English & EAL

The Secret River: Thornhill’s Place

Lisa Tran

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Although ten years passed since the massacre, much of the natural environment around Hawkesbury River remained the same. Since there was ‘no more trouble from the blacks’ [pg 314], new settlers began to develop along the river, populating the bank. The new settlers included Millikin, a man who inhabited Smasher’s old land and Benjamin Jameson, who now owned Mrs Webb’s land. With many new faces along the river, only Mrs Herring from the old group remained.

During the past decade, Thornhill became the wealthiest man in the area, owning ‘Sagitty’s old place plus another hundred acres that went from the head waters of Darkey Creek all the way down to the river.’ He had changed the river’s name from Darkey Creek to Thornhill’s Creek. He also completely owned Hope and a new vessel Sarah, which had cost three hundred pounds. Since they had become so endowed with money, Thornhill and Sal were commonly known as the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ of the river.

A villa was built for Thornhill, named Cobham Hall. However, the place ‘was not quite what Thornhill had pictured’ as the pieces of the home fitted oddly together. For instance, Thornhill had statues identical to the on the gateposts at Christ Church he had seen when he was younger, to place along his own gates. However, when they arrived, the lions possessed a domesticated quality about them, much unlike Thornhill’s desired snarling vision. In their parlour was a portrait of Thornhill. The first time he had his portrait taken was an ‘unhappy experience’ [pg 320]. He had shared with the painter a perfectly constructed ‘history’ with the artist; a William Thornhill born in ‘clean Kent, by the calk cliffs.’ He had been sent to jail a hero, since he ‘carr[ied] English spies into France’ [pg 321] for the King. However, the portrait depicted him as a ‘delicate fellow….a pretty head….and a watery look on his face’ [pg 322]. The artist had also illustrated Thornhill with an upside down book in Thornhill’s hand. While everyone cried that it was an oversight, Thornhill could not bear the image of himself being mocked.

Meanwhile, Sal stopped making marks on the tree, realising that Home was only a distant idea, something that neither she nor Thornhill would return to.  Instead, she made Australia her home, with the help of Thornhill who showered her with furniture, clothes and, a girl to cook and clean. He also bought her a pair of green silk slippers, finding his own private humour in reminiscence of the girl who showed her leg ‘to the boatman’ [pg 30] back in Thames. Both led a slow life, Sal growing stout and Thornhill’s calluses on his hands gradually disappearing.

Although at surface the couple led ideal lives, Thornhill and Sal experienced a gulf of ‘water’ [pg 324] between them. They never discussed the massacre; it was a ‘space of silence between husband and wife.’ Blackwood’s friendship with Thornhill also deteriorated, for he ceased to converse with Thornhill. As a consequence of Thornhill’s unforgivable actions, Dick moved in with Blackwood. It hurt Thornhill to hear that newcomers believe that Dick was Blackwood’s son.

Though the massacre scared off majority of the blacks, Long Jack still remained. Smasher’s shot had left him disabled, ‘one leg draggin and his whole body crooked and effortful, warping sideways as he moved along’ [pg 327]. Overcome with guilt for the pain they inflicted upon the natives, Sal attempted to shelter Long Jack by providing him food, utensils and clothes. However Long Jack refused to accept any of Sal’s offerings. Even during Thornhill attempt to help, Long Jack stubbornly refused. Instead he declared the land as ‘[his] place’ [pg 329]. From then on, Thornhill never returned to Long Jack’s dwelling, feeling a sense of ‘exasperation’ knowing that the ‘blackfeller’ [pg 330] found solace in even the earth’s dirt.

