BOOKS > WHO COULD LOVE THE NIGHTINGALE?
Written by Chester Eagle
Edited by Hilary McPhee, of William Heinemann, Australia
Designed by Wren Publishing, Melbourne
First published 1973 by Wren Publishing
Circa 146,000 words
3,036 copies printed
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
what it says on the cover:
time is 1971. The places are Melbourne, Sydney, and the tract
of land between the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers.
is a novel about personality and how personality is shaped
by place and period. It is also a novel of poignant human
Edward Le Rossignol,
the nightingale who won’t allow his personality to be squashed flat and
dull. Margaret Ward, a beautiful young art teacher who has yet to develop her
own personality remote from her wealthy family and associates, turns to Edward.
affair develops gradually – not a love relationship in the ordinary
sense of the word, but an elaborate, intricate affair of vital importance to
them both. As awareness of each other’s personality grows, the reader
is carried along, not merely as observer but as participants, committed to
We become aware of a richly inflected medium, full of cross references, conveying
the inner and outer lives of the characters who gain their full reality and
stature at the moment of leaving the action, rather like a piece of music
which is completed
not by the last sounds but by the haunting echoes and reverberations left
in the mind.
read some extracts from the book click here:
The Windsor Hotel
Back to Sydney
read about the writing of this book click
nightingale was Edward Leon le Rossignol, forty-six, born
in Australia though his parents were French. The one who
nearly loved him was Margaret Ward.
was new to the area, it repelled her, she felt she had to
show an interest. His stories sucked her in.
was a new irrigation district, he was a channelling contractor.
He told her about the day the water was turned on. He said,
'It meant lots of work for me, all those ditches and channels
they wanted me to dig. I was never so busy in my life. Up
till then I scooped out the occasional dam, and I couldn't
even do that in the really dry months. I called it a living
but it was my defence against work. Back in the old dry days
I used to keep a broken scoop or a harness in need of repair
up the front of my shed. Then when people came to see me,
I was busy!'
a strange man, she thought. The rest of them are so solid,
despite their problems. They've all got identity, they're
quite aggressive about it. Edward is the one who hasn't.
He's got a way of being all of them, and yet he's got no
weight. I like him, but he's a wisp.
said, 'The day they turned the water on, I thought a new
life was starting. And it was; I was just about to get married.
So was John Comstock; we got married on the same day, the
very next weekend. A difficult man, you might meet him one
of these days. I was at the Methodist, John was at the C.
opposite ends of the town, Margaret remembered, rather pleased
that her local knowledge ran thus far; country people seemed
to expect it of one. There was a baker called Bailiff in
the shopping street, and she had given a nervous laugh when
someone told her to go to the bailiff's; she thought it was
an obscure legal joke. But by then she had sensed enough
of country life to know that one didn't explain; she fed
her misconception to Myra Denham, whose boarder she was,
knowing that Myra would pass another current through the
circuit, and clear her name of snobbishness. Small towns
were so difficult to handle, yet Edward managed to wriggle
through the maze of traps; it was one of the reasons why
she liked him.
said, 'Oh it was a very grand occasion. The Premier was there,
and the local Member with his tweeds and pipe. They had a
big marquee for the invited guests and trestles outside for
the rest. Did I ever tell you I made a speech?'
never told me anything about it, I wish you would.'
it's my big story, I have to keep something back, or I won't
have anything to keep you near me.'
was to represent the Labour Force. The rest of them said
Aw, gee, imagine gettin' up there with all the nobs. A man
wouldn't know what to say! But I felt I had plenty to offer,
so I went to see Mr Watchett, the water supply engineer,
and said I'd like to do it. He said I could have two and
a half minutes, they had a tight schedule.'
suppose you talked for hours.'
said just what needed to be said.'
got such a strange sense of humour, he probably sent the
whole thing high as a cloud. 'Perhaps you weren't solemn
know what the mirror-maker said: if you've never seen yourself,
you're going to hate me.'
