The Beachcomber’s Wife
Edmund Banfield, Australian journalist and natural history aficionado, was known for his numerous writings about early 20th-century life on Dunk Island, just off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Banfield had a long career in journalism and political organizing, in spite of suffering from blindness in one eye and repeated nervous breakdowns. In 1897, he obtained a 30-year lease on Dunk Island and lived there for most of the rest of his life, dying of peritonitis in 1923. Like Thoreau, Banfield dreamed of living off the land, surrounded by glorious, generous nature, and unencumbered by the worries of work and meaningless toil suffered by those living in dusty, crowded cities. Unlike Thoreau, Banfield had someone to do much of the hard work of planting, gathering, and milking, not to mention cooking, cleaning, and providing innumerable other services.
The Beachcomber’s Wife is an ode to the rarely-mentioned Bertha Banfield (née Golding), and imagines her life as the companion to an irascible but brilliant chronicler of everything around him… except his wife. Bertha converses mostly with herself, partly because Edmund is often out communing with the flora and fauna, and also because she’s become increasingly deaf over the years. She can’t hear Edmund, and he isn’t much for anyone else’s input. The interior dialogue reveals much about the harsh living conditions and the enormity of effort needed to create and maintain a semblance of a home on this tropical island. Readers can revel in the treatise about local Australian politics, the limited options for women at the time, and Bertha’s terror of the storms that batter Dunk Island, including the 1918 cyclone which destroyed much of the area’s coral reefs. Of her life, Bertha says, “I would have liked to have known that I mattered.” Thanks to Mitchell’s efforts, we can assure her that she did.