Royal Tasman Bridges (1885-1952) is Tasmania’s most prolific novelist, having published 36 novels. He lived with his sister, Hilda, who wrote 13 novels herself while acting as Roy’s amanuensis. Both were born in Hobart and formed a deep attachment to ‘Woods’, the family farm near Sorell. In 1933, after working on the mainland as a journalist, Roy returned, somewhat unwillingly, to Tasmania, thereby keeping a promise he had made to his family. He remained at Woods until his death, battling anxiety and loneliness as he and Hilda tried to restore and protect the property. (Research Project Proposal)
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). (Exegesis)
Roy gazed out the window. ‘My grandfather had his heart set on me being a doctor, but I wanted to write. The thought of – of, well, arteries and veins and bodies and brains makes my blood run cold. There I go again. Maybe I missed my calling, after all.’ (Thesis)
Roy sat and tried to see, but it wasn’t a seeing thing. It was something that blossomed in the blackness of his mind, in the blackness of night. The boom of a bass drum beating at his ears; the boom of guns, echoing down through time, as an island was made safe for the punishment of people.
And another memory.
‘I remember it from my childhood,’ he said. ‘Holidays spent on my grandparents’ farm. Dreamy days filled with food and fables, with games in the garden, and adventures in the bush. Marred only by the pounding of the sea, the same sea that brought white people to the place. Pioneers, we call them, blameless one and all.’ (Thesis)
A gust of wind whirled the hat from his head, whipping it over the wall. Peering over the parapet, he gave it up for lost and hurried on. Rookwood was one of the few books his father had given him. His mother, on the other hand, had given him many books, although never directly. Adding links to the great chain of literature, she had called it. Her books were shelved in the drawing room and yet Roy felt the weight of them – their gravity – wherever he went. All the worthy male authors standing stiffly side-by-side: Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray and his mother’s favourite, George Eliot, whom she would never have believed was a woman. Jolting along in the bus, watching the countryside rumble by, Roy had recalled her reading aloud from The Mill on the Floss, the passage set in York: Maggie fleeing to the town with her would-be lover, Stephen, whom she ultimately spurns, fearing for the state of her soul. All roads led, it seemed, to York. (Thesis)
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). (Exegesis)
Having withdrawn to Woods, Roy and Hilda spent the rest of their lives battling loneliness and depression. They wrote letters and read but yearned for human contact. Their well-being, like the well-being of their works, rested on their associations. Their unhappy end suggests that no book or being is ever truly an island, even – or especially – in Tasmania. (Presentation)
“He [Bridges] 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 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. (Exegesis)
Sylvie showed no surprise when she saw the heading on the first page.
‘It’s all set in London in 1860,’ she said, screwing a blank sheet of paper into the typewriter.
Roy looked up from his pad. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Your style – it’s very Victorian. You’re very Victorian, Bridgey old boy. Vintage Victorian,’ she added, hastily. ‘The best.’
Roy sat frozen in his seat, looking wounded. Of course, he thought, I am. Old and out-of-place, just like my books.
‘I’m sorry,’ Sylvie said. ‘I shouldn’t have been that blunt. It’s just that I think you could do something more, um, contemporary. If you wanted to.’
‘You’re wrong. I’m the last Tasmanian Tiger. A creature on the edge of extinction that can’t change its stripes.’ (Thesis)
In ‘Some Modern Australian Novelists’, an article published in Melbourne’s Advocate newspaper, the critic and novelist Bernard Cronin opined that Roy Bridges ‘has made the province of Australian – particularly Tasmanian – history peculiarly his own’. As for Hilda Bridges, she, Cronin wrote, is one of those writers who ‘come readily to mind’ when thinking about ‘stories of crime, mystery and adventure’. The year was 1933. Roy and Hilda Bridges were in their literary prime. And yet within decades they had disappeared from view, neither one rating a mention in Penguin’s The Literature of Australia, for example, or making more than a fleeting appearance (at most) in subsequent surveys and histories of Australian literature (e.g. Kramer, Bennet & Strauss, Webby, Pierce 2009). (Exegesis Proposal)
In 1914, Roy’s novel, The Fugitive, was published in London, the first of many. His books were popular in Britain, and Americans compared him to Robert Louis Stevenson. Morris Miller described him as ‘the most outstanding novelist Tasmania has produced’. Roy published thirty-six books in all, making him the state’s most prolific novelist.
It was in this world [when Tasmanian was seen largely as a ‘little England’] that Roy and Hilda wrote, and their works bear the imprint of this ideal. Their stories have settings that are passive, sympathetic and remote. They feature characters who are middle-class, ’feminine’ and English-born. They are conventional romances couched in a cultured and conservative style. Their books are, in other words, ‘little English’ novels.
This was a major source of Roy and Hilda’s success. Their novels were popular largely because they seemed comfortingly familiar to British and Australian readers. As one English reviewer wrote of Roy in 1940, ‘It is good to find such a capable exponent of a type of fiction which has always been deservedly popular in this country.’ Writing about Roy in 1936, one Scottish reviewer commented that he ‘feels no urge to patronise the author as a “promising colonial writer”, but is willing to admit that he has treated a universal theme in a manner having a universal appeal’. In America, Roy was even compared to Robert Louis Stevenson, a leading exponent of the ‘English’ adventure tale.
Roy and Hilda’s literary fortunes declined rapidly after Roy’s death in 1952. Their novels fell from favour and were largely forgotten. Roy became little more than a footnote in Australian literary histories, while Hilda was overlooked completely. And yet other novels associated with Tasmania – those of Marcus Clarke and Nan Chauncy, for example – prospered. Why?
In the 1960s, literary tastes began to change, as a generation of neo-nationalists rose to prominence, opponents of the so-called ‘cultural cringe’. They preferred novels whose settings were active and immediate; whose characters were working-class and locally-born. They valued radicalism and realism, unconventional works like those of the temporary Tasmanian, Hal Porter. In this world, the ‘little English’ novels of Roy and Hilda were badly out of place, their ‘Tasmanian-ness’ being seen as a liability. Even now, this perception persists. The Australian Dictionary of Biography, for example, deems Roy’s novels to be sentimental, superficial and ‘mannered’ in style, while Hilda’s ‘light narratives’ are said to have ‘stereotyped’ characters. (Presentation)
Two [perceptions of Tasmania] 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 , And All That Beauty , Negrohead , Trinity , Cloud , Soul From Thy Sword  and The League of the Lord ), 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.
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” ), 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”). (Exegesis)
Roy and Hilda’s connection to Tasmania was strong; against their will it drew them back from the mainland and all but imprisoned them in a place infamous for its penitential past. And yet the island shaped more than just their personal lives. Tasmania and ‘Tasmanian-ness’ – people’s perceptions of Tasmania – would have a telling effect on their literary fortunes. (Presentation)
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.
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.”
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) (Exegesis)