a lost apostrophe

It’s not often that an author uses a punctuation mark as a metaphor, let alone the humble and often misunderstood apostrophe.

Hunched over […], a lost apostrophe in search of a word to which he might belong, he radiated little beyond the superior air of his self-appointed task that he claimed to be sacred.

I wrote down this quote while I read Richard Flanagan’s novel Gould’s Book of Fish some years ago. The book is a fictionalised and fantastic account of the years convict William Buelow Gould spent on Sarah Island and in Port Arthur, two penal settlements in Van Diemen’s Land (aka Tasmania). While he was on Sarah Island, Gould painted watercolours of fish found in Macquarie Harbour, now known as the Sketchbook of Fishes.

pencil drawing of George Augustus Robinson

George Augustus Robinson (1838?) by Thomas Bock (?). Drawing held in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Public domain.

The quote above describes another historic personage, George Augustus Robinson. He was on a ‘friendly’ mission to broker a conciliation with the last 160 Aboriginal people of Tasmania. In 1833 he visited the penal station on Sarah Island and commissioned Gould to paint some portraits of Aboriginal people who were travelling with him as well as some views of the settlement on Sarah Island.

water colour showing the penal colony on Sarah Island in 1833

Sarah Island (1833) by William Buelow Gould. Watercolour held in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Public domain.