by Bill Holloway
A large number of Australia’s early novels – especially it seems by women – were published as serials in newspapers. Grattan Street Press, a “teaching press” at Melbourne Uni. has so far republished five of these serials in their Colonial Fiction series.
Force and Fraud was the lead serial in the first issue of the Australian Journal: a Weekly Record of Literature, Science and the Arts (2 Sept. 1865). Ellen Davitt must have been a staff writer as over the course of the year she contributed three more stories, though apparently of lesser quality. The Australian Journal was presumably a Melbourne paper, a weekly, with the story serialised at the rate of about 6,000 words or 20 (book) pages per issue, over 12 issues. She must have been busy!
The (paper) edition I read was published in 2017 by Grattan Street Press with an Introduction by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver. It was first brought out in book form in 1993, by Mulini Press edited and introduced by Lucy Sussex who also wrote the Introduction to the Clan Destine Press -e-book edition.
Ellen Davitt might have been born in Hull, Yorks, in 1812, in which case she married Arthur Davitt at age 33. However Arthur’s ADB entry says he married Marie Antoinette Hélène Léontine (Ellen) Heseltine, b. 1820, of Dublin. He had been a scholar in Ireland and France and then an Inspector of schools in Dublin. Ellen taught drawing. In 1853 they migrated to Australia to take up the positions of Principal and Superintendent for the new Model and Normal School in East Melbourne, which implies that Ellen was educated. As would the fact that the novelist Anthony Trollope was married to her younger sister, Rose (who was Irish, so I think Dr Sussex and Prof.s Gelder and Weaver are mistaken about Hull).
After a few years the school failed. Ellen made an attempt to start a girls school in Carlton which also failed. Arthur died of TB, and Ellen for some years from 1861, made her living as a public speaker throughout Victoria with lectures on such wide-ranging topics as: The Rise and Progress of the Fine Arts in Spain; The Influence of Art; Colonisation v. Convictism; and The Vixens of Shakespeare. Dr Sussex says that Ellen Davitt was “positioning herself as what we would now term ‘a public intellectual’ an extraordinary undertaking at the time – given her gender, the contemporary bias against women orators, and the frontier society of colonial Australia.”
Which brings us up to 1865 and the writing of Force and Fraud, “Australia’s first murder mystery”.
In the years after her stint at the Australian Journal, Davitt taught for a while at Kangaroo Flat near Bendigo (a gold mining city 130 km north of Melbourne) before retiring to live in poverty in working class Fitzroy, Melbourne where she died of cancer in 1879.
The settings for the novel are the property of irascible Scotsman McAlpin; the unnamed neighbouring village which is about 10 miles away and in particular the Southern Cross Hotel run by the Roberts; and Mrs Garlick’s boarding house on the western side of the city of Melbourne (ie. near Spencer Street). McAlpin’s property is about a day by coach from the nearest railhead and then some hours to Melbourne. In 1865 the possible railheads would have been one of Geelong (completed 1859), Ballarat (1862, via Geelong) and Bendigo (1862). Davitt had made speaking tours to these cities and beyond and describes the country of McAlpin’s property as open plains and dry, heavy bush (forest) so maybe she was thinking of somewhere like Ararat, west of Ballarat (map), especially as travellers often push on to South Australia.
At the centre of the story is Flora McAlpin who turns 21 and so inherits her mother’s fortune and independence in the first few pages. Flora is engaged to Herbert Lindsey, a young well-born Australian artist who has blown his own inheritance on a grand tour of Europe and now makes a precarious living in Australia as a portrait painter. Flora’s mother, who supported the engagement, has died and Flora’s father is violently opposed.
Lindsey, who has been away, has an assignation with Flora and shortly after, McAlpin is found in the bush, murdered, his throat cut. Back at the Southern Cross Lindsey is seen to have blood on his clothes, not to mention an obvious motive, and is arrested. His best friend, Pierce Silverton, who has been McAlpin’s agent (does his buying and selling) is also in love with Flora and it turns out that McAlpin’s will leaves him a great deal, especially if he marries Flora.
Flora is distraught for some time on hearing of her father’s death, but on news of Lindsey’s arrest she becomes resolute, instructs a legal team for his defense and makes her way to Melbourne, to Mrs Garlick’s, to do all she can to have him released. There is much byplay at Mrs Garlick’s as her unlovely daughters do their best to secure Silverton.
It has been said that frankness is a quality never seen in the vulgar, and vulgar the Misses Garlick were, not on account of red faces or extreme coarseness, but as being stamped with that type of the half-educated – affectation.
Ellen Davitt is an acute observer, and a forceful writer, and she has created in Flora McAlpin a fiercely independent heroine. There is no detective-hero as we might now expect, but rather the locals pitch in to gather clues, while the constables stand back to see what eventuates, and Flora’s friends bring what they discover to her or her lawyer, Argueville (yes, many of the names are expressive). As Dr Sussex writes:
that narrative mode [detective as hero] had not gained genre dominance. An alternative model equally existed, splitting the role of detective among various characters: it can be seen in works such as Wilkie Collins’ 1860 The Woman in White, and even as late as Fergus Hume’s 1886 The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, the best selling detective novel of the 1800s.
The heart of the story however is Flora and Lindsey’s betrothal and the many ups and downs that takes as Flora alternately proffers and withdraws her hand; not to mention Silverton’s pursuit of Flora in Lindsey’s absence and Bessie Garlick’s pursuit of Silverton. At one stage Silverton faints and Davitt, who really does have a sharp tongue after years as a school marm, writes: “Bessie Garlick, who hoped to take care of him for life, ran screaming about, as if to convince people how unfit she was for such a duty.”
It is only as we make our way through all this, and almost in the background, that pieces of the murder puzzle fall into place until we reach a classic denoument.
Davitt, despite not being born here, is full of praise for the country – “the sweet Australian spring!” and “those rich Australian plains” – though less so for the dusty streets of the less salubrious end of the city; and has written a lively murder mystery (which I guessed wrong) and a perceptive account of small town life.
Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush
Grattan Street Press, Melbourne, 2017
Introduction by Ken Gelder & Rachael Weaver
Originally published as a serial in Australian Journal, 1865. First pub. in book form 1993. E-book pub. Clan Destine Press, Introduction by Dr Lucy Sussex. here
Bill Holloway, the author of this review, blogs at The Australian Legend. He is an old white guy the subject of whose (very) mature age M.Litt thesis was ‘The Independent Woman in Australian Literature’.