English Heritage and Australian Culture: The Church and Literature of England in ‘Oscar and Lucinda’

In an interview on Canadian Radio, Peter Carey talked about a church from his home town in Australia that he had wanted to save - an incident which became the inspiration for Oscar and Lucinda. Carey explained: “I lived in this place in the country, and I liked the way the little weatherboard church sat in the landscape. When I heard it was to be removed, I was upset. Then, of course, I was curious about my feelings - why should I, an atheist, care what happened to a Christian church? The answer, of course, is that although I was no longer a Christian, the image of the church evoked a great deal of my own cultural and spiritual history. If white Australia had a 'culture' it was predominantly a Christian one - it had destroyed 40,000 years of Aboriginal culture to establish itself. Now, it seemed the Christian culture was dying. This seemed an interesting site for an exploration, which is what Oscar and Lucinda is - not so much saving history as inventing it, re-shaping it, creating ways of looking at it ... in young countries it seems more important to find ways to look at your past ... It's not always clear what it means ... But it's a great thing for the writers. You have a sense ... that you can do anything. The page is still blank. We really can make ourselves up” (Wachtel 103-04). Oscar and Lucinda appeared at a time when it seemed to many that in the process of imagining an Australian community, it was time to abandon any remaining connection with an English heritage - to 'slough off the Brit thing', as one New Zealand writer put it. But there is an ambivalence in what Carey has to say about the part played by English culture in the process of 'making ourselves up'. The weatherboard church represents a culture that Carey for one feels nostalgic about, even though it had replaced the previous indigenous one.

My argument is in three parts: first, about how Oscar and Lucinda seems to be signalling the need for a move away from the Church and literature of England because they were used in Victorian times as instruments of oppression; second that that's what in a sense they were for: that there was no coherent body of Englishness in either established Church or literature before they were constructed as institutions with the empire in mind; third, that the critique of imperialism within Oscar and Lucinda is actually based on ideologies from within Western culture, elements that had been suppressed when English institutions were constructed as servants in the cause of empire.

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Published 1 October 1995 in Volume 17 No. 2. Subjects: Anglicanism, Australian culture, Australian identity, Australian literature - International influences, Australian literature and writers, Colonialism & imperialism, English culture, English literature & writers.

Cite as: Brown, Ruth. ‘English Heritage and Australian Culture: The Church and Literature of England in ‘Oscar and Lucinda’.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 1995, doi: 10.20314/als.03e31ee5a6.