Displacement and the British Literary Diaspora
Wood’s Farm is Hilda Bridge’s account of two intertwined lives (hers and her brother, Roy’s) and of the two decades she and Roy spent restoring the family farm at Sorell. A relatively short work that ends on hopeful note – ‘realism, with my usual inclination for comedy’ is how Hilda describes it in an undated letter to her friend, William Crowther – Wood’s Farm was written not for the public (the typescript remains unpublished) but rather, as Hilda suggests in her letter, for pleasure and posterity.
Wood’s Farm is crucial to my study, not only for the information it contains – to be used with caution, of course – but because it also gives voice to one of my subjects. In this respect, it is the counterpart to Roy’s memoir. The differences between the two works are many (Hilda’s is breezy in tone, for example, while Roy’s is elegiac) and, I suspect, quite telling. They indicate, perhaps, that Hilda was more successful than Roy at using writing as a means of self-help.
In That Yesterday Was Home, Roy Bridges tells the story of his mother’s family, one of the first (free) English families to settle in Van Diemen’s Land, and of their farm, Woods, at Sorell. In it Roy also gives a history of his own life – from his idyllic but insular upbringing in Hobart to his reluctant return to Woods in middle age – as well as a lively history of Tasmania’s colonial past.
As a work written by and about one of the two subjects of my thesis, That Yesterday Was Home is a key source for my project. It contains a great deal of rare information about Roy, his life and his literature, his family and its farm – information I must naturally treat with caution. The shape and style of the work, too, will be invaluable. Because I am planning to write my thesis as a kind of fictional dialogue between the Bridges siblings, Roy’s persona in That Yesterday Was Home will help me give life and a voice to my fictionalised Roy.
In ‘Mapping the British World’, Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich argue that most histories of the British empire and its former colonies have focused on colonists and colonised peoples, thereby largely neglecting British settlers and their offspring (18). Moreover, according to the authors, these emigrants and their descendants remained strongly attached to Britain (up until recent times, at least), with the intensity of their attachment peaking in the period from the 1880s to the 1950s (8-9).
Coincidentally, this time span corresponds to the lives of my subjects, Roy (1885–1952) and Hilda (1881–1971), who were born in Tasmania and yet, as the offspring of emigrants, were ‘British’ in many ways (culturally and artistically, for example). Although local identities did not necessarily ‘contradict or undermine imperial Britishness’ for many settlers (Bridge and Fedorowich 6), the Bridges siblings (Roy in particular) appear to have had difficulty reconciling their two selves, largely, it seems, because their interest in Tasmania’s colonial history and the revulsion they felt for the imperial penal system did not sit easily with their affection for Britain.
‘Mapping the British World’ is important source for my thesis because it helps me put my subjects into a wider historical context, and because it gives me a greater purpose, since my project will help fill the hole in the historical record identified by Bridge and Fedorowich.
Down Home is an erudite and imaginative meditation on the meaning of home and the nature of displacement by Tasmanian-born expatriate author and academic, Peter Conrad. Part memoir, part travelogue, the book documents Conrad’s return to his home state, in middle age, as he searches for traces of himself and for his place in the world. ‘Could,’ he writes, ‘Tasmania after all tell me where it was, where I am?’ (11)
Conrad concludes that Tasmania, perhaps more intensely than anywhere else, reminds us of the realities of human existence. He puts this down to its past and to the place it has become, it being, in his view, a ‘prison, a castaway . . . a sundered, solitary, disowned infant’ (230). Home, Conrad suggests, is a fantasy both combining and embodied in person and place (232).
Down Home is in many ways a companion piece to That Yesterday Was Home. Tasmanian-born and yet ‘British’ at heart, both writers appear to be lost to themselves, torn between the past and the present, the here and the there. The book is useful, then, for the insights it offers into this state of being, and because it addresses and embodies a writer’s attempt to find peace and his place in the world.
