It looks tedious at first. Part of the dry stuff that goes into academic journals detailing nuances of cultural development and debate. Not that I object as such: I research and write history in my spare time. But the fight, in 1911 over doctrine between the Rector of All Saints Church in Brisbane, Douglas Price, and the Anglican Archbishop of Queensland, St Clair George Alfred Donaldson that threatened to diminish, if not extinguish Donaldson’s mission and authority is the stuff of drama and tragedy.The entire event was reported across the nation. It was the subject of a number of letters to the editor as observers struggled with the nature of Canon Law, the divinity of Christ and persons. For Price’s contention, that the divine rests within us all refused the divinity of God in and of itself. The Archbishop did not agree and asked for Price’s resignation at his own convenience. On 10 January 1911 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Archdeacon had stepped in to force Price’s immediate resignation.
Price was followed by a number of his congregation who eventually invited him to head a new church – the modernists. He eventually died in 1916. His followers attempted to keep the flame alive through a series of memorial lectures held between 1920 and 1924. After that he faded into obscurity.
Price was a writer, too. He published his sermons along with several novels in which he attempted to explore the mind of his subjects. One of a Crowd: The Story of a Queensland Girl Drawn Mainly From Life, published, it seems, just before his death in 1916, explores the nature of vocation and mission. It is a highly sympathetic portrait of a young woman finding her way – within herself – in contrast with those expectations of women were frequently limited to marriage and motherhood. He begins with Karen Petri, a child orphaned and institutionalised at the age of five. But before this point she had already learned a central lesson as Price vividly portrays in this argument between two small children. Here he is also granting consciousness to small children – a new thing in those days – as well as his intention to study the growth of a young woman’s mind through her emotional experiences. Nature has its own place in Price’s work; its place is akin to Sophocles Greek chorus, explaining moods, moving the story forward. We live in relation to nature within and without. This is Price’s first chapter – in full.
It was her birthday, and she was three years old. The full tide of the day had come, and Noon, weary but victorious, lay basking in the garden, while the sun yawned lazily over the world, sleepy with sunshine, dreaming its dream of creaseless, incredible blue.
On this first day of her memories Karen Petri sat in the garden, all among the yellow daisies which June had dipped so lavishly in liquid gold. A little lizard, lithe and cunning, looked at her cautiously as it sunned its sacred body in the light. But she paid no heed to the lizard, she had something more interesting to do. She was singing softly to herself, and making imaginary tea in an old cracked teapot filled to the brim with sulphur coloured sand.
On either side of the teapot there were groups of quaint Chinamen everlastingly engaged in the drinking of invisible tea. Time wrote no wrinkle on their brows, nor as yet had aught disturbed the even tenor of their enamelled plasticity. Nevertheless, the Finger of Fate caught even now at the threads of their blameless existence.
Within the teapot’s glossy depths there was something cabalistic, occult; it was a well of mystery, lit by flashes of rare colour and richness of shade, with a glassy polish smoother even than the child’s own skin. Doubtless some fairy dwelt within this burnished cavern, by whose enchantments silver water was transmuted into amber tea.
Karen loved her teapot better than any doll, and upon rare occasions when she could surreptitiously fill it with real water her delight knew no bounds.
‘Tea, tea, beautiful tea,’ she sang; and the breeze, drunk with pollen, caught her words contemptuously and scattered them into the air. Presently a step – O eyes of me! – a stranger: a small boy in a sailor suit, with a pink pugnose and a face flecked with freckles. His mother was calling on hers, and had bid him ‘run away and play’. He ran.
The gilded flowers beckoned him mysteriously, the brown bees sang their sweet songs of toil, the white fire fell from the sun, overhead a bird was calling to its mate; but the boy cared for none of these things.
He had secured a stone to sling at a butterfly when, suddenly he saw Karen. Their eyes met, and fell, and met again. Both were dumb, and the Spirit of Shyness sheltered them for a time. The Curiosity entered the garden, and whispered slyly to the boy.
‘What you got?’ he demanded.
‘Teapot’, she replied.
‘Give ‘um me’.
‘Give ‘um me, I tell you. I’m older than you, an’ if you don’t I’ll grab it’.
‘You shan’t! You mustn’t touch it! Mine!’ Greed and fear began to form in their minds like hail in the heavens ready to fall.
