No Book is an Island

‘Tasmanian-ness’ and the Life and Literary Fortunes of Royal ‘Roy’ Bridges

In 1927, Royal “Roy” Bridges published his nineteenth novel, A Mirror of Silver, a horror story in which four generations of an English family are haunted by the ghosts they see in an old mirror. As the action nears its climax, Dave, the last in the family line, recalls how he “peered into the bluish-green depth of the glass—and saw the faces . . . . So like his own face—somehow. But not his face . . .” (216).

Like the silver mirror, Tasmania – the birth and burial place of Bridges and the setting of so many of his stories – has shown many faces. The scholar, C.A. Cranston, has written about the “protean and often ludic nature of the island,” observing that Tasmania has been variously “portrayed as the source of psychic distress, cultural disenfranchisement, intense disappointment, a land scape-goat for social evils” (“Rambling” 29). Beliefs such as these are rarely benign; like the faces seen in the mirror of silver, they have the power to influence actions, actions that alter people’s lives, livelihoods and legacies.

In this essay, I argue that perceptions of Tasmania – varieties of “Tasmanian-ness” – had a telling effect on Roy Bridges (1885-1952). Drawing upon Bridges’ personal papers and other primary sources, I examine the writer’s life and literature, exploring the relationship between perceptions of Tasmania and his unusual fate. I find that, in one form or another, “Tasmanian-ness” enhanced Bridges’ livelihood, but blighted his life. I discover, too, that other perceptions – of Australian literature – all but erased his literary legacy.

In March 1924, having lived on the mainland for fifteen fruitful years, Roy Bridges visited Woods, the family farm near Sorell then occupied by his uncle, Val. During his stay, Bridges had an epiphany. “I knew then [he later wrote] that . . . I was of this land . . . and that when it willed it would call me back.” Bridges then made a fateful promise. “We made our compact then, Val Wood and I, that if he kept the old place for me I would keep it . . .” (That Yesterday 230) Afterwards, Bridges returned to Melbourne, to the productive if not wholly peaceful life he had fashioned for himself there.

He returned, firstly, to the Age newspaper, where he was a literary critic. By then Bridges had been a journalist for twenty years, having started as junior reporter in Hobart, before rising from a court reporter to chief parliamentary reporter (Sayers 2). Bridges returned, secondly, to his flourishing career as an author, and to the writing of his nineteenth novel. As a young man, Bridges published stories in periodicals, having set his heart on becoming an author (Bridges, H, Wood’s Farm 43). His first novel was published, in 1909, by the N.S.W. Bookstall Company. It sold well and set him on his way as a writer.

Bridges returned, thirdly, to his sister, Hilda (1881-1971), who, as well as being his secretary and housekeeper, was herself a “well-known writer” (“Roy Bridges: Our Most” 12), ultimately publishing thirteen novels, three children’s books and hundreds of stories. In 1924, Bridges returned, lastly, to the latest in a long line of lodgings, none of which had given him the peace of mind he so desperately sought, as he was especially sensitive to noise (Horner). Thus, he spent his time in Melbourne “wandering from flat to house in quest of the quiet that was not” (Bridges, R, That Yesterday 235).

In late 1930, Val Wood died. Bridges remembered the promise he had made to his uncle. “Hilda and I, keeping our word to him, left Melbourne for Woods’ to undertake its restoration.” (Bridges, R, That Yesterday 238) They stayed for a year. Then, in May 1935, not without misgivings, they moved to the farm. “That withdrawal,” one obituarist has observed, “was really an ordained thing, for [Roy’s] being if not his happiness was centred in Wood’s Farm” (Sayers 2).

The family had been centred in Tasmania since 1807, when Bridges’ maternal great-great-grandparents had arrived from Norfolk Island. In 1825, their maternal great-grandparents, the Woods, were granted land near Sorell, land that became the spiritual seat of their mother’s family. Bridges and his sister fondly recalled holidays spent at “Woods”, where they revelled in the pastoral surroundings and in the tales they were told about their “pioneering” forebears (e.g. Bridges, R, That Yesterday 1-4; Bridges, H, Wood’s Farm 2).