suppose he means the truth about oneself; is there any such
solid thing? A year in this place might tell me.
when will we be going to Parton? I'm dying to see it you
take you there tomorrow, fledgling, if you and Cecily don’t
get yourselves a hangover."
we be going in the truck?'
nodded. He knew she doubted her appearance, though her coming
had been quite an event in Turrumburrah. Porters at the station
had gawked, and men had come to the goods shed window to
whistle—loudly enough for the men at their shoulder
to hear anyway. And people had come to like her, she tried
so hard, but she was slow in making friends. She had Cecily,
at the same high school, the Denhams she boarded with, and
me, Edward Leon le Rossignol. We were mysteries to ourselves,
and therefore with each other.
wore on, in the way of country towns. Cars thrashed away
from the drive-in, little pubs on the outskirts got glassy-eyed,
with love and vendettas taking on strange unreality. Hamburger
shops closed, street lights blinked and were gone. The disused
picture theatre gloomed over an empty intersection, and the
Royal's publican handed out his last and final dozen carton
under the fire escape stairs. The muzak tapes at the motel
were silent, the planks on the bridge still rattling. Down
at the Servicemen's Club—membership half the town—the
one-armed bandits grew more mechanically alluring, the conversation
more inane; even the towelling on the bar was sloshed. The
raucous band packed up, and only the cigarette vending machines
were as potent as ever. Cops prowled the streets, a towtruck
flashed vulgarly at a minor smash. Rejuvenated Fords came
thundering in from the outlying dance halls. Deadening, insulating
night lay heavily on the ragtag of human affairs. Emotion
in Australia is often raw; the expression of feeling, except
in isolated pockets, has to sneak behind curtains of embarrassment.
Pregnancy, if contracted by the river, has still to be carried
through streets where rules of no one's making—and
therefore everyone's—grind on all. Custom loses its
grip only to let people expose themselves more clearly, interlock
more closely in the net of no man's making. Dark and drunkenness
make all men more beholden to each other if only for an audience,
that least of services, the giving of an ear.
Dawson said, 'You're hooked on sex, Johnny. That's easy.
All the normal outlets are open. Do what you like and boast
a bit, there's someone'll admire you. What about me?'
said, 'She wouldn't speak to me. You hear that? She wouldn't
even see me. All she did all day was dodge me. Anyone ever
do that to you? No, they wouldn't do that, you're only a
him down a bit, he's only the mad bird's unsexual son.
Johnny, if you think I like to hold other boys, you're up
the creek. I mightn't be much, I mightn't be anything, but
at least I don't hate myself like you do.'
prop gone, or going.
non-point struck like a hammer-blow. Comstock slumped on
the sofa, and Tom, who delivered the hurt, spread out on
the fold-up bed, trapped in the moral monolith of rural life.
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felt a tremendous exhilaration. Between him and the horizon
there was nothing. If he wished, he could claim every-thing,
one enormous flat, one enormous dome, as his. Now in the
sky were eight great clouds, and the declining sun. It was
half past three; an hour to go. The light fell in huge shafts
and fans, describing the clouds by their fringes; one had
to look harder, into the tones of blue, to see the turbulence
aloft. Edward hopped in his car and drove, calm for the first
time that day. The enormous rafts of rain made their majestic
progress above him as he went to the meeting-place. Loose
grey veils trailed sidelong out of clouds, as if falling
down crevices in air. Sometimes rain swept his car, and the
road, and then the droplets on the wind-screen glittered
when he entered the next patch of light. Once out of gloom,
it seemed unthinkable that anything could ever replace the
blaze of light that found an answer in the endless daisy-acres,
the innumerable buttons of white. New fences gleamed. Old
rusty wire dripped tiny globules from every barb. Yet when
the shadow came again, and the rain swept his watertight
machine, he felt a reassurance, a comfort as profound as
the knowledge of night and day. Creation! He felt a guest
at the process. Erosion and simplicity! What was wrong with
them if they led to this ultimate turnover, this changeabout
of fundamentals. Light and dark, rain and dry. In the darkest,
wettest periods he felt warm and secure, ready to open with
the light. Which, when it came, made everything glisten.
