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Adventures in Australian literature by Natalie Muller First published The Wild Goose Literary e-Journal August 2018

Posted 30/5/2019

I have a confession to make, every few months for over three years, I have been going to bed with Patrick White. Shocking as it is to hear, I must confess further that we are in love. A love I show through my fidelity, returning to him at least three times a year, and which he reciprocates by providing words of such baroque beauty and eucalypt scented sophistication, that I have never been disappointed. What, you might ask, started this mad love affair? I am glad that you asked that, allow me to tell you a story.

            It was the spring of 2013, I was a third the way through my Masters degree in creative writing. My major work was derailing itself and required a radical rethink to right it. Like the majority of my classmates, I was writing work set overseas, for that was where the world was. Those who wrote on a more domestic plain, in general, wrote memoir. When we discussed our reading with one another, few read the classics as I did, and no one read Australian authors. Blockbusters and middlebrow fiction from England and especially America predominated the reading of my classmates. And this was reflected in their writing. Like most beginning writers, their sights were set on setting the world aflame, with their take on whatever was the genre de jour. Australian writing in contrast was small, and parochial, not the stuff of fame and fortune. It was against this prejudice, which my allegorical retelling of the Trojan War, finally ran aground. Unable to provide solidity to characters already more fictional than real, I had been floundering for months, until one afternoon the solution came: I needed to tell an Australian story. Not an allegory of the First World War, but a story with living breathing Australian men and women. The only problem was I had no idea how to write my own country. I had no language to describe myself. I had a grab bag of clichés, about Blokes, Bush and Bogans, but nothing that reflected my own experience of being Australian. Nothing that told me how to be an educated, urban, woman. Nothing to tell me how to write the characters, beginning to forming in my head.

            A similar situation was encountered by Brigid Magner of RMIT when she surveyed her creative writing students about their attitudes to Australian writing. The attitudes offered by her students were remarkably similar to those of my classmates:

            “Charlie had a markedly negative attitude towards Australian literature at the start of semester: ‘I don’t really like novels set in Australia, which centre on Australian culture and prefer to read about landscapes completely unfamiliar to me’. Jessica wrote that Australian literature holds little interest because ‘as a native Australian, I find Australian-ness to be wholly normal, not worth noticing’. Similarly Frank said, ‘most Australian literature I have read has focused on capturing a realistic portrait of Australian life. However I write in order to escape from reality’.” (Magner)

            These sentiments were not a shock to me, but reflected a strong sense that I had of the real world being elsewhere, anywhere else so long as one escaped the bounds of this island continent. While familiarity often breeds contempt, for many young writers it is lack of familiarity and the assumption that Australian literature will be limited in its scope to the Australia that is presented to us on our screens that is the problem. The image that is conjured for many is an Australia that is small, parochial, anti-intellectual, sport obsessed, white and male, the image of Australia that still lives in the 1960’s. For me, this stereotype was confirmed by the hyper masculine voices that predominate the Australian literature I had read thus far, Henry Lawson, Tim Winton and Richard Flanagan. While I did not fault the writing of any of these men, their writing did not encourage further investigation as the male, and frequently violent, worlds they depicted bore little resemblance to the Australia I lived in. So although I knew that I needed to read Australian works I had no idea where to start looking for them.

Fortunately, my salvation came in the form of Melbourne based publisher Text, and its then two year old Text Classics project. Bright yellow books that sold cheaply, attempting to bring forgotten Australian writers to new readers. Knowing nothing of the writers they published, many had been out of print for decades, their names lost to dusty second-hand shops and obscurity, I developed a criteria for selection. All the books had to be 20th century, urban in setting, and feature women in major roles, beyond that I used blurbs and covers to make my choices. This haphazard selection process produced an odd assortment of books when they arrived. My first order consisted of, Olga Masters Amy’s Children, (Masters) David Ireland A Woman of the Future, (Ireland) Martin Boyd The Cardboard Crown (Boyd), and Elizabeth Harrower The Watch Tower (Harrower), which was the book I would begin my reading with. Thus began a three year adventure into Australian literature.