Clearly, Bridges’ connection to Tasmania – to his perception of the place, at least – was strong; against his will, it drew him back from the mainland and all but imprisoned him on an island infamous for its penitential past. In so doing, it greatly impoverished his personal life. The letters he sent to his friend, William Crowther, from Woods are filled with references to his loneliness. “I am much depressed and am longing to return to Melbourne,” he wrote in March 1936. “The life here is too lonely and inactive – mentally.”

Several miles removed from the small township of Sorell, Woods was something of a backwater. The house itself was small and primitive, lacking electricity and a telephone (Bridges, H, Wood’s Farm 105; 116-118), and the Bridges never owned a car (Giordano and Norman 122). Hilda recalled how friends “asked us for how long we thought to put up with – this!” (Wood’s Farm 105) But put up with it Bridges did until his death, enduring the isolation with the help of books and letters.

Bridges felt compelled, it seems, to live in the past physically as well as psychologically, tolerating conditions on the farm because they reinforced his view of Tasmania. Bridges makes it clear in his letters to Crowther that he has very little time for the island and its occupants. Thus, he writes that “Tasmania suits me nowadays no better than I suit Tasmanians these days” (31 Mar. 1936). Elsewhere, he complains to Crowther about the supposed conservatism, conventionality and condescendence of Hobartians, who, he believed, failed to give him the respect he deserved (e.g. Letter, 10 Nov. 1943).

Here, perhaps, his personality was partly at fault. “He would have been adjudged a character in Georgian England and Regency days,” a journalist wrote of him in 1952. “He would have been talked about in the town then and written about . . .” Instead, he was “named by those who live near Woods’ Farm as ‘queer’” (“Roy Bridges: The Haunted” 10). Ironically, Bridges viewed his fellow Tasmanians in the same way his novels came to be viewed by critics after his death: as having all the hallmarks of a bygone and culturally barren era (Conde vii), and telling the stories of “an age long dead” (“Roy Bridges: The Haunted” 12). As it was, his perceptions prevented him from mixing with the locals; thus, they underwrote his loneliness.

Bridges considered Melbourne the model Australian city (Conde vii-viii). In 1934, he published One Hundred Years: The Romance of the Victorian People, about which one reviewer observed that “[h]is purpose is not formal history, but a tribute to the people whom chiefly he admires among Australians” (“One Hundred Years” 34). Although Melbourne was founded by ex-convicts (Boyce 244), Bridges did not associate it with servitude, brutality and imprisonment as he did Tasmania. Bridges greatly admired Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life, a brutal depiction of Tasmania’s penal past, and The History of Tasmania by John West, who had been a vocal critic of convictism and a leader of the island’s anti-transportation movement.

Bridges’ final book, The League of the Lord, expresses his view of Tasmania as a “prison island” (356). In it, the place is portrayed as a place of pain and suffering. Martin, the protagonist, has been unjustly transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Degraded by his sentence and by the penal system, he is unable to free himself from the past so that he can become “his own man again” (357). This, in Martin’s opinion, is the fate of the island itself. As the novel closes, Martin calls for more than the end of transportation. He wants “[a]n end to England, here!” (352)

Putting an end to England in his mind and mindset – this was something Bridges failed to achieve. His twin vision of Tasmania – as a prison and as a throwback to Britain – haunted him, just as faces in his fictional silver mirror haunted Dave and his family, and just as images of Tasmania have “haunted” the island and its inhabitants since colonisation. In many ways, Tasmania makes an ideal mirror. Viewed on a map, the island is compact and self-contained, its edges well-defined. Its proximity, too, is perfect. Located on the periphery of the world, an arm’s length from mainland Australia, its configuration neatly fits a face: near enough for some features to seem reassuringly familiar and yet far enough away for others to appear alluringly alien, like an image only partly in focus. A “convenient nowhere,” Peter Conrad has called it (6).

