Strange in the Cold Blue Light: Sensation and Science in the Australian Journal


The first weekly instalment of the Australian Journal, published on 2 September 1865, declared its intention to ‘reflect the Literature, Art, and Science of Australia’. Issued from Melbourne, its inaugural editorial declared that the journal would engage the ‘ablest Colonial pens of the day’, in an ambitious venture that sought to ‘please everybody’. The promise was to ‘record the phases of Colonial literature; to direct attention to the triumphs of art; and to explain the most recent efforts of mechanical genius’ (‘To Our Readers’). Guided by this statement’s fusion of different modes of representation and knowledge, its engagement with technological advancement, and its emphasis on place, my purpose here is to explore how a specifically Australian version of sensation was crafted in the serial fiction and scientific non-fiction published in the early years of the Australian Journal. This essay identifies the Australian Journal as a key player in the multiple and multi-directional migrations of text, images and ideas in the Victorian era. The movement of English literature into other Anglophone places in the nineteenth century created a community of connected, if remote, readers who participated in a global network of print as producers, consumers, and agents of circulation. This migration was of literary form, genre, convention, and technique as much as it was of the printed object. Although the material published was often of colonial origin, the Australian Journal, modelled as it was on the London Journal, engaged in the transportation of British literary platforms, genre, and styles, especially sensation, from the centre of Empire to the colonies.

The first weekly instalment of the Australian Journal, published on 2 September 1865, declared its intention to ‘reflect the Literature, Art, and Science of Australia’. Issued from Melbourne, its inaugural editorial declared that the journal would engage the ‘ablest Colonial pens of the day’, in an ambitious venture that sought to ‘please everybody’. The promise was to ‘record the phases of Colonial literature; to direct attention to the triumphs of art; and to explain the most recent efforts of mechanical genius’ (‘To Our Readers’). Guided by this statement’s fusion of different modes of representation and knowledge, its engagement with technological advancement, and its emphasis on place, my purpose here is to explore how a specifically Australian version of sensation was crafted in the serial fiction and scientific non-fiction published in the early years of the Australian Journal. The ‘cold blue light’ of my title, illuminating the fictional and non-fictional strangeness that so fascinated nineteenth-century readers, is taken from a description of a journey through the Australian bush, and is intended to bring into view both the shimmer of Antipodean landscapes, and the clinical glare of the scientific environment.

In this article, I identify the Australian Journal as a key player in the multiple and multi-directional migrations of text, images and ideas in the Victorian era. The movement of English literature into other Anglophone places in the nineteenth century created a community of connected, if remote, readers who participated in a global network of print as producers, consumers, and agents of circulation. This migration was of literary form, genre, convention, and technique as much as it was of the printed object. Although the material published was often of colonial origin, the Australian Journal, modelled as it was on the London Journal, engaged in the transportation of British literary platforms, genre, and styles, especially sensation, from the centre of Empire to the colonies (see Brown). 1 It also acted to circulate these forms within the colonial context, and reflect them back to Europe. The adaptation, transformation and movement of received modes within and from the colonies comprised a further, and in many ways more complex, stage in their literary migration.

The apparently different modes of science and sensation were connected in complex ways in the colonial periodical. Scientific ideas, texts and publications were represented and discussed as the stuff of sensation; in turn, the language, logic and insights of science were laced through the popular fiction appearing in the Australian Journal, colouring its local characters and contouring its colonial landscapes. An often-sensational scientific narrative shared discursive and material space with sensation fiction, and demanded that such fiction be read in the light of this proximity. And just as popular science and technology permeated sensation fiction – from phrenology to steam power, telegrams, telescopes, and photographs – so, too, sensation tropes and literary devices found their way into science and non-fiction writing. The kinds of literary migrations I am identifying here, then, are of geography – the movement across oceans and within the Australian colonies of certain types of writing, text, images and format – and also of genre.

Scientific discourse and its role in wider cultural systems were renegotiated during the Victorian age. Notions of sight and perception, in particular, were re-configured by nineteenth-century science, and these changes presented a standing challenge to previous understandings of the stability and nature of perceivable ‘reality’ (see Flint 5). The Australian Journal ran a short article in 1868 celebrating the ability of the ‘Real Image Stereoscope’ to present an alternative, virtual, reality. Standing a little away from the instrument, the ‘observer … then sees just in front of the lens a real and inverted image of each of the two pictures, the union of which forms the appearance of a solid figure in the air between himself and the apparatus’ (‘Real Image Stereoscope’). For an Australian readership thoroughly immersed in the writing of Charles Dickens (see Mirmohamadi and Martin), this suspended real/false figure may have conjured images of Marley’s ghost, whose ‘body was transparent: so that Scrooge, observing him and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind’ (Dickens 44). Twenty-five years after the publication of Dickens’ Christmas fable, in which Scrooge struggled to reconcile what he could see with notions of reality (45), science was continuing to deliver new and strange ways of seeing and believing.

