Reprint: The Australian in Literature by Catherine Helen Spence

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It takes more than two generations to create a distinctive national character, but we can see, even in that time, that something has been done. The patronising judgment of a leading English journal 30 years ago that the Australian was merely the Englishman in a warm climate, and with more primitive conditions, would not be repeated now. Our climate, in spite of its drawbacks of excessive heat and dryness in summer, is a better one than that of the British Isles, and our conditions can be modified and improved by Australian enterprise and Australian commonsense. Federation must play a part in the development of patriotism, and in time it will lessen the jealousy of the states with regard to each other, though in early days it may appear to intensify it. It is, perhaps, when we travel abroad, and came upon the seed of the eucalyptus planted in California or near Rome, or have a sight of wattle bloom grown in an English hothouse, that the strong ties that bind us to our fair Southern Land are most keenly felt. But what is the figure that the Australian makes in the literature which is indigenous to its soil? Henry Kendall and Marcus Clarke and Adam Lindsay Gordon struck the keynote of pessimism; and in prose as well as in verse the deadbeat, the remittance man, the gaunt shepherd with his starving flocks and herds, the free selector on an arid patch, the drink shanty where the rouseabouts and shearers knock down their cheques, the race meeting where high and low, rich and poor, are filled with the gambler's spirit and cursed with the gambler's ill-luck, fill the foreground of the picture of Australian life. There are occasional episodes more cheerful and more tender, but the impression given to the outside world is that in the fight with Nature, which is man's task everywhere, he is oftener worsted in Australia than anywhere else. Misfortune is more picturesque than prosperity. Balzac said vice was better for literary purposes than virtue, and there is a modern wave of pessimism in literature which is felt all over the world. Australia, being the most distant place where the black sheep of the family can be sent, has been utilized for the relegation of the unfit -- who may come back for another tug at the paternal pursestrings -- and the remittance man, who is promised pecuniary help so long as he remains where he is sent; and these may be called picturesque, but they are neither useful nor ornamental.

Australia's splendid climate has tempted hundreds and thousands of delicate men who could not live and work in England to make the change to the antipodes, in many cases with the greatest success. In all the professions, especially in the Church and in the press, Australia's intellectual life has been enriched by tbe labours of such men, whom nothing but health would have induced to leave the land of their birth. Dr. Andrew Garran, who died last year at the age of 75, had 50 years of good work on the press -- of Adelaide first, and then on that of Sydney -- and in the New South Wales Legislaure, after having wintered in Madeira, where there was no work to do, and where there was a depressing population of invalids. No one had a higher idea of the pleasantness of Australian life, or of the greatness of the Australian future, than this veteran journalist to the end of his life. We should not take the opinions of wealthy Australian travellers picking out the English summer, going to the most lovely spots, moving from place to place, and impressed by the completeness and the finish of all the arrangements made for their comfort, but we should see how young Australians who have to live all the year round in London, in Manchester, or in Edinburgh, long for the bright skies, the pure air, the grand vistas of their native land. The tales told "While the Billy Boils" are not all tragedies. There are deadbeats all over the world, more's the pity, but the Australian tramp is not so wretched as the tramp where the rain it raineth every day, or where frost and snow intensify the pangs of hunger and the need of shelter and fire.

No one would think in reading the poems and sketches which are said to be so characteristic of Australia that the prevalent note of Australia is good humour and commonsense. This is what Mr. Percy Rowland, writing in The Nineteenth Century for September, after some years' residence in Australia, emphatically declares; but, curiously, he says that though there is so much good humour, there is not much original humour. Our omnibus drivers and cabbies have not the skill in repartee of the Irish jarvie or of the London bus driver. But he owns that we can appreciate a joke when we hear it, and that is a step in the right direction. We are still sensitive to outside criticism -- the Americans were so up to their great civil war -- but if Anthony Trollope revisited us from the Shades he would not find Australians so addicted to blow as they were. We had not a civil war -- we had a financial crisis which did us much good. The Australian is a born speculator, sprung from a race of speculators; but since the crisis enterprise has been directed more towards production, and there have been continuous, varied, aud patient experiments, individual and co-operative, to make the best and the most of the soil and the climate and the labour we have. Where is there a more patient, polite, or good-humoured crowd than in Australia? Visitors from England and foreign countries at the inauguration of the Commonwealth in Sydney, and at the opening of the Federal Parliament by the Duke of York in Melbourne, could not admire too much the orderly, well dressed, cheerful, crowds who waited hours on the line of march. Even our race meetings command the praise that they are managed better and are more respectable than such gatherings elsewhere. Why should our poets and storytellers ignore the joyousness of Australian life, the eagerness with which outings are organised for old and young for both sexes, not only excursions by day but moonlight trips in summer, where the billy is boiled and simple fare is eaten with relish? How few think that the ubiquitous sandwich sacred to picnics, and such hospitality as is open to slender means, was introduced by Lord Sandwich, an inveterate gambler, to prevent the high play in which he delighted being interrupted by the impertinence of supper? An epigram of the time couples him with a brother peer, Lord Spencer, who also made an innovation, but his was in dress:--

   Two noble lords whom, if I quote,
      Some folks will call me Sinner;
   The one invented half a coat,
      The other half a dinner.

Ralph Nickleby may keep the memory of the Spencerian literature, but the sandwich will live as long as the Sandwich Islands, which also had their name, from the worthless First Lord of the Admiralty. Australia has one great handicap- - to use an appropriate phrase, for the horse-loving Commonwealth -- in its prolonged and excessive droughts, but these are not universal: and the enterprise and the patience and the capital of the Australians will minimise the evils when they can be dealt with, and their prudence will lead them to leave hopeless districts   severely alone. We want, as Matthew Arnold says of life, "to see Australia steadily and to see it whole." The one-sided pictures which our pessimistic poets and writers present are false in the impression they make on the outside world and on ourselves. They lead us to forget the beauty and the brightness of the world we life in.

First published in The Register, 22 November 1902

Note: this piece was originally published as an editorial in the Adelaide newspaper without a byline.  However, the piece was later reprinted in Catherine Helen Spence, UQP, 1987.

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 1, 2011 8:16 AM.

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