Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 31, 2022

A House is Built, by M Barnard Eldershaw

Cultural warning: quotations from this novel include racist colonial assumptions about Australia’s First Nations.


Alas, despite its lineage in the history of Australian women’s writing, A House is Built by collaborative writing duo Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw hasn’t aged well.  It’s just run-of-the-mill historical fiction tracing the fortunes of a free-settler family in the early days of Sydney. The novel is enlivened occasionally by some mild feminist mockery of the male characters, but compared to the dynamic historical fiction we enjoy these days, well, it’s a bit lame.  It’s chastening to see that it shared the Bulletin Prize with Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929, see my review) because putting these two novels on a par suggests to me that I’ve missed something about A House is Built.  

Structured in three parts, each set around a residence that symbolises the family’s rising fortunes, the novel begins with the arrival of James Hyde, quartermaster on HM Intrepid in 1837, i.e. nearly half a century after First Settlement.  Hyde sees the potential for a better future for his family than back in England, and two years later he returns with his savings and his pension and sets up a store.  The characterisation portrays Hyde as a dynamic entrepreneur, bluff and hearty but inclined to ride roughshod over dissent.

The dissent comes from his son.  His daughter Fanny is keen for adventure and eager to come, and her sister Maud is happy wherever there is social life and handsome men in uniform, but William doesn’t want to leave his boring clerical job in England because he’s in love with a girl called Adela.

Class distinctions imported from England impact on the emerging society.  William, a sailor’s son not ‘good enough’ for Adela in England, remains preoccupied by appearances throughout the novel. When Adela reaches her majority and sails to Sydney to marry despite her father’s objections, she finds that despite some differences, they live much the same life as in England.

“I have striven to reproduce our English life as far as possible,” said William, with pride and complacency.  “I think it is the duty of every Englishman to reproduce English conditions as far as possible wherever he may happen to be. The man who does not is, I don’t scruple to say it, a renegade,  If I thought the conditions of a new country had deflected me a hand’s-breadth from the decent and decorous standards I was brought up with I should be grieved indeed.”

Adela wanted to laugh but she saw it would not do. (p.152)

As Australia prepares for a referendum emerging from the Uluru Statement from the Heart (Voice, Treaty, Truth), contemporary readers will grit their teeth when reading on:

…”What finer thing can we do for Australia than make it like another England?  Australia of itself is nothing.  I have seen much of the surrounding country, and it is unprepossessing—large tracts of wooded country that does not deserve or receive the name of forest but is very properly called ‘bush’— brown, drought-parched, grass-land.  A man must own hundreds of acres to make a living.  Parts of the coast, I admit, are pleasing, but untutored.  It is a country that belonged to no one.  The natives are a poor scattered people, they do not often give trouble on the mainland. The country is, if I may use a Latin expression, a tabula rasa — a blank sheet, dear Adela.  It has no personality of its own, only a resistance.  It is for us with British perseverance to break down that resistance, to plant English life here in its entirety. Who are we to edit the greatest civilisation the world has known?  It is our duty to behave here as if we were in England.  I shall never abate one jot or title of our good old English ways,  Ours is a race of empire-builders because no Englishmen worthy of the name ever yields to climate or environment.  But there, my love, you need not trouble your pretty head with these deep questions.”

Adela had sat through this oration with twitching lips and modestly downcast eyes, (p.153, underlining mine.)

Now, to be fair, Barnard Eldershaw are only reproducing the racist assumptions that were prevalent in the 19th century, but, writing in 1929, it is not enough merely to depict Adela suppressing her amusement at his pomposity, and contemporary readers will be disappointed by it.  The satire in this episode is directed at the folly of transplanting English customs to a country where they are inappropriate.  Later in the novel the narrator pokes fun at hot Christmas dinners, clothing absurdly inappropriate for Australia’s weather, and the ridiculous aping of Italianate mansions by the rich.  Truth be told, Australia’s First Nations are barely acknowledged in the A House is Built and when they are, no character objects to the dismissive attitudes. No one challenges taking the land as happens in  Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel, co-winner of that Bulletin Prize in the same year.  For all its flaws, KSP broke new ground with Coonardoo by acknowledging the massacres, and by having an Aboriginal woman as a central character with feelings and a love of her country from which she had been dispossessed.

Sure, we can admire the feminist perspectives that emerge in the novel such as acknowledging the immigration scheme set up by Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877) and businesswoman Mary Reibey (1777-1855); it’s good to see Katy the domestic relax her strenuous efforts with her appearance once she gives a dallying suitor the flick.  But although the novel shows Hyde’s folly in preventing his daughter Fanny from taking her place in the business, the details of the plot aren’t there to support the view that it was just gender prejudice.  All we see is that Fanny’s good at doing the accounts when she briefly gets the chance, but there is much more to running his multiple concerns (a mill, interests in the Northern Rivers packet trade, shares in some boats; and a ship repair service as well multiple stores all over the goldfields as well as the original one on the harbour in Sydney.)  And in fact by the time old Hyde dies, she has established herself in charity work at the Poor Schools and won’t consider helping grandson Lionel who is floundering at managing the business.  Truth be told, the character who is most contented in this novel is Maud, happily married with her six children and a wealthy husband.  Fanny, having made a fool of herself with a youthful infatuation, remains an embittered unmarried women to the end. Though they share the same gendered limitations, Fanny is not in any way like the dynamic 19th century women in Catherine Helen Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will. (1865)

Almost worse than this is the portrayal of women as petty rivals, falling into melodrama over who gets to be ‘mistress of the house’, who gets to mother the first-born son, plus snarky remarks about fashion and gossip about the two ‘old maids’ finally getting a beau.