Victorian science and popular sensation fiction also shared a preoccupation with natural (and thus also unnatural) systems of the body. For example, understandings of the nature of skin as ‘simultaneously permeable and impermeable’ influenced the ways that bodies, and their relationships to each other, were re-configured in this era (Michie 408). Skin, Helena Michie explains, ‘exists on and marks the border of two worlds; it demonstrates the beauty of science and embodies what the Victorian calls the science of beauty’ (408). Just as the intersection between these two worlds generated much of the moral panic around sensation fiction, as embodied in the painted figure of Lady Audley, developing scientific knowledge of the skin, as set out in an article in the Australian Journal in 1868, provides an argument against the use of cosmetics. Here, the renewing processes of the epidermis, which would enhance this ‘natural’ bodily health and beauty, are said to be disrupted by the application of beauty products (‘The Skin’). The article warns that ‘[t]hose who apply powders or liquid cosmetics with an expectation of improving their complexion actually interfere with and retard nature in her purpose of furnishing a new skin’ (329).

Now that the boundaries between science and literature have hardened, and their areas of knowledge and modes of writing have been quarantined from each other, it is easy to underestimate just how sensational nineteenth-century science was, as a writing and publishing phenomenon (see Secord). In a scene which replayed feminine responses to some of the more transgressive elements of sensation plays in theatres, when Bishop Wilberforce, in debate with Thomas Huxley in Oxford in 1860, asked through which grandparents’ side he had descended from an ape, one woman in the audience reportedly fainted on the spot (Hodgson 230). When the theories of Professor Huxley, recently described by Amanda Hodgson as ‘Darwin’s belligerent advocate’ (230), appeared in the Australian Journal in June 1869, reprinted from the Fortnightly Review, the introductory comment revealed not only the shared publishing culture of science and sensation fiction, but also their common patterns of reception. The paper, readers of the Australian Journal were told, ‘has excited considerable sensation wherever it has been read, and … has already gone through five editions’ (‘The Physical’ 610). The sensation continued with Huxley, as controversy about the Australian Journal’s coverage of his work spread into other journals, and the colonial response was in turn reported in England. 2

The Australian Journal’s sense of its own participation in British literary and knowledge mobility was asserted in an editorial comment that the journal makes ‘no apology for transferring it to [its] pages’, as it was a valuable component of a global circuitry of print, paper and ideas. The editors of this Australian publication were ‘convinced … that good service will be rendered thereby to the Review, which first published the lecture, and to the spread of those philosophical views which the eminent Professor so ably sets before the world’ (‘The Physical’). This idea of setting views before ‘the world’ was an especially Victorian one; a recognition of enhanced material and intellectual mobility, especially through the trade routes of Empire. The following month, the Australian Journal took the opportunity to assert the status of Huxley’s work as literary and publishing sensation, and ventured to identify the source of the controversy that accompanied it. Huxley’s lecture on protoplasm, the ‘Literary and Scientific Gossip’ columnist noted, ‘has caused quite a commotion not only in the old country, where five editions met with a rapid sale, but here also in Australia’. In these colonies ‘the thinking portion of the community have been engaged in discussing the merits of the essay, with more or less of good temper or of acerbity, as is the case of all controversies where the hem of the garment of “spirituality” is even about to be touched’ (693).

As the world and the origins of humankind were being reconceptualised in the mid nineteenth century, scientific ideas not only rivalled fiction for pure impact and drama, they bled into it. Gillian Beer and others have highlighted this seepage across disciplinary boundaries, and noted the mutually-influential interactions of scientific and literary theories, practices and strategies (see, for example, Cantor et al.). Just as fiction writers engaged developing evolutionary and scientific narrativity, scientists drew ‘on the language and rhetoric of the literary sphere’, and often used citations from literary heavyweights such as Shakespeare and Tennyson ‘to give cultural weight and dignity to their arguments’ (Shuttleworth and Cantor 12, 11; see also ‘Ourselves’). The letters of Charles Darwin, too, contain constant references to literature, the literary, and the publishing scene. ‘The pleasures of Dickens’, according to George Levine, ‘remained with Darwin permanently’; he even employed ‘a Dickens description of a snarling mob in Oliver Twist to support his argument that human expressions are ultimately derived from rudimentary animal behavior’ (251). It is little wonder that Adam Gopnik reported discovering ‘as have generations of readers since that fateful day in 1859 when the entire first print run [of The Origin of Species] sold out in a day, that it is not just a Great Book but a great book, an absorbing, wonderful adventure in argument’ (9).

Victorian literary and scientific writing inhabited a common world of authors, publishers, and readers, the same writers (such as Grant Allen) often producing both kinds of work. This is at the heart of Robert M. Young’s ‘common context thesis’, which offers the insight that ‘the verbal and conceptual interconnectedness of the sciences, politics, theology, and literature were both sustained and revealed by their juxtaposition in periodical articles’. 3 My identification of the entangled configurations of sensation and science in the Australian Journal is framed by this ‘common context’. I read two stories from the journal as examples of the self-consciously colonial form of sensation-inflected writing that emerged from the pages of this journal in the 1860s. ‘Dora Carleton: A Tale of Australia’, by Waif Wander (the nom de plume of Mary Helena Fortune), serialised between 14 July and 25 August 1866, and ‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’, by L[eonard] Y. Barfield, serialised between 11 January and 18 April 1868, called upon familiar elements of English sensation fiction while writing Australian places as sites of, as well as receptors for, literary sensation.

