Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 6, 2020

Benevolence (2020), by Julie Janson

Somehow, I missed the publication of Julie Janson’s first novel Crocodile Hotel (2015), reviewed here by Alison Broinowski, and I would have missed this second novel too if not for the Facebook group started by Kirsten Krauth. Set up to provide publicity for authors denied the usual launches and tours, the group rejoices in the rather unwieldy name Writers Go Forth. Launch. Promote. Party… but it has alerted me to some books I might otherwise not have heard of, including Benevolence which is a very interesting book indeed.

The ironic title Benevolence signals the truth about paternalistic initiatives set up to ‘benefit’ Indigenous Australians in the colonial era.  The novel is a retelling of the early years of European settlement, each chapter beginning with a short paragraph about the ‘progress’ of the colony.  But this is no ordinary historical novel: written as a rebuttal of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005), Benevolence is ‘hidden history’ because it reshapes the clichéd narrative by offering the Indigenous perspective on these events.  Each chapter continues with episodes in the life of the central character Muraging, born in the early 1800s in the Hawkesbury area. Although she is based on the real-life experiences of Janson’s great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas is a symbol of the full impact of colonisation on her people, the Darug.

Muraging is re-named Mary in the Parramatta Native School when her father left her there, believing that she would be ‘better off’.  As the novel progresses, we see that this was an act of desperation born of extreme hunger, which was widespread in Indigenous communities as the settlement encroached further and further onto hunting and harvesting grounds.  We also see that she is never ‘better off’ because, whether she learns and adapts to European ways or not, there was no way for an Indigenous person to be ‘better off’ because benevolence did not extend to equal rights and opportunities, much less respect for First Nations ownership of the land.  At the same time, as Muraging learns to her dismay, her own people often don’t trust her because of her confused loyalties.

Muraging never sees her father again, and all her life, like members of the Stolen Generations today, she feels a sense of loss and abandonment.  She doesn’t give up seeking the whereabouts of her family until the bitter end when she learns their fate in the most awful of ways.

In the school, Mary learns to read and write, and to play the violin, and that is what she takes with her when she runs away with a handsome young man called Boothuri.  She has some adjustments to make because she misses the comforts of a settled life, her language is rusty and she doesn’t have many of the skills she would normally have learned in her community. She is always hungry too. Nevertheless she is happy until the presence of soldiers in their haven prompts Boothuri to join the warriors in the frontier wars.  Then, despite the scorn and disapproval of her ‘uncivilised behaviour’ in leaving Mrs Shelley’s school, she returns to the settlement and goes to work for a cleric called Smythe.  Despite her education, (which was superior to that of many illiterate convicts and settlers), she doesn’t become a teacher as she wishes, but becomes a house-servant instead.  And because Mary is an attractive young woman, and she is attracted to Smythe too, the inevitable happens.  Her baby is born on the kitchen table but allowed to stay until the arrival of the new Mrs Smythe.  Again, this is irony.  Although Smythe is always trying to re-make Mary as ‘civilised’ and she sometimes feels like she’s in a trap, Smythe and Mary are in love with each other.  Smythe loves his daughter Eleanor.  But he has to have a wife, and it’s more important that she be his social equal than his intellectual equal.  So he imports an English wife, a complete stranger to him.

The new Mrs Smythe like most of the European characters, is a caricature.  This is not a failure of characterisation: their dialogue and behaviours are deliberately absurdist.  Magistrate Masters, for example, is vulgar and crude, explicitly spiteful about the injustices he presides over in court, and offensively sexually aggressive in mixed company.  At a dinner party, after a scene in which Mercy flaunts her bare bottom as she dances for the company, he brags about making sure that the native servants learn an appropriate demeanour.  And then he openly admits to rape:

‘I hope that he who fed Elijah in the wilderness will not less us feel the calamity of famine,’ says Masters.  ‘Then the natives might get the upper hand with murder and rape.  I have been partial to a little rape of the Sabine women myself… Pass the salt.’

Mrs Masters faints and Smythe picks her up and passes smelling salts under her nose.

‘Get Cook.  She can loosen her corset. Oh dear, I have gone too far,’ says Masters.  ‘I should not drink so much Madeira. I am sorry, dear wife!’ he says as he fans his wife.

Mary reaches forward and rips the cloth from the table.  Roast turkey, wine, cutlery and glasses crash onto the carpet in a terrible scene.  She throws plates and cruets at the people, who scatter, terrified.  They rush all over the room crashing into each other in confusion. (p.144)

Masters is the very antithesis of polite colonial society as we believe it to be, and Mary’s dramatic behaviour is actually the only reasonable response to a man who admits to abduction and rape.  This novel strips away the veneer of ‘realism’ which is depicted in literature and film.  The stilted language and farcical conversations reveal the violence of what was really going on.

