Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 29, 2021

Missus, by Ruth Park

Missus was the last novel of Ruth Park (1917-2010).  By this time in 1985, she was calling a spade, a spade.

The old Queen was dead, and King Edward well settled on the throne of England.  In far away New South Wales, in the town of Trafalgar, Hugh Darcy and Margaret Kilker were born.  There were but a few months between their ages, Hugh being the elder.

Trafalgar was first settled by a veteran of that battle.  He used his prize money to go out to New South Wales with a cargo of sheep and horses.  He applied for a grant on the well-watered tablelands, and was assigned thirty convicts as slave labourers.  It was his fancy to give them Jack Tar uniforms to remind him of his glorious days in Nelson’s navy.  He called his property Trafalgar, and the four creeks that ran through it Victory, Copenhagen and Nile.

The natives were a trouble at first, believing the sheep to belong to everyone, and much more easily speared than kangaroos. But the master of Trafalgar made short work of them, by inviting them to hang around waiting for white man’s titbits, and then feeding them flour cakes primed with strychnine. The survivors did not connect the deaths with the white men; they believed the water had gone bad, as it sometimes did after a dry season.  One old woman tried to warn the white people not to drink it, but they did not understand.  She went away with the two or three others and that was the end of them.  (Opening lines, Chapter One, p.3)

So there it is, an object lesson in how to write respectful Australian historical fiction, penned in 1985 and breathing scorn for the so-casual dispossession and massacre of Australia’s Indigenous people.  It’s not the only time in this book that Park acknowledges Australia’s Black history, and if I had my way, every creative writing school would begin by teaching the protocols and then make this short novel a set text for critique.  Missus is not a novel about Australia’s Black history, but that history IMO is part of the story of almost any historical novel set in Australia.

Missus is the love story of Hugh and Mumma Darcy, those much-loved Depression-era characters from The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949). There’s no disappointment in reading it, but this prequel relies to some extent on affection for these characters because the reader already knows that Margaret marries Hugh, and the rest is padding.  So there’s not much narrative tension; it’s the story of the ne’er do well that Hugh Darcy turns out to be in the other novels. And the story of how passionately Margaret loves him all the same.

There are the fates of others to interest the reader: Aunt Alf who’s spent her life as devoted housekeeper to the parish priest; Delia, the dishonest estranged sister in Sydney milking Aunt Alf out of her inheritance; and Josie, who recovers from foolishly marrying a gambler and embezzler, to educate herself and set up in business, only to find discrimination because she’s a woman.

It was a stark world, built on social deceptions.  As a girl, she had been shielded from the vulgar and wicked.  She had to wait until marriage to learn about that.  She had thought in her trustful idiocy that during their long engagement Noel had been as faithful to her as she to him.  It was only when he attempted to practise on her the gross arts he had learned in the town’s several badhouses that she understood his values were different from hers.  The factory manager had persecuted and harassed her, yet she was the one who had to resign.

Now she sat alone with her intelligence and skills in an office, as good an accountant as any in Trafalgar, and nobody came.

She went at last to the woman owner of the drapery shop, a competent brusque personality, and asked if she might handle the shop’s books for a reduced fee.

The proprietor said instantly, ‘I would never take my business to a professional woman.’

‘But why?’ asked Josie desperately.  ‘You’re a professional woman yourself.’

The older woman did not know.  She echoed tradition.  (p.119)

No sisterhood there, then!

Jer, (Jeremiah), Hugh’s younger brother, exemplifies the fate of the disabled.  More intelligent than Hugh, he never has the opportunity for real work, and is reduced to ad hoc entertaining and cooking in shearing sheds despite his crutches.  He’s a grand storyteller, and he sings beautifully with self-taught guitar accompaniment.  But he depends on Hugh for a living, and there’s a flaw in Hugh’s character which makes Jer very vulnerable.

He loved him devotedly, but he knew himself superior in intelligence and foresight.  Hugh had cheek and courage; you’d never come to the end of his charm.  But somewhere in his character he was flimsy.  Jer saw him bowling forever around the State, like one of those uncanny bundles of dry grass and thorns, a rolypoly, rolling this way and that before the wind until it fetched up against barbed wire and fell to pieces.  Wherever he and Hugh had worked there were jokers like that, in all stages of disintegration.  Drifters, they called themselves, free men, sons of liberty.  Jer knew how they felt.  Their way of life provided them with one long open door; whenever responsibility threatened they ducked through it.  But the barbed-wire fence was always there, always.  They came up against it because of age, failing health, too much booze.  That’s when they looked around for someone to go home to, and found there wasn’t a soul in the world.

Besides, marriage wouldn’t keep Hugh at home, if he wanted to remain a seasonal labourer.  Jer knew the routine of too many of those: hard workers, but free and easy, back home three or four times a year, get the wife in pod, teach the boy how to pass a football correctly, dig over the garden, tell the young daughter she’ll get her teeth kicked in if she goes too far with the boys, lay some new lino in the kitchen, kisses all round and off again grape picking, cane cutting, fencing or whatever the game might be.  (p.81)

Margaret doesn’t know it yet, but venturing out to work to save for her marriage is just the beginning of it.  Though her mother (Granny Kilker in the other novels in this trilogy) has the measure of the man, and wishes she could deter Margaret’s love for him, she never dreamt that their daughter would need to work.  But Hugh’s pay checks are irregular, and mostly blown on booze.

