Review of Colonial Australian Fiction: Character Types, Social Formations and the Colonial Economy, by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver


Colonial Australian Fiction: Character Types, Social Formations and the Colonial Economy, by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver. Sydney University Press, 2017.

Over the past decade, Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver have been researching nineteenth-century Australian popular fiction with the aid of a succession of research grants. Associated publications have included a series of genre-based anthologies of gothic, romance, adventure and crime stories, as well as a selection of extracts from the local journals in which many of these stories were first published. While these books included introductions by Gelder and Weaver, Colonial Australian Fiction is their most sustained account of the field.

As its subtitle indicates, Colonial Australian Fiction has a particular focus on the range of character types found in novels and stories set in Australia during the nineteenth century. The five chapters follow a broadly chronological path, taking us from the squatter novel of the 1840s through to the Australian Girl of the 1890s. In between, we are introduced to bushrangers, detectives, shepherds, swagmen, larrikins and dandies, with city types increasingly taking over from bush types as the century progressed.

In their introduction, the authors note that colonial Australian fiction began at much the same time as European literature became interested in character types, something they attribute to the emergence of new scientific disciplines like ethnology, physiognomy and evolutionary zoology. In Europe, of course, the nineteenth century also saw an accelerated movement of population from the country to the city and the associated rise of mass entertainment genres like melodrama and pantomime. As well, it was a time of increasing nationalism. All these factors contributed to the growing interest in easily recognisable character types. One-man-shows in which the actor made quick changes in costume, accent and gender were popular, particularly in places without established theatres. In their concluding chapter ‘The Australian Girl’, Gelder and Weaver discuss Edward Geoghegan’s The Currency Lass, which premiered in Sydney in 1844, noting that its heroine Susan Hearty is an early version of a type that became more prominent in later fiction. As her name implies, Susan does indeed share the self-confidence and frankness that were thought to distinguish Australian girls from their more timid and reticent English sisters. In addition, she is beautiful and a highly accomplished actress. In the course of the play, Susan demonstrates this by impersonating a series of character types: a young midshipman, a French singer and dancer, and finally, a Currency Lad.

It is not surprising that the growing interest in national and occupational types soon reached Australia, with authors keen to capture the most distinctive features of this new continent and its inhabitants for readers in Britain. Gelder and Weaver discuss a range of non-fiction and fictional impressions in their introduction, noting that by the 1840s the earlier distinction between stirling – those born in England – and currency – those born in Australia and so believed inferior because of their convict parents – had been replaced by one between New Chums and the Native Born. The native-born whites in their turn, as the authors also note, had usurped the indigenous status of Indigenous Australians, who were thus dispossessed of both land and identity. While battles with local tribesmen resisting the occupation of their lands did feature in colonial Australian fiction, Indigenous Australians were never as prominent as Native Americans and Maoris in American and New Zealand writing of this period.

This is very apparent in the best known of the squatter novels discussed by Gelder and Weaver, Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), where the primary villain is a bushranger, and the ‘dispersal’ of the original inhabitants of the squatters’ lands is dealt with in very summary fashion. In their chapter on the squatter novels, the authors provide a useful historical summary of the reasons for the spread of squatting, a survey of different representations of squatters throughout the century, and a brief account of changing critical reactions to Geoffry Hamlyn. For Marcus Clarke it was ‘the best Australian novel that has been, and probably will be written’ but the more ‘assertively Australian’ Joseph Furphy, or at least his persona ‘Tom Collins’, thought it an ‘exceedingly trashy and misleading novel’. Recent critics have attacked the work for its racism, pointing out that Kingsley’s mother came from a family with longstanding links to the slave economy of West Indian plantations (40–1).

Both the first literary work to be published in Australia and the first original play to be performed were about bushrangers, indicating how early this national type was established. Gelder and Weaver trace changing fictional representations of bushrangers throughout the century, with a particular focus on Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1888), the first to present them as heroes rather than villains. Its international success inspired many other novels, including Rosa Pread’s Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893) and three titles by the prolific Hume Nisbet. In his Bail Up!, while there are many echoes of Boldrewood, the squatter figure is presented as evil rather than noble, and the bushrangers are able to carry out the escape to the south seas which is thwarted in Robbery Under Arms. The bushrangers featured in Nisbet’s The Bushranger’s Sweetheart (1892) and A Bush Girl’s Romance (1894) are, as Gelder and Weaver point out, very different to the feral figures of earlier decades, one being a not very successful author, and the other writing a cookbook which becomes a bestseller when published after his death. Detailed information about lesser-known titles such as these is a particular strength of Colonial Australian Fiction.

Gelder and Weaver begin their chapter on detective fiction by claiming that John Lang’s The Forger’s Wife (1855 but serialised in 1853) was ‘the first detective novel in Australia and, most likely, the world’ (73). They note that Lang’s detective, George Fowler, was apparently based on Israel Chapman, a convict who became Australia’s first real-life detective. As the population of Australia expanded after the gold discoveries of the 1850s, so did detective branches and detective fiction. Melbourne’s Australian Journal published hundreds of stories by Mary Fortune, as well as work by Ellen Davitt, James Borlase and Robert Percy Whitworth. Later fiction discussed includes the international bestseller Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of the Hanson Cab (1886), besides less-known titles such as Henry Fletcher’s The North Shore Mystery (1899) that features an intriguing ‘anti-detective’ called Soft Sam. The detective in Hume Nisbet’s The Swampers: A Romance of the Westralian Goldfields (1897) also works against type in allowing the criminal, his lover, and their child to escape from Australia just as the bushrangers had done in Bail Up! As Gelder and Weaver note: ‘The last gasp of the late colonial detective is to allow his criminals to live “comfortably and honestly” in “a little colony” elsewhere’ (90).

