Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from our Deep South

Yes, Australia has a “deep south”, though we may not necessarily call it that. It’s Tasmania, an island hanging off the southeast of mainland Australia. Like Western Australia, it can sometimes feel like another country. You have to go over the sea to it – and when you get there, you sometimes find yourself saying, “In Australia …”. Very embarrassing when you catch yourself doing it, but it does reflect how “different” Tasmania can seem. It can feel a bit English – it’s cooler, greener and more compact. And, because of its relative insularity, there are, I have to say, jokes about the mental acuity of its inhabitants (like those you also hear of about places like Appalachia). Totally unfair of course! Not only does my brother live there, but Tasmania is home to some significant Australian writers, not to mention creators of all persuasions. Peter Sculthorpe, who is arguably our most famous composer, is a Taswegian.

Saltwater River penal settlement ruins

Ruins of penal settlement at Saltwater River

Tasmania has a rather dramatic history, from the early days of white settlement when it was home to some of our worst convict prisons to more recent times when it has been at the centre of some of our most dramatic conflicts over the environment. It is also where one of the worst shooting rampages in the 20th century occurred (in 1996). Add to this the fact that it contains some of Australia’s most beautiful and inaccessible wilderness, and you can see why gothic is part of its literary tradition.

Probably the state’s two most famous writers are Marcus Clarke and Richard Flanagan, and Gothic influences can be found in the writings of both. Marcus Clarke wrote what is probably regarded as the Australian convict novel, (For the term of) His natural life (published in 1874). It tells the story of a young man wrongly transported for murder, and it documents the worst of the convict system. It is an Australian classic – and has been adapted to film and television.

Richard Flanagan is a contemporary writer and environmental activist. Most of his books are set in Tasmania. Gould’s book of fish (2001) is another convict novel and is inspired by convict artist, William Buelow Gould. It’s some years since I read it but I’d recommend it for its evocation of the horrors of colonial Tasmania in a voice you don’t quickly forget. Here he is on George Augustus Robinson (Chief Protector of Aborigines in Tasmania, 1839 to 1849):

Robinson treated the savages as though they were his entourage, & the savages treated him like he was one of the many stray dogs they picked up on their travels. Neither seemed to notice the earth falling away beneath them as a breaking wave.

No indeed… Gould’s main subject, though, is not the plight of “the savages” but his own survival in a world not kind to the poor and powerless:

For as Capois Death said, if shit ever becomes valuable, the poor will be born without arseholes. That was our fate, & I didn’t pretend I could alter it. I only wished to survive as best I could …

It is hard to find excerpts from this wild novel that make sense out of context, but I hope these two will give you a sense of the language and black comic tone. Flanagan’s latest novel Wanting (2008) also deals with Tasmania’s early colonial days and is similarly worth reading.

As with my post on Western Australian writers, I’m not going to give you a long list, so I’ll just mention a few other writers. High on my TBR is Jessie Couvreur (or Tasma). She migrated to Tasmania with her family as a young child in the early 1850s and lived there until her marriage. The book I have is her A Sydney sovereign and other tales (1890), but she also wrote novels. Anyhow, the first story in my book is titled “What an artist discovered in Tasmania” and concerns one Richard (“who is an artist, perhaps, more in sentiment than in execution”) and his trip to Tasmania (from England) to find “the most hardened criminal on earth” to sit for a portrait. When he announces his plan, his sister Polly asks where Tasmania is, and here is the narrator’s response:

Kind Tasmanians – whose blossom garlanded isle is the original Eden of the Anthropoghagi; whose aromatous breezes greet the pallid stranger, and efface from his recollection the haunting odours of Yarra* bank noisomeness – do not stigmatise Polly for her ignorance. She had been through a course in  school geography, and had mastered, you may be sure, the latitude and longitude of Hobart Town, just as she had mastered the latitude and longitude of Acapulca; but somehow the whereabouts of Tasmania had escaped her.

There is a delightful tongue-in-cheek tone to the story of an artist who doesn’t quite find what he went looking for … I must read the rest of the book.

Other writers from Tasmania worth checking out (but they aren’t the only ones) include novelist-essayist Amanda Lohrey, poet Gwen Harwood, and novelist Helen Hodgman (who emigrated from Scotland with her family, when she was a teenager, and some of whose novels are now being re-released by Text Publishing).

How I dreamed of Paradise,
this southern land at the world’s edge,
weeks of blue water separating old from new.
I tasted air in my dreams,
faint hills, mounds of whales;
the beginning of things.
(from Jane, Lady Franklin, by Adrienne Eberhard)

For all its ferocious past, Tasmania is a place many Australians dream of as our little Paradise down south. If you never have a chance to get there, you could do worse than check out some of its writers.

* With apologies to Melburnians. This is Tasma writing, not me!

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from our Deep South

  1. I’ve never read the Marcus Clarke book on convicts that you say is a classic. In the middle of reading this post I checked Amazon and found it in a cheap Kindle edition and ordered it. (My book groups are suffering as I follow my own lights in choosing books these days.)

    On another note, I think the novelist Nicholas Shakespeare lives in Tasmania, but he’s not a native. English?

    • Yes, he does I believe, and yes, a Pom. I’m thinking of doing a post on reverse expats (ie foreigners living here). An Australian mainland writer Robert Dessaix also lives there now but I decided to leave all these later-in-life comers out.

