The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally
In the late 1800s, rather than run the risk of your under-achieveing children tarnishing your reputation at home, you sent them to the colonies. At least that is what Charles Dickens did with two of his boys. (And Trollope did it too.)
In this joyful novel, our narrator is Charles Dickens’s tenth child, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, known as Plorn. Sent, as his brother Alfred had been before him, at sixteen years of age, to Australia to learn to ‘apply himself’. We follow his early Australian adventures in outback NSW learning to become a man from the most diverse and toughest of men.
Part of Dickens’ motivation was to separate these younger of his children from the Dickens family schism, where Charles had expelled his wife from the family home, keeping her sister Georgie there to run the household and taking up with the actress Ellen Tiernan.
Plorn arrived in Melbourne in late 1868 carrying a terrible secret. He has never read a word of his father’s work. After a very brief stopover he is sent out to become a gentleman stockman on a 2000 square mile station in remotest, semi-arid parts of NSW. Here he inevitably gets enmeshed with Paakantji, colonists, colonial-born, ex-convicts, ex-soldiers, and very few women.
Plorn did not expect he would encounter the same veneration of his father and familiarity with his work in Australia that was rampant in England. Against this backdrop, and featuring cricket tournaments, horse-racing, bushrangers, sheep droving, shifty stock and station agents, frontier wars and first encounters with Australian women we follow Plorn, and sometimes his brother Alfred, through wonderful adventures as he works to apply himself.
This is Tom Keneally in his most familiar terrain. Taking historical figures and events and reimagining them with verve, compassion and humour. It is a romp.