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

Abstract

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 a clanging noise, attracting passersby on the street outside and drawing them into the Arcade.

As the slogans on these kinetic signs suggest, Cole actively used the store as an advertisement not only for his products, but for his ideals, which focused on a borderless world, united by the recognition of a common humanity, and fostered by knowledge gleaned from extensive reading. In addition to these signs, he issued customers with coins that could be exchanged for goods in store but were more often simply collected instead. They were embossed with sayings such as ‘Reading and thinking brings wisdom’, and ‘One day there'll be a world with no borders’. Cole also used the store’s printing press to produce a variety of pamphlets and other publications, including the enormously popular Cole’s Funny Picture Book for children, which was printed throughout the twentieth century; a range of compilations of poetry; a tract proclaiming the commonalities of all the world religions; and a series of more overtly political pamphlets, including: ‘A White Australia Impossible’ (1898) and ‘The Better Side of the Chinese Character’ (1901) which addressed increasing racism in the city (Lang, E.W. Cole).

It is the humanitarian and idealistic side of Cole – which sometimes sat uneasily alongside his entrepreneurialism – that Lisa Lang particularly focuses upon in her novel Utopian Man (2010), a biofiction that takes the form of a series of recollections, as the aged Cole looks back upon his life. It is material Lang also explores in her earlier work of non-fiction, entitled E.W. Cole: Chasing the Rainbow (2007). This is a slim volume in which an account of Cole’s life is interspersed with reproductions of his pamphlets and images from his picture books. The fiction fills out this sparse record, imagining conversations, exploring Cole’s motivations and fleshing out aspects of his life lost to the historical record. Moreover, the work of fiction enables Lang to invoke the cultural memory of Cole’s vision to address what she perceives as the needs of the present. In what follows, I examine the way the novel deploys Cole’s Book Arcade as a technology for envisioning colonial Melbourne anew, mapping onto the nineteenth-century city the image of Cole and his humanitarian vision. In turn, I argue, Lang makes this vision of Cole and his arcade a lens through which to view the present, a strategy characteristic of janus-faced neo-Victorian fiction. Lang’s novel is an Australian example of this subgenre of historical fiction which, always looking forward as it looks backward, reinterprets the nineteenth century for contemporary readers, and in light of present concerns. At a time when Australia is once again actively – and theatrically – closing its borders, Utopian Man mobilises institutionalised nostalgia for the Arcade and its founder in service of nostalgia for a more open, compassionate Australia. The novel reimagines Melbourne’s diversity, expansiveness and eclecticism in the late nineteenth century, reconstructing a moment when the country hovered at the edge of federation but also wavered at the brink of establishing the notorious White Australia policy, which sought to limit Asian immigration. The novel makes of the Arcade an Australia that-could-have-been, displacing onto it a vision for a more open, and open-minded, Australia. Making the Arcade stand metonymically for the city, and then for the nation, the novel constructs a moment of alternative possibility for Australia, one that, from the opening pages of the novel, is also lost. In this way, nostalgia for the lost institution of the Arcade is transformed into a longing for a country that, perhaps, never was; a country that embraced cultural diversity and welcomed migrants.

I

Running in its central Melbourne location from 1883–1929, Cole’s Book Arcade was touted then, as now, as ‘a shop like no other’ (Melbourne Museum). In Chasing the Rainbow Lang describes how, at its height, the Arcade encompassed two city blocks and three storeys, not only offering a vast assortment of books, but enticing customers with an array of spectacles, including Chinese tea rooms, a wonderland of ‘crazy’ mirrors, a printery, a roomful of monkeys, an aviary, a fernery, confectionary, a music department including a symphonion and, in the afternoons, a live band. The carnivalesque atmosphere combined oddly with an overt focus on readers and reading: hundreds of chairs were available for readers to simply enjoy the books, and a sign assured them, ‘Read for as Long as You Like – Nobody Asked to Buy’ (Lang, E.W. Cole, 53–54, 50–51). For Cole, it seems, all the pleasures of spectacle offered by his Arcade were put in the service of attracting readers.

The city of Melbourne embraced the Arcade. It became synonymous with nineteenth-century Melbourne, and remained so, long after it ceased to be a favourite meeting place. Its vibrant, eclectic atmosphere seemed to capture the essence of the booming nineteenth-century metropolis, and continues to do so for contemporary re-constructions of the historical city. In a review of the Melbourne Museum, Graeme Davison emphasises the importance of Cole’s Book Arcade as a means of imagining the city:

Here, as elsewhere in the exhibition, we are subtly reminded that the history of the city is not only a story of changes in technology and ways of life, but in ways of seeing and communicating. From Fawkner’s printing press through the Cobb and Co. mail coach, the telegraph and railway, the magic lantern, the diorama, Cole’s Book Arcade, the stereopticon, the cinematograph and television, the city is a product of imagination, that is, literally, the creation and dissemination of images. (377)

Strikingly, here the Book Arcade becomes more than a feature of colonial Melbourne, a favoured shop or meeting place. Aligned with the magic lantern, the stereopticon, the cinema and television, it becomes a technology for seeing and communicating. In particular, it becomes a technology for seeing the city, a tool for imagining it into being.

