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Monday musings on Australian literature: Famous Australian literary couples

April 2, 2012
Illustration derived from page scans of an ori...

The Bloke and Doreen go to a play, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, 2nd ed. 1917 (Presumed Public Domain: Wikipedia)

We all know Romeo and Juliet, Elizabeth and Darcy, and Cathy and Heathcliff. They are ingrained into the consciousness of readers of English literature. But we Aussies have some couples of our own and I thought it might be fun to introduce you to just a few. They are interesting, not only because they are great characters, but because they also represent of different aspects of Australian culture.

The Bloke and Doreen

Most Australians have at least heard of CJ Dennis‘ verse novel The songs of the Sentimental Bloke (1915) and might have studied an excerpt or two at school, like I did. It has been adapted for film and television, and been made into a musical and a ballet. It tells the story of a larrikin and Doreen, the young woman he falls head-over-heels for. The challenge for contemporary readers is that it’s written in the working class vernacular of its time. However, if you “listen” to the words, it doesn’t take long to pick it up and to become engaged by the Bloke and his attempts to win Doreen’s hand. Doreen is no easy pick-up, and to win her, he must fix up his act (such as give up drinking) and become a respectable man:

Fer ‘er sweet sake I’ve gone and chucked it clean:
The pubs an’ schools an’ all that leery game.
Fer when a bloke ‘as come to know Doreen,
It ain’t the same.
There’s ‘igher things, she sez, fer blokes to do.
An’ I am ‘arf believin’ that it’s true.
(from “Doreen”)

The songs of a sentimental bloke is, what we’d call today, romantic comedy so it all works out fine in the end. The Bloke develops and matures, wins his woman, and leads a productive and settled life as a happily married man.

Voss and Laura

By contrast, Voss and Laura’s story is a tragic romance. They are the creation of Patrick White in his novel, Voss (1957), which he based loosely on the German-born Australian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who tried to cross Australia in the mid-19th century. Voss has been made into an opera, but so far attempts to adapt it to film have not come to fruition (something I expect to write more about later).

Voss meets Laura in the opening scene of the novel at the Sydney home of her uncle and Voss’s patron, but they spend very little time in each other’s physical presence because, for the majority of the novel, Voss is away on his ill-fated expedition. (I did say it was tragic.) Most of their relationship occurs via letters and telepathic communication. Theirs is a passion fed by a meeting of minds and spirit.

Voss thought how he would talk eventually with Laura Trevelyan, how they had never spoken together using the truly humble words that convey innermost reality: bread, for instance, or water. Obsessed by the struggle between their two souls, they had threatened each other with the flashing weapons of abstract reasoning, while overlooking the common need for substance. But now we shall understand each other, he said, glancing about. […] Human relationships are vast as deserts: they demand all daring, she seemed to suggest.

It’s a grandly conceived – and quintessentially Australian – epic in the way it confronts the outback, something that remains a somewhat odd, but very real, part of the Australian character. We are highly urbanised and yet the outback still plays a significant role in our consciousness. It’s there, just behind our cities, beautiful but threatening at the same time. Confronting this vastness is still seen, by many Australians, as an antidote to the the superficiality of city life – and Voss (with Laura, by his side in abstract) confronted it big-time.

Oscar and Lucinda

Oscar and Lucinda are the main characters in Peter Carey‘s novel of the same name. Published in 1988, it, like Voss, is set in 19th century Australia, but unlike Voss it has been successfully adapted to film. Oscar, the rebel son of a strict religious father, and Lucinda, an heiress who buys a glass factory, meet on board ship and are attracted to each other through their love of gambling and taking risks. Like Voss and Laura, they are outsiders and their story ends tragically …  but while Voss and Laura’s story is spare and intense, Oscar and Lucinda’s is wild and over-the-top. They construct a glass church which hydrophobic Oscar, in a grand gesture of love, sails a few hundred miles up river through uncharted country to Bellingen, providing an unforgettable image for anyone who has read the book. What makes this Australian is not only its description of white settlers confronting the bush and its particular exploration of religiosity in the colony, but in the way Carey uses the idea of gambling to weave the story because, Australia is (whether we like it or not) a big gambling nation.