‘Dora Carleton’ begins in the makeshift society of the Australian goldfields. The narrative immediately turns violent, when, at the end of the opening chapter, Gart murders a young woman, Bessie Randal (later revealed as Charlie’s foster sister), in her bed. The character of the title is not identified to the reader until the next chapter, and then only as ‘Mrs Banforth’, an elegant but eccentric-seeming lady who has met Mabel Ireton (the sweetheart of the hot-headed Irish Charlie O’Donnel of the goldfields) on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne. The women have witnessed the recovery of a female suicide victim, and Dora fervently seeks the younger woman’s opinion about the viability of suicide for the hopeless. Upon answering an advertisement for a companion, Mabel later finds that her prospective employer is indeed the woman of the ‘strange encounter’ on the riverbank (14 July 1866: 723).

Dora is duly revealed as an inadvertent bigamist, having married again in the colonies after encountering a false newspaper death notice of her dissolute first husband, placed as a ruse to avoid gambling debts. The reader discovers that the young man who has been urgently addressing her as she indulges in the round of socialising in the growing colonial city is her legal husband Annesly De Vesey. Readerly allegiances shift and turn as the characters that orbit around Dora, especially her second husband George Banforth, respond to their growing awareness of her obscured identity (marked by her three names) and complicated marital situation. The rest of the story goes on to resolve the connected narratives set in Melbourne and the goldfields and the entwined relationships of the characters (Charlie is also, it turns out, Dora’s first cousin). The murderous villain, Gart, emerges as that most antipodean of anti-heroes, the bushranger Gunn, who is eventually captured by Annesly and Charlie, in conjunction with the local wag of a policeman, Mat Boland. Charlie and Mabel are finally married in Ireland, where a rehabilitated Annesly is also reunited with this legal wife after Banforth relinquishes all association with her.

L.Y. Barfield’s story ‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’ is longer and more convoluted. It traces the fortunes and adventures of its first-person narrator, Robin, who sails to Australia from England in anticipation of being met by his childhood friend and favourite, Harry. Warned before he left England not to be too unguarded in the matter of trust, Robin nonetheless embarks on an overland journey with the companion and hero of his youth, and hands him his money for safe-keeping. Following a series of events that throw Harry’s trustworthiness into doubt (for the reader, at least), Robin encounters Bill Covey, who urges his escape from the perils of the goldfield and his return to Melbourne, a trip they eventually make together. Throughout the rest of the story, Bill remains as some type of antipodean sprite – an almost supernatural protective force for Robin in Australia.

Eventually convinced of Harry’s perfidy, Robin repudiates him and is re-united with his family, Bertha and Everard, when they unexpectedly arrive from England. The new arrivals instigate a relationship with their ward and goddaughter, Victoria (Cora) Stevens, whose dramatic backstory involves being lost in the bush, kidnapping, and a duplicitous and murderous station-manager called Mr Stelling (later revealed to be Harry), who insisted that the dead father had intended him for his son-in-law.

Harry, now revealed as Mr Stelling, returns and re-enters the fold at Devon Cottage. Robin is sent to the Stevens’s station, Glenormond, to supervise the packing of Cora’s household, and undertakes an eventful journey with the lawyer in charge of her affairs, Mr Cockles. Forced to leave Cockles in the bush, due to the lameness of his horse, Robin reluctantly proceeds to the station with Harry/Stelling, who abandons him after a fall. He is rescued by Bill, whose curlew call, sounding like ‘murder’, had previously echoed through the desolate and ghostly landscape.

Next, the reader is introduced to Edward, a young Virgil-reading, Latin-speaking scholar who is a budding naturalist, and his foster-father, a cultured bush medico/digger. Robin proceeds to the station, where he is reunited with Cockles and Harry, but is distressed by the disappearance of his two new friends. Robin later learns that they are in Melbourne and Edward has befriended his family. Having realised that Harry has forged the father’s will that expresses his purported wish for Cora to marry Harry, Robin and Bill uncover a cattle-rustling scheme being operated by Harry and his criminal companions. Further letters from Melbourne reveal that, in an Austen-like twist, just as Cora has been induced to give her assent to marriage, Stelling has been exposed as a philanderer, having seduced and deceived Cora’s former servant, Bessie.

After various misadventures, Edward and Robin travel back to Melbourne where they eventually thwart Harry’s plans to marry Cora, of whom Edward has clearly become enamoured, though he mistakenly believes her the object of Robin’s affections. It is also discovered that the family’s agent in England has absconded with their money. The dying Bessie reveals that Mr Stevens (who turns out to have been a lost love of Robin’s cousin Bertha) had been poisoned. After the discovery of additional criminal and deceptive schemes carried out by Harry, Robin and Edward confront and fight the villain. In the story’s denouement, Robin and Letitia are united, the forgery is conclusively proved, and, in true sensation serial style, a sequel is promised in later issues of the Australian Journal (18 Apr. 1868: 532).