Opening The Watch Tower was a revelation. I was so used to voices whose accents I had to think about, where in America or England had they come from and which of their myriad of accents did they use? Here for the first time, the accent was my own. Setting too, needed no more thought than the recall of a trip to Sydney. I had seen the Norfolk pines at Manly, I had travelled on the ferry across the harbour, and with a careful deletion of the modern skyline and the Opera House, I could see mid-century Sydney. This was not some foreign city like London, upon which so much ink has been spilt that were I to ever see it, I imagine it would be impossible to live up to expectation. This was the city my grandfather spent the war building ships in, the city in which my granny worked as a secretary. I had not expected to find my own city in a book before, yet here it was.

Thus began my reading odyssey, three years later, I am left with two questions that I now feel ready to discuss. Firstly, from where comes our resistance to reading ourselves? Secondly, what is it that makes Australian writing Australian?

“ ‘Everyone is still afraid, or most of us, of this country, and will not say it. We are not yet possessed of understanding.’ ” (White, Voss 23)

So says Laura Trevelyan in Patrick White’s monumental masterpiece Voss. Voss is a tough book, epic in ambition, surreal, and hallucinatory in execution, the whole work is a prolonged lucid dreaming. It is a work that could only come from Australia. No doubt this is why it is a book known more by reputation than experience. It frightens us, just as the vast continent of Australia, according to Laura, frightens the colonials clinging to the edges of the continent, fearful that the land itself will reject them and they will one day fall into the sea. For readers and writers, who resist working or reading in an Australian context, this resistance can be a form of fear. Inexperienced writers and readers, eager to not make mistakes or wrong turnings, expect a canon. While the academic world has long turned its back on the notion that there is a canon of literature that must be read, it is a notion strongly held by many and the lack of such in Australian literature appears to bewilder. Speaking about an undergraduate class focused on reading Australian Classics one student remarked:

“I dislike the fact that perhaps some of the authors we have studied are less talented writers (in my opinion) but they are accepted within the canon of Australian writing, hence we study them.” (Magner)  

The fact that Australia is in the unique position of not having an officially accepted canon to work against, unlike America or Britain, is seen as a negative, rather than a positive, by many young writers. It is as if to say, ‘if you don’t tell us what to read we might get it wrong and read something that is less than.’ As with the students Brigid Magner surveyed, the fear that Australian writing may be found wanting or may class a writer as less than their international counterparts, still remains. It appears, that while we may have left the days of cringing journalists asking every arriving celebrity their impressions of Australia while they stood in Mascot airport behind, that Australian malady, first diagnosed by A.A Phillips has not yet been eradicated. It is as though having successfully inoculated the populous against one strain of the Cultural Cringe, a new one breaks out in another entirely unrelated area. So why should it have infected people’s impression of Australian writing?  

A.A Phillips, gives his diagnosis in 1950 thusly:

The Australian writer is affected by the Cringe because it mists the responsiveness of his audience, and because its influence on the intellectual deprives the writer of a sympathetically critical atmosphere.” (Phillips 54)

The writers surveyed and whom I have interacted with anecdotally would not recognise this particular manifestation of the Cringe, as they embark on their writing. Theirs is less an internalised Cringe of personal inadequacy, but rather an externalised notion of Australian writing’s inadequacy on the world stage and thus their loathing of being associated with it. Yet, it still does not explain where this fear of Australian writing being inadequate comes from. I would posit that it comes from ignorance, not the wilful ignorance of the obstinate refusal to try, but the more benign ignorance of what Clive James calls Cultural Amnesia. In the introduction to his book The Burning Library, Geordie Williamson notes that the books contained within his collection of essays were found through, op-shops, second-hand booksellers, libraries and friends. (G. Williamson) At the time of writing few were still in print. What this means for any reader under the age of forty, is that the majority of what would be considered Classic Australian Novels are inaccessible without specialist knowledge. When a work is inaccessible, when it cannot be found on the shelves of a bookstore, it will fall out of the public consciousness. For many younger readers and writers, accessibility equals worthiness. If Australian publishers cannot keep our own writers in print, then, goes the logic of the young reader, the books themselves cannot be very good, thus not worth my time. The young writer, eager to make a lasting career from her work, will go one step further and wish to disassociate herself with writing, which she sees as, so poor it cannot manage to stay available for more than six months before it sinks into oblivion. Thus it would be fair to say that Cultural Amnesia has caused a new out-break of the dreaded Cringe.

