Luke Mivers' Harvest

Luke Mivers' Harvest is a tightly constructed work of fiction — its symmetry and design so elaborately calculated, indeed, as to risk the appearance of artifice. Swan certainly knew how to take full advantage of the story's original publication in twenty weekly instalments: the episodes regularly conclude at moments of high suspense or powerful emotion, the chief settings provide variety and regional interest, the interplay of characters moves steadily towards a grand climactic dénouement. Yet the work also displays structural elements not to be accounted for by the circumstances in which it originally appeared.

Basically, Swan's novel is one of revenge veering towards a tragic ending, from which it is saved by the redeeming power of romantic love. The revenge motif (deeply important to Swan) is here worked out in the intersecting fortunes of three families and two generations. The mutual but covert hatred of two strong-willed men is projected down the years onto the lives of their children, who finally, but not without their share of tragedy, break free of the control of their fathers. While the reciprocal love of a young man and a young woman ultimately steers the action towards a buoyant conclusion, along the way the plot is forced into many complications by the active intervention of Swan's version of the doppelgänger theme. The warped, vengeful Shorter is arguably the dark alter ego of Luke Mivers snr, against whom all his hatred is directed. Margaret Shorter and Helen Mivers may be read as the obverse and reverse sides of the same nineteenth century (male) notion of female sexuality — the one a destroyer of masculine pride and integrity, the other an idealised figure to be won only after being tested in the fires of self-control and self-sacrifice. Most explicitly of all, Luke Mivers jnr and Bryan Fitzgerald, their physical similarities stressed at several key points in the action,note are shown in the plot's resolution to be indeed half-brothers.

The presence of this doppelgänger imagery facilitates Swan's demonstration of one of the chief moral themes of Luke Mivers' Harvest — that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. The revenge motif is driven towards its culmination by two further ideas, both personally dear to Swan and endemic in late nineteenth century English culture. In that age of rampant money grubbing, the morality so clearly voiced in the novel's implicit motto — ‘Money is the root of all evil’ — had a specially pointed appeal and application. It was a morality which Swan plainly endeavoured to follow in his own life and to adduce in his judgment of others. He applied it directly to the characters of his most important work of fiction. At the same time, among the deepest of its motivating emotions was (again a psychological phenomenon dear to the nineteenth century) an idealised mother love. That Swan was born of Irish parents and, through his marriage, acquired a particular need to win the approval of a Catholic family may well be germane here. In any case, Luke Mivers' Harvest, in its portrayal of Mrs Fitzgerald and her son Bryan, is unequivocal in its endorsement of the absolute love and loyalty to be commanded by an Irish mother of her son. In the case of the ex-convict Wolf Brown, that endorsement is extended even to fidelity to a surrogate mother.

The primal source, however, of Swan's fascination with feelings of love and hate too strong to bend before compassion or circumstance was probably rooted in the popular traditions of the Northern Ireland where he grew up. A recollection of those traditions by Charles Gavan Duffy in his My Life in Two Hemispheres delineates the cultural environment that the young Swan would have experienced:

The Presbyterian planters from whom my schoolfellows were descended preserved to an amazing degree the characteristics of their Scottish ancestors. They were thrifty, industrious, and parsimonious, and sometimes spoke a language worthy of Dumfriesshire . . . The few books which circulated among them were steeped in the bitterness of hereditary feuds. I remember being horror-struck by a copy of "Fox's Book of Martyrs," with illustrations fit to poison the spirit of a community for a century. Men reared for the liberal professions might in time outlive these prejudices, but with the poor and ignorant time only deepens them.note

Whatever the psychological origins of Luke Mivers' Harvest, there can be no doubt that its principal settings represent versions of some of the scenes and places with which Swan had become familiar in his nearly twenty years of colonial experience. The township of Narrgummie, for instance, bears some resemblance to Chiltern in that north-eastern area of Victoria which had been his goal after first reaching Melbourne.note The combination of pastoral savannah and rugged mountains in the vicinity of Narrgummie could have been suggested by the landscapes of the Ararat-Stawell district and westward to the Grampians; the rolling hills and valleys surrounding Dead Man's Gully may have been derived from memories of the region around Beechworth and the Buckland where Swan had panned for gold. The health-giving springs of Mindorf recall Daylesford and Hepburn Spa (close to the site of the Jim Crow rush in which Swan probably took part), while the maritime terraces and ocean frontages of that imaginary health resort conjure up images of the Portland where his brother-in-law served from 1859 to 1868.

