The Australian Novel #
Australians have been uncertain of ourselves, we felt insecure. What was the cause of this? … First … geography, the hostile environment, the fear experienced when alone; far from Europe. Second, the doubt, do we belong here, perhaps this is geography, perhaps history … third, Australia as the harlot, raped by the Europeans, coarse, vulgar, meretricious. We suffer from cultural cringe.
Cultural cringe: #
Most colonial outposts are conditioned to believe themselves as inferior to their colonisers - why else were they colonised?
(Arthur Angell) Phillips, coined the term “cultural cringe” in a 1950 copy of Meanjin, Phillips used the term ‘cultural cringe’ to define the penchant for Australians to see their artists and writers’ work as inferior to anything from overseas, Britain and the United States in particular.
Combined with the tall poppy syndrome, this tends to reinforce a subservient attitude to superior cultures. Both Canadian, Australian and American artists felt they needed to make it in Europe or Britain in order to gain stature.
Tom Keneally claims until the 1970’s Australians saw themselves as a colonial people, inferior to others. We were the best in the world at soldiering, wool breeding and cricket. We were a young settler society on the oldest continent with the oldest civilization in the world.
Much of this has changed over time, and it has been our artists; painters, writers, musicians and politicians who have instilled a greater sense of identity and pride in ourselves. Much of the credit for this must go to the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 and his forging of a bold more progressive and positive mind set. The greatest progress in all areas came between 1972 and 1996, when little Johnny Howard decided to take us back to the smug 1950’s.
Originally, in 1788, the official position was that the colony should be a multi-purpose one as a penal colony, a strategic, free settler outpost, and an opportunity to acquire flax for sails and Norfolk pines for mast posts.
However, there developed two cultures and visions for the early colonies.
One, saw us as simply a colonial outpost of British civilisation located in Asia. We were a “new Britannia in another world”. Our political institutions, culture, symbols, flags, national anthems, and history were British to the bootstraps.
The other, attempted to foster a new society based on distinctive national interest and values promoting a classless society. Guess who won.
Camilla Nelson contends, The Age of Criticism, Martin Amis wrote, started with the publication of F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition – the book that, more than any other, is synonymous with a narrow and elitist English canon. For the Leavisites, literature was a depository of shared human values – of “felt life”. For the intellectuals of the New Left, it was a potent source of social-cultural arguments.
Either way, Literature – not writing, or English, or textual studies, but big “L” literature – was the central cultural formation around which everything turned. Until, that is, the Age of Criticism ended abruptly in the global stagflation of the early 1970s. And all the hippyish young men – and let’s make it clear, they were invariably men – discovered that literature was “one of the many leisure-class fripperies”, as Amis puts it, that the world could do without.
By the end of the 70s, literary criticism crawled back into the academy to contemplate its own death – or worse, its own irrelevance. In the public imagination, literature gave way to film, television and music, and, subsequently, the rise of the Internet, as central repositories of cultural meaning.
Inside the universities, literature through the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be losing relevance. The words on the page were suddenly insufficient. The study of writing gave way to the study of Ideology and the study of Theory.
As intellectual ventures, then, deconstruction and reconstruction were long overdue. The canon is, after all, a fiercely contested body of work that scholars – for one fiercely contested reason or another – have decided was influential in shaping the history of western culture. If one way to define the canon is “what gets taught”, then it became clear that “what gets taught” had to change. Camilla Nelson Senior Lecturer in Writing, University of Notre Dame Australia. The Conversation
Craig McGregor was another one who wrote about the great Australian stupor; satirising the modern Australian man’s conformity to a stereotype; that of a vapid predictable routine and sterile existence. He unthinkingly or blindly conforms to a life devoid of meaning. Subsiding from spiritual transcendence we soon degenerate to the sterile, mundane and moral aridity of modern man’s values and aspirations. Instead of yearning for moral enlightenment or heavenly paradise, we attempt to create it here through rampant materialism and indulgent hedonism.
“Behold the man - the Australian man of today - on Sunday mornings in the suburbs, when the high-decibel drone of the motor mower is calling the faithful to worship. A block of land, a brick veneer, and the motor-mower beside him in the wilderness - what more does he want to sustain him, except a Holden to polish, a beer with the boys, marital sex on Saturday nights, a few furtive adulteries, an occasional gamble on the horses or the lottery, the tribal rituals of football, the flickering shadows in his lounge room of cops and robbers, goodies and baddies, guys and dolls?”
What is the function (purpose) of the passage? b) Is the level of usage appropriate? c) What is the pattern of organization of ideas in the passage. d) What rhetorical techniques of sentence construction and style are used? e) To what extent does the passage use connotative language (overtones/undertones) or figures of speech?
One obvious dichotomy between writer and reader is the melancholy, even despairing view contrasted by the reader’s cheerful acceptance of the place, blowflies, dullness and all. Gloom and outright hostility induced by Australia has been an enduring theme from Gordon, Clarke, Kendall, Harpur, Boake, Lawson, Baynton, Brennan, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, Xavier Herbert, Patrick White. In some the love-hate relationship seesaws, in some there is a fear and distrust of the land itself, in others a love betrayed by crass Australians.
