It is my pleasure to launch The Forger’s Wife, on behalf of author, John Lang, who couldn’t be with us this evening. However, if Lang was here, I have a feeling he’d be flattered and delighted to know that his novel, originally serialised under the title Emily Orford in 1862-63 in London’s Fraser’s Magazine, and first published as a novel in 1855, is reappearing in print tonight as Grattan Street Press’s inaugural book.
While stories have been told on this continent for tens of thousands of years, John Lang, born in Parramatta in 1816, is believed to be the first Australian-born novelist. The Forger’s Wife is Lang’s fourth novel, written after he moved to India, alternating his work there as a barrister with writing journalism and fiction. According to former diplomat Rory Medcalf, Lang was a stirrer, who ‘craved an audience’—hence my feeling that he’d be delighted to know his work was still being celebrated, 153 years after his death.
Asked to account for the enduring appeal of The Forger’s Wife, I suspect Lang would point to the novel’s most striking character: not the eponymous wife, but detective George Flower—whom Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver, in their introduction, claim as ‘the first detective-protagonist in an Anglophone novel’.
The novel tells the story of Emily Orford, and her regrettable marriage to the forger, Charley Roberts aka Reginald Harcourt—whom Flower describes, with typical eloquence, as a ‘white-livered, black-hearted, pettifogging, filthy-minded, double-distilled essence of a cowardly, cringing, woman-deceiving criminal’ (p. 76). And yet Emily loves her ‘dear Reginald’, enough to alienate her parents by eloping with him and later, when he is convicted of forgery, following him to Australia in order to defend his innocence. When he learns of her situation, detective George Flower becomes Emily’s champion and protector; and although he longs to do away with her villain of a husband, Flower finds himself protecting Roberts, too, out of loyalty to Emily. Were John Lang with us this evening, he might ask that we not judge Emily too harshly by our 21st century standards, and recognise that despite her at times infuriating naiveté, she displays a remarkable resilience in the face of the physical and psychological hardships to which she is subjected.
Lang tells us, in his preface, that the story of The Forger’s Wife ‘is not a fiction’, but a disguised account of an ‘unfortunate lady’ whose letters came into his possession (p. 5). Meanwhile, George Flower, described as a ‘thief-taker without … a rival in the colony’ (p. 61), may or may not have been inspired by Lang’s grandfather, John Harris. Both men were transported as convicts from England to Australia—Harris arriving with the First Fleet in 1788—and both, after being emancipated, went on to serve as local police. Whether John Harris displayed the same cavalier attitude to the law as George Flower, however, is a matter for speculation.
As Gelder and Weaver suggest, Flower is a prototype for the boundary-pushing, law-bending, violent detective who would come to feature prominently in Australian crime fiction—and, some might argue, in the Australian police force. At the same time, Flower has a soft side, as illustrated in the following passage from the novel:
After inflicting summary punishment on a prisoner and using the strongest language in the verandah of a public house, [Flower] would approach a female at the bar and talk to her in a strain which was frequently refined and sentimental. With young children he was a perfect child himself. He would encourage them to pull his hair and whiskers, beat him with his own whip … give them a ride on Sheriff [his faithful horse], or chase the fowls and ducks round the yard for their especial amusement. (p. 78)
At one point in the story, Flower goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of bushrangers, leading to an unexpectedly poignant showdown with the gang leader, Millighan. The unfolding of this relationship was for this reader a real highlight of the novel.
The Forger’s Wife is, of course, a product of its time, and some of the attitudes expressed may grate on contemporary readers. But it is also a genuine page-turner that offers warts-and-all insight into daily life in colonial Australia, peopled with characters who feel no less real for being larger than life.
I commend The Forger’s Wife to you all and congratulate Grattan Street Press wholeheartedly on its publication.
 Medcalf, R 2010, ‘John Lang, our Forgotten Indian Envoy, The Spectator/Australia, 3 April, accessed 20 May 2017 https://web.archive.org/web/20100515040332/http://www.spectator.co.uk/australia/5880088/john-lang-our-forgotten-indian-envoy.thtml