Book Review: Behold, New Holland! by Rix Weaver

I stumbled across this novel by accident. It was advertised in the back of a book I had just finished reading and I was surprised that I had not heard of this author before.

First published in September 1940, Behold, New Holland! tells the story of one family’s arrival in Western Australia and their first nine years  in the colony. This was Rix Weaver's debut novel.

Henry Mabie, an ex-British Army Officer, disenchanted with the Government of a post Napoleonic War England, wishes to protect his wealth and is convinced that to do so his family would be better off in Australia.  His brother, Jep Mabie, a soldier, recently returned from an expedition to Australia on board HMS Success, is also excited about the potential and opportunities available in the new colony and encourages his brother to emigrate.

Henry becomes part of a scheme by Thomas Peel to colonize Western Australia and in 1830, accompanied by his pregnant wife, Susan, his four sons, two daughters, his sister, Jane, and "Nanny", sails on the Rockingham, for the Swan River settlement.

The novel describes the hardships of the early settlers and the trials the Mabie family face: being shipwrecked on arrival in the new colony, desertion by their contracted labour, near starvation from loss of stock and crop failures, and personal tragedy. A further series of set backs sees their money disappear so that returning to England is not an option. 

Henry Mabie is a typical 19th century gentleman, who as head of the household sees his word as law and expects to be obeyed. Susan is a typical 19th century wife, deferring to her husband in all things.

And then we have Jane Mabie. A most delightful character, who is “ ... decidedly versatile in feminine coquetry, was neither shy nor demure. She didn’t fit in with the general rule. Rather than droop modest eyes she opened them with wide interest in the world about her and accepted pretty compliments with very apparent satisfaction.”

Rix Weaver in an interview expressed her opinion that women should have a role outside motherhood and this view is reflected in the character of Jane Mabie, who is not content to take a lesser role in colonizing and has no reluctance in voicing her opinions on political, family and personal matters, completely at odds with how a young woman was expected to conduct herself in the early 19th century.

Jane often antagonizes and exasperates Henry because of her outspokeness and also her refusal to marry, despite having received some very favourable offers. Her arrival in the colony causes a stir among the single men, especially the soldiers, who vie for her attention. At times she seems empty headed and at others possessed of a mind well beyond her years. This is not surprising as the span of the novel sees Jane mature from a girl of 16 to a young woman of 25. Her enthusiasm and determination to see the colony succeed forms an integral part of this novel. 

The descriptive passages of the land evoke images of an unspoiled landscape and one so different to that of England. Through Jane’s eyes we see its strangeness and its beauty.

While being a first class history of Western Australia, woven through this novel is also the romance between Jane Mabie and military officer, Captain Gratton Hird, who meets Jane and her family while on Government business. Both are stubborn, which makes for an interesting relationship.

Rix Weaver’s research into the history of the Swan River colony cannot be faulted, though she has taken liberties with some facts as she acknowledges in the Author’s Note. Her love of her home state and the recognition she gives to the early settlers is evident in her writing.  

I found this novel to be well written in a style that gives it an authentic 19th century feel. This added to its charm, along with the flowing narrative and a great cast of characters: a very enjoyable read.

The story of the Mabie family continues in the sequel, New Holland Heritage. I borrowed both books from my local library, though I did discover that  Behold, New Holland! and New Holland Heritage were combined and released in 1979 by Angus and Robertson under the title of Theirs to Bestow.

Behold, New Holland! is Book#1 of my commitment to the  2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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