Kirkham’s Find – Mary Gaunt

I can’t believe that Kirkham’s Find has been languishing on my tbr shelves since I bought it in 1988. I was asked to nominate a book for my 19th century bookgroup & I usually try to suggest something that has been on my shelves for a while &, as we tend to read off the beaten track, something a little different so I’ve chosen Kirkham’s Find which was first published in 1897. I think I bought this book originally because it has one of my favourite paintings on the cover, An Old Bee Farm, by Clara Southern. Clara Southern was one of the women of the Heidelberg School. The men are better known, of course. Everyone’s heard of Arthur Streeton & Frederick McCubbin, but there were several women who also followed the ideas of the plein air painters & Clara Southern was one of these. The original painting is in the National Gallery of Victoria & I always go to see it when I visit.

The subject of the painting is an appropriate one because the heroine of Kirkham’s Find, Phoebe Marsden, decides to keep bees & sell honey as her path to independence. Phoebe lives with her family outside Ballarat, a town north of Melbourne. Phoebe is the eldest of a numerous family. The family have decided that she’s the plain one & she’s always compared unfavourably with her pretty sister, Nancy. Her father is a domestic tyrant & her mother is downtrodden so Phoebe has become the drudge of the family, teased & belittled by her pampered brothers & ignored by her younger sisters. Fortunately Phoebe & Nancy are close but she has no other friends. She resents this but poverty means that she has few options apart from marriage.

The most eligible men in the district are Ned Kirkham & his cousin, Allan Morrison, who are scratching a living on the next farm. Ned has come out from England to make his fortune & the young men decide to head for the Boolcundra country in South Australia in search of gold. Phoebe is attracted to Allan but both he & Ned only have eyes for Nancy. Nancy & Ned have reached an understanding just short of an engagement & Allan pours out his disappointment to Phoebe without realising her feelings for him. She promises to write to him & the men set off on their uncertain adventure.

Ned & Allan stake a claim on some land &, with two other men, begin their search for gold. The local Aboriginals are not pleased with their presence & eventually drive them off the claim, setting fire to their hut, killing two of the men, stalking them through the bush & wounding Allan before they reach safety with a neighbouring landowner. They take work on remote properties, minding stock to earn the money to begin their search again.

Nancy has tired of waiting for Ned to return a rich man & has agreed to marry Joe Sampson, a good but dull man who has pursued her for some time. Phoebe begins keeping bees at home, just a few hives & struggles at first to sell her honey in the face of local indifference & her father’s hostility. Eventually there’s a crisis & her father decrees that the bees must go,. Phoebe, with the help of her brother-in-law, gets together the money to make a start on her own bee farm. She moves to Warrnambool on the south coast of Victoria & starts from scratch, renting a falling-down hut on a bit of land. Hard work & perseverance reward her although there’s still a loneliness in her heart that can’t be fully assuaged by the knowledge of her growing independence.

There are so many good things in this book. Phoebe is a terrific heroine. Dissatisfied with her life of drudgery, downtrodden yet defiant & realistic about her chances of love & marriage in a society that values dainty prettiness like Nancy’s over opinionated honesty. Mr Marsden is a portrait of a selfish, harsh man who favours his useless sons & grudges every penny of Phoebe’s meagre allowance. Phoebe’s determination to succeed will interest anyone who loves reading about home making. Her cottage in Warrnambool may not be a villa in Tuscany  or a cottage in the Cotswolds but I loved reading about her struggles to create a home & a business from very meagre beginnings.

Ned & Allan’s adventures are terrifying & heart stopping. The prospector’s attitudes to the Aboriginals isn’t politically correct these days but it’s very much of its time. The white settlers & explorers saw the land as terra nullius, belonging to no-one & were angry & incredulous when the local people took up their spears to enforce their rights. The description of the flight through the bush with the knowledge that they are being followed by silent, invisible pursuers is almost unbearably tense. Mary Gaunt captured the essential terror of loneliness as Ned almost succumbs to his demons after he hears of Nancy’s marriage while living alone on a station as he tends stock to make a living. Reading about Ned & Allan trudging through the outback heat with little water & seeing mirages all around them was very evocative. I could feel the heat & the fear of death if the drought didn’t break or if they got lost in the bush. Reading this book in the middle of another hot spell here in Melbourne made me very grateful for my air conditioning & jugs of iced water. It’s a great read & I’m just sorry that it took me 26 years to get around to reading it.

There are copies of Kirkham’s Find available second hand & it’s also available as a free ebook from Amazon & Project Gutenberg.

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