The Schoolmaster’s Daughter
Angus & Robertson, 2020
384pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99
The turn of the 20th century, a new nation and perhaps a new start for Hannah’s family as her father has been appointed schoolmaster of the one-teacher school at Port Harris, a town founded, owned and ruled by one man who built the local sugar cane industry, itself built on the slave labour of the Pacific Islanders “contracted” to work and live in conditions that would rival the worst of what we know about the southern states of the USA.
It is not an auspicious start with the Cecily McPhee foundering as she was caught in a storm of Pirate Bay, and the shipwrecked travellers having to fight their way to shore. While the men decide they will try to find a way to the port, the women shelter and are rescued by a young lad and taken to his family farm. But that young lad is coloured and the product of a mixed marriage between his white mother and his Kiribatian father and immediately the first ugly seeds of racism start to grow. While Hannah and her mother have no qualms, the other women immediately adopt the holier-than-thou attitude of European settlers of the time and demonstrate why Jamie and his mum have been ostracised.
Add into the mix Mrs Gilbert’s liberal views, her passion for women’s suffrage and universal education that includes girls and non-whites, so much so that she starts a secret school for Hannah and Jamie, and you have another powerful historical novel that is as much fact as it is fiction. Once again, Jackie French exposes the reader to times past that have been hidden because men wrote the history books and directed the classroom curriculum by bringing her own family history to light and to life. As the nation moved through the early months of Federation, the first tentative steps towards women’s suffrage and the introduction of the White Australia Policy that prohibited all non-European immigration and was not abolished until 1973 when it at last became illegal to discriminate on the grounds of race, Hannah and her mother unpeel those carefully constructed layers subtly and softly through staying true to their beliefs without fanfare or fuss and certainly not offence. Hannah’s mother is very well aware of the impact of scandal and how it would affect the progress of change. Now, 120 years on, we are starting to see and appreciate the determination and strength of those shoulders on which we stand as we become and celebrate a nation of many cultures, enjoy universal education whose value is even clearer in current circumstances, and even our personal lives as we choose to marry or not, divorce or not, have children or not.
Definitely a read for older, independent readers, this is a story that has both the deepest of depths and the widest of implications as we really consider where we have come from as both individuals and a nation, and where we want to go. For this is a unique time in which the world has paused and we can choose the future, personally and collectively.