Ruth Park’s Charlie Rothe: Reading Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949)


Ruth Park’s novels The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949) portray a fictional Irish-Australian family living in the actual inner-city neighbourhood of Surry Hills. The poor, immigrant status of the Darcys is foregrounded in the novels from the start, yet equally important is the character of Aboriginal man Charlie Rothe, who is introduced in Chapter 14 of The Harp in the South. This essay suggests that Charlie’s late arrival is the reverse of the non-fictional situation evoked in the opening of Park’s The Companion Guide to Sydney (1973), in which the author imagines the First Fleet’s entry into a place that was already occupied. The issue of ‘first-ness’, and what comes after, is central to Park’s narration of both family intimacy and romantic love between her Irish Australians and latecomer Charlie. Highlighting enigmatic descriptions of Charlie’s Aboriginal parentage and ancestry and associating this language with the appropriative desire felt by each of the Darcy sisters, I argue that the character of Charlie is pivotal to Park’s exploration of themes of imitation, borrowing, possession and (belated) recognition.

Yuwaalaraay woman Nardi Simpson begins her 2021 Griffith Review essay ‘Gifts across Space and Time’ with a direct address to her readers and listeners. Speaking to ‘you’, Simpson initiates what she calls a ‘speak/listen trade’. The essay is available to us in both print and audio format, and it enacts the encounter that it thematises. Speak/listen trade invites us to receive the time, thought and care that Simpson as speaking author offers. Addressing ‘you’ while invoking ‘we’ and ‘our’, Simpson implies the hospitality of her ancestors:

But here, on the shores of this lake, we are to harness the strength of our trade. This country has a history of facilitating exchange. Large gatherings between local and faraway tribes happened right where we are now. My people would provide food for the gathering, collecting freshwater mussels from the lake to share. Our midden lies to your right. It is the evidence of thousands of years of gathering and trading.

As host, Simpson welcomes and then leads us on to Country, all the while inviting our in-kind response to her remarkable generosity with her inclusive ‘we’. She beckons us to come with her so that ‘we’ can properly communicate with one another while learning how to be on Country. We can take the food that, in her words, she and her people will provide. Her words are food for thought, and we can partake of them, as if of a picnic. Because, for Simpson, the ‘speak/listen trade’ will always include things that have never been said before, there is a freedom in it to listen to, see and care for Country on one’s own terms. Simpson’s openness even extends to those of us descended only from the strangers that came to these shores and made of her people foreigners in their own land. At the same time, her particular welcome is to the refugee from afar looking for shelter and comfort.

New Zealand-Australian author Ruth Park is one whose antecedents were foreigners in southern lands. Yet, it is possible to read her as a guest receptive to Simpson’s welcome and capable of recognising Simpson’s ‘we’ who were already here. At moments in her writing, Park speaks as if in the manner of a guest: ‘Here we stand then, civilly on the doorstep. That Circular Quay is Sydney’s doorstep no one can deny.’ These are the opening sentences of Park’s The Companion Guide to Sydney (1973; hereafter The Companion). In the paragraph that follows, Park bluntly discloses that ‘Sydney is built on a landscape littered with human bones’ (9). Further on, she describes Bennelong Point as ‘a long spit with the neck of a swan outstretched on the water. It was almost entirely composed of oyster, mussel and scallop shells left behind after thousands of years of Aboriginal picnics on this beautiful shore’ (14). The word picnic is derived from the Middle French piquer- (‘to pick’) and -nique (meaning ‘nothing whatever’, but also ‘small copper coin’ or something of ‘small worth’). Further instances of the word retain traces of these etymons. Picnics are normally small or light meals that are selected and gathered (piquer-). Because they tend not to be grand or luxurious or expensive, we might say they are of ‘small worth’ (nique). Picnics are shared meals, comprising an assortment of foods that take place outdoors with participants usually sitting on the ground. These meanings resonate when Simpson refers to the food gathered from ‘middens’ and then shared with both familiars and strangers. Park describes both natural and human-made environments that have long provided the people that have lived there with adequate shelter and food. Returning to The Companion opening – ‘Here we stand then, civilly on the doorstep’ – we can now see that she presents the area that the First Fleet had entered not as an unoccupied land where there were no dwellings and no traces of lives being lived. Rather, Park’s Circular Quay is a ‘doorstep’. It is as if she recognises that foreigners to this place had built a threshold built upon a threshold to a home.

Park’s The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949) (henceforth The Harp novels) similarly invite us to cross a threshold but this time into the fictional home of the Darcys – the Irish-Australian characters of the two novels. Or so it seems at first. In fact, Park also brings into her Surry Hills home an equally fictional Aboriginal man named Charlie Rothe. This imaginary household forms the central setting of Park’s Harp novels. The address of this fictional house, ‘Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street’, refers to a fictional street in Surry Hills, a Sydney suburb located on the Gadigal lands of the Eora people. Early in their marriage, Park lived in Surry Hills with her husband D’Arcy Niland. This location – and the experience that Park and Niland had there – would become the living source of The Harp novels.1

In what follows, I closely read social bonds and romantic relations directly involving Charlie Rothe while attending to how Park’s character is invoked through sometimes obscure or enigmatic language, the meanings of which intersect with various stories detailing the plights and adventures of the Surry Hills family. My focus on Park’s narration of intimacy between her Irish Australians and latecomer Charlie involves my awareness of something we recognise when we hear or read Simpson’s words. This acknowledgment has to do with the significance Park accords characters considered historically unworthy of thought or attention. In the parlance of the time in which the novels were written, the Darcys, Charlie and other Surry Hills residents are ‘low-life’, their lives of ‘small worth’ (to return to previous discussion of ‘picnics’). Within the world created by her novels, Park’s Irish-Australian characters suffer indignities, but they also express animosities based on race difference after Charlie moves in with them. Part of Park’s dramatisation of her characters’ hostilities, as well as their loving relations with one another, is her evocation of the experience of what it means to be ‘first’ and what it means to be ‘second’ in familial and romantic situations. The language of romantic primitivism comes to the fore, particularly when Park’s female characters express the desire to be first not second.

