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Rodney Hall: The Yandilli trilogy (The Second Bridegroom, The Grisly Wife and Captivity Captive)

The Yandilli trilogy is a series of three books written and published separately (the third one, Captivity Captive, was actually written and published first), all set in and around the (fictitious) Yandilli settlement in New South Wales, Australia, at different periods in its history.

The first book is The Second Bridegroom. It is narrated (somewhat incoherently – we learn the reason for this towards the end of the book) by a man who may be called Felim John Stanley, though, as he is an unreliable narrator, that is not sure. The time is 1838. Felim is writing his story to someone (again, we only learn to whom towards the end of the book). Along with his ramblings, his often incoherent thoughts and his views on various matters and people, he tells his story in three strands, all mixed together. He was born and grew up on the Isle of Man. His father and brother were smugglers. His father would be caught and hanged for his offences. Felim, however, went into the printing trade, working as an apprentice and becoming adept at printing, so adept, indeed, that he is able to forge a document which purports to come from William Caxton. He does this soon after his father’s hanging and, to help his mother, takes it to Oxford to sell to a dealer. He is immediately arrested, charged with stealing a rare Caxton document. During the trial he is mocked by the judge and sentenced to hang. Only on appeal is he able to show that he did not steal the document but forged it and his sentence is converted to transportation to Australia. Details of his early life and trials only come out gradually.

The second strand concerns his transportation from Sydney, where he is first sent, to New South Wales. He is taken as part of a group of convicts, who will help Mr. Atholl, a man Felim calls The Master, to build the settlement which will become Yandilli. At Sydney, he is standing next to a large man. When the convicts have to be manacled together, the man, Gabriel Dean, says that he will look after the little runt and Felim is manacled to him. Dean makes life very difficult for Felim, bullying him and abusing him. However, when Dean gets a fever and is weakened, Felim takes advantage of this and suffocates him. When they arrive, Atholl is annoyed but does not punish Felim but merely says you owe me fifteen shillings. Felim is the first one off the ship at New South Wales and, as a result, the first white man to set foot on it. However, as he is not manacled to anyone, he takes advantage of this to escape. He wonders how he is going to survive but he is soon taken in charge by a group of aborigines who treat him as a king. Eventually, they come upon a white settlement – Yandilli. After their attack on the settlement, Felim comes across Gabriel Dean or a man who he thinks is Dean.

The second book is The Grisly Wife. Catherine Byrne has fallen for a man who will later be called The Prophet and, to her parents’ disgust, they later marry. A sect is created around this prophet (it consists entirely of women) and, in 1868, they set off for Australia. The journey is difficult, not helped by Catherine leaving the relative safety of the lounge to go out on deck in a heavy storm. En route, one of their number dies. However, they eventually arrive in Australia, specifically in Yandilli, where they do not seem to be very welcome. As with The Second Bridegroom, the story is told in the first person by the protagonist – Catherine Byrne in this case – and her narration is also very personal, at times somewhat wandering but also very evocative. She admits to being perverse, thinking, for example, that the Virgin Birth is odd as there has never been a subsequent, verifiable case. While in Yandilli, Catherine gets tuberculosis and, though she is ill for along time, she does recover. However, others get sick and she sends her husband off to get appropriate medicine. While he is away, she realises she is pregnant. She wonders if she is an example of virgin birth, as she and her husband have not had sex but also wonders what her husband will think when he returns.

During his absence she does ponder a lot about the issue and even wishes him harm, hoping that he will not come back. However, he does come back, though with great difficulty, as the ship sinks just outside the harbour. He brings back Louisa Theuerkauf, a German opera singer and shows her much more attention than he does to his wife, not least because he has rescued her from drowning. On his return, the sect moves away from Yandilli into the countryside, where they plan to set up a place more suitable for the Visitor (i.e. Christ, whose second coming they are expecting). More importantly, from Catherine’s point of view, he accepts her pregnancy and is overjoyed, thinking that the child will be a holy child. The child is a boy – whom they christen Immanuel – but he is far from holy. The book follows the story of the sect over the coming years, with murder(s), deaths from illness and other events colouring the life of the sect.

The third book is Captivity Captive and was written and published before the other two. It is based on the famous Gatton murder case, a murder which took place in 1898 and has never been solved though there are some theories. Hall has taken all the details of the case, including names and events, and transposed it to the Yandilli area. However, he has added a considerable amount of invented material concerning the family and the events that led up to the murders and the aftermath.

The victims of murders were Michael Murphy and his two sisters, Norah and Ellen. All three had been tied up and bludgeoned though Michael had also been shot in the head, as had the horse pulling their sulky. The women had been raped. We learn that the three victims were the adult children of a farming couple. Both Murphy parents were very big and used their physique to control their ten children. Unusually for those days, all ten children survived to adulthood. Interestingly enough, only four married and only two of those had children, all dying at childbirth or by the age of three. Daniel Murphy, the father, was a very hard worker and converted a lot of scrub land into arable land and managed to successfully feed his family. He expected his sons to work for him and when the eldest, William, tried to leave when twenty years old, Daniel badly beat him up and William was never the same again.

The story is narrated by Patrick, the clever one and apple of his mother’s eye (though she showed little affection to any of the ten). It starts in 1956, fifty-eight years after the murders, with Barney Barnett, the fiancé of Ellen, on his death bed. He is confessing to the murders to a police inspector who has come specially from Brisbane to hear his confession. However, his story does not fit in with the known facts and the inspector does not believe him. Patrick, who is there, is not so sure, as he feels that, after such a long time, Barnett’s memory may be confused. Patrick goes on to tell the story of the family – his father’s toughness and occasional brutality – as well as of their life on the farm. He describes the events surrounding the murders in some detail. It was on 26th December. Michael had been drunk and his father, as usual, had chained him to the bed. However, he had been released and was taking his sisters to the dance. Patrick had been working and he met the three of them as he returned home. Many other people saw the three on the road. As so few people turned up for the dance, it was cancelled and the three were returning when they were murdered. They were well off the road and were only discovered by a relative recognising the sulky tracks (one of the wheels was wobbly).
Patrick describes the very badly handled investigation, discusses the suspects and witnesses – over a hundred people were interviewed – and the family reaction.

The whole story is superbly told, including the surprise ending, not least because Patrick is the most coherent of the three narrators and because he tells not only his own story but that of his family members and the various neighbours and relatives. While the three books are separate, the link between the three is not just the location but characters from the previous books are mentioned, albeit briefly, in the second and third stories. While I preferred the final story (the first to be written), all three are very well told and deserve to be better known. It is amazing that this book is out of print, even in Australia.

Publishing history

The Second Bridegroom first published in 1991 by McPhee Gribble
The Grisly Wife first published in 1993 byMacmillan
Captivity Captive first published in 1988 by McPhee Gribble