Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2017

The Second Bridegroom, by Rodney Hall

I’m a bit hesitant to review this exquisite novel too enthusiastically, because I know it’s long out of print and will be hard for my readers to find.  I’ve checked Library Link which harvests from all the libraries in Victoria and there are half a dozen libraries which hold it, but other than that, getting a copy is going to involve trawling through second-hand bookshops. Fishpond doesn’t even list it…

But the search is worth it.  The Second Bridgegroom (1991) is Rodney Hall’s sixth novel and first in the Yandilli Trilogy, but it was written after Captivity Captive (1988) which is No #3 in the trilogy.  Both of the novels were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award but it was No #2 in the trilogy, The Grisly Wife, published last of all in 1993, which won Hall his second Miles Franklin.  (The first was Just Relations (1982) which is on my TBR too, and I will get to it one day soon!)

The other thing that’s special about this book, is that it’s published by McPhee Gribble (1975-1989), an innovative Australian publishing house founded by Hilary McPhee and Di Gribble (who also founded Text Publishing).   McPhee Gribble was the initial publisher of many of our most significant writers, including Tim Winton, Murray Bail, Rod Jones, Helen Garner and Drusilla Modjeska.  The book (hardback) is beautifully made, with cover art by Keith McEwan, and has quality paper, binding and boards.  Reading the novel in this beautiful form seems fitting for such lush prose.

The story concerns an escaped convict known only as FJ, who is narrating events that took place in about 1820.  In the process, he also relates his own back story as the son of a rebel from the Isle of Manx, who was hanged by the British for smuggling, under laws he doesn’t recognise any more than he speaks the English language.  Ironically, FJ was transported for forgery to a place that is, he tells us, a counterfeit England, created by cutting down strange trees and digging out plants with no name.  What is even more ironic is that he was originally charged with theft, because his excellent forgery was thought to be the long-sought-for 100th copy of a document attributed to William Caxton, the man who introduced the printing press to England in the 15th century and was the first retailer of printed books there.

On arrival in New South Wales, FJ is assigned to Edwin Atholl who takes him aboard the Fraternity to establish a new settlement somewhere along the coast.  On board FJ is tormented by and eventually kills his fellow convict Gabriel Dean to whom he is chained at the wrist.  On landing, when the convicts are brought up from below, these two, the living and the dead, are separated by a callous swipe of an axe so that FJ still has the manacle attached to his wrist when he takes advantage of a lapse in supervision and escapes into the bush.

The local Aborigines take pity on him when they find him in extremis, and he joins their group, though not of it.  FJ, who never learns a word of their language, thinks that they regard him as some kind of god, and he uses the manacle still hanging from his wrist as a symbol of a power that he doesn’t have.  (That is, another counterfeit.)   Over a long period of time, maybe years, they travel vast distances through the bush but he is never allowed to be in contact with their women or with other tribes.  He never takes part in their ceremonies or their hunts, and he never learns how to fend for himself as they do.  The author never presumes to ascribe motives for why they care for him,  and it seems that it is the arrogance of the intruder – even one as lowly as FJ – that makes him assume that they venerate him as a superior bring.   Nevertheless, FJ comes to admire a way of life which does not disturb nature, values the good manners with which they offer him hospitality and trusts them with his life.  He is happy.

One day they come across a fence and he is aghast:

Then we came to a fence.  Imagine it. The fence baffled me as if I had never seen one before.  Most likely I cried out.  The Men would certainly have no name for this thing so I gave it the name I had brought with me.  Fence.  But what would happen now that the world of dreams – where fences belonged – began to trespass on the existing world?

My subtle hand touched the hewn rail.  This was the hand, you remember, able to signal dealing and falsehood.  Like a blind man’s fingers checking a forgotten face my hand checked the fence.  The post was a crude job, squared with an adze.  So it came about that the word adze required the object adze.  My fingers said yes to the adze and yes to the fence.  But not me.  I felt a sudden flood of anger because our way was barred.  Oh, we could easy climb over or duck between the rails, but what sort of answer was that?

I thought: I have given up everything to be as I am now – helpless. So by what right does anyone come along and tell me I should look after myself again?  Or to put it the other way about: by what right does the old taint that I am worthless come to shake my new composure in being supreme?  (p. 85)

I like this passage because it offers a glimpse of how Indigenous Australians may have felt when they found their way barred by such fences, but Hall undercuts any assumption that he is presuming to know how they felt by focussing on FJ’s personal dismay: he is angry because the fence recalibrates his view of himself and reimposes values of industry and social caste that he had been able to cast off.

SPOILER ALERT

As the book progresses, the reader begins to wonder to whom this strange narrative is addressed, and doubts begin to form about the narrator’s sanity.  He seems deranged when he tells us that Gabriel Dean, the man he murdered and whose hand was severed so crudely on the ship, makes a reappearance.  Whatever the truth of events involving Dean, captivity recurs when FJ’s efforts at redemption are met by renewed imprisonment.  The narrative, it turns out, is addressed to the young wife of Edwin Atholl, and it’s written while he is locked up in a barn that survived the destruction of the settlement in an attack by Aborigines.