Reflections are enriched by the island’s façade: its ornate silver frame, bluish-green depths, rust-coloured stains and indelible “black cloud” (Johnston 18) – culture, nature and history melded and made visible. Tasmania’s age, too, is an asset. Viewed on a timeline, its history – European, of course – is sensible and short, topped and tailed by Port Arthur: its consecration in the early 1800s and its desecration in the late 1900s. A neat two centuries of “human” history halved by Federation; a past near enough to the present to feel real and recognisable but far enough away to excite the imagination. As the historian, Alison Alexander, has observed, “Tasmania has attributes which give it an unfair advantage in the utopia stakes” (3).

And yet like the silver mirror, it is all an illusion. For, in reality, Tasmania is none of these things. It is not even an island, for a start. Geographically, it is many islands – an archipelago, in fact (Clarke and Johnston 2) – none of which began or will probably end as such. Nor is it a discrete entity located on the margins of civilisation (Cranston, “Islands” 219-221). Its past, too, is neither neat nor discrete. Beginning thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, it ends in the present, which is forever retreating into the future.

Various scholars – most notably Roslynn D. Haynes, as well as those already mentioned – have studied the history of ideas about Tasmania. Others (including Cranston, in Along These Lines) have approached the subject from a literary perspective. Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood, for example, have published two anthologies, Deep South and Island Story, which seek to convey the diversity of Tasmanian visions. Scholarship shows, then, that locals and onlookers, tourists and travellers alike have all seen certain things in the island. Some of these perceptions gained prominence in their day; later, a few came to represent periods in island’s history, periods which otherwise defy easy description and delineation. For, as Cranston observes, the “narrative between one island and another” is “discontinuous” (Along ii).

Tasmania, as an idea, existed long before colonisation. The Palawa people first occupied the area almost 40,000 years ago; 30,000 years later, their descendants became islanders, separated from the mainland by rising oceans. They lived in “harmony” with their environment, believing they were “carved out of the land” by their ancestral beings (Cameron). To them, there was little distinction between humankind and environment (Alexander 11); in European terms, their culture was nature. Henry Reynolds describes how the Aborigines who greeted members of Nicolas Baudin’s crew in 1802 viewed the sailors’ clothing with “wonder”, it not being clear to them “where the covering ended and the body began” (10). Here, then, is an early understanding of Tasmania: the (is)land at one with the self.

Most Europeans did not share this view. The first French and British to record their impressions of the island saw it as a place apart, other-worldly and remote (Haynes 18). Baudin wrote of the foreignness (to him) of the island’s forests, “composed,” as they were, “of trees unknown in Europe” (qtd. in Haynes 11). Initially, European seafarers saw and treated the island as a source of shelter, material sustenance and scientific knowledge (Alexander 7; West 13-25). Before long, though, it “became less a site of travel and more one of settlement” (Clarke and Johnston 4), as British officials began to regard it as a possession (Robson, A Short History 12-13; West 28), which it soon became.

The tendency to view one’s immediate surroundings as if from a distance – to rob them of an independent reality (or realities) by objectifying them – is a thread that runs through the visions of Tasmania that rose to prominence after colonisation. Thus, in its earliest European days, the island was perceived predominantly as a hostile space, beautiful but bleak, its “advantages of nature and art”, as Marcus Clarke puts it (374), supposedly making it the perfect “natural penitentiary” (Clarke and Johnston 6-7).

This view of the island – as a “convict’s hell” (Boyce 2) – is epitomised in Marcus Clarke’s famous novel and was shared by many Britons (Haynes 57-61). (Although not by all, as Alison Alexander [14-22] and James Boyce [2-3] point out.) This perception was appealing for its drama and pathos – and, after 1853, when transportation ended and Tasmanian became a self-governing colony, for its convenience. This transition brought about a change of mood amongst many islanders, the “energy and spirit of adventure” of the first fifty years giving way to a “sense of despair and a lack of confidence” (Robson, The Tasmanian Story 29). Respectability became the watchword, as many Tasmanians set about trying to become more British than the British themselves (31).

