A speech given by Marshall
Browne to the Lyceum Club in Melbourne in 2001, about his historical trilogy
The Gilded Cage, The Burnt City, and The Trumpeting Angel.
ANATOMY OF THREE NOVELS: A MELBURNIAN TRILOGY
It seems to me I might be one of a strange breed: half banker, half writer. In my observation, when a banker gets hold of a microphone its hard to shut him up; when a writer does, it's hard to get a word out of him. Naturally, there are the exceptions in each case. I'll try to steer a middle course.
I'd like to talk to you about three Melbourne-based novels which I wrote between 1992 and 2000 set against the background of the years 1888 to 1901. The Gilded Cage (1888-89 - the high-water mark of Marvellous melbourne), The Burnt City (1893), and the one published this year, The Trumpeting Angel, set in the years 1899-1901. Trilogy is a grand-sounding word - but I suppose they have become that.
I'd like to take you behind the scenes, and show something of how these fictions came into being.
(I did write other books in that eight years including a detective-thriller The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders which has recently been published in London, and New York. It's currently being translated for publication in Spain and Germany. It's sequel, Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools is coming out in September).
When I began The Gilded Cage I wasn't bent on a Melburnian trilogy. But following reviews by Clive Stark and Andrew Robinson, of Hill of Content Bookshop, on the ABC Sunday programme, and by Helen Elliot in the Herald-Sun, I was encouraged to consider continuing the story. Also, it struck me that the subsequent years, centred on 1893, were even more drama-charged than the Marvellous Melbourne era. The Burnt City was the result. Some readers have taken me to task over the slightly open-ended finish to The Burnt City. Cannily I'd cut the last chapter from that book: an idea was floating in my head to continue that somewhat unfinished story in another novel. In due course, the Sydney publisher Michael Duffy suggested that I take the narrative on - up to Federation. I said, 'yes, let's do it.'
First, I propose talking about how the original idea came. Briefly, I'll describe the historical scene, then give a thumb-nail sketch of the main story-line in each novel - hopefully without revealing the plot! Describe the research trails I followed, and sometimes got lost on, and the sources I used. Finally, show a few colour slides of some of the Melbourne locations I appropriated to set the scenes for brief readings from the novels. Melbourne's topography and architecture star in the novels. Several reviewers have said that the city itself is a main character - or even the main character. I've always been attracted to a sense of place, and to atmosphere - so slides, and brief readings seem a good way to give a taste of the books.
The beginning, was two shadowy figures walking in a park at dusk.
My ideas for novels or stories seem to come from visual images which flash into mind. That half-awake time in bed in the early morning is a fertile period. Most often the images vanish. But sometimes they keep coming back, as if demanding serious attention. This time, out of the blue, I had this man and woman walking endlessly around a park, engrossed in conversation. The man wore a top-hat, the woman a long dress. They were instantly recognisable to me as figures from the 1880s. What they were talking about, what they were up to, I had no idea.
They prompted me to think about the 1880s - Marvellous Melbourne - that fascinating period in our city's evolution. It seemed to me that here was an era totally neglected by modern-day novelists. Of course, excellent books have been written by historians. As a banker I had a working knowledge of the banking history: the euphoria of the land-boom, the related misjudgments, and frauds. Novelists of the 1880s-1890s such as Ada Cambridge, and Fergus Hume with his world-wide best seller: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab - had written about then Melbourne. But where were today's historical novels re-exploring this period? I couldn't find any.
In my opinion, part of the reason for this neglect - if it can be so termed - stems from the indifference of today's Australian publisher to the historical novel. The genre flourishes in the USA, but not here. It may be changing.
What was the intent of my novels? Well, they turned out as primarily entertainments. However, in The Burnt City there is seriousness in the information, and the depiction of the greed, corruption, and mercantile criminality; of the terrible hardship which fell upon many; in The Trumpeting Angel, Victorian woman's fight for the vote is put down without pulling punches.
Back to my earnest, perambulating duo. Their was tension in the figures. They seemed to have a problem. There was a whiff of mystery in the air.
I decided that I would write a suspense novel, firmly grounded in that melodramatic period, also that it would be a romance, and at its heart would be a banking scam.
