Original date of publication: 1934
My copy: 1985 (Virago Modern Classics)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Amazon UK, June 2012
Set just after WWI, Trooper to the Southern Cross is narrated by Major Bowen, a former military doctor. He and his wife Celia book passage on a trooper ship, the Rudolstadt, from England to Australia. On board are former military personnel, diggers, prisoners, and others, and this novel is the story of their voyage.
The novel is based on personal experience. Angela Thirkell came from an illustrious family; her grandfather was the painter Edward Burne-Jones, her father was the first biographer of William Morris, her brother was Denis Mackail (author of Greenery Street, published by Persephone), Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin were first cousins, her son was Colin MacInnes, and JM Barrie was her godfather. Thirkell’s second husband was George Thirkell, one of the first Australians to enlist in WWI. In January 1920, the couple, newly married and with Thirkell’s children from her previous marriage in tow, set sail for Australia on the troopship SS Friedrichsruh.
Thirkell fictionalizes the experiences by making Major Bowen and Celia childless, but she gives another couple on board two children, who pull the same pranks that Thirkell’s own children pulled while on board make it into the book (locking lavatory doors from the inside, for example). The voyage was not without incident; the Germans sabotaged the ship (which prohibited alcohol) and there was also a riot. You also get the sense that the cross-dressing Irish digger was also not totally fictional.
It’s an entertaining novel; although there’s not much plot to speak of, I enjoyed it. You really get the feel for how claustrophobic it must have been on board. The author’s use of Australian dialect is a bit annoying and takes away from the pace of the novel, but after a while I got used to it. Thirkell was a stranger to Australian ways, but she observes them quite beautifully in this book, contrasting them sharply with the ways of the English. She certainly took every opportunity of mocking the Australians by cleverly making her main character a member of that nation, and frequently making him the butt of her jokes.