Cultural Identity in Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Cultural Identity in Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature

Australia was a British colony from 1788 to 1901, and during this period settlers from Europe slowly began to define themselves as a people with a distinct national identity, reflected in the literature they produced. Initially, Australian writers relied on literary models borrowed from European, and especially British, sources. This cultural dependence was also reflected in the economic life of Australia, as those who held arable land, called squatters, emulated the landed aristocracy in England. The result was the creation of a social divide between the privileged landowners and the lower classes—migrants, laborers, and especially convicts, the first Australian colonists, who had been transported to British penal settlements on the continent's eastern coast. As the years passed, convict and settler narratives appeared, as did scattered lyrics and ballads composed by amateur poets. Nonetheless, critics lamented the perceived lack of any first-rate literature by Australians during the first half of the nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, poet Charles Harpur had begun to versify the unique qualities of Australia's landscape. Meanwhile, as Harpur mastered his poetic voice in the 1850s, Henry Kingsley, an Englishman and brother to noted novelist and clergyman Charles Kingsley, traveled through the colony, eventually writing and publishing a work that critics later deemed the first truly distinguished piece of Australian fiction. Kingsley's 1859 novel, The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn, was immensely influential and proved, as Harpur's verse had done, that Australia could provide an acceptable subject for serious literature.

The ensuing decades witnessed the peak of Australian colonial writing. Henry Kendall, the successor to Harpur as Australia's most outstanding poet, and the popular Adam Gordon Lindsay continued to expand their country's verse tradition. Concurrently, developments in the publication of fiction persisted, and while most of what was written was intended for popular audiences, a few innovative works, such as Marcus Clarke's convict novel His Natural Life (1870-71) and Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms (1882-83), appeared in domestic periodicals. Despite such accomplishments, Australian writers, still under the colonial influence of England, seemed unable to express a comprehensive sense of their unique cultural identity. By the early 1880s, fiction and verse in the colonial idiom were largely exhausted, and Australian literature entered a new phase marked by a stirring of national sentiment. A weekly periodical called the Bulletin appeared in Sydney and within a few years began to dominate the Australian literary scene. The rise of the Bulletin coincided with the end of the colonial period and heralded the golden age of literary nationalism in the 1890s, a phase that extended into the twentieth century and the era of the new Australian commonwealth.

Many critics have commented on the multitude of difficulties that faced the would-be poet in early colonial Australia. Little support existed, either economic or social, for literature in a land where many still struggled for daily survival. Furthermore, the development of a significant reading public was still decades away. Nevertheless, Australia produced a handful of early, amateur poets. Barron Field designated himself the earliest with his First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819), a slim volume initially containing just two blank verse poems, “Botany Bay Flowers” and “The Kangaroo,” although it was later expanded to comprise six. William Charles Wentworth, otherwise known for his historical study of New South Wales, became Field's successor by publishing his patriotic and celebratory ode “Australasia” in 1823. Another early Australian, Charles Thompson, produced the first full collection of indigenous verse, entitled Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel (1826). Nevertheless, Thompson's poetry was largely imitative of works by English writers.

In Charles Harpur Australia witnessed the rise of its first poet of exemplary merit. Harpur's early volume, Thoughts (1845), contains twenty-two love sonnets. His more significant poetry appeared in The Bushrangers, A Play in Five Acts and Others Poems (1853). While the title work is considered by critics to be of little account, the book also contains such poems as “The Creek of the Four Graves” and “A Poet's Home,” both of which are regarded as descriptive pieces that vividly evoke the Australian landscape. Scholars agree that such mid-century examples of Harpur's work demonstrate the poet at his best in dealing with Australian subjects, whereas his later works, such as the dream-like “The Witch Hebron” and “The Tower of the Dream” (both of which appear in Harpur's Collected Poems of 1883) lack the structural and expressive elegance of his earlier poetry. Usually designated as the most talented poet of nineteenth-century Australia, Henry Kendall was a great admirer of Harpur who reworked a number of his mentor's lyrics into his own more pessimistic and spiritually uncertain idiom. His work is, nonetheless, seen as very much in the tradition of English Romantic poetry. In addition, although Kendall did occasionally evoke the landscape of coastal New South Wales in the descriptive lyrics of his collection Leaves from Australian Forests (1869), his verses more frequently call upon classic sources for inspiration and subject matter. Deemed more popular as a poet than Kendall or Harpur, Adam Lindsay Gordon excelled in the form of the ballad and celebrated the varied Australian landscape in his lyric verse. Among his literary peers, Gordon was regarded as the representative poet of Australia. Most critics cite the pictorial vistas of “The Sick Stockrider” as a gauge of Gordon's descriptive talent. This piece was collected in a volume whose title suggests Gordon's overall poetic output, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, which was published in 1870, the same year he took his own life.

