Disability in Three Australian Gothic Novels: The Well, Sing Fox to Me and Lilian’s Story


The Gothic lends itself to critical examinations of disabled embodiment, yet this genre has ‘hitherto been largely ignored’ by disability studies scholars (Gregory 291). This essay redresses this omission by exploring disability in three Australian Gothic novels: Elizabeth Jolley's The Well (1986), Sarah Kanake's Sing Fox to Me (2016), and Kate Grenville's Lilian’s Story (1985). On initial glance, The Well and Lilian’s Story conform to the use of disability in the Gothic as a metaphor for social and psychological deviance. However, closer inspection of these novels and Sing Fox to Me demonstrates their resistance to the Gothic’s typical use of disability in phobic ways. Hester’s disability in The Well enables her to transcend the gender prescriptions of her patriarchal Australian community, even if it is initially constructed as a physiological sign of her disturbing possessiveness over Katherine. Against the ‘dramatic and unforgiving natural settings’ of the Tasmanian Gothic (Bullock 72), Sing Fox to Me interweaves Samson’s experience of Down syndrome with perennial themes of the genre including familial haunting and the intersection of past and present. Similar to The Well, Lilian’s Story shows the politically transformative nature of disabled embodiment, wherein the titular character’s fatness and ‘madness’ allow her to achieve self-realisation while defying the gender norms of her time. Ultimately, the three novels suggest that the use of disabled characters in some contemporary Australian Gothic narratives is clearing space for less-stereotypical portrayals of corporeal and psychological variation in this genre.

On initial inspection, the exploration of non-normative corporealities, psychological estrangement and social marginality in the Gothic would appear to lend itself naturally to considerations of disabled embodiment and experience. This is partly attributable to the overrepresentation of ‘blind, mad, lame, crippled, and unusually embodied’ characters in classic Western literature (Garland-Thomson 523). Despite this, Martha Stoddard Holmes finds that disability remains ‘undertheorized by literary scholars’ of the Gothic at the same time as its texts are ‘overdetermined by a plethora of representations’. Alan Gregory shares Holmes’ sentiment, arguing that the genre ‘has hitherto been largely neglected’ by disability studies scholars even though ‘monstrous and unusual bodies’ are everywhere in its literature (291). The scarcity of critical disability scholarship on Gothic texts raises concerns about the relationship between fictional representation and reality. With its often ‘uncomfortable conflation of disability with monstrosity’ (Gregory 292), Gothic texts can perpetuate negative stereotypes of non-normative embodiment as a marker of socio-cultural or individual deviance. Furthermore, Gothic texts often exploit the experiential and visual shock of non-normative bodies as a metonym for examining societal anxieties about the racialised, sexualised and gendered ‘other’. Indeed, disabled bodies in literature ‘have historically taken on the coloration of whatever else is perceived to also lie on the social margins of society’ (Quayson 5), thereby functioning as a master trope for those who are most repudiated and loathed by a given culture. For Ato Quayson, such tropic (mis)use can result in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and attitudes towards people with disabilities in the real world (Quayson 19).

This article examines three Australian Gothic novels – Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well (1986), Sarah Kanake’s Sing Fox to Me (2016), and Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story (1985) – in their representations of disabled embodiment and experience. Readers can discern connections between these novels on the levels of genre, characterisation and theme. Gerry Turcotte observes that Jolley and Grenville are key women writers of the 1980s who found in the feminist Gothic a fitting mode by which to ‘comment on and condemn [Australian] patriarchal values’ (17). Importantly, both novels construct the domestic sphere as the site of women’s literal and symbolic entrapment by men. In terms of The Well, Hester’s possessiveness over Katherine demonstrates her complicity in the patriarchal matrices that manage and thereby seek to contain women’s sexuality (Gildersleeve 95). When it comes to Lilian’s Story, the father-daughter dynamic is used by Grenville in order to allegorise Australia’s struggle to liberate itself from the oppressive clutches of the British Empire (Ashcroft; Turcotte, ‘Telling Those Untold Stories’ 293). Lilian’s Story therefore reflects one of the key anxieties of the Australian Gothic, namely, the tenuous project of nation-building when it is consistently haunted by the traumas of British colonisation and frontier violence (Gelder 385). Yet Lilian’s Story also functions at a non-allegorical level by exploring the titular character’s eventual acceptance of her non-normative embodiment and ‘eccentric individuality’ (Ashcroft 55). Therefore, Albion’s sexual violation of Lilian not only demonstrates how the female body ‘is made abject by patriarchy’ (Turcotte, ‘Australian Gothic’ 17), but also the intersecting frameworks of ableism and disablism that debase certain lives due to their differences from able-bodied and neurotypical norms. Sing Fox to Me is initially different from The Well and Lilian’s Story because Kanake sets out to challenge existing stereotypical representations of disability – as either ‘aggressor’ or ‘angel’ (Sing Fox to Me: An Investigation 2) – in what the author calls ‘the Down Syndrome novel’. However, the novel bears similarity to Lilian’s Story in reframing alternative physical, psychological and sensory capacities as opportunities for interpersonal creativity and self-realisation.

