Thursday, September 17, 2009

We of the Never Never & The Little Black Princess, by Mrs Aeneas Gunn

After reading Michael Cathcart’s brilliant book on the Australian landscape, The Water Dreamers, I was inspired to try and read up on some of the literature he discussed.

Jeannie Gunn, a Melbourne school teacher and later tireless welfare worker for returned service men from the First World War, wrote only two books in her lifetime. Prompted by friends to recount her experiences in book form, the very able Mrs Gunn produced the autobiographical novella The Little Black Princess in 1905. Three years later, in 1908, We of the Never Never was published, after being rejected by no less than six publishers.

The Angus and Robertson edition I got from the library published both autobiographical novels, in an abridged version, together in 1982. It seems odd that an abridged version would be published of an Australian classic, by an Australian imprint, for Australian readers. However, on further inspection, abridgement is probably a euphemism for having purged the book of some of its more unpalatable details.

For example, a chapter originally titled ‘A Nigger Hunt’, has been retitled ‘A Surprise Party’. You can guess who is going to be surprised. Apparently the ‘N’ word has been dropped from other parts of the text. This is rather curious. Even the American’s don’t purge the ‘N’ word out Huckleberry Finn.

Okay, let’s not linger on Australian denial. What to make of We of the Never Never? Well, it’s an odd book. Gunn writes in a vigorous, witty style, and there can be no denying she’s an entertaining and sharp writer. She’s sort of like a Nancy Mitford of the outback. You always find a smile involuntarily curling on your lips as you read her descriptions. So this is in many ways a romantic and sentimental portrait of the remote Elsey cattle station Mrs Gunn lived on for a year, a place she never again returned to. I say the book is odd because it juxtaposes this flighty style, that of the urban Melbourne school teacher, and uses it to describe the toughness of bush life. You feel Gunn must be pulling a gauzy material over her lens to soften things a bit and give the landscape and its people a more dreamy appearance.

Not only has Gunn put vaseline on her camera lens. So have the future editors of the book. I’ve just downloaded a copy of the novel from the Gutenberg press site. The dreaded ‘N’ word appears some 18 times. I feel cheated now. I wish I’d read the original version.

Here’s a section that I can’t find in the abridged version, from the chapter titled A Surprise Party which is the only chapter in the book that deals with frontier violence.

"I wasn't going to say anything about it before the "boys," he said, "but
it's time some one gave a surprise party down the river;" and a
"scatter-on" meaning "niggers in," Maluka readily agreed to a surprise
patrol of the river country, that being forbidden ground for blacks'

"It's no good going unless it's going to be a surprise party," Dan
reiterated; and when the Quiet Stockman was called across from the
Quarters, he was told that "there wasn't going to be no talking before
the boys."

The shocking thing is that the book is so extraordinarily popular. I think it’s sold about a million copies. Yet it has been sanitised.

The Little Black Princess is not written in the witty, flighty style of Never Never. It deals more directly with her experiences of Aboriginal life. Her attitude towards ‘the blacks’ is at once romantic and condescending. She talks about how wonderful their sign language is, and how there is a method in the madness of some of their cultural practices. But at bottom she thinks they’re basically stuck in an immature, childlike state.

Worse still for the Aboriginals, they are without a Christian God.

‘It is very, very hard work to teach any blackfellow the truth of God’s goodness and love. They have no god of any sort themselves, and they cannot imagine one.’

At the back of all of this there is the unspoken sense that they really are a dieing race, just waiting for civilisation to take over, ‘when bush-folk will have conquered the Never-Never and lain it at the feet of great cities’.

Interesting, Mrs Gunn’s dream of conquering the land with civilisation was turned on its head in 2000 when the land, including the original Elsey homestead that appeared in We of the Never Never, was returned to the original owners, the Mangarrayi people. It took over a decade for the Mangarrayi people to achieve it, but they did.

Writing this post has been a bit of a lesson for me. Thanks to the Internet I could pull up an original edition of Never-Never.

Thanks also to the astute Mr Chris Hubbard for bringing to my attention the fact that I was reading an abridged version of Mrs Gunn’s work, and suggesting that the reason for the abridgement was that the novels might contain what would now be considered now racist language.

Last note:

You can read Alan Ramsey’s article on the long battle for the original Aboriginal owners to regain their land at the below link:

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