I consider the meaning of this language while attending to how The Harp novels depict intersubjective relations involving racial difference, and this means thinking further about the issue of first-ness, and what comes after, central to the familial and romantic situations that Park fictionalises. In a fictional reversal of the scene of colonial invasion that The Companion evokes however, Charlie arrives late yet he becomes a part of the Darcy family – and a part of the narrative itself – once he and Roie encounter each other in Chapter 14. Arriving in the narrative well after the introduction of the Irish-Australian family, whose lives are foregrounded from the start, Charlie is nevertheless equally as important as the Darcys. I highlight the enigmatic metaphors attending descriptions of Charlie’s Aboriginal parentage and ancestry and I associate this language with the appropriative desire felt by each of the two Darcy sisters as each separately falls in love with him. I argue that the character of Charlie is pivotal to Park’s exploration of themes of imitation, borrowing, possession and (belated) recognition.

The issue of first-ness, and what comes after, is crucial to how Charlie’s romantic relationships with white women are characterised. Park penned her inter-racial romances at a time when laws against miscegenation – that were in place in some parts of Australia until the late 1940s – were negatively affecting everyday attitudes to mixed-descent families (Solonec). Themes of imitation, borrowing and possession are central to evocations of Charlie’s relationships with both Roie and Dolour Darcy. Highlighting descriptive associations of Charlie with the ‘outback’, I also draw attention to certain passages in which racist and primitivist language used to describe Charlie occurs alongside a reference to prejudicial language printed in the daily newspapers to suggest the importance of mediated or imitative speech impacting everyday attitudes to race and class. In so doing, I address a key aspect of The Harp novels that is absent from the initial Australian reception as well as the literary scholarship on Park: the centrality to The Harp novels of an Aboriginal character and his romances with two white women.

At this point, it is worth noting that Park’s novels, like all fictions, are imitations of life. For this reader, Park’s writing also sparks flashes of recognition concerning how we as readers read. Are we in the habit of reading the relative worthiness of a character according to the order in which they appear in a narrative or the extent to which aspects of their identity are clearly signposted or foregrounded? Attending to the matter of how Charlie’s past, present and future are construed in The Harp novels thus means attending to the issue of how we read and recognise characters and on what terms. As I suggest in what follows, it is necessary to understand Charlie’s significance through the cryptic language and romantic primitivism that associates him with both a pre-colonial, ancestral past and the landscape and roads of the ‘outback’. Pointing to the vexed utopianism of the romantic or primitivist discourse used to evoke Charlie (see Etherington), I also draw attention to the futural language attending the concluding passages of Poor Man’s Orange, which are focused on Charlie and Dolour, and which indicate Park’s imaginative vision for the future of her Aboriginal character. This article suggests that processes of reading and flashes of recognition matter to Park’s fiction as well as to her description of that historical scene involving late arrivals and original inhabitants. In the light of my reading of Charlie’s role in Park’s fiction, I return finally to Nardi Simpson’s direct address to her readers through which she warns readers of the ways in which writing can freeze meaning and lead us to forget the power of live interaction.

In the only book-length work of literary criticism on Park, Jill Greaves observes that, while ‘[n]o author writes in a vacuum; all are influenced by, and in turn have some influence upon, the culture in which they live’ (4), Park sought throughout a career that was also her ‘livelihood’ to understand both her culture and herself ‘through the medium of her writing’ (7). Greaves’s study helps us to understand the way the literary complexity and acuity of Park’s writing merges with the author’s desire to depict life as she saw it, but it does so without addressing the way in which Park represents Aboriginal and Pacific Islander People. As previously mentioned, The Harp novels are drawn from Park’s experience living in Surry Hills. Following her 1942 migration from New Zealand to Australia where she married Niland, the two writers agreed that they would attempt to make a living from writing, and this meant living frugally. There was a housing crisis at the time and Park and Niland eventually found accommodation in what was then dilapidated Surry Hills, an inner-city neighbourhood of Sydney. The first of the three-volume Harp novels to fictionalise Park’s experience The Harp in the South was published in book form in 1948. It had previously been serialised over several months in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) from 4 January 1947, having won that newspaper’s inaugural writing competition. Greaves notes that Park’s writing had appealed to a popular readership at a time when it was not uncommon, in certain circles, to disparage such writing as ‘pulp fiction’ (4). Miles Franklin indicates bias about both the popular author and her readers when, in a 1947 letter to fellow writer Jean Devanny, she describes the ‘ignorant and non-literary’ crowd at an event celebrating The Harp in the South’s winning of the SMH prize (Ferrier 159). In a 1948 letter to Katharine Susannah Prichard, commenting on the publication of Poor Man’s Orange (1949), Franklin describes it as ‘slush’ (Ferrier 197). Others criticised the allegedly sensational or ‘journalistic slickness’ of Park’s writing.2

Whether of criticism or praise, the many letters sent to both the editor of the SMH and to the author herself reveal that the Harp novels had impressed readers (‘The Harp’). A notable absence, however, is any mention of Charlie or the interracial romances featured in the novels. This is also the case in reviews and promotional materials surrounding first their serialisation in the Sydney Morning Herald and, later, their stand-alone publications as books. A notable characteristic of both positive and negative reception of The Harp in the South was that these responses documented an aspect of urban life that readers both at home and abroad recognised. Park ‘rips the veil’ to show the ‘moral evil of the slum’ revealing ‘perverts, harlots, drunks and drabs, the promiscuity of the young in alleys and cinemas, the kind of thing that flourishes in every big city’ wrote Arthur Norris in his 1947 review.3 The Harp in the South was also a bestseller in the United States, the UK and Europe, with US author Stirling North naming Park ‘the female Dickens from Australia’4 but there was a particular kind of excitement, anxiety and shame that characterised local reception, as attested by a letter Park published in the SMH, which responds to the expressed ‘embarrassment’ of Surry Hills residents. Park explains to her readers that she had written the novel ‘solely as an exposition of the fact that splendid characters, full of honesty and loving kindliness, can exist against a squalid and often tragic background’ (‘Authors Explanation’).