Bruce Dawe is another writer who attempts to depict the vacuity of the laid back common man in his poems - especially enter without so much as knocking, and homo surburbensis.
The film Nightingale reinforces the ugly brutality of the age.
Tasmania is the site of possibly the worst attempted extirpation of Indigenous people in the history of Australia. And the human suffering that is inflicted in one of the most brutal convict prisons in the colonial era, Port Arthur, built with forced labour, housing boys as young as nine, with those who died taken over the sea to the Isle of the Dead and an unmarked grave. The ruins of the place still draw tens of thousands of tourists every year. The “ghost tours”, the website apologetically informs us, are heavily booked until the end of May.
The tradition of literature that qualifies as Tasmanian Gothic goes back to Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life in 1874, and continues to this day. Editors later added the For the Term.
Ironically Port Arthur was the site chosen for Australia’s largest mass shooting in 1996.
Marcus Clarke #
As a forced immigrant, (his parents died early and he was sent to live with an uncle who was a judge), Clarke became a newspaper reporter and a librarian st Victoria’s State Library, when he was sent to Tasmania to research and write about Port MacArthur where he fashioned this gothic tale. The serialised version ran from 1870 – 72 with the full novel published in 1874. Instead of returning to England as a pardoned convict, in the novel, he remains a convict and dies at sea.
Based on typical novels of his time, it hinges on long dialogues, some coincidental circumstances, fused modalities of realistic documentary style descriptions, creative fiction and fully resolved tying down loose ends - bedding down.
Wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit, a young aristocrat, Richard Devine, is sent to pay his dues in Van Diemen’s Land. As a criminal in this new colony, Rufus Dawes is forced to endure tremendous suffering and inhumanity, from the inhumane cruelty of those in power to the harsh brutalities of an untamed country.
Relating the intricate and savage interplay between the gaolers and the gaoled, Marcus Clarke weaves the tragic tale of his wrongfully convicted hero Rufus Dawes. This unforgettable account of the barbarous days of early white settlement has at its heart the enduring belief in the strength of the human spirit and the capacity for love to overcome adversity.
It illustrates how the brutal treatment of convicts can turn them into savages, however Dawes love for Dora saves him from that fate. Clarke’s fiction account is credible and shows how power controls narratives. When he is marooned with Lieutenant Frere, Mrs Vickers and her daughter Dora, he becomes Crusoe, builds a hut and a boat to effect their escape to saftey. However, when Mrs Vickers dies, and Dora’s coma causes her to lose her memory, the authoritarian Frere’s official story of him being the hero and Dawe a villain is accepted and Dawe is put back in chains. Each step, from Macquarie Harbour to Port Arthur, to Norfolk Island, is a regressive decent from England until the ascent to Victoria where the wilderness becomes a more natural prison and slowly Dawes regains his humanity. If Australia has one place where ghosts should walk it is Port Arthur. There are ruins enough here; an atmosphere of violence and decay; almost too many remembrances of human suffering. George Farwell, 1965
Relating the intricate and savage interplay between the gaolers and the gaoled, Marcus Clarke weaves the tragic tale of his wrongfully convicted hero Rufus Dawes. This unforgettable account of the barbarous days of early white settlement has at its heart the enduring belief in the strength of the human spirit and the capacity for love to overcome adversity.
Brian Matthews of the Australian Book Review comments:
For the Term of His Natural Life was written not to inveigh against a wrong already righted – what would have been the point? – but as a work of the imagination on crime and punishment, the vagaries of fate, the power of love and guilt, the depths of inhumanity and, as Michael Wilding has pointed out, the antipodean reversal of English social order.
Brian Elliott described it as ‘the one work of fiction produced in the whole first century of Australia’s history to justify description as monumental’.
I have endeavoured in “His Natural Life” to set forth the working and the results of an English system of transportation carefully considered and carried out under official supervision; and to illustrate in the manner best calculated, as I think, to attract general attention, the inexpediency of again allowing offenders against the law to be herded together in places remote from the wholesome influence of public opinion, and to be submitted to a discipline which must necessarily depend for its just administration upon the personal character and temper of their gaolers.
Yet little more than 100 years later, much the same conditions apply in our asylum seeker facilities, and many of our jails and youth detention centres.
Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Rufus Dawes was transported to New South Wales
The vagabond was acquitted of the murder, but condemned to death for the robbery, and London, who took some interest in the trial, considered him fortunate when his sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
for in a convict ship the greatest villain is the greatest hero,
THE TOPOGRAPHY OF VAN DIEMEN’S LAND.
