Monday musings on Australian literature: Memorable Australian characters

Image on screen as we waited for Kim Scott

Image on screen as we waited for Kim Scott

The inspiration for today’s somewhat fun post, came from something more serious, Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew lecture that I attended last week. As I was waiting in the National Library’s gorgeous theatre waiting for the lecture to start, I found myself thinking about Bobby in Scott’s novel That deadman dance. What I realised was that Bobby is still vivid in my mind, years after I read the book – and I started to think about other similarly vivid characters…

Because, I don’t know about you, but I have read many books over the years. Some have been forgotten, some I remember generally, and some in more detail for one reason or another. Those reasons can vary – they can be the emotion that was engendered in me, or the ideas the book inspired me to think about, or the language delighted me, or, even, the plot surprised me, but there’s only a few for which that reason is very specifically a character. I thought it would be fun to share those – and for you to share back. Of course, as this is my Australian literature post, I’ll be focusing on Aussie books only. In other words, you won’t find Darcy or Elizabeth here! You, though, don’t have to be similarly constrained, so go for it. Bring out your Atticus Finches and Emma Bovarys. Let’s see what happens.

I have another proviso for this post, besides my characters having to be from Australian books, and that’s that I have to have read the books at least five years ago. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could say they’ve stood the test of time. My earliest favourite character comes from my pre-teen reading.

I noticed something interesting as I was compiling this list: not only do the characters vary in terms of age, gender, role/position, etc., they also fall into types like “my favourite pioneer character” or “child character” and so on. There’s very little duplication of these categories.

I am a bit nervous about this post, because I know I’ll omit some memorable characters that have slipped my mind (briefly!), exposing my shallowness, but I’ve decided to screw my courage to the you know what, and jump in. Oh, and one final point before I do: while these characters come from books I’ve loved, those books won’t necessarily be among my top books, particularly now, years later (though some will be).

So, here is my list, presented alphabetically by the character’s first name!

  • Bobby Wabalanginy, from Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (published 2010, read and reviewed 2011) is a luminous, unforgettable First Contact character whose generosity of spirit is knocked back again and again by the colonial settlers. He represents all that could have been good and positive in our first indigenous-settler relationships in this country.

We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours.

  • The drover’s wife, from Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. As far as I remember, she doesn’t have a name, but stands for the archetypal 19th century pioneer woman who had to face the terrors of the bush alone while her husband was, well, droving. She, like the rest of her ilk, had to become “used to the loneliness”.
  • Joe Harman and Jean Paget, from Nevil Shute’s A town like Alice, survived much, particularly being POWs during World War 2, before finally realising their love for each other. Yes, they are my favourite romantic couple from my adolescence, and I had to share them here.
  • Judy Woolcot, from Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians, is, in a way, Australia’s version of America’s Beth (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little women). She’s the tragic character of our childhood. However, where Beth was a sweet town-living girl, Judy was a courageous, feisty tomboy from the bush.
  • Patrick White, VossSybylla Melvyn, from Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career, has to be in the list of any Aussie female reader. How can she not be, with her independent spirit and her refusal to let a handsome, wealthy man distract her from her dream of a “brilliant career”.
  • Voss, from Patrick White’s Voss, was inspired by Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and his expedition into the Australian outback in the 1840s. He’s tragic, mythic, romantic, and I first fell for him, and thus also for Patrick White, in my teens.
  • Weekly, from Elizabeth Jolley’s The newspaper of Claremont St, is a working class woman, a cleaner in fact (hence her “name”). She works steadily towards a dream that she will not give up, not for any anything.

And I think I’ll leave it there. I could go into families – like Tim Winton’s Lambs and Pickles (Cloudstreet) and Ruth Park’s Darcys (The harp in the south) but that would be diluting the theme which I don’t want to do. I’m aware that this is not at all representative of my favourite authors, but that’s because I love them for other reasons.

And now, over to you. Who are your most memorable characters?

62 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Memorable Australian characters

  1. This is interesting! But I don’t agree about Judy Woolcot and Beth March. Beth is the goody-goody one. It’s Jo March who is the wild, rebellious spirit, and who has much in common with Judy.

    • Totally agree, Teresa. However, my point was that Judy and Beth are the tragic ones, though they are not like each other in character. I nearly added Judy was more like Jo but didn’t want to muddy the tragic aspect. Does that make sense?

  2. I could hardly disagree with you about Sybylla given how often I write about her. And alongside her (and I know you would agree) would be Eve Langley’s Steve. I’d probably choose Joe Wilson and Possum (Mary) from Henry Lawson. And more than five years ago … maybe the cow from Man Shy.

    • Haha not you couldn’t Bill. Yes, Steve’s a great character as you knew I’d agree. As for Man-shy I read and enjoyed that in my first year of high school and intend to read it again one day.

  3. The only one I know is Weekly. I think about Hardy’s women a lot. Jane Eyre, too. I remember the line when Adele asks if they’re going to be happy, and Jane says, ‘We will work hard and we will be content.’
    I also think about Isabel from Amy Witting. Bette from Balzac’s Cousin Bette. Nana, Gervaise, Renee and Saccard from Zola.

  4. Oh, how fun! You sent my brain into to overdrive trying to think of characters and then it locked up and froze! So now all I can think of of is Laura Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie books and Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings. I know there are others that I will think of later after my brain unsticks 😀

  5. Hi Sue, “I’m losing my nouns…But the nouns worried her most, proper nouns especially-names of people…..”Kathleen from Thea Astley’s Coda. (I know her well!).Elnora from The Girl in the Limberlost, and Miranda from Picnic at Hanging Rock. And of course the ones you mentioned.

