I had absolutely no preconceptions about this book before I began it save that it’s an Australian classic and that the author was a young girl (as the preface to my edition of the book remarked in an extremely patronising way). The author’s introduction was intriguing, and I found it extremely easy to get into this book with its vivid descriptions of the protagonist’s childhood in the bush. The novel is easy to read but well-written and one which I read through really quickly.
Sybylla is nearly nine years old when her family move to Possum Gully; a poor, drought-ridden region where “time was no object and the days slid quietly into the river of years, distinguished one from another by name alone.” Life is difficult and Sybylla’s father soon loses his wealth and becomes an alcoholic, leaving her mother and the children to do all of the work on the farm and in the home. Eventually Sybylla is forced to give up her schooling so that she can work for her family, and she rebels against the mindless, monotonous labour with all her might:
“This was life – my life – my career, my brilliant career! I was fifteen – fifteen! A few fleeting hours and I would be as old as those around me.”
Just when she thinks she can go on no longer, her grandmother offers Sybylla the chance to stay with her indefinitely at Caddagat (where she grew up). For a time, Sybylla is happy and able to indulge all of her cultural whims. It is here that she is able to be herself, and she also attracts the attention of several suitors. But here I will stop so as not to give away the plot.
One of the strongest features of the novel for me was in dealing with the ambitions and desires of a young woman who is unlucky in her circumstances and who herself knows that given the right chances she could achieve something brilliant:
“It came home to me as a great blow that it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate, while women, metaphorically speaking, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither, battering and bruising without mercy.”
Sybylla acutely feels the constraints placed upon her by her poverty in the beginning of the book, but soon comes to realise that her sex has as much a part to play. Women were expected to pass from their parents’ care directly into the hands of their husband, and Sybylla has very strong views about this:
“Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love, but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.”
Feminism is a strong theme throughout the book, and I found the observances made by the protagonist to be very astute. Sybylla is very mature for her age in many ways, although her stay at Caddagat allows her to regain her youth somewhat and we are often reminded of how young she really is through her behaviour or emotional outbursts. She is an extremely passionate character and an utterly believable one.
Many aspects of the book reminded me of Jane Eyre, although whether this was consciously done by the author I am unsure. The protagonist is not an orphan – although she has a difficult childhood and has a strained relationship with her mother who doesn’t understand her. She does however share many of Jane Eyre’s qualities – fiercely independent, able to stand up for herself, intelligent, and strong – and the gentleman she meets whilst at Caddagat immediately brought to my mind Mr Rochester. Despite these similarities, the book has plenty of differences too and in no way follows the plot of Jane Eyre apart from in these respects. My only gripe with it was the amount of space in the book given over to the will they, won’t they courtship but that doesn’t prevent me from recommending it as a thought-provoking and enjoyable read.
(Image from Goodreads)