Jarulan is a crumbling mansion on a sprawling property in rural New South Wales, and Jarulan is a sprawling saga sporadically following the Jarulan residents from before the First World War to the present. Much of the physical character of the mansion house and surrounds is the legacy of the American, Min Fenchurch, already deceased at the opening of the novel. Min met Matthew Fenchurch, the heir to Jarulan, when they were both on an OE in France. Min suffered from being confined in remote Jarulan, to the point of bouts of madness, and she imported large marble statutory of Greek and Roman gods and Catholic saints for the house and gardens – all of which observe the waxing and waning of the generations.
Matthew and Min had four children: Eddie, a musician and a party lad, was doted on and indulged by Min, and eventually sent away from the property after her death. The other son, Llew, was Matthew’s favourite, an innovator of the station and the obvious heir of Jarulan. One daughter, Jean, married low and is living a hard life in Queensland, the other, Louisa, has married high and is a lady from Sydney.
The novel opens with Matthew in despair after having been informed of Llew’s death on the Western Front. He is having a monument built in Llew’s honour, and in his grief, he succumbs to the wiles of a young ‘black Irish’ servant, Evie Tyrell. When his two daughters and their young children arrive at the station for the unveiling of the monument, Louisa is accompanied by a nanny and a maid, Rufina. Rufina is a German who has fallen to servant status due to the anti-German sentiments and policies arising from the war, and Matthew is drawn to the beautiful young woman, much to the fury of Evie Tyrell. After a time jump in the novel, Rufina travels to New Zealand to find the errant son Eddie, and Eddie’s son Irving ends up at Jarulan, and in turn becomes of predatory interest to the widowed Rufina.
Jarulan also hosts ghostly characters, not only the dead appearing in memory, but also a haunting or rather “More a warning than a haunting”, items being found in places before they have been put there, strange noises and fleeting shadows being seen. The ghosts are seen, heard and felt and are not only remnants of those who once lived in the house, but some are brought there from outside, possibly carried in the minds of those arriving, possibly attracted by the emotional legacy of Min Fenchurch.
Jarulan has interesting characters, many of them not very nice, Matthew and then Rufina have a passion for taxidermy and the shooting of anything they admire; when we finally get to meet the golden Eddy, he is a drunk living on the periphery of marae life in Rotorua; Evie abandons her daughter, Helena, to be raised by the hated Rufina and Nan, the Jarulan housekeeper. The settings are as interesting and looming as the characters: snakes are felt to slither everywhere, the endless rooms of the dilapidated and haunted mansion are swarming with insects and mould, birds are always raucous, the weather is extreme and corrosive.
It is no secret that Lily Woodhouse is Stephanie Johnson, she was outed in an article in The Press shortly after the book was released “It was almost like she wanted to be found” wrote David Herkt. Johnson wrote under a pseudonym as it was her first work of “commercial fiction”, her first go at a “bodice-ripper”. But Jarulan isn’t a bodice ripper, it isn’t erotic. It is a family saga and is quite gothic: mad women in locked rooms, ghosts, decay.
Much of Jarulan is an engrossing read, but the problem I had with it was its lack of dramatic punch – when we meet the current Fenchurch generation we feel there is nothing significant about their existence, no monumental secret or event in the past triggering their being. The prime motivation of all the characters is ‘making do’ – decisions and liaisons are for the most part pragmatic. The most passionate relationships are the unseen (and possibly unrequited) longing that the housekeeper Nan felt for Min, and the love of Eddie for his first wife, who has passed away before we get to New Zealand. As I finished the novel I was left with a feeling of petering out rather than a satisfied piecing together of past events and future possibilities. And I didn’t understand the supernatural aspects of the story, literally didn’t understand what sort of emanations they were, nor their part in the narrative. Jarulan is certainly worth a read, there is much to love about it, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.