June 2021 Open Book Group – The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally

Welcome to Sue and thank you to Pat for moderating The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally.

In the late 1800s, rather than run the risk of your under-achieving children tarnishing your reputation at home, you sent them to the colonies.

In The Dickens Boy, our narrator is Charles Dickens’s tenth child, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, known as Plorn. Sixteen-year-old Plorn is sent, as had been his brother Alfred before him, to Australia to learn to “apply himself”. We follow his early adventures learning to become a stockman on a vast sheep station in the Wilcannia region of outback NSW. He encounters the local aboriginal Paakantji mob, colonists, colonial-born, ex-convicts, ex-soldiers, and the very few women who live on, or pass through, the station. Bushranger attacks on the station’s homestead and frontier battles resulting in the massacre of many Paakantji paint a picture of life in this harsh remote part of the world.

The Dickens Boy also gives us an intimate portrait of a flawed Charles Dickens, as seen through the eye of his two exiled sons. Alongside his phenomenal literary success, Dickens’ home life was plagued with scandal. In 1858, aged 45, he embarked on a lifelong affair with 18-year-old actress Ellen Tiernan.  He expelled his wife and eldest son Charles from the family home and never spoke to them again. His wife’s sister Georgina stayed with Dickens to run the household bringing up his remaining 8 children. Dickens was disparaging about the shortcomings of his sons and had no regrets in sending them far out of sight from his adoring public.

When Plorn arrived in Melbourne in late 1868 he carried a terrible secret, he had never read a word of Dickens’ novels. He found the same veneration of his father, and familiarity with his work, as was rampant in England. Unable to escape his birthright he worked hard to apply himself to prove to Dickens, and to himself, that he could succeed in Australia’s vast and unfamiliar territory.

 The opening reaction of the 19 OBGers, who gather around our large COVIDSafe table, was a lukewarm one.

 Plorn arrived on Momba sheep station to find his boss Fred Bonney interested in, and engaged with, the Paakantji. He took many photographs of them and spoke their language. Plorn rides his horse around and organises jolly cricket matches. It was all rather sanitised. However, as we preserved and relaxed into Keneally’s storytelling style the text gathered pace. One member noted it kicked off for him when Captain Starlight, the infamous bushranger, arrived on the scene. It took a while for some of us to realise that this was historical fiction, not a novel. Keneally had researched Plorn and Alfred’s life in Australia, and their relationship with their father, using contemporary sources. Today, Fred Bonney’s photographs are held at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Most of us had churned through Dickens’ novels at school but we had little knowledge about his personal life. We enjoyed learning about it. One member noted that the problem with historical fiction is that you are never too sure what is historical fact and what is fiction. Readers are in danger of mixing the two. The recent TV miniseries The Crown was referenced.

 One member was fervently opposed to the book. She felt the novel progressed the white mythology surrounding the truth about what actually happened in Australia’s colonial past and was silent on how colonial farmers and graziers in NSW became enormously rich not only off the backs of sheep that grazed on stolen land but also off the backs of the people who belonged to, and understood, the country they had lived on for thousands of years. The Dickens Boy reinforced a whitewash of Australian history.

 There was considerable pushback from the group on her position. Plorn has had little education and was living on the sheep stations learning to be a stockman. He, and everyone on the station, would have had no interest in the pros and cons of the concept of terra nullius. Keneally is using Plorn’s voice to write about Australian society in the late 19th century. To be authentic his voice needs to reflect the views of the time, not apologise for them. The novel does not seduce the informed reader that what the white colonists did was acceptable, rather it anchors the book in its historical period. It can be used as a measure for how far Australian society has come in its relationship with our First Nation People and how very much further we need to go.

 Keneally imagines a fanatical priest attempting to convert the Paakantji. One member noted his prayers to bring his intended flock to righteousness are laughable. He opined that It through the priest’s voice Keneally is reminding the reader of the colonists’ crimes.

 One member did raise that Keneally has gone record in saying that he would not attempt to write one of his culturally most influential books, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith today. In it, he imagined the aboriginal voice of Jimmie Blacksmith. A current mantra that people cannot write about worlds outside their lived experience would have dissuaded him. This moved the conversation to a perennial OBG issue, who can write about whom. Can majority groups write about minorities? Ergo, can men write about women?

 While Charles Dickens is not a tangible character he is very much there in the minds of his two sons. One member ruefully noted that no matter how old one is the strong need for your father’s approval is a universal one. It was tragic Plorn never received the letter Dickens had written to him shortly before his death acknowledging Plorn’s success in Australia. The boys were aware of how in their father’s books if he wanted to get rid of a character it was either death or banishment to Australia. We enjoyed Keneally teasing out the symmetry with the Peggottys and Micawbers in David Copperfield and Magwitch in Great Expectations all of whom found themselves on boats to, and subsequent success in, Australia.

 With a newly acquired revelation that Charles Dickens was such a flawed character did would that change our view of his work? Woody Allen films were referenced. No, we agreed great artworks must stand alone, but you can’t help feeling a slight twinge.

 Well, who would have known a pedestrian book about a rather dull man would have engendered such robust debate? Plorn would have been pleased that OBGers had indeed applied themselves.


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