These two stories formed part of a body of colonial periodical fiction that strove for a distinctly Australian form of sensation, insisting that the southern land was an appropriate locus and genesis of sensational narrative forms (see Martin and Mirmohamadi). Their action ranges across colonial places, taking in the city, country towns, and the bush, as well as glimpses of the Old World. In the course of Barfield’s story, Robin moves from his first glimpse of Melbourne’s ‘amphitheatre of buildings, spires, and towers’ from on board ship (11 Jan. 1868: 305), through colonial rural and urban places to (eventually) a happy ending in Melbourne. Lavish descriptions are given of Collins Street dandies, suburban cottages and gardens, goldfields, sprawling stations, campsites, forests of eucalyptus, and rushing rivers. ‘Dora Carleton’ also presents a range of colonial places as the background and source of Australian sensation. In the opening scene on the goldfields, Australian aspirations and British allegiances and identities are parried between the characters against a backdrop of ‘a dense belt of young “gum” bushes, intermingled with “wattles”’ (Waif Wander, 14 July 1866: 721.)

Australian cities as well as the bush are brought into the sensational milieu. In the second chapter of Waif Wander’s story, the scene shifts to Melbourne. Drawing upon readers’ knowledge of a metropolitan sensibility that stretched across Empire (see Belich), the narrator describes a universally urban diurnal scene which unfolds in ‘that Austral city of golden commerce’, whose streets, buildings, and society were being transformed by the discovery of gold:

It is in the early morning hours yet, but shops are opened, cabs are plying, and busy people are bustling in numbers to their various places of employment. Long shadows are lying across the broad streets, unequal shadows of high houses and low houses; and high and low chimneys are beginning to pour out slender lines of blue smoke – smoke that goes a long way up straight into the clear atmosphere.

This clear atmosphere, however, and the ‘broad streams of clear, bright water’ washing through the city’s streets, evoking memories of other places and times, signify a distinctly Australian urban locale. Here, woken from dreams of faraway scenes, we ‘open our eyes in Swanston-street, and the water is of the Yan Yean, knowing no kin to English meadow streams, or to rivulets of Canada’ (14 July 1866: 722).

‘Natural’ landscapes and vegetation also act as markers of antipodean place. A tree, in Barfield’s story, is rarely ever just a ‘tree’: it is a wattle, a gum, a ‘giant eucalypt’ (8 Feb. 1868: 373). Australian plant species are also named elements in Waif Wander’s landscapes. In keeping with this writer’s incursions into the romance and gothic genres at this stage of her career (Sussex 131), ‘Dora Carleton’ depicts an Australian landscape in which a sense of the colonial uncanny lurks amidst familiar vegetation. As Gart anticipates his intended murderous act, he hears ‘a sound which made the blood curdle in his veins; it might have been a “Laughing Jackass” aroused from his rest by some dream of his bush troubles, or it might have been – ; and Gart thought it was the hideous laugh of a demon!’ The gum trees morph into embodiments of his own guilt. The narrator, providing access to this character’s paranoid thoughts, asks if it was

the heavy shadow of the dark gaunt gum tree over his head, with its curled and crooked branches, that rested now behind him? or, was there a black form, with clasped hands and body, writhing with horrid glee close to Gart at this moment? (14 July 1866: 722)

Barfield’s Letitia Fairburn describes her ride in search of her abducted charge as ‘a journey of weird sights and sounds’. She recounts that the ‘most familiar objects looked strange in the cold blue light, and the wild bush seemed peopled with strange forms’. The ‘wild screams’ of the birds generate a chilling rural soundscape in which the ‘wail of the curlew, the loud croak of the mopoke, the crow of the plover, and the bittern’s solemn boom, sounded at intervals’. On this dangerous excursion ‘the ghostly laugh of the giant kingfisher seemed to mock us as he winged away in his startled flight’ (25 Jan. 1868: 340). In another episode Barfield exploits the strangeness of the Australian bush for humour. Robin notices grotesque figures – a ‘hideous presence’ of creatures ‘black as night itself, and of the saurian form, with long sinuous bodies, and heads of varied proportions’ – before revealing to the reader that ‘they were only the scorched remains of trees that had been accumulated there for ages by successive bush fires’ (21 Mar. 1868: 467).

Like the landscape and animals, the characters and language of Barfield’s and Waif Wander’s stories are recognisably Australian: bushrangers, gold miners, and Aboriginal families. Australian language forms pepper the dialogue, in the ‘no fears’ uttered by Barfield’s characters, Bill’s idiom-filled musings and warnings, and the parodied hybrid-talk of the Aboriginal camps. Waif Wander interpolates colonial parlance into her narrator’s account of the goldfield exploits of George Banforth, where ‘he was so fortunate as to realise in a few weeks a very large sum of money – in other, and more colonial words, he had “dropped on a nugget”’ (21 July 1866: 742). This is aural as well as thematic reinforcement that the story’s action could occur nowhere else but the Australian colonies.

