I have to confess I was very disappointed in the heroine. This story is seen by many as an Australian classic but for me I found it to be a pathetic sad tale. Delie the main character has a very disturbing philosophy to life that, I think, the author tried to portray as strength and enlightenment of character. Feminism, infidelity, evolution, hedonism, anti marriage, anti family, anti Christian, and disrespect for the sanctity of life are some of the ideals held up in this book.
The story is set along the Murray River in the early 1900’s. It follows the life of Philedelphia Gordon in the paddle steamer days. I did learn a lot about paddle steamers, navigating the river and river trade but the story I found lacking the inspiration and challenge of a true classic.
Here are some of the events of this epic 600 plus page book.
- The governess ‘sleeps’ with her 17 year old student Adam. No qualms about it. The governess is seen as the epitome of a modern woman who should be revered.
- Delie who is in love with Adam (her cousin) refuses to ‘sleep’ with him. In frustration of her rejection he goes for a walk and falls over and dies. She blames herself for his death.
- Her next love Brenton is not refused as Adam was. After a few dates she goes ‘all the way ‘ with him. This relationship continues throughout the book with adulterous relationships ‘on the side’ by both partners.
- Delie decides to move to Melbourne to pursue her painting career. Marriage is not for her. She refuses Brenton’s offer of marriage, but when she finds out she has TB she decides to accept his offer afterall she has to leave Melbourne and the river would be better for her health. Later she finds out it was a misdiagnosis-she didn’t need to get married after all.
- Delie is disappointed when she becomes pregnant. Motherhood is a burden to her. “For once she wanted time to flow swiftly, to bear her forward out of this bondage.” Chapter 57
- She continues to have children. For one of her pregnancies she contemplates getting rid of it, deciding against an abortion she buys some morning after type pills. They don’t work. She has a baby a girl. Chapter 58
- Her fifth pregnancy results in a Down syndrome baby. When she brings it home from hospital she decides she will not let it live. When she sees the baby rolled on its face struggling to breath she decides this is the perfect opportunity to make it die. She leaves the baby struggling and goes for a long walk outside. She waits till her husband comes home. He finds the baby dead. She fains remorse but it is really relief. Whilst some might argue post natal depression for this act-there is no remorse about it ever. She thinks she did everyone a favour.
“She had only to be strong and unflinching do what was right, for the sake of the other children, for the sake of the child itself. No false sentiment, no cant about the sacredness of human life, must be allowed to obscure the issue.” Chapter 65;
- The book has an evolutionary undertone. Christians are seen as sentimental idiots. Here are some quotes (there are many more);
“His logical mind rejected the resurrection of the flesh; those bones could not be clothed with life again…No one would really live forever, it would make life pointless. Instead of fixing his mind on a future life; he would prefer to make life as good as possible.” Chapter 89
“But Vickie’s ideas of God were primitive and anthromorphic. ‘Is God bigger than a king?’….Delie thought it best to let the child work things out for herself, as everyone must do in the end unless he was one of the sheep minds, who preferred doctrine ready-made.” Chapter 103.
- Delie never seemed to relish her role as a mother. She always felt her destiny was to be a famous artist.
“At times she had a feeling of almost panic—it had come to late, she had lost twenty years when she should have been developing and soon she would be dead, or old; either way it would mean the death of art.” Chapter 90.
- Even in her old age she had a favourite Granddaughter and didn’t seem to care much about any of the others.
“But I do envy you Italy. You do that Vicky…You go, and whatever happens. Don’t get married instead.”Chapter 108
- The book also has a real disgust for old age. In the end Delie is a pathetic, incontinent, dribbling, crippled woman. Since her life’s work of painting could no longer be continued she felt worthless.
“I’ve lived too long already, you know. I remember telling myself once that if I couldn’t skip seventy I’d be better off dead. The Aborigines were more realistic; they used to knock old people on the head , when they couldn’t march. Much more humane than keeping them alive with drugs—to drag out a useless existence—a half life with the senses dulled and the blood kept moving with hot water bottles and liver injections and vitamin pills.” Chapter109
I have read a glowing review of this book before and that is why I was keen to read it. Here is the publishers version of the book.
Philadelphia Gordon is an artist, a riverboat skipper, a beautiful and independent woman. Orphaned by a shipwreck, Philadelphia grows up on the banks of her beloved Murray River, seemingly destined for a conventional life. But tragedy leads her first to a successful career as a painter, then to marriage to the dashing captain of the paddle-steamer that bears her name.
This epic novel, set against the panoramic countryside and winding rivers of Australia, is her story, as powerful and unforgettable as its heroine.
The only reason I am glad I wasted my holiday ploughing through this book is that I can write this review.