The south-east coast of Van Diemen’s Land, from the solitary Mewstone to the basaltic cliffs of Tasman’s Head, from Tasman’s Head to Cape Pillar, and from Cape Pillar to the rugged grandeur of Pirates’ Bay, resembles a biscuit at which rats have been nibbling. Eaten away by the continual action of the ocean which, pouring round by east and west, has divided the peninsula from the mainland of the Australasian continent—and done for Van Diemen’s Land what it has done for the Isle of Wight—the shore line is broken and ragged. Viewed upon the map, the fantastic fragments of island and promontory which lie scattered between the South-West Cape and the greater Swan Port, are like the curious forms assumed by melted lead spilt into water. If the supposition were not too extravagant, one might imagine that when the Australian continent was fused, a careless giant upset the crucible, and spilt Van Diemen’s land in the ocean. The coast navigation is as dangerous as that of the Mediterranean.
Furious gales and sudden tempests affright the natives of the coast. Navigation is dangerous, and the entrance to the “Hell’s Gates” of Macquarie Harbour—at the time of which we are writing (1833), in the height of its ill-fame as a convict settlement—is only to be attempted in calm weather. The sea-line is marked with wrecks. The sunken rocks are dismally named after the vessels they have destroyed. ….
The convicts were lodged on Sarah Island, in barracks flanked by a two-storied prison, whose “cells” were the terror of the most hardened. Each morning they received their breakfast of porridge, water, and salt, and then rowed, under the protection of their guard, to the wood-cutting stations, where they worked without food, until night. The launching and hewing of there), and a plank stuck into the earth, and carved with the initials of the deceased, was the only monument vouchsafed him.
Colonel Arthur, late Governor of Honduras, had arrived at a most critical moment. The former Governor, Colonel Sorrell, was a man of genial temperament, but little strength of character. He was, moreover, profligate in his private life; and, encouraged by his example, his officers violated all rules of social decency. It was common for an officer to openly keep a female convict as his mistress. Not only would compliance purchase comforts, but strange stories were afloat concerning the persecution of women who dared to choose their own lovers. To put down this profligacy was the first care of Arthur; and in enforcing a severe attention to etiquette and outward respectability, he perhaps erred on the side of virtue. Honest, brave, and high-minded, he was also penurious and cold, and the ostentatious good humour of the colonists dashed itself in vain against his polite indifference. In opposition to this official society created by Governor Arthur was that of the free settlers and the ticket-of-leave men. The latter were more numerous than one would be apt to suppose. On the 2nd November, 1829, thirty-eight free pardons and fifty-six conditional pardons appeared on the books; and the number of persons holding tickets-of-leave, on the 26th of September the same year, was seven hundred and forty-five.
Of the social condition of these people at this time it is impossible to speak without astonishment. According to the recorded testimony of many respectable persons-Government officials, military officers, and free settlers-the profligacy of the settlers was notorious. Drunkenness was a prevailing vice. Even children were to be seen in the streets intoxicated. On Sundays, men and women might be observed standing round the public-house doors, waiting for the expiration of the hours of public worship, in order to continue their carousing.
In the factory—a prison for females—the vilest abuses were committed, while the infamies current, as matters of course, in chain gangs and penal settlements, were of too horrible a nature to be more than hinted at here. All that the vilest and most bestial of human creatures could invent and practise, was in this unhappy country invented and practised without restraint and without shame.
Seven classes of criminals were established in 1826, when the new barracks for prisoners at Hobart Town were finished. The first class were allowed to sleep out of barracks, and to work for themselves on Saturday; the second had only the last-named indulgence; the third were only allowed Saturday afternoon; the fourth and fifth were “refractory and disorderly characters—to work in irons;” the sixth were “men of the most degraded and incorrigible character—to be worked in irons, and kept entirely separate from the other prisoners;” were drowned, eight killed accidentally, three shot by the soldiers, and twelve murdered by their comrades. In 1822, one while the seventh were the refuse of this refuse—the murderers, bandits, and villains, whom neither chain nor lash could tame. They were regarded as socially dead, and shipped to Hell’s Gates, or Maria Island. Hells Gates was the most dreaded of all these houses of bondage. The discipline at the place was so severe, and the life so terrible, that prisoners would risk all to escape from it. In one year, of eighty-five deaths there, only thirty were from natural causes; of the remaining dead, twenty-seven hundred and sixty-nine men out of one hundred and eighty-two were punished to the extent of two thousand lashes.
Successfully to transport the remnant of this desperate band of doubly-convicted felons to Arthur’s new prison, was the mission of Maurice Frere.
He was sitting by the empty fire-place, with one leg carelessly thrown over the other, entertaining the company with his usual indifferent air. The six years that had passed since his departure from England had given him a sturdier frame and a fuller face. His hair was coarser, his face redder, and his eye more hard, but in demeanour he was little changed. Sobered he might be, and his voice had acquired that decisive, insured tone which a voice exercised only in accents of command invariably acquires, but his bad qualities were as prominent as ever. His five years’ residence at Maria Island had increased that brutality of thought, and overbearing confidence in his own importance, for which he had been always remarkable, but it had also given him an assured air of authority, which covered the more unpleasant features of his character. He was detested by the prisoners—as he said, “it was a word and a blow with him”—but, among his superiors, he passed for an officer, honest and painstaking, though somewhat bluff and severe.
