Review | Monday 21 May 2012
It’s peculiar to Australian history - the penal sites around our coast and the heartbreak they caused. Recently I was fortunate enough to visit the Tasmanian site and while reading Jessica Anderson’s novel, The Commandant the vision of the tiny huts and cells was vivid. Of course, Anderson’s novel does an excellent job of realising what these barbaric sites did to humanity. In fact the whole discourse of the novel centres on this very fact.
The Commandant is the story of Patrick Logan who rules the penal colony of Moreton Bay, NSW with an iron steel. He is not afraid to have the prisoners whipped and ridiculed for the most minor of affronts. His rule though is questioned by the arrival of his sister-in-law, the wonderful Frances. Frances is one of those impressive heroines of Australian fiction. A fiery, courageous young woman who is aware politics, and therefore justifications, are changing. Her relationship with her sister the naive, but sweetly lisped Lettie, Patrick’s wife, reflect the shifting attitudes of the 1830s in Australia.
Carmen Callil mentions in her introduction the gift Anderson (pictured left) gave us by writing The Commandant. Anderson is best known for Tirra Lirra by the River, but as Callil points out this novel is so more powerful because of the historical references and the great gift of Frances, a character that Australia would be a lesser place without. A woman not afraid to question power and to bring the sincere definition of duty to resolution.
Of course we need to acknowledge Text Publishing for bringing this astonishing novel back into print. On par with My Brilliant Career this novel deserves a place in both feminist and Australian history.
Christine Gordon is the Events Coordinator for Readings and is a committee member of The Stella Prize.