For the serious, literary-minded schoolgirl, there have always been two tribes: those who worship at the shrine of Jane Austen, and those whose imaginations run wilder with the Brontė sisters. It's a choice that seems as much linked with lifestyle as literary taste. "They're different kinds of pleasures," admits author Mardi McConnochie. "Austen is very light and funny and witty. The Brontės are more dark, passionate and psychological. I think I was always a Brontė girl."
Still is. The Adelaide teenager may have matured into a thoroughly postmodern woman, completing a Ph.D. on the late English feminist writer Angela Carter while penning soapie scripts for Home and Away, but 30-year-old McConnochie's schoolgirl obsession still runs rampant. While studying Australian literature at the University of Adelaide, she was struck by the lack of a local romantic tradition, so for her first novel, Coldwater (Flamingo; 311 pages), she has helped fill the void, resurrecting the Brontė sisters Down Under. It's the most audacious-and assured-act of Australian literary appropriation since Peter Carey brought Charles Dickens' Abel Magwitch alive and kicking from the colonies in 1997's Jack Maggs. "I was interested in both exploring the Brontė legacy and filling some cultural spaces," McConnochie says.
Where the Brontė sisters lived lives of desperate tedium in their Yorkshire parsonage in Haworth, McConnochie furnishes them with an environment every bit as Gothic as their fevered imaginings: the fictional penal colony of Coldwater, a windswept island three days by boat from Sydney. The year is 1847, and convict whippings, rumors of mutiny, and romantic frissons pierce the consciousness of the three Wolf sisters-Anne, Emily and Charlotte -who struggle to write under the shadow of their father, the island's hated governor.
Forever peeling potatoes, "pathologically shy" Emily is filled with "thoughts of Catherine and Blackheath (not sure about that name)"; "bad-tempered and lazy" Anne is undecided about the setting of her novel ("At the moment I don't know if it's England or Gondal or somewhere entirely different") and prefers to walk the cliffs instead; while "bombastic" Charlotte struggles with writer's block after her father cruelly dismisses her work as "of no more interest to the general public than the children's tales it closely resembles."
As well as killing off brother Branwell early in the piece, McConnochie has fun flitting between the sisters' literary voices. Emily's dalliance with an Irish special prisoner is captured with the tragic intensity of Wuthering Heights. Charlotte-torn between loyalties to her father, heart and creative muse -carries the shrill pragmatism of Jane Eyre. Meanwhile Anne, her eyes trained on the horizon that may bring escape in the form of her fisherman lover, embodies the wider social inquiry of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Clouds scud, hearts hammer, brains boil.
But Coldwater is more than a clever exercise in literary pastiche. With a critical eye perhaps closest in spirit to Anne, McConnochie coolly probes the social machinery that gave rise to the Brontės and their highbred neuroticism. Woven through the narrative are accounts of prisoner discipline and rehabilitation, debates about slavery, and the increasingly deranged journals of Captain Wolf, whose initial decency erodes to reveal a demonic despot. He's an arresting mix of fact and fiction: Jane Eyre's Rochester crossed with Alexander Maconochie, Norfolk Island's governor (1840-1844), whose failed liberal reforms McConnochie (no relation) cites in the book's end note.
With these historical asides, the author seems to suggest that, emotionally, the sisters were as brutalized as Coldwater's godforsaken prisoners, confined by patriarchy to the "dumb cell" of domestic life. In stressing the point, McConnochie can sound as bombastic as Charlotte. But as an act of pure imagination, Coldwater scintillates. Playful, not precious, it brings the Brontės down from their literary perch so readers can cavort with their hearts and souls.
In the novel's most invigorating scene, Emily dances along a cliff top, throwing her manuscript to the wind "to release the helpless prisoners of passion confined within the pages and all the captives on the island, to crack open the authority of the author and eject everyone from the narrative, characters and prisoners and daughters and troopers all, to begin their own journeys and engineer their own endings." With Coldwater, McConnochie has engineered a striking debut.