Mark Finnane, ed. - The Difficulties of My Position

Mark Finnane, ed.,

The Difficulties of My Position:

The Diaries of Prison Governor John Buckley Castieau 1855-1884

Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2004

Paperback xxiv + 324pp. 0 642 10793 9

Part of the charm of reading Victorian diaries lies in our awareness that the fragile worlds of gentility they evoke were perennially at risk from disease and disaster, always on the verge of being overwhelmed by the awfulness of surrounding real life. Few journals convey this bizarre juxtaposition so memorably as those of J.B. Castieau, prison governor first at Beechworth in Victoria and later in charge of ‘Castieau’s hotel’, otherwise known as Melbourne Gaol. He was a gold-rush immigrant with marginal social pretensions, the son of an army major and child of a broken marriage, who sank considerably in the class hierarchy when he took his first job, in 1852, as a mere turnkey at the big-city prison where he would later supervise the execution of Ned Kelly. In Castieau’s case, part of the challenge to respectability came from within: he could not handle the colonial custom of shouting rounds of ‘nobblers’ and was often at risk of drinking more than was good for him, an inconvenient weakness in one dedicated to uphold law and right conduct. In 1873 he saw the inside of the cells himself, and for a time was demoted in the prison service. Renewed allegations forced him out at the age of 53 in 1884, and he died soon after. Castieau delighted in being a club-man, and the diaries are especially valuable in bringing to life this important area of male social life. As Finnane remarks, it is only necessary to look at the public architecture of Beechworth today to be struck by the enterprise of mid-Victorian Australians in recreating the institutions of the old country in a colonial setting, and Castieau’s diaries show the buildings alive with the people who animated them. They also throw a good deal of light on his marriage, as his loving and long-suffering wife coped with his temper and temptations.

But it is in the interweaving of these various worlds, the constant surreal overlap between the familiar and the terrible, that the real attraction of the material is to be found. Take the case of Edward Feeney and Charles Marks, who resolved to leave the world together. They bought two pistols and commissioned a portrait photograph in which each pointed his gun at the other’s heart. (The photographer apparently did not think this at all unusual: what else were Melbourne snappers asked to record?) The two friends then adjourned to a park and drank a great deal of colonial wine, an indulgence that perhaps explained why their suicide pact went astray. An unscathed Feeney killed Marks and then calmly lit a cigar. Backed by the majesty of the law, the judge who sentenced him to death complained that Feeney might at least have blown his own brains out. A month later, Castieau supervised the execution. The hangman fumbled the preliminaries. ‘At such a time a second seems like a minute & a minute almost an hour.’ He also bungled the actual killing, but this review is no place to give details. The prison doctor dismissed Feeney’s death struggles as merely muscular reflex, and then called in medical students for the rare luxury of the dissection of a fresh corpse. Particular attention was given to investigating signs of suspected homosexual activity, but for these too the reviewer must refer the reader to the text. On that occasion, Castieau seems to have had a night at home, but the next evening he was back at his club, drinking and talking politics. Thanks to the combination of Castieau’s almost Pepysian quizzical self-observation and Mark Finnane’s deft and scholarly editing, this volume is a notable contribution to the social history not just of Australia but of the whole English-speaking world. Finnane gives us about one-sixth of the discontinuous text held by the National Library in Canberra. There may have been other volumes, but it seems that drink and disillusion gradually took their toll on the diarist’s commitment. As a result, we shall probably never recapture that moment in November 1880 when John Castieau and Edward Kelly stood side by side on the Melbourne scaffold in the face of eternity.

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