It is notable that the Australian reception of The Harp in the South either omitted or overlooked the significance of Roie and Charlie’s romance to focus instead almost exclusively on the way the novel exposes ‘slum life’. As Paul Genoni writes, the local and national controversy generated by The Harp in the South began from its first instalment in the pages of the SMH. Genoni suggests that this reception was dominated by concern over ‘whether “slum” life was something Australians should be telling the world, or indeed themselves (‘Slumming’). It also seems significant that, as Genoni also briefly notes, Park’s novel was ‘one of the first accounts of a sexual relationship’ between an Aboriginal man and a white woman (‘Slumming’). Can we attribute the absence of both mainstream media reviews and literary criticism on ‘one of the first accounts’ of intimacy between an Aboriginal man and a white woman to the taboo nature of the topic? It is possible to suggest that this relationship tacitly haunts the unsettled reception of Park’s Darcy family. We might also wager that what was at stake in this reception was not simply ideas about Australian-ness or white Australian-ness but also, more specifically, the low-class status of the Darcy family’s Irish Australian-ness.5 At stake in this reception is arguably not only Park’s fictional depiction of characters deemed unworthy but also her writerly attention to affection, love and humanity among Irish- and Aboriginal Australians.

The title phrase, The Harp in the South, refers metonymically to ‘The Irish in Australia’. The content of the novel makes good on the Harp in the South title, giving voice to a people who have known oppression, poverty and what it means to be foreigners in place. The first paragraph of the novel focuses on the predicament of Irish-Australians living in Surry Hills:

The hills are full of Irish people. When their grandfathers and great-grandfathers arrived in Sydney they went naturally to Shanty Town, not because they were dirty or lazy, though many of them were that, but because they were poor. And wherever there are poor you will find landlords who build tenements: cramming two on a piece of land no bigger than a pocket handkerchief, and letting them for the rent of four. In the squalid, mazy streets of sandstone double-decker houses, each with its little balcony edged with rusty iron lace, and its door opening on to the street, or four square feet of ‘front’, every second name is an Irish one. There are Brodies, and Caseys and Murphys and O’Briens, and down by the corner are Casement and Grogan and Kell, and, although here and there you find a Simich, or a Siciliano, or a Jewish shopkeeper, or a Chinese laundryman, most are Irish. (183)

We were previously introduced to the hills and the doorstep that opens Park’s The Companion. Now we move beyond that fatal moment in 1788 when the Sirius entered the cove. We arrive in Surry Hills where Park and Niland lived, and where Park began writing The Harp novels. Those hills that had appeared before the First Fleet passengers are ‘full of Irish people’ and the buildings planted there housed those who were already impoverished. Caseys and Murphys are there alongside Simiches and Sicilianos. The ‘harp’ of The Harp in the South heralds the musicality and melodious speech of the Irish. ‘The Irish in these people was like an old song’, we hear at one point ‘remembered only by the blood that ran deep and melancholy in veins for two generations Australian’ (The Harp 417). This Irishness that is like an old song resonates throughout the novel and is echoed in the voices of Mumma, Hughie and, particularly, Grandma Darcy, who speaks in the brogue of the old country. This Irish ‘blood’ runs ‘deep and melancholy’ but in veins that, significantly, are only ‘two generations’ Australian. Missing from this opening paragraph and the 13 chapters that follow is any mention of those who preceded those two generations of Australians.

Irish-Australian speech comes to life in The Harp in the South and Irish words and names are ambiguously associated with The Harp’s Aboriginal character Charlie Rothe, ­ whose race identity is at once prominent and shrouded in mystery. An orphan who had been found, adopted by, and lived life with a ‘bagman’ Charlie had become unmoored from his antecedents. The silence of those people looms particularly large at the moment of Charlie’s first appearance in the narrative. Charlie arrives more than halfway through the novel – in Chapter 14. He appears at the moment when Roie Darcy, the eldest daughter of Hughie and Mamma, is recovering from a miscarriage and its ongoing side-effects. In the passage concerned, Roie faints in a crowd that throngs during a spelling contest, which Roie’s younger sister Dolour has just won. A stranger suddenly appears to help Roie up. Leading her to a seat, this stranger stays by Roie’s side. When he speaks, Roie hears ‘a hollow, echoing voice like thunder on the heath’ (344). A bit later, the stranger asks her name and she his. ‘Charlie Rothe’, he replies. They both remark the Irishness of their patronyms. Here we have a character and his name: Charlie Rothe. That name is Irish, but due to his unknown parentage, Charlie’s Aboriginality cannot be precisely located. The language of the passage suggestively evokes non-urban Australia, particularly through the description of Charlie’s voice echoing ‘like thunder on the heath’. While we have an Irish-Australian name and we have resonances of inland Australia, there is no mention of Aboriginality as such.

The phrase ‘like thunder on the heath’ possibly echoes Emily Brontë’s romance Wuthering Heights (1847). Like Brontë’s Heathcliff, Charlie is an orphan child whose unknown parentage is the source of speculation about race. The specifically ‘Australian’ context of Charlie’s missing parentage is canvassed at one point. ‘They died when I was about seven, I think,’ says Charlie in response to Mamma and Dolour’s questions about his origins (348). As Charlie tells Mamma and Dolour, he knows only that a ‘bagman’ had raised him after finding him ‘sitting by a fence, yowling’. Attempting to remember, Charlie’s ‘eyes looked back into the past and saw the dusky, dusty roads of NSW’ (348). With these ‘dusky, dusty’ memories of Charlie’s, Park lightly touches on shadowy histories that in turn gesture towards the spectrality of the fictional character she has created. These questions relate to Park’s narrative ordering of events as a fictional arrangement that – by a reversal of the order invoked in The Companion, in which the First Fleet arrive after the original inhabitants who had picknicked on the shores of Sydney cove – matters to the actual social situation she simultaneously evokes. The late and enigmatic introduction of Charlie to the narrative would seem to make him less important than those Irish Australians whose lives are featured from page one, raising in turn questions to do with the timing of (belated) recognition. This is a reminder of The Companion’s non-fictional suggestion of colonial invasion, which is poetically evoked through mention of a ‘doorstep’ beyond which are the places and customs of those who live on Country. Understanding how Park characterises Charlie also means attending to his significance as a latecomer who is assumed by others to be an Aboriginal man even though he is without identifiable family or community. This is especially necessary given that Park’s subjects are Irish-Australian characters whose knowledge of race difference is gleaned from newspapers and other media. Properly recognising Park’s Charlie, in other words, means recognising the mediated or imitative forms of knowledge shaping Charlie’s perception and that of the characters who interact with him.

