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.
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.
- A Christmas Carol | Charles Dickens
- A Christmas Tree and a Wedding | Fyodor Dostoevsky
- The Heavenly Christmas Tree | Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Little Dog and the Christmas Wish | Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher
- Christmas Eve at Warwingie | Mary Gaunt
- A Digger’s Christmas | Mary Gaunt
- Tea and Sugar Christmas | Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen
- The Twelve Days of Christmas Island | Teresa Lagrange
- Harriet Clare #6 Christmas Fair | Louise Park
- The Tailor of Gloucester | Beatrix Potter
- A Maigret Christmas | Georges Simenon
- Christmas at High Rising | Angela Thirkell
- My favourite Christmas-themed illustrated picture books for children
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.