Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2022

The Well in the Shadow: A Writer’s Journey Through Australian Literature, by Chester Eagle

The Well in the Shadow is one of my most treasured works of literary criticism, and I consider it a small miracle that I came by it in such a circuitous way…

It was 2020, and we were all just learning about masks.  Unprepared for any pandemic, Australia had so few of them that they were reserved for hospital staff — there weren’t even enough for staff in aged care settings.  Locked down throughout the city, while manufacturing cranked into gear, Melburnians went into action with cottage mask-making industries, and — in an effort to lure buyers to online book sales — the ever-enterprising Barry Scott at Transit Lounge Publishing offered a sexy black mask as a free gift for purchases over a certain amount…

So, scouring the Transit Lounge website for titles I didn’t have, I came across The Well in the ShadowThe blurb sounded interesting:

Award-winning Australian author Chester Eagle journeys through Australian literature offering engaging essays on the works of writers including Miles Franklin, Patrick White, George Johnston, Beverley Farmer, Helen Garner and Alexis Wright. As Eagle says in his introduction: ‘The essays are not introductory. I consider them rather as a sharing of one writer’s reflections with the thoughts of readers who are looking for something new to add to their thinking. What the fellow-writer has to offer is the insight that comes from having also been at the heart of the risky business of creating and imagining. Writers can see what other writers are up to because they face the same problems and use the same tricks.’ These entertaining essays are linked by the essential notion of what it means to be a writer in Australia, and as such offer up valuable insights into our literature and country.

The essays discuss not just those authors who are listed in the blurb… they also include Judith Wright, Hal Porter, Frederick Manning, Henry Handel Richardson, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Sally Morgan, Barnard Eldershaw, Murray Bail and Barry Hill.  Eagle’s style is chatty but also informative, thoughtful, wise and occasionally provocative.


Coonardoo, 1st edition (Image credit: Nathan Hobby)

Of particular interest to me at this time — because I’ve just constructed a new page about Katharine Susannah Prichard (to coincide with reading Nathan Hobby’s new biography The Red Witch — is Chester Eagle’s essay about KSP’s Coonardoo. Beginning with what he calls Interlude 2: ‘As far apart as ever’, he writes:

I first read Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo in 1961, and was much affected by it.  I first read Sally Morgan’s My Place in 2007 because I thought it might make a companion for, or provide a comparison with, its predecessor.  It did.  I was surprised by the way the two books spoke to each other.  I read My Place slowly, trying to find its themes, then returned to Coonardoo, only to find, as often happens, that either the book or its reader had changed. In my first reading, years ago, I had felt a great sorrow for Coonardoo, had admired Prichard’s handling of a harsh region of the country which I had never seen, but failed to notice many things about the story line which are obvious to me now.

Two essays then follow:

  • The un-loving of Coonardoo, A white woman’s version of a black woman’s life, first published in 1929
  • Sally Morgan’s My Place, An Indian discovers she’s Aboriginal; the struggle to find a way back.

‘The un-loving of Coonardoo‘ has a two-edged meaning.  It refers to the characters: the white man Hugh Watt’s un-loving rejection of Coonardoo, and also to the change in literary criticism of the novel.

(I’m not going to summarise the plot or revisit my thoughts about Coonardoo and the criticism of it here because I covered that extensively in my review.)

Eagle, noting that while KSP’s characterisation certainly isn’t shallow, she doesn’t spend much time trying to explicate the inner workings of her characters’ minds. (This comment reminded me of what I had read in The Red Witch, i.e. that KSP had given short thrift to Cyril Cook’s Freudian interpretation of her oeuvre.) But Eagle goes on to query whether Coonardoo is indeed the central character of the novel.  He notes Mollie’s rapturous response to discovering the landscape of her long-estranged father’s farm, and goes on to write…

I am inclined to think that the region where Prichard’s story is set is the heart of the book; that is, that the book’s central character is a place, an area, a setting, a harsh and violent eco-system which even the black people find hard and white people who are unaccustomed to it find atrocious. (p.138)

Jessica, Hugh’s would-be wife can’t stand it when she visits, and Mollie is…

…unsuited to station life, having next to no sympathy for, or interest in, the black people, whereas Hugh and his mother, who love Wytaliba, realise full well that any whites who live there must accept that the land is more than those who claim to own it: that is, they must accept a new creed incorporating much that the black people take for granted. The Aboriginal stockmen are every bit as good with horses and cattle as their white overseers, and the north-west knows it.  Hugh’s mother, Mrs Watt, Bessie, Mrs Bessie, Mumae, as she is variously called, doesn’t have white stockmen on the property, partly because she doesn’t need them but principally because they will interfere with the black women, and she believes, or so Prichard tells us, that the traditional way of life should be maintained as far as possible.

Bessie Watt’s regime, then, respects the earlier way of life, and in particular the black women.  The trouble, the tragedy, to use a European word, starts when she is no longer there, when she has passed Wytaliba to her son, who would seem to be the ideal person to take over, but unfortunately is not. (p.139)

(He notes, BTW, that this respect for Aboriginal custom does not extend to Coonardoo’s relationship with Warieda, to whom she is promised, and that this causes problems for them all.)

Eagle then extends this line of thinking by analysing Hugh’s shortcomings, noting how unusual it is that a highly capable woman like Bessie Watt is running a station on a male frontier.  Much more common among station owners is the racist, abusive, exploitative character of Sam Geary, a man like many others who fails to recognise that the customs, the practices and thinking, the ceremonies and rituals of the black people cannot be separated from the land. Later in the essay he writes that the stations in Prichard’s novel, such as Wytaliba and Nuniewarra, are compromises between whites and blacks.