(I'd written several mystery novels set in the Far East. But this kind of mixed-genre novel was a new departure.)
Here was a city - geographically at the bottom of the world. An outpost-city of the British Empire. Yet, only fifty-five years old and already the second largest metropolis in the Southern Hemisphere by population, after Buenos Aires. The seventh largest in the Empire... Into which, in those years, were concentrated drama, pathos, conflict - in the fullest measure.
For me, coming along more than a century later, it loomed up as an exciting prospect. If characters and plots couldn't be devised out of this rich trove of historic material, well, I should go back to banking.
As Sam Goldwyn of MGM once said to a group of screen writers working on a film script. 'Listen boys, take that dumb look of your faces, and get off'n your asses. What I want is a story which starts with a volcano - and works up to a climax.'
Melbourne, as it'd moved from the 1880s into the 1890s, seemed to've been following that kind of scenario.
I'd like to re-visit a little of the history.
The land-boom of the 1880s, the unchecked inflow of capital from Britain, and the fast-increasing population were the three most dynamic factors that under-pinned Marvellous Melbourne. If astronauts had been in orbit in those days I imagine, Melbourne, with its gas-lit streets would have stood out as a lonely beacon in the blacked-out tracts of the Southern Hemisphere. For British investors, a beacon was certainly shining, with a fatal attraction; between 1885 and 1889 they poured fifty million pounds (a vast sum in those days) into the rash of financial institutions that had sprung up in the colony, or into share speculation - especially silver shares. In search of profits, the institutions poured the money out again, in loans to the speculating land-boomers. The price of Melbourne city and suburban land spiralled to mad heights.
(For example, a site on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Sts sold for L2,700 a foot in 1888 - three times its value 12 months earlier; BHP shares - on the back of the silver boom - rose from L15 in 1886 to over L400 in February, 1888.)
As Geoffrey Serle so brilliantly described it - The Rush to be Rich, was on, and the stampede was being led by many of the city's foremost, allegedly sensible, citizens. Personal ethics, commercial morality, and c o m m o n s e n s e, went under the steamroller of PROGRESS. Herbert Spencer's contemporary pronouncement: The Survival of the Fittest - aptly summed up the thinking of the times. It was exciting - exhilarating - and it was dangerous!
In 1888, the city's population touched half a million - three-quarters more than 8 years earlier. Most business people could only see a continuous era of unstoppable growth lying ahead. Totally carried away, the Victorian Year Book of 1887-88 - estimated the probable population of Australasia for 1971 at 66 million. The tangible evidence of progress was persuasive. Ostentatious buildings were going up on all sides. An example: The Federal Coffee Palace: - 7 storeys, 500 rooms, six Waygood lifts, an ice-plant, electric bells and cash registers, 14 Ionic columns, floored with black, white, and red marble. The invention of the hydraulic lift was the factor in taking buildings above the third storey - and in the rising price of land. Other new inventions were being rapidly introduced: cable-trams (by 1888 Melbourne had the largest cable-tram network in the world - bigger than Chicago), telephones (Melbourne had them before London), electricity, the telegraph. Several hundred trains were departing Flinders street station daily. Etc.
Everything was on the up and up - well not everything, there was no sewerage system, and the Yarra stank. And in 1889, 550 Melburnians died of typhoid - more than in London. The Age printed: The Nightsoil Nuisance. A judge wrote in, livid, that a particular night-soil operator regularly dumped outside his honour's front gate. Local mayors and aldermen procrastinated, and one doctor suggested, that every time a child died from a filth disease a mayor should be hung.
In the early 'nineties, the crash came with a vengeance. The most desperate economic depression this country has suffered fell on Victoria - certainly in terms of human anguish and hardship. The economy, the social fabric, many of its citizens' lives, were blown to smithereens. In April and May, 1893 eleven Melbourne banks suspended payment - following the earlier bankruptcy of scores of building societies and land-banks. 134 Victorians committed suicide that year. Dr Singleton's Night Shelters accommodated 26,689 cases in twelve months. On the steps of parliament, Premier J.B. Patterson wept at the unemployed and starving - but little was done officially to relieve their condition. In Collingwood, women and children did starve to death. Terrible times.
