no previous
no next

  ― xiii ―

Editor's Introduction

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

  ― xiv ―
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.


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

  ― xv ―
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

  ― xvi ―
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

  ― xvii ―
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

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

Literary Career

Mary Vidal's career as a writer sprang initially from her duties as an Anglican minister's wife in Australia. Her first work, Tales for the Bush, was published in Sydney by D. L. Welch in 1844 as a series of eight, sixpenny monthly parts. Each tale teaches a specific moral lesson, such as the importance of Sunday observance, the need for honesty in small matters as well as large, care in dress and language in order to lessen the indignities of poverty and, most of all, trust in God. Hannah More (1745-1834) was the most widely-read writer of such tales, but the genre was popular in England throughout the nineteenth century.

The tales are less interesting for their earnest moral lessons than for their depiction of the domestic life of convicts and servants in NSW in the early 1840s. Unlike most of the novels set in this period, Vidal's tales concentrate on the everyday aspects of convict life and the relationship between masters and servants. Whether or not the tales were read by their intended audience of convicts and servants, such people play the principal parts in them. In ‘Marion Martin’ a spirited currency lass is taught a scrupulous concern for property by her mistress. In ‘Ruth Walsh’, Vidal praises the modesty and neatness of an immigrant girl whose brother, by contrast, is led astray by the criminal elements in NSW society. ‘Susan's Dream’ prefigures some of the incidents in Henry Lawson's and Barbara Baynton's stories of poor selectors, and ‘The Little Cousins’ and ‘The Cousins Grown Up’ provide a striking contrast between the lives of a successful girl in England and her poor cousin in Australia.

Although the tales offer a morality which now seems trivial and a tone which is sometimes laughably prim, they are well-constructed and do not romanticise the opportunities or evils of Australian life. They are also unsentimental about the relationships between men and women, with their heroines often refusing or being denied marriage—the traditional literary reward for female good behaviour.

In the twentieth century Tales for the Bush has been read most often by literary historians and bibliographers who seek it out because it is probably the first book of short stories published in Australia and the second work of fiction by a woman (Anna Maria Bunn's The Guardian, 1838, Sydney, is the first). Most of these readers have been

  ― xix ―
repelled by the tales and some have dismissed Vidal as a narrow-minded and rather humourless sermoniser. Nevertheless, H. M. Green noted the careful construction of the Tales and their absence of sentimentality, and Cecil Hadgraft admitted grudgingly that Vidal ‘has an eye for detail, she knows the bush, she can give us the feel of an area or time; but the reader is constantly harassed by the feeling that Vidal may have him in mind as a brand to be plucked from the burning.’note

Vidal's second book of moral tales, Esther Merle and Other Tales (1847), creates more complex moral situations. Two of the stories, ‘John Salter’ and ‘The Orphan or The Straight Road the Best’, offer unusual insights into the lives of servants in early Victorian England. John Salter is a handsome country lad who works as a groom for a wealthy city couple. Soon tempted to join other wayward servants in gambling, drunkenness and debauchery while the master is away, he seduces a lonely servant girl who is tried and transported for receiving stolen goods from him, and the story ends with his suicide. In ‘The Orphan’, Anne, the orphan of the title, joins her fellow servants in climbing out the window at night to attend a servants' ball in the local village. They hire ball-dresses from a travelling entrepreneur and, after drinking at the ball, the men set fire to the haystacks of a disliked farmer. As well as providing a moral dilemma for Anne—should she confess what she has seen and risk sending men to prison?—Vidal portrays servants as having a full range of appetites and temptations. Her attitudes may be class-bound but she does not pretend that the middle and upper classes are the only people with interesting moral problems to solve and, therefore, the only subjects worthy of fictional attention. This interest in the servant class and the working class is apparent in all of her fiction.

By the time she wrote her second Australian book, The Cabramatta Store (1850), Vidal was no longer simply a teller of moral tales. MacKenzie argues that the success of Tales for the Bush gave Vidal the confidence to write fiction without the justification of simple didacticism.note The Cabramatta Store takes up some of the situations and moral dilemmas in the Tales, but Vidal does not intrude to instruct the reader.