In their quest for a local form of sensation, the writers published in the Australian Journal evoked, drew upon, and highlighted the tropes, strategies and conventions of the English genre. This referencing could only make sense in the context of an imperial system of literary exchange, and amongst a global community of readers, within which key texts migrated and circulated. In ‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’, for example, Barfield refers to and replays iconic sensation scenes and strategies. Annesly De Vesey effects the quintessential sensation-fiction manoeuvre of a faked death notice, à la Lady Audley in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel. Cora also channels Aurora Floyd’s whipping of Stephen Hargraves for harming her dog, when, in the Australian bush, she horsewhips her abductor, Harry/Stelling. Recounting the sensational episode in her own words, Cora tells her newfound-friends that ‘on reaching the narrow bush track, I suddenly raised my whip, and struck him across the face with all my strength’. While Aurora was, in Braddon’s story, led inside by her husband in the wake of this incident, Cora must enact her own liberation in the Australian outdoors. Showing a local ability to negotiate difficult terrain and use uncultivated land for protection, she and her horse ‘had to turn about a good deal among the trees, sometimes leaping over a fallen log, and sometimes over a gully worn by winter torrents’. 4 In this scene, a European sensation precedent is harnessed to a prototype of the ‘Australian girl’, which emphasises the resourcefulness, bravery, and physical strength of Australian women in comparison to their American and British counterparts.

Typical sensation fiction plot-enabling strategies, particularly those involving text and written communication, were also transplanted into the colonial context. The characters in Australian sensation fiction, just like their English counterparts, advertise for lost people, read edifying or misguiding information in newspapers, and have their mail delayed, misdirected or lost. However, the vagaries of communication and consequent opportunities for misunderstanding or deception are enhanced by the vast distances within the colonies, and from the centre of Empire. Letters – their arrival and non-arrival, their contents, the potential for them to be delayed or crossed or missed or stolen – were important in English society and its literature, but carried even greater weight in emigrant societies. Barfield’s narrator recounts the excitement generated in Melbourne by the announcement that ‘the mail is in’; it echoes through the streets and buildings of the colonial city, and ‘[o]nward speeds the tidings, whithersoever the energies of our great triune race of Britons has penetrated from the seaboard’ (28 Mar. 1868: 484).

Robin’s story is one of miscommunication as well as connection between families separated by oceans: the first Robin knows of his family’s arrival in Australia is a notice in the Argus. When they are re-united on the Melbourne docks, there is ‘no displeasure, no coldness, no blame’:

The Melbourne Post-office had much neglect imputed to it at that time, perhaps mine was not the only instance wherein the imputations were deserved. I soon learned that their letters had been as persevering as my own, and concluded that some peculating clerk had appropriated the last remnant of my patrimony. (18 Jan. 1868: 323, 324)

Australian writers also drew upon one of sensation fiction’s most identifiable tropes – the exposure of the turmoil beneath the placid surfaces of society and the homes that comprise it. Just as Cora’s sensational narrative performance for Barfield’s family group is interrupted by the entrance of the supper tray, giving them ‘time to return to ordinary commonplaces, from the wild bush, the weird moonlight ride, and the flight of the terrified girl’ (25 Jan. 1868: 341), in the Australia of sensation fiction, murder and bigamy sit alongside the everyday, and are located in familiar surroundings.

The Australian context acted upon both the production and consumption of sensational narrative. Specificity of place and experience was particularly evident in fictional representations of the goldfields which functioned as a concentrated measure of colonial society, in its possibilities and disappointments. These are ‘real’ places of minutely described societies, tents, equipment, hotels, relationships, amusements, rather than the convenient non-place to which British sensation fiction writers send their characters to disappear (for a time, or permanently). Waif Wander gives the Australian goldfields material shape by layering details into her description of ‘most entirely colonial’ scene at the general store:

Belette was a ‘general storekeeper,’ and his shop was crowded with articles of every variety, from a screw nail to a lady’s crinoline. The counter was untidily littered with a quantity of drapery, tobacco, glasses, pewter pots, and bottles; and the floor with gin cases, flour bags, bars of iron, and coils of rope, not to mention many other things indispensable to the well furnishing of a country store. (21 July 1866: 739)

The quotidian nature of these commercial accoutrements is contrasted with an adjacent account of the obsessive fears of the murderer who dread the arrival of ‘the avenger of blood’.