In terms that are partly romantic regarding their characterisation of non-urban spaces and lives, The Harp novels associate the character of Charlie with the ‘outback’ and the figure of the ‘bagman’. The bagman is an iconic figure in white-authored stories of the Australian outback, but Charlie’s memory of this figure is enigmatic; his imaginings of the past are as ‘dusty’ as the roads he walked with the bagman and as ‘dusky’ as the light that fell on them at the end of any given day. Charlie’s ‘dusty, dusky’ memories of the past obscure his, and our, capacity to know his past. In another striking paragraph, Park’s prose gestures to other ways that language can confound meaning. This time the prose points to the role that both imitation and borrowing play in language that is everywhere appropriative insofar as it involves the taking on and trying out of words that others speak. In the following passage, in which Charlie is presented as a product of the ‘slum’, the narrator slyly gestures to journalistic tropes conditioning our knowledge:

Charlie would never be a great or famous man, he was not the sort that goes into politics and finally dies and is epitomized in words, ‘Slum Boy Makes Good’. But he had the sort of heart that great men have, straight-forward, undeviating and tranquil. (347)

Thus capitalised, the words ‘Slum Boy Makes Good’ imitate newspaper headlines that are read and then fed back into common parlance. Further in the novel, certain of Park’s characters thoughtlessly echo such mass-mediated catch-phrases. Roie and Charlie eventually get married, and the newlyweds move into the Darcy residence at Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street; that hearth and home presided over by Mumma. In this house, Roie loves Charlie and he her. But the Irish matriarch is particularly hostile to what Charlie’s Aboriginality means for her daughter and her unborn grandchildren. Mumma declares to Hughie:

‘It’s because there’s nigger in him, Hughie. I’m scared of it and no mistake.’

Hughie said defiantly: ‘It’s better than Chink. It’s real Australian and no matter how bad that is, there’s no better.’ Then he lapsed into silence, seeing the same picture that haunted Mumma, of himself out on the verandah nursing a sooty grandchild. (350)

Hughie’s calling Charlie a ‘real Australian … there’s no better’ echoes those ‘dusky, dusty’ images of people and places of the ‘outback’ found in Australian stories and novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Contrasting with the heroism of the national romance that Hughie evokes is Mumma’s use of the pejorative term used in the United States to humiliate descendants of slaves. It is not clear where Mumma heard or picked up that word, but it is significant that others use language gleaned from newspapers and other print-media. For example, in a further passage, it is noted that Roie’s language echoes that from ‘books and pictures’, and this imitative language accords with characters in other of Park’s stories who imitate the styles, gestures and language of Hollywood stars such as Greta Garbo (see also letter to D’Arcy Niland, 17 April 1939)6. These instances point to Park’s recognition of the way mass-mediatised images and words frame her fictional characters’ words and actions, but also the way they recognise one another. This is the case when Hughie and Mumma express fear that Charlie’s ‘blood’ dooms him and his children. In the light of ‘Slum Boy Makes Good’, we can read their use of such words as echoes of bad-educative beliefs and words printed in newspapers and other mass media that play a part in perpetuating the anthropological-colonial idea that Aboriginal people are of a dying race (350–51).

Decades after the publication of The Harp novels, Park responded to a reader’s letter that questions her about her characterisation of racism, in which she writes that she had not observed ‘racism’ so much as ‘chauvinism’ in Surry Hills, defining chauvinism as a ‘narrow’ response to ‘strangeness’.7 This chauvinism potentially stems from those whose views are mediated by the headlines of daily newspapers (‘Slum Boy Makes Good’). Such prejudice does not stick, however. Soon, Hughie cheerfully and Mumma begrudgingly come to accept Charlie while Dolour’s jealousy of him continues to simmer. The theme of possession, as it stems from mediated language involving processes of imitation and borrowing, resonates in unusual ways in relation to Dolour, whose anger at Charlie stems not from race-based aggression or displaced white guilt. It comes from the intensity of Dolour’s feeling that Charlie has stolen the object of her attention – sister, Roie – whom she adores. Overlooking the losses that Charlie and his ancestors have suffered, Dolour thinks only of what has been taken from her. While Dolour’s resentment is long-lasting, Mumma and Hughie move beyond biases partly imbibed from newspaper headlines or, perhaps, from the kinds of maternal and race-based melodramas seen at 1940s movie theatres. They discover that Charlie is a funny, humane and intelligent man who brings to their home the spirit of progress and a capacity to embrace change. For instance, Charlie saves the money he earns as a printer’s machinist so that he can give Mumma money to perm her hair for his wedding, even though she has complained about his ink-stained hands. It is also Charlie who insists that Dolour seek medical treatment for her infected eyes and who gifts her a radio when she becomes temporarily blinded by the infection. Despite her simmering anger, Dolour is delighted when she hears the live voice through the radio.

