Books

Tom Keneally
The Dickens Boy

Throughout the 19th century it was common practice for well-to-do British families to dispose of their more debauched, debt-prone or dissipated scions by sending them off to the colonies. A typical specimen was Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, known as Plorn, the youngest and most hapless of Charles and Catherine’s 10 children. Having failed to distinguish himself in anything more elevated than the interpretation of cricket scorecards, Plorn was peremptorily dispatched to the Australian outback, which his famous father believed would induce him to focus his energies and efforts. He was not even 16 when he disembarked in Melbourne in 1868.

In his latest novel, The Dickens Boy, the 84-year-old Tom Keneally takes up the story of this susceptible and nervy young exile, weaving a light, entertaining and plausible fiction around the known facts of Plorn’s first few years working on the Momba sheep station, a sprawling property west of the Paroo River in New South Wales.

Plorn is an innocent and likeable young chap who remains loyal to his father despite being banished from his presence. His secret shame – for which he privately and incessantly rebukes himself– is that he has never read any of his father’s novels. He has tried but the paragraphs just swim before his eyes and soon he’s dreaming of cover drives and off-breaks.

His lack of intimacy with the Dickens canon was awkward enough when he lived in England, but in Australia the Inimitable Boz is regarded as nothing less than a moral apostle. Even the bushrangers know him chapter and verse and quote him often and at length. And everyone wants to hear what Plorn thinks and which book is his favourite.

Momba Station is run by two brothers, Edward and Frederic Bonney. They’re relatively enlightened gentlemen and take good care of their celebrity apprentice. Plorn meets a succession of the usual colonial suspects, including eccentric boundary riders, superstar bushrangers, virginal daughters of the squattocracy, profound Indigenous factotums, flint-hearted stock agents and lusty station wives willing to initiate trembling young jackaroos into the mysteries of sex.

Plorn’s older brother Alfred has also been sent to Australia and, like Plorn, works at an outback station. At Christmas the two exiled brothers reunite. Alfred is not so blindly obedient to the old guvnor as his younger sibling and rehearses the many injustices and hypocrisies of which their father – the best-loved man in Britain – is guilty.

Chief among these is the treatment of their mother, Catherine, who was evicted by Dickens from the family home when Plorn was just six years old. He never saw her again. Recent research has shown that Dickens – who was at that time involved with a young Irish actress – may in fact have tried to have his wife locked up in an asylum.

But Alfred is principally vexed by his own rough treatment. Unlike Plorn, he has read his father’s books and can’t help but notice that Australia often serves as a convenient plot device for getting rid of characters who have served their purpose. Think, for instance, of the Artful Dodger at the end of Oliver Twist. Alfred views his own transportation in the light of the fiction and is understandably resentful.

Australia also figures in the books of Dickens as a place of second chances and redemption – as it is for Magwitch in Great Expectations. But why should the children of Charles Dickens need a second chance? Plorn, however, remains loyally deaf to these mutinous grievances and thinks only of getting rich and making his pater proud.

The true history of the youngest Dickens in Australia is one of steady rise and gradual decline. He did make good, for a while, but he was never very clever with money and died at the age of 49, divorced, childless and in debt. Keneally, however, shows us only the young and hopeful adolescent – simple, optimistic and open-handed. Indeed, the chief pleasure of this novel is the character of Plorn and his suggestive resemblance – created without parody or obvious placarding – to Pip from Great Expectations and David from David Copperfield. The unassuming nobility of Plorn, his sunniness and boyish courage, are like fond tributes to those two plucky orphans.

The Dickens Boy is a dashing, crisply written book. And Keneally still has a better feeling than most for ocker oddities. In one scene, a publican eulogises a local prospector, Mr Gaggin, by prophesying that one day a town will be named after him. “Gaggin,” murmurs the publican’s wife. “I would be honoured to live in a town named Gaggin.”

And yet this episodic coming-of-age story about the passage from innocence to experience also has its disappointments. Recurring images of death and mourning give some overall sense of shape and meaning to Plorn’s progress, but there’s nonetheless a feeling of brevity and flimsiness – perhaps even complacency – in the book’s construction.

A dramatic incident at the end of the novel involving the Paakantji people and Queensland’s Native Mounted Police gestures violently towards a different, much grander and grittier, novel that might have been conjured from the same materials, one in which a compassionate colonist, confident and open to life, is confronted by the realities of imperial power. Keneally, however, no longer appears interested in writing fiction of such amplitude and gravity. And this is not, alas, a book that explores the discomforting complicities and contradictions of 19th-century European humanism with any great intensity of insight.

For the most part, the glib facility of Keneally’s evocation of pre-Federation outback Australia is enjoyable. The Dickens Boy has nothing like the impact or moral seriousness of, say, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), his great bushranger novel, or The Playmaker (1987), his beautiful tragicomic convict story. But as an escape from the sombre demands of the present, it might be just the ticket. And if it sends readers back to The Pickwick Papers or Martin Chuzzlewit or Nicholas Nickleby, then so much the better.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Vintage, 400pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2020 as "Tom Keneally, The Dickens Boy".

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Reviewer: Andrew Fuhrmann