This was, as Anna Johnston argues, the “little England” era of Tasmanian history (17), when the island was commonly perceived (and presented) as a comfortingly familiar place (e.g. “Beautiful Historic Tasmania”) whose customs and character fit a “fantasy image of pre-industrial village life that underpinned Empire”, as Richard White puts it (56). According to this view and the “aesthetic colonisation” associated with it, nature was culture, little more than a scenic backdrop to human existence (Haynes 112).

This perception of the island prevailed for almost a century. In the mid-1900s, though, an alternative version of this vision arose, when writers such as Hal Porter and Christopher Koch represented the island as an unappealing backwater, an in-between place of exile (Haynes 231). Later, in the 1970s, the advent of the environmental movement spawned yet another vision of the isle: Tasmania as a wild ancient land, an Eden free from the taint and constraints of contemporary culture. “The Franklin River battle,” writes Cranston, “tipped the so-called narratives of shame from topophobia to topophilia.” (“Rambling” 37)

Such have been the predominant perceptions of Tasmania over time. Two played a significant part in establishing Roy Bridges as a successful writer during his lifetime: the view of the island as a prison and as a “little England”. Most of Bridges’ thirty-six novels have some association with the early history of Tasmania (Miller 83). His first two novels (published in 1909) are set in Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1800s, as is his series of seven Hobart Town-Richmond novels (Green Butterflies [1923], And All That Beauty  [1929], Negrohead [1930], Trinity [1931], Cloud [1932], Soul From Thy Sword [1933] and The League of the Lord [1950]), which, in the opinion of the critic, Colin Roderick, “holds an especial interest for Australians” (89). As Peter Pierce points out, Bridges wrote four of these novels while living in Tasmania (“Roy Bridges’s Fictions” 426). “Even in London,” Bridges recalled of his visit to England in 1926, “I was imagining Sorell.” (That Yesterday 233)

In spirit and setting, then, Bridges’ oeuvre is orientated towards Tasmania – Marcus Clarke’s Tasmania, that is, the “great cruel prison,” as a character in Green Butterflies puts it (30). Near the beginning of that novel, the protagonist, a young woman named Esther Wane, implores a visiting Englishman, with whom she has fallen in love, to “take me out of my prison, this island” (84). He does not, and Esther, the daughter of a free settler, becomes the wife – and virtual captive – of a local man she detests. A whole chapter of A Mirror of Silver is even entitled “The Prison Island (1829-30)” (23-90).

Clearly, much of Bridges’ convict fiction is informed by this perception of Tasmania. Convict fiction per se was popular in the first half of the twentieth century, as the success of the “Bookstall Series” of paperback novels in Australia attests (Mills 39). Even in the America, “there was still a place for stories of convicts” (Carter and Osborne 118). Associated, as it largely was, with physical and psychological extremes, the penal system made a compelling subject for melodrama (“Convict in Australian Literature” 186).

The popularity of Bridges’ own books in Britain shows how well his depiction of colonial Tasmania met the expectations of readers and reviewers. A Mirror of Silver garnered praise for its “picture of the Southern colony and its slave-labourers” (“Sins of the Fathers”). The “harshness and brutality of life in the convict settlement” was deemed to have been “excellently portrayed” in Negrohead (“The Secret Out”), which, in May 1930, was one of the “books in biggest demand” at the Dundee Subscription Library in Scotland (“Books in Biggest Demand”). In September 1931, writing about Trinity, one reviewer adjudged that Bridges had “taken full advantage” of the Australian setting of his story, which, in the reviewer’s opinion, made a “splendid background” (“Australian”).

Whereas Bridges’ view of Tasmania as a prison island shaped the setting of his novels, his other major perception of the place – Tasmania as a “little England” – shaped their style. Mannered and melodramatic (Pierce, “Roy Bridges’s Fictions” 425), well-crafted and occasionally overwrought (Roderick 89), Bridges’ novels were deemed by H.M. Green as being “effective enough in their kind” – their kind (mostly) being the historical romance (659-600), a genre that has traditionally been associated with female readers and writers (Langbauer 1-2).