As its prominence in the Melbourne Museum today suggests, Cole’s Book Arcade is popularly associated with nineteenth-century Melbourne, and is used as a tool for positioning the city as outward-focused, modern and progressive. This insistence upon Melbourne’s cosmopolitanism dates to the very beginnings of the city. As I have suggested elsewhere, there is a sense in which Melbourne’s narrativisation is always-already neo-Victorian, a reworking of the great city of London in a new and vastly different context (see Mitchell, ‘Making and Unmaking “Marvellous Melbourne”’, 50). The characteristic grid of the inner city was laid in 1837, coinciding with Victoria’s accession to the throne; it was named for the British Prime Minister, William Lamb, Lord Melbourne; and the state in which it is situated is named Victoria, for the reigning monarch. The landmarks of London were grafted onto the colonial city, so that Melbourne had its own Temple Court, Chancery Lane and Cremorne Gardens. Almost from the moment Europeans arrived in the area, Melbourne was envisaged as a cosmopolitan city to rival London, Paris, New York and Chicago. The local press delighted in comparing the city to London, finding its theatres, restaurants and shopping – those markers of metropolitan life – at least comparable, if not preferable. For example, in Southern Lights and Shadows, published in London in 1859, Frank Fowler claimed: ‘In the purlieus of the theatres there is any number of flash houses similar to those so plentifully found in London’ (36; see also Grant and Serle 79). In this context, Cole’s Book Arcade became a tool with which to proclaim Melbourne’s status as a modern city, alongside those of Europe and America. In 1889, an article in Melbourne’s Leader asserts the city’s international renown and swiftly links this fame to the Arcade:

Visitors from other parts of the world are amazed at Melbourne's greatness, and we are justly proud of our metropolis, which is certainly the ‘Queen City of the South.’ Among the places of interest for which our city is so well known is Cole’s wonderful Book Arcade, with its 100,000 sorts of books, its endless variety of fancy glass and chinaware, its free musical entertainments and its innumerable attractions, which are so appreciated by the public, as is testified by the thousands who visit it weekly. (‘Cole’s Book Arcade’ Leader)

Here the Arcade is envisioned almost as a city within the city, with its own bustle and myriad attractions and entertainments. By 1904 the Argus asserted the international status of the Arcade was now so well known the store could no longer surprise even the most significant international visitor:

The Book Arcade is a feature of Melbourne that at one time came as a surprise to all the notable travellers of the old world, but the remarks of such noted visitors as Dr Talmage, Mr George Augustus Sala, Mr Froude and others have led to its fame spreading beyond Australian shores. Attempts have been made to imitate it in other states and colonies, and Mr Cole has recently received information that a project is in view to establish a similar situation in London. ('Cole’s Book Arcade’ The Argus)

Whereas for the Leader in 1889 the Book Arcade helped to bolster Melbourne’s international reputation, for the Argus in 1904 the Arcade becomes a vehicle for reversing the colonial trajectory and enacting a movement from periphery to centre. While in previous years there was surprise at finding such a store in the colonies, this gives way as the Arcade’s fame spreads internationally until finally London itself seeks to imitate Melbourne. The city is envisaged on the international stage through the lens of the Arcade.

II

Lang adapts this celebratory view of the Arcade’s international fame for her novel, and celebrates, too, the cosmopolitanism and modernity of Cole himself. Harnessing the use of the Arcade as a symbol of the modern city, Utopian Man recreates the arcade in celebration of Cole’s commitment to ideals of cultural diversity and inclusivity. Focusing this part of Melbourne’s history through the figure of Cole is characteristic of the renewed interest in biography, biofiction and other forms of life writing in the twenty-first century. Cora Kaplan notes the prevalence of life writing among neo-Victorian fiction, and links it to the re-emergence of a particularly Victorian interest in the human subject in the early twenty-first century: ‘Certainly the noughts have been the comeback years for a humanism which gives priority to individual lives, making biography and autobiography privileged genres’ (37). Utopian Man focuses its humanistic return to biofiction on a figure who espouses humanistic ideals that centre on the value of reading for attaining knowledge and fostering connections to other people. The novel constructs Cole’s love of books as entwined with these ideas, but also as emerging from his encounters with the darker side of human nature, on the goldfields and in the colonial city.

Cole had migrated to Australia from England, via South Africa, in 1852 and, like so many in that period, spent his first years on the goldfields. There he discovered he could made more money selling lemonade to miners than he could from seeking gold. Lang’s Cole describes to his wife the terror he felt in that tent city, describing the gunfire at night like ‘being dropped suddenly, into some deranged war’ (Utopian Man 47). Returned from the goldfields, he ran a pie cart in a tiny space on Russell Street, in the centre of Melbourne. During this period, he spent his nights selling pies to those who inhabited the seamier side of the city: ‘Working nights to feed the red-eyed drunks and prostitutes who tore at the pies with their teeth, burning their mouths in their rush for meat’ (45). But it was also during this period that his love of books flourished. Working at night, he spent his days in the public library, reading books. He reminisces about the first time he entered Melbourne’s large public library, aged twenty-five, and it is constructed as the moment his egalitarianism is founded:

[He was] almost flattened by the weight of his ignorance. There was just so much there. […] He chose [a book] at random, his hands grey against the paper despite the cake of soap the library provided. He was sleeping in the street then, living in a world of dark and narrow lanes, and the sudden excess of light and space and knowledge was brutal. He felt exposed to its glare, grubby and uncouth. He slid the volume back. There was shame in the way he dropped his head, his hand trailing columns on the way out. But by looking down he saw a simple plaque, missed on entering, which read: For the people of the city. It stopped him in his tracks. The people of the city – wasn’t that him? It was true he was grimy, ignorant and all the rest, but that library was there for him. He could read any book he liked. He could read all day, every day, if he chose. Nothing was stopping him. Nothing! The power of this thought was dizzying: the world spread before him. (8)