A third and final reason for a resistance to reading Australian literature is fear of recognition. Given the rise of identity politics, which seems to have replaced much of the older class or gender based politics and the fragmentation that it encourages amongst its adherents, the idea of a collective identity can only be threatening. Here I am not speaking of nationalism or patriotism, as an American would understand it, such concepts have rarely managed to fix themselves in the Australian psyche. Even when it is at its highest, the best we as Australian’s can manage, is a pride about sporting achievements. In fact our rejection of patriotism as exhibited by an American or a British person, becomes its own form of perverse pride. Rather what I am speaking of is a sense of national identity, as sense of Australianness separate from other nations in the world. For many young educated people, a strong sense of national identity can be hard to develop. Pop culture, offers a very low rent version of Australia, with its anti-intellectualism and its celebration of sport over education, which can be alienating to young readers and writers who cannot see where they could fit. As a result, Australian culture is declared terra nullius, rejected outright as something that does not concern them and who’s interesting aspects were brought by waves of migration from the mid-20th century onwards. This fiction becomes more difficult to maintain, when one reads Australian writing. Australian authors, offer an alternative way to be an Australian, sometimes in celebration of what is best about us, other times their writing is so marked with bitterness, one can only feel sorry for them. Yet the rush of recognition is overwhelming, it can be a homecoming to a place that you never left. Yet like all homecomings, it is not one of easy celebration; that would be impossible. Australian writers, with their humour and critical eye have worked their way through all classes of Australian society, nothing is sacred or off limits. Meaning that the chance of recognising oneself in, Amy Witting’s overly earnest youngster Isobel, (Witting) the patronising students of Mudrooroo’s Wild Cat Falling (Mudrooroo) or one of Patrick White’s wonderful grotesques is an all too real possibility. And for many young readers and writers it is a possibility they choose to avoid.

 

“This country leans in on you. It weighs down hard. Like family. To my way of thinking, it is family.” (Winton 23)         

What makes Australian writing Australian? The most obvious and facile answer to this question would be that it is set in Australia. But this would make Louis de Bernières’ book Red Dog (Bernieres) an Australian novel, rather than a novel set in Australia. While it may seem authentic to foreign readers, to an Australian reader, it reads as poorly modulated as a hammy accent. In short it tries too hard. The other problem of specifying an Australian setting to qualify as Australian writing, disqualifies works such as Rod Jones’ Julia Paradise, (Jones) Mark Henshaw’s Out of the line of fire, (Henshaw) or Linda Javin’s A Most Immoral Woman, (Javin) all of which are set either entirely or partially outside Australia. So while setting is not the defining trait shared by all Australian writing, it has worked its influence on Australian writing in more subtle ways. Describing the Australian novel, critic Geordie Williamson had this to say on the matter:

“The novel as a form is not the most ideal one for Australians…. The 19th century realist novel really emerges out of a particular set of geographic and social circumstances. What happened in Australia was, we had a fair crack at the novel and I think it’s fair to say, that when you go back and look at our early novelistic tradition, it’s fairly staid and it feels odd, it feels like an imposition of that model over a landscape that doesn’t really support it.” (G. Williamson) 

Over the course of my reading the most successful novels, the ones which I found most accessible, most enjoyable, were those which let place influence the characters and plot. In Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, the city of Sydney itself and the Harbour especially, reflect and contrast the lives of the characters so closely that one could almost call it a character in its own right. The incredible claustrophobia of the house where Felix terrorises Laura and Clair, contrasts with the sparkling sea and the light, bright houses of Neutral bay, reinforcing the isolation of the women. The domestic abuse they suffer is far too ugly to be believed in such a setting, helping to create for the reader the unreality of life in an abusive household. Late in the novel, Laura and Felix observe the night sky clotted with cloud and fear that it is the end of the world. Here again Sydney is evoked to comment upon the plot, the terrifying apocalyptic sky a presentiment against the climax of the novel. The city itself is claustrophobic and artificial environment, the antidote to which is taken by Clair at the end of the novel, as she boards a train heading bush, that indefinable Australian Other. (Harrower)

Despite the ubiquity of The Bush in popular understandings of Australia, and the fears of many young readers and writers that Australian Literature will be nothing but, bush and blokes, Australian writing like the Australian population is for the majority, an urban affair. Reading Australian Literature one can easily find oneself in the inner city of Melbourne or Sydney. The working class pubs of The Glass Canoe, where the closest one comes to nature is the golf course the protagonist mows as grounds keeper. (Ireland, The Glass Canoe) There are the grimy factories in Parramatta and Newcastle and the suffocating conformity of the suburbs. One can sit in a ladies drawing room in Toorak or overlooking Centennial Park. Board in exclusive schools in Melbourne or Perth. In short, a judicious reader need not set foot outside an urban centre, indeed not set foot off paved footpaths should she so wish.