Unfortunately, though, I can’t find my copy, so no quotes from this one for you.

Do you have favourite literary couples, Australian or otherwise? I’d love to hear of literary couples who have resonated with you.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2012 10:14 pm

    Australian couples? Why, Elspeth and Rushton of Obernewtyn, of course! Non-Australian? Ma and Pa as well as Laura and Almanzo (more for childhood happiness than any epic love story-telling, although by golly Laura does her best to push Almanzo away at first!). Elnora and Phillip in Girl of the Limberlost, Anne and Gilbert in Anne of Green Gables (and the sequels)…. gosh, I seem to be going for the more innocently-written couples, don’t I? 😛

    • April 3, 2012 9:05 am

      This sure got your juices going Hannah. I was sure though that you’d mention Scarlett and Rhett!!

      • April 3, 2012 9:50 am

        Oh dear heavens are you trying to throw me back into that hellhole of depression? I’m already having a bad day!

        • April 3, 2012 4:19 pm

          Ah but, you know me. I couldn’t resist it. And, they are great literary couples.

        • April 3, 2012 4:33 pm

          Thowra and his harem of mares!

  2. April 3, 2012 12:00 am

    What’s a larrikin?

    • April 3, 2012 9:07 am

      A (usually) young man who’s somewhat loud and boisterous and somewhat anti-social though not actually criminal. Drinking, gambling, fighting and ignoring social conventions was their milieu. It’s probably used more affectionately now than it was once, as in “he’s a bit of a larrikin”).

      • April 4, 2012 9:39 am

        Like a Yobo?

        • April 4, 2012 2:16 pm

          yes, I think that old be pretty close … Though these days larrikin has a little bit of a generous or affectionate tinge to it.

  3. April 3, 2012 1:42 am

    Love this post. Oscar & Lucinda are one of of my “most favourite” literary couples.

    I also like RobbieTurner and Cecilia Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and Barney Panofsky & Miriam Greenberg in Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version (“Miriam, oh, Miriam!) (Neither Australian, of course.)

    • April 8, 2012 9:09 pm

      Sorry Debbie … I missed this. Glad you liked the post and thanks for sharing some of your favourites. (And guess what, today my copy of Oscar and Lucinda appeared! My son had it and quite coincidentally returned it today).

      I love Atonement … so agree with you re Robbie and Cecilia. I saw the film “Barney’s version” but have only read some Richler short stories.

  4. April 3, 2012 2:11 am

    It’s Monday here and my brain refuses to cooperate in recalling any literary couples Australian or otherwise. I enjoyed reading your post though 🙂

    • April 3, 2012 8:59 am

      Glad you enjoyed it … And if my post gets your juices going and you think of some as the days wears on do pop back and let us know. When I think US it’s sometimes easie to think of the musicals!

  5. jessiet1 permalink
    April 3, 2012 8:41 am

    well there are archy and mehitabel a platonic relationship of course but who can forget the perseverance of archy in mastering the typewriter except for the shift key and producing a comprehensible narrative without any punctuation or his love hate relationship with mehitabel that lady of refinement who survives the vicissitudes of life while remaining toujours gai one could write reams but this is only a comment not a post

    • April 3, 2012 9:04 am

      I must read Archy and Mehitabel again … particularly since you channelled Archy so beautifully in your response!

  6. Meg permalink
    April 3, 2012 9:25 am

    I was pleasantly surprised to read one so young as Hannah, would know of Girl of the Limberlost. Have you read The Harvester – so sad. I still have Girl of the Limberlost, it was my mum’s. I then thought of literary couples who were writers, I couldn’t only think of two: Ruth Park and Darcy Niland and Nettie and Vance Palmer.

    Meg

    • April 3, 2012 4:19 pm

      Well, of course Meg, she was introduced to Limberlost by me who was introduced to it by my Mum. Loved that book – the characters, the setting, and the lunchbox!

      Oh yes, the writing couples … those are a great two you’ve mentioned.

