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Style and Angle

The literary style of English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is a brilliant example of the connection between language and characterization.

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The award-winning English Passengers by Matthew Kneale was published in 2000, and received exceptionally good reviews: “A fascinating story, richly told – a major work by a major talent”, “Fantastic, it’s an absolute cracker”, “Extraordinary – it has moral purpose and the power to change”. It certainly is a book well worth reading, for its action-filled plot, its dramatic and tragic story, and its humour.
However, in this article we will look at the writer’s original approach to the style of his narrative; the story is told in retrospect in a 1st person voice by all the characters, who relate many of the same events seen from their individual points of view. With a cast of more than twenty characters it is a bold literary quest that brilliantly demonstrates how the characterization of a narrative inseparably depends on its style and language.

A Brief Plot Summary

English Author Matthew Kneale with his Book English Passengers

The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson has an interest in geology, and comes up with a theory that the true site of the Garden of Eden is to be found in Tasmania, and in 1857 he sets out on an expedition to verify his theory. His team is more or less haphazardly put together, and their voyage proves to be less than straightforward; dissent grows among the team members and between them and the Manx crew (from the Isle of Man). Unknowingly, Wilson has chartered a smuggling vessel fleeing British Customs with its double hull stacked with contraband.
After a long and troublesome voyage Wilson’s expedition arrives in Tasmania and continues on foot assisted by a native guide and mule drivers. The aboriginal population of Tasmania is close to being wiped out by the British colonists who use the island as a convict colony for the worst and most notorious criminals. The Garden of Eden is, of course, never found and the expedition ends in disruption and hostility in the Tasmanian wilderness. Incidentally, they catch the same vessel for their dramatic return voyage; there is a mutiny, and due to the mutineers’ poor seamanship the vessel is shipwrecked off the English coast. But, ironically, the Reverend is saved because of the double hull of the ship.

Four of the main characters and examples of their individual voices are presented below. Note how the writer changes his style to demonstrate their individual characteristics. Read the excerpts and answer the questions which follow.

Four Voices – Four Styles

Captain Illiam Quilliam Kewley

The Captain is a down-to-earth, cynical schemer. His main ambition is to get rid of his contraband cargo at a good profit. He takes on the mission only to get away from the British Customs and his contempt for the English passengers is obvious from the start.

“Total charge: Three passengers. Worse, Englishmen all of them. I can’t say I was happy about the arrangement. I dare say I’d expected the Sincerity to wee a few humiliations in her time – to be nibbled by barnacles, shat on by gulls, and poked and prodded by Customs men – but never, not once did I think she’d be reduced to the shame of passengers.
Strange articles of passengers they were, too. Truly, you never did see such a clever and pestful trio as these, all disagreeing with themselves, and taking their great clever brains for a little stroll on the deck. I dare say it was hardly a surprise they were odds, mind, seeing as their quest was to discover themselves the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden! As if it couldn’t just been left in the Bible where it belonged. They weren’t even looking to find it in any sensible spot, but on some rotten island at the very ends of the earth, called Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania, as it couldn’t make up its mind. This was a mad fool of a place, by the sounds of it, all gaols and bluemen and worse, being nowhere any sensible fellow would venture near. It was there, and all the way back, too, that we were supposed to be carrying the three snots. A whole year of Englishmen. What a thought that was. It was bad enough just taking them along the coast to Maldon.”

  1. Point out some words that identify the Captain’s attitude to Englishmen.
  2. How does the writer display the Captain’s cynicism?
  3. Where do you find irony in the Captain’s presentation of his passengers?

The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson

The Reverend is a man of the church and firmly believes that the Garden of Eden will be found in Tasmania. His strong faith and determination make for conflicts both with the Captain and his scientist partner Dr Thomas Potter.

“A matter on which I was less inclined to show leniency was that of our devotions. Ours being a Christian expedition, it was essential that it should be conducted in a properly Christian spirit, and yet, to my distress, I found that the others showed a lamentable reluctance in this respect. As we proceeded I would often break into a rousing hymn, both to voice my faith and also to speed us upon our way, only to find myself answered with a most ragged and dismal reply from the others.

“My belief soon won through. After only a few moments of careful thought there occurred to me an explanation as simple as it was true. It is well known that our Lord God will sometimes impose little tests upon His children, so He may be sure of their devotion. Thus it was now: our worthiness was being sought. Why, I even considered that we had been given a kind of blessing. Was this not a wondrous opportunity to demonstrate my own unswerving reverence; to prove my faith was solid as a mighty rock?”

  1. Apart from the Reverend’s obvious Christian references, how does the style indicate that he is a man of the church?
  2. Which expression reveals the Reverend’s view of himself and his faith?
  3. How does the writer also show the Reverend’s attitude to the others in the expedition?

Dr Thomas Potter

The doctor has joined the expedition from purely scientific motives. In his diary he records his observations in a systematic and lexical manner. He has a way of categorizing people that clearly reveals his racist attitudes.

“Morning’s progress slow + tiring. Day v. humid + mud = worst till now (last night’s rain”). Mules slipping, selves likewise, till all = greatly begrimed, boots heavy with dirt. Only one little affected = half caste (no shoes) who = scampering though oblivious. This = further instance of his speedy reversion to aboriginal savagery. Other instances: return to near nakedness, sleeping outside, eating vilest raw food etc. etc. All = v. useful re. notions. Definitive proof that when two Types = naturally mixed characteristics of lowest Type shall always prevail. Intend to call this axiom Potter’s Law.”

  1. What makes this style so lexical?
  2. What does the style tell us about the Doctor as a person?
  3. How are the Doctor’s racist attitudes revealed?
  4. Comment on the abbreviations used by the Doctor.


Peevay is an aboriginal half-caste who is the offspring of a rape. The white whaler Jack Harper had forced himself upon an aboriginal woman, and Peevay is born with aboriginal features, but fair hair. He has learned some English at a mission, and he relates his observations in retrospect in a broken but quite intelligible language.

“One day it was warm and there was rain but no wind, so drops fell straight like stones. We were in the bush, sitting quiet and watching meat cooking in the fire, and the smoke smelled good as this was the first game we caught for days and we were hungry after eating just roots. Then Gonar, who went off to the edge of that clearing to do shittings, came running back and shouted in a whispering way: Something’s coming.
Now if something’s coming and you don’t know what it is there’s no prudence just waiting for it to walk on you. (…) Then twigs were breaking, telling us that this something coming was clumsy. In fact it was three somethings. No, I had never seen creatures so strange, I do recollect. They were the shape of men but only this. Their skin was not like skin at all but was the colour of stone, and loose, so it flapped. Even their feet were ugly, too big and with no toes. Worst, though, were their faces. These were coloured like raw meat, with no alive look in them.”

  1. How does the style reveal Peevay’s native origin?
  2. How does the writer indicate Peevay’s attitude to white men?
  3. Point out style elements that are examples of Peevay’s broken English.

Discussion and Further Reading

  1. What makes this a challenging style for a writer?
  2. How will this narrative style benefit the reader?
  3. What is the basic condition for this style to work without confusing the reader?
  4. If you google English Passengers you will find a lot of information, reviews and tasks. You will also find a free download of the book– so go ahead and read it yourself.
CC BY-SASkrevet av Jan-Louis Nagel.
Sist faglig oppdatert 08.01.2018


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