by Witold Łukasiak
Nancy Cato, renowned Australian writer, authored about twenty diverse books, including two poetry volumes, children books and biographies. She was a journalist and a literary critic who was published in many Australian journals. Most of all, she is recognized as a historic writer, a subject in which she has written about ten books, where she was able to depict Australia’s past ambiance.
Nancy Cato was born in Adelaide in 1917, where she attended Presbyterian Ladies College, graduating in 1939. She then studied at the South Australian School of Arts. In 1941 she married a well-known racing car driver named Eldred Norman, with whom she travelled around the world. She was the mother of two sons and a daughter, member of the Australian Society of Authors and the South Australian Branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers.
She received a number of prestigious honours, like a doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Queensland and an Order of Australia. Later in her life she settled in Queensland, where she actively worked for environmental protection. She passed away in Noosa in 2000.
Some of the best known novels by Nancy Cato are: All the Rivers Run, Brown Sugar, Mister Maloga, Queen Trucanini and North-West by South.
The latter is extremely interesting for us, because one of the main characters is Sir Paul Edmund de Strzelecki. The author convincingly replays the last years of Sir John Franklin, humanitarian governor of Tasmania from 1837-1843, who was an explorer of Arctic, and who tragically perished in the icy spaces of Northern Pole. The book also follows the story of his beautiful and intelligent wife, Lady Jane Franklin and people associated with them.
From 24th July 1840 till 24th September 1842, during the time when Franklin governed Tasmania, Strzelecki was exploring the island.
In the book (published by New English Library, London, 1980), the Pole appears for the first time, when Lady Jane Franklin meets him in Sydney, and Nancy Cato states the following (p.140):
„ a new star had risen in her (Jane’s - W.Ł.) sky ”
„Count Paul Edward (this is an error of the author because the second name of the Polish explorer is in fact Edmund - W.Ł.) de Strzelecki, » a Polish nobleman of high Family «, as she wrote enthusiastically to Mary (Maconachie, friend - W.Ł.), was a frequent visitor at Government House where she was guest of honour.
He had made himself entirely charming, kissing her hand with courteous grace, always respectful yet subtly conveying that he would, in other circumstances, have wished to kiss more than her hand.
His accent was fascinating, his manners were impeccable, and his face had that rugged strength, that air of decision of the outdoor man of action, which had always attracted her more than mere drawing-room good looks. He was already persona grata among the older colonial families, the new aristocracy of the settlement, the McArthur's and the Kings. He had promised to visit Van Diemen's Land before long, and she had assured him of Sir John's welcome”.
Eleanor, teenage daughter of Sir John, recorded the day-to-day life of the Franklin residence, like the following event, which Nancy Cato describes - (p. 163):
„Papa had a new friend too, in Count Paul de Strzelecki, a name she could never spell in her diary. He had arrived straight from the bush, in walking - jacket with buttoned - flap pockets and strong corduroy trousers, a knapsack full of geological specimens on his back and wide - brimmed felt hat on his had.
It was just when they were having a big dinner for the officers of Erebus and Terror, but Papa had welcomed him like an old friend: 'Come in, come in!' he cried heartily. 'Never mind your bush dress; we are all travelers here.”
Before his wife’s travel to New Zealand, the governor told Jane about governance difficulties. The dialog between the couple about Strzelecki goes like this - (p. 164):
„Montagu (Colonial Secretary - W.Ł.) will be back by the time you return, - said Sir John.
„You know, I feel I can cope with him much better with Strzelecki to advise me. He's impartial, he's not involved in any way, and he sees these local disputes with a clear eye and mind.”
„He has an excellent mind. I'm so happy you have his friendship to sustain you among all your worries. He's one of the most cultivated and delightful men I have ever met” …
„Well, he will be back from the north-west next week, so I shall not be lonely at dinner.”
On pages 169 and 174 Nancy Cato writes that, when Strzelecki would return to Hobart from his scientific expeditions, he was always welcome in the governor’s residence. However, Strzelecki’s main quarters were in Launceston, where he could concentrate better on his research.
Lady Jane Franklin prepared a project of a Tasmanian Museum, and when speaking with her husband about the project she said with enthusiasm - (p. 179):
„ We will have art treasures as well, copies of Greek sculptures, portraits of explorers like Ross and Strzelecki - oh, it is wonderful idea!
I believe you'll do it, too.' said Sir John admiringly. 'You're a remarkable determined woman when your mind is set on anything, my love.
And it shall called the Sir John Franklin Museum in your honour. What ever happens to us, it will remain as your memorial.
And yours, my dear Jane.”
Nancy Cato further states about our explorer and Lady Jane - (p.180):
„ Count Strzelecki, who had been staying at the Government cottage at Launceston, came down to Hobart for a few weeks. He listened with sympathy to Jane's woes over the Ladies' Committee and Sir John's troubles with his Colonial Secretary. Jane brought out all the designs she had so far collected for her museum, including her own sketch of the Grecian front elevation, and the design by Captain Swanston, creator of the Model Prison at Port Arthur"
„The Count approved her drawing but dismissed Swanston's plan. « Zis is too large, too expensif», he opined.
« Somesing elegant and imposing wizout being pretentious is what you require, Ma'am ». As usual Jane found him full of good sense and good advice.”
(To better reflect the book's atmosphere, I repeat his words exactly as given by Nancy Cato:
„ Zis is too large, too expensif he opined. Something elegant and imposing wiz out being pretentious is what you require, Ma'am.”)
