Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Gothic (19th century)

A few months ago I wrote a post on Horace Walpole‘s The castle of Otranto which is regarded as a pioneer in the Gothic novel tradition. I thought then that it would be good to explore how the Gothic translated to Australia where we have no castles in which the supernatural can rattle and clang. Australia though had (and has) plenty to inspire a Gothic imagination: strange unforgiving nightmarish landscapes, weird vegetation and imaginary creatures. Moreover, Australia was colonised by the British in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, the time when Gothic novels were at the height of their popularity in Britain.

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Consequently, many of Australia’s 19th century writers did incorporate the Gothic into their writing, and today I’ll list just few (but it will be little more than a list as I’ve been away the last two weekends and am playing catchup in pretty much every aspect of my life.)

The following are just some of the authors whose writings are regularly included in Gothic anthologies or in discussions of an Australian Gothic tradition:

  • Barbara Baynton
  • Marcus Clarke
  • Henry Lawson
  • Rosa Praed (who, like Ada Cambridge, is not as well known as she should be, which is something I have been planning to – and will –  rectify)
  • Price Warung.  I reviewed his Tales of the early days, a couple of years ago. One of the tales, “The Pegging-Out of Overseer Franke”, is commonly included in Australian Gothic anthologies. It tells the story of revenge against a cruel overseer of convicts … and explores the fine line between definitions of man and beast when cruelty and revenge become the modus operandi.

19th century Australian writers didn’t always need the supernatural to convey horror, evoke fear and portray disjunction between desire/hope and harsh reality. They had the forbidding Australian landscape, the threat of becoming lost in or being destroyed by that landscape, and the harsh unyielding authority of colonial male power. Who needed castle ghosts in this situation? This is not to say that the supernatural never appeared in Australian writing, but that this writing could, and often did, convey a Gothic sense of horror and dread through the concrete realities of 19th century Australian life. It’s fascinating to see what happened to the Gothic tradition in the second half of the 20th century (in, say, the work of Elizabeth Jolley) but that is a topic for another day.

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Gothic (19th century)

    • Oh, you’ve stolen my thunder, Guy! I will be mentioning Picnic in the later post because it does have a supernatural, unexplainable element combined with a foreboding landscape, and is usually included in discussions of Australian Gothic.

    • Absolutely Guy I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock when it was first released as a movie, can’t recall whether I read the book first or not. But I can distinctly recall the feeling of total unknown dread my imagination conjured up when those girls disappeared. 🙂

      • Thanks for commenting Anita … I agree. That scene is so powerful, and stays so, no matter how many time you see the movie I think. Somehow Peter Weir managed to capture something eerie and forbidding in that scene, helped along but the music.

  1. Picnic at Hanging Rock makes my Top Ten Film List. It’s so creepy and suspenseful, and yet what really happens? BTW, I found a free copy of Baynton’s book for the kindle, but I didn’t get it as it seemed to be full of vernacular and that sort of thing drives me around the bend.

    • It is, isn’t it, Guy … I still remember my kids, when we were walking in Central Australia 10 years ago, doing a Mira-a-nda, Mira-a-nda moment as they sidled about rocky outcrops. The uncertainty of it is part of what gives it that Gothic sense I think.

      I understand what you mean by vernacular … but it’s probably worth persevering. On the other hand, I suspect you are not short of a thing to read!

    • Oh yes, thanks, Matt, I did think the Tasmanian might be worthy of its own post … and now you’ve convinced me. I should try to read the Wilson first perhaps … there’s Julia Leigh’s book that The hunter was based on too. I guess its dark, wet, rugged landscape plus it’s rather cruel history lend itself don’t they.

  2. I never associated Australian literature with gothic, the absence of castles on dark and stormy nights being a bit of a stumbling block. However, of course, the landscape and the possibility of being lost in the Bush is quite Gothic enough, probably provoking at least a sense of agorophobia. An interesting article

    • Thanks Tom … there’s also Gothic in the US, particularly the south, which they call Southern Gothic. Of course they so have a lot of old mansions there with multiple levels and with nooks and crannies so it’s probably easier to imagine there. You must come to our bush sometime!!

  3. Marcus Clarke as gothic…. I am going to have to mull this over.

    Great list though, I like the idea of gothic Australian fiction. Ill have to read a bit more till I have anything useful to say on the topic though. Which begs the question…. what is this comment about? haha. Just to say thanks for the suggestions of authors to explore in a type of writing I hadn’t thought of in terms of Australian literature before.