Nonetheless, as it suffered the city was enduring, re-grouping, re-constructing as the long climb began out of this vale of tears towards the turn of the century, and Federation.
The man and woman are still circling around in the park. They turned out to be called William Boyd, and Helen O'Neill, and it wasn't the beginning of their story - it transpired that they were already well-set in it when that image came to me... and the park was the Fitzroy Gardens.
The story-lines emerged. The Gilded Cage covers an eighteen month period in 1888-89 and tells the ill-starred love story of William Boyd and Helen O'Neill, and a happier-ending one between Boyd and Katherine Lindsay; of the collapse of a bank; of a dangerous and bitter vendetta. The action moves between the boardrooms of Collins Street, the glades of the Fitzroy Gardens, graceful St Vincent Place, and finally to the County Court.
The Burnt City carries the story into 1893. Here that great economic depression is in its worst days. Those banks, and businesses. are plummeting to disaster like falling stars. A liquidator, Angus Wallace, is seeking justice for the victims of a bankrupt bank. He faces rampant official obstruction. Threats of violence. And personal black-mail. A well-known department store is fighting for survival - and a young woman, Susan Fairfax, with the latest retailing experience and management skills, is coming from Manchester to its rescue. Wallace and Susan become embroiled in a love affair which has grave complications, and which becomes entangled in his dramatic fight against corruption and cover-ups. Meanwhile, the embattled city broods in a sultry summer, a deadly autumn.
The Trumpeting Angel, spans 1899 to early 1901. I believe it's the only novel to come out in this Federation year with a Federation background. It's the story of John Deveraux, parliamentarian and one of Melbourne's wealthiest businessmen; of the mysterious death of his young wife; of his business plots, and above all, of his relentless quest for revenge. It's the story, also, of Susan Fairfax (reappearing again) this time as a leader in the fight for the women's vote in Victoria. The Sydney Morning Herald said: 'Murder, suffrage, syphilis, love and lesbianism -that's Federation with a vengeance.' But I hope it's a more subtle and skilful blend than that rather sensational catalogue implies.
There you have the bare-bones of each narrative. In each case, there are sub-plots which carry the stories along in related channels. Each novel can be read as a stand-alone narrative. On the other-hand, there are on-going connections through some of the characters, and some of the situations.
Incidentally, the titles were chosen for what I thought was their resonance with each period - The Gilded Cage (Marvellous Melbourne) The Burnt City (the crash), The Trumpeting Angel (womens' fight for the vote and, up to a point, against male domination). The title for The Trumpeting Angel came to me one morning as I walked past the Princess Theatre. I looked up and saw that marvellous winged female figure - which Mrs Marriner tells me has been restored with gold-leaf.
The characters. A number appear in two of the novels, a few in all three, some only in one. For example, Hilda Wilberforce the feisty East Melbourne matriarch is a central figure in each. She match-makes her way through each novel, makes her successful business investments, collects and loses husbands and companions, dispenses wisdom, and generally intervenes not always for the best, in her friends' lives. She is a kind of anchor.
Susan Fairfax appears in the last two books. In the first as the manager, and saviour, of that department store, in the second as the energetic campaigner for the female suffrage. She is one of the most beautiful women in Melbourne. Despite many offers, she's never married.
Otto Rudd, Melbourne's most intrepid and phlegmatic private detective appears in each book. In the first, on the wrong side: gathering information aimed at the downfall of the hero, in the second on the trail of two crooked bank directors, and in The Trumpeting Angel trying to find out what really happened to John Deveraux's lovely young wife, at the same time tracking down an assassin brought in from California.
Augustus Dram appears in The Gilded Cage, as a ne'er-do-well law clerk, then returns in The Trumpeting Angel as a successful barrister who helps save the day.
The parliamentarian John Deveraux rises and falls in the last book. One reviewer (a woman) called him a brute, but it isn't quite as cut and dried as that: each year he personally picks and boxes the produce of his apple orchard for the boys' orphanage; sends his generous cheques to the Ladies' Benevolent Society, has taken his crippled secretary, a de-frocked Church of England priest off the streets and provides for him and his family; habitually scatters shillings to the street urchins.
It's fair to say that there is a multitude of characters traipsing through the different streams of story - to quote some of the reviewers: 'Dickensian', 'a saga's worth', 'a mighty cast', 'as many characters as Tom Robert's parliamentary painting', 'a rich cast'. It was my aim, to people the novels with 'a rich cast'. I wanted to show the frenetic life of the city, its different social layers, and to highlight the interconnectedness of people in what, in the British scheme of things, was essentially a provincial town - albeit with singular features.
A few of those characters are actual persons. In The Burnt City I included the famous journalist Michael Brodzky - editor of the weekly 'Table Talk' - which in the late 1880s early 1890s ran an extensive campaign aimed at unmasking the litany of business, banking, and government frauds, misdeeds and mistakes. Greed was running rife - running life. Brodzky was the investigative journalist par excellence. A courageous man. In his fictional appearance in the novel, he is doing what he did best - ferreting into, and exposing the trickily covered-up doings of a so-called pillar of the community - the fictional Sir John Adams.
It's fascinating what comes out of the woodwork. When I was researching Brodzky I thought what a remarkable and intriguing person he was. I wondered why no-one had done a biography. One evening, after The Burnt City came out, an eye-surgeon phoned me saying that he'd just read the novel, and had been excited to find Maurice Brodzky appearing in the story. He'd been researching Brodzky's life for years, and his book was to come out shortly. We met, and three months ago it was my pleasure to launch Dr Harry Lew's book 'The Five Walking Sticks' at the Caulfield Bowling Club. It gives an excellent insight into this important, all-but-forgotten, Melbourne editor's life.
On a similar note, I'd given Herr Plock, a popular orchestra leader in the 1880s and 1890s, a non-speaking role in the Melbourne Club bachelors' ball of 1889, and playing on the Albert Park Lake foreshore as the fashionable spun around the lake side circuit in carriages. A gentleman knocked on my door one day to show me an inscribed baton presented to Herr Plock by his musicians, in 1893.
In The Trumpeting Angel, Vida Goldstein, the leader of the campaign for the vote for women in Victoria, and an ardent advocate of many other causes, appears. In any story relating to the suffragist leadership at that time it would have been hard to keep her out. Also Alfred Deakin - with an emphasis on his fascination with the occult. In this respect, he's a soul-mate with the fictional Hilda Wilberforce. Putting real personages into imaginary events in a novel is a gamble - but I've endeavoured to have them say and do things which I hope are reasonably compatible with what is known of their work and characters.
I'm not a professional historian, and I found the months of research in places like the La Trobe library, and the newspaper section of the State Library, intriguing and satisfying - if fraught with eye-strain. I filled notebook after notebook, and then used perhaps ten per cent of the material.
Time doesn't permit me to mention the many Melbourne historians whom I consulted - detailed acknowledgments appear in the last two books. However, I will single out the incomparable Michael Cannon for mention.
The most useful sources of all were the newspapers of the day. Table Talk, I've mentioned, but The Age, The Argus, and The Leader are crammed with fascinating material. If you wish to know what the temperature and the weather were on a certain day you can find it. If you need to know what the betting odds were on the Melbourne Cup runners in 1899, or how much a dinner cost at Menzies Hotel, that's there. So on and so forth. All of this is grist to the mill of the historical novelist.
Women's fashions were a significant element in social life. The upper and middle classes, especially in the Marvellous Melbourne years, and after the recovery from the smash in the late nineties, didn't hold back from personal display. It was estimated that one hundred thousand pounds was spent on women's finery for the 1899 Melbourne Cup - and it absolutely poured with rain. Many fine outfits finished up sodden wrecks.
I've given women's dress quite a lot of attention in the novels. Contemporary catalogues of stores like Georges, drawings in the newspapers and journals reveal just what Melbourne people were wearing. The weekly Stella's Ladies' Letter in Table Talk was a marvellous source. (And of pithily expressed comment on public affairs, and social gossip.) I used dress to differentiate character. The character Helena Spencer's preference for the colour green is notorious in the stories. Almost as much as her love-life. I took to drawing female outfits that I wanted to describe... Like this... Hopeless at drawing. There were prolific reports in the papers of who wore what at the at-homes, the balls, the races, the weddings, etc. I had to keep my wits about me. Fashions changed significantly over the twelve-year- span I wrote about. For example, the French bustle, still in in the 'eighties was distinctly out in the 'nineties. The crease in gentlemen's trousers appeared in the 'nineties, doing away with bagginess.
