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Life

Mary Theresa Vidal spent five years in Australia: from 1840 to 1845. She was born in 1815, the first child of Charles William and Theresa Johnson (née Furse) who had made sufficient money in India to retire to the village of Torrington in Devonshire. She had three sisters and two brothers one of whom, Charles Wellington Johnson (later called Furse) became Archdeacon of Westminster while the other, William Johnson (later, Cory), a poet, became one of Eton's most famous teachers (he wrote the Eton Boating Song). In 1835, Mary Theresa married Francis Vidal (1805-84), the local curate. Her granddaughter, the writer Faith Compton MacKenzie (1882-1960), records that Francis Vidal, born in Jamaica to a family of sugar plantation owners, had been brought up with extravagant tastes. He was ‘sent to Eton with the largest pocket-money allowance ever known to a boy’ and, when the Vidal fortunes failed, he chose the Church as the ‘most gentlemanly and least exacting occupation that presented itself.’note After his marriage Francis was appointed chaplain to Exeter Gaol where, MacKenzie claims, he tried unsuccessfully to save the life of a condemned man whom he believed to be innocent, suffering some kind of nervous breakdown as a consequence. However, Arthur Wilcox Manning, who travelled to Australia with the Vidals, notes in his journal only that Francis Vidal suffered from a throat condition as a result of the damp conditions at Exeter.note Whatever his symptoms, the healthy Australian climate may have been one reason to emigrate.

But there were other inducements. The 1830s were a boom period for settlers in south-eastern Australia and there was the prospect of setting up as a farming clergyman. In September 1840 a Francis Vidal of Melbourne was granted the deeds to 93 acres of land along the Yarra River; if this was the same Francis Vidal, he may have hoped to become a wealthy farmer rather than a bush parson.note At the time, the Bishop of Australia, William Grant Broughton (1788-1853), was energetically recruiting Anglican clergymen for pastoral work in the colony, and the colonial government was prepared to pay passage money and an


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annual fee to immigrating clergy. Bishop Broughton had friends at Eton who acted as his agents in recruiting new clergymen and the Vidals' connection with Eton would have made Australia a logical option.note

Mary and Francis, with their three sons (aged six months, two and four years old) and Francis's brother George, arrived in Sydney on the Earl Grey on 25 February 1840.note George (1815-78) was ordained by Bishop Broughton in 1841 and appointed to the large parish of Berrima and Sutton Forest. Throughout 1840 and 1841 Francis Vidal performed parish duties at Penrith and South Creek (now the Sydney suburb of St Mary's) and the Vidals' fourth child and only daughter, Elizabeth (‘Lily’), was born on 22 March 1841 at Minchinbury in the Penrith parish.note During 1842 Francis Vidal's church duties were apparently limited to occasional services in his brother's parish of Berrima and Sutton Forest, and by 1843 the family were living in Balmain, a few kilometres from the centre of Sydney, where their fifth child, Robert Wellington, was born on 19 February 1843.note Although in January 1845, at the time of its consecration, Francis Vidal was the parish priest at St Mary the Virgin at Denharn Court near Ingleburn,note within months the family returned to England. MacKenzie claims that Francis had promised his wife's family that they would return after five years,note but the depressed economic conditions in Australia probably played some part in the decision. Francis Vidal held a substantial share in the Bank of Australia which failed in 1843, and family letters indicate that their Australian experience was a financial disaster.note

Mary Vidal's experiences as a clergyman's wife at Penrith, Minchinbury and Denham Court, with possible visits to her brother-in-law's parish further south of Sydney, provided her with some of the material for Bengala. In 1836 Governor Bourke had introduced a Church Act which effectively disestablished the Church of England by putting all religious denominations on an equal footing with regard to government funding. Provided a clergyman or parishioner could gather sufficient names of church members and pledges of financial support he could apply for government assistance to build a church. Presumably, Francis Vidal would have gone through this process at Denham Court, just as, in the novel, Mr Budd has done for the church at Bengala and Father Mornay intends to do for the Catholics in the area.

Genteel society in NSW during the 1830s and 1840s was as closeknit as it is depicted in the novel, with landed families forming a chain of social contacts and marriages. During the time the Vidals were at


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Denham Court, for example, they probably would have mixed with the Blomfield family who lived at the house called Denharn Court, which had been built in the early 1830s by Christiana Blomfield's father, Captain Richard Brooks.note Through her sisters' marriages and her own marriage, Christiana Blomfield was related to landowners throughout south-eastern NSW. These families were the landed gentry of colonial society, and Mary Vidal's depiction of their social life was undoubtedly based on participation in it.

