Skylark, by Jenny Pattrick (Black Swan, Auckland 2012), 329 pp., $37.99.
The subtitle of Jenny Pattrick’s new novel captures the spirit and style of Skylark. This is most certainly ‘An Entertainment’, innovative in its structure and filled with an exuberant joie de vive. I was captivated from the first vignette of the young Lily Alouette dancing amidst the loaves and pastries of Monsieur Pelier’s Menton boulangerie, the setting bearing the imprint of Pattrick’s time at the Villa Isola Bella as the Mansfield Literary Prize recipient.
‘I was born with the desire to perform’, declares Lily after the death of her parents on the Australian goldfields. Her talent as a singer, actor, bare-back rider, and trapeze artist provides her with an income, independence, and a surrogate family as she works for a succession of itinerant theatrical and circus companies touring Australia and New Zealand: Foley’s Victorian Circus, Mrs Foley’s theatre troupe, The Buckingham Family Entertainers. Even more importantly her work provides Lily with a purpose and an artistic outlet, for she is the consummate performer who thrives on the responses of an audience.
Pattrick has carefully researched the performance history of nineteenth century entertainers. Lily encounters the flamboyant Charles Thatcher, the delicate Annie Vitelli, the imperious Mrs Foley, the jovial Mr Foley, the enterprising Shadrach Jones, and the sweet-voiced Pollard children. In particular, Lily becomes entangled with the Buckingham Family Entertainers. Playfully blending fact and fiction, Pattrick has her fictional heroine take the stage as Rosetta Buckingham and follow the real Rosa’s unhappy romantic entanglement with the aptly named Bully Hayes: entrepreneur, con-man, egotist and thug. Of course, the recurring conceit that Lily is a chameleon, moving in and out of identities in pursuit of her art, fortuitously allows Pattick to save her heroine from the real Rosa’s tragic fate.
I was reminded of two early New Zealand novels while reading Skylark, both of which draw their inspiration from the world of itinerant theatre troupes. Arthur J. Rees’ epistolary The Merry Marauders (1913) vividly captures the misadventures of an accident-prone theatre company touring the North Island in early twentieth-century New Zealand. Skylark shares with Rees’ novel a sensitive and, at times, humourous appreciation of the liminal, precarious lives of our early entertainers: stars one moment and destitute the next as another, newer act comes to town. The vicissitudes of life on the road are also comically delineated in Thorpe (Frances Ellen) Talbot’s Philiberta (1882). The middle section of the novel features ‘The Woes and Adventures of an Itinerant Show’ who tour Canterbury, Otago, and Southland. The eight members of the troupe are drawn together by shared pecuniary difficulties and Talbot satirises escapades such as the Second Lady’s fit of pique when the Leading Lady receives all the bouquets, a departure from a hotel through a window to avoid paying the bill, a coin toss to establish whether the troupe or the Christy Minstrel show will perform, and a debate as to whether a violin solo would upstage Our Basso.
I am not suggesting that Pattrick has, or ought to have, read these forerunners to her rollicking tale, but I cannot resist giving these little-known texts a mention. Philiberta is also a useful point of comparison because of its non-crusading emphasis on the challenges confronting nineteenth-century women. This is no early feminist tract, but Philiberta is resourceful and independent, even disguising herself as a man to gain the role of violinist in the travelling show. I think Lily would have approved, for she too is brave, ingenious, and, above all, what she terms ‘resilient’, refusing to be cowed by life but confronting it with courage and flair.
Talbot mingles satire and sensation in Philiberta, her heroine confronting a bush fire, the murder of her parents, poisoning, shipwreck, doomed love, and suicide. Pattrick likewise employs the form of the Victorian melodrama, complete with perils, betrayals, secrets, tragedies, and a blackguard. The first half of Skylarkis billed as ‘A Melodrama! A Maid Pursued!’ and Pattrick’s evident enjoyment in allowing her imagination to run riot shines through. One could perhapsaccuse the characters of being one-dimensional, but this is also part of their charm for Pattrick is playing with the genre’s conventions and limitations. As Lily tells her son Samuel, ‘If there is no drama, who will be interested?’ Literary depictions of nineteenth-century New Zealand — both texts written during that era and more recent fiction set in the settlement era — tend to be dominated by social critique and social realism. I for one welcomed this irreverent romp as the perfect antidote to a surfeit of moral causes, earnest do-gooders, worthy farmers, and industrious wives.
