Old and New Frontiers: Gay Lynch’s Unsettled

Review by Carmel Bendon
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

Readers expect historical fiction novels not only to evoke authentically a particular time and place but also to be accessible and relatable to modern sensibilities by way of the problems that the characters face. In Unsettled author Gay Lynch sets out to do just this, by drawing on some of her own family’s stories and on factual events and persons in the Mt Gambier area of south-east South Australia and Melbourne, in the second half of the nineteenth century while, at the same time, having her characters deal with issues that are very familiar to 21st century Australians.

The novel centres on an Irish immigrant family, the Lynches, who left Galway to make their new home on a humble property near Gambierton (now Mt Gambier) in the mid-1800s. Rosanna, the book’s key character, is the elder daughter of the family and already on the cusp of womanhood when the story opens. Adventurous and headstrong, Rosanna has spent her late childhood riding horses and exploring the area around the family homestead, even befriending some of the Booandik indigenous people and coming to understand something of their language and culture. In her Booandik friends, Moorecke and Jack, Rosanna recognises the turmoil and injustices that have been inflicted on the original inhabitants, their lot being even more unsettled than that of her own family who suffered the uprooting and dislocation that was the common experience of the Irish diaspora of the 1840s onwards. And hence the title Unsettled captures so many of the book’s themes and metaphors. Rosanna, of course, is the most ‘unsettled’ character, mourning for the Ireland of her early years that is left far behind, railing against the indignities and inequalities that she suffers at the hands of men like her father who openly preferences her older brother, Edwin; sorrowing and despairing over the harshness of her own mother’s situation; and longing to get away from Gambierton but feeling trapped by the social restrictions that keep women in subservience to men and at the mercy of the hard work of tending children and keeping the home running. But Rosanna is never a victim; like the horses that she loves (and expertly rides), she is clear-headed, spirited, and always moving forward. And like the races and steeplechases that the horses are involved in, the role of chance or fate in life is always simmering just below the story’s surface. The character of Rosanna, then, walks the line between what is and what could be, and highlights both the friction and connection between the old and new worlds, her dissatisfaction with the life women are forced into living in settler society — their social restrictions a result of their gender and not of their abilities or intelligence — pushing her to strive for something better in her own life, and for those she loves. For example, when her younger brother, Skelly, is sexually abused by a religious brother at a boarding school, Rosanna confronts the perpetrator, thereby inverting and subverting both the male-female, and the ‘sacred’-profane, hierarchies in a manner that we, as readers, cannot fail to regard as a comment on today’s sexual abuse scandals.

Alert readers, too, might be interested in Lynch’s interpolation of actual historical persons and events in Unsettled. The wrecking of the passenger and trading ship, the Admella, in 1859 features and has a pivotal effect on the plot’s trajectory. Father Tennison Woods — a highly-regarded priest of that time in South Australia’s south-east — is also of significance in the plot and, closer to our own time, we are familiar with his name in connection to Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop. Poet Adam Lindsay Gordon is an important presence throughout the narrative, and his tragic suicide stands as the ultimate example of ‘unsettled’. Even Charles Dickens gets a brief mention when Rosanna hears, in passing, a Wurundjeri man call out that ‘Charles Dickens is dead’ (p.381) and this invocation gives a subtle but clever nod to the form of Unsettled’s narrative which, at times, emulates Dickens’ serialisations.

Interesting, too, is the author’s generous use of metaphor and intertextuality. Snakes, for example, function as symbols of loss of innocence, and as bringers of life as well as death. Lost children emphasise the particular emotional and psychological suffering of women while also underlining the regularity of the ‘lost child’ trope in Australian art and literature. And then there’s the theatre metaphor which, operating along the lines of Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ monologue in As You like It, sees Rosanna and her family drawn into a world of hope for a better future and distraction from their daily strife. In fact, the theatre works as the principal vehicle of the novel’s intertextuality through the narrative’s sustained engagement with the (actual) play The Hibernian Father by the playwright Edward Geoghegan (1813 – 1869). Performed professionally in Sydney at the Royal Victoria Theatre in 1858, the play’s plot revolves around a Galway family with the surname Lynch. Rosanna’s fascination with the play is ignited by several sparks including this coincidence of the characters’ family name and provenance, her love of reading and drama and, especially by her growing infatuation with the actor, George Sutherland, who uses the play’s script as bait to lure her into a sexual relationship. The rest of the Lynch family are also drawn into the ‘play within the play’ by the presumed family connections but, just as the Shakespearean ‘play within the play’ functions as a mirror in miniature to the larger tragedy, so The Hibernian Father assumes a similar role in revealing more about Rosanna’s family. Interestingly, Geoghegan also wrote the play The Currency Lass and ‘currency lads and lasses’ were the terms used to designate the first generation of offspring born in the colony to the first settlers and convicts and, in some ways, though Rosanna was not born in Australia, she comes to embrace the possibilities of her new country, fitting more comfortably into her adopted land and seeing some of her hopes and dreams coming to fruition, even if not in the way she had hoped and envisaged as a younger woman. Perhaps, in the end, she exchanges the ‘unsettled’ nature of her relationship with her adopted country for a ‘settled’ one.

As might be gathered from this brief consideration of the novel, there is a lot happening in Unsettled. However, in bringing the many threads together, the author’s own words about the motivation for this book are worth noting. In an earlier academic work, but in reference to Unsettled, Gay Lynch wrote that

The exclusion of women from male historical narratives has been a major impetus for feminist re-writing of history in post-colonial novels. Unsettled, a small family story set against a larger history of the South-East, was partly begun for this reason.[i]

As we today deal with the sad consequences of institutional child sexual abuse, continuing inequalities in male-female relationships, injustices enacted on minority groups, Indigenous peoples and refugees, the themes of Unsettled and the experiences of its characters, find a resonance.

[i] Gay Lynch. Apocryphal and Literary Influences on Galway Diasporic History. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010. p.105

by Gay Lynch

Ligature Books, 2019

Dr Carmel Bendon is an author, academic and presenter. With a PhD in Medieval Literature, and Medieval Mystics as her specialist field, her publications include the book Mysticism and Space, and articles on Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, anchoresses, and Geoffrey Chaucer. She is a popular presenter on ‘all things medieval’ and her radio presentations include ‘Medieval Women – A Series’ on The Ark, Radio National and a stint as ‘the medieval expert’ on Radio Australasia’s The Conversation Arena. Her first novel, Grasping at Water (Odyssey Books, 2018) wonders how a medieval mystic would fare in modern-day Sydney.