I’ve always thought the European refugees who came to Australia in the 1930s and 40s must have found us a childish, simple-minded lot, foolishly kind and completely unaware of life’s harsh realities. Lloyd Fitzherbert, the narrator of The Refuge, thinks they see us that way too, but to his mind there’s a much nastier side to it. He sees them as at best supercilious, self-absorbed and insufficiently grateful, at worst bent on importing their poisonous politics into Australia. He dislikes Nazis and Communists equally, and there’s a hefty dose of anti-Semitism in him. And there’s the good old Aussie cultural cringe in there as well: he can’t help admiring the elegance and culture of the Europeans and feeling the lack of it in Australian society. He sets himself apart from that society, wearing a Van Dyke beard and moustaches even though he’s quite a young man, dressing and speaking with the formality of a much older man.
This cultural anxiety and suspicion is the real subject of the book, to my mind. It was published in 1954 when this new wave of arrivals was settling in, changing forever the British blandness of our society. Fitzherbert is simultaneously attracted to, and defensive against, their very different culture. This complicated set of feelings is played out in his love for the refugee Irma. At the beginning of the book we learn that he has killed Irma, making her death look like suicide. But we also learn that they were secretly married, and that he still loves her deeply. So much for the “refuge” they provided each other; there’s a feeling throughout that it was always going to end this way.
The reason for killing Irma is not as simple as you’re probably thinking. It’s less about her and more about him. The gradual unfolding of his inner world is very well done. Nicholas Rothwell’s introduction goes a bit far in saying the subsidiary characters are “walk-on cardboard cut-out figures”, and Irma is not a convincing character, but it almost doesn’t matter because the narrator holds your interest so strongly. There are great pleasures of setting too – Sydney Harbour features as unforgettably as it does in Christina Stead at her best. The Refuge is reprinted in the Text Classics series and I think it does deserve a special place in Australian literature. I can’t think of anything quite like it, and I won’t forget it.