Cultural Identity in Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Cultural Identity in Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature


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.

Representative Works

Rolf Boldrewood [pseudonym of Thomas Alexander Browne]
Robbery Under Arms (novel) 1882-83
The Miner's Right (novel) 1890

David Burn
Plays and Fugitive Pieces (plays) 1843

Ada Cambridge
The Manor House and Other Poems (poetry) 1875
The Three Miss Kings (novel) 1891

Marcus Clarke
His Natural Life [also published as For the Term of His Natural Life] (novel) 1870-71
The Austral Edition of the Selected Works of Marcus Clarke (short stories) 1890

Charles de Boos
Fifty Years Ago [also published as Settler and Savage] (novel) 1867


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Criticism: Overviews

Geoffrey Serle (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Serle, Geoffrey. “Later Colonial c. 1850-1885.” In From Deserts the Prophets Come: The Creative Spirit in Australia 1788-1972, pp. 31-51. Melbourne: William Heineman, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Serle discusses significant Australian poets and novelists of the late colonial period.]

Judith Wright has discerned a duality which is reflected in a large part of Australian literature: firstly, ‘the reality of exile’; secondly, ‘the reality of newness and freedom’. Australia has been both a society of transplanted Europeans and a new country with a novel contribution to make to the world. The conservative has seen it as a country to escape from or at...

(The entire section is 3465 words.)

Brian Kiernan (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Kiernan, Brian. “Literature, History, and Literary History: Perspectives on the Nineteenth Century in Australia.” In Bards, Bohemians, and Bookmen, edited by Leon Cantrell, pp. 1-18. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Kiernan encapsulates the range of modern views of nineteenth-century Australian literary history.]

To trace the growth of letters in the community, from the earliest period of our history to the present time, and to show in what manner that growth had been influenced by the productions of the Mother Country … would amount to a literary history of the country, and it was hoped that...

(The entire section is 6917 words.)

Harry Heseltine (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Heseltine, Harry. “The Uncertain Self: Notes on the Development of Australian Literary Form.” In Review of National Literatures: Australia, edited by L. A. C. Dobrez, pp. 85-113. New York: Griffin House Publications, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Heseltine comments on Australian prose and poetry of the nineteenth century, noting the persistent theme of personal uncertainty in many of these works.]

What do I know? myself alone,
a gulf of uncreated night,
wherein no star may e'er be shown
save I create it in my might.

Christopher Brennan, Poems [1913], No. 42

On a swing at midnight in the black...

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Criticism: Poetry

P. B. Cox (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: Cox, P. B. “Charles Harpur and the Early Australian Poets, 1810-1860.” Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 25, no. 4 (1939): 249-67.

[In the following essay, Cox discusses several of the most significant Australian poets from the first half of the nineteenth century.]

I am privileged this evening to address you on the subject of “Charles Harpur and the Early Australian Poets.” My talk will cover a period of fifty years, and I propose to deal with all the principal poets within these limits. I shall, therefore, traverse the poetical work in New South Wales from the humble beginnings down to the period of which Gordon, Kendall and Brunton...

(The entire section is 6648 words.)

H. M. Green (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Green, H. M. “Verse, Satire, Drama; Essays and Criticism.” In A History of Australian Literature: Pure and Applied, Volume I, 1789-1923, pp. 98-120. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1961.

[In the following excerpt, Green examines the poetic works of Charles Harpur and summarizes the careers of several lesser Australian poets and verse dramatists.]

[Charles] Harpur's poetry cannot quite be said to belong to the literature of exile. He was not, like other Australian poets of his day,1 a transplanted Englishman, but on the way to becoming an Australian, though he had not got very far: he did his best to throw aside the veil that reading, tradition,...

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Brian Elliott (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Elliott, Brian. “Blue, Burnished Resistance.” In The Landscape of Australian Poetry, pp. 75-99. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Elliott evaluates Adam Lindsay Gordon as the quintessential poet of the Australian colonial landscape.]

Charles Harpur remained always at heart a topographical romantic. He was gratified with typical and illustrative prospects, even though his object was always a native Australian one, never uneasy in its orientation. His landscapes tend to fit into formal frames. Gordon's might well have followed the same pattern but for a particular limiting factor. His eyesight was defective.1 There is...

