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Mary Therese Vidal's novel Bengala: or, Some Time Ago was published in London in 1860 by John W. Parker and Son. The novel did not have the popular success of her first book, Tales for the Bush, a collection of moral tales which was first published in 1844, republished at least four times and translated into Dutch.note Nevertheless, it is one of the earliest novels written about Australia and represents the mature work of a writer who began her career with the humble aim of teaching domestic morality to convicts and servants. Although the didacticism of Tales for the Bush appealed to Vidal's mid-nineteenth century audience, Bengala, with its relaxed depiction of domestic life in pre-goldrush New South Wales (NSW), is more likely to interest modern-day readers.

Bengala is a rural domestic comedy, a genre familiar to Vidal's English contemporaries. But the novel's Australian setting provided her with opportunities to describe differences in landscape and social habit. As well, the conditions of convict life and the precarious financial position of many settlers during the 1840's bring more serious considerations into her story of love and marriage. Bengala ranges from light comedy to melodrama when these darker elements impinge on the lives at its centre.

In her dedication to Bengala, Vidal refers to ‘more recent and highly-coloured pictures of the same subject.’ She presumably had in mind Henry Kingsley's Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn which had been published the previous year by Macmillan with great commercial success, remaining continuously in print to the present day. Geoffry Hamlyn also deals with the lives of Australian squatters in the years before the goldrushes. But, where Kingsley offers his readers every kind of adventure possible in the Australian countryside—bushfires, attacks by Aborigines and bushrangers, the lost child—and a landscape replete with every geographical feature of the south-eastern area, from snow-capped mountains to the sea, Vidal confines herself to plausible events in the districts immediately south-west of Sydney. Her claim in her dedication that ‘life is the same in one hemisphere as in another’ announces a refusal to seek the exotic in Australian life merely to satisfy the fantasies of her readers. This decision may go some way to account for the relative lack of attention the novel has received, both on


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publication and since then. Victorian readers who sought Australian novels for their adventure may well have been disappointed by the domesticity of the novel, while its insistence that life in England and Australia was essentially similar has limited its interest for literary historians seeking a distinctively national Australian literary tradition.

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