Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for Insidious . . .

Insidious. I always thought that insidious meant untrustworthy, like when you might be walking on marshy ground and suddenly step into quicksand. An online dictionary says that insidious comes from the Latin, to ambush, and can mean either "stealthily treacherous or deceitful" or to operate in "a seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect".

How those transported to Van Diemen's Land were treated seems insidious to me. I don't understand how those responsible for laws and who set social convention could have done what they did without feeling some sense of compassion, remorse, and in the same sense that Joseph Conrad meant, horror. I've read that the worst evil occurs when the average person simply accepts something that is evil as a part of everyday reality, banal, even acceptable.

The upper class talked of reform and redemption through work. But as I read about prison conditions, I cannot reconcile the ideal with reality. In the mid 19th Century, the 'worst' offenders, yes, those who committed repeated offenses, sometimes as simple as running away over and over again, were sent to Port Arthur (young boys to Point Puer), or those without hope, to Norfolk Island.  Backbreaking work, floggings for the slightest provocation, fetters for the legs and the neck, isolation, condemned to silence, reduced rations, solitary, and, perhaps worst, the hood, a black bag over the head that prevented sight.

No wonder Hughes reports in The Fatal Shore that these men became enraged and insane. This is the environment that my hero, Mac, must survive.

I'm remembering a television show, perhaps it was a British series, where a group of actors were sent out to a Victorian country house to play the parts of master and servant over several months. The actress who assumed the role of the lady of the house was heard off camera berating her "son" because he wanted to play with the servants' children. "You do not associate with them. They are not of our class."


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