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Brian Elliott and Adrian Mitchell (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Elliott, Brian, and Adrian Mitchell. Introduction to Bards in the Wilderness: Australian Colonial Poetry to 1920, edited by Brian Elliot and Adrian Mitchell, pp. xv-xxvii. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Elliott and Mitchell define landscape and politics as the two principal subjects of nineteenth-century Australian poetry.]

Poetry is one of the expressions of the community consciousness; in surveying the poetry of Australia to about 1920 we have kept very much in mind the community which produced it, largely a provincial community. The colonial habit of thought was extraordinarily persistent—traces of it are still evident and not...

(The entire section is 5400 words.)

Michael Ackland (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Ackland, Michael. “Crosscurrents, Cross-purposes.” In That Shining Band: A Study of Australian Colonial Verse Tradition, pp. 114-33. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Ackland focuses on Henry Kendall's verse of the 1860s in which the poet thematically recast many of the works of his mentor, Charles Harpur, while offering a deeply pessimistic outlook on matters of faith in his writing.]

Charles Harpur died in June 1868, a bitterly disappointed man, with his meticulously revised poems still awaiting publication, though his work had not been without local admirers. Nicol Stenhouse had given it his discerning...

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Criticism: Fiction

Frederick Sinnett (essay date 1856)

SOURCE: Sinnett, Frederick. “The Fiction Fields of Australia.” In The Writer in Australia: A Collection of Literary Documents 1856 to 1964, edited by John Barnes, pp. 8-32. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1856, Sinnett acknowledges the lack of any first-rate Australian novels by the middle of the nineteenth century but calls Catherine Helen Spence's Clara Morison “the best Australian novel” yet published and offers commentary on Charles Rowcroft's Tales of the Colonies.]


Man can no more do without works of fiction than he can do without clothing, and, indeed, not so...

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Henry Gyles Turner and Alexander Sutherland (essay date 1898)

SOURCE: Turner, Henry Gyles, and Alexander Sutherland. “Fiction.” In The Development of Australian Literature, pp. 78-106. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1898.

[In the following excerpt, Turner and Sutherland present an overview of Australian fiction from the later years of the nineteenth century, including the works of many notable female writers.]

Excluding the numerous Australian stories which have been published in England by writers as yet unknown to fame, many of which may have been written in the Colonies, and leaving out of count the hundreds of stories that began and ended their career in the local magazines and weekly journals, a list of something over...

(The entire section is 7372 words.)

C. Hartley Grattan (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: Grattan, C. Hartley. Australian Literature, pp. 13-29. Seattle: University of Washington Book Store, 1929.

[In the following excerpt, Grattan offers a general assessment of Australian literature and remarks on five outstanding nineteenth-century Australian novels.]


As in all young countries, the culture of Australia is to a very small extent an integral part of the national life. It has not worked itself into the social fabric. It is something tacked on. Something apart. The economic bones of the country protrude themselves. Such cultural life as does exist is almost as unsubstantial as those idealized houses painted on billboards....

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Cecil Hadgraft (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Hadgraft, Cecil. “The Earliest Fiction” and “The Three Themes of Fiction.” In Australian Literature: A Critical Account to 1955, pp. 11-26, 40-52. London: William Heineman, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, Hadgraft reviews the principal Australian novels of the nineteenth century.]


The first novel written in Australia was also printed here—in Hobart in three volumes (1830-1). In this novel, Quintus Servinton. A Tale, Founded upon Incidents of Real Occurrence, its author drew upon his own experiences. He was Henry Savery (1793/4-1842), transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1825. He was a convict...

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Clive Hamer (essay date December 1965)

SOURCE: Hamer, Clive. “The Surrender to Truth in the Early Australian Novel.” Australian Literary Studies 2, no. 2 (December 1965): 103-16.

[In the following essay, Hamer highlights recurrent themes in Australian novels published between 1859 and 1889.]

The period 1859 to 1889 is a distinctive period marking the beginnings of the Australian novel. The first known Australian novel was published in 1830—Quintus Servinton, a tale of convict life written by a convict, Henry Savery—but the first novel of note, written by a novelist of note, was The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), written by Henry Kingsley, who subsequently made a name for...

(The entire section is 5551 words.)

Adrian Mitchell (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Adrian. “Fiction.” In The Oxford History of Australian Literature, edited by Leonie Kramer, pp. 27-172. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Mitchell concentrates on the principal Australian novels written between 1844 and 1889, categorizing most of them as romances and appraising the language, style, plots, and themes in these works.]

