Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Early colonial Australia featured a conglomeration of immigrants seeking a new life. One significant settler was Pendragon, the pen name of George Isaacs. With a genial personality and an enthusiasm for life, he never seemed to lose his optimistic outlook, although he faced continuing hardship in both Adelaide and Melbourne.
Adverse situations with his family and dwindling finances meant the distant prospect of life in South Australia beckoned. He had severe asthma too, so the warm dry atmosphere promised better health. As a very young man, living in London, he had moved in the highest circles and was expert in antique jewellery, archaeology but really excelled as a man of letters. He sailed with his partner Marion in 1850 and, upon arriving in the other side of the world, settled in Gawler, north of Adelaide.
As a man of culture, he set about shaping society there. The Institute was formed and people welcomed this addition to life in Gawler. Simultaneously he wrote the novel, The Queen of the South, a mixture of satire, melodrama, humour and racy narrative. It reveals that even in the pristine environment in Australia, human nature is constant. It gained a place in the country’s literary history, albeit a small one.
Progress was made more challenging for the young George Isaacs because he was Jewish, unconventional and often uncompromising. He used the establishment of papers such as the Number One and later, The Critic, to air his views and support other aspiring writers. He was creative but impractical and often admirable ideas were spoiled because of his impatience. He published poetry, and in 1859 ran the Song of Australia competition. The winning entry was sung widely for some years.
This occurred in Gawler, as did the Humbug Society. Like its promoter, Isaacs, it aimed to embrace spontaneity and decry formality. Its 12 rules were the antithesis of the rules for other societies. Their sacred oath was ‘Flam, Bam and Sham’! Anne Black relates further hilarious aspects of club membership, including admitting a spaniel, Toby, as a member. In fact, it was a subversive parody of the correctness in societies at that stage.
George Isaacs’ love of the natural world led him to create a Museum in Gawler. He donated his butterfly collection and others followed suit, with precious antiques and rare objects they owned. At one stage he was dubbed the literary lion of Gawler and that town referred to as the Colonial Athens.
He had boundless energy. His family continued to expand, eventually they had eight children. After a brief attempt to be a playwright, he became a travelling lecturer. All his activity failed to stave off chronic financial crises. They plagued him all his life.
The Critic, established in Adelaide, was well received and supported poets like Kendall. This was a weekly that supported his own writing and aspiring scribes in Adelaide too. French and English works were reviewed there, as well, amongst them, Victor Hugo.
His schemes invariably collapsed due to lack of funds. He sought refuge in Melbourne at one juncture and had some theatrical success there.
Rhyme and Prose and Burlesque, its History, enjoyed some success but in 1865, he was forced to leave Melbourne. Having endured the hardships of life with Isaacs, Marion remained there with all their children.
Sadly, his career and his health failed completely and he died of typhoid in 1876: not before he was smitten by Eliza, twenty years younger who became his muse for two brief years. She and her baby tragically died.
Anne Black’s account of his life is extensive and thoroughly portrays the life of a cultured immigrant in the early years of colonisation.
The lasting value of his work is his capturing contemporary life in Adelaide. Examples of this is liberally scattered throughout the book and there are some really clever and amusing extracts. With his many literary pursuits he obviously maintained social activism and community involvement.
It is evident that the research into his remarkable life has been exhaustive. Anne Black deserves to be lauded for bringing us such a fine account of a man whose life added colour and richness to nineteenth century life in South Australia.
Pendragon: The Life of George Isaacs, Colonial Wordsmith
by Anne Black
ISBN 978 1743 050709 4