The Pole was fluent in a few languages and most probably his accent was a mixture of Polish, French and German. Charles Darwin, in a letter thanking Strzelecki for his book (with dedication), mentions Strzelecki’s command of the English language:
Down Bromley Kent, Sunday
'My dear Sir, I received a few days since your kind & valuable present …
- You speak of your unidiomatic English; I heartily wish that one quarter of our English authors could think & write in language one half as spirited yet so simple.'
„ Afterwards, as he was demonstrating his coal-testing instruments for analyzing the gas content of piece of Tasmanian coal, setting them out on the library table, Jane noticed with some surprise that Sophy (Sir John’s niece, who lived with Franklin - W.Ł.) was full of interest. Not only that, but the Count was quite aware of this interest, and laughingly held her hand to steady it while she tried to operate the equipment for herself.
Really, Sophy had been very odd lately, ever since the South Polar expedition left; one day pale and moping, and the next full of a febrile gaiety. Count Strzelecki (unattached, though he had hinted that his affections were bound up with a sweetheart of his youth who still waited for him in Poland) had noted the change in her eyes, her arch laughter, and probably thought it only good manners to respond. One could not blame the poor man for flirting a little; he led a Spartan life much of the time, camping in the field or working at his Physical Description, which looked like becoming a big book. He could hardly be persuaded to attend any Hobarton festivities.
Why then this strange pang as she looked at him and Sophy, a little flushed and merry, bending over the blue flame?
When she met him in Sydney, she remembered, he had talked to her almost exclusively; but she was older than he by almost five years, and Sophy was young. Examining her heart critically, Jane saw what it was that disturbed her. It was the realization of a woman past fifty, who once used to charm men almost unconsciously, that she is growing old.
When later she mentioned the incident in a letter to Mary, she carefully refrained from the slightly bitter phrase, 'young enough to be his daughter '
… Mary was an expert at reading between the lines..”
Writing about another historic person - (p. 181) Nancy Cato adds:
„Roland Gunn, once more living in the north of the island, had found Strzelecki a congenial companion on many bush rambles, but a fall from his horse had resulted in a comminuted fracture of the leg, which was to keep him home for months.”
We read more about Strzelecki and his young friend - (p.185):
„ For herself, she (Sophy - W.Ł.) felt apathetic and dull since Count Strzelecki returned to Launceston. Ever adaptable to his company, he had seemed to sense the recklessness, the readiness to be diverted, the longing for reassurance in her since the too-transparent offer of her heart had been rejected by Ross (who she had fallen in love with before he departed on an Antarctic expedition - W.Ł.)
That heart was still entirely his even if he did not want it. Young as she was, she felt, she knew such intensity of feeling would not come again in a lifetime. Anything else must be a shadow.
The Count had diverted her, and given her back her self-confidence and poise. Behind his vivacity and fire, his amusing anecdotes, his wide, laughing, mobile, bitter mouth, she had sensed some hidden tragedy which drew her to him - not knowing that he too was faithful to the image of one lost love, lost for more than twenty years.”
Writing about Strzelecki’s compassionate views on Aborigines, Nancy Cato praises the Pole - (p. 195) :
Sir John wrote to his friend Strzelecki in Launceston about the coming trip, and how sorry he was that Ronald Gunn, who had broken his leg badly months before, was unable to come and botanize.
„ Knowing the Count's interest in the Aborigines, Sir John told him of the small group of men and boys caught recently in the north-west, in the act of spearing sheep for food. They had been sent off to join their fellows.(It means that these Aborigines were sent to Flinders Island, along with other Aborigines transported from Tasmania, where they perished en mass - W.Ł.) 'So our little Native girl (Mathinna, raised in the Franklin family - W.Ł.) is the last of her race still remaining in the main Island,' he wrote.”
Strzelecki was planning a visit to Flinders Island, for he wished to test a theory of his own for the dwindling of the race. He felt there was little hope of their survival, but while they survived he deplored the efforts of missionaries and others, however well-meaning, to graft a European set of customs and observances on to a primitive people :
„ At least leave them alone to follow their own customs, and let their last remaining years be happy,” - he said.
He was satisfied that Sir John rejected the plan developed by Robinson, sending all Tasmanian Aborigines to the mainland, where they would educate uncivilised tribesmen (Strzelecki was right. The Aborigines of Tasmania (Van Diemen's Land) died out years ago - W.Ł.)
He'd had many an argument with Jane over the wisdom of keeping Mathinna and teaching her along with Eleanor. The result could only be disastrous for the child, because of the deep dichotomy between the Aboriginal and white man's way of life and thought (Strzelecki was right. When the Franklins left for England, Mathinna was transported to Flinders Island, where in order not to die of hungry, sold herself to drunk sailors - W.Ł.)
He was pleased that Sir John had resisted Robinson's grandiose scheme of taking all the Tasmanians from Flinders Islands to the mainland: 'Where they would have a civilizing effect upon their wild brothers.'
„Zis man is mad,' Strzelecki had said with vigour. 'He has illusions of grandeur, of being the Conciliator for all ze mainland natives. Obviously he has no idea of ze size of Australia, ze immensity, ze distance involved. Zis was a scheme ze most foolish and ill-considered”
In this soliloquy Nancy Cato also underlines the accent spoken by Strzelecki.
Continuation of part 2 on the next page _can be found here_ …