Over the Swamp
In all the major Mysteries of the Cities text, transport in the city is a crucial element both in the management of the interlocking plot strands and also in the evaluations the stories offer. Where the 1840s authors were hardly aware of rail, even though their metropolises were already being radically changed by its manifold implications, for Cameron this is the key factor, as both the city of Melbourne and the colonies of Australia were increasingly linked and changed by this newest form of social mobility. Rail travel energizes three major dark turns in the story.
Robert first strays seriously when, having walked out on Linda in a selfish temper, he meets Hugh and Marian at Balaclava station, on a train returning from a leisure trip to bayside Brighton. Then when Hugh takes Linda off to see Robert at his shameful play, their somber rail journey is “over the black river, by the gardens and dreary swamp” (20). Early train travel was notorious for thrusting people of different social levels into embarrassing contact,37 and it was also notorious for accidents, but not usually as firmly evaluative as in the final rail-linked action. When Hugh, that figure of dangerous volatile modernity, is finally frustrated in his quest for both revenge and Linda, he is, as he was at the start of the whole story, on foot: it is the train (and by impli-cation its weight of middle-class respectability) that kills him, in what seems a conscious reference to the death of the businessman Carker, also sinfully aspirant in Dombey and Son.
Against the conflicts of the megalopolis, Sue offered aristocratic leader- ship, Reynolds upper-middle-class moral energy, Lippard responsible social interaction, Judson moral intervention. Cameron’s Christian mercantile qui- etism is neither less credible nor more persuasive than the positions offered by his predecessors, and as with them the seething, dynamic life of his text and his city outlives its ideological closure. But there is something else in Cameron, a sharper sense than even in Judson of the city as being new in terms of international inflow, though he is like most in Australia in this period (he lacked Clarke’s European interests) seeing the shaping of Australia from the multiplicity and the changing historicity of its origins in the British Isles. He has almost hidden convictism and settlerism away in his narrative, and just as he has deployed aspects of racism to both stigmatize and euphemize some of the urban forces of Melbourne, so too there may be a very Australian racialism, or at least stereotyping, in his three heroes.
Hugh Hanlon is certainly Irish in name and appearance, and it would seem the text, racist again, but now subtly so, links that identification to his volatile unreliability. Harry Robertson is almost as certainly stereotypically Scottish in his name, his resolute nature and, of course, his great success— the touch of a Cameron as author. Robert Wilton is the most interesting: very appealing, a little weak—he really does not want to reject Hugh’s initial appeal for money, but Harry makes him be stern—and both desirable and crucially in need of support. He is named for a middle–England market town but is said to have “no parent” (30). Desirable and vulnerable, needing guidance and getting it for both good and ill, yet finally buckling down to work, busi- ness and fatherhood, he seems to be an image of the Australian citizen as he could be for worse and might be for better. It is a more aware and anxious representation than Marcus Clarke’s shallow, ironic image of the future Aus- tralian business success as a swindler, needing no more than a working knowl- edge of law and commerce and some luck.38
Parallel to the Australian idea of its society being a mix of somewhat uncertain British and Irish elements, there is also encoded in the text an important concept of social change. The influx of finance from the 1850s gold rush and sudden urban development redefined the idea of a central Australian identity from rural—owning land and working on the land—to urban trade and professionalism, as Stuart Macintyre and Penny Russell describe the process.39 The novel enshrines this mercantile world both in the predicted success of Robert and Willy and, just as forcefully in its own peritext, in the advertisements that throng around the story: after the novel’s waspishly racist dismissal of financial trickery it is notable that its first end-page advert is for the Victorian Permanent Property Investment and Building Society offering only 3 percent for quarterly deposits, but with the solidly Scottish-named James Munro in charge.