Here, the library becomes an idealised antidote to the inequalities of the city; it provides a ‘cake of good soap’ to its visitors, to remove their grime. This passage captures the links the novel makes between the city and reading, reading and knowledge, knowledge and a worldly expansiveness. Books are a technology for seeing, a way of communicating, and they are also a way of belonging. The library and its books open up to Cole a different experience of the city: the world of dark and narrow lanes opens out to ‘light and space and knowledge’. This view of reading is enshrined in the novel by Cole’s design for the Arcade, which includes a domed glass ceiling – a ‘cathedral of intellect’, as his wife Eliza calls it. Early in the novel, as he prepares to open the Arcade’s doors for the first time, Cole ‘hopes, more than anything, that the Arcade will be a place of wonder, of generosity and small revelations’ (8). Aware that he has become carried away and stocked seven hundred thousand books – too many for the city – he reflects: ‘But that is the point. Let them see for themselves how wide the world is. Let them see what it can hold’ (8). In this way, Lang depicts Cole as utterly in and of Melbourne, but with an eye firmly fixed on the wider world in its complexity. His goal for the bookstore is not simply to sell books, or make money, or build a personal empire, though it accomplishes all these things. Rather, as Daniel Wood writes in a review of the novel, by opening up the wide world, the novel’s Cole aims to turn 'the denizens of Melbourne' into 'compassionate global citizens by providing them with a means to conquer their instinctual fears of the differences that divide the peoples of the world' (n.p). Books, he believes, are a means of opening oneself up to the world, and thereby to greater knowledge and compassion.

In this way, the novel depicts reading as a tool for cosmopolitanism in its most utopian sense, transcending boundaries of nation, class and gender and fostering the idea of a common humanity. ‘Cosmopolitan’ is a not a term Lang deploys, but her evocations of Cole’s ideals clearly draw from a nineteenth-century understanding of the concept, which, Tanya Agathocleous argues, ‘was burnished with the language of human interconnection’ (2–3) and invoked a ‘universal brotherhood’ that lives harmoniously (2). Exhortation to this ideal finds its way onto the Arcade’s signs and coins and, in Utopian Man, also dominates Cole’s thoughts. To take one example, the novel describes Cole’s experience in Japan of a human emotion he takes to be universal. He watches a Japanese dance ceremony and although he struggles to follow the story, he soon experiences recognition:

The dancing and the drumming, brought together, seemed to express a sense of yearning not unlike his yearning for family and home. It was bittersweet, and welcome, a confirmation that our human existence is shared. When the drumming grew rapid and loud, and the dancers, kneeling, rose suddenly to their feet, hope surged through Edward. And he realised then that he was following the story, emotion by emotion. A communication so old and pure it raised the hair on his neck. (188)

The novel does not worry over whether this cross-cultural identification is too simple, or too easily assumed; the close identification of the narrator with Cole means it, too, celebrates this as a moment of human interconnection.

As Agathocleous notes, cosmopolitanism is itself a Victorian term that has been reinterpreted and refigured, such that critics now recognise its contradictory and problematic uses. This critical revaluation has recognised that for the Victorians, the ideal of cosmopolitanism is entangled with the inequitable circulation of global capital so that, in some contemporary readings, ‘cosmopolitanism’ continues to function as an apology for capitalism (3). While it is focused on Cole’s belief in human interconnection and equality, Utopian Man does obliquely register these more dystopian views about cosmopolitanism’s complicity with capital. The effect is that the novel’s portrait of Cole is riven by an ambivalence about the commercial aspects of his own empire.

Cole’s hope that the Arcade will be ‘a place of wonder, of generosity and small revelation’ (8) is dogged by knowledge of what it has taken build it: ‘Every penny now sunk in this one venture. Their future bound up in ton of paper and the whims of public taste’ (8). In the Arcade, Cole’s ideals about reading are intimately bound with his family’s fortunes. Cole is not above a little sleight of hand to encourage spending among his customers: ‘And if he has cheated a little – exaggerating the number of books, both in his ads and in the careful placement of mirrors – then it is all for a good cause’ (8). The levity of the tone here, coloured by what is presented as Cole’s innate optimism and good cheer, is typical of the novel more generally. The narrator maintains a very tight focus on Cole’s own perspective, which charms and jollies the reader over many of Cole’s more reflective moments. His idealism is entangled with his desire for success. As he watches customers flood his store on opening day, and revels in the sights and sounds of this crowd, his exaltation at his idealistic vision for the Arcade is inextricable from his pleasure in commercial success, too: ‘And a new sound joining the band; the clear tones of the cash register bells’ (10). The crowd does not entirely match his utopian vision of interconnection. They jostle and push and Cole recognises that ‘[b]eneath the broad goodwill lies a hint of violence’ (10). Cole finds a solution that also supports his commercial endeavours – charging threepence for entry to the store, in exchange for a commemorative medal – and he revels in the result: ‘He is charging them admittance, and they, in their festive fervor, are cheering him for it […] Edward dips his hand into the bag of cold medals and laughs’ (11).

