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

December 12, 2011

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 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2011 01:54

    I know the Picnic at Hanging Rock isn’t particularly categorised as Gothic, but there’s an edge to it that makes me think Gothic. Perhaps it’s the Victorianism.

    • December 13, 2011 08:27

      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.

    • anitadresden permalink
      July 24, 2014 11:34

      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. 🙂

      • July 25, 2014 00:40

        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.

  2. December 13, 2011 09:22

    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.

    • December 14, 2011 09:09

      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!

  3. Matthew Todd permalink
    December 13, 2011 18:12

    There’s also a thing called Tasmanian Gothic – the novels of Richard Flanagan are arguably the most well-known example. That, and Rohan Wilson’s new The Roving Party.

    … I did find this on wiki:

    • December 14, 2011 09:43

      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.

  4. December 13, 2011 22:35

    WordPress has eaten my assuredly-hilarious comment about drop-bears not being imaginary two times now! Grrr!

    P.S. Hope you’re having a lovely night!

    • December 14, 2011 09:45

      What a shame! Yes we did. And we discussed our top books of the year which was fun

  5. December 14, 2011 07:07

    Picnic at Hanging Rock also came to mind for me, not having read anything mildly Gothic for years. How beautiful is Barbara Baynton in that photograph.

    • December 14, 2011 11:32

      It is a gorgeous photo isn’t it … wearing an interesting choker around her neck. Picnic is hard to to think of when you think Aussie Gothic isn’t it?

  6. December 14, 2011 08:32

    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

    • December 14, 2011 11:35

      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!!

  7. December 14, 2011 14:20

    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.

    • December 14, 2011 15:56

      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.

  8. December 15, 2011 05:03

    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.

    • December 15, 2011 21:38

      That would be good, Stefanie. What would you recommend as good (or typical) American Gothic?

      • December 16, 2011 01:52

        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.

        • December 16, 2011 14:59

          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.

  9. December 17, 2011 05:11

    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.

    • December 17, 2011 10:54

      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!!

  10. December 21, 2011 06:25

    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.)

    • December 21, 2011 08:59

      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?

  11. January 9, 2012 09:07

    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.

    • January 9, 2012 16:21

      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.

  12. March 1, 2013 10:42

    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

    • March 1, 2013 18:06

      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.

  13. May 2, 2016 04:27

    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?)

    • May 2, 2016 08:46

      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.

  14. May 2, 2016 04:28

    Ah, that comment was meant to be for Sing Fox to Me (if you can’t tell!)

    • May 2, 2016 08:49

      Ha ha, I worked it out, Orange Pekoe. You clearly clicked on my link but were thinking about the book you’d come from, which made sense!


  1. “The Gothic Reviv’d” « Valerie Sirr

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