I've brought our parks and gardens into the novels. And what a wealth of those we have. I criss-crossed the Fitzroy, Carlton, St Vincent Place, and Edinburgh Gardens in all seasons - as do many of the characters. I found these walks a tonic - the same as had the citizens of the 'eighties and 'nineties. Melburnians in those days promenaded a lot. The parks, The Block, bay side. The public gardens were virtually open-air living rooms - referred to as the lungs of the city. Places to walk in on hot summer evenings after dinner - hoping for a breeze, or at least a movement of air. More than over-warm bodies were ventilated during these walks: family problems, money matters, were discussed, business plans hatched, eligible bachelors targeted, love affairs begun and terminated - all the ebb and flow of family and social life. Governments of the day were all for these marvellous green lungs, pontificating that they promoted family togetherness and social harmony, had a civilising effect and 'decreased rates of drunkenness, gambling, and swearing'.
The 64 acres of the Fitzroy Gardens were more rural in character than today - and dozens of neo-classical statues sat in leafy arbours. The painting in the National Gallery of Victoria - 'Autumn in the Fitzroy Gardens' painted by John Mather in 1894 - shows how they were.
The 8 acres of St Vincent Place gardens was laid out in 1857 - almost the same time as the Fitzroy's. I walked over them with the municipal gardener. Apart from the disappearance of most of the pine trees about 1900, and the planting of the palm trees in 1920, these gardens are remarkably unchanged. In the spring, they've been re-planting the older style flowers: iris, hollyhocks, snapdragons and the old configuration of beds is followed. The twin rows of Algerian oaks planted in 1888 have grown up, and the bowling green established in 1873 survives. Rhonda Boyle's book 'A Guide to Melbourne's Parks and Gardens' is a very good reference.
All of this, and more, was grist to my mill.
We remain fortunate in the numerous examples of Victorian architecture that survive. According to one source: after London, Melbourne has the greatest number of Victorian era buildings in the world. To a good extent, its possible to see what our forbears saw. I went searching for houses and buildings for my characters to live and work in and some of them crop up throughout the three novels. Philip Goad's 'Melbourne Architecture' is an excellent reference to our city's main buildings.
Theatre and concerts played a big part in the city's cultural life. The pages of the weekly Table Talk were filled with theatre personalities, news and gossip, reviews and advertisements. One much-travelled observer called Melbourne the greatest theatre-going place in the world for its population. And at that point by population it was the 30th city in the world, larger than Birmingham, and Boston, and most European capitals, called by some the Chicago of the south, the Paris of the Antipodes. In a world without radio and television, at-homes, and in the dancing season an amazing number of balls were given privately and by disparate organisations - from the Celtic Club to the Jewish Literary Society.
Much of this background found its way into the novels. I was not seeking so much to recreate the Melbourne of those days, as to give my version of what it was like to be alive then and active in the preoccupations of the day. Incidents reported in the press found their way into my plots; bits of dialogue from parliamentary debates, into the mouths of my characters.
A court case is fought out in each novel. I didn't plan this. They weren't plotted in, so to speak. They just grew out of the actions of the characters. I kept asking myself what they would do next - if they were thinking logically, or illogically, if they were perhaps swayed by emotion. The answers that came back gave the narratives their directions.
In The Gilded Cage the hero, the director of a bank, is prosecuted because of a secret commission he allegedly obtained to approve a large loan which goes bad, causing the bank to fail. In The Burnt City the chairman and two directors of a bank are on trial for a raft of offences, including fraud, in The Trumpeting Angel it's a civil case: Susan Fairfax, the suffragist, is suing the parliamentarian John Deveraux, decidedly anti-suffrage, for defamation of character. The fictional QC, Richard Chadwick appears for the defendants in each case. Off duty, he sings arias on stage for the South Yarra Musical Society and at innumerable private gatherings.