Despite its registering of this entanglement of larger ideals and the commercial success of the Arcade, the novel remains focused on Cole’s vision of the Arcade as a space in which everyone can belong and Cole is sympathetically drawn in relation to both his staff and his customers. He encourages people to eat their lunch in the fernery, to play with the trinkets and toys on sale, and most of all, to read the books. This applies to all, regardless of their capacity to buy: 'No one is too poor or downtrodden to be welcomed into our midst. Every single person must feel it in their hearts: this is a place where I belong’ (79). This celebratory portrait of Cole is consolidated by the depiction of him as one who remains committed to his ideals while increasingly at odds with those around him – his business friends, his manager and in some circumstances even his usually supportive wife – as he attempts to build it according to his own, humanitarian, vision. Contemplating the struggle to bring his vision into being, he reflects: ‘Building the Arcade was like trying to dream the same dream every night: holding the vision clear while details twisted and changed’ (9). One example of this increasing conflict occurs when the city is crippled by the depression of the 1890s. His friend and advisor, D’Arma, warns him that ‘the city is going to be decimated – bankruptcies, shop closures, joblessness’ (73). This vision of the city, and the idea that he could lose the Arcade, leaves Cole with ‘[a]n expansive fear, a desert of fear, pure and arid and airless’ (74). Yet, though advised by friends, business associates and finally his wife, to lay off staff and retract the business, Cole stays committed to his ideals:

‘If the Arcade was no ordinary business to him, the same was true for his customers’, he tells himself. ‘For them it was many things: a resource, a meeting place, fun house, opportunity, retreat. It was expansive, big-hearted; it was whatever they needed it to be. To cut it back, he believes, would be to kill it'. (78)

Rather than retract, he expands, in an attempt to anticipate the needs of his beloved city. He adds a lending library and the room of optical illusions, hoping to raise the city’s spirits: ‘He will swish his cape and make the depression disappear – at least from within these walls’ (79). Rather than introduce job losses, he cuts all staff’s shifts by two hours per week.

More importantly for the novel’s politics, though, is the way Cole is portrayed as fighting to retain his vision in the face of increasing anti-Asian sentiment in the city, following the economic downturn in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Cole’s resistance to increasing racism is depicted as stemming from his ideals of equality, but more foundationally, too, from a deeply personal commitment to the memory of his friend Lucky Cho. The memory of Lucky Cho rises, unbidden, in Cole at unusual moments. While compiling material for the second edition of Cole’s Funny Picture Book, Cole suddenly recalls meeting Lucky Cho on the goldfields, a place with ‘no order, no real governance, just men with shovels, men with guns, exhausting the same small patch of earth’ (32). Here, aged twenty-one, Cole had lived alone, ‘in fear of being robbed, being beaten, killed’ (32). Instead he falls ill with dysentery. He lies in his own filth, feverish and unobserved. But, as the fever breaks, a man hands him a bowl of food and tells him to eat: ‘Edward saw then that the man was Chinese, and thought, how do I feel about that? Realised he didn’t feel any way, apart from filthy, hollowed out. Scooped up the rice with ginger and stuck it in his rank, sulphurous mouth’ (33). The two men become friends and digging partners. ‘Who knows what would have happened if Lucky Cho had not befriended him’ (34), thinks Cole. This reflection reverberates throughout the novel in less positive terms as it gradually becomes clear that Cole owes Lucky Cho not only his life, but also the Arcade itself. Cole’s defence of Chinese immigrants according to a cosmopolitan ideal of human interconnection is also more darkly entangled with and complicit in the circulation of capital.

It is clear from very early in the novel that Cole is haunted by the image of Lucky Cho and his fate. He has bad dreams, in which ‘he’d fallen down a deep mineshaft. There was water up to his neck, and his feet were slowly sinking into the soft mud bottom’ (21). Later, it is another man he sees in his dreams at the bottom of the mine: ‘He sees: a deep mineshaft, and at its bottom, a man lying face down in mud and water. One hand stretched out like a bright starfish against the purplish mud. Lucky Cho. Well, he is not surprised’ (62). For much of the novel, references such as these hint at a dark outcome for Lucky Cho, and Cole’s sense of guilt, which haunts him, implies he is somehow to blame. When Cole and his wife visit a spiritualist and she suggests she is in communication with someone who drowned, Cole’s guilt threatens to overcome him: ‘Edward bows his head. The mineshaft, that starless night. Of course he cannot escape it. Let him be accused. Tears sting his eyes’ (85). A few lines later, Cole’s guilty thoughts reveal a possible motive: ‘Lucky Cho died in a puddle of water at the bottom of a mineshaft. 1853. A two-ounce nugget in his trouser pocket’ (85). In this way, by hints and half-revelations, the novel flirts with the possibility that Cole’s fortune is built upon this nugget, and upon the murder of Lucky Cho. It is only much later in the novel that it is revealed that Lucky Cho’s death was an accident, brought about by too much alcohol and wandering late at night. Cole’s guilt is founded on his drunken inability to search for Lucky Cho: ‘He knew that time was passing, and that he ought to look for his friend; the camp was dangerous, they would always watch one another’s back. But Edward was warm and safe, blissful by the campfire, and soon he slept, or simply passed out’ (208). As penance and as precaution, Cole refuses to drink ever after. His guilt stems, too, from his decision to benefit from his friend’s death, despite his sense of responsibility:

But it was not long after that he got to his knees to search Lucky Cho’s pockets for the nugget. Held it in his ripped and bloody palm. And decided there was no point burying that. Or the money pouch, strapped to his dead friend’s chest. The nugget and the money more than enough to set up the lemonade stall, the enterprise from which all his ventures flowed. The root of all his wealth. (208)

Throughout the novel, Cole attempts to hold these memories at bay, but they erupt, unbidden at key moments. After the opening of the Arcade, Cole is visited by the vision of Lucky Cho, who says: ‘I see you made good use of our money. Cole ponders these words, attempting to determine their tone: are they a blessing, or a reproof from his dead friend?’ (12). The novel thus links Cole’s entire enterprise to Lucky Cho’s death and Cole’s guilt over the fact he was unable to save his friend from drowning in a puddle, and that he built his empire from the gold nugget he took from his friend’s pocket. In doing so, the novel complicates Cole’s vision of an equal and interconnected world, a universal ‘brotherhood’ that is blind to race, by intimating its complicity with, and emergence from, exploitation. And yet, as in relation to Cole’s exultation in extracting more money from his customers, the novel both alludes to and glosses these darker elements. Adopting Cole’s perspective, his attempts to redeem his action, and assuage his feelings of guilt, become the narrative’s own as it balances this view of Cole against a more commemorative agenda.

