Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2022

The Pebbled Beach at Pentecost, by Andrew Lemon

Is it fair to say that until recently (apart from FIFO holiday destinations) Australians didn’t think much about ‘the Pacific Family’ as our politicians like to call it?  I bet I wouldn’t be the only one surprised to learn that back in 2018 we were launching a “new chapter in relations with our Pacific family” and that ‘the Pacific Step-up is one of Australia’s highest foreign policy priorities’.  This declaration is made at DFAT’s ‘Pacific Step-up’ webpage, which (a-hem) needs a fair bit of updating since the election seven weeks ago has given us a new Prime Minister and a foreign minister who has made it her business to engage with Pacific nations most of us couldn’t place on a map. (I mean, we know, duh, that they’re in the Pacific.  But exactly where, in relation to us and each other?) I suspect that a lot of us are on the bottom step of the ladder, though I also hope it’s true that plenty of us have been ashamed and angry about Australia’s indifferent stance on climate change which is affecting these nations.

Screenshot: DFAT Pacific Step-up page viewed 9 July 2022

I’m also willing to hazard a guess that most of us know very little about the colonial history of these nations.  Which is why Andrew Lemon’s The Pebbled Beach at Pentecost is so interesting.  It’s set amid 19th century colonialism in the Pacific, tracing the events that led up to the death of a young Englishman on Pentecost Island in 1887. This is the blurb:

Vernon Lee Walker, a young Englishman from industrial Wolverhampton, meets his death on a beach on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific on the eve of Christmas 1887. Why did Vernon die, in what circumstances, and who was responsible? Was he, as once branded, simply a ‘bad colonist’? Or was he a Candide, an innocent abroad, mixing invisibly with the rich and famous, manipulated by a calculating brother, unable to change the world around him?

An historian finds Vernon’s letters home to England, spanning a dozen years. With decreasing frequency, these follow his trajectory, first in Melbourne and Sydney, then as he yields to the spell of the Pacific. But what happens between the lines? Does he fall in love with his brother’s wife? What does a boy not tell his mother? The novelist steps in. This is a unique fusion of authentic history and informed invention – a tragic story of colonialism in Australia and the Pacific, told with compassion, humour and a deep understanding of time and place.

Award-winning historian Andrew Lemon, delivering the recent Weston Bate Oration at the RHSV (Royal Historical Society of Victoria), explored the writing of Australian history as literature.  Christina Browning from RHSV Marketing kindly sent me the text of his wide-ranging speech which considered the reasons why journalists and storytellers outsell academic historians when writing on historical subjects and also the impact of Australian novels, plays and poetry on Australians’ understanding of their history.

Let’s start with historical novels, ubiquitous in Australia. Many take their historical settings very seriously indeed—so much so that the authors become our quasi historians. Their names are legion, from Marcus Clarke, Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin (writing as ‘Brent of Bin Bin’), Ernestine Hill and Eleanor Dark through to contemporary novelists such as Thomas Kenneally, Robert Drewe, Kate Grenville and now Hannah Kent. Martin Boyd in The Cardboard Crown and Lucinda Brayford was a historical novelist. Patrick White was, with soaring flights of imagination, in novels such as The Tree of Man and A Fringe of Leaves. Peter Carey has long used history as a canvas for his dark satire.

(He doesn’t mention Indigenous historical novelists, so I’ll just mention those that come to mind: Anita Heiss, Sienna Brown, Julie Janson, Leah Purcell, Kim Scott and Marie Munkara, and I’ll also suggest that all the First Nations fiction that I’ve read involves a reckoning with Australia’s Black History.)

In the prologue, we read about the genesis of Lemon’s venture into writing fiction:

1987

Exactly one hundred years after his death, I found Vernon Lee Walker in the manuscripts section of the State Library of Victoria.

He never left me.

This is how his story unfolded. (p. ix)

It was the fate of Vernon Lee Walker to have his story told in a 1999 book called Bad Colonists: The South Seas Letters of Vernon Lee Walker and Louis Becke by Nicholas Thomas and Richard Eves.  Lemon said in his oration that Eves and Thomas represented Walker as a privileged, predatory, racist colonialist, contaminated by the illegal, immoral and murderous kanaka trade, who brought his death at Pentecost Island upon himself.  Lemon asked himself a different question: what would it have been like to be Vernon Lee Walker?

…my considered view was different, having read and transcribed all of Walker’s surviving correspondence, letters written with decreasing frequency between the ages of eighteen to thirty from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, New Caledonia and ultimately the New Hebrides, chiefly to his mother in Wolverhampton. I had read them all, not just the South Seas letters, for a commissioned history that came to nothing. The correspondence is one-sided. Nothing written to him has survived. Vernon was a nobody, although he mixed with a few somebodies. I could research the somebodies and find the bones of his family. I began imagining the rest.

I read him not as ‘a colonist’, but as a teenage boy leaving his home and widowed mother forever, coming to a new country (the leap of faith symbolised by the front cover image), trying to find his way, soon being exploited by an odious older brother, dealing stoically and sometimes courageously with daunting circumstances, being killed for reasons beyond his control—that story moved me. I found not contempt but compassion.

