Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, Anthony Trollope
I have been saving this short novel, subtitled "A Tale of Australian Bush Life," for Christmas, since it opens "Just a fortnight before Christmas, 1871. . ." I learned from the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope that it was first serialized in the Melbourne Age starting in November of 1873, and then published "as the Christmas number of the Graphic" in London that December. As I've noted before, Trollope had a bit of a "Bah humbug" attitude toward Christmas, and he wasn't enthusiastic about writing the Christmas stories that were so popular with magazine and journal editors at the time.
This story is based on a lengthy visit that Trollope and his wife Rose made to Australia and New Zealand in 1871-1872. They stayed several times with their younger son Frederic on his sheep station in New South Wales. Trollope drew directly on his son's experiences in this book, though he moved the action north to Queensland, to provide some cover. Like the younger Trollope, Harry Heathcote was determined to emigrate to Australia and become a sheep-farmer. Unlike Frederic, whose parents financed his venture, Harry was left an orphan with a substantial inheritance and his independence.
As the story opens, Harry has used his money to establish Gangoil, a station of 120,000 acres with 30,000 sheep. He doesn't own the land but rents it from the government, which makes him a "squatter." A recent new arrival, Giles Medlicot, has purchased some of the land of Gangoil, to set up a sugar cane plantation and mill. Those like Medlicot who buy their land were called "free selectors." According to the Companion, in this story Trollope took on "the most vexed political issue in the Australian and New Zealand colonies at the time," the conflict between squatters and free selectors. Frederic Trollope was a squatter, but again according to the Companion, his father supported the free selectors. It reminded me of the clashes in the western United States between sheep and cattle ranchers, which led sometimes to violent attacks and ambushes by the cattlemen, who hated sheep and shepherds.
Harry resents Giles Medlicot and blames him for the loss of his land. His wife Mary, whose unmarried sister Kate lives with them, sees Medlicot in a different light. Harry faces a much bigger threat in the summer heat, when a carelessly-lit match can set off a fire that will sweep through Gangoil and ruin him. A former station hand, now working at the mill, has a grudge against him; so does a family of ne'er-do-well squatters in the neighborhood who poach his sheep. Harry suspects them of plotting arson. Even with three loyal hands, he will need help protecting Gangoil's vast acres.
This is a fast-moving, exciting story. It's not at all what I think of as a typical "Christmas" story, though it does end with a Christmas feast, complete with plum-pudding. I don't know if it's an accurate portrait of life on a sheep station at the time. I remember that one of Ada Cambridge's characters in The Three Miss Kings complained about "Trollope and those fellows," who "come here as utter strangers, and think they can learn all about us in two or three weeks." Trollope also wrote a book about his travels, Australia and New Zealand (published in 1873). I've never come across a copy, but I think it would be very interesting reading.
N.B. This was serialized in 1873-1874 and published in book form in 1874. I am using that date for my Mid-Century of Books.