Lang particularly emphasises Cole’s resistance to increasing racism in the city. At the height of the Arcade, when he decides to open a Chinese tea salon, and hire Chinese staff to run it, his friend and advisor D’Ama warns him against it. ‘You won’t make a lot of friends in this town, giving jobs to the Chinese, and during a depression’ (130). The novel connects this moment, and Cole’s support for immigration, to his memory of his younger self, newly arrived, in Australia, hoping for a new adventure: ‘[h]is whole life leading to this city at the bottom of the world, brimming with gold. Or so he had felt’ (130). Cole responds to D’Ama simply: ‘I might make some Chinese friends’ (130), yet this interpolation of D’Ama’s questioning of Cole’s support for Chinese migrants with Cole’s recollection of his own arrival, bound for the goldfields where he will meet Lucky Cho, draws lines of connection between Cole’s exploitation of his Chinese friend, and his resistance to anti-Asian sentiment. It also establishes fraught contrasts between the different experiences of immigrants from Europe who, however poor, are white, and therefore privileged, and those arriving from countries that will be targeted by the White Australia policy.

Cole promotes the idea of racial equality by publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Real Cause of Colour in Mankind’, which his employee, Benson, describes as ‘saying that racial differences are superficial and don’t determine a person’s essential character’ (113). He also runs a competition in his Arcade, whereby customers attempt to guess where a man named Simon Gabriel is from. This man was born to black parents and grew up in Portugal as a black man. However, his skin has gradually turned to white: ‘I stand before you as a white man, but this is not how I was born. I was born in Mauritius some forty years ago, and I can tell you now, I was born black. As black as an Indian’ (123). Cole’s response emphasises his desire to reeducate prejudice: ‘Edward’s mind has begun to race ahead. Is this it? Is this the extraordinary something to shake people out of their prejudice? This pleasant, articulate, cultured, black and white man? And if so, how? What does he do with him?’ (124). His solution is to install him outside his Chinese tea salon, chatting with customers, who are then invited to guess his nationality: ‘It had taken him months to see it: let the man be himself. He will impress and charm them and, when they discover he is black, they will have to concede he is inferior to no one’ (132). While the novel alludes to less lofty origins for Cole’s ideals, it is also at pains to present as laudable his stubborn resistance to those who oppose them. His manager, whom Cole thinks of as ‘Orthodox Owens’ (132), describes Gabriel as ‘a freak of nature’ and accuses his employer of turning the Arcade into a ‘freak show,’ but Cole is delighted to assert: ‘It will not be a freak show. It will be educational. Lessons for mankind’ (131).

If the novel registers some ambivalence toward Cole’s complicity with capitalism and the entanglement of his cosmopolitan ideals with the very inequities they rebuke, it also, more overwhelmingly, celebrates Cole’s vision of an interconnected world and a common humanity. The sympathy with which Cole is portrayed means that while Cole’s guilt over Lucky Cho might suggest his exploitation of a friend, his worry over this act, together with the generosity with which he treats his family, customers and employees, including Benson, a man who steals from him (81), directs attention away from these darker aspects of his past. From traditional biography, this biofiction adopts a certain hagiographical impulse. Even at the end of the novel, when the narrative perspective shifts, with Cole’s death, to that of his lawyer, this only serves to reproduce and confirm the celebratory vision of Cole. Observing Cole’s family, the lawyer reflects they do not behave as other families made wealthy by the passing of the patriarch. Rather than the ‘relief, satisfaction, awe’ he sees on the faces of heirs, he sees unmitigated grief: ‘This family looks as lost as children left by the roadside’ (236). No one is interested in the money and only truly seem to listen to the lawyer when he turns to the ‘unorthodox, if not totally unprecedented’ legacies, which are deeply personal ‘gifts’ to each of his children. To Linda he leaves ‘my empathy and love of books’; to Eddy, his ‘decency and a sense of honour’; to Vally his ‘imagination and self-belief’; to Pearl, his ‘determination and courage’; and to Ivy Diamond, ‘good will and a happy disposition’ (237, 238, original italics). In the final chapters, then, the novel reasserts an image of Cole as decent, honourable, imaginative, determined and good-willed, if quixotic. In his ‘legacy’ to Pearl he exhorts: ‘Live the life you want, and if they call you eccentric, take it as a compliment. If they don’t, ask yourself what you are doing wrong’ (238, original italics). True to his own, unconventional vision, Cole commits the Arcade to trustees: Belinda, Simon Gabriel and Benson or, as the latter put it, to ‘the woman, the black man and the thief’ (240). Throughout the novel, then, while Cole’s humanitarian vision is in part depicted as entangled with his capitalistic goals, his character is also drawn with sympathy, and with a certain nostalgia, or sense of loss. In this way, Lang celebrates Cole, his Arcade and his ideals as superior in their own time, in order to make them a lens through which to view an inferior present.