Ria Cheyne argues that although characters with disabilities are common in genre fiction, it is only recently that cultural disability scholars have started to direct their professional interest and labour toward the study of genre fiction, and likewise for genre scholars to ‘embrace disability-informed perspectives’ (185). My article goes some way to addressing the absence of literature dealing with the overlap of disability and genre through specific attention to the Australian Gothic. Ultimately, I suggest that contemporary Australian Gothic fiction offers new ways of thinking about disability that go beyond its typical use as a figurative shorthand for social and psychological deviance. The Well, Sing Fox to Me and Lilian’s Story explore disabled embodiment and ontology in ways that are neither fully stigmatising nor stereotypical. While the genre has historically deployed corporeal, psychological and suprasensory otherness as a way to probe and redress social anxieties in a particular epoch (Punter, A Companion to the Gothic), the Gothic has also enjoyed a longstanding preoccupation with the subversion and transgression of social norms (Turcotte, ‘The Kangaroo Gargoyles’ 358). It is thus possible to consider the ontological and emancipatory possibilities of disabled embodiment in The Well, Sing Fox to Me and Lilian’s Story as an inbuilt feature of the Gothic, that is, the genre’s capacity to challenge and destabilise existing frames of reality and reference.

Disability and Possessiveness in Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well

According to Gerry Turcotte, Hester Harper is one of the ‘aged and frequently crippled’ women that appear in Jolley’s oeuvre (‘Australian Gothic’ 8). Hester’s limp in The Well affords the character with an alternative feminine reality to those that are constructed and enforced by the masculine hetero-reproductive matrices of work, marriage and property. As an unmarried, old and disabled woman, Hester points to the intersections of infertility, age and disability in their deviation from ideal female embodiment. The physical differences of Hester that codify her as sexually undesirable and inferior within a masculine hetero-sexist framework place her in contrast to Katherine, the beautiful and eligible teenage orphan whom she adopts. Alongside the Gothic undertones of its narrative, in which Katherine accidentally hits and kills a mysterious (human) creature on a country road that is then thrown down the titular well, Jolley’s novel explores themes of possession, oppression and deviancy.

One of the primary themes of The Well is bodily possession. Specifically, Hester’s obsession with Katherine draws out the conflict between the assumed patriarchal claim over women’s bodies, and women’s flight from both the proprietary language and romantic relationships that cause their oppression. According to Turcotte, Hester’s controlling behaviour towards Katherine ‘reproduces patriarchal ownership values’ (‘Sexual Gothic’ 79). Jessica Gildersleeve holds a similar opinion when remarking on the novel’s dramatisation of women’s individual and collective anxieties towards ‘structures of authority which manage them and in which they participate’ (95). This is not only made apparent through Hester’s domineering control over Katherine – manifest in her homoerotic infatuation with her young ward and repeated attempts to thwart her burgeoning heteroromantic interest in the mysterious body thrown into the well – but also the older woman’s comfortable socio-economic status. As a wealthy, unmarried landowner who exercises considerable influence among the townsfolk in her rural Australian community, Hester’s power is initially codified in traditionally masculine terms. This interpretation is supported by the epigraph of The Well, which initiates a proprietary contest between Hester and her father over the stereotypically feminine Katherine:

‘What have you brought me Hester? What have you brought me from the shop?’ ‘I’ve brought Katherine, Father,’ Miss Harper said. ‘I’ve brought Katherine, but she’s for me.’ (Jolley)

The notion that women’s bodies are a priori the property of men is suggested through the immediate assumption Hester’s father makes that Katherine is for him. That Hester inverts this normative expectation and claims Katherine for herself gestures towards her elevated status within her community; Hester’s wealth has afforded her some degree of latitude in deviating from expected feminine scripts of subservience. However, an alternative reading of Hester’s possessiveness over Katherine emerges when thinking about her disability. In addition to being an older and physically fragile woman who is prone to severe migraines, Hester has a significant limp that requires her to use a steel boot to walk around. Hester’s disability is most likely congenital (Cranston 9). A description of an old photograph from when Hester was a child captures both her impairment and a sense of social unease towards her physical difference:

The lame leg had not shown on the photograph even though the low-waisted dress was short. The skilful photographer had arranged her to sit in such a way that the little body and limbs looked perfect, the lame foot was tucked in behind the good one. Perhaps that was why, when she became older and painfully aware of the disfigurement, she had removed the photograph from its place and put it away. (Jolley 61-62)

This quotation suggests Hester’s shame over her disability stems from a sense of its aesthetic imperfection. The ‘skilful’ photographer is able to conceal her difference by manipulating her ‘good’ foot to be placed in front of the ‘lame’ one. Physical wholeness is thus restored, allowing Hester to become an exemplar of the doll-like child, perfect with her ‘rosy pursed-up little mouth and rounded cheeks the colour of ripe peaches’ (Jolley 60). Yet the artifice inherent in the photograph also demonstrates a larger societal repudiation of disability, where it is seen as both a general negative trait and one that strips the feminine body of its only form of capital: physical attractiveness. Hester thus holds her disability responsible for deprivations later in her life; the absence of physical plenitude leads to further absences, including that of sexual pleasure, marriage and children.

