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Posted on 14 Apr 2015 in Non-Fiction |

MICHAEL WILDING Wild Bleak Bohemia: Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall. Reviewed by Paul De Serville

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wildbleakbohemiaThis book offers an extraordinarily rich and detailed picture of three literary lives and of 19th-century Victoria.

Wild Bleak Bohemia is a remarkable exercise in Australian literary history and it is hard to think of another work which compares with it in scope and depth. It revolves around the meeting in Melbourne of Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall in 1868-70. The study spreads out to cover the early and later years of the three writers and in doing so, as its centrepiece, recreates literary and Bohemian life in Melbourne in the 1860s. It is aptly subtitled ‘A documentary’, since it shares many of the characteristics of that genre. Wilding, as the documentary maker, intervenes in the least obtrusive way, merely to link sections.

His documentary assembles, detail by detail, a vast structure which, like a specialist museum, contains the evidence of the life and works of the three men. As a builder, Wilding uses only the best materials and his design is based on the standard principles of construction. The result is a work which will satisfy the traditional literary and social historian, the educated general reader and the collector of Australian fiction. Wilding combines the sympathetic imagination of a literary man (and one suspects its vicissitudes) with the attention to detail of the traditional historian. The detail is not indiscriminate. There are no laundry lists, beloved by a certain kind of earnest American biographer. Each brick has to carry the structure and does so with success. The one regret is that there is no index, but given the difficulty of publishing a book of this size and density, one can understand why.

It is as though Wilding set out to make a television documentary, interviewing everyone who had known the three men and reproducing verbatim their responses. It makes for an extraordinarily rich picture, not just of their lives but of the age. This is particularly so in the major section devoted to Melbourne, a city noted in the 1860s for its Yankee spirit, its vivacity and its political turbulence. New clubs, societies and associations were formed, among them the Yorick Club, limited at first to men associated with the arts and sciences, especially literature. Membership was by election and candidates had to run the gauntlet of the blackball. The three men were members, Clarke a founder and early secretary. Gordon joined shortly after, and as a visitor from Sydney, Kendall used the club as an honorary member from time to time during his stay. Funds permitting.

Money was the great problem for literary men in the colonies and all three suffered from its lack. Kendall lived on the breadline, Gordon was careless with money and was never free of financial anxiety, and Clarke was twice bankrupt, dying surrounded by unpaid bills. Hereditary loss of fortune overshadowed Clarke and Gordon. The substantial capital of Clarke’s father mysteriously evaporated and he ended his life in an asylum. Gordon believed himself to be heir to an entailed estate in Scotland, but he was misled and the disappointment may have contributed to his untimely death. The story of the entail suggests that Victorian potboilers and many Australian novels were not far from reality. The only way a creative writer could survive financially was as a journalist on the staff of one of the colonial newspapers; Clarke through sheer wilfulness lost his post as a journalist, although he remained a contributor. His journalism, especially as the columnist the Peripatetic Philosopher, remains alight with a Thackerayan vivacity. Poor Kendall would, one suspects, gladly have accepted a permanent position, but his forte was poetry rather than the prose pieces he occasionally contributed.

Upbringing was another burden suffered by two of the three writers. Clarke’s lament (and apologia) to Cyril Hopkins sums up the challenge that colonial life presented to gentlemen of birth or education:

I was fond of art and literature; I came where both are unknown. I was conversant with the manners of a class; I came where ‘money makes the gentleman.’ I hated vulgarity; I came where it reigns supreme.

Gordon had the added challenge of competing in professional steeplechasing, while riding straight, avoiding bribery and preserving his honour as a gentleman. It was a theme that Rolf Boldrewood often explored both in fiction and in his essays. The Australian colonies were notorious for breaking men, especially those unaccustomed to disciplined work. The greatest study of this is the decline and fall of Richard Mahony, a character modelled on Henry Handel Richardson’s own father, a Yorick Club member. The climate of Australia was not kind to gentility. Nor has it been much kinder to literary talent. Those colonists who prospered usually had the traditional Calvinist virtues, rarely possessed by men of artistic pretensions or temperament.

Temperament, Romantic and melancholic, marred the lives of the three men. Clarke was essentially a metropolitan man in a colony which still defined itself as a pastoral economy. Cosmopolitan, cynical, boyish in appearance, more French than English in his literary tastes; as a columnist a vivacious and unblinking observer of the various sides of Melbourne. Yet irresponsible and self-destructive. Gordon, in his long silences, his remoteness, his sudden gentleness and his high sense of honour resembles a figure out of Walter Scott – Scott rather than Byron. Kendall, compared by one acquaintance to an undertaker in dress and manner, differed from Clarke and Gordon in class, education and experience. His is the saddest story; ground down by years of unhappiness and poverty. Wilding brings out the differences between the two Englishmen, sophisticated or experienced, and the native-born Kendall in a way that prefigures the insularity of those Australian literary men and women who were brought up in an egalitarian and plebeian culture. Wilding’s documentary has something of the character of a three-decker 19th century novel – with many plots and subplots, changes of scene, a large cast of characters, and themes which keep intersecting. The principle theme is the link between literary talent and self-destruction, as exemplified by the decline and death of the three men. It could make for unrelentingly depressing reading. Fortunately it does not, however sad are their fates.

Wilding moves the scene from the seedy Yorick Club to the bars of the Theatre Royal, including the notorious saddling paddock; from newspaper offices to the playhouses where Clarke writes reviews; and follows the clamour of literary and stage disputes. There are gentle interludes – Gordon in the garden of Robert Power’s Toorak mansion. In contrast is the energetic world of the turf, the steeplechases where Gordon had so many damaging falls, the hunting field, and most famous of all, his two remarkable jumps on the rim of the Blue Lake.

The 1860s were a period crammed with characters: the preposterous ‘Orion’ Horne, writers such as Whitehead and Birnie, condemned to poverty; the critics, Nield and James Smith; bored clubmen such as William Drummond (killed by the bite of a snake) and Captain Standish (undone by that quintessentially Irish-Australian figure Ned Kelly); the Riddoch brothers of Penola; the autocratic George Watson, Master of the Melbourne Hunt; the scientist and priest Julian Tenison-Woods. At times the reader glimpses a more expansive Australia, a world which might have survived had there not been the devastating 1890s depression.

Since this is a documentary, Wilding has accumulated every worthwhile opinion of his three subjects, sharp-spoken contemporary opinions. One can hear them speak. It is very different from the tedious compilation of what one Melbourne literary figure has dismissed as ‘the fact grubbers’. It is rare to read an account of 19th century Victoria which has such body and blood, such feeling, objective but sensitive, of that period. As for the three main characters, they illustrate only too clearly Enoch Powell’s famous epigram, that all [political] lives end in failure. But even if their lives ended in failure, their works remain to be rediscovered in each generation. And that is the comfort for all writers. Quod scripsi, scripsi (what I have written, I have written).

Michael Wilding Wild Bleak Bohemia: Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall Australian Scholarly Publishing 2014 580pp $39.95

Paul de Serville is a freelance social historian, based in Melbourne. His published works include two studies of 19th century Melbourne society, Port Phillip Gentlemen and Pounds and Pedigrees, a biography of Rolf Boldrewood and histories of the Australian, Weld and Athenaeum Clubs.

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