English & EAL

The Secret River: London

by
Lisa Tran

Want insider tips? Sign up here!

SUBSCRIBE

Go ahead and tilt your mobile the right way (portrait). The kool kids don't use landscape...

Plot

As a child growing up in poverty, William Thornhill, one of the 10 members of the Thornhill family, lived in an overcrowded low-browed home. The Thornhill’s, unlike many other families, did not regularly attended church. Instead, Thornhill feared of the ‘snarling stone lions’ [pg 10] and a ‘vertiginous lawn’ on the church’s front. He regarded the church as a place with ‘no kindly shadows anywhere’ due to the ‘merciless light’, streaming in from windows.

The name ‘William Thornhill’ was commonplace in the late eighteenth century in England. From Old Mr Thornhill and his son Young William, to the Sea Captain’s baby also named Willian Thornhill, the protagonist knew that his name was insignificant amongst the others. His sister Mary reinforced this fact, teasing that his name was ‘common as dirt.’ [pg 11] To further his sense of worthlessness, his name is second-hand from his dead older brother, a short-lived newborn who was also named William Thornhill.

Impoverished, Thornhill knew only of a life of constant starvation. In order to survive, stealing was a part of life for the Thornhills. On one occasion, each of the children managed to steal from a bookshop with the best book pawned for a valuable shilling. On rare occasions when food was present, he would always fight his brothers for a piece of bread. Out of desperation, he often resulted to eating bedbugs during the night to alleviate the unbearable pain at in his stomach.

The one part of Thornhill’s life that contrasted his poverty was Sal, his friend from Swan Lane, an area much better off than his own. Sal being an only child, grew up with all the attention from her parents, something Thornhill envied. Her kindheartedness and compassion towards the cruelty of animals was a stark difference from his savage lifestyle. Her presence in his life ‘warmed him from inside’. [pg 19]

When his parents died from health illnesses, Thornhill, being the oldest brother still living with his family was left to care for his siblings. Shifting between available jobs, he worked at the maltings, Nettlefold & Mosers and as a lumper down on the wharves. Unfortunately ,these jobs never saved the Thornhill’s from starvation. It was Mr Middleton, Sal’s father who offered Thornhill to be his apprentice on the river that changed his course in life. The apprenticeship was to be seven years long, during which he would learn Mr Middleton’s skills as a waterman. Thornhill secretly planned to marry Sal at the end of the apprenticeship and inherit the business since he was son Mr Middleton never had.

During his time on the river, Thornhill learnt about the tides, how to control an oar and also how his ‘blisters never got a chance to heal.’ [pg 27] With Mr Middleton’s benevolence, ‘for the first time in his life, Thornhill was not always hungry, not always cold.’ He was also exposed to the gentry through his apprenticeship. Majority of his customers were upper-class citizens who would spend a meal’s worth of money on a single fare. To Thornhill, ‘the gentry seemed another species’ due to their manner of speech, expensive clothing and the grand events they attended. His position below the gentry clear when one time a man disgruntled, ‘don’t expose your leg to the boatman!’ [pg 30] to his mischievous partner.

On Sundays when Thornhill had a break from work, he would spend the time with Sal. Without an education, he had never previously used paper nor pen. She slowly taught him to write his name, ‘William Thornhill.’ Although a basic skill, this was a milestone achievement, since ‘he was still only sixteen, and no one in his family had ever gone so far.’ [pg 35]

At the end of his apprenticeship and in spirit of his plans, he and Sal married. Since William was now a freeman of the river, Mr Middleton offered Thornhill his second-best wherry as a wedding gift. The couple soon welcomed a baby boy – also named William Thornhill, but nicknamed Willie. For once in Thonhill’s life, he experienced great satisfaction for he ‘went about smiling about nothing.’ [pg 40]

However during the winter of Willie’s second birthday, things turned for the worst. Both Mrs and Mr Middleton died within a week of one another. With the river iced over, William had no work to provide his family income. It became routine to move into places they could afford, each home smaller than the previous. At Thornhill’s regret but also appreciation, Sal began to steal food from the stalls. Unable to prove that his wherry was a wedding gift, it was seized by the state in order to pay off their debt. With no boat, he had to work for others, one of whom was Mr Lucas. After working three years under Lucas’ employment, Thornhill had reverted to his old ways, stealing small quantities of tea, wine and other utilities without being caught. However, one night when William attempted to steal Brazil wood worth 50 pounds, Lucas, being especially vigilant about the wood caught Thornhill during the incriminating act. William managed to escape from Lucas’ chase but was ultimately found ‘hiding out up the river at Acre Wharf, next to the flour mill.’ [pg 59]