The colonial setting was indeed represented as magnifying opportunities for the crime and domestic discord that are at the heart of the sensation genre. While the Australian bush may provide protection and cover for fugitives, it is also a fit setting for crime and disturbance. At one point, Robin realises he is ‘riding in the wilderness alone with mine enemy’, through places with names such as Murderer’s Gully and Dead Man’s Ranges, that spoke of the very crimes and dangers they contain (Barfield, ‘The Daughter’s’ 15 Feb. 1868: 385). In such remote spaces, women suffer the extremes of the disrupted order of domestic and sexual relationships so often dwelt upon in sensation fiction. Bill observes that women ‘ain’t honoured in the bush’ and are often abandoned, abused and even murdered with impunity (Barfield, ‘The Daughter’s’ 18 Jan. 1868: 322). Less sympathetically, Harry recounts stories of matrimonial violence in the bush, and informs Robin that ‘[w]ife-beating is not much thought of in this country. I suppose they are provoking, for they are often beaten to death’ (15 Feb. 1868: 385). In Waif Wander’s story, the narrator notes that the ‘mark of bloody fingers was also upon the back door, and these were all the traces left of a fearful murder – the recollection of which will long remain a terror to Australian women’ (28 July 1866: 757). Waif Wander’s story participates in the circulation of sensational fiction in the colonies, and in a self-conscious narrative flourish, comments on the way that sensation permeates Australian print culture.

Sensational images accompanied shocking stories in ‘Dora Carleton’: it is said that photographs of the Randal murder scene make their way around the colony, effecting a macabre exchange that perhaps gestured towards the amulet’s protection or the signification of the souvenir. 5 Annesly De Vesey examines a ‘view of the scene of Bessie Randal’s murder, and a view of the little room and the dead body of the young girl, with her head nearly severed from her body, just as it had appeared to her poor husband on that fearful night when he returned from his midnight work to find his young wife a mutilated corpse’. Such images of the circulation of photographs were ubiquitous – Waif Wander’s narrator likewise remarks of fictional photographs of a similar scene that ‘Many copies of the scene had been circulated’ (Waif Wander, ‘Dora Carleton’ 18 Aug. 1866: 806).

The colonial mania for the newest sensational tale is highlighted in ‘Dora Carleton’ (itself the journal’s newest sensational tale) when the narrator comments that the murder ‘had ceased to be the great topic of the day; and the bushranging, which was daily becoming more rife in New South Wales, was beginning to be a more interesting subject to the general public’ (4 Aug. 1866: 772). The daughter of the house accurately identifies the bushranger Gunn/Gart when he holds up the family Carr station because, according to her brother, ‘Ann has read of him, and heard his description so often, that it is certain to be no mistake’.

Just as communications between the Old and New World feature in Barfield’s story, events in ‘Dora Carleton’ also underscore the multi-directional nature of nineteenth-century textual and literary migration. As well as travelling to and within Australia, sensational text also moved away from the colonies and back to Europe. At one point, for example, the narrator cheekily clarifies the pronunciation of Irish place and plant names for any ‘English readers’, bringing into focus the broad reach of this exported ‘tale of Australia’. The conclusion of the story sees the Ireton family and others in Ireland, but still consuming Australian sensational text. It is claimed that the Sydney News contains an account of the capture of the bushranger Gunn/Gart, ‘and the principal engraving was one of the scene of Gunn’s capture and death’ (25 Aug. 1866: 827).

The legal machinations which fuel sensation plots took on an Australian flavour in the Australian Journal’s serials. Cockles, the Dickens-style tooth-tapping lawyer in Barfield’s story, may have started out in chambers in Melbourne’s Chancery-lane, but the Stevens case soon takes him to bush and station where he is just as likely to encounter cattle rustlers and bushrangers as to discover misappropriated funds. The father on whose forged last testament the daughter’s inheritance depends turns out to have been (perhaps accidentally) murdered in a very Australian manner by ‘black bread’. The term applies to provisions laced with poison ‘made for the blacks’, explains a dying Bessie: ‘When the blacks – are troublesome – they get it – an’ white folks – sometimes – as is too knowin’’ (4 Apr. 1868: 498).

Australian sensation drew upon, and expressed, and intensified the cultural and social anxieties upon which English sensation fiction thrived – identities, always unstable in the world of sensation, were even more mutable in the colonies. The villain of Barfield’s story casually informs Robin, when it is revealed that he is using an assumed name, that ‘in this colony, many a man changes his father’s name for his mother’s’ (1 Feb. 1868: 354). Appearances can no more be relied upon as markers of identity than nomenclature. Harry shows himself to be chameleon-like in his changes of self in clothes, hair, and aspect, and is at first glance so transformed by his colonial sojourn that he is unrecognisable to his childhood companion, Robin. Robin’s relatives in turn do not recognise him when they arrive in Melbourne. When Harry re-enters the narrative, before his scar confirms his true identity and (like Gart’s blood-stained face in Waif Wander’s story) his guilt, Robin is unsure whether the man before him was ‘an emissary of that Stelling’s … or is it he himself, who would have wronged the child of his dead benefactor!’ (1 Feb. 1868: 353). Here is a writer testing, in the fiction fields of Australia, the foundations of the sensation genre, ‘the nature of identity and the limits of the inner self’ (Taylor and Crofts xiv, xvi).