    • April 3, 2012 4:32 pm

      I love Girl of the Limberlost with all my heart… and I still love my mum, even though she never made me such a lunchbox of treats as Elnora’s mum did. 😛

      • Meg permalink
        April 3, 2012 5:16 pm

        Your mum would have been introducing you to book treats which last for ever, whilst lunchbox treats are gone within the minute.

        • April 3, 2012 6:54 pm

          Spoken like another mum methinks, Meg … thanks for the support!

  7. Christina Houen permalink
    April 3, 2012 12:22 pm

    I loved this post! I have an early copy of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, with Dennis’s preface to the fifty-first thousand (copy, I presume). Evidently it sold that many copies in the first year, and received rave reviews in Australasia and UK, and many letters were written to the author. Here’s one of my favourite bits:

    Ar, wimmin! What a blinded fool I’ve been!
    I arsts meself, wot else could I ixpeck?
    I done me block complete on this Doreen,
    An’ now me ‘eart is broke, me life’s a wreck!
    The dreams I dreamed, the dilly thorts I thunk
    I up the pole, and joy ‘as done a bunk.

    His patois of cokney-strine is brilliant, as is his use of rhyme, and his sustained invention is remarkable.

    Another literary couple I find memorable, and at the front of my mind because I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings (for the 6th time!) is Frodo and Sam. They are not lovers, but they are certainly a couple. Then there’s Govinda and Siddhartha in Siddartha (another one I’ve just re-read).
    As for more Australian ones, I’ll have to think on that. Ah! Here’s one, from a recent publication, Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears: Noah and Rowley.

  8. Christina Houen permalink
    April 3, 2012 6:09 pm

    Typo! last line of verse quoted from Sentimental bloke should be ‘are up the pole ….’

    • April 3, 2012 6:59 pm

      Oh so glad you enjoyed it Christina. I enjoyed creating this post as you can imagine. I had a work colleague who had the final verse of the Sentimental Bloke on his noticeboard:

      Sittin’ at ev’nin’ in this sunset-land,
      Wiv ‘Er in all the World to ‘old me ‘and,
      A son, to bear me name when I am gone….
      Livin’ an’ lovin’–so life mooches on.

      Love it, eh?

      • Christina Houen permalink
        April 3, 2012 8:37 pm

        lovely. I must re-read it.

  9. April 3, 2012 7:00 pm

    CJ Dennis did not figure in my high-school curriculum so I didn’t discover Doreen and the Sentimental Bloke until much later in life when my Uni Professor suggested CJ Dennis as a suitable topic for special studies.
    My first attempts at reading Dennis brought forward boredom, second attempts saw me rise to the challenge and, subsequent readings proved that he was a terrific chronicler of Australian life (the Australian male in particular) and had a great ear for the Aussie vernacular. I was pretty chuffed when an abridged version of my special studies project was published by ‘Antipodes’.
    Thinking of Australian Literary couples, Colleen McCullough’s ‘The Thorn Birds’ comes to mind but I guess Meggie and Ralph weren’t really a couple were they? Still, it was a delicious love story.

    • April 3, 2012 7:10 pm

      Oh yes, The thorn birds … I would never have remembered their names. But, in a very round about way – from the book to the film to the actor Bryan Brown – you’ve reminded me of another great Aussie love story, A town like Alice, with Jean and Joe. I always think of it as very Australian (particularly of its time) – the English rose meets salt-of-the-earth Australian.

      As for the Bloke, I remember studying The Play at school, when they go to see Romeo and Juliet. The Bloke’s summary of the play is a treat … such as this verse:

      Then Romeo, ‘e dunno wot to do.
      The cops gits busy, like they allwiz do,
      An’ nose around until ‘e gits blue funk
      An’ does a bunk.
      They wants ‘is tart to wed some other guy.
      “Ah, strike!” she sez. “I wish that I could die!”

      Love how we learn a bit about him too – “The cops gits busy, like they allwiz do”!

  10. April 6, 2012 6:25 am

    littlw left field but jeeves and bertie are a odd couple that work so well together ,all the best stu

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  1. Bookish News and Publishing Tidbits 4 April 2012 | Read in a Single Sitting - Book reviews and new books

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