Themes of imitation, borrowing and possession are threaded throughout Poor Man’s Orange, the second volume of The Harp novels, which brings Roie and Charlie’s first child. This child is named Moira (affectionately known as ‘Motty’), which name means fate or destiny as well as drop of the sea. Soon, Roie and Charlie realise their desire to leave the ‘slum’ is a pointless dream, as the inequities of property-rights and marauding greed resonate. They remain at Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street and the novel’s inflected processes of taking and giving, borrowing and imitating that we encountered when Charlie was first introduced to the Darcy family do not entirely disappear. Appropriation becomes particularly bleak in instances of whites stealing Aboriginal land and lives while borrowing and repurposing their cultural practices; this history looms in scenes evoking physical intimacy between Roie and Charlie, including the following passage that imagines the couple’s bed as a cave. Importantly, the scene also alludes to a secret that Roie keeps from Charlie, one that is hinted at when Moira is referred to as the ‘second’ child:

The second child had wiped out the grief of the first. She passed her finger over its downy cheek, and it screwed up its pink face and whimpered.

‘She’s a little grub.’

‘She’s a little honey.’

They looked at her for a long time.

Until now their marriage had been ten months of careless happiness, now it became something else. She learned what it is to be bound hand and foot and heart to another human being, and to resent it a little, until at last mother love welled in her heart and made her slavery a happiness. Charlie, quiet and contemplative, watched her face; watched for the first lines of disillusionment and monotony which mark like a seal the faces of slum women. But they did not appear. Roie had something which those other women had not, contentment and continued love. Charlie was the centre of her world. She ran to meet him at night, always with the same delight. In bed she lay behind the wall of his back, feeling little and protected and secure, as a woman of the caves might have felt long ago, as she lay with her man shielding her from the cave opening, and the great darkness and mystery beyond it. Charlie was a shield and a refuge to Roie, and she an endless delight to him. (400)

Roie’s imagining of herself, when in bed with Charlie, as a ‘woman of the caves’ has intonations of romantic primitivism that Roie, as we shall see shortly, has learned from ‘books’ and ‘pictures’. Andrew McCann explores nineteenth-century assignations of primitivist ideas to ‘Australian and other tribal societies to generate an account of ‘primitive’ man juxtaposed to the enlightened, scientific disposition of the European metropolis’, and such language has had ongoing and pernicious effects (328). As we have seen, however, Charlie is characterised as knowledgeable man whose progressive attitudes contrast with those of Hughie and Mumma. Moreover, and in the light of Ben Etherington’s revision of literary primitivism as a ‘vexed, utopian project rather than a form of racist discourse’, we can consider Park’s language of ‘caves, darkness and mystery’ differently (Etherington xii–xiii). This reconsideration of primitive motifs is particularly important in terms of the contradictions enmeshed within the complex of storylines and motifs involving first-ness and second-ness comprising The Harp novels. The word primitive derives from Middle French primitif meaning ‘original, first, early ancient …. not derived … not secondary’ (OED). However, as the reference to the ‘second child’ indicates, Charlie is not Roie’s ‘first’. Indeed, while on their honeymoon and after discovering that she was Charlie’s first ‘girl’, Roie had lied to her new husband: ‘"You’re the first man I ever had," she breathed. "You’re the last man"’ (381).

As detailed in Chapters 3 to 8 of The Harp in the South, Roie had first fallen in love with Tommy Mendel, Jewish son of Joseph Mendel, trader of ‘old wares’ (206), who had been attracted to the girl who had spent all her money on a red shawl she had spotted at ‘the Paddy’s Markets’ (202–04). ‘Oh, rose of all the world’ Tommy had said to Roie on first approaching her and she, in her turn, had almost immediately fallen in love with him or, at least, fallen in love with the idea of being in love with a boy capable of using such words. Tommy had been disabled when a car had driven over his foot, crushing it, and the intensity of Roie’s feeling for him is mixed with pity. ‘Did anything matter but to serve the blinding love and desire that possessed her’, Roie had thought to herself when late one night, following New Year’s Eve festivities, the lovers had found a retreat ‘in the dark spokes of a shade’ where ‘the stars swung down, and were blotted out by his shoulder' (266–68), and as a result she had become pregnant to him. We previously saw how newspaper headlines make their way into the speech of Park’s characters. Similarly, after the experience in the park, Roie ‘tried very hard to feel uplifted and thrilled, as she knew people in books and in pictures felt’ (268).8

‘[B]ooks and pictures’ had shaped Roie’s feeling for Tommy. Roie’s imagining of the cave-bed she shares with Charlie appears to be similarly mediated. Moreover, in their ‘cave’, Charlie’s back is a ‘shield’ protecting Roie. Like ‘cave’, the word shield evokes a pagan or primitive past, yet Charlie’s back belongs to a man who has embraced modernity. We can also think about this fictional characterisation of an Aboriginal man in relation to the opening of Park’s The Companion, in which the metaphor of the ‘doorstep’ indicates that Australia was already a home before colonial invasion. In this way, Charlie is not only a protector but also an entryway (a ‘doorstep’, Companion, 9) to the ‘great darkness and mystery’ that lay beyond the ‘cave opening’ (400). Charlie’s back is, in other words, a ‘doorstep’ to the future.

At the same time, Charlie is a character through whom Park explores ideas of (white) appropriation and ownership. At this point, it is useful to recognise the complicated way in which Park explores and obscures these themes that – being embedded or enmeshed within intersecting plots – might be understood as privileging the lives and beliefs of an Irish-Australian family. For instance, traces of Roie’s earlier, complicated desire to ‘possess’ Tommy enigmatically remain in the story involving Charlie when it is revealed that she is keeping from Charlie the secret of her previous pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage. Roie became pregnant after that night with Tommy and, afraid of becoming a ‘wanton’ woman, she sought out the back-alley services of a woman who administered abortions. Already ashamed, Catholic Roie became terrified when hearing the ‘hoarse shrieks’ and groans emanating from the ‘dirty’ room where the abortion was to take place. Fleeing the scene and now alone on a darkened street, she was set upon by a gang of men and beaten to the ground. When an alarm was raised, the men fled and Roie was helped home by a kindly drunk. As soon as Mumma caught sight of her badly beaten daughter, she forbade Hughie from calling a doctor, instead nursing Roie back to health within the privacy of their home – secluded from the ‘peering eyes behind the curtains of nearby houses’ (290–94). Within the long-form intricacies of these intersecting plots, it is easy to forget the extent to which Roie’s secret affects her – part loving and part possessive – relation to Charlie.

