Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2012

The Longing, by Candice Bruce

the-longingThe Longing is the debut novel of Candice Bruce, a former art historian and academic, and it appealed to me straight away because like the novels of Susan Vreeland and Tracy Chevalier, The Longing is an historical novel about art and artists – except this one is Australian.  There are not many of those!  The only other one that springs to mind is Patrick White’s brutal portrayal of the artist Hurtle Duffield in The Vivisector, but The Longing is not like that at all.

Yet in its own way it is as brave as White’s writing, for Bruce has succumbed to her muse and crossed into controversial territory with this novel.  It tells the story of a contemporary art historian called Cornelia Bremer who is plunged suddenly into the onerous task of curating her first exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.*  While sourcing paintings of the American Romanticist and collector of Aboriginal artefacts Sanford P. Hart in rural Victoria, she comes across the story of two women from the 1850s, Ellis MacRorie from Scotland, and her Aboriginal servant, Leerpeen Weelan…

So there are three voices in this novel, Cornelia’s, Ellis’s and Leerpeen’s, and it is this last that ventures into the vexed issue of non-Indigenous authors appropriating the voice of an Indigenous person.   Rohan Wilson also trod into this territory with his remarkable novel, The Roving Party so that he could tell the story of a massacre in Tasmania.  He not only handled it respectfully, he did it so well that he brought the story to public notice in a way that transcended the History Wars. (See my review) .  But there are those who feel that such writing is wrong, and that after centuries of suppression, Indigenous people should speak for themselves and no one else has the right to.  I am undecided about this, but there are those who say that it is not my place as a non-Indigenous person to decide.  It’s a thorny issue indeed.

Whatever you might think about the issue of Indigenous voice, it took courage, expertise and empathy for Bruce to imagine herself into the life and mind of Leerpeen, struggling with the sudden impact of white settlement on her ancient culture.  The story takes place in the Western District on a property called Strathcarron, where in the 21st century the inexperienced Cornelia is trying to navigate intra-family conflict to negotiate the loan of a little-known master work by Sanford P. Hart – who is modelled in part on Eugene Von Guérard), the most prominent landscape artist of the colonial period.  Like Guérard,  who came to try his luck on the Goldfields, but soon realised there was more money to be made from commissions to paint the imposing properties of Victoria’s newly landed gentry, Sanford Hart visited Strathcarron to paint.  Alternating chapters tell the story of Cornelia’s 21st century travails and then Sanford’s visit to the MacRorie property in 1855, at a time when Leerpen is living there as a domestic servant.  Within the chapters set in the 1850s we learn from Leerpen’s and Ellis’s reflections and memories about what had happened in their past.

This fascinating narrative impelled me to do a little digging around on Google, helped along by the acknowledgements at the back of the book.  Leerpeen seems to have been based on Bareetch Chuurneen of the Tarnbeere Gundidj clan of the Djargurd Wurrung in the Camperdown district. She survived the Murdering Gully Massacre, escaping by swimming across a lake with a child on her back.  James McIntyre, the Scotsman who gives Leerpen refuge, seems to have been based in part on the activist James Dawson (1806-1900) who was a prominent supporter of Aboriginal interests and published a book about their languages and customs.

But, as was common in that period, in The Longing European humanity has its limitations.  McIntyre was incapable of empathizing with an Aboriginal mother’s attachment to her child.  He rescued Leerpen when she was kicked out of the Mission for her ‘immoral behaviour’ – but he then sent her off to be a domestic servant for the MacRories, thus separating her from her child Thookay (the only other survivor of the massacre).  He told Leerpen that this was because the MacRories were ‘too old to be looking after a small girl.’ (p126), though of course they’re not too old to have their own children about the place.   And then at the MacRories, there is a vast gulf in perception between the two women.  Ellis believes that Leerpen is her friend because she allows her more leeway than most servants – but from Leerpen’s POV, she has so much work to do that there ‘wasn’t even the time to stop and listen to a bird’ (p125).  While Ellis believes they are soul mates, Leerpen could not understand Ellis’s preoccupation with trivial issues when she herself has suffered extreme grief and loss.  But of course she does not say so to her mistress.

The plotting and characterisation is generally skilfully done.  Bruce has assumed, probably quite rightly, that most of her readers know very little about the complex culture of the Aborigines of the Western District, so she has cleverly created the character of Hugo, son of Maggie McIntyre and nephew of the irascible Duncan McIntyre, childless owner of Strathcurren.  Hugo is doing his PhD in ‘Language, Symbolism and Music in South-Eastern Australian Aboriginal Communities’, and he’s on a mission to bring Cornelia up-to-speed in the culture and history of the local Aborigines.  It’s not her field: she’s much more interested in European art (with an abandoned PhD to prove it).  This device enables Bruce to provide the information that’s needed without lecturing.  (Well, Hugo does a bit of that, but that’s his character, and the author smartly cuts him off just when he’s in full flight with an interruption from his uncle so that the reader knows just enough!)

For most readers, I think that the concept of what constitutes art will be altered by reading The Longing.  I have seen possum-skin cloaks in galleries before but I did not know that in Aboriginal culture a cloak told the story of a person’s life through its symbolic decorations.  It’s a bit like a visual diary.  Leerpen,  renamed Louisa by her white masters, uses two halves of a snippet from her cloak to calm Thookay, telling her that their journey could not end while the pieces were apart, a sign that they would be reunited one day  (a scene which I quoted in this Sensational Snippet).  Bruce also very skilfully plots Cornelia’s ‘discovery’ so that the reader deduces the re-shaping of her artistic preconceptions before Cornelia herself does, and we almost cheer when the revelation dawns on her at last!

A story like this lends itself to ambiguities, and the author has resisted the temptation to tie up all the loose ends.  Despite the discovery of a room jam-packed with diaries and memorabilia, Cornelia is left with stories only partly told and histories only partially revealed.  While Ellis has the advantage of literacy, her tragic emotional life and the constraints of 19th century reticence prevent her from writing her full story.  And Leerpen…well, I shan’t spoil the story by saying more…

There are some minor flaws in this novel which might have been resolved with better editing: Duncan’s relentless curmudgeonly behaviour occasionally veers towards caricature, the final scene between Ellis and Sanford is a little melodramatic, and there are a couple of allusions to contemporary politics which jar.  The cover is awful: it looks as if the designer simply Googled ‘picture of two women, black and white’.  Neither the body language nor the clothing of the women is appropriate for this story.  This author deserved better because this is a remarkably good first novel which is fascinating to read.

Highly recommended.

*There is a National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne.  There is no parochialism in my assertion that by any standard the NGV is the oldest, the biggest and the best art gallery in Australia, and one of the biggest and best in the world.  Born in the wake of the Gold Rush when Melbourne was a fabulously rich city, and recipient of the Felton Bequest in 1904, it has been able to build a massive collection of old and modern masters, and is on the itinerary of every serious art-lover in the world.   Click here for a small sample, selected by the NGV as highlights.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Candice Bruce
Title: The Longing
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House) 2012
ISBN: 9781864712704
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House.

Availability:
Fishpond:  The Longing
Or direct from Random House (including as an eBook).


Responses

  1. ‘The Longing’ appears to be a worthy read. I like novels about the art or literary world.

    Like

    • Definitely worth spending time on, I would say!

      Like


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