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Bengala: or, Some Time Ago

Bengala is not a novel about pioneers on the frontiers of civilisation. The characters in it are occupied in ordinary English tasks and pleasures, which are given a piquancy and excitement because they take place in a new country. Where other novels about the years before the goldrushes—Alexander Harris's The Emigrant Family: or The Story of an Australian Settler (1849) or Henry Kingsley's The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859)—stress the criminal and money-making opportunities in Australian life, Bengala deals with domestic morality. Vidal is interested in the moral temptations for law-abiding people, and she depicts characters behaving immorally rather than criminally—such as Mr Lang's unthinking cruelty to his convict Lynch, Mr Fitz's sexually exploitative behaviour and Mrs Vesey's social dishonesties. Her heroine, Isabel Lang, provides a model for the education of an Australian girl, and Vidal demonstrates through Isabel the development of a mature Christian woman from a good-hearted and spirited girl. This interest in the moral challenges to well-bred middle class women follows a familiar tradition of women's writing, and Mary Vidal's beginnings as a writer of moral tales is also within this tradition. It is difficult to ignore the similarity between the situation of the heroines in Jane Austen's Emma (1816) and Bengala. Like Emma


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Woodhouse, Isabel Lang is an indulged and ignorant girl who misunderstands the marital ambitions of those around her and, like Emma, she has the devotion of an older and wiser man who eventually marries her. As Vidal's dedicatory note suggests (p. 3), she is committed to a literary realism which, at least at the beginning of Bengala, is reminiscent of Jane Austen's work.

However, the realities of Australian colonial life ensure that the novel cannot remain within the closed rural society typically examined by Austen and, though Isabel's relationship with Mr Herbert remains the unifying element of the novel, Vidal also pursues broader social, economic and religious problems. Mr Lang's injustice to Jack Lynch demonstrates the possibilities for abuse of the system of private magistracy; the failure of the Bank of Australia and Lang's death force Isabel to take over the management of the family finances; and Father Mornay's presence reminds readers that, in the 1840s, less than half the Australian population was Anglican. The novel places these problems within a domestic perspective—Mr Lang's cruelty to his convict deeply concerns his loving daughter, the financial crash brings a complete reassessment of the Langs' way of life, and the priest brings Isabel her first close encounter with different religious commitments and with frustrated human passion.

Isabel's contact with the tragedies of others is an essential part of her education. Though Vidal appears to be at pains not to sensationalise life in Australia she cannot ignore the existence of the ‘deep and awful phases in life’ (p. 424) beyond the domestic circle of the gentry. While an Austenesque comic realism is appropriate to the earlier parts of the novel, these bleaker phases of life are rendered in a more exaggerated, melodramatic style.

Vidal's resistance to the sensational sometimes undercuts potentially exciting incidents in the novel, such as the visit to Langville by bushrangers in Volume 2, Chapter 3. Where another writer might have drained every drop of suspense and excitement out of the robbery, Vidal allows the whole event to take place offstage while Isabel and Miss Terry are walking in the garden with Mr Herbert and Mr Farrant. As a distracted Mrs Lang, with the help of her Irish servant, describes the bushrangers' raid Isabel cannot help being amused by their knowledge of women's finery; no real damage has been done and the potentially dangerous moment has been rendered ridiculous by Mrs Lang's response. Vidal also reminds us that bushrangers may, in fact, be murderers by giving Mr Herbert's account of another case.

In this novel, many of the events which are set-pieces of Australian


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adventure novels by Harris, Kingsley, Boldrewood and others, are rendered both more ordinary and more credible. There is speculation that Mr Lang has been murdered on the road to Sydney but he proves to have met a more mundane end; Jack Lynch hardly commits a crime as a bushranger, though this does not prevent him from meeting a bushranger's death; the familiar ‘lost in the bush’ motif is portrayed by the fate of Ellen Maclean but we are denied the conventional tale of an anxious search party and a pathetic discovery. Vidal gives her main characters mixed motives for their actions so that the more extreme events in the novel are given a psychological basis. Mr Lang is both warm-hearted and bad-tempered so that the evils he brings on Lynch result from an undisciplined rather than a wicked personality. Lynch has been embittered by experience and he, too, cannot control his passions. Father Mornay's actions stem from the loneliness he suffers as a celibate priest.

