Saturday 25 November 2017

The Commandant by Jessica Anderson

The Commandant came recommended to me in a roundabout fashion. Earlier on in the year, I attended an 'Honouring the Author' event at the State Library, NSW. The author in question was Jessica Anderson.

Anderson won the Miles Franklin Prize twice (in 1978 & 1980), but not for The Commandant.
By the end of the honouring event, though, I was convinced that The Commandant was the book for me to start my Jessica Anderson journey with (and not one of her two more contemporary award winning books). Historical fiction based on real life events and people will always win me over.

The Commandant is based on Captain Patrick Logan, the man in charge of the Moreton Bay convict settlement on the present day site of Brisbane.

Moreton Bay Settlement 1835
He was a cruel task master, feared by all the convicts.
But the story is told mostly from the point of view of his young (fictional) sister-in-law, Frances, recently arrived from Ireland.

In some ways, this story could be seen as a simple drawing room story about two sisters, but of course, the outside world intrudes regularly on their domestic dramas. There is a strong message about the role of women in the early years of colonisation and how they coped with the isolation, the lack of modern amenities and the constant fear of the unknown. Frances is told by one of the other women,
'Whatever course you take,' she said, half-shutting her eyes, 'no doubt in ten years or so you will arrive at the state of the most of us - simply of making do with what one has. Surprisingly enough -' she opened surprised eyes - 'it is an art in which one may progress. I thought I knew all about making do with what one had, but now I find I can do more with it than I dreamed.'

Anderson's deceptively straightforward plot also hides many viewpoints and tensions.

We see the doubt and confusion that the soldiers and their wives feel about Logan's actions. The young doctors, who have to tend the battered backs of the recently whipped convicts, have another story to tell. The threat of a highly publicised court case in Sydney to deal with the rumours of Logan's cruelty bubble away underneath the surface, only to rear up every time a ship arrives with mail. The menace of the convicts, who far outnumber the soldiers, is felt throughout the story. How the convicts view the settlers and how they, in turn, view the convicts is a tension that Anderson plays with deftly. 

Underlying all this, though, is another viewpoint. The local Aboriginal population are spoken of and seen fleetingly by our main characters. They know they are being watched, rumours and myths are rampant. Yet the reader can also see this little settlement, barely clinging onto the land around the Brisbane River, through the eyes of the Aboriginals, wondering who on earth where these strange people with their stone walls and inappropriate clothing and guns. 

Image source

Even further away, are the Sydney based journalists and intelligentsia who are driving social change and asking questions about reform, mercy and justice for the convicts. Frances represents this new world order while her brother-in-law represents the old world order of duty, a firm hand and punishment. Logan is understandably confused and even, hurt, by the possibility of change. Anderson portrays his loneliness and brooding behaviour in a sympathetic light, thanks to the tender, loving concern he evokes in his young wife (a woman with a lisp not unlike the one that Anderson, herself battled with all her life).

It is not just Logan's right to rule that is called into question here. Anderson also leads us to see how tenuous and uncertain these early settlements actually were. A so-called civilisation perched on the edge of wilderness, halfway round the world, for the spurious idea of containing the poor and dispossessed of England, was always going to be fraught with danger. Most of the poor and dispossessed ended up on the wrong side of the law as a result of the Industrial Revolution. So many of the convicts were shipped off to Australia for one single offence, often stealing food or clothes. The colony of Australia became the dumping ground for a problem the English didn't want to face. Instead of dealing with the problem of a growing divide between the haves and have-nots at home, they shipped as many of the have-nots off to the other side of the world to basically fend for themselves.

Image source

Anderson's story brings to vivid life this period of history. There are fabulous, meaty characters, shifting points of view and a pervading sense of mercy. Logan's demise is deliberately left as confused and murky as the official reports of the time. Anderson doesn't try to give us the answers that weren't available to her characters at the time.

The story ends, as it began, with Frances on board a ship, musing about her fate. The innocence and conviction of her beginning has been tempered by experience and sympathy.

I'm so grateful to Text Publishing for bringing such tremendous Australian stories back into print. I hope they never go out of print again.

#Australian Women Writers challenge


  1. After reading this review.....
    ordered the Text Classic e-book.
    I'm ready for Australian historical fiction!

  2. I really like the sound of this. Historical fiction based on real people & events wins me over as well.
    Have you heard the folksong about Moreton Bay? I wrote a bit about it here:


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.