What Penny Russell has called ‘the genteel performance’ (2) was carried out on a culturally unstable stage in the colonies. When, in ‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’, Bertha and Robin go to the Labour Mart in search of domestic help, the simply-dressed ‘truly’ aristocratic woman is exposed to the critical gaze and comment of a class upstart. ‘“How dowdy she’s dressed,” sneered a girl, whose comely person was disfigured to the utmost power of flounces, feathers, flowers, and jewellery, “I wouldn’t be under such a mean dressed woman at no price”’. When she expresses reservations about the help she has recently employed, Robin warns Bertha that ‘Old country notions are all at fault here. When I was a child I fancied that people at the antipodes must walk with their heads downwards, and I often think that society here carries its head below its heels’ (25 Jan. 1868: 338). The collection of ‘characters’ that features in Waif Wander’s account of a Melbourne employment office also reveals the mix of classes in the colony. The avaricious proprietor, Mrs Overdon, pretends gentility and is depicted behind her desk wearing ‘two or three ounces of gold manufactured into a brooch, fastening her lace collar; and then a chain of weight and length, I assure you, wreathing around her neck, and hanging, adorned with all sorts of “charms” and pendants, at her visible gold repeater’. A servant girl enters the scene and informs a potential employer, who is herself wearing a ‘not very clean skirt’, that ‘I won’t engage where there’s children’ (4 Aug. 1866: 774, 775).

Notions of the fragility of boundaries, and the related deficiencies of classification, were the stock staple of sensation fiction, laced through its themes, plots and characterisation, as well as charging its reception. While concern with species definition and boundaries predates both sensation fiction and Darwinian theory, these motifs were given texture and context by the scientific controversies and concerns that were generated in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Susan Bernstein, exploring what she identifies as ‘a discursive encounter in the 1860s periodical press between natural history’ and serialised sensation fiction, has identified an ‘animated energy over demarcations’ involving categorisation of genre as well as species taxonomy (250, 255). 6 Genre and species boundaries were, in Bernstein’s words, ‘the very borderlines that sensation novels exploit and that evolutionary debates rehearse’ (267). Waif Wander raises the issue when Fanny Brown, a minor character in her serial, taunts Nick the Hatter by calling him an ‘old gorilla’. His response posits in a fictional and humorous form the question that Darwin’s theories had prompted amongst scientists, the clergy, and the more nervous sectors of society: ‘You don’t think I’m like a goriller, do you now?’ (28 July 1866: 759).

‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’ draws upon the possibility of the dismantling of the divisions between humans and animals in the extremes of the colonial environment. In a benign gesture, Bill, Robin’s almost supernatural protector, takes on the characteristics of native bush creatures in order to perform this role. He transforms his voice into the call of the curlew at moments of crisis, and in one scene, playfully snatches Robin’s hat while ‘crouched, like a native bear, on a branch above’ him (29 Feb. 1868: 417). In another, after employing his bush knowledge to allow Robin to overhear the incriminating plans of Harry and his fellow cattle stealers, ‘he glided from …sight like a huge lizard’ (7 Mar. 1868: 434). In contrast to the native cuteness and cunning of Bill’s transformations, the character of Harry crosses species boundaries in a sinister way, becoming a creature of the wilds of Africa. Bill describes Harry and his co-conspirator as ‘bold as lions’ (25 Jan. 1868: 341). When Cockles concedes that, in their relations with Harry, ‘our hand is in the lion’s mouth, and he must be managed carefully’, Robin extends the metaphor: ‘Don’t throw that helpless girl into his cruel jaws.’ Earlier, in a threatening situation in the bush, Robin had mentally ‘likened [Harry] to a lion exciting himself to rage by lashing his tail’. 7

More troubling was the possibility that the boundary between ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ could be breached. Hodgson points to ‘a highly topical concern’ in 1860s science: ‘the need to distinguish humankind from animals (particularly from apes), and an associated attempt to redefine the difference between white European civilised races, and what were then generally known as “savages”’ (229). This concern is played out in Barfield’s story. In the same incident in which Harry reminds him of a lion, Robin also ‘thought that he looked like a magnificent savage wrapped in a robe of skins’ (15 Feb. 1868: 387). This fear of a white man ‘gone native’ is balanced by the reassuring, and yet still unsettling, presence in the bush of genuine ‘savagery’ in the form of the Aborigine. King Charley wakes Robin at one stage with his ‘curious jabbering’: there he was ‘short, spare, and hideous’ (and, predictably, ‘grasping a spear’). His ‘queen of the wilderness’, had ‘pale fingernails … so distinct from the dark fingers as to resemble the claws of an animal’ (21 Mar. 1868: 466). Earlier, Robin had characterised ‘the dead’ as those to whom ‘we owe all that distinguishes us from the unlettered savage’ (29 Feb. 1868: 421).

Contemporary scientific understanding, and especially theories of the origin and descent of humankind, made their way into the exploration of the effects of emigration in ‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’. To give one example, in a remarkable monologue Mr Cockles declares: ‘

Our Northern faces don’t wear well in the hot winds and burning beams of Victoria. The delicate skin becomes of a fiery red, or stained by confluent freckles; the brown hair becomes tintless; and the dress grows slatternly, or tawdry, or both.

These ruminations spark an evolutionary vision of the antipodean future, when he suggests the possibility that ‘the next generation may be acclimatized; and, in time, a beautiful race may succeed to these transplanted and prematurely ruined faces and forms’ (8 Feb. 1868: 372).

