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