……… “Why don’t you flog ’em?” says Frere, lighting his pipe in the gloom. “By George, sir, I cut the hides off my fellows if they show any nonsense!”
“Well,” says Vickers, “I don’t care about too much cat myself. Barton, who was here before me, flogged tremendously, but I don’t think it did any good. They tried to kill him several times. You remember those twelve fellows who were hung? No! Ah, of course, you were away.”
“What do you do with ’em?”
“Oh, flog the worst, you know; but I don’t flog more than a man a week, as a rule, and never more than fifty lashes. They’re getting quieter now. Then we iron, and dumb-cells, and maroon them.”
“Give them solitary confinement on Grummet Island. When a man gets very bad, we clap him into a boat with a week’s provisions and pull him over to Grummet. There are cells cut in the rock, you see, and the fellow pulls up his commissariat after him, and lives there by himself for a month or so. It tames them wonderfully.”
“Does it?” said Frere. “By Jove! it’s a capital notion. I wish I had a place of that sort at Maria.”
When I first went to Maria I was dreadfully bored, but one soon gets used to it. There is a sort of satisfaction to me, by George, in keeping the scoundrels in order. I like to see the fellows’ eyes glint at you as you walk past ’em. Gad, they’d tear me to pieces, if they dared, some of ’em!” and he laughed grimly, as though the hate he inspired was a thing to be proud of.
As he (Gabbett) sat there gloomily chewing, he was a spectacle to shudder at. Not so much on account of his natural hideousness, increased a thousand-fold by the tattered and filthy rags which barely covered him. Not so much on account of his unshaven jaws, his hare-lip, his torn and bleeding feet, his haggard cheeks, and his huge, wasted frame. Not only because, looking at the animal, as he crouched, with one foot curled round the other, and one hairy arm pendant between his knees, he was so horribly unhuman, that one shuddered to think that tender women and fair children must, of necessity, confess to fellowship of kind with such a monster. But also because, in his slavering mouth, his slowly grinding jaws, his restless fingers, and his bloodshot, wandering eyes, there lurked a hint of some terror more awful than the terror of starvation—a memory of a tragedy played out in the gloomy depths of that forest which had vomited him forth again; and the shadow of this unknown horror, clinging to him, repelled and disgusted, as though he bore about with him the reek of the shambles.
“Come,” said Vickers, “Let us go back. I shall have to flog him again, I suppose. Oh, this place! No wonder they call it ‘Hell’s Gates’.”
Dawes later assserts:
We convicts have an advantage over you gentlemen. You are afraid of death; we pray for it. It is the best thing that can happen to us.
Maurice Frere is attacked by Sarah Purfoy: after a futile appeal for the life of John Rex, her husband.
“You! Who are you, that you dare to speak to me like that? His little finger is worth your whole body. He is a man, a brave man, not a coward, like you. A coward! Yes, a coward! a coward! A coward! You are very brave with defenceless men and weak women. You have beaten me until I was bruised black, you cur; but who ever saw you attack a man unless he was chained or bound? Do not I know you? I have seen you taunt a man at the triangles, until I wished the screaming wretch could get loose, and murder you as you deserve! You will be murdered one of these days, Maurice Frere—take my word for it. Men are flesh and blood, and flesh and blood won’t endure the torments you lay on it!”
On Dawe’s first escape
Rufus Dawes was no longer the brutalized wretch who had plunged into the dark waters of the bay to escape a life he loathed, and had alternately cursed and wept in the solitudes of the forests. He was an active member of society—a society of four—and he began to regain an air of independence and authority. This change had been wrought by the influence of little Sylvia. Recovered from the weakness consequent upon this terrible journey, Rufus Dawes had experienced for the first time in six years the soothing power of kindness. He had now an object to live for beyond himself.
In her wild, fierce beauty and passionate abandonment she (Sarah Purfoy) might have been a deserted Ariadne—a suppliant Medea. Anything rather than what she was—a dissolute, half-maddened woman, praying for the pardon of her convict husband. (To an insouciant Commandant Frere).
After a series of brutalising incarcerations with hard labour in Hell’s Gates, Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur and Norfolk Island, Rufus Dawes managed to gain his freedom, becomes reconciled with his long love Sylvia and in the serialised version returns to England. In the final version of the Novel, the title is changed to the full version, and Rufus Dawes dies at sea.
Henry Lawson #
The six Joe Wilson stories are the closest Lawson came to writing a novel.
Joseph Furphy - Such is Life #
Joseph Furphy (1843-1912), writer, son of Samuel Furphy, a tenant farmer, and his wife Judith, née Hare, who had migrated from Northern Ireland in 1841. Joseph was educated by his mother who introduced him at an early age to the Bible and Shakespeare. He married 16 year old Leonie Selina Germain, of French descent at Daylesford, in 1867. His wife was to remain an enigma to him and a mystery to both her contemporaries and to later observers of the human scene.
