Constructing Cosmopolitanism, Promoting Humanitarianism: The Marvellous Melbourne of E.W. Cole in Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man (2010)


Lisa Lang’s award-winning Australian novel Utopian Man (2010) reimagines E.W. Cole and his famous Book Arcade in Melbourne in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Running in its central Melbourne location from 1883-1929, in popular discourses Cole’s Book Arcade was, and is, synonymous with nineteenth-century Melbourne itself; its vibrant, eclectic atmosphere seemed to capture the essence of the booming nineteenth-century metropolis. In Lang’s biofiction, the Arcade becomes a lens through which to view Melbourne itself. Cole is sympathetically drawn and his characteristics – his eccentricities, entrepreneurism, philanthropy and idealism – provide a critical contrast with a city increasingly suspicious toward immigrants, as Australia moves toward federation, and toward establishing the White Australia policy. While it is set entirely in the past, the novel’s structural nostalgia – the Arcade and its values are always already lost in this narrative – speaks to a present in which Australia is once again closing its borders. The novel positions itself as witness to Australia’s lost alternative of a tolerant society, one that embraced other views and welcomed a range of immigrants, and which exists today only as memory.

Among the ‘favourite objects’ listed on the Melbourne Museum’s website is ‘Cole’s Little Men’. These mechanical figurines once stood beneath a painted rainbow at the entrance to Cole’s Book Arcade, which the Museum describes as ‘one of the wonders of “Marvellous Melbourne” in the 19th Century’ (Melbourne Museum). These mechanical sailors were built in Germany, signifying to colonial Melbourne the latest in European innovation. Powered by water, they turned over a series of signs with advertising material such as ‘Coles Book Arcade, One Million Books’ as well as slogans espousing the personal philosophy of Edward William Cole, the Arcade’s entrepreneurial, idealistic and humanitarian founder Examples included ‘The Reign of Knowledge and Humanity Is Coming’; ‘Let the World Be Your Country’; ‘All Men Are Brothers’ and, simply, ‘Read’ (Lang, Utopian Man, 9). As these signs turned mechanically, the tin made…

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Published 19 September 2017 in Volume 32 No. 2. Subjects: Historical fiction, Melbourne, Cosmopolitanism, Neo-Victorian fiction, Lisa Lang.

Cite as: Mitchell, Kate. ‘Constructing Cosmopolitanism, Promoting Humanitarianism: The Marvellous Melbourne of E.W. Cole in Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man (2010).’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, 2017, doi: 10.20314/als.d538d2da7a.