He passed a spot where there had once been a house; now there
was only a pepper tree, a remnant of fence, and some ageing
fruit trees coming into bud. He wondered what bees did when
they got their wings wet. Good job planes don't shake themselves!
Now some movement of air threw thin silks before the sun
and filtered light transfigured everything. In an ecstasy
of readiness and surety he took his eyes from the miracles
in the west and fixed them on the road. Darkness swept it
again, turning the bitumen black, and then far ahead he saw
the world's gloomy rim grow bright as the next patch of openness
caught the trees along the river. Somewhere in there's Jingellic,
he thought, and it didn't disturb him a bit. Comstock was
in Sydney and his power to upset him gone for good. His time
was past and Edward's about to come. When he hit the main
road he waved to passing cars as if their drivers had just
been born and he was acknowledging their entry to the world.
Seeya friends, good luck!
bought petrol on the outskirts of Blythe and drove to the
airstrip. This too was dark, but just as old Des Carrington
came out with his trolley, saying, 'Could be a bit rough
up there, eh?' there was a cleavage in the clouds and from
this act of heavenly parturition came shining down the gleam,
the glint, the metal wings of Margaret's plane.
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were formal in the Windsor dining room, with its acres of
white linen. There was no rush, and the heaviest moment was
already over, though we hadn't said so, hadn't realized it
perhaps, not consciously; the service was a relief to lean
on, we were white and quiet. Time ran out, time ran away,
we both knew this; things that might have been felt or said
had to be squeezed in the circumstances that came along.
The dining room was stable, so well managed; one flick of
a cloth and we might both have vanished. The Cheshire cat
left his grin in the air; if I'd been whisked out of existence
there'd have been waves in the air all right, like that poor
mad Johnny—you see, I'd lost my snobbishness; I was
common clay with the recluse and the coke-girl—waves
in the air all right, of a girl wanting a woman's power,
wanting to build, settle, create, wanting to be without interruption
or doubt, and—this was the change—knowing I could.
He was wrong, I wasn't putting everything on the man, but
there had to be one, and he wasn't sitting in front of me.
Though I wasn't sure of that; if he came good he'd be marvellous,
but you couldn't separate him from his circumstances, his
age, his period, his town; he talked so much about spirit
but they were embedded in place and period just as much with
Edward as with anyone else, and the place and period weren't
mine. But then I grew impatient too in Sydney, with Cecily
and the rest—though I wanted to hear Judith play again,
and I suppose I couldn't avoid Michael at some stage of the
holiday—grew impatient, and the impatience was a deep
and driving part of me, like a birth pang. People could get
stuck at a stage of their development, like Robards/Robert
had, but I had a feeling this wouldn't happen to me. I was
too strong to be held in forever.
sensed my aggression and stayed quiet; as dinner ended he
reached around and switched
our glasses. It had a peculiar power, that gesture: of
apology for failure, of joy in four days shared, of putting
the present into a poignant
retrospect so that we seemed to be looking at each other through a film of
years—and this made him so dear to me, and me to him, that I wondered
if I'd ever value anyone as much. Could people still get closer? I had to
believe they could, I did; but to say one could go further was not to deny
had. I had the most generous, soulful man sitting looking love at me and
my sense of inadequacy was stronger than my determination of a minute before.