He was ultimately a failed farmer at Kyneton and later bullock driver in the Riverina district of New South Wales.
Nature had planted in him a vast fund of cheery optimism. All his life he was a stranger to the pessimism and the melancholy which weighed down Henry Lawson and other bush writers. During his years in the Riverina his literary talents blossomed in the long, bantering, half-humorous, letters which he wrote to his mother.
By then he was a self-professed believer in the gospel of work, self-discipline and self-education. In conversations with his fellow bullock-drivers out on the Lachlan Plains, and in the district round Hay he began to have the ‘vision splendid’. It was to be a more serious-minded, non-Dionysian view of the fate of being a man in Australia. Furphy spurned the wild drinking-bouts with which the itinerant bushworkers consoled themselves for being deprived of creature comforts, and a woman’s tender care. He was never the Bohemian either of the heart or the bar-room in the bush shanty. When his fellow bullock-drivers drank deeply of the waters of stupefaction Furphy was reading by a slush lamp in a tent pitched by some river bank on those inhospitable plains. His relations with his wife became even more tenuous.
He was changing slowly from the cheery optimist into the self-taught man who believed he had a message for his fellow Australians. He had acquired some of the doctrine he would preach when the time came to put pen to paper. He shared the Psalmists’ condemnation of putting money upon usury. He went further and chided himself for making too much money. He seemed to accept the Pauline teaching that the love of money was the root of much evil. He told his father in February 1882 that the man who pursued money had made a ‘compact with the evil one’. At the same time he preached the benefits of temperance to the bushworkers. While the Bohemians of the Bulletin were looking into the wine cup when it was red, Furphy was counselling remittance men and others out on the plains of desolation who had been ‘imbibing the accursed thing for about a week’ to promise to abstain until at least the following Sunday.
Furphy read voraciously in an endeavour to find the meaning of life and the probable future of society in Australia. From the few of his observations which have survived from that period he emerges as a man who did not whine, or wail, scowl or snarl. He had a religion. He called it a proud, humane religion that had no Thirty-nine Articles or surpliced flummery about it. He saw himself as a kind-hearted man. His friends said of him at the time that a kinder-hearted man never aimed a hammer at an anvil, or thrust a pen at an ink-bottle.
In 1867 the Kyneton Literary Society had awarded him the first prize for some verses on the death of President Lincoln. It was perhaps significant that he should have taken as his principal character a man of heroic proportions, and a moralist. For Furphy was by nature a prophet, albeit a very humorous prophet denouncing the sins of the members of his own generation. In January 1893 he wrote to a friend about ’the hideous depression brought on by the unbridled greed of vile men in high places’. By then he was contributing stories and sketches to the Bulletin.
He told a friend, Kate Baker that the only duty he recognized both in his life and in his writing was ’the very momentous one of forwarding the New Order’.
At the end of March 1897 he wrote the last words of the manuscript:
Such is life, my fellow-mummers—just like a poor player that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity. But let me not hear any small witticism to the further effect that its story is a tale told by a vulgarian, full of slang and blanky, signifying—nothing.
Using the pen-name ‘Tom Collins,’ Furphy believed he had written a moral for his age and, he hoped, a moral for all times and places about the human situation. Like all great confessions about life it had come out of his own experiences, as a bullock-driver in the Riverina.
The first response by Stephens summed up what subsequent readers were to find.
Rather long-winded, yet Such is Life is good. It seems fit to me to become an Australian classic, or semi-classic, since it embalms accurate representations of our character and customs, life and scenery which in so skilled and methodical a form occur in no other book I know. I think the book ought to be published and would find a sale.
Stephens offered to edit the work for Furphy.
When Furphy arrived in Sydney to discuss publication, the Bohemians of the Bulletin found him a very naive man. An anonymous wit published this description of him
Who never drinks and never bets
And loves his wife and pays his debts,
And feels content with what he gets.
While the Bohemians of Sydney were mocking at conventional morality Furphy was writing high-minded letters to his mother about the ‘possible righteousness of the human race’, or telling her that ’the day of carousal’ was past, and ’the day of work’ had begun.
What is clear is that Furphy held very passionate opinions on human behaviour in Australia. He had called his work ‘offensively Australian’. He certainly believed in the virtues and capacities of the Australian bushman. He believed in a meritocracy: ‘I acknowledge no aristocracy except one of service and self-sacrifice, in which he that is chief shall be servant, and he that is greatest of all, servant of all’. He believed in moral enlightenment. He believed that by a blending of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount and the Enlightenment, humanity would move out of the darkness in to the light. He believed that by such moral persuasion a good time would come for the whole of humanity.
