Sunday, February 23, 2014

The year is 1831 and the country of Australia is slowly coming into its own after having served as the transportation destination for those in England and Ireland who have ended up on the wrong side of the law.  This is the setting for Under Capricorn, a 2-part series first broadcast in 1983. 

The governor of New South Wales is anxious to welcome his cousin, the young Charles Adare, who arrives eager to quickly make his fortune.  Charles is willing to entertain any idea that might help him to achieve his goal.  He meets wealthy landowner Samson Flusky, who offers him a business proposal.  Flusky already owns a great deal of land -- so much so that the authorities don't want him to purchase more.  They want everyone to have a fair chance to become landowners, since the earlier practice of land grants has ended.  Flusky asks Adare to purchase land for him so that it appears Adare will be the owner.  Of course, Adare will be compensated for his part in the scheme. 

One evening, Flusky invites Charles and many of the leaders of local society to his house for a dinner party.  Once they arrive, it soon becomes apparent that only the men have accepted the invitation -- none of their wives wanted to attend.  The reason is soon revealed:  Flusky's wife, Hattie, is an out of control alcoholic.  She's beautiful but unbalanced, and during the dinner, she makes a disheveled appearance before the horrified guests.  She sits next to the kindly Charles, and it soon emerges that they are from the same town in Ireland, and that she was a good friend of one of his sisters.  Hattie, or "Lady Harriet" as her husband insists she be called, was the daughter of an earl who ran away with Flusky, the groom.  When he was transported for the murder of her brother, she followed him to Australia.  Now she spends her days in a drunken haze.  She's aided in her addiction by the scheming maid Milly, who supplies her mistress with alcohol and gives her "doses" of her "medicine."

Charles eventually grows so close to the Fluskys that he moves in with them.  He begins to spend more time with Harriet, and determines to help her break her addiction to alcohol.  He insists that she take over the running of her own household.  When Milly balks at having some of her power taken away, she is dismissed.  Hattie regains her beauty and self-control, and rejoins society.  Unfortunately, Flusky has begun to suspect that there is something other than friendship going on between his wife and young Charles.

An aboriginal man living near Flusky's house reports that he's discovered gold at a remote riverside.  Charles becomes obsessed with the idea of a huge gold find, and asks Flusky to advance him the money to go prospecting, with the promise to give Flusky a cut of the proceeds.  Hattie is adamantly opposed to the idea, believing the aboriginal man to be untrustworthy.  She believes Charles will die in the desert. Flusky, seeing an opportunity to break up his wife's relationship, agrees to finance the venture. Before Charles leaves, he meets a young girl at a dance and flirts with her.

Part two begins 5 months after Charles has left on his gold finding expedition.  There has been no word from him since he left, and Hattie has become convinced that he's dead.  She has fallen back into alcoholism, so when the scheming Milly writes a letter asking to come back to her job, Flusky re-hires her.  Another servant, Winter, was given a letter from Charles before he left, and he passes this along to Harriet.  In the letter, he asks her to look after Susan, the girl from the dance.  Seeing a way to have some connection with Charles, Harriet goes to town and finds Sue at her father's barbershop.  Sue agrees to come back to Hattie's house for a visit.  Milly doesn't want any meddling in her scheme to destroy Hattie so that she, Milly, can marry Flusky herself.  Sue, however, isn't one to overlook injustice or do as she's told.  She and Milly clash, but she has an improving influence on Hattie, who once again starts to take an interest in the outside world.

They eventually find out that Flusky has received a letter saying Charles is alive, and making his way back.  Sue and Hattie are both angry at others for keeping secrets from them.  When Charles returns, the secrets that everyone has been keeping are brought out into the open.  It turns out that both Hattie and Flusky have believed things about each other that weren't true.  Neither was able to confront the other, and this lack of openness nearly destroyed them.

Like Downton Abbey, a scheming servant is actually running the show, using her own motives to justify destructive behavior -- all the while claiming to be a "good Christian woman."  It was enjoyable to see the interactions between the newly transported, who mostly worked as servants, and those who had been there a while and had been able to build up respectable lives.  One odd thing was that when scenes of bustling town life were shown, there were always a few aboriginal people leaning against a post or sitting on the steps.  No one paid any attention to them, but their inactivity was in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of everyone else around them.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Under Capricorn from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Under Capricorn Four Gherkins, for being a revealing look at a star-crossed relationship in the early days of the outback


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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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