[Editor: This article by Aidan de Brune was published in The Cairns Post, 17 March 1933.]
Famous Australian authors.
His Sydney larrikin masterpiece.
(By Aidan de Brune.)
Louis Stone, the author of Jonah and Betty Wayside, is one of the most remarkable of Australian authors. His books, published in England, were allowed to go out of print during the War, and are now almost unobtainable. Second-hand copies of Jonah have been sold for as much as £2/10/- each. Competent critics declare that this book is a worthy successor to Robbery Under Arms and For the Term of His Natural Life amongst Australian novels that can properly be called “classic.”
“With one book,” declared A. G. Stephens, when Jonah was first published, “Mr. Stone has put himself in the front rank of Australian authorship.” Mr. John Galsworthy wrote: “I have lapped up your novel, which I consider extraordinarily actual, vivid and good.”
With such praise it is difficult to understand why Mr. Stone’s book was ever allowed to go out of print. Australian authors have certainly had small encouragement from their own countrymen in the past. The new edition of Jonah, which is to be published this year by “The Endeavor Press,” in Sydney, will make tardy amends to Mr. Stone for twenty years’ neglect of his masterpiece.
What is it that makes Jonah a really great book? Norman Lindsay perhaps supplied the answer when he wrote: “Louis Stone’s streets and people are instantly vitalised and known at a glance.”
Let us take an example of his descriptive power. It is the reader’s introduction to Mrs. Yabsley, the mountainous washerwoman philosopher:
“Cardigan-street was proud of her. Her eyes twinkled in a big humorous face; her arm was like a leg of mutton; the floor creaked beneath her as she walked. She laughed as a bull roars; her face turned purple; she fought for air; the veins rose like cords on her forehead. She was pointed out to strangers like a public building as she sat gossiping with her neighbors in a voice that shook the windows. Her sayings were quoted like the newspapers. Draymen laughed at her jokes.”
Note with what artistry the novelist has built up a complete picture in simple words. We note the same forceful quality in the description of Jonah himself, the larrikin hunchback, with his “large head, wedged between the shoulders as if a giant’s hand had pushed it down, the masterful nose, the keen grey eyes, and the cynical lips.”
Jonah is truly an unforgettable character. Born in the squalor and cruelty of slum life, he becomes leader of the “Push,” and dictator of its fierce laws. One of the most terrifying passages in all literature is the description of the Push, “dealing out stouch” to a victim:
“The Push opened out, and the man, sobered by danger, stood for a moment with bewildered eyes. Then, with the instinct of the hunted, he turned for home and ran. The Push gave chase. Again and again the quarry turned, blindly seeking refuge in the darkest lanes. As his pursuers gained on him he gave a hoarse scream — the dolorous cry of a hunted animal. But it was the cat playing with the mouse. The bricklayer ran like a cow, his joints stiffened by years of toil; the larrikins, light on their feet as hares, kept the pace with a nimble trot, silent and dangerous, conscious of nothing but the desire and power to kill.”
From this fierce and savage environment Jonah escapes, thanks to Mrs. Yabsley’s motherly humorous advice and the influence of his own baby son, by Mrs. Yabsley’s daughter, Ada. When Jonah first sees the baby, “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone”:
“He remembered his deformity, and with a sudden catch in his breath, lifted the child from its crude and felt its back, a passionate fear in his heart. It was straight as a die . . . “Sool ’im!” he cried at last, and poked his son in the ribs.
From that moment his regeneration begins. “’e’s the only relation I’ve got in the world; ’e’s the only livin’ creature that looks at me without seein’ my hump,” says Jonah to Mrs. Yabsley. The story of his victory over sordid surroundings, and of how the larrikin and wastrel wins through to self-respect is told throughout with the sureness of touch and gift for observation that only great novelists possess.
Louis Stone, a quiet-speaking and cultivated man, is now living in retirement at Randwick. He was born in Leicester, and came to Australia as a child. He is a graduate of Sydney University, and was a schoolmaster for many years. His favorite authors are Flaubert and Virgil. He has a keen appreciation of classical music, of which he is an accomplished critic. With these scholarly interests it is all the more remarkable that the theme of his magnum opus should have been the lowest life of Sydney’s slum streets, but to the humanist all life is interesting and this perhaps explains why Mr. Stone turned to a subject which most writers would have found unattractive, or too difficult.
It is well that he did so. The larrikin pushes of Sydney have almost entirely disappeared. But in one great book that interesting phase of Australian evolution has been put on record for all time.
The Cairns Post (Cairns, Qld.), Friday 17 March 1933, page 6