Wedded to the literary canon

Rhonda Dredge

It’s not that often that you get such an ambitious book as The Lessons launched in inner Melbourne.

The author John Purcell was at Readings Emporium last month on a visit from England.

In person he has quite a swagger that is as impressive as his prose.

“I want to be better than Middlemarch,” he said.

An Australian-born author, he has lost the self-deprecating style of the local milieu and now lives in Kent.

The Lessons does not have Eliot’s poetics, but it is a passionate book that moves along swiftly without the mind-numbing detail that hampers so much local fiction.

One of the characters is Jane Curtin, a famous novelist, who analyses the craft during an interview on stage in New York.

She is a breakout author from the ‘60s with vague connections to the Tory Party.

“I wanted to make her rich and interesting,” Purcell said.

Her life and that of her niece Daisy are constructed out of Bronte and Austen novels.

They want to have affairs and children, write books, design clothes and follow their hearts without fear.

This proves impossible because of the competitive nature of these desires and the annoying restraints of society.

There’s tension in their lives between being dissolute and productive and they don’t have the skills to trust their own impulses.

Their major fault is that they love making a fuss and their emotionality turns them into victims.

Purcell writes vigorously, with some great landscape settings and a male romantic lead in the vein of Hardy’s Gabriel Oak.

The clash between Bohemian and traditional values is a bit dated but should appeal to those wedded to the literary canon.

The Lessons, John Purcell, HarperCollins, 2022 •

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