Melbourne claims to be the City of Literature, but this week Sydney is all things literary as we settle into the Sydney Writer’s Festival.
The Dictionary of Sydney is all about history, but of course, historians are writers, and some novelists also dabble in history. We have a fascinating article that charts the historical course of literature in Sydney by Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Webby here, and I commend that to you.
But today I want to reflect upon one particular writer and her ability to evoke life in Sydney. Her name? Ruth Park.
Ruth Park (1917-2010) wasn’t born here. She was a New Zealander. But she lived most of her life in Sydney. And, well, like so many things from New Zealand, we claim her as our own.
Ruth Park set several of her novels in Sydney, for both adults and children. One of my all-time favourite books as a child was Playing Beatie Bow. This was written by Park in 1980. It was set in The Rocks in the 1970s and a young teenage girl time travels back to colonial Sydney, to the Rocks 100 years earlier in the 1870s. How’s it happen? The time slip occurs playing a children’s game, with an old piece of lace that Abigail the lead character is wearing being the conduit.
It’s actually a coming of age story, but there are many recognisable sites around the Rocks in the book, including the steps beside the Argyle Cut leading to Gloucester Walk. I like to call them the Beatie Bow steps. Perhaps it’s what got me hooked on this whole history obsession! The novel won the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year in 1981, and it was later produced as a film. If you haven’t read it, you should – or at least read it to your children.
It was another set of children’s stories – forty years earlier – that actually set Ruth Park on the path of being a novelist rather than a journalist. Park’s big break was writing a radio serial for the ABC Children’s Hour. It started in 1942 as The Wide-Awake Bunyip and in the 1950s became The Muddle-Headed Wombat. This continued as a serial for the Children’s Hour until 1970. Park wrote a series of children’s books based on the serial characters that were published between 1962 and 1981.
Ruth Park’s first novel was The Harp in the South (1948). It won the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald novel competition in 1946 and was originally serialised in the Herald, before being published as a book. The Harp in the South was set in Sydney’s Surry Hills and affectionately portrayed the life of an Irish Catholic family in the slums of Surry Hills. Park brought a humanity to family life in the slums during the Depression, drawing upon first-hand experience.
Park and her husband D’Arcy Niland lived for a while in Surry Hills and witnessed the poverty, domestic violence, and daily struggle. And the social realism of Park’s writing today gives us a vivid account of what Surry Hills was like at the time. Her second novel, Poor Man’s Orange (1949), was a sequel to The Harp in the South, and continued to follow the Darcy family after the second world war. It too was serialised in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Harp in the South was a best-seller, has been translated into 37 languages, was made into a play and a tv mini-series. Last year, the books, with the prequel Missus (1985), were adapted for the stage by the Sydney Theatre Company.
Ruth Park had an obvious affection for Sydney. In 1973 the popular author wrote The Companion Guide to Sydney. It is an evocative account of Sydney’s history and landmarks, but it is also part lament to a vanishing Sydney, a Sydney she would also capture in Playing Beatie Bow. Park wrote in the preface that she was spurred to write the Guide by urgent dismay in the face of the great destruction of the city’s old buildings in the 1960s:
‘Oh, my poor old girl!’ I used to cry,’ she wrote, ‘stepping aside to avoid trucks laden with enormous ironbark beams, black with age and pocked with axe marks.’ (quoted in Delia Falconer’s Dictionary entry, ‘A City of One’s Own: Women’s Sydney’).
I still draw upon Park’s acute observations in The Companion Guide to Sydney from time to time in my own historical work.
Ruth Park was a journalist, a script writer, researcher, and novelist who made Sydney her home, and captured its soul through her writing. What better time to revisit some Sydney literary classics than during Sydney Writer’s Festival?
Park died in 2010. Her literary papers are held in the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.
Find out more about the Sydney Writer’s Festival here.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio