Essay by Delia Falconer
In October 1945, just three months after Japan’s surrender ended Australia’s role in the Second World War, the Sydney Morning Herald announced that it had set aside £30,000 to stimulate the development of our art and literature, which included a £2,000 prize for best novel. Ruth Park recounts in the second volume of her autobiography, Fishing in the Styx (Penguin, 1993), that she first urged her husband, D’Arcy Niland, to enter, as the young parents had been hard-pressed to make ends meet as full-time writers in the three years they had been married. Instead, it was Park who ended up working hastily on her first novel at her parents’ kitchen table, while visiting her native New Zealand with their two children. In December 1946, Park learned that out of 175 entries, her book about the struggling Irish–Australian Darcy family in Sydney’s Surry Hills had won. The Harp in the South, wrote war poet Shawn O’Leary in the review that accompanied the announcement, ‘bludgeons the reader about the brain, the heart, and the conscience.’ It became an Australian classic, so loved that it is yet to go out of print.
Park was only twenty-eight, but what first strikes one is the extraordinary confidence of her voice. Warm, knowing, and emphatic, it bears a strong resemblance to the big-hearted social realism of American writers of the same era, particularly John Steinbeck. ‘The hills are full of Irish people,’ The Harp in the South begins. ‘When their grandfathers and great-grandfathers arrived in Sydney they went naturally to Shanty Town, not because they were dirty or lazy, though many of them were that, but because they were poor.’ Ex-journalist Park creates a warm, matter-of-fact, and often humorous portrait of slum life, while never letting us forget how its squalid tenements, with their windowless rooms and walls crawling with bedbugs, were hazardous to both health and human potential.
Within the first pages we meet the residents of Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street: staunch Catholic Ruth Darcy, her quasi-alcoholic husband Hughie, and their daughters Roie and Dolour. In an almost casual reference, we also learn about a traumatic event the family has had to absorb: the Darcys had a middle child, Thady, who disappeared from the streets when he was six. This unbearable fact is the emotional key to the book; it is the weight that gives a true sense of the randomness at work in those lives that fall out of society’s care, and it is the suppressed knowledge that grounds Park’s broader-brush portraits and moments of melodrama.
Like Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (Viking Press, 1945), Plymouth Street is a microcosm. Within the Darcy family’s small orbit are Ruth’s sharp Irish mother; the family’s lodgers (Miss Sheily, her retarded son Johnny, and fervent Orangeman Patrick Diamond); Lick Jimmy, the kindly Chinese shopkeeper next door, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Steinbeck’s Lee Chong; and the nuns who run the local school. But what stands out about this novel is Park’s keen interest in women. She wrote at an extraordinary moment in Australian literary history when female authors – including Christina Stead, Florence James and Dymphna Cusack – were pushing our fiction into the intimate territories of women’s lives.
Park fixes her sharp, sympathetic eye on those areas of life that male writers tended to treat sentimentally or disregard: abortion, the exhausting care for children, the difficulties of long marriage, childbirth, and the pleasures of (married) sex. Roie experiences the whole gamut: she falls pregnant to her first boyfriend and plans a risky illegal abortion, but then loses the child by accident; however, despite grieving terribly, she goes on to a joyful married motherhood – all without ever losing her innate goodness and refinement. Through Roie, Park puts a gentle human face on taboo topics, while withholding judgment and the traditional narrative retribution (death, barrenness, or ostracism) that readers might expect. Park treats all of her characters kindly, but it is surely this solidarity with women that has made her book so adored. Certainly, the beating heart of The Harp in the South is smart, indomitable Dolour – prepubescent, hopeful, and as yet unspoiled by slum life. The reader hopes fervently that she will use her education to escape the especially tough road that Surry Hills offers to girls.
Although Park’s working-class background was more genteel, The Harp in the South is the work of an immersed, intelligent observer. Park and Niland married in 1942, when Sydney was in the grips of a catastrophic wartime housing crisis. The only accommodation they could find was in inner-city Surry Hills, built higgledy-piggledy over Sydney’s prehistoric sandhills. While the population had once been mixed, the wealthy had since fled and poor renters crammed into its old, unrenovated tenements. Pregnant and horribly sick with her first child, Park shared a single bed at the top of an old shop with Darcy while his brother Beres slept downstairs in an abandoned barber’s chair. Life here, Park wrote in Fishing in the Styx, was ‘like a visit to some antique island where the nineteenth century still prevailed’ (p. 138). The Surry Hills population’s shocking isolation in time and space is a striking feature of her novel. The cantankerous old coal-fuelled stove, Puffing Billy, is almost another character in Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street. A trip to the beach is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and even a visit to Paddy’s Markets in town is an adventure. In 1945, Park’s newly wedded life in Surry Hills was still fresh enough to feed into her characters’ suffocating sense of never having a private moment.