James Tucker's Ralph Rashleigh is something of an anomaly in the history of Australian fiction. Written apparently in 1844-45, it was first printed in an abridged and re-written form as a volume of memoirs in 1929, and then published in full in 1952. Since then it has...

(The entire section is 11142 words.)

Joseph Jones and Johanna Jones (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Jones, Joseph, and Johanna Jones. Australian Fiction, pp. 1-15. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Jones and Jones survey convict, settler, and Anglo-Australian fiction prior to 1890.]


In the spring of 1788, the First Fleet of eleven nondescript vessels set sail for New Holland, carrying just under fifteen hundred convicts and their military guards to exactly where, and what, they weren't at all certain. Not many years before this event, it could be said, the English novel had embarked on a voyage equally unforeseeable. To be sure, it had not committed any crimes but was...

(The entire section is 5834 words.)

Michael Wilding (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Wilding, Michael. “‘Weird Melancholy’: Inner and Outer Landscapes in Marcus Clarke's Stories.” In Studies in Classic Australian Fiction, pp. 9-31. Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, 1997.

[In the following essay, Wilding follows the link between Marcus Clarke's descriptions of natural settings and his likely drug-induced exploration of internal landscapes in his short fiction.]

When Hamilton Mackinnon collected Clarke's stories in The Austral Edition of the Selected Works of Marcus Clarke (1890),1 he placed as the first item of the ‘Australian Tales and Sketches’ section two pages entitled ‘Australian...

(The entire section is 8107 words.)

Criticism: The Role Of Women Writers

Delys Bird (essay date October 1983)

SOURCE: Bird, Delys. “Towards an Aesthetics of Australian Women's Fiction: My Brilliant Career and The Getting of Wisdom.Australian Literary Studies 11, no. 2 (October 1983): 171-81.

[In the following essay, Bird presents My Brilliant Career and The Getting of Wisdom as two “incipiently subversive novels” that depict the struggles of women in a society that generally diminishes feminine social value.]

Following the resurgence of the women's rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s in the English speaking world, an explosion of both formal and informal speculation and assertion regarding the ‘difference’ of the feminine, and...

(The entire section is 5477 words.)

Michael Ackland (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Ackland, Michael. “Counterbalancing Doubts.” In That Shining Band: A Study of Australian Colonial Verse Tradition, pp. 93-113. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Ackland analyzes the poetry and prose of Catherine Martin, emphasizing the problematic position of female writers in colonial Australia.]

The problems faced by a woman who was attracted to the highest forms of poetic endeavour are exemplified by the case of Catherine Martin. In a writing career which spanned over fifty years, verse remained a constant preoccupation. Among her earliest works were original poems and translations, and her subsequent fictional...

(The entire section is 9839 words.)

Susan Lever (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Lever, Susan. “The Social Tradition in Australian Women's Poetry.” Women's Writing 5, no. 2 (1998): 229-39.

[In the following excerpt, Lever stresses the public and social role of nineteenth-century poetry by Australian women, noting a general preoccupation with nation-building rather than introspection.]

In the epilogue to her Slip-shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, Germaine Greer reproaches those women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who fell prey to the romantic demand to expose their female suffering in poetry.1 These women—from “L.E.L.” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Anna Wickham and Sylvia...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)

Sharyn Pearce (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Pearce, Sharyn. “The Beginnings: Women and Journalism in the 1880s.” In Shameless Scribblers: Australian Women's Journalism 1880-1995, pp. 1-13. Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Pearce describes the suppressed but significant role of female journalists in late nineteenth-century Australia.]

In Henry Handel Richardson's short story, “The Bathe”, a little Australian girl is about to enter the water:

stripped of her clothing, the child showed the lovely shape of a six-year-old. Just past the dimpled roundnesses of babyhood, the little body stood slim and straight, legs...

(The entire section is 5533 words.)

Further Reading


Sladen, Douglas B. W., ed. Australian Poets 1788-1888: Being a Selection of Poems Upon All Subjects Written in Australia and New Zealand During the First Century of the British Colonization. New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1890, 612 p.

Reprints selections from the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall, and many others, preceded by an introduction that deals mainly with Kendall and Gordon.


Miller, E. Morris. Australian Literature From Its Beginnings to 1935: A Descriptive and Bibliographical Survey of Books by Australian Authors in Poetry, Drama, Fiction, Criticism, and...

(The entire section is 1362 words.)