Excerpts from: Manning Clark, from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8 , 1981
D.H. Lawrence found a lack of declarations of love that flaws Australian Literature; towards each other and of the country. He also commented similarly on a “happy-go-lucky, don’t worry, we’re in Australia”, the country where there seemed to be “no inside life of any sort, just a lapse and drift”. Australia, a land of pleasure and hedonism.
A.G. Stevens, an editor of the Bulletin blamed Henry Lawson’s lack of love on his Englishness, “he was one of us but not of us”.
Much the same was said of Joseph Furphy; “he was with us, but he was not one of us”.
Ned Kelly #
A cultural icon, Australia’s most durable antihero. - bushranger or honourable freedom fighter?
Kelly captured the nation’s attention for many years with several books, novels, films and documentaries.
The 1906 Ned Kelly Film
Known as the Tait Brothers, this is believed to be the first feature film over an hour, in the world.
Other silent films versions were The Kelly Gang (1920), When the Kellys Were Out (1923).
In 1934, another film, When the Kellys Rode and in 1951, The Glenrowan Affair.
1970 saw Mick Jagger, against protest, play our national hero in Ned Kelly.
That was redeemed when we had Heath Ledger portray him in 2003.
The latest one, based on Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, is not based on the truth at all. But then most history is based more on myth than reality. There are so many variable colourful stories about Ned Kelly, it is impossible to get to the real truth.
Carey drew on the Jerilderie Letter, a long rambling memoir-cum-manifesto that Ned Kelly wrote or dictated in 1878 or 1879.
Australians like to make heroes of ordinary people.
We can’t seem to have an intelligent conversation about Kelly’s place and identity … We seem to have this strange, awkward relationship with him, and not an honest one.
The Kelly legend stalks the national psyche like no other, makes the point that perhaps white Australians don’t want to look past him, to the dispossession of Indigenous Australians and their ancient stewardship of the land.
“It’s always been interesting to me why we get so hung up about our history being this man and how we work so hard to define it in this man, in a way that is favourable or not,” says Kurzel. “He was a 25-year-old guy. But what about the unbelievable history that came before settlement?”
The Jerilderie Letter, Ned Kelly
The “Jerilderie Letter”, a 56-page manifesto-cum-confession written by the bushranger while on the lam from authorities in 1879, is a document whose naive poetry, rhetorical grandiosity and punctuation-free flow make it uniquely amenable to the visual grammar of film. It was not published until 1930
“Dear Sir, I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future.”
This is how infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly began what has become known as the Jerilderie letter, or his confessions. Alongside his statement made to the police after his arrest, this is the only other document in which we hear his own words. The Kelly gang were active between 1878 and 1880.
“But by the light that shines pegged on an ant bed with their bellies opened their fat taken out rendered and poured down their throat boiling hot, will be fool to what pleasure I will give some of them and any person aiding or harbouring or assisting the police in any way whatever or employing any person whom they know to be a detective or cad or those who would be so depraved as to take blood money will be outlawed and declared unfit to be allowed human burial their property either consumed or confiscated and them and theirs and all belonging to them exterminated of the face of the earth”.
On the 25th June 1880 the gang executed a former friend and ally turned police informer Aaron Sherritt. Ned’s father was an Irishman, John ‘Red’ Kelly who, at the age of twenty-two, was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for stealing two pigs from his native County Tipperary in 1841. After his release in 1848, he married Ellen Quinn, the daughter herself of Irish immigrants. They went on to have eight children with Kelly being the third. His father died in his mid-forties shortly after being released from another stint of hard labour. This time the six months captivity seems to have wrought damage on his health, leading to his death.
When he was around 14 Kelly was arrested after a disagreement over a horse. The Jerilderie letter proclaims his innocence of this and future crimes that marked his teenage years.
“Ned said they’ll never bring me to my knees”
This runs alongside the undercurrent of anti-British sentiment that was nourished in the colony. The language and imagery of the Irish man living under British colonialism finds expression in the letter.
“I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victorian Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army and no doubt they will acknowledge their hounds were barking at the wrong stump and that Fitzpatrick will be the cause of greater slaughter to the Union Jack than Saint Patrick was to the snakes and toads in Ireland, The Queen of England was as guilty as Baumgarten and Kennedy, Williamson and Skillion of what they were convicted for”.
“What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishmen that has got command army forts of her batterys even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish would they not slew round and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the color they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and rise old Erins isle once more from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke and which has kept in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemys coat. What else can England expect is there not big fat necked unicorns enough paid to torment and drive me to do things which I don’t wish to do”.
On April 15 1878 what has become known as ‘The Fitzpatrick Incident’ occurred in the Kelly family home. Ellen, along with her baby Alice, was sentenced to three years hard labour. This deepened Kelly’s sense of injustice; he maintained that Fitzpatrick had falsified evidence to ensure that members of his family would be punished.
“but they knew well I was not there or I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain I would manure the Eleven mile with their bloated carcases and yet remember there is not one drop of murderous blood in my veins … my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also who was has no alternative only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splawfooted sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police who some calls honest gentlemen but I would like to know what business an honest man would have in the Police”.
