“She thinks she can be in two worlds and not have to choose.” (Benevolence)
Benevolence is a searing, unforgettable work for adults and mature young adults by Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation and award-winning playwright. It is published by Magabala Books.
Although not easy to read because of the unconscionable attitudes and appalling acts by white settlers, this novel is of immense importance because it gives the perspective of an Aboriginal woman during the early European colonisation of NSW. It explains her plight as she tries to find a life between disparate peoples and cultures, one with disproportionate power, hostility and greed.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Julie.
When and where is Benevolence set?
The setting is the area surrounding the beautiful Hawkesbury River near where I live (Deerrubbin). The novel begins in the Blue Mountains and then we travel with Muraging to Parramatta, Windsor, along the river ending on Palm Beach. The map at the beginning of the book will lead you to the sites.
Your descriptions of country are beautiful. What do you particularly love about the natural world?
I am passionate about the Australian bush. I care for our country and the plants and animals. I want to raise awareness about Climate Change and the impact of European activities on bushland and rivers and seas.
At the beginning of many of your chapters you recount something of the historical period in a more factual style before continuing with the narrative. How extensive has your research been?
The historical period is evoked from the British point of view at the beginning of most chapters to let the reader place the events in the historical context that has dominated Australian consciousness. After all, most history is written by the white male victors. My historical fiction seeks to put an Indigenous point of view and particularly that of women and children. We are often forgotten in interpretations of colonial history and the flurry of mainstream celebration of conquering nations.
How important is this mixture of styles to your work?
Actually, the British historical narrative at the beginnings of chapters was inserted on about draft five. My wonderful editor form Magabala, Margaret Whiskin suggested it.
Please introduce your protagonist Muraging/Mary to us.
Muraging is a way of pronouncing the Darug language word for quoll.
The important fact about the protagonist’s name is that it is taken from her along with her tribal connections by Governor Macquarie and his companions. She is given a new name: Mary James. She regains her name at the end of the novel.
What is the significance of her name/s?
The name is her true name. A hidden secret of Darug indentity.
How much of her life is based on fact?
I researched for many years about my Darug family but I found only marriage or death certificates and a rare birth certificate. However, Trove gave me insights such as my great great grandmother Mary Thomas was to be found in court reports in Windsor. She stole nine fowls and a horse! But escaped going to prison. (somehow? Gift of the gab runs in our family)
Why have you portrayed her as a fine violinist?
That is not true of me or my ancestors, we are artists and story tellers and appalling at music. However, I read about two Darug young women living at Tizzana Winery in the mid 1800s who were taught the violin by the wife (and ex nun) of the famous Doctor Fiaschi. When I saw a photograph of these female musicians who played with the Darug travelling band of gum leaf players, I thought I would borrow the concept. It was so enchanting!
Could you tell us about one of the Aboriginal people in your novel who is also a well-known historical figure?
The best known is Bowen, son of Chief Bungaree. He lived at Station Beach next to Palm Beach to the north of Sydney. He was a much-respected Black Tracker and policeman who protected his clan and the English settlers from bush rangers. His father, Bungaree circumnavigated Australia with Mathew Flinders.
The European male characters are generally despicable. Which character have you based most closely on factual information?
I have tried to be fair and portray some English characters with compassion. The character of Reverend Masters is based on Reverend Samuel Marsden. The flogging parson.
Who have you given some redeeming qualities to and why?
I hope my character of Mrs Shelly, the teacher shows her gentle kindness towards the Aboriginal students at her school. She is also a follower of the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft.
I have tried to show Reverend Henry Smythe as a young and somewhat innocent curate at the beginning of the novel. He is seduced by Mary, not the other way round. He is based on a historical person who I am fairly certain is the father of my great great grandmother Mary Thomas. (I have a photo). They are both buried at St Matthews Church in Windsor. Her grave is a small marker, his is a white monolith covered in cherubs and Jesuses.
What is your view of European women of the time in the colony?
There were several classes of women as the wonderful writer Anne Summers would say “damned whores and God’s police”. Many Darug Aboriginal women married ex convicts or Darug men.
Ex convict lasses often ended up as servants and married ex convicts. Mary Thomas married an ex convict. Then there were the ladies who came out with English pretensions and money who lorded it over everyone. My old relations referred to the “double shame, double stain” of being descended from both Aboriginal and convict blood. We now have great pride in this blood!
What is the significance of your title, ‘Benevolence’?
The title is ironic, because the English thought that every act towards Aboriginal people (including massacre) was benevolent. The idea of “smoothing the dying pillow” of the Aboriginal race was long held as an appropriate attitude. We call it attempted genocide. Also, in my research I discovered documents from the Benevolent Society in Windsor that said Mary Thomas had given up three children because “the mother unable to feed them”.
How have you shown love in the novel?
Argh…. Love! There are many manifestations of love in my novel. The love and longing by Mary for her missing father permeates the novel. My Aboriginal father Neville died when I was 18 in a car crash, I miss him every day. My mum is still alive and a wonderful presence in my life.
Then there is romantic love between Boothuri and Mary, young love. Love for our children is a powerful force in the story. I celebrate how us parents would risk all to care for them.
But the kind of portrayal of love that gets me the novelist into trouble is the hot sexy kind. Erotic scenes are fun to write but then, strange male readers sidle up to me asking which pages they should read for the sex! Oh dear, I thought I was writing a social political kind of novel.
How close to your heart is this story?
This novel was rejected by at least 10 mainstream publishers over a few years. Magabala saved me from giving up writing altogether!
The story is based on my family, but it is also generic and a tribute to all the Darug and other nation families who have struggled to find the hidden truth about our past.
What influence do you hope your novel has?
I hope it is the kind of book that readers say they couldn’t put down. I hope they laugh and cry. I hope it changes people’s perception of Australia’s early colonial history and lets Aboriginal resilience, defiance and courage shine. I hope it lets people know that not all Darug Burruberongal people died in massacres along the rivers and mountains. Some survived and at least 6,000 descendants live in Sydney’s western and northern suburbs.
How can your readers contact you?
I have a website with a contact page. I welcome readers.
Thank you for sharing your strong, heartfelt work with us, Julie. I hope that your seminal book travels far – and into hearts and reparatory acts.
We will leave Benevolence for now with your potent words about the waratah, a sacred flower for the Gundungurra and Darug women that Muraging/Mary lived with for a time.
“The Dreaming story tells of two mobs fighting by the river with much blood spilt filling waterholes, and the sky spirit wept and the waratah appeared from the earth to heal the land.”
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about “Benevolence”. Julie Janson