There is nonetheless emancipatory potential inherent in Hester’s otherness as an older, unmarried woman with a physical disability. As noted earlier, Hester’s status as a wealthy landowner is unusual given what Pilar Baines calls ‘the patriarchal ideology of [her] Australian community’ (57). Hester’s comfortable financial position is also what enables her the freedom to live indulgently with Katherine and create an intimate homosocial space devoid of masculine intervention. Hester sells the majority of her land to Mr Borden after her interest in running the farm wanes. She and Katherine move to a small cottage on the outskirts of the property, which she cultivates into ‘an intensely feminine space, filled with feminine activities’ (Goddard). Together, they engage in activities like baking, jam making, dressmaking and singing. Previously economical in her spending habits, Hester begins to delight in the financial and gustatory extravagance of their meals (Jolley 50-1). Adrienne Kertzer describes their life in the cottage as ‘a private world of pleasure, a sensuous world that refers to but does not depend on men’ (128). Nonetheless, the reader becomes quickly unsettled by the notable power imbalance between Hester and Katherine in spite (or perhaps because) of Jolley’s halcyon depiction of their domestic life. Hester cannot escape the patriarchal economy of possession, for she aggressively protects Katherine’s sexual innocence and unspoiled beauty through repeatedly refusing to allow Mr Bird and other men access into their home. However, while Hester seeks to confect an idealised domestic space to control her impressionable companion, the ‘forbidden, disruptive knowledge’ (Baines 9) of heterosexual intercourse cannot be denied. The intruder who Katherine hits and kills along the dirt road to their home serves to reintroduce the masculine into Hester’s artificial homosocial space through Katherine’s heteroromantic desires.

In order to understand Hester’s repudiation of heterosexual romance, it is necessary to turn to a traumatic childhood memory involving her beloved governess, Hilde. Initially, Hilde instils a romanticised version of heterosexual marriage involving a benign masculine counterpart. However, Hilde’s miscarriage, told in graphic terms, dispels such a notion for Hester: ‘In the soft candlelight she saw Hilde crouched on the floor, her nightdress spread like a tent, red splashed, round about her’ (Jolley 161-62). Hester’s recollection implies that Hilde has been having a sexual affair with her father, such that the young child could not reveal to him ‘what it would seem she knew about him privately’ (Jolley 163). As Cornelis Martin Renes explains, Hester’s refusal to help Hilde by going to her father, instead hiding in her room, becomes ‘a spatial metaphor for repression’ (9). Hester subsequently thwarts Katherine’s growing interest in heterosexual romance and marriage by preserving her ‘dainty innocence’ (Jolley 202). The protagonist’s knowledge of copulation also distorts her relationship with Katherine, where care for the orphan appears to blur distinctions between the maternal and the homoerotic. Such boundary crossing is evident in the way Hester views Katherine’s bodily perfection in contrast to her own. Katherine’s beauty appears not only to emanate from her youth but also her able-bodiedness; unlike Hester’s awkward, uneven and slow-moving gait, she moves gracefully and lightly. Hester revels in Katherine’s movements at the Borden’s party in the following description:

it gave her infinite secret pleasure to watch Kathy abandon herself to her own energy. Whenever she watched Kathy dancing, Hester, though outwardly showing no signs, moved in a wonderful freedom within herself … She felt free of bitterness, jealousy and longing. … She forgot she was lame and had always to depend upon a stick. (Jolley 95-96)

Baines argues that Hester’s adoration of Katherine’s dancing bears the traces of repressed homoerotic longing (55). For Baines, The Well ‘daringly propos[es] lesbianism’ as an alternative to the patriarchal restrictions of Australian rural communities (48), since Hester views ‘the dance … [as a] physical manifestation of physical love’ (Jolley 129, qtd. in Baines 55). And yet Hester’s immediate narration of Katherine at the party instructs us to consider the significance of her dancing in other ways. Through Katherine’s dancing, Hester enjoys the emotional and physical lightness of her able-bodied companion. She attains a private self-transformation in which she temporarily suspends awareness of her disability and the limitations that she believes it imposes upon her. Katherine is an idealised projection of what Hester is not, for through the young woman she achieves freedom from the ‘bitterness, jealousy and longing’ that in her mind characterise the destinies of unattractive, disabled women.

