Charles Dickens's son Edward (known as Plorn) followed his older brother Alfred to Australia in 1868. In The Dickens Boy, Tom Keneally has created an entertaining and moving novel spinning out from this historical fact, creating a vivid picture of colonial Australia.
Plorn is sent to Australia when only 16 years old, already seen as something of a disappointment by his father. He has never read any of his father's novels, but finds, to his horror, that nearly everyone in Australia seems to have a great familiarity with them.
For example, a station cook remarks on meeting Plorn; 'Little Nell. Can't believe it. Bawled my mongrel eyes out! Kill a person in a book, and they live forever, like!' Plorn has developed tricks to hide his ignorance of the books, and this provides an amusing element to Keneally's novel, as he navigates a land settled by his father's characters as much as by living people (and myriad sheep).
The huge, remote sheep station Plorn works on brings him into contact with ex-convicts, hidden aristocracy, petty cruelty expressed through economic power, and romantic love. Plorn organises cricket matches with another station, and the description of a match is punctuated by a hidden wound opening up as one man comes in to bowl. The incident is at once straightforward, and seeming to say something beyond itself, adding an unknowable element to what could be just a (wonderful) description of a day of cricket.
Of course, all the adventures take place on lands where Indigenous people have lived for millennia. One of the station owners where Plorn works, Frederic Bonney - who, as it says in the acknowledgements, is based on a real historical figure - is relatively progressive in his attitude to the Paakantji. He is described as often accompanied by small yellow birds, in a way that seems almost magical. More ominously, Keneally gradually makes it evident that something appalling will happen to some of the traditional owners. The brutal incident that occurs is described through the eyes of Plorn, in its immediate aftermath.
Charles Dickens is a near constant presence in the novel, in his two sons' memories, in arguments over his character, the occasional letter, and in the general expectation that Plorn will be exceptionally witty due to his father's reputation. The boys are constantly seen as the child of a celebrity, to use a modern term, and have to find a way to separate themselves from the overwhelming expectations that this fame brings.
Plorn, unused to being noticed for his own abilities, is complimented for riding well, and notes that the praise "felt alien and succulent". Even in his death, Dickens continues to influence his sons, as Keneally invents a huge Sydney memorial service in their father's honour, into which they are drafted (along with one of Trollope's sons, for good measure). One highlight of the novel is an encounter between Plorn and some bushrangers, and even here, his father's illustrious name changes the direction of the meeting.
Some of the quirky ways people speak in The Dickens Boy, the hidden aspects of their ancestry being revealed, and the need for a young man to find his way in the world provide a link back to Dickens. Plorn's infatuation with a young woman recalls David Copperfield's with Dora. Whether it be the fun of The Pickwick Papers, the self-sacrifice (and violence) of A Tale of Two Cities, or the ignorant brutality of Sikes in Oliver Twist, there are many ways in which Keneally's novel plays tribute to the great author. The fact that Dickens often sent criminals and fallen women to Australia in his books provides a background to his sending two of his sons there, and this is discussed by the boys in the novel.
However, if, like Plorn, the reader is unfamiliar with Dickens's novels, the book stands on its own as an inventive and enticing vision of 19th century Australia.
Dickens's appalling treatment of his wife - forcing her to separate and leave the house, and writing publicly of her perceived limitations - is another point of interest running through the novel. Plorn is delighted to find that she has a modest fame in Australia through a cookbook she wrote as a young woman. Even Dickens's will seemed designed to belittle his wife. This raises the question of how we regard an artist; does the knowledge of Charles Dickens's failings affect in any way our appreciation of his art? Should it? These are very modern concerns, constantly played out in the media, and here embedded in the novel.
Keneally's The Dickens Boy is wonderfully complex, and, like Dickens's works, deserves reading and rereading. We are lucky to have Keneally continuing to write novels which capture so much of our past in a complex and eminently readable way.
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