Park was also able to use her husband’s Irish–Australian family as a model for the chaotic Darcy clan. Niland, Park records, was remarkably tolerant of his ne’er-do-well alcoholic father, and, to her intense chagrin, of his hard-bitten mother’s longstanding unfriendliness towards her. Park’s novel reflects the sectarianism rife in Australia at this time. She is remarkably adept at recreating the colourful Irish–Australian and working-class vernaculars. She celebrates the fierce clan loyalty among the Darcys – an essential goodness that allows them to endure the unendurable – but laces her portrait with a progressive politics, always pushing against the cruelty of conservative restrictions. When local madam and sly-grogger Delie Stock (a thinly-veiled portrait of Tilly Devine) offers to treat the St Brandan’s pupils to a Christmas picnic, Father Cooley at first refuses to allow the nuns to accept her dirty money – even if it means the sickly children will never see the ocean. Park clearly relishes the scene in which Stock browbeats him into submission.
The Harp in the South also gives us a strong sense of mid-twentieth century Sydney’s inner suburbs as a melting pot. Though one feels uncomfortable today reading her portrait of ‘inscrutable’, lonely Lick Jimmy, he does represent the significant Chinese population of this area (and he is given the same treatment as other stock characters, like Miss Sheily and Mr Diamond – drawn in broad strokes, then endowed with individual, secret lives). Roie’s husband, Charlie Rothe, is a particularly intriguing figure: of Indigenous background, he was found abandoned in country NSW and brought up by an eccentric swagman. One can’t help wondering today if he is part of what we now know as the Stolen Generations. Certainly, the Redfern/Surry Hills area has been an important destination for generations of Aboriginal people separated from their countries by continuing colonial dispossession. Charlie’s ‘blood’ is an issue for the Hughie and Mumma; and yet, in their acceptance of him, Park suggests that working-class solidarity and openness go deeper than surface racism. She is also terrific at giving a sense of the perpetual carnival drama of Sydney’s old inner suburban streets where life was lived so publically, especially in her comic set piece of a New Year’s bonfire that ends in chaos.
But not everyone loved The Harp in the South when it first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in twelve daily instalments, beginning on 4 January 1947. In fact, it was controversial even before a word of Park’s text went to print; Angus & Robertson baulked at the novel they had on their hands (though they had to honour a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to publish the winner), and readers wrote to the newspaper about the synopsis it had released. The Herald went on to publish forty-three responses, a symposium, and a daily tally of pro and con letters (sixty-eight for; fifty-four against).
At the time, Park attributed much of the venom to her portrayal of slum-dwellers as fully rounded human beings rather than a social problem. Yet looking back from the perspective of 1993, she felt the hostility emanated from two particular factors: that she was a New Zealander, and a woman. Certainly, her theory holds water: even today, authorship is often tacitly constructed as ‘male’. The Herald’s prize was aimed at those who had contributed to the war effort, and encouraged both men and women to enter – yet by the time Park won, the women who had held down previously male-only jobs during the war were being forced to give them ‘back’ to returning servicemen. Academic Ross Gibson characterises these postwar years as a deeply unsettled period, and their conservatism as a response to the radical social changes wrought by the war – especially to gender roles and sexual mores – which still ‘simmered’. The intense response to Park – a young, knowing working woman – may have come out of a sense that she was an unwitting representative of profound change, who needed to be put back in her ‘place’. Certainly, the reaction traumatised Park, who said she lost her lifelong faith in people at this time – though she could still write about it with characteristic humour. When she and Niland rented an apartment in Petersham, using the prize money, she recalls, she received a letter addressed to ‘The Harpy in the South’.
