Ruth Park, The Harp in the South, and Australian English

by Victoria Grey*

Ruth Park (1917-2010), one of Australia’s most popular writers, was born in New Zealand but moved to Australia in 1942 to pursue her career as a journalist. In the same year, she married D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967). As struggling writers in the 1940s, they lived for a time in the Sydney slum area of Surry Hills, and this period in her life inspired her to write The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949).

An early photograph of Ruth Park

Ruth Park’s writing is an excellent example of a literary depiction of inner-city urban Sydney in the 1940s. In The Harp in the South, published in 1948 and one of Australia’s most beloved novels, she uses Australian humour and Australian English to great effect. Although this particular book is often discussed in terms of its depiction of 1940s Surry Hills and its tenement environments, the distinctive language she used is also worth noting and proves to be one of the novel’s most beguiling features. 

The Darcy family members, Dad Hughie, Mumma, and daughters Roie and Dolour, along with Grandma and their friends and neighbours, are portrayed as typical working-class Irish Australians of that era and of that particular environment. On many occasions Park’s use of idiomatic language in the novel conveys an irreverent and combative brand of Australian humour that is central to the nature of her characters and their inner-city life.

The dialogue between members of the Darcy family and their friends and neighbours is often rough or clipped, with intentionally amusing words, and a humour which flavours the conversations and defines people’s relationships. Hughie Darcy is frequently roaring or exclaiming things like ‘By God, me girl, maybe yer right!’ or ‘I might ’ave known this was me unlucky day. Metho in me booze last night, and Grandma in me bed this morning’, to which Mumma replies ‘Ah, yer poor old mug.… Well, I’ll bring you in some tea and a nice slicer toast.’ Frequent colloquialisms are employed in conversation, especially in the language of Mumma and Hughie:

A brief twinkle was born in Hughie’s eyes. ‘Ah, so you’ve been encouraging that pagan cabbage-seller, have yer? Wiggling yer bottom at him, no doubt’…. She was delighted. ‘Don’t you come smoodging around me. Look at the grey in yer whiskers.’

The engaging informality and colloquial appeal of the dialogue is in stark contrast to the language Roie encounters when meeting a beau in a pawn shop:

‘Oh rose of all the world,’ he said. Roie stared, taken aback. He might have said: ‘Cripes, you look grouse in that’, or ‘Trust a sheila to try a thing on as soon as she buys it’, or even ‘Get a move on willya. Yer blockin’ the customers’ way.’

Surry Hills in the 1930s. (State Library of NSW)

While Ruth Park seemingly did not coin any unique Australian words herself, and she wasn’t a pioneer in the sense of being the first to use Australian words in her writing, it is clear from the controversial reaction to the novel that the use of this particular brand of Australian vernacular rubbed some people up the wrong way. In the Sydney Morning Herald, a number of letters to the editor expressed disapproval. (Miss) Dorothy Courtney from Hurlstone Park took supreme offence at the language used by Park, writing: ‘As the daughter of an Irishman, I strongly resent Ruth Park’s novel “Harp in the South”…. There are still people in Surry Hills who speak correctly and are not habitually in a semi-drunken state.’ An interesting correlation was made here between the Irish residents of Surry Hills and their supposedly itinerant language and behaviour, and this also reflects the real-life debate in Australia at the time over what was a ‘proper’ way of speaking.

Although The Harp in the South was met with some disapproval at the time of its publication, it was extremely popular and has never been out of print. It should be seen as an important contribution to the capture in literature of the Australian vernacular.

*Victoria Grey is currently an Honours student in the School of History, College of Social Sciences, Australian National University.

3 thoughts on “Ruth Park, The Harp in the South, and Australian English

  1. Possibly the writer intended to use “iterative’ – since many Australian idioms are frequently repeated in the novel…

  2. There is a sense of ‘itinerant’ that means ‘vagrant’. It is not an Australianism, but is – or has been – in fairly common use here. In Australia in the first half of the 20th century, including the time when Park was writing, ‘itinerant’ often referred to tramps, swagmen, and the homeless unemployed – those on the bottom of the heap in society. This is the sense in which our blog is using the word. It makes the point that there was a snobbery in the wider community about the speech and behavior of slum-dwellers, which is apparent in Miss Courtney’s comment in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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