Sing Fox to Me: Resisting the Pitfalls of the ‘Down Syndrome Novel’

In contrast to The Well, Sing Fox to Me is a novel that directly involves itself in critical discussions about the (mis)use of disability in literature as a narrative or tropic device (Mitchell and Snyder). The novel is the product of Kanake’s doctoral thesis in creative writing at Queensland University of Technology. In her thesis, Kanake explains that Sing Fox to Me was written as a response to what she terms ‘the Down Syndrome novel’ (2014). Kanake criticises the Down syndrome novel for further marginalising people with intellectual disability by presenting their interior lives in limiting and superficial ways. According to Kanake, the Down syndrome novel forbids readerly understanding of the disabled character’s emotional and psychological processes; the disabled person is perpetually denied the narrative voice, and as such is subject to a process of ‘othering’ and detachment in being focalised through nondisabled observers. Through Samson Fox, Kanake aims to give disabled characters ‘the freedom to transgress boundaries around the expectations of Down syndrome’ (Sing Fox to Me: An Investigation, 34). In the Gothic, Kanake identified an ideal genre by which to displace the monstrosity usually reserved for disabled characters onto the ‘most traditional [of its] … tropes: Tasmania, ghosts, secrets, dead bodies and cloying natural landscapes’ (Sing Fox to Me: An Investigation 432). Moreover, in setting the novel in Tasmania, Kanake has interwoven Samson’s experience of Down syndrome with more archetypical themes of the genre: the intersection of past and present and the return of the repressed through familial and collective haunting.

Sing Fox to Me is set on a remote mountain property in rural Tasmania. Samson and his twin brother Jonah return to Tasmania with their father David after their mother has left the family. The mountain is home to their estranged grandfather, Clancy, whose troubled relationship with David stems from two traumas: the disappearance of River (Clancy’s daughter and David’s sister) many years ago, and David’s subsequent publication of a book of poetry insinuating Clancy’s involvement. Soon after reuniting with his father, David abandons his sons and leaves them in the questionable care of their grandfather. Sing Fox to Me utilises the thickly forested areas of Tasmania’s mountains to ‘form a forbidding mise-en-scène’ (Bullock 73) in which past atrocities – psychologically and literally submerged – may resurface into present reality. As the narrative unfolds, Samson and Jonah undergo processes of self and familial discovery. Samson develops greater acceptance of the ‘heaviness’ of his extra chromosome, a refrain in the novel that signifies self-awareness of his Down syndrome and its impact on senses of belonging in himself and with others. Through Jonah’s growing obsession with the Tasmanian tiger pelt owned by Clancy, he undergoes a transformation of both body and mind by literally becoming the thylacine. Jonah’s narrative is perhaps the most ‘Gothic’ of all in the novel, for in his initial inhabitation of the pelt and eventual merging with it, the thylacine, declared extinct in 1986, is discovered as ‘alive’ once more.

The evolution of Samson’s character is inseparable from the devolution of his twin Jonah, thereby suggesting the common Gothic trope of doubling. Towards the conclusion of the novel and after a devastating bushfire nearly destroys Clancy’s home, Samson sees Jonah as the Tasmanian tiger, his transformation having been completed. After musing on his father’s words that ‘You can’t force wildness out of an animal, or train it either’, Samson realises that his and his twin’s paths have finally diverged: ‘His brother had made his choice to be different, and [he] … had made his choice to stay the same’ (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 6). Samson’s progressive acceptance of his disability and use of sign language represent a deepened understanding of his unique embodiment. As the novel proceeds through his point-of-view narration, the reader is given unmediated access into the character’s complex emotional and psychological processes. Notably, Samson is depicted as a confident, friendly and sensitive teenager, whereas his nondisabled twin, Jonah, is socially awkward and prone to violent outbursts. In contrast to Samson’s, Jonah’s trajectory, in which he becomes the Tasmanian tiger, suggests the transmission of intrafamilial traumas from one generation to the next. Clancy analyses video footage of the mountain in the hope of finding evidence that the Tasmanian tiger still exists and, with it, the possibility that their aunt River may have become one of them. Jonah’s transformation into the thylacine invites speculation into the phenomenology of animal embodiment and folds back into the use of this creature in the Tasmanian Gothic ‘to represent the buried (but re-emerging) past’ (Philp 76).

In Alex Philp’s article on the thylacine in Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, the author speculates on the prominence of this animal in Gothic fiction, writing that it ‘plagues the Tasmanian imaginary’ (76). A reader might ponder what other figures, both animal and human, continue to haunt the present-day inhabitants of Tasmania, given the devastating impact of British colonisation on the island resulting in the genocide of its Indigenous peoples and irrevocable damage to its native flora and fauna (Davidson 307). Although Sing Fox to Me does not appear to refer explicitly to Tasmania’s dark origins as a penal colony, nor the extent of frontier violence against Aboriginal people such as the Cape Grim Massacre of 1828, Gildersleeve finds that ‘a sense of shame or guilt about the consequences of Australia’s colonial origins’ (91) is unavoidable when thinking about the Australian Gothic. The Australian Gothic, therefore, as a ‘discourse of trauma’, is a mode by which the nation might not only acknowledge, but also work through, some of the most shameful aspects of its history (Gildersleeve 91).

In the author’s use of the thylacine – the putatively extinct marsupial that remains an indelible symbol of colonial violence and loss in the Tasmanian Gothic – Kanake finds a way to disturb and restore balance between human and supra-sensory worlds. In ridding himself of his human form and thereby rejecting civilisation, Jonah as narrator demonstrates how nature in Gothic texts has the power to return its subjects to a more atavistic state. Yet, as the concluding chapter of Sing Fox to Me suggests, Jonah’s transformation is a necessary sacrifice to the mountain to re-establish harmony in the surrounding environment and unity among the Fox clan. The Tasmanian tiger observes the Fox family and the birth of a new baby girl from afar; the reader acknowledges how this birth signifies that the family has healed after many years agonising over River’s disappearance and possible death. Samson, too, has achieved a revelation of sorts at the novel’s conclusion; the boy lives up to his biblical namesake by climbing up and tipping over a water tank onto Clancy’s burning house. Samson’s resilience not only in this instance, but also in others where he recalls having been bullied and misunderstood by his parents and classmates for his use of sign language, is what ultimately enables him to negotiate the traumatic legacies of his family history.

It is perhaps fitting that Samson, rather than his nondisabled brother Jonah, is able to facilitate a truce between his family and the Tasmanian wilderness, the latter being viewed as a space replete with dangers both real and imagined. It is also important to note that Jonah, rather than his disabled twin Samson, becomes the thylacine in Kanake’s novel. In so doing, the novel resists the ideological and physical conflation of disabled characters with animals that is often present in literature and culture (Elmer and Wolfe 147, qtd. in Minich 47). Moreover, in the Western ontotheological tradition, the possession or lack of speech is perceived as an indicator of the individual’s closeness to animality. Karl Steel writes about the ‘widespread association of nonhumans and muteness across scholarly cultures’, using as evidence the preponderance of medieval texts that associate mutum (muteness) with animalia (animals) and surdum (deafness). Seen from this discursive angle, Samson’s Down syndrome, along with his use of sign language, could have further entrenched the assumption that disabled people are physically, cognitively and perhaps morally closer to non-human animals than nondisabled individuals.1 However, Sing Fox to Me privileges sign language as a form of communication that creates interpersonal intimacy through the joyful effects of bodies in motion. This reflects Lennard J. Davis’ understanding of sign as ‘the locus where the body meets language’ (115). Even though Samson does not have a hearing impairment, his preference in using sign demonstrates his resourcefulness in finding an alternative language for communicating with others. Contrary to family members who regard his use of a sign as a deficiency or lack, Samson draws on the unique visuospatial properties of sign to gain an intimate connection with the Fox family home (‘he made the sign for house and gradually turned it into home’ [Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 6]) and the natural environment in which it is ensconced. While Jonah’s transformation into the thylacine signals the character’s psychological undoing and total abandonment of civilisation, Samson’s use of sign allows him to mediate between human and non-human worlds. Samson’s increased attentiveness to these worlds is reminiscent of H-Dirksen L. Bauman and Joseph J. Murray’s notion of ‘Deaf Gain’. Rather than viewing deafness through a prism of loss, Deaf gain emphasises how recognition of sign as a legitimate and rich form of communication leads to increased biocultural diversity. Drawing on Sarah F. Taub’s assertion that ‘metaphoric iconicity’ is abundant in sign languages, Bauman and Murray argue that sign might be more effective than oral speech in representing complex ideas in concrete, rather than abstracted, ways (249).

The novel establishes Samson’s preference for sign over oral speech in order to mark Samson as different from the rest of his nondisabled family as well as enhance his status as an outsider at his ‘special school’ in Queensland. It is established early on in Kanake’s novel that Samson’s family views his use of sign as an impediment to his intellectual development, as well as something that draws attention to – like the stigma of Down syndrome – his differences from ‘normal’ children of his age. David encourages Samson to ‘use your words’ and not his hands (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 1). Further reflecting the common misperception of sign as a deficient or inferior mode of communication is the fact that neither David nor Jonah bothers to learn enough of it to communicate with Samson in his preferred way (‘his dad only learnt enough sign to tell him to speak instead’; Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 2). However, Samson views his use of sign in completely different terms from David and Jonah. For Samson, words and speech are often unfathomable; reference to his ‘extra chromosome [that] was so heavy’ (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch.1) shows the presence of a wide communication gulf between himself and others as a result of a prevailing audist belief that privileges auditory modes of communication over those that are written or performed through the body (Davis 172). Samson strains for empathic connection with family and friends, but ultimately cannot achieve this through oral speech (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch.1]). However, through the help of Mattie Kelly, a deaf girl whom he befriends when he moves to Clancy’s mountain, he learns to appreciate the unique linguistic and experiential properties of sign.

Significantly, Mattie’s explanation of sign as a form of ‘Body S-Y-N-T-A-X’ (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 4) allows Samson to arrive at a closer connection with the spiritual and natural landscapes that surround him, the mysteries of which have remained inaccessible to Clancy. While Clancy pores over with increasing obsession videotapes of the bush for glimpses of the Tasmanian tiger and the long-lost River, Samson engages directly and wholeheartedly with the natural environment, acknowledging its secrets as a source of wonder rather than contempt. Samson’s way of connecting with the natural environment around him relies upon neither aural nor visual cues. Instead, meaning is simultaneously generated and changed through the haptic interplay between the signer and receiver of a message. The following passage reveals how Samson and Mattie create new possibilities through using sign with one another:

Mattie explained that their world was special, different, and there were things they could understand that other people would think were weird. In using their hands, she told him, they could pass knowledge back and forth between their bodies. She was like a dancer, she signed, and it was a dance on both sides. Body S-Y-N-T-A-X, she called it. (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 4)

For signers like Mattie and Samson, the passing of knowledge involves an intimate exchange between bodies. This is something that ‘other people would think were weird’, the assumption being that hearing people lack the graceful movements of dancers and are unaware of the dynamic and complex gestures that make up the language of sign. The lessons Samson learns from Mattie ultimately transfer into his treatment of the surrounding natural environment. Whereas the human presence in the Tasmanian landscape has so far been figured as a destructive force (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 3), Samson arrives at a profound understanding of its vitality through the movement that inheres within all organisms. In other words, nature, like his own body, has its own ‘body syntax’ that creates a dance ‘for anything without a voice and a story to tell’ (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 6). This revelation reaches its climax when Samson begins to sign directly to objects around him and they in turn answer him back: ‘his hands told the story of himself to the bush … He signed to the trees and the air … the leaves answered like wind chimes’ (Kanake, Sing Fox to Me ch. 6). Much like Jessica White’s analysis of poetry by Judith Wright, in which the poet’s deafness led her to become increasingly attentive towards non-human lives through the enhancement of her visual faculties, Samson and Mattie suggest that a disability involving the loss of one sense might result in considerable gains with another. White’s contention that ‘deafness contributed to Wright’s ecological consciousness and her awareness that there are other modes of being’ in the world (ch. 25) might apply equally to Samson and Mattie, whose shared gift for communing with nature runs in stark contrast to characters such as Clancy and David. Ultimately, it is through Samson’s use of sign that narrative resolution is achieved in Sing Fox to Me: painful family divisions begin to heal and balance is reinstated on the mountain, if only provisionally.

The Fat and ‘Mad’ Woman in Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story

In contrast to Kanake’s deliberate political project in Sing Fox to Me, where Samson’s centrality to the narrative works against the ‘Down Syndrome novel’, Lilian’s Story is similar to The Well in initially using the titular character’s fatness and madness as traits that define her negatively against others. However, Lilian gradually embraces her outsider identity, such that her socially marginalised position allows her to transcend the normative gender expectations of her early- and mid-twentieth century Australian context. Moreover, unlike other Gothic texts, in which corporeal excess and psychological otherness are often equated with moral turpitude, Lilian’s Story displaces such anxiety onto Albion, her tyrannical and abusive father.

Before contextualising my own reading of Lilian’s fatness from a disability studies perspective, it is useful to refer to previous Gothic, postcolonial and feminist scholarship on Grenville’s novel. Ruth Barcan has commented on how Lilian’s body ‘threatens established codes of behaviour and systems of order’, namely the ‘phallocentric’ and ‘rationalist’ worldviews evident in early-twentieth century Australian society (37). Bill Ashcroft has also turned his attention to the father-daughter relationship in Lilian’s Story as an allegory for Australia’s gradual emancipation from British imperial rule: ‘[Lilian’s] starring role in her own drama, mirrors a national story struggling to come into being’ (57). With this allegory, Grenville taps into an important political dimension of the Gothic apparent since its earliest literary instantiations; David Punter writes that this form ‘relate[s] very closely to issues of national assertion and social organisation’ (A Companion xi). Ken Gelder also observes that Australian Gothic fiction, especially that written during the immediate period after colonisation, ‘intervenes directly in the process of nation-building, of settlement and home-making in the New World’ (381). Commencing at the precise moment of Australia’s Federation in 1901, Lilian’s narrative indeed suggests a doubling between Albion’s terrorisation of his daughter and the suffocating control of the British Empire over its colonial subjects. Yet Grenville also incorporates aspects of the feminist Gothic to comment powerfully on Australia’s vexatious relationship with British Empire, codified through a familial and traditional gender dynamic in which Australia is ‘feminised’ and oppressed by its (former) colonial master. Moreover, through the Rosecroft family home, Grenville draws attention to the domestic sphere as a quintessential site of fear and entrapment in feminist Gothic literature. As with The Well, it is not the presence of a literal ghost who terrorises its female inhabitants, but rather the ongoing threat of masculine predation and violence.

With these critics in mind, my analysis takes a somewhat different approach to Lilian’s fatness and alleged madness by arguing her gradual acceptance of both is a deliberate political act culminating in an embrace of a marginal identity. A reading of Lilian’s Story from a disability studies perspective lends further understanding towards the ways in which society pathologises non-normative embodiments. While Lilian’s fatness does not lead to any physical impairments or illness, her embodiment may nonetheless be claimed as an object of disability studies due to a shared experience of discrimination, stigma and environmental barriers (Cooper; Meleo-Erwin; Herndon; Mollow). Indeed, Anna Mollow finds that the ‘modes by which fat people are oppressed are indistinguishable from ableism’ (200) and as such, fatness is ‘an interpretable form of disability’ (201). My subsequent analysis will bear out the shared political concerns of fatness and disability in the novel.

Laura Deane notes that ‘Lilian’s Story, with its themes of madness, sexual violence and female entrapment, is a classic example of the Australian Gothic’ (18); the Gothicism of the novel is nowhere more apparent than in the absence of physical privacy in Lilian’s family home, Rosecroft. In ‘Listening Japanese Ladies’, Lilian explains that ‘sounds carried well’ because Albion had removed all doors in the house. Lilian and John therefore find novel ways to conjure a sovereign space for themselves free from Albion’s intrusions. While Lilian overeats to create a wall of physical impenetrability between herself and Albion (‘there was too much flesh now for father’ [Grenville, ‘Leviathan’]), John resorts to selective consumption of ‘loud’ foods to drown out Albion’s bombast (Barcan 33). The chapter ‘Leviathan’ describes how Lilian’s overeating and subsequent overweight are a protective mechanism against Albion’s corporal punishment. The chapter immediately follows the first time Albion strikes her for disobedience (Grenville, ‘The Fruits of the Sly’). After her punishment, Lilian declares that she now ‘ate in private as well as in public’ (Grenville, ‘Leviathan’). Meanwhile, John finds alternative ways to resist Albion’s tyranny and patriarchal values that neither he nor his sister can uphold. Physically weak and regarded as having a below-average intelligence, John is the antithesis of Albion and is viewed by the former as a disappointing heir. John’s effeminacy is remarked upon by other characters in the novel (‘You got a sissy brother, she said’ [Grenville, ‘Plots’]) and is metaphorically construed in the different foods that he and Albion eat. Grenville suggests that the hypermasculinity and domineering behaviour of Albion are directly connected with his overconsumption of meat, whereas John’s delicate constitution (perhaps a signifier of the character’s supposed effeminacy) is more inclined towards vegetarian options:

Across the table from me … John crunched his way through entire bunches of celery, heads of lettuce, raw green beans, apples that sprayed juice, anything loud. John! Father would exclaim, I cannot hear myself think! (Grenville, ‘Three Types of Crustacean’)

The foods that Lilian eats also suggest a different psychological and gendered origin. Lilian is susceptible to sweet, starchy and highly processed foods, and thus her overconsumption of these may be viewed as an historical predecessor of modern-day ‘comfort eating’. Barcan makes the point that Lilian’s fondness for cream pies and stew ‘provide solace for the social ostracism that follows, ironically enough, from her tactical use of food, which has left her fat and marginalized’ (32). However, Lilian’s self-becoming in the novel is predicated on her refusal to internalise the hatred of others towards her fatness, and her determination instead to celebrate the fact that she is a 'substantial woman' in both size and character (Grenville, ‘Taken Away Again’). To facilitate this transformation, Lilian escapes from the suffocating confines of Rosecroft and goes into the Outback. According to Gillian Whitlock, ‘the carceral cell has been perceived as a defining character of the national [Australian] literature’ (qtd. in Staniforth 2), where the home has operated as an enduring symbol of psychological entrapment and hostility. Deane remarks on how Lilian’s Story uses interior spaces, including the home, asylum and prison as emblems of women’s exclusion from the nation-building project (5). Consequently, the scholar regards Lilian’s preference for wide, open spaces as reflecting her need to find ‘locations that exist outside, or at the limits, of colonial patriarchal law’ (5). In going to the Outback, Lilian finds a new means of connecting with her body that is counter to gendered and ableist norms. Herndon writes that for women, to be obese is ‘not only a medical emergency but also an affront to dominant aesthetic values of female embodiment, both of which constitute ripe ground for further discrimination of women’ (130). Such attitudes are readily apparent during the second section of Lilian’s Story (Grenville, ‘A Young Girl’) when Lilian comes of age and is forced to attend matchmaking parties (Grenville, ‘Lawn Lovelies’). Yet through her extended peripateticism in the Outback, Lilian begins to recognise how her fatness is an opportunity to fulfil her aspiration to become a proud, fat and independent eccentric who history will remember. This is best demonstrated in ‘Running Away’, when Lilian returns to the Caledonian Hotel naked and triumphant:

The publican’s daughter … Perhaps she had seen breasts before, or a tuft of springy hair between thighs. Or perhaps it was just the way the angry thieving faces behind me were staring up in lust and outrage. You will always remember this, I told her. (Grenville ‘Running Away’)

Later in the final part of the novel (‘A Woman’), Lilian also embraces her marginal status as a ‘mad’ and fat woman by roaming Sydney’s streets, reciting Shakespeare to passers-by, and finding unrequited love with a man resembling Lord Kitchener. Throughout Lilian’s Story, the protagonist’s fatness and her outspoken behaviour are constructed by others as signs of moral and intellectual deficiencies. Indeed, Lilian’s reluctance to be cast in the role of a dutiful daughter, then wife and eventual mother is seen as a sign of psychological instability. Even at a young age when she shows a keen interest in asking questions at school and wanting to engage in physical activities normally reserved for boys, Lilian is pejoratively cast as a ‘loony’ who is destined for a life of spinsterdom like the ‘batty old maid’ Miss Gash (Grenville, ‘Public Pride’). Moreover, her fatness is figured as a physical manifestation of a compromised psyche by Albion, who forces her into an asylum after he rapes her. For Sander Gilman, ‘Being fat is identical to being unreceptive to the realities of the world. It is a sign of the impairments of one’s intelligence and emotions’ (514). Albion appears to regard Lilian’s fatness and ‘madness’ as co-constitutive elements of her identity. Upon seeing Lilian at her aunt’s funeral, Albion hisses, ‘you are an example of the degeneracy of the white races … You are sterile and degenerate, and as corrupt as a snake’ (Grenville, ‘A Friend Gone’). In Albion’s misogynistic denunciation of Lilian, her fatness is regarded as her failure to act in accordance with normative scripts of femininity, that is, to have children (‘sterile’) and be sexually modest (‘corrupt as a snake’). His words, too, can suggest an ableist and eugenic paranoia towards reproduction among those who are deemed physically and mentally ‘unfit’ for this task. Nevertheless, Lilian’s Story concludes with the protagonist embracing her ‘madness’ and fatness as sources of individuality and power. After being released from jail, Lilian returns to the streets and commits herself to ‘be[ing] seen and heard, noticed and remembered’ (Grenville, ‘In the World’). Lilian finally realises that being ‘larger than life’ (Grenville, ‘In the World’) involves not only the celebration of one’s eccentric and ex-centric positioning in society (Deane 2), but also fat embodiment as a source of internal pride rather than revulsion.


In the context of literary representation, disability rarely features as an incidental or ‘ordinary’ attribute of a character (Barker and Murray 2); instead, disability takes on a range of metaphorical meanings that stray far from the actual ‘fact’ of impairment. This essay has sought to explore the representation of non-normative bodies in Gothic fiction, observing that while ‘the history of … dealings with the disabled body runs through [this genre]’ (Punter, ‘A Foot Is What Fits the Shoe’ 40), such representations have typically reflected negative stereotypes of disability relating to moral deviance and psychological disturbance. The three Australian Gothic texts I have included in this article use disabled embodiment and experience in ways that problematise such limiting and superficial portrayals. Hester’s disability in The Well invites a counter-interpretation wherein her limp is not only a physical sign of her obsession over Katherine, but also what affords her social and economic freedom in her narrow-minded rural community. Meanwhile, Kanake deploys the ‘dramatic and unforgiving natural settings’ of the Tasmanian Gothic (Bullock 72) to alleviate readerly discomfort towards Samson’s disability. Last, Grenville clears a space in her Gothic novel for Lilian’s fatness to be a source of individuality. These three novels ultimately show that disability in Gothic novels has the simultaneous potential to reinforce notions of social and psychological deviance, as well as offer more varied depictions of psychological and physical difference.


  1. It is important to note that there is a lack of consensus among scholars (and people with auditory impairments) on whether deafness is a disability. Deaf studies considers deafness as ‘conceptually distinct from disability linguistically, socially and ideologically’ (Corker 5). However, disability and deafness share similarities in the way ableist and audist cultures respectively conceive of (physical and sensory) difference as a maligned condition requiring correction through biomedical, educational and/or social interventions.

Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Gothic, Elizabeth Jolley, Kate Grenville, Disabled characters, Down syndrome.

Cite as: Shek-Noble, Liz. ‘Disability in Three Australian Gothic Novels: The Well, Sing Fox to Me and Lilian’s Story.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.a3d9c712dd.