The Moving Finger | Mary Gaunt #AWWshortstories

It was a comfortable place, the wide verandah at Warwingie, a place much used by the Warners on all occasions, save during the heat of the day – but the long hot day was drawing to a close now.

For this year’s A Literary Christmas, I decided to hunt down some seasonal short stories. Most of the ones I found were written about Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere. I was preparing myself to read stories by L.M. Montgomery or Vita Sackville-West or Anthony Trollope or Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Booth Tarrington or Edna Ferber or Saki. Imagine my surprise when I suddenly came across an Australian name – Mary Gaunt. Her first short story collection The Moving Finger (1895) contained two Christmas stories.

The first was called Christmas Eve at Warwingie.

It wasn’t the typical Christmas story I thought it was going to be! (By typical, I mean saccharine sweet with a moral lesson or a ghost story with a moral lesson).

Tom Hollis is attempting to woo pretty Bessie Warner. They’ve known each other all their lives, but now Tom would like Bessie to come and live with him ‘up among the hills‘. But young Bessie is not at all keen to go and live ‘alone with you at Tuppoo‘. It would be ‘horribly unexciting‘.

Bessie’s family have discreetly left them alone on the verandah. The menfolk are away helping old Wilson muster, but will hopefully be home for Christmas Day tomorrow. As the dinner bell rings, loud noises are suddenly heard in the front yard. The notorious Mopoke gang have ridden up, with ‘pistols and knives in their belts‘.

This gentle summer romance dramatically takes a turn for the worse!

The Mopoke gang are known for their rape and pillage. Tom is shot in the hand when he tries to stand up for the women and children (being the only man left in the house) as the gang start raiding the pantry and liquor cupboard. Tom and Bessie’s step-mother convince her that she is only the one who should escape to try and get help.

I was so startled by this sinister turn of events, I had no idea where the story would end up.

It was a perfect summer’s night, hot and still – not a breath of wind stirred the leaves on the trees. Far away from the reed beds at the bottom of the gully came the mournful wail of the curlews, and the whimper of the dingoes rose over the ranges. Overhead in the velvety sky the stars hung low like points of gold. It was so peaceful, so calm this glorious summer’s night, this eve of the great festival which should bring to all men good tidings of peace and joy. Could it possibly be that murder and rapine were abroad on such a night as this?

Let’s just say, that even though love may have triumphed over evil by the end, it came at a very high price. Innocence was lost, but a moral lesson was there to be learnt perhaps. Grab your happiness while you can; you never know when it will be taken away from you.

The second seasonal story was called A Digger’s Christmas.

When I first saw it’s name, I thought it would be a WWI story. But, of course, this was written in the 1890’s, twenty years before the war. The eponymous diggers do not refer to the ANZAC soldiers of WWI but the miners in the goldfields of NSW and Victoria.

It was on the Tinpot Gully diggings, now known to fame by a far more euphoniouos title, that early in the fifties I spent my first Christmas in Australia.

Given where Gaunt was born (Chiltern, Victoria), the Tinpot Gully diggings were probably the ones at what was then called Sandhurst, but is now known as Bendigo. Tinpot Gully was also the name of the diggings referred to in the first story. From what I could ascertain, the only real name used in that story was Indigo Valley (part of the Chiltern shire).

Dick, poor Bob Wilson and our unnamed narrator, share a tent at Tinpot Gully. Unlike the previous story, the gentle start to their day is not broken into by terror or fear. Our narrator and Dick appear to be the only diggers to be awake early on Christmas morning as everyone else is nursing a hangover. We learn that they have had a modest success at the diggings and are now grateful for the troopers who protect the gold tent behind the Commissioner’s tent. They visit poor Bob in the hospital before enjoying their fresh caught bush turkey and bush plum pudding for Christmas dinner.

Everything comes to an end at length, and at last I came to the end of those raisins, and poured them into the bucket, where the flour and currants, and sugar and candied peel were already reposing. To these I added a billy of water from the creek, and stirred the lot together with a big stick. My wife informs me that a good plum pudding can’t be made without a certain proportion of suet, some spice, and six or seven eggs, but I assure you that was a very excellent pudding, and we never even thought of such things.

Gaunt uses this device a number of times throughout the story, where the narrator reveals what happens in the future.

Poor Bob only lives another year ‘murdered by some miscreant for the handful of gold in his possession down in the lonely bush about Reedy Creek.‘ Pretty Lizzie, was the barmaid at the Eldorado that everyone wanted to dance with on Christmas night, but she only had eyes for the big, fair trooper. Ten years later, she is spotted ‘weary looking‘ with half a dozen small children hanging off her as she tended bar for her drunken husband.

The story is simple, with some reminiscences of home, a fair bit of drinking and a happy ending, where we know that he eventually finds more ‘lucrative employment‘, a wife and holds find memories of his first Christmas on the diggings.

The only thing I found missing from these reminiscences about his first Christmas in Australia was the seasonal comparison or the seasonal disconnect that affects people who grew up in one hemisphere, then find themselves in the other for Christmas. There are lots of Brits in my suburb and B21 is dating someone who spent most of her childhood in the US, they are forever talking about how a hot summer’s day does not feel like Christmas.