At each sunset, Thornhill would sit on a wooden bench and observe the environment around him. Although he had ultimately found success in building a home that he could call his own, he noticed that nothing around him was changed by his presence. This included the flora and fauna, and even the ‘harsh whistle of the breeze in the river oaks’ [pg 331]. He felt that although white settlement had increased dramatically, the natives had retained their connection with the land, a place where ‘in the intricate landscape that defeated any white man’ [pg 333]. A sense of penance for his treatment of the natives was expressed by his dread that it is ‘too late, too late’ [pg 334] to repair the damages. Each night, he ‘sat on, watching, into the dark’ in a desperate search to find some ‘measure of peace.’

Encountering Conflict Analysis

Thornhill’s inner conflict

Despite all his success, Thornhill began to feel a sense of unforgiving guilt for his treatment of the natives. He is considered the richest man in the area, a dream desired since he was a child in poverty. Yet his accomplishment came at a cost, for his family and himself. He no longer spoke to Dick and his relationship with Sal grew apart. Furthermore, Thornhill’s unresolved conflict with the natives is conveyed through his encounter with Long Jack. He offers Jack help in hope of reconciliation between the two. However Jack ‘never put on the britches or the jacket…the clothes lay decaying into the dirt’ [pg 328]. The exaggeration of time interpreted through the words ‘never’ and ‘decaying’ forebodes that the time for reconciliation has yet to come for Thornhill.

Everyday, Thornhill watches through his ‘spy-glass’ [pg 330] and ‘telescope’ towards ‘the top of the cliffs, where the forest stopped as if sliced off, seemed an empty stage’ [pg 333]. The cliffs are used as a metaphor for a stage to depict that Thornhill is ‘the audience’ and is always ‘watching’ and ‘waiting’ for the presence of the natives. This brings him ‘a measure of peace’ [pg 334] as he struggles with his own conflict that he dispossessed the Indigenous people of their land. His remorse and guilt for his past actions create an inner struggle that provokes him to ‘sit on, watching, into the dark’ each night in hope for a reconciliation.

Conflict between the natives and settlers

The divide between the settlers and natives was prominent and after the massacre, only drew them further apart. The limited use of dialogue, ‘this me, my place’ [pg 329] emphasises the scarcity of communication between Long Jack and Thornhill. The use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ sets up a dichotomy between the natives and settlers, conveying that the conflict between the cultures is still present and unresolved.

Conflict with the land

Thornhill’s alienation from the environment also illustrates his unresolved conflict with the land. Although Thornhill built a ‘foursquare, immovable…estate’ [pg 330], he acknowledged that his home was insignificant against the great Australian backdrop. Even though he aimed to perfect his home, there was always something at fault, ‘some [things] were too big, others too small’ [pg 315]. Thornhill believed that the land was ‘creased and furrowed’, as though it was dissatisfied at his presence. However, the land was home to the natives since they blended into the forest as though they were a part of the nature. From Thornhill’s reflection, it is as though the white settlers would never belong to the landscape.

Conflict with social hierarchy

With his prosperity, Thornhill was well aware that he was subject to other mens’ jealousy; he ‘knew that feeling now: the feeling that whatever a man wanted, he could have’ [pg 316]. As someone who had spent a lifelong attempted to prove his position in society, ‘Thornhill had never grown tired of being called Mr Thornhill. Never heard it without a pulse of pleasure.’ Regardless of the satisfaction his status offered him, Thornhill was unable to escape remnants of his past. During his first portrait, the up side down book illustrated in his hand was an embarrassment to him, for it reminded him that he had not been bred in ‘clean’ [pg 321] Kent, but in low-browed houses in destitute England. It shamed him to allow any others to know his history. Due to this insecurity, Thornhill continued his battle with social views and status, even when he had created a distinguished life for himself.

