After Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in the 1840s the English popular press continued to demand “Christmas stories.” Thirty years later, Anthony Trollope wrote Harry Heathcote of Gangoil: A Tale of Australian Bush Life in response to the demand for such a story.
I have read a lot of Trollope – and once resolved to read everything he wrote – but this novelette is new to me. Of all his novels and short stories, this one may become my least favorite: readable, but not recommended. It falls short for me as a Christmas story, in the veracity of its setting, and in its structure.
I’ll begin with the structure. Trollope can write long as in The Way We Live Now, He Knew He Was Right and the entire series of Paliser and Barsetshire novels. He also writes short, but I find his short stories much less satisfying than his novels. Trollope can summarize character in a few well-chosen words, but he makes you feel character by incident after incident, as the characters interact. Harry Heathcote is too short, 130 pages in paperback, to do this effectively with characters too limited in number and diversity. Harry himself is supposedly modeled on Trollope’s son Frederic who was at that time, like Harry, a sheep farmer in Australia. What Trollope offers us about him is not entirely flattering:
They all understood him very well – the German, the Irishman, Medlicot’s foreman, Medlicot himself, and even Jacko; and though, no doubt, there was a feeling within the hearts of the men that Harry Heathcote was imperious, still they respected him – and they believed him.
Imperious, no doubt, and close to aggressively offensive at times, yet Trollope passes this off as just a personal quirk. In a longer work, Harry’s nature could have been displayed for better or worse in a greater variety of situations.
The central situation in the book is the threat of brush fires during the summer dry season. Fires are natural in a dry land, as we have learned in the American West, but Harry has leased land for his sheep and constructed fences. He sees fire as the enemy and he conflates this natural risk with the possibility of arson by his human enemies. Night after night he patrols his fields and fences. So far this is believable. His neighbor, Medlicot, has purchased, not leased his land, thus posing a threat to Harry’s expectations of the availability of land in the future. This is believable also, although a bit unreasonable on Harry’s part. What is not believable is that Medlicot is growing sugar cane on his land and has built a mill to crush the case. I have seen sugar cane growing in Florida and Hawaii and many locals complained in both places that the cane required such great amounts of water. Sheep are raised in many places, including the semi-desert West, mountain and hill country, and the Lake District of the British Isles. In no place where sheep are raised commercially would it be possible to grow sugar cane. Even Editor P. D. Edwards comments about the area described that “the land near the river had never really been hospitable to sheep, being too wet.” The improbability of a conflict between the sheep and the sugar cane distracted me from the other virtues of the story.
The greatest strength of the story comes from its portrayal of the reactions of men in exile from their native land. English settlers like Harry Heathcote find the German settlers reliable, but are not so sure about the Irish. Although Trollope strives to depict the rough and ready nature of frontier life, he knows that the English also cling to their concepts of class. The attitude of Harrys wife – who has an unmarried sister – is that Medlicot has some solid advantages.
When she first saw Mr. Medlicot she felt it a God-send that such a man, with the look of a gentleman, and unmarried, should come into the neighborhood; and in so feeling her heart had been entirely with her sister.
In his Introduction, Edwards explains the nature of a Christmas story:
The essential requirements of the species, as established by Dickens in the 1840s, was a spectacular resolution of class-conflicts and a patching up of personal differences, preferably consummated over Christmas dinner at the end of the tale.
The conflicts resolved here have no relationship to Christmas, nor does Harry change his ways, although he does enlarge his understanding of the realities of Bush Life. Only the food gets it entirely right.
‘There are things which can’t be transplanted. They may roast beef, and all that, but you should have cold weather to make you feel that it is Christmas indeed.’
‘I think we do it as well as we can,’ Harry pleaded. ‘I’ve seen a great pudding come into the room all afire – just to remind one of the old country – when it has been so hot that one could hardly bear a shirt on one’s shoulders….’