Chapter Four covers a range of bush and metropolitan types, beginning with a summary of the mid-twentieth-century valorisation of the bushman as the Australian type by Russell Ward and others, and subsequent critiques of this by Ian McLean, Graeme Davison and Kay Schaffer on the grounds of racism and sexism. Gelder and Weaver then trace representations of the colonial shepherd from non-fictional works of the 1840s through to stories by now largely unknown authors like Ellen Liston, Horace Earle and N. Walter Swan. Many of these stories feature brutal encounters with Indigenous Australians, as in Liston’s ‘Doctor’ (1882), set in the early days of settlement, where a stray dog saves a shepherd’s wife and child from attack by a ‘powerful blackfellow’. Gelder and Weaver compare this story to Lawson’s classic ‘The Drover’s Wife’, published only a decade later, where there are many similarities, but the threat comes from a large black snake. They note that Lawson’s is ‘a post-frontier story, one that seems to draw explicit attention to its residual position in the aftermath of violent encounters with Aboriginal people’ (95). In discussing the figure of the swagman, they note the difference between depictions from the 1860s where swagmen are seen as lazy non-workers who prey on the good will of others, and are capable of murder and rape, and the much more sympathetic representations of them by Lawson, Furphy and Banjo Paterson in the 1890s. Barbara Baynton, of course, did depict a rapist swagman in ‘The Chosen Vessel’, first published in the Bulletin in 1896 as ‘The Tramp’. A. G. Stephens, as well as making cuts to Baynton’s manuscript, chose this title, perhaps because the ‘jolly swagman’ was already an established Australian type.

City types like the larrikin and the dandy make their appearances from the 1870s, in works by another little-known author, Donald Cameron, such as his Mysteries of Melbourne Life (1873), which features the larrikin Billy Dawson. Cameron was also the author of a series of sketches of Australian Characters published in the Australian Journal in 1866, including one on ‘The Melbourne Dandy’. Cameron’s dandy resembles the larrikin in living off his wits and in having a distinctive mode of dress, though of course he does not live on the streets.

As mentioned earlier, the final chapter of Colonial Australian Fiction discusses a character type distinguished not by costume or profession but by behaviour, the Australian Girl. In being defined in part through contact with her English counterpart, the Australian Girl has certain similarities to the Canadian Girl and the New Zealand Girl, though the American Girl was seen as even more brash and forward. Most of the authors discussed in this chapter are women, and most now fairly well known thanks to feminist rediscoveries of the 1970s and 80s of the work of Rosa Praed and Catherine Martin. Ellen Davitt’s ‘The Black Sheep: A Tale of Australian Life’, serialised in the Australian Journal in 1865–66, is an interesting precursor in depicting an Australian girl who can move readily between the wild and the cultivated, and whose beauty and accomplishments win the heart of a visiting Englishman. Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), however, complicates the type thanks to its mix of romance and realism, and a heroine who denies her attractiveness yet wins the hearts of all the eligible males she encounters. Gelder and Weaver discuss Sybylla as a character who is both ‘normative and “deviant” at the same time’ (132), drawing on recent work on female frigidity as well as interpretations of the novel. I have always thought that most interpretations of My Brilliant Career have not allowed sufficiently for its parody of the romance genre, seen most clearly in the novel’s deviance from the expected happy ending when Beecham returns with his fortune restored to claim his bride.

In their brief conclusion, ‘The Limits of a National Type’, Gelder and Weaver discuss the actual end of My Brilliant Career, where Sybylla, having refused Beecham, identifies as an ‘Australian peasant’ and then goes on to distinguish herself from this supposed national type. They do not, however, note that this is the common predicament of an Australian author who, by the very fact of being an observer of typical Australian characters, identifies her or his self as deviant rather than normative. Think of Henry Lawson and his bushmen, or the difference between George Johnston’s narrator and the titular hero of My Brother Jack (1964), to mention only two authors widely hailed as creators of Australian national types.

While Australian Colonial Fiction might therefore have benefitted from a more extended conclusion, the authors are to be congratulated for drawing attention to the amount and variety of fiction about Australian life published during the nineteenth-century. This book is an entertaining read as well as a scholarly one, drawing on extensive research into primary sources as well as a wide range of critical and historical work. Another output from Gelder and Weaver’s years of research is the digital archive ‘Colonial Australian Popular Fiction’ where texts of a good deal of the fiction they discuss can be found. Ken Gelder is also the general editor of a new series of reprints of colonial fiction by Grattan Street Press. Two of the titles included in Australian Colonial Fiction – John Lang’s The Forger’s Wife and Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud – were released this year and I look forward to more in the years to come.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Characterisation, Colonial literature & writers.

Cite as: Webby, Elizabeth. ‘Review of Colonial Australian Fiction: Character Types, Social Formations and the Colonial Economy, by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. , no. , 2018.