In some ways Vidal's preoccupations were typical of her period: for instance, in her emphasis on the role of women in the creation of a moral society. Isabel does her best to curb her father's passions and to direct him in sensible and just decision-making. Through the story of Lynch and Ellen, Vidal argues that marriage may soften even a hardened convict and give stability to a passionate girl. Father Mornay, too, might have had a happier end if he could have married. But Vidal also criticises the limitations on women's activities. Isabel longs to do the man's work of managing a farm rather than spend her time being allowed to 'make puddings and pastry, and stick on flounces, and make up bows, and trim aprons, and change our bonnet trimmings when we are at a standstill' (p. 199); and she proves a good manager when given the chance. But the only employment available to a girl of Isabel's class is as a governess, an occupation for which she has no talent at all.

On one matter of contemporary controversy Vidal expresses a clear opinion—clerical celibacy, an issue which marked the divisions between Catholics and Anglicans, and between Anglicans of High and Low Church allegiance. Catholic emancipation in 1829 had created fears of inroads into the power of the established Church in England.note These fears became more real with the emergence of the Oxford Movement in the 1830s and the conversion of one of the Movement's leaders, John Henry Newman, to Catholicism in 1845. By then there was a broad spectrum of religious opinion within the Anglican Church, from the Evangelicals who resisted all the papist trappings of religion, through the Broad Church which advocated both an active program


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of renewal and some tolerance of Catholicism, to the Tractarians who saw the Church of England as the apostolic inheritor of Catholicism. These various viewpoints were argued in novels written by religious partisans: Newman's Loss and Gain (1848) presented a Tractarian position, which was answered by Charles Kingsley's Hypatia (1853) in support of the Broad Church, answered in turn by Newman's Callista (1856) presenting his, by now, Catholic commitment. Vidal's minor participation in this debate might be compared with the work of her contemporary, Charlotte Yonge (1823-1901) whose writing she enjoyed ‘despite faults.’note Yonge, a friend of the leading Tractarian John Keble, began her career in the same year as Vidal with a didactic work, Abbeychurch; or Self-Control and Self-Conceit (1844), and achieved fame with novels such as The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), which presented the family (as opposed to the celibate priest) as the centre of Tractarian religious life.

This controversy, which was fuelled in Australia by fears that Irish immigration would soon swamp the country with Catholics, helps explain Father Mornay's appearance in the novel. Though at times mysterious and even sinister, Father Mornay is, for the most part portrayed with some sympathy. Mrs Lang's advice to her daughters early in the novel, that ‘it is hardly right or safe to be in the habit of alluding to a Catholic priest so lightly’ (p. 42) hints that her fears are to be regarded as comical. Vidal does not share Mrs Lang's instinctive anti-papism, but Father Mornay's fate on the other hand demonstrates the dangers of the celibacy enforced by Catholicism. Isabel declares, ‘O, I do think it is so wicked to forbid priests from marrying, if they wish it. Of course many must be wretchedly lonely, for it is not every one who is so very ambitious, or successful either’ (p. 346). Vidal comments: ‘She spoke in her frank, impulsive way, all her innate Protestantism urging her to pity the man, and consider him the victim of system’ (p. 346)—thus offering both a degree of sympathy for the Catholic priest and underlining the author's own Protestantism.

By the 1840s the Catholic Church in Australia had been supervised by the English Benedictine Congregation for twenty years, but the shortage of priests gradually forced the Benedictine bishop, John Bede Polding (1794-1877), to abandon the monastic Benedictine traditions and recruit secular priests from Ireland.note Although the Jesuits did not establish themselves in Australia until the middle of the nineteenth century, an English Jesuit priest, Charles Lovat (1799- 1858), arrived in Australia in 1837 to serve in a secular role. For a short time Lovat was the President and principal teacher at the Catholic seminary at


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St Mary's in Sydney until, after apparent disagreements over his teaching, he was sent to the Yass mission where he served from 1839 to 1848.note Lovat was well-known for the distances he covered on horseback in ministering to Catholics from Goulburn to Kiandra. He was also exceptionally well-educated and something of a scientist; he had studied in Rome where he was ordained. He was an unusual man to be working as a missionary in Australia where most Catholic priests were poorly educated Irishmen. As George Vidal's Berrima parish extended to Yass during the period that Lovat served there, it is likely that Mary Vidal knew about him.

