Barry Oak­ley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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