Reading history backwards, Edmund Bohan

The Blue Lion: An historical love story
Graham Billing
Cape Catley, $24.95,
ISBN 090856192X

The Blue Lion was Graham Billing’s last book, for the author of Forbush and the Penguins, The Slipway and The Chambered Nautilus died last December before it was published. Unfortunately, my own long absence from New Zealand coincided with the most fruitful years of his career, and although several of his novels were published in both America and the UK, they did not come to my notice in London. This is the first of his books I have read.

The bare skeleton of The Blue Lion can be easily delineated: Albion Duffy arrives in Charlotte Brosnahan’s Dunedin boarding house in February 1868, saves her from a potentially disastrous fire and feels powerfully attracted to her. He meets the other boarding-house dwellers, joins in their musical evenings and and shares their delight in the new bath. He helps with tasks and chores, displays his tarot cards, learns a lot about Charlotte, her son and her pet monkey, and he subjects himself to continuous self-analysis. He replies to the Acclimatisation Society of Otago’s advertisement for someone to supervise the delivery of fertilised salmon eggs to Deep Stream and their release into the Taeri River. When he is interviewed, he discourses on his scientific beliefs, his concept of time, the microbe, his acceptance of the ideas of Darwin and Malthus, and his conviction that the mystic and ecstatic enhance the sense of “man’s sense of union with God”. He is accepted. He takes Charlotte to Dunedin’s Vauxhall Gardens and to Fat Cheng’s Chinese restaurant, and he discovers that the bits of rock in bags in the back shed can be used as a water softener.

He goes to Deep Cove, meets blonde and alluring Mary McIvor and her dark, perceptive companion Denebola, and takes tea with them. He corresponds with Charlotte and prepares the salmon hatchery, waging ruthless war against eels, black shags and acclimatised Australian white-faced heron. He meets Mary’s father, the local landowner and Member of Parliament, and he comes to an understanding with Mary. He proceeds with his work tending the young fish, and he consults his tarot cards. In Dunedin again for Christmas, he finds Charlotte using her green mud as a cosmetic face pack, and he picks up Jean, a woman of easy virtue who paints parasols. He and Charlotte consult the tarot cards again.

Back at Deep Stream, he resolves to become betrothed to Mary, “the fair-haired Princess of Clubs”, but is rejected by her father and in a fury opens the salmon sluices and shoots Dr McIvor’s introduced birdlife. Back in Dunedin, he resumes his affair with Jean until they quarrel about the “spirits” and the true meanings of “love” and “music”. Enraged suddenly and almost inexplicably, he daubs a
star on her naked body, telling her:

“You talk about the spirits all the time. I suppose deep down you believe in God. The Christian God raised you. Was not that so? You believe in that primitive and vulgar Christian sacrifice do you? In the expression of the desire to kill that all men have? Men and women have always clung to it, especially women. Men just do the killing. God! The most pernicious and destructive idea that man ever came up with.”


Understandably, Jean orders him out of her house and life. He returns to Charlotte, and together (after further tarot consultation at Fat Cheng’s restaurant) they make an expedition into the Dunstan Mountains to collect the spirogyra mud and the Epsomite rock for Charlotte’ s new and burgeoning cosmetics manufactory. They employ all their boarding-house friends and they make their fortunes. Finally, they achieve an erotic and spiritual union on the banks of the Taeri River as the new salmon successfully return from the ocean to breed.


I wish I could like this novel, but even a second reading failed to lessen the dismay with which I first read it. As a story, it scarcely exists. There is no tension, no real conflict to engage one or exercise one’s imagination, or compel one to turn the page. It is little more than the sketch of a novel. Yet the effectiveness, let alone the greatness of a novel does not necessarily rely on story or plot alone. What about the characters? Again, I was disappointed. The lugubrious Albion himself is really yet another “man alone” figure – one of those entirely self-centred, relentlessly introverted characters who for far too long have bedevilled New Zealand fiction: those true old men of our literary seas who one might have hoped had at last vanished from our contemporary writing; the true bores of a far too self-conscious “literary” tradition.  Nor are Charlotte, Jean, Mary and Denebola convincing. Charlotte and Jean are scarcely distinguishable; Mary is a wispy shadow; only Denebola seems to have the beginnings of a distinct presence.

All the characters – except Fat Cheng – speak with the same voice regardless of class or racial background; Charlotte is supposed to be Irish, but you would never think so from her speech patterns. All speak with the author’s voice, and all are pseudo-philosophers whose frequently gnomic utterances occasionally strike a comic tone – unintentional, I am sure, for this is a book entirely without humour. If it is remarkable, in fact, it must be so only for the crippling absence of the merest suspicion of wit, let alone any trace of that irony which can enliven even the most ordinary story and bring to life otherwise dull characters. And sometimes the dialogue becomes too “literary” or “significant” and loses any verisimilitude:

Together they leaned on the packing case, breathing hard. “That was a close-run thing,” Charlotte said. “I’d lose everything if this place burned down – everything I’ve struggled for in this town full of struggles.”


Nor is there any particularly vivid sense of time or place evoked by the meticulously detailed descriptions of household effects, stoves, hot-water systems and Dunedin’s butchers’ shops. It is not enough for the writer of historical fiction to merely describe items anyone can inspect in the coldness of a museum. Even the sometimes precise descriptions of the Dunedin landscape seem oddly without much genuine impact – perhaps because they are too many and too indiscriminate. Billing’s touches of “real history” are also too glib. The paragraph about Julius Vogel is by a man who knew about the elderly Vogel’s beliefs and aspirations but seems to have little appreciation of the young Vogel of 1868; a paragraph written by one who has only read history backwards – from the present. I get little sense that he imaginatively placed himself inside his setting or really understood the period – except on a superficially didactic intellectual level. He has not, I fear, brought to life the bustling and dynamic Dunedin of 1868.

Much has been made by some other reviewers of Billing’s “lyrical” and “sensuous” writing and his remarkable ability to describe vividly and memorably both landscape and natural objects. Certainly he could be a skilled craftsman with words. He was also clearly passionate about the environment and as a painstakingly and deeply knowledgeable observer of birds, animals, plants and fish – both for their own sake and as a source for metaphor:

“The trouble is,” Dan said, with his eyes wide out over the hills, “the trouble is you’ve got to play Charlotte – you’ve got to play her like a fish.” Then he clicked the horses.


The trouble is, the metaphors are not developed with any particular effectiveness or consistency; it is almost as though Billing himself lost interest in them.

It is regrettable, I think, that in this last novel what were, perhaps, his virtues become almost liabilities. Rather than being “lyrical”, much of his writing seems simply forced and overwrought; description and “fine writing” become a substitute for either plot or characterisation rather than a means to an end. The relentless straining for simile seems to become almost the raison d’être for the book; a succession of elaborate verbal adornments more suitable for an essay than a novel. In places, the book even teeters on the edge of self- parody. The first two pages reminded me irresistibly of that enduring classic Cold Comfort Farm, in which Stella Gibbons parodied Mary Webb; one or two other descriptive passages even bring to mind Evelyn Waugh’s equally brilliant parodies of “fine” nature writing in Scoop; the erotic encounter of the last two pages recalls D H Lawrence at his worst in those famously and enduringly risible passages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Several friends whose literary opinions I respect – but do not always share – assure me that Billing is one of our finest novelists and prose writers. And so, having read only this last but, sadly, far from fine novel, I am impelled to catch up with his previous work – out of simple if slightly bewildered curiosity, and under a compulsion to be fair to his memory.


Edmund Bohan is an historical novelist and biographer living in Christchurch. His latest novel The Irish Yankee is reviewed on p10.



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