III

The use of the nineteenth-century past as a lens with which to examine the present is characteristic of neo-Victorian fiction, which reworks and refigures nineteenth-century history and fiction in contemporary narrative. Robin Gilmour argues that, in this genre, the Victorian past ‘exists in dynamic relation to the present, which it both interprets and is interpreted by’, such that the reinvention of the Victorians becomes ‘a means of getting a fresh perspective on the present’ (200). Published in 2010, Utopian Man rewrites the life of E.W. Cole and his ideals, including his opposition to the White Australia policy, in order to interpret the closing of Australia’s borders in the twenty-first century. In so doing, it establishes a dynamic relationship between past and present, in which the institutionalised memory of Cole and his Arcade is made to speak to present concerns.

The novel is very deliberately shaped by nostalgia, which is embedded in its very form. Its main action, beginning in 1883, is cast as an act of memory in its opening chapter, so that the novel’s nostalgia is masked as Cole’s own. The prologue is set in 1918, with an ageing and retired Edward Cole living quietly at Earlsbrae Hall, in Essendon. In the segue to the story proper, we are introduced to the Arcade as, quite literally, a dream: ‘Sleepiness, that rare thing, is settling behind his eyes. Time to pull back the covers and take off his coat. Eyes on the mirrors, he sees his white head nearing the white pillow. The flowers, lines of pink and indigo, happy corridor to his dreams’ (5). This introduces the following chapter, which is headed ‘Melbourne Cup Day, 1883’: Cole’s dreams return him, and us, to the day his new Book Arcade opened, in the heart of the city of Melbourne, to great fanfare and crowds of people.

After this time-slip, from 1918 back to 1883, the novel progresses chronologically, though it sometimes skips forward in time elliptically so that whole years are compressed into a few pages or skipped entirely. The largest ellipses occur toward the end of the novel, which skips from 1913 past the events of World War I, straight to 1919 when a solicitor reads the deceased Cole’s will to his gathered family. Given the centrality of the first world war to Australia’s coming-of-age mythology throughout much of the twentieth century, this ellipsis is significant, and has the effect of de-centering the war in the national narrative, a narrative that privileges white, male, middle-class and rural Australia. In the final chapter, the novel skips again to 1929, the year the Arcade closed its doors, as though to fulfil Cole’s own worry that without his vision the store will fail. Despite the chronological progression that governs the ordering of chapters, the novel does not progress in linear fashion within the chapters themselves but follows the capricious twists, turns and regressions of memory.

These formal properties lend the novel as a whole an air of nostalgia, constructing the Arcade as a place of wonder and possibility that is always already lost. Unlike many contemporary historical novels, Utopian Man is set entirely in the past, and as such does not directly name or depict contemporary events. Nor does it set up an explicit dialogue with the past through multiple storylines, as is often associated with more critical – and less nostalgic, celebratory – fictionalisations of the past (see, for example, Hutcheon 45, 93, Gutleben 84). It does, however, include moments when Cole explicitly imagines the future, the year 2000, that is, and the reader’s present. Pondering what the Arcade will be like, he can only think about this by relating it to the question of ‘what kind of city will emerge by then?’ And, perhaps more seriously, ‘what about the books themselves – handsome, compact, self-contained – could they change in any fundamental way? (31). Moments such as these invite reflection upon the present in which Lang writes, and her readers read. This sets up the dynamic relation between past and present described by Gilmour, in which the present and the nineteenth-century past reinterpret each other. While, as I have argued, the novel celebrates Cole, his Arcade and his humanitarian vision, its nostalgia functions in the sense Svetlana Boym identifies, not only as the longing for a home that most likely never existed, but, more critically, as a manifestation of alternative paths, of the ‘off-modern’:

There is in fact a tradition of critical reflection on the modern condition that incorporates nostalgia, which I will call off-modern. The adverb off confuses our sense of direction; it makes us explore sideshows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narrative of twentieth-century history […] In the off-modern tradition, reflection and longing, estrangement and affection go together. (xvii)

Lang’s novel mobilises nostalgia for the Arcade institutionalised elsewhere, in museum exhibits, on websites, in books and blogs about Melbourne, and uses it to imagine a detour in the narrative of Australia’s nation formation: one in which Australia resists the urge to restrict its immigration, particularly to Europeans. Utopian Man deliberately attempts to revise readers’ understanding of the city, meticulously overwriting it – situating its characters in Melbourne’s famous streets and lanes, plotting nineteenth-century stores and inns – with the image of Cole and his vision. In this way, Lang uses Cole’s story to encourage a re-visioning of Melbourne’s past. In an interview, she describes the way researching Cole’s story transformed her understanding of the history of her own city:

I had grown up on stories of criminal folk heroes and sporting legends – that was history, as I knew it. The Cole story radically altered my concept of the city and its past. Suddenly I saw a history full of colour and diversity: Turkish bathhouses, Chinese immigrants, séances, opium dens, entrepreneurs, conmen and grand idealists.’ (Hill)

It is this heterogeneous and sometimes occluded history that Lang writes into her novel, celebrating, through Cole’s love for it, a vibrant and diverse city. In this way, Cole’s own nostalgia, and that which structures the novel, becomes a means to analyse the past, allowing it to open up and challenge the present.

Cole’s commitment to racial equality and a multicultural nation becomes a means for the novel to address contemporary Australia and the vexed question of immigration, including the seeking of asylum. In an interview, Lang explicitly links her novel to contemporary Australian politics around border protection:

It was the bleak heart of the Howard years, and the height of the Children Overboard affair, when I first encountered the story of Edward Cole. I was immediately struck by the energy and flair of a man who led a life unconstrained by convention or public opinion. (‘The Story of My Book’)

Lang refers here to an incident in October, 2001, in which ministers for the Howard government claimed that Iraqi asylum seekers had thrown children overboard from the boats in which they were attempting passage to Australia, in in a bid to pressure an Australian naval crew to pick them up and take them to Australia. The accuracy of these claims was later disproven in a Senate Inquiry, but the government was able to use the hysteria and anti-refugee sentiment this evoked to enact stricter border protection measures and, in fact, to win an election. As Kate Slattery writes, ‘the "children overboard" incident, as a constructed "media event", was used to reinforce public attitudes towards the asylum seeker "other" and to reaffirm an Australian "self" – that of a "good", "moral" Australian citizen’ (93).