Most of Vidal's other books retain elements of the moral fable. Lucy Helmore, for example, is a heart-rending tale of an English child's sufferings through poverty, which poses the impassioned question: ‘When will masters and parents learn that cruel scourgings and hard words are the cause of half the wickedness in this land, driving children

  ― xx ―
from the shelter of home into haunts of vice?’note In this book, in Ellen Raymond: or Ups and Downs (1859), and in Deb Clinton; the Smuggler's Daughter (1866), Vidal portrays the effects of a father's cruelty and immorality on his daughter.

Of Vidal's eleven books, three novels—Florence Templar: or My Aunt's Story (1856), Ellen Raymond and Bengala—demonstrate a degree of complexity far beyond the aspirations of the moral tale. Florence Templar examines the disparity between appearance and virtue among the gentry in an English country village, while Ellen Raymond follows the fortunes of an impetuous and passionate woman whose reputation has been destroyed forever by her attempt, as a schoolgirl, to elope with her music teacher. The latter novel delineates with sharp clarity the power relations in family life, particularly between husbands and wives, and fathers and daughters; but despite its impressive qualities as a novel, it has received no attention from critics. If Vidal had not written about Australia in three of her books, she might have been lost to literary history entirely.

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

  ― xxi ―
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

  ― xxii ―
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

  ― xxiii ―
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

  ― xxiv ―
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,

  ― xxv ―
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.

  ― xxvi ―


Bengala was published in a two-volume format by John W. Parker and Son of London and never re-published. Parker was printer for Cambridge University Press and official publisher for the Christian Knowledge Society, the company's standard works being Bibles, testaments and books of common prayer. But the firm also published Fraser's Magazine and included among its authors John Stuart Mill, George Henry Lewes, Charles Kingsley and Charlotte Yonge, so its program embraced atheist, agnostic, Broad Church and Tractarian writings.

In her autobiography, Catherine Helen Spence recalls that Parker agreed to publish her first novel, Clara Morison, after it had been rejected by Smith Elder, and that she had been forced to abridge the novel to meet the requirements of the two-volume series; Parker paid Spence £40 for the manuscript and then charged her £10 for the abridgement.note Presumably, Vidal would have been paid a similar amount for Bengala which was also part of this two-volume series, as were Charlotte Yonge's popular The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), her The Daisy Chain (1856), and Charles Kingsley's Hypatia (1853). As the two novels Vidal published before Bengala, Florence Templar (1856) and Ellen Raymond (1859) were both published by the prestigious firm, Smith Elder, the manuscript of Bengala may have followed a similar path to Spence's Clara Morison. Bengala was well-suited to a publishing program which included religious fiction as well as Spence's depiction of domestic life in the colony of South Australia.

In 1860 John Parker junior, who had sponsored Fraser's Magazine and the intellectual interests of the firm, died; in 1863, his father sold the firm to Longmans. The lack of critical attention given to Bengala may have been partly due to the death of the firm's more active partner in the year of publication. Certainly, Vidal's later books were published by less significant publishers, Deb Clinton being published in an illustrated edition recommended for church prizes.

No manuscript or proofs of the novel have been located. The text of this edition is an exact copy of the Parker text except that inverted commas, which appear in double but predominantly single form, have been standardised as single in this edition. In its original form the novel ran to 317 pages for volume one and 298 pages for volume two; resetting for a one-volume format has entailed different (and also continuous as opposed to Parker's separate) pagination. Some contextual signals

  ― xxvii ―
available to Vidal's contemporary readership have thus been removed, but facsimiles of the original title pages are provided at the appropriate places, and Parker's typographic design is followed as closely as practicable.

Inconsistencies in spelling have been allowed to stand where precedent has been found, but proper nouns have been made consistent (except when variant spellings were normal, e.g. ‘Woolongong’ and ‘Paramatta’); and obvious compositorial errors have been corrected. All alterations are noted in the List of Editor's Emendations.


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.


  ― xxx ―

  ― xxxi ―
no previous
no next