An important detail here is that Charlie is Roie’s second ‘first man’. Roie’s desire for Charlie to be her ‘first’, even though he’s her second, encodes not so much primitivism or race difference but rather the partly buried shame that had attended Roie’s previous romance and subsequent pregnancy and miscarriage. We later discover that Roie’s secret desires – that are themselves based on imitation of fictions she has read – further fuel her desire to possess Charlie. Despite the loss and pain she had endured as a result of the encounter with Tommy, Roie had remained attached to her romantic idea. Significantly, Roie’s thought of this love is expressed through the language of possession; it is the ‘blinding desire to please that possessed her’ (267, my emphasis). The force of this desire is associated with the Catholic shame that Roie has inherited, at least in part, from Mumma. After Roie dies giving birth to her and Charlie’s ‘second’ child, Mumma confesses to Dolour her fear that it was Roie’s first miscarriage that had been at the root of Roie’s physical frailty and subsequent death. Even after that death, however, Mumma continues to keep the miscarriage and subsequent illness – and the guilty secret of the part she had played in it – a secret from Charlie.

Throughout the Harp novels, mentions of the word ‘first’ evoke a complex of feelings and desires, but the word particularly refers to the possessive passions attending romantic desire, especially first love. Through depiction of this subsequent (the second!) romance involving second daughter Dolour, Park again explores the issue of first-ness, and what comes after, by touching on negative feelings of jealousy and possession that arise in Dolour when she recognises her love for a man who had already been loved by her sister. Despite being the younger, Dolour’s plights and adventures are as important to The Harp novels as those of her sister Roie. Possessing a streak of academic brilliance, Dolour had excelled at school but the poverty and neediness of Mumma and Hughie had obstructed her ambitions, including her desire to pursue a scholarship. The title-phrase of the second volume, Poor Man’s Orange, refers at least in part to the idiosyncrasy of Dolour’s taste, her love of the oranges for sale in the Chinese-run fruit and vegetable shop that, in the dull of the winter months, appeared ‘as red as the setting sun’. In the years following Roie’s death, Charlie, in his extreme sadness, turns to alcohol, neglecting Motty and Michael. Dolour steps in to care for the motherless children and eventually she finds she is in love with Charlie and he, too, falls in love, a second time. Charlie seeks the advice of Father Cooley who seeks a special dispensation that will allow Charlie to marry his sister-in-law Dolour. In another reference to imitative reading processes, Father Cooley notices that Charlie is ‘falling to pieces like an old book’ (675). He also advises Charlie to take Dolour and the children and leave Surry Hills.

In the novel’s final chapter, Charlie invites Dolour to walk with him to Botany Bay: ‘Here on this long low shadowy shore, first of the coast to be seen by white men’s eyes, the coarse grass blew, bleached and melancholy’ (682). The First Fleet had arrived in Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, a week before the arrival in Sydney Cove that Park evokes in The Companion. The concluding invocation of the ‘shadowy’ shore of Botany Bay – that ‘first of the coast to be seen by white’s men’s eyes’ – intersects uncannily with the enigmatic language invoking what comes first and what comes after that characterises Dolour’s relation to Charlie. It looks like the end of the world,’ whispered Dolour to Charlie as they stand looking at the ‘great round harbour’ (682). Echoing Tommy’s earlier words to Roie (‘Oh, rose of all the world’ 206), Dolour’s melancholy thought intimates her second-ness. In contrast to the name Rose, Dolour means sadness, grief, lamentation or mourning. As together they gaze out at the watery horizon, Charlie asks her to come with him and the children and to live with him ‘outback’.

Previously, I suggested that the belated introduction of Charlie to the narrative is a reversal of the scene described in The Companion. A reversal of Charlie’s fortune characterises the final chapter of Poor Man’s Orange, in which Charlie proposes to Dolour that she come with him ‘outback’, and she accepts. This reversal involves not only Charlie’s partnership with Dolour, but also the coming to fruition of the desire he and Roie had previously expressed: the desire to leave Surry Hills and its poor housing and decrepit conditions. The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘outback’ as ‘remote, sparsely inhabited back country’ that had been ‘romanticised in some Australian literature’. Given that his memory is of a ‘dusky, dusty’ New South Wales road, Charlie’s evocation of ‘outback’ is not quite the same space as that conjured in certain white-authored worlds. In the following passage, the built environment of Surry Hills contrasts with that which is ‘down in the earth’:

Music spilled across the street like the yellow light that spilled from the tall corner-lamp slung in its archaic wrought-iron bough. But mainly there was silence, as though already Surry Hills felt its doom, and down in the earth the old grass-roots were stirring, ready to clothe this soil with the verdure that had been there a century before. (683)

It is not an Aboriginal character who faces his doom. Rather, it is Surry Hills, an urban environment built by colonial-settlers. It is ‘down in the earth’ that ‘the old grass-roots were stirring’. The ‘verdure’ that springs back to life matters to how we understand Park’s Aboriginal character and his relationship to Country. Charlie’s invitation to Dolour to come ‘outback’ with him and his children changes the meaning of ‘outback’. In this context, ‘outback’ can be understood as Country that had been occupied and cared for long before colonial invasion.

However, the promises associated with Charlie’s ‘outback’ are offset by the feelings that Dolour experiences when she remembers she comes after Roie. On accepting Charlie’s proposal, Dolour ‘opens the top of his shirt and rubs her cheek against his chest’. ‘Roie used to do that, too’ Charlie tells her (683). Following which:

A little pang of jealous pain caught Dolour’s heart. In spite of what he said, she knew that she was second-best. She had wanted most of all to be first-loved, and best-loved, but that was not to be hers. Then it was all swallowed up in a burst of love for Charlie, for her sister, and their children, and the children she herself would bear.