    • Thanks Meg. Yes, I was thinking Astley and that if I included one it would have been her. I didn’t in the end because I realised that I remembered her but, embarrassingly, not her name, so that might have been cheating. I’m glad you mentioned her. In my jottings for this post I write NOT MIRANDA! Not because she’s not memorable but because for me it’s really the film that brought her alive rather than the book, though perhaps I was being too rigid! So, again, I’m glad you’ve mentioned her.

  6. Oh, where to begin?! Cuffy Mahoney, I think, from the Fortunes of Richard Mahoney by Henry Handel Richardson, and from Ruth Park, Mumma (Harp in the South) and Jackie Hanna in Swords and Crowns and Rings.

  7. Richard Mahony from ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney’ and Laura Tweedle Rambotham from ‘The Getting of Wisdom’. Also Miss Hare from ‘Riders in the Chariot’. There are so many. I love Australian Literature.

  8. Norah Linton, from the Billabong books, because she was everything I wished I was.
    Wirrun, from Patricia Wrightson’s Ice is Coming series, because he was the first Aboriginal protagonist I’d ever met.
    William Thornhill, from Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, because of his ambivalence.
    Phryne Fisher, of murder mystery fame, because she is fabulous.

  9. Not relating to a particular character but an Australian writer I enjoyed immensely was Helen Simpson. Her books Boomerang and Under Capricorn remain 2 of my favourites. Has anyone else read her?

    • Thanks Louise for joining in. I have come across Helen Simpson a couple of times when surveying Australian literature, but I haven’t read her. It will be interesting to see if anyone has.

  10. Characters from Australian fiction that made an impact would include Henry Handel Richardson’s complex and maddening Richard Mahoney. Christina Stead’s extraordinarily vivid Pollitts in The Man Who Loved Children also. Characters from Russian fiction are so powerful: Goncharov’s Oblomov and Saltykov’s Golovlev are unforgettable to me. So many wonderfully drawn characters in fiction….

    • Oh thanks Ian. Another HHR contribution. I nearly included a Christina Stead character so I’m glad you have.

      If I’d been doing international I probably would have done Levin from Anna Karennina. (But even more, Mersualt from L’etranger, and Lily Bart from The house of mirth! As well as, of course, an Austen character or two, and Tess from Hardy.) So many as you say,

  11. Pearl Tull from Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Codi from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams are two of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read about. (Codi is memorable to me because of the way she talks about how it is to grow up very tall.)

    • At last kimbofo! I’ve been waiting for someone to name a character from those books! So, thank you, thank you, thank you. (Shhh … but I have still to read My brother Jack, so I don’t know whether any of the characters would or will stand out for me.)

  12. I am loving this and I would like to add something more recent to my previous post. I am also rocked by Mark O’Flynn’s Ava Langdon who of course is based on Eve Langley, so she is a sort of fiction/non-fiction hybrid. I love the eccentric and different characters. Must be because I can identify with them. Ha Ha. I believe that we like and remember most the characters we identify with because they affect how we manage our everyday lives.

    • Yes, I must read that as I’m fascinated by Eve Langley. That’s an interesting theory re the characters we like. I’m not sure I agree for all of mine. Some might be more aspirational!!

  13. Judy Woolcot & Jean Paget – a big yes
    I will also keep to my unforgettable Australian characters – Luther Fox from Dirt Music, Ryl from Pastures of the Blue Crane, Anikka from The Railwayman’s Wife and more recently, I haven’t been able to get Ava Langdon (aka Eve Langley) out of my head after reading Mark O’Flynn’s book.

  14. I haven’t heard of any of them. I must do a lot of homework. So many wonderful characters! Thank you for this post, Sue. I love Charlotte from ‘Charlotte’s Web’. Are spiders allowed? 🙂 In Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘Dogsbody’, a lady receives the protagonist — a dog — every evening, and shares her rich food with him. I love the lady only because the dog doesn’t belong to her. Despite him being only a guest, she feeds him everyday and allows him to take a siesta in her kitchen. It warms my heart to realise that there are such kind people.

  15. Josie from Looking for Alibrandi, Elspeth from the Obernewtyn series, Rowan fron Rowan of Rin (“Seven hearts the journey make, seven ways the hearts will break, bravest heart will carry on, when sleep is death and hope is gone…”), Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Judy from Seven Little Australians, Ellie from the Tomorrow Series, Marina from So Much To Tell You, the nameless protagonist of Checkers, Elizabeth and Celia from Feeling Sorry for Celia….. I think these are the main Aussie ones 😀 😀 😀

    • Thanks Hannah. I was thinking of Josie, actually, and also Ellie. It’s certainly clear that characters from our childhoods really stick. (And that John Marsden has been particularly adept!)

  16. You must have frightened everyone away from Austen, WG, as nary a soul has mentioned any of her super memorable characters so I’ll stay off that bandwagon, too.
    Instead, I’m going to Dickens: who can’t love dear, pompous, upstanding, kindly Mr Pickwick? But the first Dickens character who popped into my aged head was Joe Gargery – another dear soul – kind, patient, understanding, humble (in the right sort of way), and so supportive of Pip.

  17. Oh, Weekly: yes, yes, yes! I’ve read that one a couple of times. I gathered a collection of Jolley’s stories after that (possibly on your recommendation, but haven’t gotten to them yet)!

    Currently, with the CBC version of Alias Grace on TV, I’m thinking of Margaret Atwood’s Grace Marks (although inspired by history, so perhaps she is not a true character for these purposes), perhaps Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale is a more quintessential choice. Daisy Goodwill in Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries. Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. There are so many whose names still come to mind in one swell!

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