp in the South
Publisher: Penguin 1987, first published 1948
ISBN: 9780140103038
Source: Personal library, on the TBR since 1987! (How did that happen??)


  1. I absolutely love this book. I love the whole series. I feel like it has captured exactly what it would have been like to live back then. It was endlessly heartwarming and fascinating

  2. Hi Becky,
    Thanks for the reminder that I should have mentioned that it’s part of a series! I’ve added the info above.
    PS I’ve been enjoying your reading adventures on your blog: a nice mix of books I know and the unfamiliar:)

  3. I so love that you’ve taken the Classics Challenge and put your own spin on it with the Australian and New Zealand classics that unfortunately aren’t as well known. Congrats on finishing the challenge! Like I told Becky above, you’re welcome to continue leaving your links throughout the end of the challenge if you read any other classics.

    • Thanks, Trish, I love browsing around on your site reading about classics I haven’t read yet, so you can be sure there will be more on my TBR!

  4. I read this many, many years ago and loved it at the time. I’ve thought about re-reading it- in fact I have an omnibus edition with Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange on my shelves- but I’m a bit wary that a book I loved so long ago might seem hackneyed and sentimentalized now. I’m pleased that it stood up well for you- perhaps I need not be so fearful of spoiling a happy reading memory.

  5. I love this too Lisa, your review has reminded me I should dig it out and re-read it so thank you. Incredible to think how much Surry Hills has changed in 60 years!

  6. Yes, I think that’s what I found so vivid, the descriptions of Sydney slums. You know, I knew an elderly lady who had lived the slums in Carlton during the war, and I met her just after she had moved into one of those high rise housing commission blocks in the 1970s. She wouldn’t hear a word against them: it was the first time she’d ever had an indoor loo, or hot water without having to heat it herself, or a place she could keep hygienically clean. So I found what I read in The Harp in the South authentic and not exaggerated. Let’s hope we never see slums like those again in our cities…

  7. The Harp in the South could very well be the next Australian novel I will read.

    • I’ll be very interested to see what you think of it: a man’s perspective may be different?

  8. I’ll add to the chorus … I think Ruth Park hits just the right spot with this one so that it straddles being great social history as well as a universal tale of family and relationships. I think it stands up well now for that reason. I’ve read the first two in the trilogy, and have Missus on the shelves but somehow have never got around to reading it.

  9. So we can expect to see a review one day, Sue? Let me know when you do (just in case I miss it with RSS) and I’ll link to it from here:)

  10. Oh dear, some day Lisa! But it’s not high in the TBR partly because I have sensed from others that it doesn’t have the strength of the first two and, I’m not one who feels driven to read “series” to find what happens.

  11. It’s supposed to be about Mumma and Hughie’s courtship in the backblocks, apparently. It would be interesting to see how Park handled it because the impression I have is that she’s an urban person, but then, in those days, everyone had rural connections of one sort or another, didn’t they?

  12. Oh dear, another classic that I haven’t read but would like to. One day I’m going to be devastatingly well read! I’m really quite tied up these days reading 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. I will at least get to read some Ruth Park as part of that- Playing Beattie Bow is included in the list.

  13. Oh dear, maybe as a children’s librarian I should do the 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up – but I’m almost afraid to look! Is it somewhere online?

  14. I’m running a yahoo group that is reading the 1001 books, it really is an astonishingly vast range of books. We’re currently reading The Three Musketeers (well I’m into the introduction- fascinating, I had no idea that Dumas wrote as Dickens did, by installments in the newspaper, creating havoc at major plot points). You’re very welcome to join us there of course.

    The list is online though if you just want to take a peek. I know it exists in better formats, but this is the one I can find tonight

    • Louise, thanks for asking me:)
      I’d love to be reading The Three Musketeers but I really don’t think I can manage it right now. I’ll check it out when things are less hectic and maybe join up then.

  15. […] realist but warm-hearted, novel about the struggle to live in the slums of post-war Sydney. For a recent review, check out Lisa’s at […]

  16. I find the ‘Harp in the south’ trilogy intensely moving and now look forward to watching the DVD. I’m the literary executor for my late husband Alan Collins who also wrote about Sydney in the 1930s-1940s. There are many similarities with Ruth Park (particularly in his use of the vernacular) except that Alan’s territory is Bondi rather than Surry Hills and his focus is the Anglo-Jewish lower middle-class and their reactions to the ‘reffos’ (refugees) who were arriving from Europe. Alan wrote an autobiographical trilogy (‘The Boys from Bondi’, ‘Going home’ and ‘Joshua’ – subsequently published by UQP as a single volume with the title ‘A Promised land?’), a memoir of his dysfunctional childhood (‘Alva’s boy’ – Hybrid, 2008) and a collection of short stories (‘A Thousand nights at the Ritz’ – Hybrid, 2010). I’m not familiar with the way in which this blog works but I’d very much like to send copies of Alan’s works for review in this new (to me!) medium. How do I do this? More information about Alan Collins is available on the Web at and there is a Wikipedia entry under Alan Collins (writer). I’d appreciate your comments.

  17. […] first heard about “Harp in the South” from Whispering Gums and ANZ Litlovers Litblog.  Although there are quite a few writers from Australia who have become world-famous, Ruth Park […]

  18. […] if you want an introduction to Australian literature. If I haven’t convinced you, read Lisa at ANZLitLovers on The harp in the South, and kimbofo at Reading Matters on her “Top 10 novels about […]

  19. […] alcanzó la fama en 1948 con su primera novela El Arpa del Sur (The Harp in the South), la cual cuenta la  historia de los desdichados habitantes de Surry Hills, en ese entonces un […]

  20. Ihave just been asked to read this book again by my book club. I read it as a teenager in the 1950’s and found it rather sad and it was about Sydneys slums which I certainly had seen and found them awful. Couldn’t believe anyone of interest could live there! Later I marvelled at Ruth Park’s wonderful characterisations. and her deep knowledge of the Irish/Australian families who lived in really sad circumstances there, no doubt aided by leaving the country for the city and the effects of the 30’s depression. I’m looking foward to reading it again with my now old eyes.

    • I’m sure you will read it very differently now, Coralie. I look back at the books I read just 10 years ago in my reading journal and I am amazed at the way I view things differently now.
      I guess also that when you read it in the 50s, the Depression was well within living memory and still fairly raw? A teenager reading it today would consider the Depression as ancient history, and might be hard pressed to know anyone who’d lived through it.

  21. I didn’t read the book which I know, would give more flavour..
    However,watching the series brought me back to those times with a jolt, remembering when life was lived without expectation.
    Nothing was ever taken for granted.The simplest treat was a joy and very much appreciated. An outing to the beach was a vivid memory of sunshine and happiness, and Christmas a time when something of much need, may have been given. People knew their neighours and shared their lives of pleasure and pain. I loved the story. Ruth Parkes vivid recollections I believe, will add to the history of inner suburban living in the post war times Australia. A real blessing.

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