Marcus Clarke - Pretty Dick
...no more songs, no more pleasures, no more flowers, no more sunshine, no more love - nothing but grim Death, waiting remorselessly in the iron solitude of the hill.
Marcus Clarke's Pretty Dick follows along the same vein as last week's story from Mary Fortune, The Dead Witness; or, the Bush Waterhole in that it uses the Australian bush as a major character within the story, and in Clarke's case, perhaps the primary character. Pretty Dick, for all that he is the eponymous character of the story, functions primarily as the reader's surrogate-observer of the bush as it gradually changes from welcoming to menacing.
...was a slender little man, with eyes like pools of still water when the sky is violet at sunset, and a skin as white as milk – that is, under his little blue and white shirt, for where the sun had touched it, it was a golden brown, and his hands were the colour of ripe chestnuts his father used to gather in England yars ago. Pretty Dick had hair like a patch of sunlight, and a laugh like rippling water. He was the merriest fellow possible, and manly too!
The first third of Clarke's story builds up the character of Pretty Dick, a preternaturally pleasant young child of seven. His mother loves him, his father loves him, the local workers love him, and even “the Chinaman Cook” Ah Yung, loves him. As can be seen from the above quoted he is a cherubic young fellow, possessed of all the qualities desirable in a young man, and none of those which are not. He's a construct, effectively, one designed purely (and calculatingly) to engender specific emotions in the reader as the story's tone darkens and the child's fate becomes clear.
Pretty Dick, for reasons hardly worth going into, wanders into the bush. He follows a stream, spies Australian birds and animals (Clarke is nothing if not a fine cataloguer of Australian flora and fauna), and then becomes lost. At first, Pretty Dick isn't too concerned:
...Pretty Dick knew there was water in the ranges, so he got up again, a little wearily, and went down the gully to look for it. But it was not so easy to find, and he wandered about for a long time, among big granite boulders, and all kinds of blind creeks, choked up with thick grass and creeping plants, and began to feel very tired indeed, and a little inclined to wish that he had not left the water-course so early. But he found it at last – a little pool, half concealed by stiff, spiky rush-grass, and lay down, and drank eagerly.
But the tone of the story soon shifts. It's important to remember what Marcus Clarke is trying to do with this story. In her introduction to the volume, Mary Lord makes a point of noting that Clarke's story is one in a long line of “Lost Child” stories, which were very popular in Australia during the late nineteenth century. A Lost Child story is exactly what it sounds like – a story that revolves almost entirely (if not entirely) around the following:
---1. A child is introduced – generally a virtuous child, though not always;
---2. The child becomes lost; and
---3 The child is either found, or dies lost
The conceits of the genre were such that there was little room for variation beyond those noted. These stories were effectively cautionary tales, used by mothers, teachers and the clergy to warn children against wandering too far away into the Australian bush. For international readers, it's worth remembering that Australia is a massive country (This picture shows Europe fitting comfortably inside Australia's boundaries, with plenty of room to spare), and that the vast, vast majority of the population live along the coast. The Australian population is a thin belt clinched around the enormous corpulensce of a very fat man. We have farms that are larger than good sized European countries. If a child wanders off, there is a very real chance they will never come back.
If we allow that these Lost Child stories are almost entirely focused on the pedagogic, it should be noted that the authors of such stories were generally middling. Marcus Clarke, however, was a major Australian author: his Pretty Dick goes above the ordinary trappings of the story in its efforts to properly describe the Australian bush. Yes, the story is pleasant where it must be pleasant, and yes, the story is menacing where it must be menacing, but Clarke's genius lies in his ability to properly utilise the landscape to create these feelings. His descriptive paragraphs are long, detailed, and overall rather celebratory. Like Mary Fortune, he understands and appreciates the (to the British immigrants)-foreign nature of the bush, how its very trees, its earth, its sounds and its feel is different. Here's Pretty Dick at night-time, about the time he has begun to realise that he is in trouble:
He had lost all power of thought and reason, and was possessed but by one overpowering terror, and a consciousness that whatever he did, he must keep on running, and not stop a moment. But he soon could run no longer. He could only stagger along from tree to tree in the gloomy woods, and cry, “Mother! Mother!” But there was no mother to help him. There was no human being near him, no sound but the hideous croaking of the frogs in the marshes, and the crackling of the branches under his footstep.
The story ends predictably, but again – Clarke's purpose in the story is to create the expected pathos of the genre, but more important is his desire to examine and describe the Australian bush. In 1873 these were still very much unexplored vistas, both in the physical realm, and in literature. Australia was an unknown, young, unsure of itself, but waiting and ready for acceptance. Marcus Clarke, in Pretty Dick, helped to create the modern Australian sense of our landscape, flora and fauna as beautiful, unique and ours.
Pretty Dick by Marcus Clarke is a short story from the The Penguin Best Australian Stories, edited by Mary Lord.
Other stories from the The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories include:
---1859: Lang, John George - The Ghost Upon the Rail
---1866: Fortune, Mary - The Dead Witness; or, the Bush Waterhole
---1974: Stead, Christina - Street Idyll
Index of short stories under review