Taking this into account how can we reconcile this image of Australian writing with Geordie Williamson’s assertion that the Australian landscape defines the Australian novel? Urban Australia, has always felt itself insulated from the worst excesses of the Australian environment. Gardens of thirsty exotic ornamentals are planted to replace the hardy natives, structures of steel and glass offer the illusion of permanence, and acres of shimmering rooves protect us from what was here long before any human, black or white set foot on this land. And when we see our gardens dying of drought, or an infinity pool washed loose and lying helpless on a beach like a stranded whale (NSW Weather), or watch in horror as bushfire tears through the suburbs (ABC News), we remember where we are. This does not mean that an Australian story must involve a natural disaster of some kind, such an injunction would be tedious. Rather it manifests itself in more subtle forms in even the most urban of writing. We are a nation preoccupied by weather. When we are not discussing it, we are observing it or else suffering through it. As a result Australian writing has a heightened physicality about it. Characters are not allowed, as they can be in works from other countries, to forget that they live on a physical plain. This can be extreme as in this example from Wake in Fright:

            “The teacher stood up and flexed his shoulders to loosen the wet shirt from his body and began to close and lock the windows.” (Cook 4)

Or this more subtle example from Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown:

            “The naked white branches of the gum trees, broken and hanging at strange cubist angles, were illuminated by the headlights, while tangles of blackberries and fallen fencing made my back ache at the thought that even if I could find labourers, the heaviest and dirtiest jobs would still be left to me.” (Boyd, The Carboard Crown 2)

While in the writing of Patrick White, physicality is emphasised to the point of the grotesque

“Something had made this woman monotonous. Her big breasts moved duly as she spoke, or she would stand, and the weight of her silences impressed itself on strangers. If the more sensitive amongst those she served or addressed failed to look at Rose, it was because her manner served to accuse the conscience, or it could have been more simply, that they were embarrassed by her harelip.” (White, Voss 1)

While physical descriptions are not a unique trait amongst Australian writers, the pattern of the emphasis on the physicality of characters, I would argue, is. The preceding quotes from writers suggests a pattern in Australian writing, especially as the descriptions come from the first or second pages. Australian writings reputation for realism, is earned as much from their telling of stories set in the “real” world, as from their grounding of that “real” world in an uncomfortable physical reality.

 

Australians accept the myth of homogeny when it comes to discussing our culture, in our rush to sell ourselves to the world we deny any regional variation, a Tasmanian is Australian in the same way that a citizen of Cape York is. While a convenient fiction for the tourism industry, it is not one that our writers support. Different states produce different writing. The differences are subtle, best recognised when viewed as a group, but there none the less. Life in each of the nations’ states and territories brings with it its own unique perspective. The Australia that emerges in White, shares more in common with his fellow New South Wales compatriots, than it does with writers from Victoria. The concerns of a writers from Tasmania have very little in common with those from her counterpart in Western Australia. Although all are depictions of Australia, the perspectives of each writer is shaped by where in this nation she is writing from. There is no singular Australia, yet Australia and the culture which developed to adapt to particular circumstances in each region, shapes the perspective of all writers. In other words, like the wild flowers, we have all learnt to adapt to the soil we find ourselves in. 

 

While most genres of novel have been developed overseas and consequently must be adapted to an Australian setting, with varying degrees of success, Australia has produced one genre that is unique. The Australian Gothic.