The punishment for larceny was severe during Thornhill’s time. His sentence was to be ‘hanged by the neck until you are dead.’ [pg 66]While he accepted his fate, that there was ‘nothing ahead but death,’ Sal on the other hand, never ceased to give up. She had discovered that letters that could be delivered ‘up the line’ which had changed the outcome of other’s condemned to the same fate as William. They sent a letter to Captain Watson, which then spawned other letters until ultimately reaching Lord Hawkesbury who would decide whether or not William’s plea would call for a reprieve. One day upon hearing his name yelled out, William ‘expected the worst and called out, Not yet! Friday sennight they said!’ [pg 69] expecting to be hanged. However, the turnkey informed William that he had been granted pardon from his death on the condition that he is transported to New South Wales along with his family.

Encountering Conflict Analysis

Conflict with a sense of belonging and identity

Much of The Secret River deals with Thornhill’s inability to feel a sense of personal worth. Living in a life where there the future looked bleak, Thornhill felt as though he would be no one in the world, just another William Thornhill among the other ‘William Thornhills’. He believed that he is insignificant, even amongst his own family since he is ‘squeezed between brothers’.

When he was chosen to be an apprentice however, Thornhill’s insecurity lessened since he was offered the opportunity to be a boatman afterwards, ‘in seven years he would be the most diligent waterman on the whole of Thames’ [pg 25]. The vessel upon which he was educated, named ‘Hope’ symbolised the chance of a positive change that was in store for Thornhill.

Sal and Thornhill’s son was named William Thornhill after the newborn’s father. Although there were ‘too many Thornhill’s in the world,’ Thornhill’s perception of his position in the world was altered since he had gone beyond anyone in his family and possessed a prosperous-looking future.

Conflict with lifestyle

Thornhill’s life was harsh growing up. His love for Sal was an escape from his destitution. He is proud and grateful that ‘another life would be waiting for him’ [pg 37] when he completed the apprenticeship and fulfilled his dreams. For some time, everything in his life fell into place. He married Sal, was given a wherry and lived in their own place as newly-weds. However, the short-lived comfortable life was stripped away when Sal’s parents pass away. Thornhill found that ‘his life was going backwards’ [pg 47], back to poverty – only this time with Sal. Once again, Thornhill struggled with poverty and took any jobs where he would be hired. To have gained a taste of what life was like beyond poverty, yet to fall back into the life was a painful challenged that Thornhill had to struggle with.

Conflict with social hierarchy

During his seven years apprenticeship, Thornhill developed a strong sense of ‘hatred’ [pg 48]towards the gentry. As an apprentice, working for the privileged every day exposed him the lifestyle that existed for those upon from a higher social status in England. Being from the lowest rank in society, Thornhill struggled with the fact that he worked until his ‘bare [feet] were freshly wet a hundred times a day’ while the gentry were at ease, ‘warm in their furs, their hands deep in their pockets…feet snug in big warm boots.’

The dichotomy between the upper and lower class in England is evident through Thornhill’s boss, Lucas. The social position is symbolized when ‘Thornhill squinted up into the brightness, where Lucas looked down upon him’ [pg 55]. Thornhill exists on a ‘lower’ level than Lucas, who ‘looks down’ on Thornhill with authority and power. Although Thornhill stole the brazillian wood out of desperation to save his family, it also depicts his lack of respect and contempt for those ‘superior’ to him.  Another instance is the judge during his hearing. He compares the judge with God, declaring both are ‘gentry’ [pg 61] due to the ‘white windows, full of life’ much alike the cold ‘merciless light’ [pg 10] in churches. In viewing the judge as foreign, like he did with God, it is clear that he was an outsider to the private world of the wealthy. His later portrayal of the judge, as ‘a tiny grey face, dwarfed by his full-bottomed wig, by the layers of his robes, by the lapping collar with the gold edging, until there was no trace of the human within’ [pg 63] illustrated that the gentry existed in a world that was out of Thornhill’s grasp, so much so that they weren’t even humans – nothing could compare them with the poverty-stricken.