Slattery argues that this event exploited public fear and insecurity to shape Australian identity and ‘legitimise government action in the name of protecting this “self”’ (93). Although the government was criticised for exploiting voters’ fears and demonising asylum-seekers, it can only be said that this strategy worked, and worked so well that subsequent governments have continued this trajectory of vilifying asylum-seekers and escalating border controls. Analysing comments made by John Howard, then Australia’s Prime Minister, Slattery observes these reveal ‘that border protection in Australia has a long history, where the threat of an "other" is always imminent; for the government’s policies to remain legitimate and effective, there must be an ever-present threat’ (99). Moreover, the terms with which the Howard government ran its election campaign ‘declare[d] the government’s ideas about control – not only of borders, but also of citizenship, including national identity and values.’ By analysing the discourse surrounding the ‘Children Overboard’ affair, Slattery concludes that ‘through the manipulation of visual and textual representation, the government and media drew a boundary or frame around the asylum seeker “other”, in effect creating a false and stereotypical image whilst attaching negative values and characteristics to that image’ (102). The discourse surrounding this event depicted the refugees as ‘inhuman, uncivilized and immoral’ and the Australian public’s fear was made personal by ‘references to national security and family responsibility in terms of good/moral citizenship’ (102). Lang depicts this conjunction of governmental agenda, media and fear as operative in late nineteenth-century Australia, tracing similar sentiments and strategies back to newly-federated Australia. It is in these, inhuman, terms, that the Chinese of Utopian Man are characterised by the most people in the city, including Cole’s customers, who return his pamphlets denouncing the White Australia policy with ‘clear and unmistakeable disgust.’ One man even throws it to the floor and spits on it (192).

In the portrayal of the friendship between Cole and Alfred Deakin, the architect of The Immigration Restriction Act (1901), otherwise known as the White Australia policy, the novel suggests the contingency of history; it disrupts any sense of inevitability or of historical forces, and suggests history is shaped by individual choices. It witnesses to the possibility of making different choices in the same circumstances, and to the individual’s capacity to choose the kind of person she or he wants to be, which, in turn, shapes the city and even the nation. In the late nineteenth century Alfred Deakin was chief secretary and leader of the Liberal party. He worked to promote federation and became federated Australia’s second Prime Minister. In the novel, when Deakin and Cole first meet they recognise in each other a like-mindedness, a shared vision: as Deakin articulates his desire to eradicate poverty, prevent disease and end child labour in factories ‘Edward realises: this man actually cares’ (44). They talk, immersed in ideas, for some time, with Cole recognising a ‘feeling, warm and diffuse, that feels almost like the start of friendship’ (44). For his part, Deakin sings the praises of the Arcade, describing it as, 'the perfect marriage of commerce and philanthropy, a boon for Melbourne, jewel of the city' (43). They appear to share a set of ideals, shaped by the desire to improve their city and its inhabitants. Over time, however this shared vision diverges.

It is in their understanding of the nation in relation to the world that they differ most markedly. Cole’s own dream – and it is the historical Cole’s too; Lang takes it directly from a pamphlet in which Cole imagines the year 2000 (E.W. Cole 44–45) – is for the world itself to become ‘one federated country, with one religion and one language’ (30, original italics). His vision is for a world without borders, a universal connectedness facilitated by ‘a network of railways, telegraphs, telephones and later inventions’ (30, original italics). Deakin’s dream is for a federated country, with strong, secure borders, protecting a White Australia. The novel’s title, Utopian Man, lacks a determiner such as ‘a’ or ‘the’, which has the effect of attaching the idea not to a single individual, but to a larger concept. Indeed, both Cole and Deakin might initially lay claim to the novel’s title, since each imagines a kind of utopia; Cole’s vision is for openness and a common humanity, while Deakin’s is for a closed and protected nation. Lang’s Cole senses the divergence of their views, and questions the other man’s compromised idealism:

And Deakin making his speeches in parliament: common heritage equals common purpose, walking the thin line between populism and prejudice, not saying the Chinese are bad, but denying their rights all the same. Does he even believe all he says? The Deakin he knew embraced a wider world than that. Edward wonders just how many compromises, how many deals he has allowed himself to make. (180)

Deakin becomes a portrait of a man whose own ideals are compromised by his political pursuits, his need to collect votes. In response to Cole sending him one of his pamphlets, Deakin writes: ‘The Japanese are a fine race of people, but the government must give priority to the needs of the white man, to protecting his wages and preserving his culture and customs’ (195, original italics). For his own part, Cole had been pleased to welcome federation, but this becomes ‘tainted’ by the push for ‘White Australia’, which he thinks of as ‘this backward move towards some tribal unity. Rubbish printed in the papers daily. His Chinese staff unable to leave the country, to visit dying parents, for fear of not being allowed back. One of his waiters pushed down in the street for wearing a pointed hat’ (180). He senses that the nationalism underpinning federation is itself underwritten by a growing racism, an increasing intolerance for migrants, particularly from Asia and, in his mind, connects this shift in Australian policy and culture to Japan’s history of enclosure: ‘A country that withdrew from the world for two hundred years, where foreigners were put to death for the crime of trespass’ (198).

