After reading Miss Mackenzie last week, I mentioned Catherine Pope’s list of her Top Ten Trollopes on her blog, Victorian Geek. I decided to read Harry Heathcote (picture from here) because it’s the only one of Trollope’s novels set in Australia. Trollope’s son, Fred, emigrated to Australia & so Trollope had some first hand knowledge of Queensland where the novel is set. He spent a year travelling around Australia & spent time with Fred on his sheep run.
Harry Heathcote is a young Englishman who has come out to Australia to seek his fortune. He lives at Gangoil, his sheep run in Queensland where he runs 30,000 sheep on thousands of acres leased from the government. Harry is a squatter & he despises the free selectors who have come out & bought land adjoining his. Don’t let anyone tell you that Australia is a classless society – at least, it certainly wasn’t in the 19th century when convict transportation had not long ended & there was a very definite hierarchy based on your origins. Harry’s neighbour, Giles Medlicot, is one of the free selectors. A new chum from England, Medlicot has bought land next to Gangoil & set up a sugar mill where he lives with his mother.
Harry lives at Gangoil with his wife, Mary, her sister, Kate & his two young children. Harry is a proud young man who has made his own way in the world since he was orphaned young. His manner is rough & imperious, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. His obstinate manner has resulted in bad relations with many of his neighbours & employees. Harry dismisses two of his employees who then go to work for Medlicot. He suspected them of planning to light fires to destroy his land & is furious with Medlicot for employing them. He sees it as a betrayal. It’s the middle of a hot summer & only those who live in the bush can really understand how terrifying bushfire can be. Harry fears that he won’t be able to keep up his payments on Gangoil if his stock or feed are destroyed. Harry has let his fear of fire become an obsession as he patrols his boundaries every night, accompanied by the few men he trusts.
As well as Harry’s dislike of Giles Medlicot, he is contemptuous of his other neighbours, the shiftless Brownbies. A family of ex-convicts, the Brownbies are slovenly & sly, always on the lookout for trouble & usually finding it. Working all day & riding all night on the lookout for fire has left Harry paranoid & exhausted. When Harry discovers a deliberately-lit fire on the boundary of his property with the Brownbies’ land, he trespasses on their land to fight the fire & is surprised to be helped by Medlicot. The Brownbies have been joined by Harry’s disgruntles ex-employees & a fight breaks out as they discover Harry desperately fighting the fire.
I enjoyed Harry Heathcote of Gangoil very much. The character of Harry was fascinating. I’m not sure that he will ever become more moderate in his judgments & harsh opinions but he did have to reassess his opinion of Medlicot – especially as he has had the temerity to fall in love with Kate. Trollope evoked the bush very well – the loneliness of life on remote stations, the reliance on neighbours, the egalitarian lack of deference of the servants towards their masters. Mary & Kate were important characters in bringing out these aspects of bush life. There’s one very tense scene when Harry is out patrolling at night & the women are left alone at Gangoil. They sit out all night on the verandah, nervously watching & waiting. They are also determined to make friends of the Medlicots, not willing to let a personable young man & his mother be strangers when there is little company to be had.
The only mistake I caught Trollope out in was that it wouldn’t have been dark at 7pm at Christmas. December is the middle of summer here & it doesn’t get dark until 9pm. I did enjoy the Heathcotes & Medlicots sitting down to a hot Christmas dinner, complete with plum pudding, though. Many Australians (including my family) still do that. It’s ridiculous but it’s a tradition that we just can’t break. Harry Heathcote of Gangoil is much shorter than the average Trollope novel – only about 140pp. It’s tightly-written, with one main plot & none of the subplots beloved of the Victorian novelist. In his Autobiography, Trollope says that he wrote the novel for the Graphic as a Christmas story in 1873 & was paid £450 for it. I can imagine that it would have been an exciting, almost exotic story to read by an English fireside in the winter of 1873. I found it very enjoyable & I’m looking forward to my next Trollope from Catherine’s Top Ten.