      I was in fact just thinking of you this morning when I was gathering the BGL ratings. I’m less active there too as I’ve been following my own lights a bit more …. anyhow, nice to hear from you. I hope you enjoy Marcus Clarke. It’s a lo-o-ong time since I read it.

      • Dessaix has moved to Tassie? Not that I’m a Dessaix watcher, but that bit of news completely passed me by. We studied the Clarke in school, and I still have memories of “Good Mr Dawes!” and children in chains throwing themselves off cliffs. Also the whipping scene, and the minister being too late to stop it, and blaming himself afterwards. (Like so many other Victorian novels it has a narrative movie quality: it proceeds in climaxes and scenes. I want to describe it with, “There was that bit where …” and “That scene when he said such and such …” Though I think this is just another way of saying that it was published serially.)

  2. I shall have to go and write out one hundred times “I must not stereotype Taswegians.” (As in Glaswegians, I assume?) The only two Taswegians I have met would have pushed each other hard for the award for the most arrogant man on the planet. It must have been pure coincidence!

    • LOL Annie. Yes, it is as in Glaswegian though why the “gow” of Glasgow inspired the same suffix as the “mania” of Tasmania so that they both generated “wegian” I don’t know. Mostly we say Tasmanian, but I have also heard Tasmaniac. Now we’re getting somewhere!

      • Isn’t that strange – I always thought of it as deriving from Norway, i.e. Norwegians.
        Also, I suppose you know that Tasmanians refers to the rest of us as ‘Mainlanders”?

        On a more serious note, thanks for an interesting post. I’ve read two Flanagans and haven’t liked either and am ashamed to say I have not read ‘His Natural Life’ nor seen the film or television versions. Nor do I want to: the cruelty of those times makes my blood curdle.

        • You softie you. Norwegians, of course. But, a Google search says Glaswegian. I didn’t delve too far. However what I read said it appeard in the mid 20th century, but didn’t explain why that connection.

  3. As my dad is Tasmanian I’m glad you mentioned the jokes are unfair Sue!

    Two other excellent Tasmanian authors I’ve read are Carmel Bird and Danielle Wood, both of whom have incorporated the gothic to great effect in books like Cape Grimm and The Bluebird Cafe (Bird) and Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls (Wood).

    • Phew! I’d hate to have insulted you father Sarah. Ah yes, Carmel Bird, I hadn’t registered that. I’ve read some of her short stories, and have Cape Grimm on my virtual TBR. Thanks for adding Bird and Wood to the Taswegian list.

  4. Like others, Taswegian made me pause. I thought maybe you were making a joke and it had gone over my head. I seem to recall Gould’s book of fish being published here in the US and thinking it sounded interesting. I will have to check and see if my library has it.

    • Gould could very well have been published there. One of my international bookgroups – of which the majority of members are American – discussed it last year so I’m guessing it’s available over there (somewhere, anyhow!)

  5. Pingback: My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: April 7, 2011 « Hungry Like the Woolf

  6. I suppose I should comment, being an immigrant Taswegian. One of the interesting things about Tasmanian writing is, I think, the Gothic element – particularly beloved by Marcus Clarke and Richard Flanagan. I think this element has played into ‘mainland’ perceptions of the state which is always open to such being a smallish island with a long convict past. Nonetheless I think there is a lot more to Tasmania than the Gothic. Christopher Koch, of course, is another very well known Tasmanian author (returned to the state in the last decade or so). Most of his novels are definitively rooted in his Tasmanian background and also bring in the Gothic element. Other non-resident writers have used the island as their literary playground (Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, Robert Drewe’s The Savage Crows, Mudrooroo’s Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the End of the World, Tom Gilling’s The Sooterkin and more recently Cate Keneally’s The World Beneath to name just a few), not always with much success. I’ve ordered Helen Hodgman’s work from the library and am looking forward to trying it out. Don’t forget too that Australia’s first published novel was written by Henry Savery, a convict who came to a sticky end.

    • Ha, thought this might flush you out again. Thanks for the additions – some of which I didn’t know or had forgotten. One I forgot was Christopher Koch. I had thought of mentioning Matthew Kneale’s The English passengers but decided to keep it to the Aussies. I’m glad though that you have brought it up because it was a great read. I had heard of Savery but haven’t read him. I have the Cate Kennedy in my pile but haven’t got to it yet.

      Anyhow, thanks, again, for helping big sis out with some great suggestions.

  7. I’m a bit behind with blog reading, so only came across your interesting post today Sue. I knew that you would want to know that there is a slight typo with the date of For the Term of his Natural Life. 1874 of course, not 1974. To my shame I must admit to having only read about 20 pages of it, after a visit to Port Arthur in 1983. I shall have to retackle it again sometime I suspect. I know you weren’t being exhaustive, but Margaret Scott was Tasmanian too wasn’t she? Although I’ve never read any of her writings, she was fabulous on Good News Week all those years ago when it was on the ABC.

    • Oh, silly me Louise. Of course I meant to write 1874. Thanks muchly for pointing it out.

      No I wasn’t being exhaustive – partly because it’s impossible to be and partly to give people reading the blog a chance to add their own suggestions! Must say I didn’t even think of Scott but you are probably right (though it’s too late and I have a full on week in Newman for me to spend time Googling it!). Thanks for suggesting her … because the record at this blog post is becoming richer and richer.

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