The Australian Gothic tradition, comes from a direct response of white Australia to the land itself. The genre works on our fears of the Other, as represented by the land itself. While this fear is seen in writing from other traditions, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Conrad) or Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, (Coetzee) both of which relate to colonialism and fear of the Other in the indigenous populations. The Australian Gothic need no indigenous population to produce this fear, rather it is fear of how the landscape acts on those who enter it. As in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright. John Grant’s descent, in the space of only a few days, fuelled by beer and a belief that he is somehow better than the inhabitants of Bundanyabba, is a classic example of the Australian Gothic. Faced with the rough hospitality of the mining town, John Grant initially underestimates his fellows in the Two-Up ring, seeing them as degenerate and stupid. He is desperate to get east for his summer holidays. Fearful of understanding the people of the bush communities, he cherishes his difference (Cook). As John slowly descends into the drunken nightmare that constitutes most of the novel, the reader must ask herself, is the town that bad, or does John Grant like Doc Tydon use the town as an excuse indulge his most base nature?

Paranoia, obsessions and isolation, fuel the fear in both Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well (Jolley) and Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark (Winton). In these novels, both set on remote farming properties in Western Australia, it is the arrival of a new element into a settled community, which precipitates the characters’ descent. While in Wake in Fright, John Grant is the Other in the Bush, in these novels the Other is unknown, unnamed, and to a degree unimportant, but for the effect its presence produces on the characters. Fear of what might be outside, lurking in the bush, or hidden down the well, causes the characters to turn on one another, revealing the monsters inside themselves to be much more of a threat than any intruder could possibly be.

            “You see I’ve known panic and I’ve been dead rational and I don’t like either of them. Oh, maybe panic has a moral sense about it. When you’re hysterical, you at least believe in what you’re doing, however bloody stupid it is.” (Winton 130)

Ultimately The Australian Gothic is a genre devoted to fear of ourselves and our potential. Freed of the constraints of a cultivated and civilised Europe, Australia represents the setting free of our instinctive nature, it is in the Bush where we show our true colours, and where we show our potential to be found wanting. Perhaps it is only when we cannot tell these stories that we will be able to appreciate our country and truly belong to it.

 

 

            “…old Bobby goes to his little humpy on the hill to the west of the valley in which the town sits. His women and children have gone away, and he has no real friend or family in the white man’s camp beside the sea to welcome him. Only tourists. He can only talk. On a bad day he grabs people, insisting they understand what he is saying, but they look at him and do not.” (Scott)

One of the most striking things about the majority of the books I read over the course of three years, was their unfailing whiteness, not only of writer, but also of content. They’re a Weird Mob (Culotta) and Death in Brunswick, (Oxlade) gave an Italian and Greek variation on whiteness, but overall the older Australian literature is white and predominantly British stock. Black Australia in the first half of the 20th century is rarely if ever mentioned. The first mention of Aboriginal people in any of the books I read was in the preface of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, where Sybylla laments:

            “Better be born a slave than a poet, better be born a black, better be born a cripple!” (Franklin 2)

This glancing and derogatory mention of indigenous people is the only mention that I would find until fifty six years later with Patrick White’s epic of the Australian interior Voss.

Unsettling, surreal and dreamlike Voss takes us into the interior of our country. The further inland Voss and his party move the clearer it becomes that they are incompatible with the land that they walk across. This incompatibility is contrasted with the supreme compatibility of the Indigenous people of the Darling Downs and the desert regions. Two servants are given to Voss, Dugald, an older man and Jackie a youth. Seen by Voss as merely tools to aid his exploration, no more independent of thought than his horse, White undermines this assumption. Dugald, sent with letter by Voss back to the homestead at the edge of the Darling Downs where he was brought from, is no obedient slave to a white master. An encounter with a tribe, not his own, but who show him respect, leads Dugald to reject his European clothing and the letters, to which he ascribes his own interpretation, and leaves with the tribe. Jackie continues with Voss out into the western desert, where the explorers are menaced by the people who live there. It is amongst the desert people that Jackie is readmitted to tribal life, but while Dugald had only to remove clothes and destroy letters to return, Jackie is given the task of beheading Voss. An action not represented as that of an unthinking savage, but which takes a toll on the young man who must perform it. (White, Voss)  

In 1961 White went further abandoning the safety of an historical novel and creating a contemporary indigenous character, Alf Dubbo, the artist who alongside Miss Hare, and the German Jewish refugee Mordecai Himmelfarb is one of the three metaphorical prophets in the Chariot. (White) Alf Dubbo is not a perfect character, none are, but nor is he a comic or a parody character. He is treated with the same dignity and seriousness, by White as the white characters with whom he shares the book.

