Australian Gothic on the Borderline of Old and New

Australian Gothic on the Borderline of Old and New
© Photograph by Phil Vidamour

Long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a land peopled by monsters. The idea of its existence was disputed, was even heretical for a time, and with the advent of the transportation of convicts, its darkness seemed confirmed. The Antipodes was a world of reversals, the dark subconscious of the United Kingdom. It was, for all intents and purposes, Gothic par excellence, the dungeon of the world. It is perhaps for this reason that the Gothic as a mode has been a consistent presence in Australia since European settlement. Certainly, the fact that settlement began in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, during the rise of the Gothic as a sensationalist and resonantly influential form, contributes to its impact on the literature of Australia.

There may be other reasons for its appeal. It is probably possible to argue that the generic qualities of the Gothic mode lend themselves to articulating the colonial experience in as much as each emerges out of a condition of deracination and uncertainty, of the familiar transposed into unfamiliar space. It is this very quality which Sigmund Freud identified as the condition of the uncanny, where the home is unhomely — where the heimlich becomes unheimlich — and yet remains sufficiently familiar to disorient and disempower. All migrations represent a dislocation of sorts, but Australia posed particularly vexing questions for its European immigrants. Nature, it seemed to many, was out of kilter. To cite the familiar cliches: “its trees shed their bark, swans were black rather than white, and the seasons were reversed.” Moreover, while these features represented a physical perversion, it was widely considered to be metonymic of an attendant spiritual disease.

This sense of spiritual malaise is often communicated through the Gothic mode, that is, through a literary form which emphasises the horror, uncertainty and desperation of the human experience, often representing the solitariness of that expertise through characters trapped in a hostile environment, or pursued by an unspecified or unidentifiable danger. From its inception, the Gothic has dealt with fears and themes which are endemic in the colonial experience: isolation, entrapment, fear of pursuit and fear of the unknown. Moreover, for each, the possibility of transformation, of surviving the dislocation, acts as a driving hope. If the Gothic is itself a hybrid form — a mode delineated by borrowings and conflations, by fragmentation and incompletion, by a rejection of set values and yet a dependence on the establishment — then it is ideal to speak the colonial condition.

For many the very landscape of Australia was Gothic. To Lieutenant Daniel Southwell, one of the First Fleet arrivals, the outcrop of rocks framing the landscape of Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour), suggested the “charming seats, superb buildings, the grand ruins of stately edifices.” Soon real buildings would emerge to complement the imagined ones so that by the 1840s it was both fashionable and commonplace. In ‘Gothick Taste in the Colony of New South Wales’ (1980), James Broadbent and Joan Kerr have argued that Gothic architecture in Australia “was strongly associational — a symbol of a colony’s maturity.” However, Australia’s “maturity” — particularly in matters literary — was far from universally accepted. Australia was dismissed by many as too immature for proper history, and definitely for a romantic literature, to exist there.

As in many countries, there was in Australia a long-running debate over the importance of realism in, and the unsuitability of romance to, the colony’s literature. For some, the idea of the romantic was linked to Europe and its landscape and could therefore never be reproduced in the “new” worlds since they lacked antiquity. A number of critics maintained that given this failing it was critical that other virtues be celebrated. For some, since Australia had no history to speak of, one needed to honour its future potential; for others, the basis for a truly important national literature could emerge only through the celebration — not an exoticising — of the local: dialect, experience, space.

Barron Field (1786–1846), the author of the first book of verse to be published in Australia, adhered to the first view, that in a land without antiquities anticipation was all. In ‘On Reading the Controversy Between Lord Byron and Mr Bowles’ (1823), he claimed that in Australia, “Nature reflecting Art is not yet born; A land without antiquities, with one, And only one, poor spot of classic ground (That on which Cook first landed) — where, instead of heart-communings with ancestral relics We have nothing left us but anticipation. Where’s no past tense; the ignorant present’s all .” Barron Field may well have prefaced his poem with the epigraph, “Anticipation is to a young country what antiquity is to an old,” but he nevertheless concluded his work by suggesting that the only bit of poetry to be found in the “prose-dull land” was a ship which would carry him away — which indeed it did in 1824.

Frederick Sinnett (1830–1866) suggested that romance was inappropriate to Australian letters. Like Barron Field, Frederick Sinnett understood that Australia could not compete with English antiquity, but that its literature of every day should stand on equal ground. That his view of the romantic was largely informed by a specifically Gothic vision is made clear in an extract from his famous essay, ‘The Fiction Fields of Australia’ (1856), it must be granted, then, that we are quite debarred from all the interest to be extracted from any kind of archeological accessories. No storied windows, richly dight, cast a dim, religious light over any Australian premises. There are no ruins for that rare old plant, the ivy green, to creep over and make his dainty meal of. No Australian author can hope to extricate his hero or heroine, however pressing the emergency may be, by means of a spring panel and a subterranean passage, or such like relics of feudal barons. There may be plenty of dilapidated buildings, but not one, the dilapidation of which is sufficiently venerable by age, to tempt the wandering footsteps of the most arrant parvenu of a ghost that ever walked by night. It must be admitted that Mrs Ann Radcliffe’s genius would be quite thrown away here, and we must reconcile ourselves to the conviction that the foundations of a second ‘Castle of Otranto’ can hardly be laid in Australia during our time.

While there may have existed a rhetorically clear line dividing the realists from the romantics, in point of fact much writing produced in the colony blended elements of each, and it is perhaps in this way that Australia began to map out a specifically local variant of the Gothic mode, one which turned to the specifications of the domestic landscape and voice to articulate the fear and exhilaration of the colonial condition. Writers such as Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke, William Astley, Barbara Janet Ainsleigh Baynton and Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson produced detailed and localised texts anchored in the language, scenery and circumstance of their country. Though they may have insisted on the realist dimension of their work (Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson, for example, would have been aghast to be called a romance writer), their exploration of the anxieties of the convict system, the terrors of isolated stations at the mercy of vagrants and nature, the fear of starvation or of becoming lost in the bush, are distinctly Gothic in effect — and dare one say, uniquely, originally, Australian.

Intersections of Indigenous and Tribalistic Gothic

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