Nevil Shute and A Town Like Alice

by Amanda Laugesen

Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice was published in 1950, and remains a classic tale of romance and war. As a novel written by an Englishman who had just moved to Australia, the novel reflects Shute’s attempts to capture the Australian vernacular as he depicts the heroic Jean Paget, Joe Harman, and the life and people of the Queensland Gulf Country.

Nevil Shute, born Nevil Shute Norway in 1899, was one of the twentieth century’s most popular writers, best known for A Town Like Alice and On the Beach (1957), as well as a number of other thrillers and adventure stories. Shute grew up in England, served in the First World War, and after the war studied to be an engineer. He had a great interest in aviation, and worked for a time for the Vickers Ltd. company building airships. During these years Shute also wrote, publishing a number of novels. He established his own aircraft construction company, Airspeed, where he worked until 1938. The money made from the company allowed him to write full-time and he published prolifically through the 1940s.

In 1948 Shute decided to move his family to Australia, and they settled near Melbourne. His novels from this point onwards often had an Australian setting. These novels included Round the Bend (1951), The Far Country (1952) and In the West (1953). 

Shute’s Australian novels can be mined for their use of the Australian vernacular, and several of them contribute a number of quotations for the first edition of the Australian National Dictionary (1988). A Town Like Alice was used numerous times to illustrate a range of Australian words.

A Town Like Alice is the story of the relationship between Jean Paget and Joe Harman. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman living in Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion, is taken prisoner and, along with a number of other women and children, is forced to march around Malaya because the Japanese do not know what to do with them. A number die. During the marches she encounters an Australian soldier, Joe Harman, who steals chickens for the women to eat – he is subsequently beaten viciously by Japanese soldiers and Jean believes him dead. After the war she finds out that he survived. They are reunited in Australia, and Jean, who has inherited a large amount of money from a relative, helps to build up the Gulf Country town of Willaston into ‘a town like Alice’, meaning a town like Alice Springs. The book was made into a successful movie starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch in 1956, and a TV miniseries starring Helen Morse and Bryan Brown in 1981.

As part of the novel is set in the outback, a number of words describing outback Australia and the cattle industry are used: they include poddy ‘a calf’, property ‘a rural land-holding’, stockman ‘a man in charge of stock’, station ‘extensive sheep or cattle-raising establishment’, ringer ‘a stockman’, and waterbag ‘a bag for carrying water while travelling’. Australian slang terms like chunder (as chunda) ‘to vomit’, cobber ‘friend’, and bonza ‘good’ appear. A frequent exclamation used is my word, which in Australian use is an expression of emphatic agreement or endorsement. Reflecting the racist views of the time, Shute uses boong to mean both indigenous Malayans and Aborigines, Nip ‘a Japanese’, and Abo ‘an Aborigine’  all too frequently, thus making the book sometimes uncomfortable reading for the modern reader.

Here is an excerpt from the novel, with Joe Harman reflecting on his way of life in the outback:

Running a cattle station is the only work I know, and it’s where I like to be. I couldn’t make out in any of the big cities, Brisbane or Sydney. I couldn’t make out even in Cairns for very long, and anyway, there’d be no work there I could do. I never got a lot of schooling, living on a station like we did. … I can run a station better’n most ringers, and I seem to do all right with selling the stock too. I’ll hope to get a station of my own one day, and there’s plenty of station owners finish up with fifty thousand pounds. But if I get that far, it’ll be by staying in the outback and doing what I’m cut out for. And I tell you, Mr Strachan, the outback is a crook place for a woman. (p. 153)

Shute wrote predominantly for a British and American audience, and was popular in both countries, perhaps because of his picturesque descriptions of life in Australia and his liberal use of the Australian vernacular. His books continue to be readable, with engaging storylines; however, his views are very much those of an Englishman who saw English values and virtues as superior. Shute died in 1960 from a brain haemorrhage.

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