Tony’s Notes From The Bony Novels (Part 7)

Posted on Fri 04/01/2011 by


Arthur Upfield and Political Correctness.

In effect, Political Correctness is the embodiment of time travel.

It gives people the ability to travel into the past and ‘sanitise’ history, by placing current values on something that was perceived as being perfectly normal at the time it happened.

Right or wrong now, at the time, this was the way things were, and nothing we do now can change that.

Something similar applies here to those novels from Arthur Upfield.

At the time of writing, he was just telling it like it was, and it fact what needs to be kept in context is that his novels were, after all, Fiction.

That being the case, he wove things into his novels that were outside the ordinary. He introduced Aboriginal culture into those novels when he didn’t really have to.

Therein lies the source of the problem, in my opinion, and it probably explains why his novels fell so out of favour here in Australia, while in the U.S. the UK, and in the wider European base, his novels still sell very well to this day.

The problem may have been exacerbated in fact when those novels were introduced to television in the form of a series.

TV is a medium where, due to the constraints of time, those novels must be changed, shortened, and constructed in a manner that leaves more out than it includes, while still trying to tell a story. Script writing is completely different to the structural writing of the novel itself, hence most of the subtle nuances in Upfield’s novels were lost when translated to a made for TV script.

At the time the TV series was being produced, the Aboriginal people of Australia were just starting to stand up for their rights, something they really had not very many of at all.

The TV series was in fact part of what those Aborigines were complaining about. They were quite understandably angry that a non Aboriginal person was chosen for the lead role of Bony, in fact a white person who then was made to look part Aboriginal by having his face ‘blacked’.

While angry at that, that anger then spilled across to the novels of Upfield.

The TV series left out the subtleties that were an inherent part of those novels. The perception was that here was a TV series reinforcing the stereotypes that the Aborigines were fighting against, and then placing that into the popular media of TV. This then carried across to the novels, which further angered the Aborigines, because, in effect, this was a white person, of English origin on top of that, writing from the perspective of an Aborigine, and really, what would he know about Aboriginal Culture. Even if he did, what then gave him the right to tell what was ‘their story’.

What the Aborigines did not do was to read those novels, and to read between the lines, because a lot of the Aboriginal ways Upfield wrote about were not ‘overt’ with an explanation as to why he said what he did. It was part of the novel itself, and as part of that, was background that did not have to be explained at every step.

Now, why I say that directly relates back to my reading of the novels.

I originally got hold of the first of those novels in 1967, well before the TV series started, and by the time that TV series was up and running, I had read probably half a dozen of them. After that I then got hold of more of them over the next 15 or so years.

When reading those novels through the first time, it was from the standpoint of Crime Fiction, mainly the resolution of the crime being investigated. The fact that Upfield’s character, Bony was half aboriginal, and there were some aboriginal settings in some of those novels, some more than others, was in fact an incidental part of those novels, and in fact, something I did not even notice at the time.

At a later time when I decided to read those novels again, only this time in the correct sequence they were written, I then got hold of the ones I was missing, and in fact I did not get hold of the missing one of those 29 titles until the mid 1990’s.

I read them again from the very first novel, ‘The Barrakee Mystery’. This time, I noticed something I was not even looking for at those first readings. I noticed a distinct Aboriginal theme, and this time it was not covert at all. Because I was now attuned to looking out for those things, they then became so obvious that it actually seemed as if this was the main story, and in fact, the Crime Fiction aspect of the novels now seemed to be the incidental part of those novels.

I learned more about Aboriginal Culture from those novels than in all my previous years. Probably ninety five out of a hundred people would know absolutely nothing in any depth about Aboriginal Culture, even now, decades after it has started to enter every day thinking of those average Australians.

Why I say that those Aboriginals protesting about the novels of Arthur Upfield had not actually read them in any depth, and were just protesting that Upfield had no right to write what he did, and that what he did write was totally incorrect, has been reinforced somewhat from the point of view of one of those protesting Aborigines.

Here I am specifically referring to Gary Foley, who has been over the years one of the most vocal speakers in favour of those rights for Aborigines. He has been one of the leaders of that movement, striving to see that their story needs to be told, that they need to become recognised, not as Aborigines were traditionally recognised, but as an integral part of the makeup of all Australia, and that there needs to be respect for their Culture, and for them as a whole, also recognising that they in fact were the original Australians.

Gary Foley is in fact quite sympathetic to the writings of Arthur Upfield, and while others are strident in their anti Upfield stance, Foley is in fact quite pro Upfield. It would seem that he has read those Upfield novels in some depth, and realises that Upfield has in fact attempted to tell part of that story of Aboriginal Culture, and that Upfield was indeed more sympathetic to Aborigines than nearly all Australians at the time of writing of those novels.