Indeed, a number of Bridges’ protagonists are well-to-do women (e.g. Esther Wane in Green Butterflies and Helen Lydiard in Negrohead). The action in much of his fiction involves “domestic conflict” (Roderick 92-93) and often occurs in “feminine” spaces – in the home or in the “quasi-English colonial gardenscape”, as Therese-Marie Meyer puts it (144). Bridges’ treatment of natural settings is telling, in that his narrators tend to describe them indirectly, through the eyes of a character, thereby distancing the setting from the reader and transforming it into a picturesque but passive backdrop. This effect is intensified in opening of The League of the Lord, when Stephen Ewart views a valley through the frame of his window (7).

During his lifetime, Bridges had a reputation for being a “readable” and “entertaining” writer (e.g. “A Mirror of Silver”). His were works of popular fiction, conventional in form and conservative in style, as were many bestsellers of the day. Bridges’ novels, however, appear to have epitomised and sometimes exaggerated, in the eyes of readers and reviewers, these reassuringly familiar qualities, in the same way that Tasmania was seen by many to be more British than Britain itself. Thus, one English reviewer praised (albeit with certain reservations) the “old world charm and simplicity” of These Were Thy Merchants (1935) (“These Were Thy Merchants”), while another wrote, of The Black House (1920), that “the graphic, vigorous English of the author . . . is refreshing indeed after a course of the weak and slangily coloquial [sic] style adopted by so many modern novelists” (“Short Notices”).

Such are the key characteristics of Bridges’ novels; drawing heavily upon two popular perceptions of Tasmania, they combined to enhance the appeal of Bridges’ works to readers at home and abroad, and, in so doing, enabled him to make a name and a livelihood for himself as a writer. His reputation, however, did not long survive his death, which occurred in 1952, just as ultra-patriotic ideas about literature were resurfacing in Australia. Writing in 1984, John Docker observed that “radical nationalists have been and remain . . . very important in their varied contributions to Australian literature” (16). Twenty years earlier, Grahame Johnston had written that “literary commentary in this country has suffered from two main defects,” one of which is a “tendency to overvalue ‘Australianness’” (viii).

Famously, so-called radical nationalism reached its first zenith in the 1890s with “The Bulletin school” (Stephensen 57), at a time when literary criticism was becoming organised (Pierce, “The Critical Reception” 359) and when “questions about the nature and limits of truly Australian writing were answered largely but not entirely in nationalistic terms” (Heseltine 201). What followed in the early decades of the twentieth century was the foregrounding of a “less chauvinistic attitude” (James 55). This was, according to the patriots, a “dreary period in Australian literary confidence”, one dominated, firstly, by English academics who saw Australian literature as an offshoot of British literature (Dutton, Snow 16-18), and, secondly, by the so-called “cultural cringe” (Phillips 112-117). At this time, Australian culture was, A.A. Phillips argued, too “urban” (and urbane); too derivative and imitative of all things English (62-68). This was precisely the period in which Bridges flourished as a novelist, the bulk of his fiction being published between 1909 and 1941.

Radical nationalism resurfaced in the late 1930s, in the form of the “Jindyworobak Movement,” “a reaction [in part] against contemporary colonialist attitudes” that owed its impetus to P.R. Stephensen and others (“Jindyworobak” 408). The influence of this movement was still being felt in the 1960s (Bird et al. xv). Here is Stephensen, writing in 1936: “Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson may be regarded as typical pioneers of indigenous culture in Australia. Whatever their faults, their work has an outstanding quality of being drawn direct from Australian life, and not from a bookish or ‘literary’ idea, in imitation of English poets . . . Their work is crude enough in parts; it is the raw material of an Australian culture.” Stephensen contrasts Paterson and Lawson with the poet, Henry Kendall, whose “mind had an ‘English’ cast . . . he wanted to please the English. Kendall wrote of Australia, but in a prim English way, not in a robust Australian way” (29).

