Diana Blackwood’s excellent debut novel “Chaconne” explores the inner life of a young Australian woman, Eleanor Weston, on an odyssey to Europe. Eleanor’s ambition is to achieve her hopes and dreams in a life shared with a French boyfriend she met in Sydney. Eleanor is intelligent, intellectual, passionate, and of course, idealistic and naive.
While the novel is set mostly in France and Germany, there is no mistaking Eleanor’s Australian identity in her response to her experiences as a “colonial” exploring Europe in the 1980’s. In terms of Australian novels, Eleanor’s struggle for “freedom” reminds me of Teresa Hawkins in Christina Stead’s classic novel, “For Love Alone” (1) published in 1944. Teresa, another Sydney girl, falls in love with her tutor who sails off to London to seek his fortune. She follows him there, and learns the hard way that he is not the man she thought he was. The experience of a colonial’s “return” is again used as a moral landscape for self exploration. Christina Stead, though, takes the further step of exploring what can happen even after the heroine chooses the right person, demonstrating that the search for love is only part of the journey. The way in which Eleanor Weston’s inner life is portrayed in “Chaconne” is particularly interesting. She is passionate about music, and constantly reflects on her new environment, and her family, including the father who departed when she was young, and her mother’s efforts to remake her life.
Eleanor’s point of view prevails in every chapter, brought to life in the third person, rather than first person, but using “free indirect style” to achieve a sense of being inside the protagonist’s head, a device apparently invented by Jane Austen. Austen’s novel “Emma”, says John Mullan (2), “bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind,” in a major innovation which came to be called “free indirect style”:
“It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character. Before Austen, novelists chose between first- person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.”
Diana Blackwood employs free indirect style to full effect in “Chaconne”. It enables her to achieve a strong sense of Eleanor’s courage and integrity, while allowing us an ironic view of her naivety and pedantry. Eleanour corrects the grammar of people around her, including native speakers of English. She also occupies some high moral ground, for example in the areas of vegetarianism and opposition to violence, and much else. She is never short of an opinion, nor backwards in expressing it (including an hilarious put-down of her French boyfriend’s supercilious bourgeois mother).
Sometimes, however, Eleanor tolerates behaviour she should walk away from if she was going to be true to her principles, such as bullying by domineering partners. And while she is aware of her own privileged life, she allows herself to feel contempt for the poor lurking in the shadows of the cities she inhabits, and is far too judgemental about her mother. All of which makes Eleanor a more than credible character in the novel.
Like Emma Woodhouse and Teresa Hawkins, Eleanor Weston has a good heart, and the reader continues to cheer her on to the end of the novel, where nothing much is resolved, except that we gain a sense of her renewed determination to be herself. And much of this sense is achieved by the skilful employment of the free indirect style which gave Emma and Teresa such a rounded existence. To sum up, Diana Blackwood has managed to make a witty contribution to a long line of novels exploring the coming of age theme as well as an original take on the “young Aussie in Europe” experience.
See it on Goodreads here
(1) Christina Stead, “For Love Alone.” Miegunyah Modern Library (2011). First published in the USA in 1944.
(2) John Mullan, “How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction.” The Guardian, 5 December 2015.