The travelling times and distances from Melbourne that Swan's text postulates clearly indicate that the map of Luke Mivers' Harvest is a product of Swan's geographic imagination in which those aspects of Victoria which the novelist knew well were re-arranged in accordance with the needs of his narrative. For the sections of the novel set near the Palmer River rush, in Brisbane, and at other locations in Queensland, Swan probably had to rely on second-hand accounts which reached him either in conversation, by letter, or in print.

Against a background of representative colonial milieux — town and country, hamlet and metropolis, squatter's homestead and miner's hut — Swan wove a plot which incorporates an almost full quota of those episodes, characters, and sentiments now normally thought of as the stock-in-trade of the colonial literary imagination: a horse race, a cattle stampede, a bushfire; an arrogant squatter, a sinister Chinese, an ex-convict with a mysterious past; a child lost in the bush, a discovery of gold, a fight with Aborigines, a secret valley; young love, disguise and mistaken identity, hate and high morality, faithful service and a corrupting lust for wealth and power. Friend, associate, and competitor of many who helped to create that stock-in-trade — Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon, G. G. McCrae, Henry Kingsley, Kendall — Swan must be allowed some claim to be an initiator as much as an imitator, to be among the founders of a tradition central to the development of Australian literary culture.

It would be foolish to claim for Swan a paramount role in establishing that tradition. He did, nevertheless, strive to give serious expression to ideas, subjects, attitudes which were fresh and important to him and his contemporaries. His striving may not have produced the unrepeatable style of the great novelist, yet he did achieve a recognisably personal manner, blending his own sensibility with the larger visions of the artists and master works he most admired.

Among these, not surprisingly, was the Bible. The range of scriptural allusion in Luke Mivers' Harvest is comparable with that of any reasonably well-educated Briton of his generation, especially one who chose journalism as his trade.note In the same way, the novel reveals an acquaintance with a number of the well known authors and texts of the English literary tradition. Swan appealed to their authority, again like so many Britons of his time, to authenticate his own feelings, responses, judgments. Inevitably, a central figure in Swan's cultural pantheon was Shakespeare, who is the source of many of the quotations and allusions in Luke Mivers' Harvest. Yet the dominant influence, providing not only specific reference points but a whole array of techniques and attitudes, was Charles Dickens — the writer whose hypnotic force had been so closely brought home to him by Henry Jerrold during his days on the Ararat Advertiser.

In particular, there are tricks of characterisation and effects of scene and décor which Swan patently took over from the English master. At the centre of his own novel is an idealised young couple, of great physical beauty and moral probity, who are kept apart through most of its action by a mixture of chance and the complicity of an older generation. The chief figures of that older generation are given a more robust characterisation than that afforded the impossibly virtuous, somewhat pallid young lovers. Shorter, for instance, and Luke Mivers snr are both very much villains cast in the Dickensian mould. Their moral qualities and obsessive lives are presented with the same grotesquerie as their physical appearance.

Swan's debt to Dickens is no less in his treatment of landscape than in his representation of character. In particular, he regularly employs the Dickensian habit of inventing backgrounds of weather and topo-graphy whose features mirror and intensify the human emotions generated by the narrative. The climactic scenes of Luke Mivers' Harvest undeviatingly take place to the accompaniment of thunder, lightning, rain, or whatever natural phenomena Swan deemed appropriate to the action. They rely heavily, furthermore, on some rather melodramatic chiaroscuro effects. Flickering candles, faces catching the light and shade of a log fire, figures silhouetted against lurid sheets of lightning: such effects, frequent in Luke Mivers' Harvest, plainly satisfied something in Swan's imagination far more personal than technical admiration for another writer.

