Gary Crew and Philip Neilsen’s Edward Britton (Australia 2000) represents two characters in two alternating narratives who turn out to have important connections even though they never actually talk with each other. The two stories have the same setting, a prison for boys in Tasmania in the early Victorian period. Edward Britton is a former actor who has been transported there from England for stealing costumes (he was, in fact, set up); Izod Wolfe is an Irish boy whose family was destroyed by bad crops and by a British soldier he sees as evil and wants revenge on, and who turns up as an officer in the prison. Both stories are primarily focalized through the central boy, with occasional sections focalized by other people involved with them–among those, the diary of Susan, the daughter of the evil soldier, whom Edward Britton falls in love with.
But while the stories share a setting and take place in the same time frame, and while the characters are aware of each other’s existence, the two central characters are, and remain, surprisingly isolated from each other until a climactic scene near the end where one saves the other. Izod and Edward hardly ever even talk to each other, not even in the climactic scene. While Izod comes to secretly admire Edward but still stays distant from him, Edward’s sudden notice “that the younger boy’s face was sharp and secret” (117) as he watches him from a distance is one of the few times he seems even to be aware of Izod until close to the end of the novel. For most of the novel, furthermore, the alternating sections follow events in each of the boy’s lives that seem to have nothing to do with each other. Edward, older, taller, handsomer, more classy, more elegant, and more hopeful, falls in love with Susan in a sort of romantic melodrama, less exaggerated but just as improbable as the play he and Susan put on. Izod, shorter, weaker, shyer and far more depressed and cynical, is obsessed with his revenge against a man who despises the Irish, and believes they are “hardly human” (111). Each has an older male nemesis, Edward a sergeant who hates him for being so uppity, and Izod Susan’s father, destroyer of his parents. It may not be surprising, in light of the different concerns of the two characters, that the stories end so differently. Izod’s ends badly after he shoots his enemy and kills him and is, finally, hanged, while Edward’s implies a happy ending as he escapes with Susan and into a possibly much better life. As well as being surprisingly isolated from each other, the two protagonists achieve opposite fates, one tragic and one an adventure story happy ending.
Indeed, the two narratives seem to represent two different and even opposite kinds of stories. The darkly unattractive and eternally downtrodden Izod, “colourless and inconspicuous” (36), who has been, the surgeon says, “beaten down. And broken” (49) is the sort of victim found in grittily realistic, socially conscious case studies, cagey and secretive but nevertheless inexorably driven ever downwards by his unsuccessful attempts to combat more powerful enemies despite the theoretical triumph that leads inevitably to his death. Edward, “almost a head taller than the rest, handsome, educated. . . . a cut above the rest” (12), manages to shine attractively even in the midst of a horrors of a penal colony, heroically helps save another boy from drowning, and triumphs against all odds to ends up with a girl as attractive as himself and “as refined and intelligent as her parents were coarse” (32). He is much like the hero of a deliberately unrealistic tale of adventure–the sort of wish-fulfilling story he himself dismissed at one point as “childish rubbish! This sort of thing only happened in cheap romantic novels” (45).
But despite their continued isolation and the opposite nature of their stories, Izod and Edward’s stories do intertwine. As Izod watches the play Edward and Susan put on, he begins to question the secretiveness he has been driven to by his lifelong oppression as he feels “a rare “positive emotion for another human being” (201) in response to their willingness to expose themselves so confidently. Acting later on his admiration for them and imitating Edward’s “”knack of changing himself into someone else” (197),” Izod changes himself enough to reveal himself in a similarly public declaration at he publicly defends Edward when he is accused of raping Susan, an act which both allows Edward to escape and causes Izod’s own death. Meanwhile, after Edward sees Izod’s face as “sharp and secret, like the faces of the animals he had hunted with the surgeon” (117), he dreams of Izod’s severed head, perhaps as an image of his own endangerment in the prison. At the end, it becomes clear that despite their continued isolation, the boys have both been important to each other. Edward remembers “the quick glance that passed between them” (242) at the moment when Izod shot his enemy: “It was as if Izod was saying, I take his life and give you yours. I can endure anything” (242). Izod agrees: “He had given his life to satisfy his hatred. To avenge his flesh and blood. To rid the world of a monster. And there was Edward Britton. Edward and the girl. Edward and Susan. He had done it for them, too. To set the beautiful free” (249). The combined story I puzzle out of their superficially isolated ones reveals how even people who hardly know each other can have a deep impact on each other’s lives.
Since Edward is an unrealistically ideal hero, it is not surprising that the plot involves Izod becoming more like Edward and not the reverse. Izod learns to read, learns even to feel a potential for friendship. His relationship to Edward–and therefore, the relationship of his story to Edward’s–is something like that of a reader in bad circumstances responding to and gaining sustenance from, a fictional fantasy character. Whereas Izod’s vulnerability seems to be an object lesson about the danggers of entrapment for Edward, Edward represents the intrusion of something better, more ideal into Izod’s constrained and depressingly painful world, something healthily hopeful beyond the gloom and murk of a deeply constrained life.
Or does he? Edward might, instead, represent the rightness of privilege–of good-looking, well-spoken, refined people inherently deserving a better life than mere powerless Irish peasants. It is surely no accident that Edward sees Izod as an animal, and that Izod admits to a liking for mice : “He loved their courage, their audacity, their quicksilver skill at darting in and out of space in the blink of an eye and, even though they were so small and seemingly fragile, their ability to survive (159). In passages like this, he seems to be lower on the scale of evolution than Edward. Once Izod exposes himself–dares to stop being a cunning little secretive animal–Izod dies. Instead of being a liberatory tale of the influence of possibilities of beauty and honour in a life of despair, then, the novel may perhaps be read as a conservative statement about the need for people of different qualities to stay where they belong.
Or perhaps Izod and Edward’s differences might merely represent the authors’ way of trying to capture a broader spectrum of history: two different and opposite responses to bad circumstances–the flamboyant spectacle of heroic action versus the sadness of secretive animal-like cunning–and the extremes of the varied fates of the boys transported as convicts to Tasmania: painful punishment and death or escape into a better life.
Because it tells both stories, the optimistic adventure and the dark tragedy, beside each other–and because it keeps its protagonists so unaware of each other’s thoughts and circumstances–Edward Britton never actually seems to come down on one side or the other. It is a puzzle that remains puzzling–perhaps deliberately so, for it certainly provokes a range of diverse and intriguing thinking.