‘Roie is part of me, and part of you,’ she said. ‘This won’t make any difference to what we both feel for her.’

She knew the poor man’s orange was hers. With its bitter rind, its paler flesh, and its stinging, exultant, unforgettable tang. (683–84)

It is again necessary to recognise the poetic suggestiveness of Park’s language as it resonates embedded plot lines and themes to do with imitation and appropriation. In this instance, Dolour’s idiosyncratic ‘taste’ for the bitter tang of oranges sold by the Chinese grocer Lick Jimmy entangles multiple story lines: Dolour’s friendship with Chinese immigrant Jimmy Lick, Roie’s love for Charlie and Dolour’s subsequent love for Charlie (607). It is, for this reader, extraordinary that Dolour’s preference for the ‘unforgettable’ tang of the fruit can be associated with her affirmation of Charlie, and his ‘second-best’ love for her. Shirley Walker writes that ‘the poor man’s orange of the title, then, is the bitter fruit of winter, appropriate for a people who know in their hearts that they must always settle for less’. This is only partly true. It is through her dawning realisation that she is happy to be his ‘second-best’ that Dolour comes to affirm the ‘poor man’s orange [that] is hers’. The oranges whose taste she had savoured had been sold to her by her friend and ethnic outsider to the Surry Hills community. This same fruit signifies her cherishing of another outsider – a man who, she also knows, is not her first love and nor is she his. Thus, Charlie is the poor man’s orange of Poor Man’s Orange.

The figuration of Dolour’s desire is here complex, interweaving what it means to be second rather than first with Park’s persistent exploration of the possessive, imitative and derivative nature of love, experience, knowledge and language itself. Through these themes, appropriation or possession might be thought of as the bitter taste of cross-cultural engagements, and these encounters bring rewards as well as risks. In drawing attention to the familial and romantic dynamics of the Harp novels, I have suggested that processes of imitation, borrowing and possession are part and parcel of Park’s fiction of a Surry Hills world comprising a diversity of characters. In her correspondence with fellow writer D’Arcy Niland, Park described herself as a medium – ’a window of life’ (Letter to D’Arcy Niland, 25 August)9 – and she expresses in this letter her dedication to writing life as she saw it that has been highlighted elsewhere (see Greaves). This authorial approach meant Park took risks, including the risk of generating hostility from readers stirred by her characterisation of Irish-Australian-ness in Surry Hills. Also risky is the way the Harp novels characterise not one but two romances that spring up between an Aboriginal man and an Irish-Australian woman. This taboo topic – involving the spectre of miscegenation – arguably underscores the white embarrassment generated when the novels were first published. Throughout the course of the Harp novels, two children are born to Aboriginal Charlie and Irish-Australian Roie. At the conclusion of Poor Man’s Orange, Dolour foresees the birth of more children.

However, the ancestors who stand behind Charlie are never identified nor named. Charlie is missing his proper Aboriginal name. Yet, in passages from Poor Man’s Orange that follow Roie’s death, the novel mutely gestures to this past, bringing it into the novel’s present through reference to Aboriginal community. Thus, Poor Man’s Orange takes us beyond Surry Hills and closer to the reality of Aboriginality characterised not through an isolated individual (that is, Charlie separated from his family) but through a living community. Following Roie’s death, Charlie had boarded a tram that was headed toward the coast:

Soon the city was left behind, and the harsh smell of the sea washed into the tram like a tide. Awaking like a man from sleep he saw patches of sandhills, creamy in the dark, and low scrub that clothed the land like sparse fuzzy hair. He stared at this for a long time, and then all at once on the right there reared up cubical and monstrous, the smokestacks of Bunnerong. They were the chimneys that empowered Sydney with light and energy, built away out here on the coast because of their dowry of ash and smoke. They seemed to him ominous and sinister, and he turned to the sole remaining occupant of the compartment and asked, ‘Where’s this?’ (543)

Eve Vincent has noted the importance of the chapter wherein grief-stricken Charlie stumbles into the thriving Aboriginal community of La Perouse (shortened affectionately to La Pa), suggesting that,

This is long before the beachside suburbs were ‘glossy and affluent’ as Peter Doyle puts it in City of Shadows. The coast remained, Doyle writes, in its ‘stubbornly truer natural state’: in shacks and the occasional Californian bungalow the poor clung to snake-infested sand dunes and treeless heathlands. La Pa was – is – where a proud Aboriginal community sustained itself through shell art, fishing and work in nearby industrial suburbs. Charlie ends up in the camp of Angus McIntosh whose care – sweetened tea with goat’s milk, a comb – is critical in Charlie resolving to bear the pain of keeping on living without Roie.

The Gadigal and Bidjigal people of La Pa have over the years offered hospitality to the poorest and the neediest. During the Depression years, when shanty towns and camps cropped up in Frog Hollow and Happy Valley, La Pa residents lived together with poor Anglo-Celts as well as refugees from Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Malta. Park’s Angus McIntosh similarly welcomes a bereft Charlie to La Pa, and this hospitality resonates through his sibilant voice: ‘"You come back again some time. Me and you go fishing," promised his host in his soft, sibilant voice. "You just ask for Angus McIntosh"’ (546).

In La Pa, missions were set up, restricting Aboriginal people who once moved freely from place to place. While subsequent Governments attempted to remove the residents of La Pa, they stood their ground and stayed (see Figure 1). In her conclusion to The Companion Guide to Sydney, Park returns to the scene of invasion. Standing in her present, Park seems to echo the imagined thoughts of her character Charlie when, on his way to La Pa, he had seen the Bunnerong smokestacks. Park sees a skyline ‘like gunmetal cliffs’ when she again imagines the past:

From these long low beaches can be seen the Sydney skyline like gunmetal cliffs. Along here, too, were built ‘the little huts of twigs and shadows’ belonging to the natives who tried to chase the white men away. They ignored proffered gifts and friendly words. ‘All they seemed to want,’ said Cook, ‘was for us to be gone.’ (The Companion 436)

Park here touches on the inadequacy that will always be at the heart of any white acknowledgement of Country. Such words can only fail to do justice to the living lands of the people who came first. As Park knows, that does not mean that readers such as myself – who are descended from colonial-settlers – do not try, and try and try again. Recognising Cook’s observation of people occupying the land whose cove his ship had entered, Park sees him see the resistance of a people whose ultimate gift – the earth itself – will have been taken from them. Her word ‘friendly’ takes us back to the opening of The Companion when she had stood ‘civilly’ at the land-sea threshold of Country. Now we see that its people ‘did not seem to want’ the deceptive gifts of ‘friendly’ invaders.