In 1965, the first indigenous voice is given a place in print, in the form of Mudrooroo’s Wild Cat Falling. The unnamed narrator, a petty criminal from a young age, dislocated from family, from Noongar culture, and excluded from a white culture that has no place for him, drifts through the narrative with no set direction (Mudrooroo). Disconnection makes him nihilistic and angry, it is a voice that even the most empathetic of non-indigenous writers cannot summon. Mudrooroo’s work appearing in the 1960’s, provides an opportunity to hear stories that until then had been ignored, it is a marginal voice, which refuses assimilation, and demands to be heard on its own terms.

Richard Flanagan’s dying river guide Aljaz Cosini, sees his past and the past of his family flash before him as he lies beneath a waterfall. His family story tells also the story of the state of Tasmania, Aljaz is Tasmania, the descendant of convicts, an indigenous woman raped by a sealer, loggers, and European refugees, his girlfriend of Chinese descent and their baby. Writing in the 1990’s, ignoring the Aboriginal heritage of the land was no longer an option, but it is difficult. (Flanagan) Wanting, the story of the adopted daughter of Tasmania’s governor Sir John Franklin, offers a narrative of victimisation in the stolen child Mathinna, by the white settlers. But she is passive, each step of her descent is proscribed by the narrative of history, there is no voice to speak for Mathinna and it is her voice that is sorely wanting in this narrative. (Flanagan)

In contrast Kim Scott’s Bobby Wabalanginy, lends his voice to the story of settlement of the Albany region of Western Australia. Like Mudrooroo before him, Kim Scott gives the Noongar people’s perspective on the settlement, a voice that is neither passive nor disconnected  (Scott). I must confess that of all the books I read this was the most difficult for me to get my eye in for. Stylistically it was quite unlike anything that I had read, the shifts in time making the narrative non-linear, combined with the absence of quoted dialogue, and the predominantly ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ of the narrative, all worked to create a very different world view than I was used to. If Mudrooroo showed a world that was alien to non-indigenous readers, Kim Scott took us one step further showing a narrative style that was unapologetically outside the European literary framework. His is a voice which offers readers a version of Aboriginality that is neither victimised nor passive, it speaks for Noongar people not about them, ascribing them with agency and action that can only be guessed at by their white observers. Although history proscribes the ultimate expansion of the colony and the displacement of Bobby’s people, it will not stop Bobby and his people adding their voices to that narrative. 

 

            “‘They must have been very bored,’ said Cynthia coldly, ‘and very stupid to go out with any one so brainless.’

“‘It was very agreeable. And though she was brainless she had strong arms and could pull the chaps’ hair if they went too far. In fact when they told their friends in other villages, those chaps knocked all the girls’ heads off too, and there were no lovers’ quarrels in all the country, just peaceful walks on Saturday nights.’

  “‘Is that the end of it?’

“No, because the goddesses were furious when they saw all the girls going about without heads, and they blamed the first girl for setting the fashion, and they turned her into stone, just as she was grabbing a chap’s hair, and he turned to stone too.’” (Boyd 211-212)

Someone has been knocking the heads off Australian women. The fashion appears to date from the 1990’s and originating in several novels that came out of Varuna. Since then, the Headless Nymphs have been multiplying and crowding out the native Banksia girls, which Australian literature had nurtured. First allow me to define these two competing species of women. Banksia girls are the descendants of Sybylla Melvin, that indomitable creation of Miles Franklin. (Franklin) She is a daughter of Federation, intelligent, independent, strong, difficult and containing as much life and vitality as the men who share her stories. The Banksia girl is found in the books of both men and women, she is always memorable, even when she is not always likeable. Sadly she may end up, like many of our natives, on the endangered list, once prolific within our literature, she is currently threatened. The Headless Nymph in contrast, is an English import who sadly has escaped captivity and is currently choking out all in her path like a blackberry. She is on the surface more pleasing to the reader than the Banksia girl, she does not challenge, her feminine nature is much easier to admire than her rival’s prickles and spines. She is passive where her rival is active, quiet where her rival is loud, her anxiety and insecurity are more tolerable in a world where secure women are a threat. Emotionally and sexually stunted, where her rival can eat men whole, she is a hollow doll to her rival’s living girl.