Margaret put a good face on it, but she feared Hugh might vanish from Trafalgar overnight.  She saw plainly that he was made uneasy by order and system.  He was like a wild dog coaxed briefly into becoming a pet.  The moment backs were turned, over the fence with him. (p.82)

For his part, Hugh is panic stricken by the thought of marriage.  His own parents’ relationship was dreadful, and his childhood was fraught.  He doesn’t want to be lonely, but though he can see that the marriage of John and Eny Kilker is not like that of his parents’, he fears it might be.

I read Missus for #NovNov (Novellas in November) hosted by Rebecca from Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books and for #AusReadingMonth at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Author: Ruth Park
Title: Missus
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1993, first published 1985
ISBN: 9780140176018, pbk, 179 pages
Source: Personal library, found in a Street Library in Sandringham


Responses

  1. […] 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). Update: See my review here.  […]

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  2. Great review Lisa and agree with your opinion on introducing our young people and others to this wonderful writer. Am so grateful to have discovered her in my early days in Sydney along with other Australian writers who are too many to mention. In fact am just going through my Oz literature and next step will be to fix gaps. We have a fabulous new library in Fremantle and can’t wait to explore it.

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    • It does my heart good to hear about libraries opening. So many places around the world have got rid of them, but we here in Oz are smart enough to know that they are treasured pieces of community infrastructure!

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      • I was chatting with someone the other day who told me how amazing the library in Christchurch, NZ, is Lisa – I’ve Googled pictures of it and it looks wonderful. Our library staff here were home delivering books to people’s doors here during the last lock down, what service!

        I haven’t read Missus but love the Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange, and I promise you will love the series on DVD! I have that too, Ruth Park is a delightful writer.

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        • *chuckle* Sue, I confess to having watched both series multiple times. I watched them when they were first released on the ABC, and then again when I discovered they were available on DVD and bought them. After that, again, after cataract surgery when I couldn’t read much. And most recently, again when I had one of my phases of insomnia which plague me every now and again.
          Other people do comfort reading, I do comfort binge and binge again watching of old TV series where I already know what happens and it doesn’t matter if I fall asleep.

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          • I have been known to watch the same movie over and over Lisa, so I’m glad I’m not alone in this! I suspect it’s because it’s soothing. I can play the same piece of music over and over as well. I’m sure it’s the same reason – mindlessly relaxing!

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            • Yes, and also if it’s the right kind of artwork, you can find something new in it every time.

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  3. I just picked up my (newish, unread)copy of ‘The Harp in the South Novels’ (one volume) and there is ‘Missus’, right at the beginning. I’ve not read ‘Missus’ before: I’ve read the other two novels (years ago). So, over Christmas, I think I’ll read all three.

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    • That’s good to hear, that it’s still in print.
      The next really hot day we get, when it’s too horrible to go outside, I’m going to binge watch the Harp series which I’ve got on DVD.

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  4. Wow, is this a novella. I would never have recollected that. Great post Lisa and a good example of how our reviewing changes with the zeitgeist! I reviewed this back in 2010, and only made a reference to the Indigenous people issue because we were not talking then so much about telling the stories, who tells them, how to tell them.

    Anyhow, such a great read.

    (PS I’ve just seen my review and my copy was nearly 250 pages!)

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    • That is interesting about the differing no of pages. My edition is just the standard size orange spine Penguin paperback of that era, with the standard font too. There’s no introduction in mine, is there in yours?

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      • Interesting. My copy says it was “offset from Nelson edition”. 1980 reprint I believe (got it in 1988). Orange Penguin spine, but cover is same as Nelson’s – Orange-yellow with silhouette verandah and two figures. Title page, dedication, then p. 1 to p 247, then unpaginated promo for the other two Harp books, and that is it? Font looks standard but there is a horizontal line at the top of each page so each page may have fewer words. Ch 1, p. 1; Ch. 2, p. 31. How does all this sound?

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        • Ok, mine is a 1993 edition, and yes, offset from the Nelson edition too. Mine goes p.3 to p,179 and then promos for 4 other Park books, and others by Jessica Anderson, Jean Bedford, Margaret Barbalet and three more pages of other promos as well.
          Ch 1 starts at p3 and ends on p.23, Ch 2 starts at p.24.
          There’s nothing about it being abridged, but I suppose it’s possible that it’s a revised edition with something awkward (or boring, or litigious) removed?
          (But no, I’m not up for going through it chapter by chapter to find out if that’s so!)

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          • Hmm sounds like offset from.a different Nelson with far more dense text. Mine looks pretty normal for Penguin font but my guess is mine has more margins top and bottom rather than that yours is abridged.

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  5. I’ve been thinking about rereading The Harp in the South so that I can finally read the other 2 books in the trilogy (for some reason I have never got around to reading them). I remember the 80’s TV series very fondly (is that the one you will be binge watching?}

    Park was a friend/correspondent of Eve Langley’s, which is why she has been on my mind lately.

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    • Yes, that’s the series, with Ann Phelan as Mumma.
      I want to re-read Poor Man’s Orange so that I’ve got a review of it on this blog, and also read for the first time The Frost and the Fire/One-apecker, Two-a-pecker, maybe for Aus Reading Month next year, eh?

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  6. […] Ruth Park | Missus (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ Lit Lovers) […]

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  7. […] Missus by Ruth Park (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  8. I had not heard of this particular Ruth Park book. I enjoyed her other ones you mentioned.

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  9. […] Ruth Park | Missus (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ Lit Lovers) […]

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  10. […] that she won the Miles Franklin for Swords and Crowns and Rings, plus her trilogy that consists of Missus (1985); The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange was made into a popular TV series, […]

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