Figure 1. ‘La Perouse Aborigines’ Mission’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 27 January, 1931, pp. 12.

Despite this history, Nardi Simpson shows foreigners the way to her people’s middens and other earthly gifts that provide food and shelter. These are not the only gifts to which our guide points us. Writing is also a gift that, Simpson says, ‘complicates things a little’ because of its distance from direct communication. She suggests:

Writing down our transaction freezes the words. They grow cold quickly because, while the conversation lasts, the people who inspired it are missing, their energy is dispersed and the connection is paused. While our sharing is alive and energised, its written shadow chills and starts to die. This is what usually happens when you try to keep things forever.

Simpson’s understanding of writing that attends to, while coldly distancing itself from, living interactions returns me to the mediated processes of borrowing and possession explored throughout this essay. In particular, it returns me to the pejorative words used by Hughie and Mumma and the romantic desire for possession that Roie has learned from reading books. Simpson’s words help us to recognise the way writing freezes the transactions of people who are no longer with us, but she also addresses a ‘we’ and an address to a ‘you’. With this direct address, Simpson’s writing also performs the kind of engagement implied when Park uses the word ‘picnics’ to evoke the pre-colonial sharing of hand-picked oysters and mussels near coves that the First Fleet had not yet entered. With Simpson’s generous and generative words and actions in mind, I finally turn back to the opening passages of Park’s The Companion.

Park’s welcome to Sydney in The Companion Guide to Sydney cannot be a Welcome to Country, but it can be a (white-authored) Acknowledgement of Country. Park’s The Companion bluntly discloses violence enacted within the colony while recognising that there has existed there a dwelling place, a home, where ‘picnics’ took place. In this way, it is an acknowledgement that can potentially be welcomed onto Simpson’s Country. In being guided onto and recognising this Country, we might also begin to see that both Simpson’s and Park’s writing is analogous to the ‘hole’ that Simpson shows us. This hole exists on the freshwater plains of Simpson’s people. Simpson tells us that into this hole ‘Mari’ would place objects that they wished to trade with neighbouring tribes, not knowing where or when the object would be found and for what purpose it would be used. This gift of giving without expecting reciprocation can also enliven the written word. Neither Nardi Simpson nor Ruth Park knows how the future reader – unknown to both women – will receive their words. I hope that we can find life in those unfathomable gifts.


I commenced this paper in early 2022 while residing and working on the ancestral lands of the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people. The finalisation of this work in 2023 took place on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people. I extend my sincere respect to all First Nations people, recognising and honouring the enduring connection to their ancestral territories.

An earlier iteration of this paper was presented at Coming to Terms, 30 Years On: The Mabo Legacy in Australian Writing, The Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (University of Tasmania, 2022). I express gratitude to all participants, with special appreciation for the responses from Evelyn Araluen and Yvette Henry Holt.

I extend my thanks to Rachel Franks, Richard Neville, and the dedicated library staff at the Special Collections section of the Mitchell Library, State Library, where I have been conducting research as the State Library of NSW’s 2023 Nancy Keesing AM Fellow. This research was conducted in preparation for writing the literary biography of Ruth Park.

For invaluable feedback on multiple drafts of this paper, I am indebted to the editors of Australian Literary Studies, Julieanne Lamond and Tanya Dalziell, as well as the anonymous reviewers. Special thanks to Fergus Armstrong, Guy Davidson, Fiona Morrison, Brigid Rooney, and Gillian Russell for their feedback and insights.


  1. When used henceforth, the phrase ‘The Harp novels’ refers to both The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange, which, along with the prequel Missus (1985) can be thought of as the volumes of one novel. All in-text citations are to The Harp in the South Novels, Penguin, 2009.

  2. Arthur Norris, ‘Arthur Norris on Books’, Collection 5: Ruth Park Further Literary Papers, Review Clippings Folder, Box 12. No date or page number on review clipping.

  3. Arthur Norris, ‘Arthur Norris on Books’, Collection 5: Ruth Park Further Literary Papers, Review Clippings Folder, Box 12. No date or page number on review clipping.

  4. Stirling North, ‘Stirling North Reviews the Books’, Collection 5: Ruth Park Further Literary Papers, Review Clippings Folder, Box 12.

  5. For literary-critical reception of the representation of the Irish working-class in the novels see for example, Delia Falconer, Paul Genoni, Nicole Moore and Shirley Walker.

  6. Ruth Park, Letter to D’Arcy Niland, 17 April 1939, Collection 5: Ruth Park Further Literary Papers, Box 7.

  7. Ruth Park, Letter to Michael Nelson. 31 March 1989. Collection 5: Ruth Park Further Literary Papers, Box 4.

  8. See also Nicole Moore, ‘The Politics of Cliché’ for a discussion of the relationship between genre-fiction-style cliché and realism when it comes to representations of sex and class in Park’s The Harp in the South.

  9. Ruth Park, Letter to D’Arcy Niland. 25 August 1941. Collection 5: Ruth Park Further Literary Papers, Box 7.

Published 18 December 2023 in Volume 38 No. 3. Subjects: Aboriginal Australians - Literary portrayal, Aboriginal-White relations, Settler colonialism, Ruth Park.

Cite as: Rooney, Monique. ‘Ruth Park’s Charlie Rothe: Reading Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949).’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.4f55fe6dfb.