If you open the average Australian history textbook to the chapter on the post-war period, you get a sea of optimism. After the failure of the Chifley Labor government to nationalise the banks, Robert Menzies and the Liberals came to power in 1949 for a conservative reign that would last almost thirty years.
Writing in The Nation, journalist Maxwell Newton summarised the dominant political atmosphere, “There was a grand reforming zeal about the Liberals in 1949 with their talk of free enterprise,” Australia became known as “the lucky country”, with many regarding this time as one of innovation and capitalist progress.
That emerging sense of complacency is likely why many in Sydney were shocked to find the opening chapters of The Harp in the South by Ruth Park written in the Herald. Winning a fiction contest out of hundreds of entries, Park’s novel highlighted a very different side of Sydney. Set in Surry Hills, then a slum district, Park opened Australia’s eyes. While Menzies preached from The Lodge, Park’s characters suffered squalor, alcoholism, racial oppression, and patriarchal prisons.
Born in New Zealand, Park was an unlikely novelist. Growing up in a lower-middle-class home without access to formal education she, according to biographer Joy Hooten, “made up for the lack of books by observing and eavesdropping.” She worked odd jobs for newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and Auckland Star before marrying Australian Darcy Niland and moving to Sydney. All they could afford was a cramped tenement in Surry Hills and because of the conditions, Park was sick for most of her first pregnancy. Writing in her autobiography, she described her home as “like a visit to some antique island where the nineteenth century still prevailed.”
Not all readers of the early chapters in the Herald liked her dim view of Sydney. Many working people wrote in letters of support but almost just as many wrote in opposing her work — some called it a lie, others a plot. The Herald went on to publish a daily tally of pro and con letters (sixty-eight for; fifty-four against). Miles Franklin was one of Park’s harshest critics: “It is a shoddy sordid performance of a very phony journalistic book… full of catch cries to the gallery.”
The simple, yet poignant style that Park writes in is something Franklin may have scoffed at, but nothing did those living in Surry Hills more justice.
Park’s novel is an exploration of how women navigate and survive in a working class conservative Catholic environment. The story follows the Darcy family, of which there are Margaret (Mumma) Darcy, her husband Hughie, and their two daughters Roie and Dolour.
Like many working-class men in the 40s, Hughie felt constantly ashamed he could not provide for his family. The constant pressure to live up to a standard of masculinity leads to, as Park observed in her own tenements, alcohol fuelled domestic violence. Roie recounts a usual Monday night: “And when he got home he started on Mumma. He hated her then, because in her fatness and untidiness and drabness she reminded him of what he himself was when he was sober.” Park depicts the fragile state of working class men — since his whole life is being an expendable cog in a workplace machine, his home is the only place he can exert some power. As Park points out in an interview, “A great many mothers in the basic wage families longed to get away, but a great many of the fathers did not.”
Park’s depiction of the restrictive patriarchy deepens with Mumma’s teenage daughter Roie. Like most working-class young women her worth was tied to her ability to produce children and get married — anything that stops is seen as a moral failing. Growing up with no access to contraception, and an ingrained hatred towards the idea, she gets pregnant twice. When one child tragically dies, she feels compelled to conceive and bear another, and if God still deemed her guilty he would take that from her. Even when her eventual husband Charlie questions this desire, “You’re not very strong, Roie, and it’ll hurt you,” she doubles down on the masochism that was forced on her., “ it’s worth it all. Other pain isn’t worth anything, but that is.”
It’s impossible to fully understand the societal and mental prison many girls like Roie were trapped in. It is shameful that writers who are touted as feminist icons, like Miles Franklin, turned their noses up at these experiences. Responding to her criticism among others, Park said in an interview: “I was just as horror-stricken and unbelieving as my critics when I first went to live in Surry Hills. I could hardly believe that such conditions could exist in a civilised country… I came to love the people, found humanity there, and felt I had to write about it all.” It was that humanity, as well as her activist message, which makes Park’s work so essential. When these stories were finally displayed in a national masthead, people were either forced to confront them or show their true colours by turning a blind eye.
This is especially because The Harp in the South faces, head on, the racist underbelly that defined post-war Sydney. As migration rapidly increased and First Nations people were forced into the slums, Surry Hills quickly became a hotbed of xenophobia and segregation.
The Chinese shopkeeper Lick Jimmy lives on the edges of society. He is dehumanised and reduced to an exotic being for children to gawk at. Children would walk by his shop and joke, “Where do you want to be licked today Jimmy?” We never hear his voice or see him interacting with anyone else. Park displays the brutal, horrifying reality that it is not even that the Irish families hate Jimmy, he is not human enough in their eyes to hate in the first place. The strength of migrant populations to survive and even thrive in a society that ignores their humanity is something often lost to Australian history.
However, Park herself shares some blame here. While acknowledging Jimmy’s suffering, her own framing implies he can never truly become part of society, reducing him down to a passive vessel. After Jimmy is mocked by a group of kids again she writes, “and never once did Jimmy fail to smile, for he was not destined to learn the intricacies of Surry Hills English.” Portraying migrants as accepting of their mistreatment does a disservice to decades of resistance that Park was ignorant of even while living in the slums.
The Darcy family must confront their own racist ideas when they realise Roie’s partner Charlie is part Indigenous. The fear of raising what she sees as an impure or “sooty grandchild” is painful to read and casts a shadow on what was a sympathetic character. Eventually, Hughie convinces her that Charlie is a good man, with the telling caveat, “the children will be white.” One critic wrongly argued that this emphasises how “working class solidarity and openness go deeper than surface racism.” What this really demonstrates is how pervasive racism is in this country, it lays bare the truth that despite the shared struggle of all working class people, racism would tear any hopes of solidarity apart.
Writing a review of The Harp in the South, war poet Shawn O’Leary argued it “bludgeons the reader about the brain, the heart, and the conscience.” In 1952, NSW State Minister of Housing Clive Evatt set about a program of slum clearance, partially because of the outcry Park’s novel caused. The start of gentrification may have disguised the problem, but did little to help the families who were just forced to relocate when the housing costs more than doubled.
Park was ironically awarded the Miles Franklin Award in 1977. The Harp in the South tells the story of a forgotten part of Sydney and the people who were left behind when the country was supposedly marching forwards — working class women, immigrants and First Nations people. It highlights that increasing class inequality and housing shortages are nothing new. The Darcy family and those around them never experienced the golden age Menzies spoke of, and never experienced the freedom he promised.