My eyes were wet; I said, 'Well done, Edward, I think I'm your creation,'
my pride at most deeply touching him joined with his pride at my ... not
compliment, my worship of him, and we were both too moved to speak. We left
where they were, the wine looking deep green/gold, and went upstairs. I think
if he'd come in while I was dressing I'd have forgotten the train, or I'd
have taken him with me, or gone back in his car, or something. It would have
wrong, a mistaken idea of our profound connection, but it could have happened;
I know how worked up I was. But Edward, whatever else he was, was not one
to make a messy mistake of that sort. We went separate ways from the lift,
nodding as if we'd be joining each other for coffee, and I got a taxi to
sleeper was comfortable; she slept. The Wards didn't meet
got another taxi to Point Piper. Her mother met her in the doorway, 'Pet,
He'll be so relieved.'
Michael boy's been ringing up and calling. I don't know
what else he's had time for.'
didn't go! He didn't take anyone else, didn't go without
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shown her my world, and now I found she'd seen it differently.
I thought I knew all her drawings; there were lots I hadn't
seen. There was a group of women playing cards; one of them
was Myra. Two of them had hats on and they had whisky glasses
next to their piles of chips. They looked heavy and depressed.
Out the window you could see a man working on the engine
of a truck. The bonnet up looked like a mouth that was swallowing
him. And he was much darker than the figures you were supposed
to look at.
got my masses wrong in that one. I lightened off the women
too much. But the practical background dominating
what passed for an inner life was something
I was getting at.
had an Aboriginal woman wheeling a pram over the Tuckarimbah
bridge, down the end of town. The woman had a jaunty look
about her, as if she was
same metal as the springs of the pram. I don't know how she did that, it must
have been with the same sort of curves for drawing both. There was a nice
little study of kids' bikes at school, all heaped together in a tangle,
and a marvellous
one of two figures riding away on a horse. They were only tiny, they weren't
anyone in particular, but gosh it surprised me; the one on the back was
hanging on so tightly it looked like one body. That one unnerved me, and
yet I could
see it was the most deeply felt. There was a satirical one of our worthy
Bartlett, all bottom and paunch, leaning on his shark-mouthed Dodge; she'd
got him, all right, but it didn't sting the way I think she meant it to.
was going to do more when I got back to Sydney; it'd help me get the
whole thing out of my system.
had delightful sketches of birds, mostly galahs, swooping
low over paddocks, or swallows
on telephone wires. And she'd done lots of willows
on the canal,
but seen from far off; and the wobbly old telephone posts out past
Boon, where they'd never got round to replacing the first
twisty poles of local black box. And she'd done a few of
weary old fences ... anything where
loops and squiggles
and broken little attempts at pattern tried to counter the flat horizon
I loved, especially out near Blythe. She'd done one of a water wheel,
such an interloper, and dozens of people—I don't know where she
got the chance to study half of them; they were people she could only
have seen once or twice.
were the ones I worried about; I wondered if he'd like them.
set me back a bit; they amounted to her summary of my world,
if you took away her loyalty to me. What a mixture they were! They
they seemed half-haunted. They were all weather-marked or weather-reddened.
They had nothing substantial round them, though when she gave them
a prop, it really meant something. She could make a shovel look
like the staff of life;
there was an old boat on the Murray that sat half in the water,
half out. Goodness me! It looked dumpy, it looked dumped. It looked
leathery like the river, it looked cheeky too, as if the next rise
river would take it off; the
mooring rope was trailing on the bank in one of those in-twining
curves Marg could do so well. Off it was going to go—but
where? You could see around the next bend and it was just the same
the artist was standing.
done a glorious watercolour of Jingellic; this one wrung
me. The garden was in brilliant blossom, under an
ominous sky—the sky we saw the day
I got her at the airstrip; the sky we saw from two sadly different
positions. All you could see of the homestead was the roof, part
of the tankstand, and
two horses. But not a single living soul.
worried about that one, perhaps it was unfair.
told her it was marvellous; she'd have to have an exhibition.
any judge of art but her things seemed wonderful to
... I was
say she'd have to invite me, but then I realized ...
was when I cracked.
this was my—what do they call
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Moss Vale or one
optimism in—how long?