In many ways, this excerpt encapsulates the shift in literary perceptions that took place in Australia in the mid-twentieth century, by whose standards Roy Bridges’ work was found wanting. As we have seen, Bridges’ novels are conventional romances couched in a cultured and conservative style – the very antithesis of the realist works espoused by nationalistic critics. His characters and settings, too, are beyond the patriotic pale.

In The Australian Legend, Russel Ward argues that, according to the nationalistic mythos, the typical Australian resembles a nineteenth-century bushman; “a practical man,” that is, who is “rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry any appearance of affectation in others” (1-2). Aborigines, women and city-dwellers were clearly marginalised in this ideal (Huggan 55). By and large, Bridges’ protagonists fail to fit the nationalistic mould, being well-born, well-mannered and female (or “feminine”). His settings, too, are also “un-Australian”, as they are invariably urban, the bush usually appearing only as a backdrop, passive and remote. A fixation on the “little English” aspects of Bridges’ fiction has led to its other qualities being ignored, and to the “too easy docketing of his place in the limited field of Australian fiction” (Sayers 2).

The effect of these attitudes was felt by Hilda after her brother’s death. “Is Roy truly forgotten?” she wonders aloud in a letter to Crowther (12 Jul. 1954). Her fears were well-founded. Roy Bridges does not rate a mention in The Literature of Australia (1964) (Dutton), for example, or make more than a fleeting appearance in later histories of Australian literature (e.g. Kramer; Goodwin; Hergenhan 1988; Bennet and Strauss; Webby; Pierce 2009), including Laurie Hergenhan’s study of convict fiction (Unnatural Lives). As mentioned, H.M. Green is dismissive in his history of Australian literature (“mainly sword and pistol stuff” [660]), while Bridges’ entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature refers to his novels’ “contrived plots and stereotyped characters” (“Bridges, Roy” 117).

Roy Bridges lived and wrote at a time when Tasmania was seen as being “more English than . . . England herself,” as Anthony Trollope put it (Dow 55). It was a time, too, when many people – Bridges himself included – viewed Tasmania as a kind of “prison island”, a place haunted by its penitential past. As I have sought to show in this essay, these two perceptions – these two types of “Tasmanian-ness” – shaped Bridges’ beliefs, diminishing his ability and willingness to escape from his island, even though these beliefs were blighting his life.

His books, also, bear the imprint of these ideas – they are, generically and stylistically speaking, “little English” novels set mostly in the dramatic and evocative locale of “Van Diemen’s Land” – ideas that helped make them popular. Having enhanced Bridges’ livelihood, however, “Tasmanian-ness” later became a liability, detracting, as we have seen, from Bridges’ legacy. Literary perspectives shifted in Australia in the mid-twentieth century, as a second wave of radical nationalists rose to prominence. In their world, “little English” novels were badly out of place, and Bridges’ works fell from favour and were largely forgotten.

And yet there are signs that attitudes are changing. Writing in 1979, as the surge of radical nationalism was starting to subside, J.C. Horner deemed Bridges a “serious writer” whose “contribution to Australian and Tasmanian literature is substantial”. More recently, the scholar, Peter Pierce, published a study of Bridges’ convict fiction (“Roy Bridges’s Fictions”). Through this essay – minor though it is – I hope to keep the critical ball rolling, in an attempt to return Roy Bridges to the literary fold.

Redemption is an idea in which Bridges himself, on some level, seems to have entertained. At the end of A Mirror of Silver, Dave is freed from his past by a figure from the past, to be haunted by ghosts no more. The mirror hangs in an empty room, where the “eyes of no man or woman peered into [it] and saw the pale reflection of a face” (280). Until the earth becomes an “empty room”, Tasmania will most likely remain a mirror. By reflecting on its many faces, though, we might start to see each of them – if not the place itself – for what it really is.

Works Cited