While going for reasonable accuracy with court proceedings, I did cut and shape them to suit the purposes of my fictions. My friend and legal advisor brooded over this. Finally, he said, if Dickens could get away with what he did in The Tale of Two Cities, and if LA Law can get away with what they do on television, Marshall Browne can get away with this.
Hansard was a very useful source on two counts. I try for an authentic-to-the-period tone with dialogue, and the verbatim reports of the parliamentary debates are loaded with the speech rhythms and the vernacular of the day. Apart from a slightly more formal expression, and jargon and slang, I don't detect a major difference in the English as spoken 110 years ago from today. Some phrases which kept bobbing up in Hansard were: 'Keep your hair on', 'It's the old dodge' - and my favourite, 'It's time to take off the velvet glove.'
The Women's Suffrage Bill debated in the Victorian Assembly in August 1899 yielded ideas and material for one of the main story-lines in The Trumpeting Angel. That debate was studded with an amazing number of turgid anti-woman speeches. There is so much patronising going on by the opponents that I hesitate to quote anything. However, Stella's Ladies Letter in Table Talk of 14.9.1899 records a little of the flavour: 'Dr Embeling, Mr Robert Reid and Mr Harwood were humorous opponents of the bill, and succeeded in pleasing themselves vastly, while they and many other speakers made up for voting "no" by pouring out torrents of high falutin gush, upon the beauty of woman in her proper sphere, as man's guardian angel and cook.'
It's no wonder that feminists of the day such as Sydney's Louisa Lawson had a jaundiced opinion of men. To quote her: 'we do not suppose that short-sighted selfishness will bring men so near the animal level as to prompt them to initiate a sexual war.'... And in verse, more humorously:
'Don't marry a man to reform him!
To God and your own self be true.
Don't link to his vices your virtue;
You'll rue it, dear girl, if you do.'
Of course, to be fair, many men supported the bill. Mr Outtrim, member for Maryborough in the Assembly was one. '...we have been told that the proper sphere for women is at home, attending to their domestic duties. Do honorable members refer to the women who have to work every day of their lives to keep themselves, or to those women who are living in the lap of luxury, without having anything to do from Monday morning to Saturday night? Do they refer to those magnificent women, the nurses in our hospitals? Do they refer to those 3,000 women in the Education Department who are teaching our children...? I say that a woman is not worth calling a woman unless she is prepared to take her part in the affairs of her country. I notice that those who oppose the women's franchise are the wealthiest ... and they do not know, who they are, who have to go out between five and six in the morning ... there are hundreds of women, honest, respectable women travelling at that time ... to their occupations ... leaving perhaps sick fathers or mothers depending on their earnings... They go to work when most honorable members of this House are still in bed.'
I've made extensive use of epigraphs at each chapter beginning. My idea was to connect to the narrative the important news of the day, e.g. in The Trumpeting Angel the Boer War, the Dreyfus trial in France, Federation, the parliamentary debates on Women's Suffrage, the European triumphs of Melba, etc. Also, brief excerpts from poems of contemporary poets are used as links with the stories. Henry Kendall, Ada Cambridge, Lesbia Harford, John Shaw Neilson and others, appear.
On another level, I saw these epigraphs as a modest mission, to bring to notice some of the 'voices' of those days - colonial poets, novelists, judges, and unknown journalists - all long departed, but whose voices do remain to illuminate so brilliantly our past.
There were family matters to look into during the research. My mother who is 93 remembers meeting the George brothers as a young girl. Her grandfather, John Marshall, was a partner with the George's, and then the first managing director when Georges was incorporated. He was also a director of the Dominion Bank which crashed. Like many he was a rampant land speculator and went bankrupt. Snippets of that story are woven into the books.
The book covers had three designers - all women. The first is by Danica Majstorovic. The illustration is called 'Spring Street', and is from The Picturesque Atlas of Australia, 1888, the second is by Lynda Patullo, is called 'Carlton Gardens' from the same book. The most recent is by Alex Snellgrove. It's an image from the painting 'Suffragette 1911', oil on canvas, by Emanuel Phillips Fox in the collection of the University of New South Wales.
That man and woman, walking around and around the Fitzroy Gardens in the evening light, in 1888 - as it turned out, locked in conversation, had started my imagination on a journey.