Pattrick does not avoid the staple of the settler novel: life on a Taranaki farm. But she focuses on the complex romantic lives of her central characters rather than the minutiae of shearing, clearing, and droving, describing the second half of the novel as ‘A Farce: The Horseman, The Actress, and the Wench at the Gate’. This is a colonial world that completely overturns outworn, clichéd perceptions of New Zealand’s settler forebears as staid, puritanical, and inhibited. There is plenty of sex, a ménage a trois, and a hero (Jack Lacey) who outdoes the prowess of any stud bull, siring twelve children by two ‘wives’ in the space of eleven years. Pattrick’s depiction of interaction between Maori and Pakeha is similarly refreshing, ingeniously puncturing reader assumptions with a clever twist to do with the warm-hearted Mattie.
Aesthetically as an object, Skylark provides much pleasure, from the rich, burgundy, wallpaper-like interior covers, to the gothic lettering of the title page, to the playbill style contents page, to the delicate scrolls below each chapter title. Lily and Mattie’s narratives both begin with a page that evokes the shape and format of a journal, complete with the illusion of a ribbon to mark the place. The musical interlude before Mattie’s journal starts is a particular delight, complete with the sheet music for ‘Adelaida’ and ‘Bully Hayes’. When I got to this part of the novel I sat down immediately to play the tunes; a wonderfully interactive, sensory experience and so in keeping with the novel’s emphasis on the charms of performance.
Another of Skylark’s attractions is found in Pattrick’s ability to evoke the voices of children. ‘Bully Hayes’ is a ‘Comic Song and Clog-Dance Composed and Performed by Lydia and Lysander Lacey, Aged 9’ and the lyrics resonate with childish glee at the destruction of the villain who was ‘Bashed on the head / Until he was dead’. The chorus of children’s voices which end the novel are by turns poignant, angry, accusatory, self-justifying, poetic and matter-of-fact. The rivalries and complex hierarchies of sibling interaction are deftly conjured, as with Elsie’s defiant: ‘I should have been asked to write something before they [the twins] wrote their show-off poem, so now I’m not going to write anything.’
The one small quibble I have relates to the role of the archivist, Eleanor de Mountfort, who has ‘discovered’ and edited the Lacey family journals. I am a fan of the lost manuscript device, which was popularised by Gothic novelists such as Hugh Walpole and remains a favourite technique for bridging the gap between past and present and creating the illusion of authenticity. So I read with pleasure de Mountfort’s Prologue, which promises that the recovered manuscripts will not only provide a fascinating insight into one family but also illuminate gaps in the record of New Zealand’s performance history.
However, after this the archivist’s voice intrudes too often on the story for my taste, with italicised interventions and explanations in square brackets disrupting the narrative flow. The goal of the sensitive editor should always be unobtrusiveness. Yes, the verification of dates and facts and the analysis of possible discrepancies and gaps in the narrative is a key element of the editor’s function. However, I could not help wishing that Pattrick had employed footnotes, which interested readers could turn to, rather than mid-text interruptions. Perhaps unfairly, I came to dislike Eleanor de Mountfort, regarding her as unnecessarily self-important and know-it-all, explaining what did not need to be explained and justifying her decisions to exclude or tidy up sections of the journals rather than respecting the intelligence of the reader. Perhaps this was part of Pattrick’s purpose —the earnest editorial intrusions certainly served to cement my liking for Lillie’s wayward exuberance — but I would have preferred a narrative frame more in keeping with the conventions of editing. However, some readers will no doubt find the interleaving of journals and editorial comments more user-friendly than the footnotes of my longing and imagination!
My frustration with the annoying Eleanor aside, Skylark is a definite crowd pleaser which provides readers with both fascinating historical anecdotes and sensation-filled entertainment. Above all, there is the presiding presence of the mercurial, impudent, irrepressible Lily, for whom, literally, ‘all the world’s a stage’, be it a mining camp, a circus ring, a packed theatre, a family gathering, or the printed page.
KIRSTINE MOFFAT is a senior lecturer in the English programme of the University of Waikato, and the author of Piano Forte – Stories and Soundscapes from Colonial New Zealand, published by Otago University Press in 2012.
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