Regarding fiction, critics acknowledge that Australian colonial writing typically exhibits one or more of three common subjects: the status of the convict, the romance of the pastoral way of life, and the difficulty of existence in the Australian interior, idomatically termed the “bush.” Henry Savery's Quintus Servinton (1830-31), the first extant Australian novel, falls into the foremost category. The work's subtitle, “A Tale, Founded upon Incidents of Real Occurrence,” is indicative of the typically semi-autobiographical character of the convict narratives produced in the first several decades of the Australian colonial period. Beyond its distinction as the earliest example of a work by an Australian novelist, critics have commented on little more than the narrative's melodramatic qualities. A much better realized convict tale, James Tucker's picaresque The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh, written between 1844 and 1845, recounts the exploits of an English outlaw who, after settling in Australia, escapes into the bush and lives with Aboriginal peoples. Later, he earns his pardon by protecting a white woman. In the work, Tucker offers a look at the appalling conditions suffered by convicts and the devastating psychological effects of such treatment.

Turning to the second major theme of early Australian fiction, Henry Kingsley's pastoral novel The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn is the work that set the subsequent pattern for the colonial novel of Australia. A family saga of the Buckleys, Brentwoods, and Thorntons, it features a selection of what have become the common themes of this subgenre of Australian fiction: attacks by marauding Aborigines, uncontrollable bushfires, confrontations with unscrupulous bushrangers, and a child lost in the wilderness. Following a scheme similar to that of Geoffrey Hamlyn, Kingsley's next Australian novel, The Hillyars and the Burtons (1865), is likewise a family chronicle. Among the most compelling of Australian colonial novels, Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life (sometimes called by its later title For the Term of His Natural Life) was published serially during 1870 and 1871. A lengthy and commanding study of the Australian convict system, the work depicts the brutality of existence in a Tasmanian penal settlement in 1827 and attests to Clarke's profound understanding of his topic. A journalist by trade, Clarke described the process of psychological hardening that occurs in those subjected to daily brutality. The work is cited as a masterpiece of nineteenth-century Australian convict fiction. Clarke's short fiction, gathered in The Austral Edition of the Selected Works of Marcus Clarke (1890), is also noteworthy for its section of “Australian Tales and Sketches,” which feature vivid landscape descriptions as well as character portraits. Far more prolific than Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood (the pen-name of Thomas Alexander Browne) produced a number of essays, memoirs, short stories, and a series of eighteen novels, including Robbery Under Arms, which was published serially in 1882 and 1883 (a single volume version appeared in 1888). The novel is primarily distinguished for its use of the first-person point of view. Its narrator, Dick Marston, a bushranger and cattle-stealer, takes to his life of crime with a colloquial, Australian bravado. Marston is set against Starlight, a somewhat older, more refined, and conventional heroic figure who is not as striking as Marston but nevertheless is well-realized in this adventurous tale.

While several overlapping areas of interest are apparent in works of fiction by Australian male and female writers, many critics have tended to focus on the social concerns of the latter. The nineteenth-century scholar Frederick Sinnett, who published the first significant survey of Australian fiction three years before the appearance of Kingsley's Geoffrey Hamlyn, singled out Catherine Helen Spence's 1854 Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia during the Gold Fever as “the best Australian novel” he had yet encountered. In this work, Spence describes the natural behavior, manners, and customs of Australians as she presents the story of a young Englishwoman who emigrates to Adelaide in the gold rush era. Rosa Campbell Praed, an Australian native who abandoned her homeland for Europe in the mid-1870s, was a prolific writer of novels. Among them, Policy and Passion (or Longleat of Koralbyn, as it was subsequently retitled), an 1881 work, rises above the formulaic level of much of her later fiction. The novel studies the intersection between social and personal desires by describing the life of Longleat, a politician unashamed of his convict past who nevertheless compromises his integrity by falling in love with an opponent's wife. Among the more popular female writers of the late colonial period, ‘Tasma’ (the pseudonym of Jessie Couvreur) likewise withdrew to Europe. Her witty social portrait, Uncle Piper of Piper's Hill (1889), is set among Australia's privileged classes and is generally regarded by critics as her best work. Ada Cambridge, the author of nineteen novels, including The Three Miss Kings (1891), also wrote verse exemplifying her uncompromising stance on a number of contemporary social issues. Another writer of more serious prose fiction and socially conscious poetry, Catherine Martin assailed the symbolically linked subjects of faith and the journey of exploration to inland Australia in her The Explorers and Other Poems (1874). Rather than offering introspective meditation, Martin's verses question the public and cultural consequences of religious uncertainty.