It was after this incident that Dan joined Kelly in the bush and he officially became an outlaw. Further to this one line in the letter, an aside to the wider argument against the police:
“if so why not send the men that gets big pay and reckoned superior to the common police after me and you shall soon save the country of high salaries to men that is fit for nothing else but getting better men than himself shot and sending orphan children to the industrial school to make Prostitutes for the Detectives and other evil disposed persons send the high paid men that receive big salaries for years in a gang by themselves”.
For many Kelly has become a kind of Robin Hood figure; a poor working man fighting against the system. The gang were well known for their good treatment of civilians and hostages. During the final Glenrowan siege it is recorded that no civilian hostages were hurt by the gang and those that did sustain injuries were shot by the police. Near the close of the Jerilderie letter one can see where this idea came from: “all those that have reason to fear me had better sell out and give £10 out of every hundred to the widow and orphan fund and do not attempt to reside in Victoria”.
Punch caricatured him as the ruler of the colony, dancing around a flag labelled “Communism”.
Ned Kelly’s place in Australian history and culture is undisputed. The worlds very first full length narrative film was about Kelly and the history of his gang. So often in popular culture, despite the dead and prison sentences behind him, he is viewed as one of the last free, wild men; he represents the end of the bushranger era. As Australian society moved inevitably towards a more urban way of life Kelly is often hailed as a reminder of a different, heavily mythologised time. The letter ends on one final message, words underlined for emphasis:
“I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning but I am a Widow’s Son, outlawed and my orders must be obeyed”.
Partrick White #
Christos Tsiolkas writes that when he read David Marr’s commanding biography, Patrick White: A Life, the storyteller in me was delighted to find that the young Patrick had been shipped to Cheltenham College in England as a youth, and that there he had experienced an exile from home and family that marked his character and his writing throughout his life. Marr eloquently describes the alienation the young boy felt upon being wrenched from his privileged and cocooned upbringing in rural New South Wales and bourgeois Sydney, to find himself suddenly a colonial misfit in one of the elite centres of English life.
Christos Tsiolkas, emphasising White’s Greek connection through his relationship with maintains White railed against the parochialism and mean-spiritedness of Australian culture all his life, and this antagonism is a constant presence in his writing. It lends his wonderful autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, some of its most vivid imagery. And a fractious desire – fractious because never fulfilled, never finally consummated – to leave Australia and make Europe his permanent home is part of the life that Marr surveyed and also a recurrent desire of the characters in White’s novels. In fiction he could satisfy that longing: in both the early work, The Aunt’s Story, and the late masterpiece, The Twyborn Affair, main characters can make that great divorce.
But White himself remained in Australia till the end of his life. That in itself is an important biographical element that I think informs how we understand his work. The flight of mid-20th-century writers from Australia in order to consolidate their identities and their careers was so commonplace as to be unremarkable – so much so that we had a name for the sense of inferiority involved: “cultural cringe”. Randolph Stow and Christina Stead, two other writers of comparable ability, had to leave their home country to continue writing. And a later generation that includes Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James also had to make that particular migration. I think one thing that marks White’s writing and makes it different from the work of these other writers is that the Australia that emerges across his work is not static. This country, in all its beauty and ugliness, in all its meanness and potential, is a perpetual character in his novels. It changes and grows, it keeps repeating the same mistakes, and yet it can surprise us. This is one of the things I adore about the man’s work. There isn’t a whiff of nostalgia for Australia in his writing.
It’s not faith that Patrick White takes from Orthodoxy, but a sensibility, one that allowed him to return to Australia and see the landscape in a way he could not before his relationship with Manoly. The seer, the hermit and the seeker will become central to his work, and the spirituality in his novels will not arise from characters pondering the existence or non-existence of a deity, but from encountering the Godhead in the violences and ecstasies of the natural world.
Christos Tsiolkas maintains Patrick White gained from his partner’s Greek Orthodoxy a sensibility that changed how he saw Australia after both fought for England in the World War.
There is something in White’s attraction to, and resentment of, his colonial status that links him to me. White railed against the parochialism and mean-spiritedness of Australian culture all his life, and this antagonism is a constant presence in his writing. It lends his wonderful autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, some of its most vivid imagery. And a fractious desire – fractious because never fulfilled, never finally consummated – to leave Australia and make Europe his permanent home is part of the life that Marr surveyed and also a recurrent desire of the characters in White’s novels.
The Tree of Man is the fourth published novel by the Australian novelist and 1973 Nobel Prize-winner, Patrick White. It is a domestic drama chronicling the lives of the Parker family and their changing fortunes over many decades. It is steeped in Australian folklore and cultural myth, and is recognised as the author’s attempt to infuse the idiosyncratic way of life in the remote Australian bush with some sense of the cultural traditions and ideologies that the epic history of Western civilisation has bequeathed to Australian society in general.