Four hours? Seventeen days? Twelve months?—gave
me a sudden lift in
heart I didn't write off as treason.
dues were paid, the
was thundering downhill,
sometimes we went
through tunnels and roared
into the light. There
were cars and people;
country people, true,
closer, closer every
to the mad, hectic city
where humanity was dense
in my heart might find
an answer if I looked long
looked in the right
If nature was the absence
I was happy, for the time,
to be rid of it. I'd
my hair cut,
I'd buy some clothes.
I knew some people that
liked sailing on the harbour
... I believed in myself
I didn't mind
living at home again,
it was better than the
and the stresses
of Cecily's people. No,
not to hell with them,
but they would go aside
till I felt ready.
was always my humour
my realism (thank
Edward, thank you, father)
to help me cut them
back to size where
It was going to be easy
to duck the false
to love generously,
to put all things together
and in proportion.
I wanted, now, harmony,
completeness ... and
as we drove violently
down the tracks I considered
that if the world
as some said, chaos,
each must make in it an order
I had more confidence
than Watchett, because
he was dependent on
institutions, whereas I ...
writing of this book:
a result of publishing my first book in 1971 I applied for
a one year
grant from the Literature Board (now known as
the Australia Council) and was a little surprised to get it.
Six thousand dollars. It was less than I earned from teaching
but it would keep us comfortably enough. For the first time
I didn’t have to go to work in the mornings but could
settle at my desk. Mary, my wife, went to the university and
I had the children for most of the daylight hours, and this
turned out to be a blessing I hadn’t expected. I grew
very close to my son and daughter in a way that wasn’t
available to most men in the old pattern of men working, women
keeping house. It wasn’t long before I could pick very
easily those men who were truly close to their children and
those who pretended to be, or blustered at them. I knew I was
lucky. My first book had been a man’s book, but this
second one was the beginning of the development of the feminine
side of my nature, though there was a long way to go before
this could be said to have been achieved.
set the novel in the area of southern New South Wales where
I had grown up,
and I made it the story of a young woman who
had one year in a little town, teaching.
She was loved by, and eventually came to love, a quaint, older man, not well
understood by his townsfolk: the Nightingale of the title. Who could love Edward
Le Rossignol? Margaret loves him and leaves him because she’s going back
to Sydney, richer for having been loved, poorer for putting behind her a powerful
experience. I’m not quite sure what I was doing in writing this book,
though I’m fond of it when I pick it up. Its style of writing isn’t
my style of today, but it was and is a step on a path that had to be taken.
of the book that I admire for its boldness, though it certainly adds to the
difficulty, is that I allow five of the characters a voice of their own. That
is to say, there is a conventional narrator, who has the last word on everyone
except the central five characters who have the right, if that’s the
word, to speak for themselves as well. This gives the book an inner-and-outer
which I’ve never attempted again, though I found it easy to do and was
happy with the results at the time. The book is, I suppose I have to say, a
step on the way to somewhere else but, looking back, I’m pleased to see
myself trying to get a male/female, inner/outer balance which didn’t
come easily from the world I’d grown up in.
book ends with Margaret Ward, the young art teacher from
a wealthy family, returning to Sydney on a
train, after a year away, grateful to Edward Le Rossignol
for having helped her find herself, establish that inner order which is the
only remedy for the world’s chaos. Rereading the book’s ending,
I feel, today, that I was finding myself through Margaret’s finding
of herself, and that her return to Sydney is my arrival in the world that
and create, by the writing I was going to do.
book didn’t make much
of a stir. It was published by Dennis Wren who had by then been pushed out
of William Heinemann because he’d been doing
too many Australian titles for the liking of his masters back in London.
I followed Dennis because I felt loyal to him, but he didn’t have
enough of the marketing machinery that commercial publishers need, and
on borrowed money.
More of this in relation to my next book, Four
faces, wobbly mirror.
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BOOKS > WHO COULD LOVE THE NIGHTINGALE?