However, for those of us like Gaunt, who grew up with the sound of cicadas on Christmas day, and are used to waking up to check your stocking as the heat of the day presses down on you, these are our seasonal triggers.

Mary Eliza Bakewell Gaunt was born on the 20th February 1861 and died on the 19th January, 1942 in Cannes, France. She left Melbourne, for London on the 15th March 1901 after her husband died. She travelled widely and wrote about her experiences. From the early 1920s, Gaunt lived mostly at Bordighera, Italy. In 1940 she fled Italy and died at Cannes in 1942.

The Moving Finger contains seven short stories altogether. The other five do not have an obvious Christmas theme and will be reviewed another time.

Epigraph:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on; nor all your piety and wit
Shall lore it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

#ALiteraryChristmas

Title: The Moving Finger
Author: Mary Gaunt
Imprint: Project Gutenberg
Published: 6th November 2016 (originally published 1895)
Format: eBook
Pages: 266
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

25 thoughts on “The Moving Finger | Mary Gaunt #AWWshortstories

  1. Brona, I really enjoyed your reviews, though enjoy is hardly the word for the first story. It would be interesting to have a better idea to what extent rape was a problem for women in the bush. For some reason it’s not a problem men write about. Barbara Baynton was certainly terrified to be left alone (I’m not going to look this up, but west of Dubbo in the 1870s maybe) and wrote a story about being threatened by a swaggy. Ralph Rashleigh is blunter, writing about the 1820s (say) and describes all the women of a wedding party being raped. But these are the only two I can think of.
    From memory Mary Gaunt went from Chiltern to Ballarat to Warnambool and was familiar with the diggings and no doubt with the stories which circulated there.
    Re the barmaid. Gaunt was yet another Australian woman writer who wasn’t a big fan of marriage – her novel Kirkham’s Find was about two sisters supporting themselves by their own efforts (as apiarists)
    I’m glad you found these two for your christmas-themed read.

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    1. Thanks Bill. I had hoped to include a paragraph or two addressing the independent woman theme, which Bessie certainly showed by 1. saying no to marriage and 2. by her ability to embrace the escape opportunity given to her. What I didn’t highlight were her problem solving skills and logical thinking both of which she used to escape as quickly and quietly as possible.

      At one point on her journey she also stumbled across a bullock driver’s camp, but ‘she dared not stop – how could she trust herself to these men like these?’ I didn’t think to remark on this at the time, as it is something still so familiar (at least to women of my generation). I always crossed streets, avoided certain areas, and walked with purpose with my keys in my hand as a young woman. Unfortunately men come with no signs to help identify the good ones from the dangerous ones.

      I saw that Gaunt’s marriage was relatively short and childless – was it also an unhappy one?

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  2. Sounds like Christmas stories like no others. She seems to have been a very interesting woman. Will check up your link on her bio.

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    1. I enjoyed reading a Christmas story set in summer, but certainly the first one was quite frightening. The second one was more about peace and good will and taking care of your mates, albeit with a lot of alcohol consumption.

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  3. I have had Mary Gaunt in my ebook collection for a long time but keep not getting to her. Good on you for doing so. I will try to comment more seriously on this later, but haven’t quite got the energy to focus on it right now.

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    1. I understand completely Sue. I have 2 reviews to write that simply will not happen this side of Christmas. And as you may have noticed, visiting other blogs has not happened either. Work too busy, rest of time too tired even to read most days. Holidays just around the corner though…😎
      Hope your energy returns soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Christmas Eve at Warwingie is definitely a holiday story with a difference, which is fine by me (I frequently do counter programing at the holidays, when I just can’t take one more jingle bells movie).
    Interesting idea to track down such unusual but seasonally appropriate reads.
    Having recently moved from a seasonal (i.e., real winters) to a year-round tropical climate, I found your discussion of seasonal triggers very interesting. It really is startling, how much climate shapes our perceptions of the holidays!

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    1. I do like to experience all 4 seasons as distinct temperatures and climates, but again, it is something I grew up with. I’m sure that people who grow up in year-round tropical regions are attuned to very subtle changes in the seasons.
      When I first moved to Sydney, I didn’t think I would ever get used to the humidity, but I actually acclimatised very quickly. Then I remembered I spent 6 yrs of my young life around the northern coastal areas of NSW, also very humid, and I wondered if it was just my body remembering…

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  5. Brona,
    What intriguing Christmas stories you found to read this holiday season. I don’t believe I’ve ever read any Australian holiday stories, so this definitely caught my interest. Both stories you reviewed here contain interesting historical elements. I, for one, could learn from them. I enjoyed your reviews.

    Thanks for joining A Literary Christmas!

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  6. I think I have read some of Mary Gaunt’s travel writings but this collection is so intriguing and Christmas Eve at Warwingie especially seems to kind of take your breathe away from the word go! Very non traditional Christmas literary and supremely exciting reading!

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