“When we came to live [in Castle Hill, Sydney]”, White wrote, in an attempt to explain the novel, “I felt the life was, on the surface, so dreary, ugly, monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden in it to give it a purpose, and so I set out to discover that secret core, and The Tree of Man emerged.”.
The title comes from A. E. Housman’s poetry cycle A Shropshire Lad, lines of which are quoted in the text. …more „ Loonies speak their own language, like educated people.“
Stan Parker, the archetypal selector, lay claim to a patch of virgin Australian bush near Sydney around 1905.
He takes a wife and makes a home as a selector in the wilderness of Australia. Amy bears his children and time brings him a procession of ordinary events - achievements, disappointments, sorrows and dreams. Stan dies on the same patch of land about 50 years later.
“ 0, conversation is imperative if gaps are to be filled, and old age, it is the last gap but one.“ Page 405
“She had begun to read in the beginning as a protection from the frightening and unpleasant things. …
“Two people do not lose themselves at the identical moment, or else they might find each other, and be saved. …
“She would have liked to love.
A D. Hope appears dispairing about our cultural cring in his:
*The river of her immense stupidity
Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’,
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.*
Ronald Conway wrote books called The Great Australian Stupor (1971) and The Land of the Long Weekend 1978 ..that seared into the Australian psyche of self-examination re-enforcing Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1966). This earlier title sold nearly 70,000 copies, astonishing for a book of its type and as a work of social criticism was second in sales only to Horne’s better-known work.
Conway sought to diagnose what was wrong with the Australian mindset. Even the sacred cow of mateship copped a blast, along with feminism, which he said had gone too far, with the children the victims. He also attacked mindless materialism, and the public obsession with sexuality.
Describing the Australian society of the time in his autobiography, he wrote:
“Men usually drank too much (and) fraternised awkwardly. Meanwhile, the women had to respond to domestic circumstances where both fullness of purse and largesse of feeling were usually in short supply.”
The Land of the Long Weekend is a snapshot of Australia at a time when the economic and social changes were beginning to shape the society we have today.
“So many feckless young gods still need their Conway. This philosopher of human frailty was indeed a prophet that should be honoured in his own country.” By GEOFF STRONG
Bogan Australians feature strongly on television and movies. Here is a partial list: #96, Roy and HG, Kath and Kim, The Castle, Struggle Street, Frayed
Peter Carey #
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth Professor, Chair of Australian Literature, The University of Western Australia, writning for the Conversation reviews Sarah Krasnostein’s On Peter Carey, the 12th instalment of Black Inc.’s highly readable series, Writers on Writers.
Carey’s books were feted in the 1980s and 1990s, when his early experimental short fiction of the 1970s gave way to the big novels Bliss (1981), Illywhacker (1985) and Oscar and Lucinda (1988), the last of which won the Booker Prize.
After Carey’s move to New York in 1990, the novels – and the accolades – kept coming: The Tax Inspector (1991), The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), Jack Maggs (1997). In 2000, True History of the Kelly Gang won Carey his second Booker Prize, putting him in the company of Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee and Hilary Mantel. He has also won the Miles Franklin Literary Award three times.
Carey has published six further novels after True History of the Kelly Gang, but they have struggled to gain the attention that flowed so steadily through the 1980s and 1990s.
Oscar and Lucinda is a mythopoeic saga imagining the pioneering adventures of two lovers whose mission is to move a glass church up an east coast river near Bellingen. It stretches the boundaries of our credulity. Sarah opines Carey was swept up in the postmodern impulse to pastiche. Oscar and Lucinda was a display case for his literary ventriloquism.
Tim Winton - Cloudstreet #
One of Australia’s most prolific and popular writers from Western Australia.
Marele Day - The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender #
Howard Jacobson #
on the ABC’s Brilliant Creatures postulated that:
In the early 1960’s Australia quietly emerged out of a cultural, intellectual and economic backwater which had stifled a number of aspiring intellectuals, including Robert Hughes, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphreys found stifling and boring. They discovered “overseas” and became celebrated ex-patriots in the Mother country.
Howard Jacobson had a difficult time understanding this as they made an instant splash in Britain as he went from Britain to Australia to teach in what he describes as a dynamic iconoclastic intellectual environment at Sydney University.
“To the desert go prophets and hermits; through desert go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.” ― Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Aesthetics of Nature
Jacobson speculates about this paradox; perhaps it was the pressures of boredom, that a stultification produced such diamonds, the exhilarating dullness; such beauty and exhilaration. He points out the contradiction that Australia reveres its writers more than England does, yet Australians are suspicious of tall poppies.
Colonial Australia has a larrikin nature about it. Jacobson describes them as raw, hedonistic and bloody-minded, outlandish, hoodlums in the playground with a healthy disrespect for vaunted authority.
Some political leaders capitalise on the opportunity to politicise the school curriculum for the purposes of leveraging their opponents and stoking their bases. Whenever attempts are made to read and study texts in the English classroom that reflect the diversity of Australian society – and within Australian classrooms – the backlash is intense and sustained.