Novelist Miles Franklin was also highly critical of the novel, sniping to a friend, ‘It is a shoddy sordid performance of a very phony journalistic book,’ full of ‘catch cries to the gallery’. Certainly, The Harp in the South does owe a debt to the Victorian novel of sensation (emergency blood-letting, death by automobile and self-flagellation are all part of its bright canvas). Yet at the time Park was writing, the social realist novel – with its debt to harder contemporary fact – dominated, especially among women writers, while there was less of today’s perceived distinction between the popular and highbrow (‘literary’ fiction as we know it was not to appear as a distinct marketing category until the 1980s). Popular appeal was also paramount for a working writer. While the Commonwealth Literary Fund provided some grants to established writers, today’s supplementary sources of income, such as teaching, mentoring and festival attendance, which allow an author to hold onto the literary high ground, did not exist. But this lack of pretension has always been Park’s great appeal. She and Niland were romantic figures in the public imagination not only because they were married authors, but because they were jobbing writers, ready to take a shot at any form. As newlyweds, Park and Niland worked out a philosophy of ‘versatility’, and for many years their most reliable source of income was from her ABC radio children’s scripts. Yet it’s shocking to read, in Park’s memoir, just how difficult it was to make a living in an era before protections for Australian authors – dependent on overseas presses – were put in place, especially in terms of territorial copyright, public and education lending rights, and income averaging. (A series of appalling errors by Niland’s overseas publisher meant his bestselling Shiralee (Angus & Robertson, 1955) was filmed virtually without payment.)
This context makes the lasting power of Park’s novel all the more extraordinary. Everything is exceptionally energetic, intensely felt, and endowed with a sense of distinct locality – whether it is the muddy puddles in the old steps of the Darcy home, in which Dolour and Roie always ‘expected to find frogs’, or the smell of vanilla for a Christmas pudding, ‘half flavour and half perfume’. Park has an amazing ability to construct memorable scenes with humour and heart. Long after reading the book, they stay fresh in one’s mind like moments from a film: Hughie thinks he has won the lottery; Hughie and Grandma duel over the Christmas pudding; Grandma, on her deathbed, calls out to an old lover, ‘Stevie, it’s wicked you are, and there’s hellfire under me feet, but I love you, I love you, Stevie. Ah, Stevie!’ Always, Park’s emphasis is on the power of human character, to engage with and transform what it encounters, no matter how impoverished. Her book is itself an embodiment of her Irish–Australian characters’ rich inheritance as observers, talkers and storytellers.
The novel’s impact was great. Only four years after it appeared, Clive Evatt, NSW Minister for State Housing, set about a program of slum clearance. Park would officially open the first block of Devonshire Street flats, though she would later express ambivalence about the loss of community and street life this entailed. She would go on to write a darker sequel, Poor Man’s Orange (Angus & Robertson, 1949) and a prequel, Missus (Penguin, 1985). In 1987, The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange were turned into a hugely successful mini-series, most memorable for a young Kaarin Fairfax’s luminous performance as Dolour.
The Harp in the South still bludgeons us about the heart. I confess that I still tear up reading the last two pages, when Mumma is visited by the spirit of Thady and, realising he died long ago, possesses him again for a moment, ‘little and defenseless and entirely hers’. Park wrote one of the most distinctive and enduring books about her adopted hometown. For all the changes to the old suburb in the prehistoric sandhills, there are moments – especially in summer, when the terraces seem to breathe the warm air in and out – that it is still possible, thanks to her vision, to feel its terrible and wonderful old life.
Cusack, D 1936, Jungfrau, The Bulletin, Sydney.
Genoni, P 2013, ‘Slumming it: Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South’, in Dalziell, T & Genoni, P (eds.), Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature, 1935–2012, Monash University Publishing, Victoria, pp. 119–125.
Gibson, R 2000, ‘Where the Darkness Loiters’, History of Pornography, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 251–254.
Hooton, J (ed.) 1996, Ruth Parks: A Celebration, Friends of the National Library of Australia, Canberra, viewed at <http://www.nla.gov.au/sites/default/files/ruth_park_a_celebration.pdf>.
Moore, N 2001, ‘The Politics of Cliché: Sex, Class and Abortion in Australian Realism’, Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 69–91.
Parks, R 1993, Fishing in the Styx, Viking, Victoria.
Steinbeck, J 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, The Viking Press, New York.
The Stella Prize 2013, ‘The Stella Count 2013’, The Stella Prize, viewed at <http://thestellaprize.com.au/resources/the-stella-count-2013>.
© Copyright Delia Falconer 2015