Expectations are a funny thing. If a book is marked as a ‘classic’—particularly as a forgotten classic that needs re-evaluating—a reader can be forgiven for expecting something quite special. This is particularly relevant considering my past encounters with Text Classics—forgotten Australian novels that Michael Heyward thinks deserve a wider audience. For the most part, I have enjoyed reading old Australian novels. So when I read the blurb for The Commandant, I was expecting a novel full of fireworks and fights, of complex moral ambiguity.
The first scene is a promising opening. On a ship from Sydney bound for Moreton Bay, several women are discussing their future lives. Of particular interest to us is Francis, whose sister, Letty, is married to the commandant of Moreton Bay: Patrick Logan. Mr Logan has recently come under fire in Sydney for his perceived bending of the rules when it comes to the punishment of the convicts for whom he is responsible.
But Letty is friends with a journalist who has made claims about Logan; claims Logan has refuted by filing suit against said journalist for defamation. Letty, being the naïve teenager she is, has spent so much time with the journalist’s family, she has been caught up in his truth, and believes Patrick Logan to be a monster, a throw-back to a time that has passed, and needs to be forgotten. I think it’s safe to say that, were she alive today, she would be what some people might disparagingly refer to as a latte-sipping, inner-city, bleeding heart lefty. So, of course, the most exciting thing the novel can offer is the confrontation between a man who believes what he does is right, and a woman who believes what he does is a crime against humanity.
This clash between Frances and Patrick never eventuates quite like I imagined it would, though again, perhaps my expectations were getting in the way of reality. Despite Francis’ willingness to shout loudly her opinions on the ship journey to Moreton Bay, as soon as she meets the man in question, she finds herself barely able to talk. She is, of course, only 17 years old, and Patrick Logan is, if nothing else, a physically imposing man. For Francis to be struck so dumb by the encounter immediately sets up the dynamic of the relationship between the two characters in a way that one might not otherwise expect.
There can be no question that the whipping of convicts—particularly with a cat-o’-nine-tails one hundred times—can be anything other than a vile abuse of power and position. But Patrick Logan never seems to overstep the limits set in place by colonial law when it comes to punishing his charges for their wrongs. And he is certainly not a bad man—yes, he has a bit of a temper, and is not exactly a revolutionary when it comes to penal reform, but not everyone has to be. The promised fight between a lefty on her moral high horse and a traditional man willing to follow the law in order to meet out punishment for people never happens.
Instead, there is talk. A lot of talk. Which, in Anderson’s defence, is something she does very well. All the dialogue in the novel is perfectly pitched, particularly the idiosyncratic speech patterns of Frances’ sister, Letty, whose lisp
It all seems to come to a head about halfway through the novel, when the talking stops, and something actually happens. Frances, who has already crossed social mores, is sexually assaulted by Martin, a young man who works as a gardener for the Logan household. The next events are strange. Frances is blamed for the attack, because she led him along by talking out of turn. Then she pleads for him not to be punished, not with the whip. Of course, Logan assures her that only the appropriate punishment will be given. Of course, the ‘appropriate’ punishment is whipping. The chance to turn this into a journey about Frances having to deal with an actual crime committed against her, and how she deals with punishment, glitters hopefully, like a diamond in a boulder.
But this interesting side road comes to a halting stop when the section ends, plunging us into the final third of the novel, which opens several days after the second ends, and we finds ourselves plunged into the middle of the bush just outside Brisbane, where a search party are looking for Patrick Logan, who has gone walkabout. The momentum built up in the last section surrounding the sexual assault and the subsequent fallout is completely lost as we go into the bush with this group, and spend fifty pages looking for the body of a dead man. It’s an odd choice, and for me, not one that paid off. Again, though, maybe this was just because I was expecting more page time for the clash between Patrick Logan and Francis.
That is the central mystery of The Commandant: why would Patrick Logan, a man so ostensibly committed to the law he has been tasked to uphold, go by himself into the bush? Was it to find the convicts that had escaped the camp to live with the Aboriginal tribes? Was it to escape the gossip surrounding his impending trial? Did he not want to go to India with his regiment? There is never a satisfactory answer, but to be honest, that is not the problem. The problem is that I was never invested enough in any of the answers to particularly care what the answer was.
Does anyone really change by the end of the novel? Have any of these characters learned anything? Frances goes back to Sydney, having seen the punishment Logan (and by extension, the law) hands out, and doesn’t like it. Logan himself is dead. Letty is a widow, and has to move back to Sydney with her children. It all kind of fizzles out in a weirdly anti-climactic fashion.
Expectations are unavoidable. Why read anything if you don’t already have some (at least vague) idea about what you are getting yourself into? But sometimes expectations work against you. The Commandant is a passable historical novel, notable particularly for the fact that it is set in Brisbane, not Sydney. But I’m not sure it’s a classic that deserves to be read for generations to come.