If based on Lovat, Father Mornay also belongs to the tradition of the literary Jesuit which Robert Lee Wolff describes as the apex of Protestant anti-Catholic fears: ‘Jesuits lived under a discipline even more rigorous than the ordinary priests, were known to be particularly learned, were believed to be in constant mysterious contact with papal authorities, and stopped at nothing to carry out their dangerous missions, the very incarnation of the black-clad, sinister, sacerdotal enemy, who never walk but always glide.’note Father Mornay's mysterious comings and goings are consistent with the traditional literary figure. Ultimately, however, he is presented as pitiably human in his frustrated passion for Isabel.

Mary Vidal was openly Tractarian during the 1850s and her reference in Bengala to the Church of England as the ‘Reformed Church’ (p. 352) indicates that she saw it as the inheritor of the Catholic apostolic tradition. She probably sympathised with her brother-in-law, George Vidal, who, in 1868 as the parish priest of Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney, was embroiled in a controversy with the Evangelical members of his congregation.note Vidal erected a chancel monument which his parishioners regarded as papist. He subsequently published a sermon defending such ‘outward signs’ of religious feeling, only to be disciplined by his Bishop and forced to remove the monument.

It is one of the curiosities of Australian literary history that Charles Kingsley, one of the principal participants in the literary religious debate, was the brother of Henry Kingsley, the author of The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn. That novel depicts the ‘muscular Christian’ parson, Frank Maberly, who reflects Charles Kingsley's Broad Church attitudes, and elsewhere Henry Kingsley expressed strong anti-papist sentiments.note Mary Vidal's parson, Mr Farrant, does not share Maberly's enthusiasm for manly pursuits and is quite happy to spend time singing and talking to the women.

In its brief treatment of Catholicism and the celibacy question,


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Bengala inhabits a context of English literary discussion of the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, just as its domestic moral realism puts it in the tradition of women's writing modelled on Jane Austen. In terms of Australian nineteenth century writing, Bengala might also be compared with Catherine Helen Spence's Clara Morison (1854) which set its sights firmly on the moral education of women and on domestic life in Australia. Spence was an avid admirer of Jane Austen, and Clara Morison does not move beyond the domestic world which Spence knew at first hand. In 1856, the critic Frederick Sinnett praised Clara Morison for its lack of self-conscious Australianism:

The novel is no more Australian than results from the fact that the author, having been resident in Australia, having a gift for novel writing, and writing about what she knew best, unavoidably wrote an Australian novel ... She has merely illustrated Australian life insensibly in the process of illustrating human life?note

This comment might also be made of Bengala; despite its many passing descriptions of bird and plant life, and its detailed information about the arrangements of colonial homesteads, it shares with Clara Morison the proposition that Australian life is essentially the same as English life. Joseph Furphy is the best-known critic of Geoffry Hamlyn and the kind of exotic Australian adventure it represents, but both Catherine Helen Spence and Mary Theresa Vidal attempted to offer more realistic portrayals of Australian life long before Furphy wrote Such is Life (published 1903).

Bengala nevertheless moves beyond the bounds of domestic social comedy into subjects and styles which suggest a less manageable world. In the early parts of the novel Vidal displays a confident control in her depiction of genteel social behaviour; however, her interest in the servant and convict class forces her to write about people and behaviour which do not fit a middle class domestic genre. Despite Vidal's declaration about the similarities between English and Australian life, the peculiar conditions of Australian life in the 1840s push her from one very controlled genre to more exaggerated kinds of writing. Bengala does not sit easily within the conventions of Austenesque realism, colonial romance nor melodrama, though it has elements of all three; and it links contemporary English literary, moral and religious debates with social life in Australia during the short period when hopes were entertained for the creation of a colony fit for English ladies and gentlemen.

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