Key Passages

Thornhill’s guilt

“The finished place was not quite what Thornhill had pictured…He knew it was there, and his children might remember, but his children’s children would walk about on the floorboards, and never know what was beneath their feet.” [pg 316]

“A penance, it had occurred to Thornhill…it was as if the dirt was consolation.” [pg 327-329]

“As each day ended he sat in his favourtie spot on the verandah, the spu-glass in his hand, watching the sunset glow red and gold on the cliffs…Even after the cliffs had reached the moment at sunset where they blazed gold, even after the dusk left them glowing secretively with an after-light that seemed to come from inside the rocks themselves: even then he sat on, watching, into the dark.” [pg 333-334]

Important Quotes

Thornhill’s conflict with owning land

“It was not called Darkey Creek now, but Thornhill’s Creek.” [pg 314]

Thornhill’s inner conflict with his past actions

“Thornhill remembered hunger well enough. He though a man who had once known hunger would never forget it.” [pg 328]

“…he sat on here felt at times like a punishment.” [pg 333]

“This bench, here, where he could overlook all his wealth and take his easer, should have been the reward.” [pg 334]

“Too late, too late.”

“…he sat on, watching, into the dark.”

Conflict with social hierarchy

“William Thornhill was something of a king.” [pg 314]

“His wife had become something of a queen, celebrated for her Christmas entertainments, complete with Chinese lanterns and string bands.”

“Thornhill had never grown tired of being called Mr Thornhill. Never heard it without a pulse of pleasure.”

“He had the lions put high on the gatepost sy they could not be seen well. They were not what he had planned, but there was no mistaking their message: Watch your step, you are on my place now.” [pg 316]

“He knew that feeling now: the feeling that whatever a man wanted, he could have.”

“The complicated satisfaction it gave him was something he did not try to share with her.” [pg 318]

“He had so often been on the wrong side of such a wall.”

“He had never ridden himself, but he had made sure his children were taught to sit a horse the way the gentry did.” [pg 330]

Resolution of conflict with social hierarchy

“The pads of muscle around his shoulders were growing soft and the calluses on his hands, that he had always thought he would take to his grave, were nothing more than a thickening of the skin.” [pg 320]

Conflict between natives and convicts

“There was nothing that a man might hide behind.” [pg 315]

“That wall – higher than a man, and with only one gate in its perimeter – kept out everything except what was invited in.” [pg 318]

“A person was entitled to draw any picture they fancied on the blank slate of this new place.” [pg 319]

“This me…my place.” [pg 329]

Conflict between Thornhill and Sal

“Sal had long since stopped marking marks on the tally-tree, and the lines she had already drawn had grown over, swallowed into the fabric of the trunk.” [pg 316]

“He let the phrase go when she used it, turning the conversation elsewhere…” [pg 317]

“He did not spell out to her what they both knew: that they were never going to return to that Home.”

“…things that remained unasked between them, and unanswered.” [pg 318]

“…a space of silence between husband and wife.” [pg 324]

“he had not thought that words unsaid could come between two people like a body of water.”

Conflict between Thornhill and Dick

“…Dick would not…meet his eye.” [pg 326]

“There was a moment of cold nothing where the open flesh could be seen, and then the ache came on.”

Conflict between Thornhill and Blackwood

“Blackwood would not speak to Thornhill, only sat with his head down.” [pg 325]

Conflict with the environment

“Her day became a battle against the sun that would draw the moisture out of the ground, the hot wind that would dry the leaves.” [pg 319]

“The harsh whistle of the breeze in the river-oaks, the rigid stalks of the bulrushes and the reeds, that hard blue sky: they were unchanged by the speck of New South Wales enclosed by William Thornhill’s wall.” [pg 331]

“Without the advantage of a human figure over there, it was as slippery as a mirage.” [pg 332]

“…intricate lanscape that defeated any white man.” [pg 333]

Adaptation to the environment

“In sleepless nights it would not be that foreign river called the Thames tat they would follow down through the bends into sleep, but their own Hawkesbury.” [pg 317]

“Sal had never said it in so many words, but she would not leave them, those native-born children.”

Natives’ connection with the land

“…Jack’s hand caressing the dirt. This was something he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. There was no part of the world he would keep coming back to, the way Jack did, jus to feel it under him.” [pg 329]

“It was as if the very dirt was a consolation.”

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