The Australian Novel Analysis

Convicts and settlers: 1788-1900

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Australia’s European settlement began in 1788, when the First Fleet of convicts and their keepers arrived in Sydney Harbor. This brutal and uneducated society hardly encouraged literary production. Instead, those in charge kept diaries and wrote reports on the settlement’s development, the exotic flora and fauna, the land’s geographical oddities, and the Aboriginal inhabitants. Australia’s first novel appeared in 1830: Quintus Servinton, an undistinguished book by a convict named Henry Savery (1791-1842), an educated man who had been transported to Australia for forgery. Although the author died in Australia after further criminal activities, the book’s hero, Quintus, makes a fortune in the new land and returns happily to England. This plot line characterized many of the novels that followed. Written by homesick settlers, not convicts, the books treated the colony’s rugged life harshly and allowed their heroes to go home to England with money they had accumulated by exploiting the country’s resources.

The Transportation System (the euphemism for sending English convicts to the colony) lasted into the 1830’s. One other convict, James Tucker (c. 1808-1888), wrote a novel about his experiences. The manuscript, dated around 1845, was not discovered until the 1920’s and first appeared in an authentic edition in 1952. Tucker’s Ralph Rashleigh, unlike Savery’s book, depicts the convicts as overcoming the injustice dealt them and showing pride in their new country, where they hoped to lead a better life. In spite of the significance of the convict settlement and its inherent drama, only one other novel from the nineteenth century treated the Transportation System fully, and it was written by a free British settler, Marcus Clarke (1846-1881). His novel, For the Term of...

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The bush tradition: 1788-1900

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

On January 1, 1901, the six separate colonies on the vast continent united to become the Commonwealth of Australia. The move toward federation had started in the 1840’s but did not gain momentum until the late 1800’s. Through the nineteenth century literary advancement of the bush myth and the chauvinistic attitudes it incorporated, writers had taken an active part in the political maneuvering that led to federation. In the nationalistic fervor that dominated at the turn of the century, it was generally assumed that Australian literature would focus on what was considered authentic Australia and genuine Australians—that is, the bush and its inhabitants. While this prescribed framework produced a body of forgettable fiction in the first half of the century, it also brought forth a number of memorable novels that adhered to the tradition but overcame its limitations.

One writer who mastered the bush tradition was Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969). The Black Opal (1921), for example, deals with the rigors of opal mining, while Working Bullocks (1926) depicts the lumber industry. Both are set in Western Australia, and both are politically charged. A dedicated Communist, Prichard saw literature as a way to improve Australia’s social structure. The most admired of her novels, Coonardoo: The Well in the Shadow (1929), examines the tragic encounter between the Aboriginal and the white settler and was one of the first books to treat the Aboriginal in a sympathetic and honest manner. Another writer who took up the conflict between Australia’s white and Aboriginal inhabitants was Xavier Herbert (1901-1984). His first major work, Capricornia (1938), is set in the vast, unsettled Northern Territory and traces the day-to-day lives of its assorted and colorful inhabitants. A...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Birns, Nicholas, and Rebecca McNeer, eds. A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2007. Thirty critical essays are divided into five sections: “Identities,” “Writing Across Time,” “International Reputations,” “Writers and Regions,” and “Beyond the Canon.” Includes discussion of Australian popular writing, science fiction, children’s literature, and gay and lesbian fiction.

Gelder, Kenneth, and Paul Salzman. After the Celebration: Australian Fiction, 1989-2007. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University, 2009. Examines key themes and issues in Australian fiction since 1989, the year of the country’s bicentennial. Topics covered include postcolonial novels, crime fiction, feminist writing, and cultural identity.

Jones, Joseph, and Johanna Jones. Australian Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Surveys the development of Australian fiction and provides an extensive partially annotated bibliography of novels and critical works.

Kossew, Sue. Writing Woman, Writing Place: Contemporary Australian and South African Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2004. Explores the works of women writers in the two former British colonies and how they approach “place, space, and gender.” Among the Australian writers discussed are Kate Jennings, Kate Grenville, and Gillian...

(The entire section is 422 words.)