Lately I have been re-reading Louis Stone's novel, "Jonah," first published in 1911. The chief impression it leaves is a secondary one, a feeling of sadness that such fine work should be ignored and forgotten. For it is ignored; people will be saying that they wished Australia had produced a novel about larrikin life in Sydney, a novel which would show our larrikin emerging from push life, and becoming a commercial magnate, a novel showing the contrast between sordid, slumming Sydney, and the exquisite movement and colour of the harbour; well, here is the novel they dreamt of, and they have not read it. I feel inclined to take them on a personally conducted tour through its subtly wrought chapters.
A "Written" Book.
"Jonah" is a book in which every page, as a novelist said to me lately, "feels written." What that means is, I think, that the words are not slammed down in a hit-or-miss fashion. The author has felt aware that he has only, let us say, about ninety thousand words to use, and that there must be no waste pages, no dead paragraphs, no words that are mere counters. Perhaps his best drawn side character is Mrs. Yabsley, the good humoured, selfless old charwoman who becomes Jonah's mother-in-law. The careful drawing of Mrs. Yabsley is a specimen of what I mean by "writing"; every word is faithful to its task, thus:
Mrs. Yabsley came to the door . . . and surveyed Cardigan-street with a loving eve. She had lived there since her marriage 20 years ago, and to her it was the pick of Sydney, the centre of the habitable globe. She gave her opinion to every new-comer in her tremendous voice, that broke on their unaccustomed ear like thunder:
"I've lived 'ere ever since I was a young married woman, an' I know wot I'm talkin' about. My 'usband used ter take me ter the play before we was married, but I never see any play equal ter wot 'appens in this street, if yer only keeps yer eyes open. I see people as wears spectacles readin' books. I don't wonder. If their eyesight was good, they'd be able ter see fer themselvs instead of readin' about it in a book. I can't read myself, bein' no scholar, but I can see that books an' plays is fer them as ain't got no eyes in their 'eads."
The matter does not end there with Mr. Yabsley's dogmatic statement. The author makes you feel that you really do see that street through Mrs. Yabsley's lively, interested eyes. This Cardigan-street is a Sydney variant, perhaps, of the street known as "Little Lon" in Melbourne, celebrated variously by Louis Esson and C. J. Dennis. It is the street of pushes, stray hawkers, family rows ex- pressed out of doors, feuds, struggles, love making, bargaining; yes, it does give you a contempt for people in spectacles staring at a book! Then you suddenly remember that this is all being brought before your mind through the pages of a book, a book extraordinarily weil written. You realise again that the art of letters is a consider- able one.
In very many novels, especially those in a bizarre setting, the hero is negligible, a mere figure-head, as we say, or a tailor's dummy. Not so with "Jonah," whose real name, used in commercial circumstances as time went on, was Joseph Jones. The reader finds no difficulty in believing that Jonah really was a powerful character, powerful in physique and in personality. His physical deformity accompanies our thoughts of him: we remember his tragic tramp and his over-long arms, remember them especially when Jonah is torn between two sets of motives. You feel he is a spirit in prison: yon can even believe in his passion and talent for music, although his only instrument is the mouth organ he won in a shilling raffle. It is important to emphasise this power of Louis Stone's to portray an artistic temperament: very few novelists can make you believe for a moment in the "artists" they describe. Can't we all remember novels in which we are assured that the hero was a wonderful painter, the despair of all rivals alive or dead, and how we felt that nothing less than some "habeas corpus" of his canvases would make us believe for a moment that this dull person ever knew how to mix paint at all? As for the musician in an ordinary novel, with his power of binding his audience in a spell, whatever he played, we usually want to tell him to go and break stones. Jonah does not come before us as a skilled musician, not a prodigy of any sort; but we do believe that he cared for music, and that it was real to him. Parallel to this, we believe in his bewildered physical power and his business shrewdness. Jonah's rise in life through skilled use of advertisement and publicity at a time when such things had not been exploited as they are to-day makes very interesting reading, like a development of some chapters in the early part of H. G. Wells' "The World of William Clissold." Jonah began as assistant to an old-fashioned cobbler, but felt that he was getting no further on. Borrowing a little money, he started an opposition business just across the road. At first he got no custom, his former boss was known, and he was not. Soon, though, hearing his wife say how cheap some baby's bonnet was at four and eleven, he asked if it would really have been dearer at five shillings:-
"Why don't yer say five bob, an' be done with it?" said Jonah.
"But it ain't five bob; it's only four and eleven," insisted Ada, annoyed at his stupidity.
"An' I suppose it'd be dear at five bob?" sneered Jonah.
"Any fool could tell yez that," snapped Ada.
This discussion bore fruit in Jonah's cynically practical business head. He advertised flamboyantly that he would mend men's shoes for 2/11, and women's for 1/11, while his former chief's old dingy sign, from which "the paint was peeling, still said: "Gent's, 3/6; Ladies. 2/6." In addition, Jonah announced a "While You Wait" service, and bribed a friend to come in and read a newspaper, and spectacularly wait. The miracle was done! In a while Jonah had a special trade sign, and a chain of shops, through Sydney suburbs. It is only after this that he draws breath and emerges, for one of two brief episodes, on the Harbour; you then realise that you have been in Sydney all this time, seeing the tapestry from the wrong side -- the seamy side.
Yet that wrong side, was not all sordid. Jonah's friend of his early push days, known as Chook, was a youth with a pretty wit, and his idyllic little love affair holds very genuine sweetness to the very close of the book. ' And humour -- humour of the heavy, farcical kind in his foolish, selfish, step-mother-in-law; humour of delicate moments in his relations with his sweetheart, Pinkie, with her pale face and hair the colour of a new penny. Chapter by chapter, the episodes of their developing life are charming, and also solid. At the end of the book, though, comes the question of why these episodes do seem to float away from the mind. In some books, the framework is so firm and well balanced that at the close you see every episode even more clearly than while you were reading it. In others, the close means a breaking up. "Jonah" is not quite "fitly framed together"; that is its weakness, in spite of all its other strength. Every chapter is rather too much like a separate still-life study, though not "still" within the boundaries of the separate, lively chapter! The story does not quite carry all the characters along in its sweep: when Jonah takes up his new commercial existence, Chook is never mentioned again except in his wholly separate environment. You never hear Chook mentioning Jonah's rise in life, or comparing it with his own struggles as a green- grocer. You never hear Jonah wishing he had lived on with Chook. They are separated, watertight, further from each other than Cardigan-street was from the Habour. Still, Chook and Pinkie and the rest remain as excellent sketches. The whole book is a sketch-book of types very difficult to capture, and we feel they have been saved for us between the covers of "Jonah." It is a book that certainly ought to be republished and well distributed.
First published in The Brisbane Courier, 7 January 1928
[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]