Inside the novel, the historical and ideological transition from bush to bank is mediated through Harry, the colonist’s relative and elegant suburb dweller who acts as midwife to Robert’s career as a city merchant. Harry’s crucial value is, like those of Rodolphe and Richard Markham, validated by his role in the crime plot. The opening murder offers some prospect of being solved through clues and detection: the dead Bella holds brown curly hair in her hand, and Meddle does look into Billy’s family. But while a crime reader might think that the police will trace the Dawson family’s multiple role in the plot and that the hair is a clue (or a red herring: it is Robert whose hair seems to match), the issue is only resolved, like an action thriller, in and by Harry’s hands. He takes the dying deposition from Slabang, which makes Hugh a likely criminal, but it is only when, leaving on his final mission of mercy to rescue Robert, he punches Hugh to the ground that Hugh is identified by Willy as the murderer seen on the first page. It is improbably late in the plot for this to happen, but that climactically ratifies Harry as the agent of all value, and of all validations.
Wherever they come from and whatever they do, the characters have all arrived in Melbourne, and they all have aspirations. Only the weakest actually live in the Immigrants’ Home, down by the swamp, but as the rail journey over the swamp indicates, there may be a similarly unstable, unwholesome foun- dation to all the lives of all the immigrants. Just as the swamp is to be soon enough drained, all these immigrants aspire to grander homes than poor public accommodation down by the swamp, or the wattle scrub along the Yarra, made by the white incomers into a degraded location; and they all aspire to avoid a social and moral condition parallel to that physical degradation. From Hugh with his flashy east Melbourne mansion to the inhabitants of the St Kilda triangle — humble Balaclava from which a mercantile fortune will even- tually grow, Marian’s ill-fortuned Eros Villa, Harry’s mansion of urbanized respectability for land taking—they are all immigrant stock, and they will all have a home. The sustainability of each home depends on the residents’ own inner values and also their ability to sustain each other with affection and support within the bounds of human value, not by forces arising from passion or vengeance. For Hugh and Marian, a final home will be the graveyard, already stretching north in its new location beyond the university: its former site, changing like Robert’s life, is now thriving with lively business—the city markets.
The Mysteries of the Cities all focus ultimately on change, and Cameron does this most of all. Sue asserted that the only change needed was in the human heart. Reynolds and Lippard both saw the need for institutional and political change to match real liberalization; Judson returned to Sue’s person- alized moralism. The world Cameron outlines, and this is where he links strongly with the earlier rural fictions and Marcus Clarke’s historical saga, is the only one where massive change is central to experience. The British and Irish have moved to a very different country, with a major physical and social impact. They believe—as Americans and Australians still do—that they can welcome and exploit the possibilities of change, especially personal and social, and avoid its dangers. Billy can go from desperate larrikin to favored young professional, with elevated language and above-stairs name; Slabang can slip from bank employee to derelict. Through her misery, Linda’s face becomes “pinched,” her eyes “dark and sunken” (49), though she will surely change back in happy post-narrative motherhood. Hugh and Marian are spectacularly volatile in both physical setting and personal form. They all change, as do the city and the country. The land has been settled, the city has been estab- lished, in an extraordinary short period. The luxurious theater whose verandah is used by the financiers was only a while before a livery stable (32); the swamp will be drained.
So change can—must—be seen as positive, but its processes demand caution. Australia can seem “the land of rapid fortunes, of transformations, of which even Oriental visionaries never dreamt” (24), but those were the words of the unreliable Hugh spreading his net for the gullible Robert. More trust- worthy, the text insists, was what Robert had previously said to Hugh, refusing when he begged for yet more charity because he was hungry:
“This is no country for you to plead that,” he said calmly, though it was easy to see he had to struggle with his naturally kind heart. “You cannot starve if you like to work, and work you must to bring you back to your senses” .
The really beneficent changes, the true riches of the new country, are reserved for those who are responsible, diligent, true at heart, and true to each other. The mysteries that make up the life of Melbourne, Cameron asserts, can be resolved from a Christian middle-class viewpoint. But, as in his pred- ecessors, the ultimate implausibility of his solutions shows the city and its changes and challenges to be more mysterious, more energetic, more dialectical than its moralized narrative management can reach. Yet that narrative can also point to those underlying mysteries. Reaching back, with all its innovative differences, to the 1840s in this, the power of The Mysteries of Melbourne Life is that its energy, its imagination, its textual and sub-textual veridicality, can tap into the dynamic complexity of yet one more of the world’s great, and strange, and potent, and unique cities.
Over the Swamp