The boy made a swoop, and Karen fled with her treasure clasped tightly in her hands.
In and out among the bushes he chased her impetuously, till her foot caught on a stone and she fell to the ground, winning scars on her forehead which she would carry to the grave. The teapot was shivered into nine hundred and ninety-nine pieces; its destiny was fulfilled and the Chinamen at last broke up their age-long party.
Then blood, screams, tears, hurrying footsteps and general consternation – while flowers looked coyly at the bees and the leaves murmured lovingly to the breeze, and the sun shone benignantly amid the everlasting splendour of the sky, caring no more for Karen and her woes than for the fly in the tent of the spider, or the bird in the clutches of the hawk.
”Tis ever so’. Even our prettiest dolls are stuffed with sawdust. We cling to things that make us happy till someone stronger than ourselves snatches them from us, or causes us to shatter them to bits.
Thus did Karen first encounter Ahriman, all beneath the shining of the sun.
Karen is orphaned and institutionalised – subject to the whims of adults for whom she works as a servant before she enters a convent – for a time. Her musical ability – her singing and playing the piano sustain her as she leaves the religious life and moves to the city to work and music lessons. Price reveals the human underside of the religious life – Karen is no more a servant to the Mother Superior and her assistant than she was before. After an overseas voyage to London with them she is sent back to Australia, alone, although she befriends the author on this return journey. Finally there is love and marriage and retreat to an idyllic Garden of Eden island in Northern Queensland. Still, Karen struggles…
She had made so many changes, had been uprooted so often before, that she felt confident of being able to adapt herself to the new conditions. Love had brought her an immense happiness, but would it really solve the secret of life? Already she was conscious there was a great part of herself which she could not give to the impetuous Basil, and that with some of her sympathies and thoughts he would probably have but little sympathy.
This troubled her a good deal, for in the books she had read, love was pictured as leading to a perfect understanding, and she wondered whether she herself were at fault. The sacrifice of a possible artistic career had seemed to her no light thing, but Basil had waved it aside almost unfeelingly. He appeared, man-like, to regard himself as her deliverer, whereas to her it was an offering she had made solely for his sake.
But what did these things matter in the presence of the great dream of love? Doubtless they were not very important; nevertheless they were present as a slight dischord, like the occasional whizzing of the wire on the G string, when some masterpiece is played on the violin. Fortunately this feeling was only audible to herself. Never for a moment did she contemplate speaking of it to Basil.
Karen’s inner vitality remains hidden, even as she and her husband, explore the physical bounds of their small island. It is a ‘conceit’, a device among many that occur in this book as Price develops his theme – the nature of the divine within – that a storm occurs…when Basil, along with a group of Aboriginal fisherman, disappear in a huge storm while out at sea. Karen is left entirely alone. The dead body of a wood-pigeon washes at her feet.
Then it was that she remembered her loneliness upon the island. basil, perhaps might never come back. At first she felt stunned and incapable of realisation. She almost wanted to laugh.
Karen passes through periods of fear, desolation. She is terrified her mind will give way before reaching the solace of tears before reaching a realisation, and perhaps Price’s central thesis:
Were all her prayers and her tears emptied into bottomless space, and cast like dead lumber into the abyss? No. No. She knew better than that. Somewhere she had read that the true God is within the wise man’s heart. If that were so, she must try to be brave, for help was within herself, she must not give way to outrageous fears.
With a great effort of the will she tried to control her mind. ‘Come, come’, she said to herself, “I will not be a fool. I will be brave and practical and wise. Whatever happens, I can face it calmly, and just now I was acting like a silly child’.
Almost immediately she became conscious of her strength, and though she still had to hold back her fears as with an almost physical force, she slowly gained the mastery over herself, and by sheer commonsense beat back the thickest battalions of dismay.
The power to help ourselves is ever within, That night she discovered her strength, Robbed of every other consolation, she found the spirit of true divinity in herself. It was then, in a sense, that she came of age; and she knew she could never again feel so helpless as hitherto. It is only in the soul that great things happen, and some of us have to be dipped in the deepest pits of calamity before we discover the fortitude of our real and innermost self. After that discovery we are never quite so feeble again.
Perhaps from the little we know of Price’s story this is autobiographical. Perhaps it is a sermon, veiled as a novel, designed for posterity, outside the censorship of the good bishop. Something beautiful shattered.