Blacks are fed, given employment that suits them, and they’re also given acceptance, on however low a level, in return for peace and white occupation.  The quality of this settlement depends, if you care to think about it, on the humanity and decency of the whites who oversee — and control — this settlement.  (p.152)

In the light of recent scholarship and the writing of Australia’s Black History about the frontier, anyone can see that the problem with the ‘compromise’ is that it’s patronising at best, and that it offers easy potential for widespread exploitation.  Moreover, this interpretation of such unequal power relations  fundamentally denies Indigenous agency while ignoring dispossession and Black Resistance at the same time.  However, as Eagle reminds us at the conclusion of the essay, it’s disrespectful of Prichard’s achievement to forget that the book was published in 1929 when to write a book featuring an Aboriginal woman was an uncommonly bold undertaking.  

To give the black woman such richness that she is the human embodiment of the harsh yet miraculously lovable landscape surrounding her means that Prichard had to draw on levels of awareness that had rarely entered the English novel to that time. I’m not aware of anyone having done it for the north-west of  Australia before her, and possibly since.  Prichard’s characters might not have been able to treat Coonardoo with the richness she deserves, but Prichard herself saw to it that the black woman was a worthy part of the powerful, daunting land where she lives, and manages, also, to convey that the same could be said of all the black people, so that although the title of the book moves our focus to the black, the sense of shame and failure that the book generates inside us is there because of the failure of the whites. (p.158)

Eagle thinks that the black people in Coonardoo offer an on-going but latent criticism of the whites, from the station owners to the banks which foreclose on owners who can’t keep up their payments.

The essay goes on to interrogate the plot device of Hugh’s illness which takes him from Coonardoo and any prospect of happiness.  He thinks it’s distorting, and silly. 

The whole business of Hugh’s sickness, and the arrival of Geary, offering help, are distractions from the more pressing realities of Hugh’s situation. Can he share Coonardoo with Warieda, can Coonardoo manage to give love and support to both?  Can some kind of three-sided modus vivendi be worked out? (p.149)

Now that’s an provocative proposition…


Chester Eagle died just last year, but he has left a marvellous legacy.  You can still buy The Well in the Shadow from Transit Lounge, but you can also download it for free from  Chester Eagle’s Trojan Press. He had an idiosyncratic and generous approach to publishing, and if you’d like to know how this came about, read Derham Groves eulogy.

Image credit: Coonardoo 1st edition, https://nathanhobby.com/2018/03/16/re-reading-coonardoo/#more-5078.

Author: Chester Eagle (1933-2021)
Title: The Well in the Shadow: A Writer’s Journey Through Australian Literature
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2010
ISBN: 9780980571776, pbk., 371 pages
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. Lisa, what a superb book to find, I am envious!

    I have to dash out on this cold wet morning here so I haven’t had time to read your post thoroughly, but I was so thrilled to see the name Chester Eagle, I haven’t heard of him since I read Play Together, Dark Blue Twenty, years ago! I didn’t know he had passed away, I will come back here later on and read the eulogies and your post properly. What a nice surprise it was to see his name mentioned!

    Like

    • He’s amazing, Sue, I love his style and will be exploring his fiction too. 😊

      Like

  2. I read this review with great interest, as I must confess I had never heard of Chester Eagle. Thank you also for the link to his website, which I shall explore further.

    Like

  3. This sounds fab. I like the idea of books “speaking to each other” as I think that does happen a lot, though usually serendipitously. I’m thinking of when I read Charmian Clift’s memoirs last year followed by A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Sampson.

    I’ve never heard of Chester Eagle, but what a great name!

    Like

    • Hello Kim, sorry for the late response … I’ve been away in Beechworth (again!) and only had my phone which is not set up for doing much in the way of things digital.
      I like this book because it is not academic in style, it’s like one well-read reader talking to another, which I think is why his students loved him no.

      Like

      • Hope you had an enjoyable trip! Beginning to think I will never have a holiday / break again as I’ve just started a new job, which means I have to build up my annual leave from scratch. Oh well 🤷🏻‍♀️

        Like

  4. I haven’t read the Prichard but he does seem to present some interesting perspectives. Friends of ours our of Broken Hill have an Aboriginal head stockman who is the awe of everyone, and always makes me realize how utterly vulnerable we are in that desert environment compared to the indigenous people who have been there for aeons. I think there is nothing about that country that man doesn’t know.

    I am sure I read Mapping the Paddocks and his book about Gippsland long ago, but alas I haven’t kept them and can’t recall them well. Reviews of his books would be very welcome Lisa! (As if you don’t have enough to do I know!)

    Like

  5. This sounds extraordinary Lisa – what a find!

    Like

    • Ha ha, I had another ‘find’ today, of an entirely different sort. We were away for a short break in Beechworth and made a side trip to Euroa for coffee on the way home. There’s a second-hand bookshop there where I saw My Love Must Wait by Ernestine Hill. The name rang a bell and so I bought it for $2, and then, back in the car with my phone, searched around for which one of us had reviewed it. *chuckle* I had commented on your review that I was glad that you had read it so I didn’t have to!
      Ah well, ’twas only $2!

      Like

      • Ha ha! But as all book lovers know, just because I was not enamoured with a book, doesn’t mean you won’t be ☺️

        Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: