Dying of Landscape: E.L. Grant Watson and the Australian Desert

The six, relatively neglected Australian novels of Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson, written between 1914 and 1935, present an intriguing and complex reworking of their author's engagement with the Western Australian desert. Equipped with a broad literary background, a close knowledge of psychoanalysis and Jungian ideas, a deep interest in comparative religion and the prior experience of travel in the Middle East, as well as a training in biology and anthropology, Watson would seem the archetypal Renaissance man, uniquely qualified to interpret his experiences within the European context of his time. Yet, unlike his two later autobiographical explorations of this period, But to What Purpose (1946) and Journey under the Southern Stars (1968), the novels proposed such radical views about Aboriginal culture and European settlement that, despite their anti-feminist stance, they could now pass as respectably postcolonial and as prefigurings of the late twentieth-century preoccupation with the spirit of place that in Australia is peculiarly associated with desert areas.

As an index of this unconventionality it is useful to note the interesting parallels between the intellectual careers of Grant Watson and Charles Darwin. Born 76 years apart, both were brought up in a form of faith--in Darwin's case Christianity, in Watson's case Darwinism, of which both his parents were fanatical devotees. Both, after completing a Cambridge degree, set off on a scientific voyage to the other side of the world where they found their faith challenged by experiences that were non-explicable in terms of their former ideological framework. Both spent the rest of their lives trying to construct a new theoretical system that would make sense of these experiences. Darwin lost his unquestioning faith in Christianity and an ordered picture of Nature, and constructed evolutionary theory, predicated on chance events rather than design. Half a century later Watson lost his faith in Darwinism, replacing it with a form of Jungian biology, searching for pattern rather than chance. For Darwin, the trigger to revision came from his observations on the Galapagos; for Watson it was the period he spent in the Western Australian desert.

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Published 1 May 1999 in Volume 19 No. 1. Subjects: Australian landscape - Literary portrayal, Bush, Characterisation, Deserts, Imagery, Metaphors, Narrative techniques, Women, Writer's craft.

Cite as: Haynes, Roslynn D.. ‘Dying of Landscape: E.L. Grant Watson and the Australian Desert.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 1999, doi: 10.20314/als.b551ea493e.