I went to a play once, the name of which escapes me now, in which the audience, seated in the round, had to get up and move at the end of every act.  This was a nuisance as we had to keep gathering our belongings and make ourselves comfortable again, only to be disrupted a short time later.  We felt the irritation, but recognised it as a strategy to represent the way Indigenous people were always being moved on, and — feeling much more than irritation but rather a profound sense of dislocation and despair — were never able to settle permanently in one place.   Benevolence shows how — refugees in their own land — there is no permanence in the central character’s life.  Even her name alters depending on where she is, and she is always on the move.  And like her father, she experiences the despair of being unable to provide for her child.

Yet, after a life that would defeat most people, Muraging is a symbol of resilience.  She can hear and smell the burning of the forests to make way for cattle and sheep, but she picks up a stock to draw a map in the wet sand

…and marks the lands of the Darug, Gamariagal, Garigal, Gundungurra, Darkinjung, Guringai, Awakabal, Wonnaruah, Worimi, and Biripai. (p.338)

There are many good reasons to read Benevolence, but an unexpected one for me, was that when I Googled those tribal names, I discovered this rich Black history of the Hunter Valley.

See also the reviews at Mascara and at the SMH.

Julie Janson is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation. She was co-recipient of the 2016 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2019 Judith Wright Poetry Prize.

Author: Julie Janson
Title: Benevolence
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781925936636, pbk., 345  pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $19.99


  1. […] Benevolence, see Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review […]


  2. Yours is a wonderful account of a powerful and important novel


    • Thanks Carmel… I’d like to see this one get plenty of traction:)


  3. Thank you, Lisa. And on the list it goes :-)


  4. Oh, snap! I am reading this one now… though not sure I will finish it in time to review for your indigenous lit week. I have only skimmed your review; I’ll come back to it once I have finished the book.


    • My ‘week’ is really a month, so ‘late’ reviews are fine:)


  5. I have this one to read also … and will try to get to it soon.


  6. Lisa, your review of Benevolence speaks to the impact of colonial oppression on Aborigines. The protagonist Mary experiencing such oppression through dislocation, internal migration, and white patriarchal rule centers the tenacity and strength of Aboriginal womanhood. Scenes that you highlight from Janson’s novel reminds me of the historical novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins. Like Mary, the protagonist Frannie is a Black woman bound by racism, forced labor (servitude/ slavery), sexism, and lack of civil rights. Frannie is in constant shift due to emigration from Jamaica to England, servitude, and imprisonment. Historical novelists challenge readers to interrogate officialized versions of history within the national narrative that mars indigenous voices, events, and communities.


    • Yes, I think that this kind of thoughtful historical fiction has great value. It doesn’t deserve to have the same name as its Jean Plaidy forebears, it comes from a different place altogether.


  7. […] disjointed or staccato feel that, for me, broke the flow of my reading. Maybe this was intended, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has suggested, to convey the violence – or, at least, the instability – of that world. […]


  8. A really interesting book Lisa. I had planned to read it for your ILW week this year as I’ve (embarrassingly) had the book since February, but it didn’t happen. I’m glad I’ve finally read it, and look forward to seeing what Bill says, though he’ll probably accept it because it’s historical fiction by an Indigenous person!! (You listening Bill?)

    I did though find the writing a little challenging at times in what you describe as stilted, or I found disjointed/matter-of-fact. But the story was powerful, and well framed and researched I think.


    • Yes, I think it’s deliberately stilted, it’s to force the reader stop and really look at what is said and how that (what is said) is at odds with the view that those characters have of themselves (and obviously what they represent). It’s what Patrick White would do, with his half-finished sentences, to force the reader’s attention to really look at them properly.
      I think this would make a great play.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I think it would too. The characters are really strong. To be honest, I felt that she’s probably stronger as a playwright and poet than as a novelist. Great characters and story, gorgeous lyrical description, but the connecting narrative not so strong. I had that in my review about her being strong as a playwright, but didn’t quite know how to write it. Now it’s come together!


        • I’ve got playwrights on the brain because Patrick White was so keen to be one…

          Liked by 1 person

  9. […] The Keynote Speech is on a topic dear to my heart.  Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation, will be discussing Recovery – Restoring, Reconciling and Re-imagining Lost Histories.  (I reviewed Janson’s novel Benevolence during 2020 Indigenous Literature Week here.) […]


  10. […] Julie Janson, Benevolence (Magabala Books), see my review […]


  11. […] Grenville’s The Secret River (2005), which is itself a book about a character away from home — Benevolence, by Julie Janson, features an Indigenous woman called Muraging whose father leaves her in the […]


  12. […] For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers. […]


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