FJ thinks himself in love, and he thinks it is reciprocated.  But he also, in the desperation of his obsession, imprudently tells Mrs Atholl that they share a secret that he witnessed.  He tells her that he knows that her husband was killed not merely by Aboriginal spears but by a shot to the head, fired by her.   This is not the account that she subsequently tells to Governor George Gipps in the letter that concludes the novel, but is that because it isn’t true, or because she is concealing her own crime and making sure that the only witness is discredited?

Mad or otherwise, the man who narrates this strange tale grew up on an island colonised by the British, in a family that always rebelled against their rule.  In the bush, he recognises the intrusion of an alien culture, and offers his insights to someone he thinks might be sympathetic.  The Second Bridegroom is a salutary contrast to the salacious 19th century stories of others who lived for a time among the Aborigines after shipwreck or getting lost in the bush.  (To see more about that, see my review of Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling by Larissa Behrendt. )

The book is also written in exquisite prose.  Here’s another excerpt, from a page opened at random.  This is where FJ is losing his grip on reality, ascribing mythic powers to Gabriel:

Three cloud-rich days passed.  On the fourth, the sky filled up with white tops too massive to move. They bellied and sagged, billowing and building gianter than anything on earth, until Gabriel grew exhausted with the effort and fell into an uneasy doze.  As soon as he slept, his white tops collapsed, mountains broke apart and dragged away, leaving pink scars from horizon to horizon of the evening. Before sunrise he began on filling the morning with fog. When he cleared it, he must have been remembering a sandy beach because the blue sky was all ribbed and scalloped.  As before, his duties lasted the whole day and he only got up at twilight, when there was nothing left to do.  We walked under a moon with a halo, myself as guide and him still in a musing way of an artist who looks back on his inspirations.  By the sixth day I found I had been leading us, aided by the call of soft distant thunder, towards a waterfall.  We had come to a place I never saw before.  The creek rushed solid down to a midway basin and then spilled over to plunge into a pool hollowed from rock.  Fern trees grouped round this clear deep pool.  Flowers grew from cracks in the cliff.

Naked I slid down the rim into the cold water.  While my body sang at the delicious knowledge of what it was to swim I wept again for lost memories.  (p.154)

I’m looking forward to reading the next title in the trilogy…

For another review, see Richard Eder in the LA Times, back in 1991.

Author: Rodney Hall
Title: The Second Bridegroom (Yandilli Trilogy #1)
Publisher: McPhee Gribble, 1991 (First edition hardback)
ISBN: 9780869142516
Source: Personal library, purchased ages ago for $20.00

Availability: try your library and second-hand bookstores.


Responses

  1. I do hope to come across a copy of this, Lisa. Indeed the whole trilogy! It would be a compelling read. Also a good and timely lesson re the issue of cultural sensitivity. Hall seems to have nailed it. Great review, thank you!

    • Thanks, Juliet:) It occurs to me that Text Publishing might reissue it in their Text Classics series, that all depends on copyright issues, of course…

      • Wouldn’t that be great! Meanwhile I’ll check out my local second- hand book stores :)

        • I’ve sent them a tweet suggesting it, but I imagine it’s not a question they can answer straight away.

  2. Very intriguing…I am definitely going to look for this book, which I never heard of before.

    • Good luck with the hunt! Oh, and try Brotherhood Books too, sometimes they have just the book you want.

  3. I knew the name sounded familiar. I have Just relations also.

    • Ooh, are you going to read it soon? We could start a Rodney Hall meme…

      • I didn’t have a time scheduled but if you wanted to draw attention to him, I read and post if it helps.

        • Well, I follow your blog so I’ll know when it happens:)

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve had a copy of the trilogy in one volume for years, but for no good reason I’ve never got around to reading it. Your post has inspired me to put it somewhere near the top of my ridiculously long list of books to read.

    • Ah, that’s interesting… I wonder if that edition is still in print…

  5. Another book I should have read and haven’t. I accept that the writing is good but don’t you think that depictions of white/indigenous contact are very dependent on when the book was written? Kingsley saw Aborigines as dangerous, Franklin saw them as extinct, Eleanor Dark, for the first time, saw them as people. Hall seems to seems to see them as “at one with nature”. Now we have a whole body of Indigenous Lit seeing contact from the ‘other side’ white authors will hopefully have a more nuanced approach.

    • Yes, I think your summary is valid. But in this novel I think Hall has been very careful to portray them only from the observations of just one character, a character whose observations about everything invite scepticism. I think that’s an important distinction.

  6. Funny that you should post about this now. I have just picked up Captivity Captive in a second hand book sale not realising that it was #3 in a series. I will have to track down the other 2 before I read this (I hate reading series out of order).

    • Oh, I am one of the lucky ones – I can get a copy via inter-library loan!


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