Fair Game by Carmel Bird. Finlay Lloyd press, 2015.
This petit offering from Finlay Lloyd Press represents prolific author and essayist Carmel Bird’s first longer memoir piece, with the inclusion of her short story, What World is This? from a ballet based on Carmel’s research on Tasmanian history. This book is part of a set of five short works released together by Finlay Lloyd. Though the book itself is light enough, the contents carry the weight of an important historical subject: The Princess Royal girls, or the group of women sent on a fateful journey to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) to become the wives of the men sent to the penal colony. Carmel warns the reader that her account ‘…will waver, will veer off course…in service of the narrative itself.’ The book is written in a rambling style, but Carmel is an insightful tour guide of the subject. Because of its combination of memoir and historical essay forms, it is more of a woven tapestry that gives us a bigger picture, as opposed to a singular historical narrative.
Traditional histories of Tasmania have lent themselves to the masculine perspective; their heroes and villains being the convict and pioneer men, those battlers who forged a part of Australia’s history with grit and rippling muscles (if cinematic portrayals are correct). What these histories largely omit are the women who, through a variety of circumstances, found themselves bit players in this hyper-masculine world; their struggles and contributions reduced to marginalia in our textbooks (if that). This book then forms an important piece of the narrative puzzle. It could be that it warrants more than the 60 pages it was given. It is not a revisionist work, and not comprehensive by any means, but a simple snapshot of the lived experiences of pre-Tasmanian era women.
The title, Fair Game, comes from the lithograph on the cover, entitled, E-migration, or a Flight of Fair Game, by Alfred Ducote. At first glance, it’s a gentile portrait, in pastels of Georgian women flitting across the ocean, portrayed as delicate butterflies. One imagines a soft, gentle landing for these characters. But on closer inspection (Carmel with her magnifying glass), we see the true meaning of the satirical piece. The women depicted are the chosen few, sent by barque sailing ship (The Princess Royal) on a gruelling trip, we are told lasted just over four months. They are seen as property, with a tiny figure waiting for them reaching up with a net and exclaiming ‘I spies mine’. A woman wielding a broom is seen positioned on the opposite coast shooing the woman away as ‘Vermont’. This is indicative of the view of the particular women who were chosen to be part of this group. Not dissimilar to the men in that sense. Van Diemen’s seen as almost an offshore dump for those in society deemed less than respectable.
In terms of source material, it is interesting to note the audacity of Coultmann Smith in stamping his tome with ‘The whole story of the convicts’. His, Shadow over Tasmania was endorsed by the state premier in 1941 as a definitive and final word on the subject. Carmel notes in her cheeky way that it is a ‘creepy old paperback’ and bemoans the lack of substantial works to base her research on. An interesting aside is that a historical essay she wrote for a high school cultural exchange was rejected on the basis of its dark subject matter (i.e. Aborigines and convicts). Now Carmel can finally have her say, giving a voice to those who barely even register in the mythology. She doesn’t pull any punches politically either, stating, “I regard ‘settlement’ as a horrible euphemism, a choking smoke screen, language working to obscure the truth of the British invasion of the island, of the deliberate genocide of the local people…”. It’s a forthright statement and a sentiment shared by many.
The fact that it is part memoir softens what could be another dark and guilt-inducing look at a chapter in Australia’s history. If the array of history books were laid out as a buffet, don’t be fooled into thinking this is akin to a light and fluffy pavlova dessert. In some ways, it would have done it a greater service to package it in a more authoritative way. The choice of the comical lithograph almost mocks the women whose suffering Carmel touches on in the book. Knowing what we do now, those political cartoons of old veer into demeaning and offensive territory. It could just as well be for that reason that it was chosen. The gritty reality for these women is in stark contrast to this saccharine portrayal.
In her glamorous author shot on the back cover, Carmel smiles at us, her neck adorned with a frilly scarf. But don’t be put off by the traditionally feminine wrapping of this book. It is funny, insightful, touching and will hopefully open the door to more of the hidden stories of Australia’s past that have been swept under the carpet.
– Anna Forsyth
Anna Forsyth is a writer and freelance editor, originally from NZ, now living in Melbourne. Her poems have appeared in FourW, Landfall and other journals. She is the convenor of the monthly female driven poetry event and refugee fundraiser, Girls on Key – https://www.facebook.com/girlsonkey/.
For details on how to purchase a copy of Fair Game go to http://finlaylloyd.com/fl-smalls/