Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ryan, Niland, Keneally and the New England story

Sometimes there is just so much material around that I don't know where to begin.

I have been working my way through and cross-reading three books at the same time - High Lean Country, Tales from New England and A spirit of true learning. All three are recent or relatively recent publications, all three deal with aspects of New England. Two of the three are linked to the Heritage Futures Research Centre at the University of New England, a multidisciplinary group that I am now affiliated with.

  I will write more on this on the New England blogs. For the moment, I want to point to just a few features, following up on an earlier post here, Literature, locale and license.

The first is the question of identity. New England has an identity, but what is it? You see, there are multiple New Englands whose meaning and boundaries have changed. This leads to confusion unless terms are clearly specified.

The second is the way that identity is re-shaped, re-formed by presentation or the lack of it. Let me illustrate by example.

D'Arcy Niland is a well known Australian writer.  His book The Shiralee (1955), the story of a swagman or itinerant worker and his 4-year-old daughter, was made into a successful 1957 movie staring Peter Finch and then in 1987 into a very popular TV mini-series. All this is part of Australian cultural history and indeed the continued shaping of Australians' own sense of self-identity.

I saw the first movie and indeed the mini-series. However, at no stage did I connect either with New England, yet the book is a New England story. Does this matter? Well, no and yes.

At national level, perhaps not. At New England level, certainly, for D'Arcy Niland is part of New England's cultural and social history.

According to Bruce Moore's Australian Dictionary of Biography entry (link above), D'Arcy Niland was born on 20 October 1917 at Glen Innes, eldest of six children of native-born parents Francis Augustus Niland, a cooper who became a woolclasser, and his wife Barbara Lucy, née Egan. The family was of Irish-Catholic ancestry, a background which was to feed into much of Niland's writing. He was named after the boxer Les Darcy, but later spelt his Christian name 'D'Arcy'.

Now already in terms of New England social history we can place Niland in a particular social context, but there is more.

Niland was educated at the convent of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Glen Innes.

What the ADB entry does not say is that the Sisters of St Joseph, the order found by Mary McKillop, played a major role in the development of the Roman Catholic education system within New England. Many years later, the Sisters were to be one of my consulting clients, something that was invaluable in giving me a feel for the order, the emotional content and texture if you like. This has been very helpful in my writing in a general sense, for I come from a Protestant background.

The ADB entry also fails to mention that it was the Sisters, one in particular, who encouraged Niland's interest in writing. Again, this is important in the context of New England's social and cultural history.

I am not criticising Bruce Moore's ADB entry, by the way, in saying all this. By their nature, these entries are always summaries.        

The ADB entry notes that Niland left school at the age of 14, hoping to become a writer. For two years he accompanied his father around the local shearing sheds and had first-hand experience of the effects of the Depression in rural areas. At 16 he gained the position of copy-boy at the Sydney Sun newspaper, a potential stepping-stone to a career as a journalist, but he was retrenched after a year. He returned to the country, taking up whatever work was available. By the late 1930s he was back in Sydney, earning his living as a railway porter. He was rejected for military service in World War II because of a cardiac condition. Under the orders of the Directorate of Manpower, he worked in the shearing sheds of north-west New South Wales.

This potted history is quite important for The Shiralee. In 1952, Niland was awarded £600 by the Commonwealth Literary Fund to write a novel. He again took to the road for research, leading to The Shiralee. Yet, and as I think John Ryan has proved quite conclusively, the picture of life in the novel is not in fact a picture of rural life in New England in the early 1950s, but an amalgam of far earlier experiences. 

Before going on, in 1942 Niland married married Ruth Park, a 23-year-old journalist from New Zealand. As I remember it, they had originally started corresponding while Niland was a student at St Joseph's. The couple decided to pursue professional writing careers with considerable success.

Kilmeny (and here), one of their twin daughters, also became a successful writer and illustrator. Kilmeny married Rafe Champion, among other things now a well known Australian blogger, in 1979. Later, Rafe would collaborate with Ruth Park using D'Arcy Niland's earlier extensive research to produce a biography of Les Darcy, Home Before Dark (Melbourne, 1995).      

I seem to have side-tracked a little.

D'Arcy Niland is clearly an important relevant to any history of New England. But is the New England experience relevant to broader Australian history? I would argue yes.

My failure to connect The Shiralee to my own experience and area is in part a reflection of the fact that I had not read the book. However, it also reflects that fact that there was nothing in my environment to tell me that it was relevant. This is what I mean when I say that identity is re-shaped, re-formed by presentation or the lack of it.

The Shiralee case is not an isolated example.

When I saw the 1977 Australian movie the Picture Show Man I thought that some of the scenes looked familiar. I had no idea until yesterday that the film was filmed in New England, nor that the story was based in part on the story of a Tamworth family.

Or take the case of the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. This film is part set in and part filmed in New England. It is, in fact, based on one of no less than three books by Australian writer Thomas Keneally set at least in part in New England and influenced by his time at the University of New England (1968-70) as well as the experiences of cousins there. Internationally, Keneally is best known for the book and film Schindler's List, but the New England experience and focus is still interesting.

Again, I had no idea of the depth of the Keneally connection.

The books that I am reading are important, I think, because their regional focus documents and presents the regional story, but in a frame that provides broader national context. They tell a story that is relevant to me as a New Englander, but also a story that is relevant to me as an Australian or, sometimes, a Kiwi!

They also provide a spur to my writing, for I am not alone, but part of a writing tradition.                 

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