“The hills are full of Irish people…this was the place where the Darcys lived – Plymouth Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.”
– Ruth Park, The Harp in the South
In 1946 the Sydney Morning Herald ran a literary competition to capitalise on the post-war high and to celebrate a new found prosperity. The winner was a young freelance writer from New Zealand who had moved to Australia to marry a fellow author. Ruth Park won the inaugural award and in 1948, her first novel The Harp in South was published. It attracted many criticisms and objections and the only reason Angus and Roberson agreed to publish the controversial text was due to their ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with the Herald. Ironically, the text that was deemed distasteful and embarrassing to Australia has not been out of print in sixty-six years and is a prominent feature on school lists around the country.
The Harp in the South was borne from a period when Park and her husband D’Arcy Niland temporarily settled in the slums of Surry Hills, Sydney. I imagine that the characters are a reflection of how she saw life on the streets and surprisingly, despite the bleak backdrop, they are full of life and spirit. Park’s realistic depiction of a poverty-stricken life is riddled with bed bugs, cheap alcohol and violence. It is both insightful and horrifying and there are so many lows – the heartbreaking first love and its consequences, violence on the street and in homes, depression and death.
Mumma Darcy is a wonderful character. She is the strength of her family, and carries the burdens of those around her while mourning the loss of a son who disappeared 10 years before. She manages a household full of dysfunctional people and yet she still finds appreciation in what she has.
Miss Sheily is another character whose steely façade is a cover for an all-consuming bitterness and hatred for life. Her guilt over her son is a reflection of the opinions of a society whose ignorance and intolerance is the norm when it comes to people with a disability. Miss Sheily loved her son but was shamed into hating what and who he was.
In contrast to this are the characters that bring lightness to the story. Grandma is a hoot – she is a pipe-smoking, pudding cooking ‘wicked old article’ whose ‘interest in sin was indefatigable’. She happily jumps into any action and one of my favourite scenes is the argument between herself and Hughie over the Christmas pudding. It is a classic conversation between mother-in-law and son-in-law but the slinging match has undertones of love, respect and understanding. It is a great piece of writing.
The highlight of the novel was the New Year’s Eve bonfire. “A ragged blue tongue of fire spurted high into the air, and everyone sprang back and surveyed it with awed excitement… A ruby glow was cast over every face, the good and the wicked, the old and the young”. It was wonderful to see how even the poorest of neighbours were able to contribute to the collective happiness, no matter how poor the offerings. Old mattresses, rags and newspapers fuelled the entertainment and they all celebrated with a childish enthusiasm. They were able to find enjoyment in the simplest of ways. Park’s comment that “the old year hovered around them; he was like a shadow vanishing bit by bit under an onslaught of light; all his fears and terrors, his failures and monotonies seemed now something soon to be tossed away upon the stream of time, to be forgotten forever” however this forever is only for one night. It summed up the novel perfectly – take Roie for example. In meeting and marrying Charlie she finds atonement for her past however the moments of happiness – the honeymoon at the beach and the birth of her daughter – don’t take away from the fact that she and Charlie will find themselves living the same lives as their parents.
It is this life, first presented to the masses all those years ago, that still rings true with our society today and it is the reason that Ruth Park’s novel is a timeless classic. It continues to spread the message that no matter how poor you are, or where you live, there is enjoyment to be found in life and life is worth living.
Over to you – what did you think of The Harp in the South? Did you like the characters? Did you see hope for them?
Finally, the next book will be Magician by Raymond E. Feist. Originally we were going to be discussing this book from September 1st, however, life is getting busier by the day and I need a little more time (which I am assuming everyone will appreciate!). Therefore, I am changing the format of Book Club slightly… We will now have three weeks to read each novel and the fourth will be spent discussing it. So, the discussion for Magician will begin from September 8th.
The following book will be The White Queen by Philippa Gregory. It was recommended by Laura on thebookkat Facebook page that we read Gregory’s newest novel but it turned out to be book six in The Cousin’s War series. So, I thought we might start at the beginning… For those who have an eReader of sorts, this book is currently on sale on Amazon and iTunes for $4.99. We will be discussing this one from September 29th!