The novel is saved from too great a tendency towards melodrama by at least two other features of Swan's prose, both of which he had gone some way towards mastering in his work prior to 1878. In the first place, he had developed quite an acute ear for the Australian vernacular, which is incorporated convincingly into the dialogue of Luke Mivers' Harvest and, to a lesser extent, in its reported narrative. At the same time Swan also had a sharp eye for many of the small physical details which defined the quality of colonial life throughout its social and economic strata. The pattern of a wallpaper, the cut of a coat, the choice of a drink, the ingredients of a meal — the extent and accuracy of Swan's observation of such matters constitute one of the impressive features of Luke Mivers' Harvest.

That kind of observation and understanding, allied with Swan's distaste for a vulgar consumption ethic, produces the most consistent and effective satire he ever created. While the pretensions of Mindorf offer Swan his greatest opportunities in this respect, virtually no social setting in Luke Mivers' Harvest is outside his satiric register. His talent for sharp social comedy is here integrated, as nowhere else in his canon, with the tragic potentialities of the revenge motif and the rosier hues of romantic love.

Luke Mivers' Harvest, that is to say, combines the best of Swan's native talent with the fruits of a twenty-year informal education begun when, turning his back on institutional study, he set out for a new life on the other side of the world. The lessons that Swan had learned from his colonial experience — at the gold rushes, on the land, in the community life of pioneering settlements, and in the exigencies of a provincial press — do not always coincide with those that characterise the fiction of other contemporary writers of comparable background. From his adventures on the diggings he distilled a fastidiousness of taste and behaviour closer to Richard Mahony's sensitive spirit than the robust and sometimes crude mateship so often the literary outcome of life on the goldfields. Yet Luke Mivers' Harvest does not reject the democratic possibilities of nineteenth century Australia out of hand. As the editor of a small town newspaper Swan had better opportunities than most for penetrating the intricate and subtle relationships on which such societies were founded; if he deplored anything that might threaten their cohesion, he celebrated in his prose all which might make for their integrity and advancement. Underneath its melodrama the novel steadily endorses the value of human community just as it rejects those forces which make for social disintegration.

If the melodramatic action of Luke Mivers' Harvest rests on the foundation of an independent, decent, yet discerning appreciation of colonial society, that action in itself is the vehicle for two of the strongest motifs of Swan's imagination. The long sustained recital of coincidence, hate, revenge, retribution, and love becomes, in the first place, a singularly apt medium for Swan's perception of the implacable power of the human will when set on a course of either self-realisation or self-destruction. In a sense supported by the very title of the work, Luke Mivers snr and old Shorter dominate and control most of the narrative; their obsessive determination to destroy is met and matched only by the tenacity of the ex-convict Wolf Brown, is defeated only by the indestructible love of Bryan Fitzgerald and Helen Mivers. The opposing impulses of destruction and creation are exactly balanced in the tragic careers of Luke Mivers jnr and Margaret Shorter. Swan may have parted company with his contemporaries in wringing from his Australian experience the need for a certain refinement of behaviour rather than a total commitment to camaraderie; nevertheless, he found, as had his friend Marcus Clarke, that the impetuous careers fostered by colonial circumstance had in them rich possibilities for allegory.

The overwrought plotting which grew out of Swan's sense of human behaviour also served a religious sense more personal than conventional piety. Though bound by ties of kin and marriage to both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Swan's deeper reverence seems to have been for the divinity that he perceived in the natural world. He saw not only the unique elements of Australian flora, the unrepeatable combinations of antipodean land and sky; he also saw, or believed he saw, the manifestations of a divine power working ultimately for the good of mankind. Within all the sentimentality, all the clearcut representations of virtue and vice which spoke so readily to the popular taste of the day, there resides at the heart of the novel a small uncorrupted core of creative vision and integrity. Luke Mivers' Harvest matters because, in the welter of chance and opportunity offered by nineteenth century Victoria, Swan would not be seduced into the dogmas of either conservatism or reform, but travelled the narrow path of independence laid out for him by native talent, by hard won literary skills, by insights and values slowly distilled from experience.