Hurtle Duffield begins life as one of a large number of children whose family lives in abject poverty. Mumma Duffield does laundry for some of the wealthier people around, and on one occasion, she takes young Hurtle with her to the Courtney mansion. The Courtneys, childless except for their hunchback daughter, are charmed by the precocious little Duffield boy. They offer to purchase him from his beleaguered parents who, faced with the prospect of yet another baby on the way, agree. Hurtle therefore goes to live with Alfreda and Harry Courtney and their spiteful daughter, Rhoda.
Alfreda and Harry introduce handsome, clever Hurtle to a world of crystal chandeliers, silk ball gowns, bonbons, and private tutors. He eases for his adoptive parents the disappointment caused by the birth of their deformed, unsatisfactory daughter. Hurtle is seduced by the Courtneys’ superficial, materialistic life-style but never feels exactly at home in it. He develops a fondness for Harry but remains wary of possessive, incestuous Alfreda and of his resentful adoptive sister. Hurtle enjoys a good education and long trips to Europe with the Courtneys; on one such journey to England, Alfreda is horrified to come across the display of a little dog which has been vivisected—that is, dissected while still alive. The vivisection of animals becomes one of Alfreda’s causes and, ironically, something of which she later accuses Hurtle: “‘You, Hurtle—you were born with a knife in your hand. No,’ she corrected herself, ‘in your eye.’” Hurtle’s artistic talent has begun to surface, and he obsessively turns out drawings and paintings which disturb those who see them.
With the advent of World War I comes Hurtle’s chance to escape. He enlists at the age of sixteen and remains in Paris for a year after the war ends. Finally, he returns to Australia, though he never contacts his former...
(The entire section is 773 words.)