Ruth Park, a New Zealander, married to well known Australian author D’Arcy Niland (who wrote the Shiralee) wrote Harp in the South in response to a competition with a prize of 2,000 pounds. She had tried to persuade her husband to enter but he was too busy so she wrote it on a trip home to New Zealand on her mother’s kitchen table whilst her mother minded her two children. Wouldn’t you love to be able to pen a best seller that has not been out of print since 1948 in a matter of two weeks.
The novel won the prize and in addition to the money, Angus and Robertson Booksellers had pledged to publish the winning entry. The narrative followed an Irish Australian family who lived at 12 and a half Plymouth Lane Surrey Hills which in those days were the slums of Sydney. Angus and Robertson’s did their best to wheedle their way out of publishing the manuscript as it was written by a woman treating subjects concerning women in a sensitive, kindly way with no judgement present. It is credited with a government move to inject money into the slum a few years later and was on the school reading list when I went to school and I believe still is today. I did not read it at that time doing instead Merry Go Round in the Sea (set in Western Australia) by Randolf Stowe. Another book I’d recommend.
Harp in the South follows an Irish catholic family consisting of devout Mum Ruth, her wayward yet well-meaning alcoholic husband Hughie and their two daughters Rowena (a young woman suffering love and its consequences who finally falls in love with a part aboriginal boy ) and Dolour a younger daughter (who ends up hating Rowena’s fiance as he takes her place in Rowena’s heart. Also ever present is the son Thaddy who disappeared as a six year old, and pipe smoking whiskey swilling Grandma whom the nuns love to visit to hear about Ireland.They have two lodgers – the protestant alcoholic Mr Diamond and an unmarried mother and her mentally disabled son. Other characters include the local Madam, the Chinese grocer and a Swedish organ grinder, and the school nuns.
What set this book apart was the issues it dealt with at the time which are still issues today and thus not only does this book give us a glimpse into a historical period of Surrey Hills but also makes us look in a caring, non-judgemental way at issues such as abortion, prostitution, bringing up children, alcoholism, mixed marriage, the angst between Roman Catholics and protestants (which I can remember from my own childhood), slum living and the importance of education. She does not write of these issues with retribution in mind eg Rowena’s unfortunate love affair with Tommy who does not see her again once she slept with him, leaving her pregnant and desperate. She plans to have an abortion but gets frightened by the preceding girls’ screams and leaves only to lose the baby when she is attacked by a group of sailors. In a normal book from this age this would have left her unable to find love and if she did unable to have children. Instead she does have a beautiful baby to Charlie her husband. Park writes with affection for her characters and great humour and although she makes sure we understand the squalor including the bed bugs we are never left feeling totally miserable as I did when I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.
Her memoirs A Fence around the Cuckoo (a coming of age memoir) and Fishing in the Styx lend some insights into the writing of the Harp in the South (particularly the latter which deals with her own life in Surrey Hills as a young married mother and her Irish Australian husband and his family. I have read both of these books and enjoyed them thoroughly. She wrote a sequel Poor Man’s Orange (which I haven’t read) and over 20 years later a prequel Missus which I have read. This tells of Hughie and his brother growing up in country NSW. I enjoyed it as well. The three books are sold as a trilogy but are stand alone novels.
Harp in the South is available on Amazon where it is described:
“An Australian classic, this is the story of the Darcy family who live in the Depression era tenements of Surry Hills, Sydney.
Hugh and Margaret Darcy are raising their family in Sydney amid the brothels, grog shops, and run-down boarding houses of Surry Hills, where money is scarce and life is not easy.
Filled with beautifully drawn characters that will make you laugh as much as cry, this Australian classic will take you straight back to the colourful slums of Sydney with convincing depth, careful detail, and great heart.” Amazon
Would I recommend this book: Most definitely