What scientists do with genus and species, Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver have done with 19th-century Australian fiction: isolating character types and exploring the genres in which they flourished. The squatter novel, the bushranger adventure, the larrikin tale, the Australian girl’s romance and, unexpectedly, at least for me, the colonial detective story.
The authors start with the squatter, who emerges as a type early on. Here he is in the beginning: “A young man, who may often be found dirty, barefooted, in his shirtsleeves, sitting alone in a melancholy state on an old tea chest.’’ (Samuel Sidney, Gallops and Gossips in the Bush of Australia, 1854).
But in little more than a generation Sidney’s solitary battler has prospered: “I was no longer a discontented turbulent boy; I was a successful man. The rich district in which I was one of the earliest pioneers had become settled and pacified. Thousands of fine-woolled flocks upon the hills, and cattle upon the rich flats were mine.”
By the 1860s, despite the battling small selectors now permitted their minuscule holdings, the squatters were a ruling class, to be harassed only by bushrangers, about whom the literature is rich. In the earliest accounts, the bushranger is feral and primitive. Colonial Australian Fiction: Character Types, Social Formations and the Colonial Economy By Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver Sydney University Press, 153pp, $30
Here is Thomas Wells in 1818 on the homicidal Michael Howe, forced to live in the remote bush of Van Diemen’s Land as his pursuers close in: “Howe was of athletic make — he wore at the time of his death a dress made of kangaroo skins; had an extraordinary long beard, and presented altogether a terrific appearance.”
But the bushranger persisted, and with Ned Kelly entered folklore. Gelder and Weaver describe his Jerilderie letter as “the unmediated voice of a character type’’: a history of his life, a petition to the authorities, a list of grievances and a promise of revenge and retribution.
Less than two years after Kelly was hanged in 1880, Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms was serialised in the Sydney Mail. It was the first colonial novel, according to the authors, to fully redeem the bushranger as a type.
It glamorised, in the eyes of its critics, the book’s hero, Captain Starlight, Boldrewood’s most memorable character, who overawes the humble cattle thieves Dick and Jim Marston. They know that he “was or had been far above our rank”. Starlight reminds them that their business is “to obey me, and take second place”. And they do.
When Starlight and Dick are arrested, we meet a new character type. As well as the police there is also a detective, called Stillbrook. Gelder and Weaver trace him back to John Lang’s The Forger’s Wife (1853), which is, they claim, the first detective novel in Australia and, most likely, the world.
There was also a detective in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, the superbly named Bucket, which appeared at the same time, but in The Forger’s Wife he’s a major character, not a minor one. This powerful new figure, called George Flower, is vividly depicted by Lang: “His sagacity was on a par with his courage and personal prowess. He was a hard drinker, but liquor rarely had any effect on him.’’ Shades of Peter Corris’s Cliff Hardy.
As metropolitan life develops so do new character types, notably the detective’s natural enemy, the larrikin. In his 1873 novel Mysteries of Melbourne Life, Donald Cameron gives an example of the species: “His apology for clothes, his shrunken form, attenuated face and sharp eyes, told easily that he lived upon his wits, and a scanty living they afforded.”
By the 1880s there are frequent references to the “larrikin menace”: toughs who loitered around the suburbs of Collingwood and Fitzroy. Idle and coolly menacing, there was no doubt about the type. And though it might have died out, the word has not, living on in oxymoronic references in obituaries to “lovable larrikin’’.
Many more character types are identified in this meticulously researched study: remittance man, dandy, English toff. But the one that gives the authors most classifying difficulty is female.
She begins life as the currency lass, described at the time, with indifference to indigenous sensibilities, as the native-born girl.
By mid-century she’s the Australian girl, with a tendency to ride bareback and use slang on every occasion. But later, when Catherine Martin calls her 1890 novel An Australian Girl, the title is ironical, because that’s precisely what her protagonist Stella is not. She’s devoted to European philosophy and fussy about her suitors.
In My Brilliant Career (1901), Miles Franklin’s character Sybylla is even more contrary, so unpredictable she’s not a type at all, though Gelder