    • Glad to be of service, as always, Becky! Marcus Clarke is there because of the convict horror and the role of the bush in particular in “Term” but he also wrote short stories that are often included in Gothic anthologies.

  4. I’ll have to read some Australian Gothic sometime and compare it to American. We don’t have castles either but we had witchcraft, the Puritans, and a wild landscape.

      • Hawthorne and Poe are our premier 19th century gothic writers. Washington Irving sometimes slips onto the list too. Then there is the whole subgenre of Southern Gothic which had its hey day in the early 20th century and includes William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers among many others.

        • Ah yes, those three … I’ve read some of each of those but haven’t read their major works though I have The house of seven gables on my tbr, bought during a visit to Salem. I’m interested in the Southern Gothic and have read a couple of those writers.

  5. Good call on Jolley. The Well is Gothic as an iron spike. “Castle ghosts” are nothing but Dread’s conveyances, like bicycles; Australia gave it new bicycles. The Age interviewed Michael Veitch a little while ago because he’d written a book about the islands off the southern coast of Victoria, the shipwreck coast (which we studied in school so that our teachers could take us down to the sunny beach of Loch Ard Gorge and point out the places where drowning people had dragged themselves ashore and faltered in caves) and he used the word “Gothic” on those islands “This was a truly Gothic Australia, as real and as valid as the gold and the drovers and the deserts, yet known to almost no one.” My mind has been playing with it ever since.

    • Oh course The well is the first Jolley to pop into mind but there are others too, aren’t there, with a Gothic/horror sensibility to them. Thanks for the link to the Veitch book … I had thought of course of the BIG island (ie Tasmania) but hadn’t really thought of the other islands partly, I suppose, because I don’t know them well. Lighthouses are good sources for Gothic imagination, and stormy windy isles. Good one.

      What lovely teachers you had!!

  6. Others too — she baffles her characters with enigmatic forces. The bandits and wicked gentlemen who keep Ann Radcliffe’s heroine isolated in the mountains become retirement-home nurses in Jolley. The world is off-kilter and threatening. Her characters are surrounded by the ocean even when they’re on land. They’re Veitch’s islands turned into people. (Everything around them always has the potential to be in upheaval.) Ever since I read that article I’ve had some sort of great longing to write something about one of those islands. I picture black rocks tumourous with seals. (But the only lighthouse I can think of, from that coast, is a neat white clean building with a seachange coastal town nearby.)

    • Oh she does … I also think of Weekly in The newspaper of Claremont Street or the nurse in My father’s moon … and the way exterior forces converge with the interior to create minor or major havoc.

      There surely are some more atmospheric lighthouses on the islands?

  7. Pingback: “The Gothic Reviv’d” « Valerie Sirr

  8. Interesting what you say re the concrete realities in 19th century Australia. I just blogged about 19th century Gothic literature in Britain and Ireland. Some theorists suggested the Anglo-Irish Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu was represententing the coloniser’s subconscious fear of the natives in ‘Carmilla’, the story that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

    • That sounds interesting Valerie … I think fear of “the natives” probably played a role here too though may sometimes have been subsumed under the overall issue of “the bush” but I am going to research that issue a bit more, because I have been mulling it over. My sense is that 19th century writers here focused less on the indigenous Australians than they did on the convict issue and the bush which is interesting in itself.

  9. I love Barbara Baynton’s stories-most of these writers, including Baynton are second generation Irish-Australians-Barbara’s parents arrived as bound servants-

    I recently acquired a long anthology of Irish horror stories, many of which center around the outback

    • Nice to hear from you Mel .. and thanks for that background info. The Irish certainly played a significant role in 19th early 20th century Australia. After all, there’s Ned Kelly too! Irish stories about the outback sound interesting.

  10. This one sounds really intriguing Sue, even thought you haven’t necessarily come out raving about it. I’m sure I’d enjoy it. Books set in Tassie just have a different feel to the mainland, don’t they? (Maybe they’re all gothic?)

    • Ah, I tend not to rave, 0range Pekoe – except I did for that last Harrower. I enjoyed Sing fox and would certainly recommend it. Good point re Tassie lit. I think you’re right about a lot of it including Gothic elements.

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