The percolation of scientific ideas through the dialogue and descriptions in the columns of sensation fiction in the Australian Journal was reinforced by the proximity, in this shared print culture of page and font, of articles that discussed, disseminated and explicated scientific and non-fiction themes. That science and art were indeed seen as part of the same project and subject to similar principles, just as they were textually co-components of the same periodical issue, is evident in a brief article in the issue that contains the second instalment of Barfield’s story. ‘In all the departments of creative thought’, readers are told, ‘fertility is a temptation to be resisted before inventions and discoveries are possible. … The same truth holds in the inventive arts and science’ (18 Jan. 1868: 329). While the instalments of ‘Dora Carleton’ (1866), which appear in the second year of the journal, are more likely to be surrounded by fiction than science, 8 in the issues that ran ‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’ (1868), episodes of sensation are more frequently juxtaposed with scientific features. Barfield’s story appears alongside an article on the skin, furnished with information gleaned, rather sensationally, from ‘[l]earned doctors, who take other people to pieces for the ostensible purpose of ascertaining how they are constructed’ (‘The Skin’ 329). The pages also carry commentary on the Galapagos turtle, and an article about a British Parliamentary Commission into labour conditions, which clearly frames its title and observations with the emerging science of anthropology, as well as imperial exploration. 9 National, eugenic and reproductive concerns lurk behind this exposé of child labour exploitation in England, which concludes that relentless competition in the manufacturing sector will generate

as a share of the national family, a poor, withered, pigmy race, deteriorated by too early and prolonged labour, effeminated by debased pleasure, emasculated as to the best qualities of the Saxon race, and of little worth either in peace or war.

This article highlights the blend of differing discourses in characterising the non-fiction narrative of the British Parliamentary Report as the stuff of sensation fiction. The writer ‘venture[s] to say that the wildest imaginings of fiction, the sum total of the crimes of all the “sensation novels” of the age, are tame and commonplace beside the mass of cruelty and oppression which this report details in plain, business-like language’ (446, 445).

Robin, the narrator in ‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’ encompasses the geographic and genre migrations I have been identifying. He emigrates from England, followed by his books and scientific instruments, bringing both literary and scientific modes of understanding and representation to bear on Australian places. However, some of the story’s most loving description pertains to Edward, the young naturalist whose amateur scientific pursuits re-frame and re-interpret the Australian bush for his companion. Robin reports learning ‘during my three hours’ ride, at a foot pace, many a curious fact respecting the denizens of the bush that was then scarcely known to men of science’ (22 Feb. 1868: 401). In the pages of the Australian Journal in its earliest years, the influence of these ‘men of science’, not to mention the silent contributions of women, could be found within as well as alongside the sensation fiction that reconfigured an English literary model in order to re-read and re-write Australian landscapes and societies.


  1. An editorial at the beginning of the second year of the Australian Journal made explicit its aim to ‘be to the colonists what the cheap “weeklies” of England are to our friends at home’ (‘Ourselves’, Australian Journal 25 Aug. 1866: 817).

  2. The July and August issues of the Australian Journal in 1869 (693, 758) cited and discussed an article in the Daily Telegraph which lambasted responses to Huxley’s work in the Australian daily press.

  3. Robert M. Young, Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), paraphrased by Dawson, Noakes, and Topham in their introduction to Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical (30).

  4. Australian Journal 25 Jan. 1868: 340, 341. In a further echo of this novel, Cora is deeply attached to her dog, Billy, which Harry/Stelling threatens and mistreats.

  5. This observation is based on Susan Stewart’s reading of the function of the miniature in her On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993) 126.

  6. The pervasiveness of such discourses is evident in the reassuring tone adopted by a writer in the Australian Journal who summed up the controversies around species delineations as the ‘world’ having been ‘amused, some short time ago, by a discussion carried on as to whether the GORILLA species was not nearly allied to MAN’. Fortunately, for any anxious readers, that discussion was resolved ‘in the establishment of the fact, that MAN is the only mammiferous animal to which the erect position is natural, and in which there is an essential difference in the organisation and function of the two pairs of extremities’ (‘Familiar Remarks’).

  7. Barfield, ‘The Daughter’s Inheritance’, Australian Journal 7 Mar. 1868: 436; Australian Journal 15 Feb. 1868: 387.

  8. One of the three significant scientific articles in these issues, in Australian Journal 21 July 1866: 744–45, was republished from Huxley’s Lectures to Working Men.

  9. ‘Catching Turtles at Chatham Island’, Australian Journal 29 Feb. 1868: 424; illustration 425; ‘Infant Sacrifices’, Australian Journal 7 Mar. 1868: 445–46.

Published 31 October 2015 in Volume 30 No. 3. Subjects: Science, technology, engineering, Sensation Fiction, Mary Fortune, Victorian Literature.

Cite as: Mirmohamadi, Kylie. ‘Strange in the Cold Blue Light: Sensation and Science in the Australian Journal.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, 2015, doi: 10.20314/als.f961a11aae.