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Reception

No English reviews of Bengala have been located, but a lengthy, unsigned review appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 August 1860 (p. 2). The reviewer noted Bengala's failings as an Australian romance:

though the external features are accurately given, and though there is little that can be considered improbable in the story, it does not breathe the spirit which pervades colonial life. It is rather a domestic story laid in Australia than a story founded upon incidents which are either peculiar to, or characteristic of, the Australian bush.

The review praised Vidal's characterisation of Isabel Lang but found the story of Father Mornay ‘a strange interlude ... not improbably brought in as an illustration of the practical evils of priestly celibacy.’ However, the Herald concluded that the novel's central concern was a warning against the kind of over-sensitivity displayed in the misunderstandings between Mr Herbert and Isabel, dismissing it as irrelevant to colonial life:

There is indeed much need of this counsel to warmhearted impulsive natures, with whom an imagined slight is sometimes sufficient to efface a long series of kindnesses. But in this sunny climate, and in the case of attachments that point to matrimony, there is, perhaps, comparatively little scope for the caution; and if any advice is needed in the matter, it might rather be directed to the suddenness with which engagements are made, and the haste with which they are consummated, than to the trivialness of the misunderstandings by which they are occasionally impeded. It is not generally the tendency of colonial life to develop those acute sensibilities which are said


  ― xxviii ―
to be more often the source of suffering than of enjoyment to their possessors, but to stimulate impulses that are warm and generous rather than fine and delicate. This beautiful story of ‘hopes and fears and gentle wishes, subdued and cherished long,’ will, perhaps, afford on that account a still more desirable lesson to Australian families; and, if not necessary as a warning, Bengala may be a useful model.

Since 1860, critical comments on Bengala have been confined mainly to literary histories. In his Australian Literature from its Beginnings (1940) E. Morris Miller commented:

This tale is cold, almost to the degree of austerity ... It is almost devoid of emotion. Even the heart-rending news of the murder of husband and father is received with the prosaic calm of a police department. The repression of the emotions turned some of the characters into intellectual automata?note

Frederick Macartney's 1956 revision of Morris Miller's book, Australian Literature, noted that the novel had additional interest to Tales for the Bush (which ‘has no significance apart from its connection with Australian literary beginnings’) in its depiction of ‘early settlement and social life in the locality where the author's husband had his extensive parish.’note

On the other hand, in 1950, Colin Roderick found the novel ‘lively and intelligent.’note H. M. Green was also sympathetic to Mary Vidal's work, admiring the construction of Tales for the Bush as well as the greater development of character in Bengala. In Bengala he found that ‘the moral and religious Victorianism in which the other books are wrapped, as with a damp cloth, is almost laid aside, and the author seems, on looking back, to get a much clearer view of the Australia and its white inhabitants than she then had had.’note Green could see the stirrings of Australianism, in some of the conversations in the novel but, in general, Bengala did little to satisfy his interest in the beginnings of a distinctively national literature.

In Australian Literature (1960), Cecil Hadgraft saw Bengala as an advance on Vidal's earlier Australian books ‘both in the case of narration and the capturing of characteristic dialogue’, and he concluded: ‘At last, after three almost unreadable chapters full of the worst Victorian rigmarole, she and Herbert marry. Almost the only living character in this volume is an old servant. It is remarkable what an ear the women novelists of the period had for the tone and idiom of


  ― xxix ―
those who worked for them’ (p. 17). Elsewhere in dictionaries of biography and commentaries on Australian literature, Bengala and Vidal's other Australian books are treated as being only of historical importance.

Many early writers of Australian literary history were intent on identifying a national tradition which emphasised the development of a naturally democratic Australian character formed as a response to conditions of life in the bush. Bengala transgresses this tradition by assuming that people in England and Australia are essentially the same, by dealing with the drawing room as much as the bush, by being set in the settled areas around Sydney rather than on the frontiers of British civilisation, and by being alert to the ambiguities of a class structure of convicts, servants and the wealthy without fundamentally questioning such a structure-thus denying the cherished notion of Australian equality. Insofar as the Australian tradition is one which prefers the peculiarly Australian and often masculine experience of the frontiers to a more circumscribed domestic sphere, novels such as Bengala have never been likely to fit the required mould. However, readers will find the novel is both a skilful initiation of themes which occupied later Australian novelists and an engaging narrative.

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