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Literary Career

Mary Vidal's career as a writer sprang initially from her duties as an Anglican minister's wife in Australia. Her first work, Tales for the Bush, was published in Sydney by D. L. Welch in 1844 as a series of eight, sixpenny monthly parts. Each tale teaches a specific moral lesson, such as the importance of Sunday observance, the need for honesty in small matters as well as large, care in dress and language in order to lessen the indignities of poverty and, most of all, trust in God. Hannah More (1745-1834) was the most widely-read writer of such tales, but the genre was popular in England throughout the nineteenth century.

The tales are less interesting for their earnest moral lessons than for their depiction of the domestic life of convicts and servants in NSW in the early 1840s. Unlike most of the novels set in this period, Vidal's tales concentrate on the everyday aspects of convict life and the relationship between masters and servants. Whether or not the tales were read by their intended audience of convicts and servants, such people play the principal parts in them. In ‘Marion Martin’ a spirited currency lass is taught a scrupulous concern for property by her mistress. In ‘Ruth Walsh’, Vidal praises the modesty and neatness of an immigrant girl whose brother, by contrast, is led astray by the criminal elements in NSW society. ‘Susan's Dream’ prefigures some of the incidents in Henry Lawson's and Barbara Baynton's stories of poor selectors, and ‘The Little Cousins’ and ‘The Cousins Grown Up’ provide a striking contrast between the lives of a successful girl in England and her poor cousin in Australia.

Although the tales offer a morality which now seems trivial and a tone which is sometimes laughably prim, they are well-constructed and do not romanticise the opportunities or evils of Australian life. They are also unsentimental about the relationships between men and women, with their heroines often refusing or being denied marriage—the traditional literary reward for female good behaviour.

In the twentieth century Tales for the Bush has been read most often by literary historians and bibliographers who seek it out because it is probably the first book of short stories published in Australia and the second work of fiction by a woman (Anna Maria Bunn's The Guardian, 1838, Sydney, is the first). Most of these readers have been


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repelled by the tales and some have dismissed Vidal as a narrow-minded and rather humourless sermoniser. Nevertheless, H. M. Green noted the careful construction of the Tales and their absence of sentimentality, and Cecil Hadgraft admitted grudgingly that Vidal ‘has an eye for detail, she knows the bush, she can give us the feel of an area or time; but the reader is constantly harassed by the feeling that Vidal may have him in mind as a brand to be plucked from the burning.’note

Vidal's second book of moral tales, Esther Merle and Other Tales (1847), creates more complex moral situations. Two of the stories, ‘John Salter’ and ‘The Orphan or The Straight Road the Best’, offer unusual insights into the lives of servants in early Victorian England. John Salter is a handsome country lad who works as a groom for a wealthy city couple. Soon tempted to join other wayward servants in gambling, drunkenness and debauchery while the master is away, he seduces a lonely servant girl who is tried and transported for receiving stolen goods from him, and the story ends with his suicide. In ‘The Orphan’, Anne, the orphan of the title, joins her fellow servants in climbing out the window at night to attend a servants' ball in the local village. They hire ball-dresses from a travelling entrepreneur and, after drinking at the ball, the men set fire to the haystacks of a disliked farmer. As well as providing a moral dilemma for Anne—should she confess what she has seen and risk sending men to prison?—Vidal portrays servants as having a full range of appetites and temptations. Her attitudes may be class-bound but she does not pretend that the middle and upper classes are the only people with interesting moral problems to solve and, therefore, the only subjects worthy of fictional attention. This interest in the servant class and the working class is apparent in all of her fiction.

By the time she wrote her second Australian book, The Cabramatta Store (1850), Vidal was no longer simply a teller of moral tales. MacKenzie argues that the success of Tales for the Bush gave Vidal the confidence to write fiction without the justification of simple didacticism.note The Cabramatta Store takes up some of the situations and moral dilemmas in the Tales, but Vidal does not intrude to instruct the reader.

Most of Vidal's other books retain elements of the moral fable. Lucy Helmore, for example, is a heart-rending tale of an English child's sufferings through poverty, which poses the impassioned question: ‘When will masters and parents learn that cruel scourgings and hard words are the cause of half the wickedness in this land, driving children


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from the shelter of home into haunts of vice?’note In this book, in Ellen Raymond: or Ups and Downs (1859), and in Deb Clinton; the Smuggler's Daughter (1866), Vidal portrays the effects of a father's cruelty and immorality on his daughter.

Of Vidal's eleven books, three novels—Florence Templar: or My Aunt's Story (1856), Ellen Raymond and Bengala—demonstrate a degree of complexity far beyond the aspirations of the moral tale. Florence Templar examines the disparity between appearance and virtue among the gentry in an English country village, while Ellen Raymond follows the fortunes of an impetuous and passionate woman whose reputation has been destroyed forever by her attempt, as a schoolgirl, to elope with her music teacher. The latter novel delineates with sharp clarity the power relations in family life, particularly between husbands and wives, and fathers and daughters; but despite its impressive qualities as a novel, it has received no attention from critics. If Vidal had not written about Australia in three of her books, she might have been lost to literary history entirely.

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