As a very young woman I encountered the Headless Nymph before I met her rival, it was incredibly disappointing as an ambitious and intelligent person, to see my literary sex depicted as such dull, pinning, anxious creatures. I felt alienated from my culture, was I expected to be so little, feel so little? Years later I would meet my own people, the Banksia girls, who spoke with accents I recognised as mine, who desired and fought and learned with the same appetite as myself.    

So, who are these Banksia girls, where can one find them? Schools and universities are a good place to look, these girls are attracted to learning and congregate around any institution which supports that. Thus one can find Laura Rambotham and her fellows in The Getting of Wisdom, (Richardson) Theresa Hawkins, walking her way to England, back and forth across Sydney for years in For Love Alone. (Stead) She can be found in The Watch Tower’s Clair (Harrower, The Watch Tower) and Emily Lawrence the stifled little girl from The Long Prospect (Harrower, The Long Prospect). She is Lilian Singer, who so threatens her father’s sense of self that he assaults her in both Lilian’s Story (Grenville) and Dark Places. (Grenville, Dark Places)

When she asserts her independence, one can find her in the guise of Amy Fowler, who flees her home and children, thrust upon her too young and discovers herself in the city where she finds work, in Amy’s Children (Masters). She is Alice Langton, the matriarch of the Langton family (Boyd) and her daughters and grand-daughters of Martin Boyd’s Langton quartet. She is Julia, Chantal, Helen and Philippa the sexy, independent women of Linda Javin’s Eat Me (Javin, Eat Me). She is Julia Paradise, the titular heroine of Rod Jones’ novel, who knows, sees and understands far more than the men around her imagine (Jones). She is Elizabeth Hunter the indomitable matriarch from Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm, a woman determined to live and die on her own terms (White). She is The Honourable Miss Phrine Fisher, From Kerry Greenwoods’ Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries series. (Greenwood)

And when she goes bad and transforms into a Thorny Devil, she appears in her most terrifying guise. In this mode, a mode all the more dangerous for its apparent benign outward appearance, she becomes a stifler of creativity and intellect, a destroyer of dreams and the upholder of mediocrity. Here she can be seen in women whose own opportunities and dreams have been allowed to wither, die and rot within them, poisoning them so that they in turn poison those around them. Elizabeth Harrower brings them to us in the form of Lillian Hulm, Emily’s tyrannical grandmother in The Long Prospect. (Harrower) And again in The Watch Tower asStella Vaizey, the mother of Laura and Clair, who abandons them for England at the first opportunity (Harrower, The Watch Tower). She is Mrs Flack and Mrs Jolley, the murderous old ladies in Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. (White) Finally she is Miss Hester Harper, the so innocent old lady from Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well (Jolley).

In whatever guise she appears, the Banksia girl is ours and as Australian writers we should not only learn to recognise her beauty, but also propagate her so that our works are filled with vibrant, engaging, living women perfectly adapted to living within the harsh environment of our narratives. Women and girls who have as much life in them as the men and boys.

 

This has been a personal exploration of Australian writing, it is by no means a comprehensive or systematic one, so too are the impressions and revelations that came through it. Perhaps the greatest revelation that I received through this process was that there is a place in Australian culture for me and that Australian culture is deeper than I had been led to believe. I have read about half of the Australian writers I purchased, this broad reading has afforded me the opportunity to discover a world I thought I knew, and with so many more yet to discover, I no doubt have much left to learn. Besides I can’t be done yet, there are still a few Patrick Whites on the shelf still to read. 

Works Cited

ABC News. "Canberra Bushfires Rembembered." January 2013. Australian Boradcasting Corporation. 25 January 2017. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/specials/canberra-bushfires-remembered/>.

Bernieres, Louis de. Red Dog. London: Vintage, 2006.

Boyd, Martin. Outbreak of Love. Melbourne: Text, 2013.

—. The Carboard Crown. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. London: Vintage, 2004.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness . London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Cook, Kenneth. Wake in Fright. Melbourne: Text Classics, 2013.

Culotta, Nino. They're a Weird Mob. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Flanagan, Richard. Death of a River Guide. North Sydney: Vintage, 2015.

—. Wanting. North Sydney: Vintage, 2015.