Some will still speak out against Upfield, but you only have to read his novels on even a cursory basis to realise that he is actually putting Aboriginal Culture in front of Australians who have no idea of any of the aspects of that Culture, and indeed, no real intent to even take the time to find out about it.

Upfield put all of this into his novels as part and parcel of those novels in such a subtle manner as to make it almost seem to be incidental, and that was where Upfield was very clever.

It may have been fiction, and from that the TV series then left it out, glossed over it, misinterpreted it, and then all of those things only added to the feeling against Upfield’s books here in Australia.

While they were quite popular at, and around the times of the novels publications, they fell out of print, and in fact virtually disappeared from shelves of bookstores , virtually for decades, and even from second hand book stores. It was in fact probably not something to say out loud that you were a fan of Upfield’s novels.

He has immense popularity outside of Australia, and yet, is almost shunned here in his Country of choice.

There are also a few cases where Upfield’s books have been released at a later date, most probably in the Nineteen Nineties, under second, and even third titles. As was the case with some of the television episodes having titles that differed from that of the books, these second titles for published books possibly have an ulterior motive, that of updating the title to make the book a little more saleable.

This was something that was even done right back at the time of publication of some of the Upfield novels, especially for the U.S. market. The first of those Upfield novels published in the U.S. was ‘Mr. Jelley’s Business’, and to give it wider recognition in the U.S. the novel was retitled as ‘Murder Downunder’ when Doubleday started publishing Upfield’s novels in 1943, possibly to assist in informing the general U.S. public about Australia, where their military personnel were spending a lot of time away from those theatres of War.

The term ‘Downunder’ refers specifically to Australia from a U.S. and also an English aspect as well, because Australia was ‘seemingly’ that Country at the bottom of the World when viewed on a map of the whole World. The Northern Hemisphere was looked upon as the top of the World, and Australia was at the bottom of the Globe, hence ‘Downunder’.

In fact, quite a few of those earlier Upfield novels were published under titles other than the original Upfield title, mainly for that specific reason, as a reference to Australia, more than the esoteric titles Upfield gave them.

Two particular cases in question of this retitling of Upfield’s novels are the novels ‘Bony Buys A Woman’ retitled with the more acceptable title of ‘The Bushman Who Came Back’, and Bony And The Black Virgin’, retitled with the more Politically Correct title of an innocuous sounding ‘The Torn Branch’.

I have also come across a preface in some of the books that have been published, these by Ulverscroft, this Company publishing books mostly in large print for those who have some difficulties reading normal sized print. Inside the cover, there is a preface that says that the attitudes and intentions expressed by the author in relation to the treatment of women and aborigines are in no way those of the publisher. This looks to be a case of apologising for something that was perceived to be the normal attitude of the time. What was perceived to be correct at the time of writing is not now perceived to be ‘politically incorrect’, another example of trying to change the past by controlling the present. This also seems to be a direct form of a condescending apology towards the Aborigines, and really, it’s something I really don’t think is needed in the form of a preface for a Fiction novel, as that apology has been canvassed most effectively in other Forums.

I say this mainly because Upfield treated the Aborigines in his writings in a much better fashion than most of the Australian authors at the time. He seems to be one of the few who really did look into the ways and customs of these people, and treats them with sensitivity and respect. He also shows respect for their customs.

In most cases Upfield through his character Bony actually makes the pointed and direct comment that the Aborigine is far superior to the white man. He also mentions that we, as a white race in general, are at fault for coming to this land and actively seeking to destroy these people, treating them as savages. When we can’t kill them all, we have sought to assimilate them into our society. Upfield also mentions this method of assimilation as also being inherently faulty, as in most cases, the aborigine is far superior in every way to the white man. In the process of assimilation, we have dragged them down to our level. This is not an isolated mention, showing Upfield seemingly rising to the soapbox to paint a picture for one of his books, but appears in nearly each and every one of his novels where the aborigine appears. Also, it’s not something that is covert and picked up from reading between the lines, because Upfield, through Bony, came right out and said it in the text itself, and as I mentioned, in many places throughout those novels.

I think that some of the stereotypes may have appeared in some of his books, but it is only in the context of the writing of that particular character that Upfield was describing at the time of writing.

The current climate of Political Correctness is still quite strong, and until that is overcome, those novels of Upfield will still have the connotation of being written by a ‘white guy’, an Englishman even, and raising again those old stereotypes that the Aborigines have been fighting for decades to get rid of.

You only need read Upfield’s novels to see starkly that he is in fact quite sympathetic to that Aboriginal Culture, and in fact is placing that culture into the minds of many of his millions of readers.