Family stories about the Vidals' period in Australia, told by MacKenzie, are less credible than events in the novel. One of these stories has Mary Vidal playing Mozart on the piano while the men are out with the cattle. She looks up to find the room filled with Aborigines with apparently sinister intent but mesmerised by the music. She supposedly played on, working through her entire repertoire until the men returned and the Aborigines could be led out onto the lawn. MacKenzie claims, ‘They looked upon her as a supernatural being, and were from that moment perfectly harmless.’note In the novel, however, Aborigines appear directly only once.

Another family story describes Francis Vidal's encounter with the bushranger, Jacky-Jacky, during which Francis is said to have given the bushranger a lecture on the evils of stealing, particularly from parsons. The superstitious Jacky-Jacky returned Vidal's money but did not reform. In fact William Westwood, the bushranger known as Jacky-Jacky, was at large in the district from Queanbeyan to Sydney during 1840 and 1841; he was famed for his gentlemanly manners and refined speech, and a story about Governor Gipps's encounter with him, similar to that about Francis Vidal, appears in bushranging histories.note Whether or not the stories about the Vidals' experiences are true, there can be little doubt that Mary Vidal could base her accounts of bushrangers in the novel on events in her own district: Westwood's former partner, Paddy Curran, was robbing, raping and murdering in the Goulburn and Berrima district until caught in late 1841; a rapist and callous mass murderer called John Lynch was hanged at Berrima in April 1842; and in January 1843 two armed and masked men robbed George Vidal at his residence in Berrima.note The convicts and bushrangers in the novel appear to be less dangerous people than those recorded by history; in particular, Jack Lynch, the convict who turns bushranger in Bengala, is much gentler than his namesake.

During the period in which the Vidals found themselves in NSW the colony was in crisis. The heavy droughts of 1839 and 1840, together with the end of transportation in 1840, had changed the previously


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lucrative pastoral industry into a means of bare survival. The pages of the Sydney Morning Herald during the early 1840s list regular insolvency cases in the courts, and many prominent graziers suffered the shame of bankruptcy. The end of the supply of convict labour meant that Irish Catholic immigrants were becoming the principal source of labour, and those who had hoped to build a society on established English values feared that papist attitudes would undermine their achievements. The dream of a colonial society which echoed the best of English county behaviour was disappearing as the economy declined; with the goldrushes of the 1850s it was lost forever. Bengala accurately depicts the economic crisis and the related concerns of the colonial gentry about the social future of NSW. In particular, the title's reference to Some Time Ago and Vidal's mention of ‘the golden prospect of the Present’ in her dedication suggest her awareness that the novel recreates a society which had vanished by 1860.

In 1845 the Vidals left for England and, in September of that year, Mary went to Eton to help her younger brother, the teacher and poet William Johnson Cory (1823-92), establish a boarding house there.note Francis Vidal became a tutor at Eton, taking over William's house in 1851. As well as writing moral tales and novels, Mary Vidal evidently translated for publishers and took a greater share than her husband in the management of the Eton house;note one incentive for writing appears to have been the need to support the family after their financial losses in Australia. Though Francis Vidal was remembered by his grandchildren for a casual attitude to his vocation, the Vidals were the epitome of a middle-class Victorian Anglican family with two sons, Furse and Wellington, taking holy orders, two, John and Charles, joining the Royal Navy, George joining the Indian Civil Service and Leonard the Indian Army. ‘Lily’ married Edward Stone, an Eton master, who later founded Stonehouse as a school based on more liberal principles than those of Eton.note

After the birth of her second child Mary Vidal suffered from a painful nervous condition, tic douloureux, which became increasingly serious, and in the latter part of her life she took several trips with her husband to Europe for her health. Apparently she was frequently ill, and she died of meningitis in November 1873 at Sutton in Suffolk, where Vidal had become vicar.note

After recording Vidal's activities as a writer and illustrator of stories for her children, and her successful efforts to convince her daughter and Edward Stone to marry, MacKenzie comments that ‘There was little that Grandmother Vidal could not do if she tried.’note Her achieve


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ments as the author of eleven books, mother of seven children and ‘Dame’ of an Eton house confirm this opinion of her.

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