Monday, 2 March 2015

Book Review - The gold robbers by Celeste de Chabrillan

The gold robbers by Madame Celeste de Chabrillan, translated from the French by Lucy & Caroline Moorehead

Melbourne: Sun Books, 1970                                                          ISBN 0725101024

This is an interesting book on so many levels - as the first novel about the Victorian Gold Rush it is interesting on a historical level; given it was written by the wife of the French Consul to Melbourne it sheds an interesting light on Continental views of both the British and their colonial cousins in the mid 1800s, and the story itself is a rollicking read in the nature of the "penny dreadfuls" that started to appear at this time.

First, to the story. The Iwans family decide to emigrate to Australia as Dr. Iwans is struggling to provide for his family in England. The first section of the story describes the sea-voyage on the Marco Polo, where the Iwans family adopt baby Bijou, whose mother has died on the voyage. Upon arrival in Melbourne, Dr. Iwans is horrified at the high cost of living, and ends up in St. Kilda, which at that stage is a separate town from Melbourne itself. Eventually he manages to get a nice practice going, and when he helps the rich Mr. Fulton after a fall, Life begins to look good.

Mr. Fulton is an interesting character - very wealthy, a loner with a mysterious past. He falls for one of Iwans' daughers, Melida, who doesn't return his love. Meanwhile, Dr. Iwans is tending a young man by the name of Joanne, whom he nurses back to health.

Joanne's story now takes up the narrative - he left his native Belgium for Australia, and was robbed and assaulted by his travelling companion Max. Joanne makes his way to Ballarat, where he meets and falls in love with Louisa. Meanwhile Max has left prison and teamed up with another criminal called "The Cutter". They too make it to Ballarat, where they murder Joanne's friend for his gold dust, and begin a career doing the same to other miners in Ballarat. Eventually Joanne spies Max, who, with the Cutter, flees the town for Bendigo. Max then develops a plan to rob the gold escort, which he does with the Cutter, murdering most of the escort, and then killing the Cutter in cold blood so he doesn't have to share the money.

Joanne meanwhile has sent his fiancee to Melbourne as he was fearful of Max's vengeance. When he eventually arrives back in Melbourne with pockets full of gold, it is only to find that Louisa has died of fever. He sinks into despair, which is where Dr. Iwans comes in.

Then the big twist of the plot - Joanne sees Mr. Fulton, and realised that he is in fact Max. Max, realising the game is up, kidnaps Melida and tries to escape with her. She is eventually returned to her family, but has been "dishonoured" by Max. He, for the first time, realises that he is actually in love with Melida, and so cannot bring himself to leave Melbourne. He is eventually discovered and hanged for his crimes. Meanwhile, the Iwans and Joanne have decided to return to England. There is more tragedy on the way home, but once back in England life becomes better.

This book was praised by no less a personage than Dumas, and was quite successful in its day. The description of life in the colonies is irredeemably harsh, with only death and misfortune to be expected. The descriptions of both Melbourne and Ballarat are full of life and give the modern reader an insight into what life must have been like in these frontier towns at the height of the early gold rush, where everyone was armed to the teeth and death was around every corner. 

Celeste de Chabrillan may have written this novel with thoughts of vengeance in her mind. One of Paris' celebrated courtesans, she wrote of her life before marriage in a celebrated book, which had preceded her to Melbourne, which meant that she was never accepted into Melbourne 'society'. The gold robbers does not contain any high society types in it, and I'm sure Chabrillan was making the point that those that considered themselves such in Melbourne at the time were deceiving themselves.

This edition was published under the Sun Books imprimatur - my copy being one of the few early Sun Books left, in my experience, without a cracked binding and loose pages. Sun Books, created by Brian Stonier, Geoff Dutton and Max Harris, was one of the great little Australian publishers that existed in the glory years of publishing in this country, and is not mourned enough, in my opinion. They published both new books and ferreted out old stuff such as The gold robbers, and had it translated (by the wife and daughter of Alan Moorehead) and published in English for the first time. Hopefully we are seeing a renaissance of this type of promotion of literature by and to do with Australia in the Text Classics series.

If you have an interest in Australian history, the gold rush, or even if you just like a good melodrama, The gold diggers is worth hunting out.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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