Armchair Traveller Challenge #1
Thanks to her father’s misplaced ambition, Sybylla Melvyn is reduced from the relative comforts of Bruggabrong to the harsh life of Possum Gully. Instead of owning three stations, the family now has one property, and that one poor and drought-ravaged. Her lofty, independent spirit rankles under the daily drudgery; her mind is filled with music, literature, and world events, things far above her current place in life. Her obvious disinclination for her new, hard life causes her mother to constantly berate her for her uselessness, and remind her of her unfitness for any of the careers a woman in the 1890s could pursue. For Sybylla, this is just one more burden to bear; for she knows that she is cursed with an ugliness of form and temperament that will leave her forever unloved and alone.
Her apparent salvation arrives when her grandmother offers to take in one of the children. With the drought and her father’s increasing drunkenness, her mother had already stated that Sybylla should relieve the family of her presence. At Caddagat she has all the things she dreamed of; books to read, a piano to play, green lawns, ease and comfort, and relatives who don’t condemn her as useless. There she meets the wealthy owner of the neighbouring station of Five-Bob Downs. As much as she likes Harold Beecham, she is determined to knock some of the conceit out of him, to pay him back for toying with her by pretending to care for her. By the time she succeeds she has learned, through her mother’s continued hostility, that there are worse things in life than Possum Gully, and her unlovable spirit proves to be a curse indeed.
I decided to start the Armchair Traveller Reading Challenge at home; I figured it qualified because it’s set in the country and it’s been years since I’ve set foot out of the city. And the setting was the highlight of the book; I could really picture the people and the places which Sybylla encountered. The characters were also vivid and the writing style was lively and engaging. Sybylla’s narration of her story brought her to life and I’m sure she will prove one of the more memorable characters I’ve encountered. She is quite unconventional, and by the final page her story is just as much so.
Yet it was this remarkable character that made the book fall a little flat, and dragged it down from what I initially thought would be an A. She is utterly convinced of her own unlovableness and nothing anyone can say or do will change her mind. She can’t muster any belief in herself, even when doing so could have enabled her to seize a golden opportunity. Her negativity got quite wearying and I wanted to shake her. But at the same time, I could understand, for Sybylla is a lot like me. Which was half the problem; I read to escape, which doesn’t work too well when the book contains a character who reflects so much of the worst of myself. In another way, though, it was a benefit; even if I didn’t much care for the way it ended, I knew that it was the only outcome possible, for I knew what the result would be if she took the alternative. She would have been forever waiting for it all to come crashing down, as would I. And perhaps having seen the effect Sybylla has on me will make me more mindful of the effect I must have on others.
Despite this it is a wonderful book, for the portrait it paints of a place and time, and the extraordinary fact that it was written by a girl of sixteen.