Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 154 pages; 1994.
Liam Davison’s novella The White Woman is a fictionalised account of the real-life search for a woman said to be lost in the wilds of Gippsland, Victoria, in the early 19th century.
Newspaper reports claimed she had been taken by Blacks who were holding her captive. But no one really knew who she was or exactly who had taken her. A cynical person — *cough, cough* me — might think it was merely a cover to explain why so many Aboriginals were massacred at the time.
There were rumours of course, stories which couldn’t be discounted. She was the educated daughter of an English lord; the mother of children; a child herself. She had entered religious orders. In the end, all we had was the name the blacks had given her. Lohantuka. White woman. To be honest, I fear she was something different to each of us; mother, daughter, lover, wife. Or all of them.
The story is written from the perspective of a man who participated in the search some 30 years earlier. The son of a fellow participant has contacted him, wanting to know what happened, so the narrator directs the tale at him using a second-person narrative.
His tale is intimate, with a tone of regret. He knows that the search was not actually about the so-called “virtuous woman lost in the bush, held by savages against her will” but about the men who wished to rescue her. And he knows that their view of the Blacks was prejudiced and wrong because it was simply easier to see them as “savages, brutes, the very opposite of what we are ourselves” than to seek out the truth.
That truth — ugly and dark — runs like a “heretical undercurrent” throughout the tale. It hints that the white men were the savages, the ones intent on blood thirsty acts using carbines, muskets and lengths of rope. These unsettling stories, not fully told or fully admitted to…
[…] still linger after all these years, snippets of gossip, part hearsay, part conjecture, but always with the possibility of truth behind them; things about ourselves so far outside the realm of acceptability we couldn’t hope to face them. They didn’t reach the papers. […] “The Highland Brigade”. “Sons of Scotland”. You’ve heard of them? Infamy doesn’t fade. You see, the stories still being told, their feats still grow in stature. Groups of men set out against the blacks – not spontaneous eruptions of violence, but calculated, well-planned expeditions. Sorties, hunts, call them what you want. They had a purpose.
Based on a real expedition
The book is based on the ‘White Woman Expedition’ led by Christian J. DeVilliers in 1846, a party of men who departed Melbourne for Gippsland, a treacherous journey by sea and land into wilderness not previously explored by Europeans. (You can read a bit more about the expedition in this summary of an academic paper published in 1999, which the author used as part of his research.)
It features beautiful descriptions of the bush and the waterways that are explored (including places that are well known to me such as Wilson’s Promontory and Port Albert on the South Gippsland coast). There’s a real sense of remoteness and a mild terror of the unknown. And the characters, which range from uptight to fearful, sanctimonious to petty, are depicted with great nuance. You really get to feel the tensions between rival parties (DeVilliers tried to work with the Gippsland police commissioner Tyers and the Border Police, who weren’t particularly cooperative) and even within Devilliers’ own party.
It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal the white woman is never found, but what the men do stumble across is horrific and stomach churning, the kind of evidence that history has long chosen to ignore. This important novella helps put everything in context and through the device of fiction reveals to us the long hidden truth. It’s a remarkable — and moving — achievement.
Lisa from ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book as part of a personal tribute to the author — Liam Davison and his wife were on board Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 when the Russians shot it down over disputed territory in Ukraine in 2014. There were no survivors.
Please note this book appears to be out of print. I purchased mine second hand at a charity book sale earlier in the year.
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn: This is a travelogue-cum-historical-biography about the author’s great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837. McMillan was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland” but new evidence suggests he was responsible for massacring hundreds of Aboriginals. Unsurprisingly, he has now come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”. McMillan is the man who started the rumour of the missing white woman…
I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books