Key Passages

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with a sense of belonging and identity

‘From the time he knew his own name, William Thornhill, it seemed that the world was crowded with other William Thornhills….He punched her straight back and shouted, William Thornhills will fill up the whole world, and she had no comeback to that, smart and all she was.’ [pg 10-11]

‘It was easy to wish to belong in this house, number 31, Swan Lane….No houses, no alleyways, nobody watching, except now and then the gypsies passing through, but they were soon gone and the place was theirs again.’ [pg 17-18]

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with his social position and poverty

‘In the rooms where William Thornhill grew up, in the last decards of the eighteenth century, no once could move an elbow without hitting the wall or the table or a sisiter or a brother….He could not understand any of it, knew only that God was as foreign as a fish.’ [pg 9-10]

‘He worked, day after day, for whoever would employ a journeyman with no boat of his own…There was a great emptiness in him, which was the space where hope had been.’ [pg 48-49]

‘But as soon as he was gone it fell into pieces with amazing speed…What point could there be to hoping, when everything could be broken so easily?’ [pg 43-45]

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with his criminal actions

‘A man with a clear conscience did not need to fear the dark…So they came and found him where he was hiding out up the river at Acre Wharf, next to the flour mill.’ [pg 53-59]

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with the effect his criminal actions have on Sal

‘Miraculously, the letter spawned another…Sal had committed no crime, but she was sentenced, just as surely as he was.’ [pg 68-69]

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with gentry

‘He stayed in the lee of Mr Middleton, who looked sterner than ever, his shoulders held back like one of the guardsmen at the Palace, as he faced a vast mahogany table behind which sat half a dozen men in robes…..License granted, I would say, and it was done.’ [pg 25-26]

‘The gentry seemed another species, more enigmatic than any Lascar, and it came upon him as a surprise that they might be driven by the same impulses as any other human animal….The glance that passed between them was the glance of two creatures, male and female of the same species, recognizing each others’ blood.’ [pg 31-31]

‘The court of the Old Bailey was a bear-pit….It took him some time, when he was first pushed up onto his pedestal, to see the judge behind his carved bench: a tiny grey face, dwarfed by his full-bottomed wig, by the layers of his robes, by the lapping collar with the gold edging, until there was no trace of the human within.’ [pg 61-63]

Important Quotes:

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with his social position and poverty

‘…no one could move an elbow without hitting the wall or the table or a sisiter or a brother.’ [pg 9]

‘He was always hungry. That was a fact of life: the gnawing feeling in his belly, the flat taste in his mouth, the rage that there was never enough.’ [pg 11]

‘Except that the ache in his belly was even worse than the stink of the shit.’ [pg 14]

‘It was the feeling of having a place.’ [pg 17]

‘But as soon as he was gone it fell into pieces with amazing speed.’ [pg 43]

‘His life was going backwards.’ [pg 47]

‘He tried not to think of their happy days. In Newgate that soft hopeful part of him was hardening over, becoming lifeless like stone or shell.’ [pg 60]

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with religion and faith

‘He could not understand any of it, knew only that God was as foreign as a fish.’ [pg 10]

“…as God is our witness.” [pg 48]

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with a sense of belonging and identity

‘Your name is common as dirt, William Thornhill.’ [pg 11]

‘William Thornhills will fill up the whole world.’

‘He swore to himself that he would be the best apprentice, the strongest, quickest, cleverest. That when freed in seven years he would be the most diligent waterman on the whole of the Thames.’ [pg 25]

‘He was still only sixteen, and no one in his family had ever gone so far.’ [pg 35]

‘Then he was back in the cell with the others, but without his story, stripped naked of his tale of injured innocence, stripped of everything but the knowledge that his moment of hope had been and gone, and left him now with nothing ahead but death.’ [pg 66]

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with the effect his actions have on Sal

‘Sal had committed no crime, but she was sentenced, just as surely as he was.’ [pg 69]

‘And may God have mercy on her soul!’ [pg 71]

Thornhill’s inner conflict: with gentry

‘…men were ranged on top of each other, all the way from the Thornhills at the bottom up the King, or God, at the top, each man higher than one, lower than another.’ [pg 26]

‘Look at me, fellow, and what I have got!’ [pg 30]

‘The glanced that passed between them was the glance of two creatures, male and female of the same species, recognizing each others’ blood.’ [pg 32]

‘…came to hate them warm in their furs, their hands deep in their pockets, their eyes almost hidden by their caps, feet snug in big warm boots, while his bare ones were freshly wet a hundred times a day and froze in between times while he waited for their pleasure.’ [pg 48]

‘Thornhill squinted up into the brightness, where Lucas looked down at him.’ [pg 55]

‘…judge was gentry, the same way God was gentry.’ [pg 61]

Get top content like this and more straight into your mailbox.

Just like 5,000 other VCE students have

Thanks, we've received your message.
We usually respond within a day!

Something went wrong... hit that sign up button again!

Other Guides You Might Be Interested In

latest articles

Check out our latest thought leadership on enterprise innovation.

contact‍
NOT SURE WHERE TO START?‍
Leave your details and we'll be in touch to better understand your needs