In the novel as in history, Cole is willing to voice his unpopular opinions. He writes and publishes a pamphlet entitled ‘White Australia Impossible’, explicitly opposing the policy Deakin was instrumental in drafting and promoting. The city of Melbourne responds negatively. The Herald newspaper prints a scathing review of it and Cole’s own customers hand the pamphlets back or spit on them. Bitterly disappointed, Cole clearly articulates the link between his Arcade and his vision of a borderless world: ‘The Arcade, [he thinks] is the opposite of violence, the opposite of fear, of all the forces that close us off from the world and ourselves. The Arcade is the opening up’ (149). Offered evidence of overt racism among his employees, Edward ‘feels himself descend into a numbing bewilderment. How to rid the world of bigotry if he can’t even rid the Arcade of it’ (150). And yet, he reflects, he is not entirely surprised, he should have anticipated this response: ‘For he remembers when these streets were dirt. When men gambled their futures on a bit of rock. He remembers the sheep being herded down Elizabeth Street, and the crowds that formed to watch the latest hanging’ (195). The implication is that the modern city, with its glittering shop fronts, bustling roads and its aspirations to the world stage, is a facade, but a facade its people desperately want to believe in.

Ultimately, the novel suggests character, whether of the individual, city or nation, results from small choices made every day. Cole’s personal views are challenged when he discovers his son is addicted to opium, one of the fears mobilised against Chinese immigrants. As one of Cole’s employees puts it: ‘They say that you should be the last man to defend those Orientals […] They can’t understand why you’d help the Chinese when they made your own son an opium addict’ (200). The novel tracks Cole as he searches the alleys and dens of Chinatown, and pictures him, in his darkest moment of his despair for his son, espousing the racism he has fought in others:

He has given jobs to the Chinese and they have ruined his son […] What was it with these people – this cursed, contemptible race – bringing ruin upon them all! And Edward, like a dupe, a dunce, so busy singing their praises. Championing their cause! Working to make it easier for them to come here and spread their foul influence. (210)

Yet while he momentarily falls prey to these feelings, he does master them, recognising their origins in his own guilt and fear. As though in direct response to the darkness he has seen within himself, Cole goes to Deakin, and makes a final plea against the White Australia policy, telling him that ‘facilitating or using the hatred of others is a grave mistake':

You’re a fair and decent man. I always thought of you as a visionary, someone who could see the bigger picture. Can’t you see our future lies with Asia – with the world? We cannot retreat from it and not do damage to ourselves. I know you want what’s best for your country. So, for your country’s sake, I beg of you, reconsider your position on this […] Or you must live with the consequences. As we all must. (217)

Cole’s speech looks ahead to the forging of the Asia Pacific region in the twentieth century. The implication of his words is that we all continue to live with the consequences of this retraction, this closing of Australia’s borders. Rather than simply blame this on our nineteenth-century ancestors, however, the divergent paths of Deakin and Cole emphasise the role of choice. Cole recognises how easily his own, strongly-held, ideals were, at least momentarily, trumped by fear: ‘Last night he felt how quickly fear, and hurt, and guilt could turn to hate’, he reflects. ‘And how that hatred tarnished everything.’ Moreover, he muses, as he contemplates his own and Deakin’s separate response, ‘the person you are is a choice you make, over and over’ (218). His idealism, and that of the novel, remains intact.

The final pages of the novel, set in 1929, cast the Arcade and its ideals as anachronistic, a relic of the past. Fletcher, a zookeeper who plans to travel to India, remembers reading Kipling’s The Jungle Book when he was twelve, ensconced in a chair at Cole’s Book Arcade; his desire to travel now directly linked to his childhood memory. Yet he struggles to find words to describe the Arcade to a younger zookeeper, newly arrived from Brisbane, and this itself becomes a kind of eulogy:

But how to put into the words the feeling that it gave you: that possibilities abounded, that the world was wide and that you yourself were capable, adventurous, destined? And if he found the words, what meaning would they hold for someone who has Luna Park and the pictures every weekend?

Fletcher rocks back on his heels. ‘I used to go to that arcade. Quite a place, in its day.’ (245)

While the novel reluctantly consigns the Arcade, its books and its spectacles to a lost past, its returning to fictional life of both the store and its founder offers a challenge to contemporary Australia. The novel’s nostalgic invocation of Cole and his arcade papers over some of the contradictions of Cole’s cosmopolitanism, such as the entanglement of his humanitarian ideals with entrepreneurialism. Utopian Man points obliquely to the inequalities generated by the circulation of capital as another side to the ideals Cole espoused, but focuses much more squarely on Cole’s generosity or, as Lang puts it in her nonfiction, on the ways in which ‘Edward was interested in more than making money’ (E.W. Cole 47). The representation of Cole’s cosmopolitanism and the humanitarian ideals it encompassed serves to critique the contemporary nation, not primarily the nineteenth century. The novel asks its reader to ponder an Australia that could have been and, by implication, an Australia that never was. Unlike much neo-Victorian fiction, Utopian Man neither rewrites a canonical Victorian novel, nor offers the perspective of a character whose point of view has been historically marginalised: Cole is an affluent, white man, however working class his origins. Rather, the novel takes an institutionalised memory, that of the iconic Cole’s Book Arcade, and annexes it to a vision of a more generous, open, Australia. Harnessing nostalgia for the Arcade, Lang channels this as a nostalgia for a lost city, and a lost nation, one that was less xenophobic, more open, and more focused on a common humanity.

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. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.d538d2da7a.