The novel begins in England, in Wolverhampton, where Walker’s family was comfortably off while his ironmonger father was alive.  His death brought straitened circumstances, to be resolved, they hoped, by aspirational ventures in the newly separated colony of Victoria.  Vernon was hustled into accompanying his brother Howard (whose behaviour revealed in Vernon’s letters to his mother show him to have been a privileged, predatory, racist colonialist, contaminated by the illegal, immoral and murderous kanaka trade.  But Vernon is no tattle-tale.  He tells his mother that he is lonely and homesick, but he never tells her about Howard’s ‘social disease’ or the reasons why his wife Louisa left him.  It is the historian’s meticulous research that shows the reader what was going on.)

Vernon is so ordinary, it’s quite heartbreaking.  He’s not really very bright, he’s not ambitious, he’s painfully shy with women and he’s got no prospects anyway.  His brother exploits him mercilessly, enjoying a fine lifestyle while underpaying Vernon and leaving him alone in shabby lodgings while he flits around Australia, New Zealand and beyond.  Howard makes trips back to see his mother and to marry the patient woman who’d (foolishly) waited for him, but Vernon can never be spared from the business, not even to meet up with his younger brother Cyril, the sole representative of this family ever to visit Australia.  If not for the friendship of the wealthy Thomson family and an unexpected reunion with a Wolverhampton parson called Sandiford, Vernon’s life would have been unendurable. He could so easily have taken to drink, as so many lonely and unsuccessful colonists did.

It’s when Howard and Thomson’s ventures reach the Pacific that the author reveals the activities of 19th century colonial powers and Australia’s shameful part in them.  Britain, France and Germany accommodated each other at this time, Britain taking advantage of violent French and German reprisals against local resistance while fastidiously keeping its own hands ‘clean’.  Australian entrepreneurs took advantage too, using ‘diplomacy’ to encourage the big powers to make things easy for them, and spouting weasel words to justify the Kanaka trade as not being ‘slavery’ because they were ‘volunteers’.  Vernon is horrified to find himself with three servants who are only boys, boys too young even to know from which island they were taken.

Most of the novel is narrated in Vernon’s voice through his letters, supplemented with sly interventions from the historian-narrator:

Oh, if only Cyril had his ferrets out here—there were rabbits in abundance.  Vernon told his brother about the exciting house fires, and how people wore white hats, and the cheapness of oysters and grapes.  He finished the letter because he had to go to bed.

‘I have been up for the past three nights, for there is a fellow in the house who has had delirium tremens and I have stayed up to watch him, for at times he does not know what he does.  He has some awfully queer notions in his head sometimes.’

He signed off, saying ‘Howard has not come here yet, but I expect he will be in the next mail steamer. ‘  Howard wasn’t.

The holiday river trip fell through.  Vernon found compensations.  Presbyterians not being in awe of Good Friday, Thomas and Renwick invited the lad to join a contingent of thirty gentlemen in carts and carriages driving two hours into the countryside near Gisborne for a splendid day’s coursing, with ‘any amount of hares’ and ‘some of the best dogs in the colony.’ With Mr Thomson’s hospitality, the wants of the inner man were amply catered for.  So Vernon said. (p.97)

The narrative voice changes, however, in Part IV, which relates the author’s search for the place where Vernon died, and his unexpected discovery of oral history which redeems both the victim and his killer.

You can find out more about Andrew Lemon at the ASA Cultural Tours website, for whom he most recently led the tour ‘From Seafarers to Pastoralists: Exploring the Coastal & Volcanic Landscapes of Victoria’s Western District’

Author: Andrew Lemon
Title: The Pebbles Beach at Pentecost
Publisher: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781922669247, pbk., 406 pages
Review copy courtesy of the author, via Christina Browning from RHSV Marketing.

Available from the RHSV Bookshop, Readings and other good bookshops.

 


Responses

  1. I didn’t realize that Andrew had launched into fictionalized history (or whatever term is appropriate here). I’m interested to read this, and thank you for prompting me to open my latest Victorian Historical Journal which is teetering on top of the Pile of Unopened Journals and Magazines, in order to read Andrew’s Weston Bate Oration.

    Like

    • Hi Janine! Delighted to have reached you with this, the novel deserves an historian’s review as well as one from a general reader!
      That oration is very good. They Zoomed it, so I remain hopeful that it will be available online for anyone to watch.
      BTW, if you have any contacts at the RHSV Bookshop website, can you let them know that their categories ought to include ‘historical fiction” please?

      Like

  2. You are right that we don’t know enough about our Pacific neighbours though as you say many of us are certainly uncomfortable about the impact of our climate change inaction.

    I’m pleased to see ongoing support of the value or historical fiction to our understanding of history. Modern literary historical fiction has a lot to offer readers.

    Can I just add Kim Scott to your First Nations Australian writers … I think Dead man dance is a pivotal work of Australian historical fiction.

    Like

    • *smacks forehead* Of course, how did I forget Kim Scott? I’ll add him now.
      We are of one mind about the value of historical fiction — as long as it’s not the bodice-ripping variety, exploiting the Holocaust or *yawn* large-font-on-the-cover versions of WW2 heroic women.

      Liked by 1 person


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