In the last chapters  the authors dispatch one family member after another to the grave, leaving only Fanny and Lionel in the house. Grief has not changed Fanny’s bitterness, and Lionel despite his best efforts is presiding over a business for which he has no aptitude.  On the last page he marries out of nostalgia for the past, aware that he has a heritage that was meant for his brother, not him. The family’s wealth and power hung on him like a garment that is much too big. 

John from Musings of a Literary Dilettante found A House is Built more compelling than I did, but like me, was tempted to abandon ship.

The risk with family sagas is a lack of central driving action, and to some extent that’s the case here. The plot is episodic, flitting from one character to another, though always around the central fulcrum of the driven Quartermaster. There are parts of the story that worked better than others, that were more ‘involving’. I found some of the early sections of the novel uneven, at times ‘cold’, and wanted to give up more than once, but I’m glad I persevered.

John recognises that the novel is uneven and that it is very much of its time. There’s a lot of ‘telling’ over ‘showing’ from our omniscient narrator. He thinks that because the authors admired Henry Handel Richardson (along with Eleanor Dark and Christina Stead) it is perhaps somewhat indebted to HHR’s Maurice Guest (1908).  I’m not so sure about that, though John knows more about literature than I ever will, I read Maurice Guest as a tale of obsession, and a brilliant recreation of a hothouse musical milieu that does not exist in Australia (1908, see my review).  I’d be more inclined to link A House is Built with The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney which is also a family saga that charts the rise and fall of a self-made man.

John summarises his respect for the book like this:

A House is Built is imperfect, and not in the same league as Maurice Guest. That said, latter parts of it deserve the title of classic, and it is, I think, an important early Sydney work. And its authors deserve praise for their work in developing Australian literature.

But with respect to John and others who admire A House is Buiilt, I don’t think it stands on own merits other than as a period piece of interest to scholars.

A House is Built predates this writing duo’s 1947 novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by almost two decades.  I didn’t like that much either.

Authors: M Barnard Eldershaw (Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw)
Title: A House is Built
Publisher: The Australasian Publishing Company in association with George G Harrap & Co., 1965 reprint, first published in serialised format in the Bulletin in 11 weekly instalments 22 May to 10 July 1929.
ISBN: 0727009702, hbk., 359 pages
Source: Personal library

I read A House is Built for the 1929 Club hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. and for AusReading Month hosted by Brona at This Reading Life.

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Responses

  1. I have skimmed this because I will read it one day … but I will say that my love for this duo comes from two things – their amazing role in the literary scene of the day and determination to be independent, and Marjorie Barnard’s wonderful short stories.

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    • Yes, they did do wonderful things for Australian literature, and I admire them for that. But perhaps because I had such high expectations, I was disappointed by this book.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done for getting this finished, and sorry it wasn’t very good!

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    • Not to worry, there’s plenty else that’s great to read:)

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  3. Hmmm… not sure I would like this. But thanks for reading it so I don’t have to 😉

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    • I think it’s of academic interest, but it’s not actually in the same league as the historical fiction available these days. It does offer a glimpse of Old Sydney, written closer in time than historical novels written now, so perhaps that’s of interest to Sydneysiders…
      but I probably wouldn’t have bothered to finish it if not for the #1929 Club.
      FWIW I suspect that Barnard & Eldershaw’s activities on behalf of OzLit (for which they deserve high praise) influence the reception of this book which would otherwise have been consigned to obscurity. On the basis of the two books I’ve read, I reckon they were out of step with the modern novel as it was developing in the hands of Woolf, Joyce, Hemingway et al., But apart from the feminist touches, they haven’t produced an engaging novel of the old-fashioned sort either.
      These days they’d have influential jobs in arts admin doing great things to support other authors and leaving the writing to them!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like your strong opinion about AHiB, I read it a long time ago. That it was so important when it came out is a reflection of Australian readers’ and academics’ ignorance of the great wealth of Australian C19th women’s lit, as you imply.

    I do still want to read Tomorrow though.

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    • Yes, but you have to wonder…
      I wish I’d been a fly on the wall when they couldn’t decide between Coonardoo and A House is Built…

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  5. […] A House is Built | M Barnard Eldershaw (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  6. I read the passage you particularly highlighted, to see if I could find any irony or satire or tongue-in-cheek by the authors, but I’m afraid it does read as a pretty straight up and down reflection of the times, not in any way challenging them like KSP did. Adela is rolling her eyes at his pomposity, not his statements.

    As a Sydney-ite, I do enjoy these glimpses of early Sydney in books, so I may look into it one day, but I think there are others, more worthy, ahead of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Glad you could join in with 1929 but sorry the book was disappointing… Maybe 1940 will be luckier!

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  8. […] A House is Built | M Barnard Eldershaw (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]

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