Peter Pierce’s article, ‘Roy Bridges’s Fictions of Van Diemen’s Land’, is one of the few substantial literary critical assessments of the Roy’s novels. This fact – and Pierce’s assertion that Roy’s work has not received the attention or appreciation it deserves (425) – makes this article an essential resource for my project.
Pierce surveys a number of Bridge’s historical novels, pointing out that they are dominated by settlers and convicts who are trying to make ‘difficult accommodations’ to their new situations (426) (as, I suspect, Roy himself was attempting to do). Pierce makes an interesting observation about the way Roy approaches his material: he argues that Roy tends to write himself into his fictionalised histories (427; 431-2).
Pierce’s conclusions are encouraging, because they mirror some of my own impressions of Roy’s novels. This agreement suggests that I might be right to suspect that, like the characters in his novels, Roy Bridges was struggling to come to terms with being ‘British’ in a place and with peoples the British had brutalised, and that he tried to reconcile himself with this past in his novels.
‘Socioliterature: Stories as Medicine’ by Kate Rose is a clarion call to literary scholars; it urges them to explore the practical implications of literature and to apply their knowledge to ‘real-world’ problems associated with colonialism, migration and displacement. Rose argues that ‘[l]iterary study can further the healing potentials of narrative’ (1) and she proposes a new type of scholarship, one which ‘calls forth the full political and healing potentials of literature’ (2).
The hypothesis I hope to test in my thesis has two parts. The first is that Roy and Hilda Bridges felt a significant sense of displacement in their lives, one related to the emigration, in early colonial times, of their grandparents. The second part is that Roy and Hilda attempted to address this sense of displacement (i.e. tried to ‘heal’ themselves) through writing. Although it is not explicitly concerned with settlers like the Bridges, Rose’s essay is useful to me because it links colonialism, displacement, literature and healing, thereby adding weight to my hypothesis. I am inspired, too, by Rose’s call to (scholarly) arms; like most researchers, I want my work to be of some use.
Janet Upcher’s Changing Countries, Bridging Worlds is a study of the work of Margaret Scott, a British-born writer who emigrated to Tasmania in the 1950s. Upcher focuses on Scott’s poems and her two novels, arguing that in these works Scott is able to ‘reconcile two worlds, two selves, in a type of dialogue’ (9). An unwilling emigrant, Scott initially felt out of place in Tasmania; she eventually grew to love the island, however, attempting to ‘build a bridge’, as Upcher puts it, between Britain and Tasmania in her writing (16).
Scott’s experiences were, I sense, similar to those of Roy and Hilda Bridges, who were also ‘British’ and who also struggled to feel fully at home in Tasmania. The Bridges also appear to have tried to use writing to bridge a (psychological) breach. Upcher’s book reinforces the theoretical foundations of my thesis. It serves, too, as a possible model for my exegesis, which might take the form of a study of the Bridges’ novels.
Bridge, Carl, and Kent Fedorowich. ‘Mapping the British World.’ The British World: Diaspora, Culture and Identity. edited by Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich, Frank Cass, 2003. pp. 1-15.
Bridges, Hilda. Letter to William Crowther. Undated. CRO101/1/7. W. E. L. H. Crowther Collection. Tasmanian Archives.
–––. Wood’s Farm. C9505. W. E. L. H. Crowther Collection. Tasmanian Archives.
Bridges, Roy. That Yesterday Was Home. Australasian Publishing Company, 1948.
Conrad, Peter. Down Home: Revisiting Tasmania. Chatto & Windus, 1988.
Pierce, Peter. ‘Roy Bridges’s Fictions of Van Diemen’s Land.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, 2000, pp. 425-432.
Rose, Kate. ‘Socioliterature: Stories as Medicine.’ Displaced: Literature of Indigeneity, Migration, and Trauma. edited by Kate Rose, Taylor & Francis, 2020, pp. 1-4.
Upcher, Janet. Changing Countries, Bridging Worlds: The Poetry and Prose of Margaret Scott. Ginninderra Press, 2014.