Franklin, Miles. My Brilliant Career. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Greenwood, Kerry. Death at Victoria Dock. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2005.

Grenville, Kate. Dark Places. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

—. Lilian's Story. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2008.

Harrower, Elizabeth. The Long Prospect. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

—. The Watch Tower. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Henshaw, Mark. Out of the Line of Fire. Melbourne: Text, 2016.

Ireland, David. A Woman of the Future. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

—. The Glass Canoe. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Javin, Linda. A Most Immoral Woman. Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2009.

—. Eat Me. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Jolley, Elizabeth. The Well. London: Penguin Classics, 2009.

Jones, Rod. Julia Paradise. Melbourne: Text, 2013.

Magner, Brigid. "'Not all gumnuts and outback': Exploring the attitudes of creative writing students towards Australian literature." TEXT 19.1 (2015). 16th January 2017. <http://www.textjournal.com.au/april15/magner.htm>.

Masters, Olga. Amy's Children. Melbourne: Text, 2013.

Mudrooroo. Wildcat Falling. Sydney: A&R Classics, 2001.

NSW Weather. "ABC News." 6 June 2016. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 25th January 2017. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-06/nsw-weather-large-waves-hit-collaroy-coast/7479846>.

Oxlade, Boyd. Death in Brunswick. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Phillips, A.A. "The Cultural Cringe." Meanjin 69.4 (2010): 54.

Richardson, Henry Handel. The Getting of Wisdom. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Scott, Kim. That Deadman Dance. Sydney: Picador, 2013.

Stead, Christina. For Love Alone. Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2011.

White, Patrick. The Eye of the Storm. North Sydney: Vintage, 1995.

—. The Riders in the Chariot. North Sydney: Vintage, 2002.

—. Voss. North Sydney: Vintage, 2012.

Williamson, Geordie. "Books and Arts" with Michael Cathcart. The Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize . Radio National. 8 December 2014.

Williamson, Georgie. The Burning Library: Our great Novelists Lost and Found. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Winton, Tim. In the Winter Dark. Camberwell: Penguin Books, 1998.

—. Island Home : A landscape memoir. Hamish Hamilton, 2015.

Witting, Amy. I for Isobel. Melbourne: Text, 2015.

 

 

       

            List of Books Read.    

Murray Bail

  • Eucalyptus

Martin Boyd  

  • The Cardboard Crown
  • A Difficult Young Man
  • Outbreak of Love
  • When Blackbirds Sing

Kenneth Cook

  • Wake in Fright

Nino Culotta

  • They’re a Weird Mob

Robert Drew

  • The Drowner

Delia Falconer

  • The Service of Clouds

Richard Flanagan

  • Death of a River Guide
  • Wanting

Miles Franklin

  • My Brilliant Career

Kerry Greenwood

  • Death at Victoria Dock

Kate Grenville

  • Lilian’s Story
  • Dark Places

Elizabeth Harrower

  • The Long Prospect
  • The Catherine Wheel
  • Down in the City
  • The Watch Tower

Mark Henshaw

  • Out of the Line of Fire

David Ireland

  • The Glass Canoe
  • A Woman of the Future

Mette Jakobsen

  • What the Light Hides

Linda Javin

  • Eat Me
  • A Most Immoral Woman

Elizabeth Jolley

  • The Well

Kenneth Mackenzie

  • The Young Desire It

David Malouf

  • Fly Away Peter

Olga Masters

  • Amy’s Children

Gerald Murnane

  • A Lifetime on Clouds

Mark O’Flynn

  • The Forgotten World

Ben Oxlade

  • Death in Brunswick

Favel Parrett

  • Past the Shallows

Henry Handel Richardson

  • The Getting of Wisdom

Ken Scott

  • That Dead Man Dance

 Christina Stead

  • For Love Alone

Louis Stone

  • Jonah

Brenda Walker

  • Poe’s Cat

Patrick White

  • The Aunt’s Story
  • The Tree of Man
  • Voss
  • The Riders in the Chariot
  • The Solid Mandala
  • The Vivisector
  • The Eye of the Storm
  • The Twyborn Affair

Tim Winton

  • In the Winter Dark
Adventures in Australian literature by Natalie Muller First published The Wild Goose Literary e-Journal August 2018