Josephy Furphy and the Australian scrub

Section of Panel 7 of the 10-panel Federation tapestryLast weekend I ran across Joseph Furphy, whom I’ve mentioned before in my blog, in the strangest of places – on a tapestry in the Melbourne Museum. It’s not strange of course to find Furphy, one of Australia’s pioneer novelists, in the museum, but I was surprised to find him quoted on a tapestry. Except, of course, it was no ordinary tapestry. It was the Federation Tapestry which was designed and made by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop to commemorate the 2001 centenary of Australia’s federation.

The tapestry comprises 10 panels, with Furphy appearing in the 7th one titled “The Heidelberg School“. Its focus is “the creative outpouring of national sentiment in the last two decades of the nineteenth century”. At the bottom of the panel, in the centre, is a quote from Furphy, writing as Tom Collins in his best-known novel, Such is life. The quote comes from his description of the Riverina area of remote Victoria-New South Wales.

It’s not in our cities or townships, it is not in our agricultural or mining areas, that the Australian attains full consciousness of his own nationality; it is in places like this, and as clearly here as at the centre of the continent. To me the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub has a charm of its own; so grave, subdued, self-centred; so alien to the genial appeal of more winsome landscape, or the assertive grandeur of mountain and gorge.

I like the fact that the tapestry designers chose a quote like this to incorporate into their panel because, although it feels almost cliched to say, I believe it captures the paradoxical nature of Australia and Australians that still, I think, informs much of our cultural landscape.

A couple of paragraphs on, Furphy writes that:

For though history is a thing that never repeats itself–since no two historical propositions are alike–one perennial truth holds good, namely, that every social hardship or injustice may be traced back to the linked sins of aggression and submission, remote or proximate in point of time.

There’s an irony here (not to mention an unconscious prescience, to our 21st century eyes) because Furphy, like most of his day, was not thinking of “aggression and submission” in relation to Australia’s indigenous populations – in fact he saw Australia as “a virgin continent” that had been waiting “in serene loneliness” for things to happen – but in terms of working people and their struggles. Both issues (and others to do with “aggression and submission”) are important today …

One day I will have to read (all of) Such is life.

19 thoughts on “Josephy Furphy and the Australian scrub

  1. What a fun discovery. Also, I think it pretty awesome that the tapestry was made to celebrate a centenary anniversary. How big is it? Just from the little view of it it looks lovely.

  2. Oh, do keep reading! It’s full of just such neat little points and description. Plus the wonderful irony that most of the time his characters’ work is stealing the grass of the outraged graziers who have recently stolen and cleared the land of the people whose land it is … I don’t think I’m fantasising he’s perfectly aware of the local back story .

  3. I concur with Lisa! Also, I am reading the very lovely ‘Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works’ by Jane Gleeson-White at the moment, and ‘Such is life’ earns a place in the 29 novels that G-W selected from so, so many. I’m thinking about adding it to the TBR too. John

      • Lucky you! No surprises to see Gleeson-White opt for Voss as her PW pick, though many authors, who were asked to contribute a list of their top 10 Aussie classics, listed many of White’s others. I’m about to dive into something very un-White: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell!

        • Craven says in his intro that perhaps the reason White didn’t want it reissued was because it might have been actionable (I’d need to read Marr’s bio to know who and why) and/or because of the depiction of ‘half-caste’ Chinese which he was embarrassed about. I can see why, but it was written in the 1930s when it wasn’t just Australian attitudes that were a long way from the multiculturalism that shaped the 1970s and beyond. Whatever about that, as well as being an interesting story, it’s fascinating to read the Great Man’s first novel. I’m loving it!

    • Thanks John … I dip into that book every now and then. It’s a fun book … with its lists as well as the 50. I will feature some of those lists in Monday Musings one day … just haven’t got around to it yet.

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