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Monday musings on Australian literature: Memorable Australian characters

September 25, 2017
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 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa Pitt permalink
    September 25, 2017 23:49

    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.

    • September 26, 2017 07:58

      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. September 26, 2017 00:03

    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.

    • September 26, 2017 08:00

      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. September 26, 2017 02:15

    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.

    • September 26, 2017 08:05

      Oh yes Guy, Tess would have to be the Hardy one for me. Witting’s Isabel is a good one. I’m afraid I don’t really know Zola, something I must rectify.

  4. September 26, 2017 05:38

    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 😀

    • September 26, 2017 08:18

      But, they are good ones Stefanie, so your brain did well. I reckon many would agree with you on those.

  5. Meg permalink
    September 26, 2017 07:44

    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.

    • September 26, 2017 08:25

      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.

    • September 27, 2017 20:39

      Elnora (and Laura Ingalls) were the first to come to mind for me, but then I had to think of Australians!!

  6. daveyone1 permalink
    September 26, 2017 07:59

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

  7. September 26, 2017 08:27

    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.

    • September 26, 2017 08:36

      Good ones Lisa. I nearly included Jackie, and perhaps I should have just put Mumma Darcy rather than opting out with the Darcy family comment. I realised though as I was doing this how powerful Park’s characters are

    • September 27, 2017 09:44

      Yes, yes, yes to Richard and Jackie.

      For a bit of fun, I’d also add Phyrne Fisher and Rowland Sinclair.

  8. Nawnim permalink
    September 26, 2017 12:08

    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.

    • September 26, 2017 12:16

      Thanks Nawnim very much for joining in and adding those suggestions. They’re great.

      Clearly I was remiss in not including an HHR character in my list!

  9. September 26, 2017 14:23

    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.

    • September 26, 2017 16:28

      Great Michelle. Lovely to have a different bunch of characters thrown into the ring. I considered Grenville’s books but decided that for me it was more the book that the character.

      I know of the Wrightson books but haven’t read them.

      Norah Linton! Love it. And if I were a crime reader I reckon I’d have had Phryne up there too!

      • September 26, 2017 16:45

        And I forgot – Thowra, the Silver Brumby!

        • September 26, 2017 17:11

          Haha Michelle. Watch out for Thowra – you may just see The Silver Brumby series in a future Monday Musings. No promises but you never know!

    • October 11, 2017 19:33

      Patricia Wrightson, such a great writer for children. I’ve never forgotten The Nargun and the Stars!

      • October 12, 2017 01:37

        For some reason I never did read that, Lisa – I must, I think. You’re not the only person to have mentioned this book.

  10. Louise Campb ell permalink
    September 26, 2017 14:38

    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?

    • September 26, 2017 17:10

      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.

  11. ian darling permalink
    September 26, 2017 20:43

    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….

    • September 26, 2017 23:44

      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,

  12. September 26, 2017 22:46

    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.)

    • September 26, 2017 23:47

      Oh yes Jeanne, thanks, when I was thinking of non-Australian characters I did think of Anne Tyler, though my favourite is probably The Accidental Tourist (except I’ve forgotten his name – I know William Hurt played him in the movie! How shallow am I!) I do remember Pearl Tull though. And I have very warm feelings about my two Barbara Kingsolvers, The bean trees and Pigs in heaven, and the little girl, Turtle?

  13. September 26, 2017 23:04

    For me it is David Meredith from My Brother Jack, Clean Straw etc. He has lived on in my memory like a very dear friend for 30 years.

    • September 26, 2017 23:49

      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.)

  14. Nawnim permalink
    September 27, 2017 08:28

    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.

    • September 27, 2017 17:51

      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!!

  15. September 27, 2017 09:40

    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.

    • September 27, 2017 09:47

      I’ve just remember Lily Brett’s, Ruth Rothwax from Too Many Men. Steve Toltz’s Jasper is a frustrating memory, but one that sticks nonetheless.

      • September 27, 2017 17:58

        I love that you are adding more and more Brona. I must read Lily Brett. And Steve Toltz does produce some larger than life characters doesn’t he?

    • September 27, 2017 17:55

      Oh yes, Brona, I remember Ryl, played by the lovely Jeanie (sp?) Drynan in the tv series. I think a few of Winton’s characters stand out, including for me, Pikelet from Breath. But I’m not sure I’ll accept your last two as they haven’t stood the test of time!!

      • September 27, 2017 21:51

        Ohh! Harsh!! I read Too Many Men about 15 yrs ago !!

        Toltz was only 8 yrs ago, so I can live with that!

        • September 27, 2017 21:52

          TV series? That little snippet just dunk into my tired brain. How long ago was that? I’ve only ever read the book.

        • September 28, 2017 07:31

          Back in the olden days Brona! It was probably the late 1960s. Also starred Harold Hopkins. You can see it made an impression for me to also remember two of the actors!

        • September 28, 2017 10:09

          I was just a babe in arms then😂 but it sounds intriguing.

        • September 28, 2017 11:09

          I thought you may still have been a twinkle in your parents’ eyes! You’re WAY older than I thought! (Just joking!) I’ve just checked Wikipedia and it was made in 1969.

        • September 28, 2017 20:10

          Ta I’ll check it out.
          Can I add an inanimate object to my memorable character list?
          The glass church in Oscar & Lucinda has haunted me all this time- is it still floating in the Bellinger River😳?

        • September 28, 2017 21:44

          Now that’s pushing it! A spider is one thing but a glass church!! LOL. Still it might be worth another post in the future mightn’t it? Memorable objects! BTW When we were in the US this year we saw the glass church, the Wayfarers Chapel on the coast at Rancho Palos Verdes (by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright). It really reminded me of that church and helped me visualise it. It’s a fabulous image isn’t it.

        • September 29, 2017 08:28

          It’s the only thing I now remember from my read of Oscar & Lucinda.

        • September 29, 2017 08:38

          Actually I must say that besides the general characters and overall idea, it’s the only detail I remember too.

        • September 28, 2017 07:29

          Haha Brona, gotta have some rules! I reckon 5 years is about the limit so Toltz is ok!!

        • September 28, 2017 07:49

          Oops Brona, I was referring to The railway man’s wife and Ava Langdon in your previous comment. You can have Too many men! 😂

  16. Deepika Ramesh permalink
    September 27, 2017 19:10

    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.

    • September 27, 2017 19:15

      Haha, of course Charlotte is allowed. She’s an absolutely wonderful choice Deepika!

      Dogsbody sounds lovely too. I can see where your heart lies.

  17. September 27, 2017 20:38

    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 😀 😀 😀

    • September 27, 2017 20:53

      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!)

  18. September 27, 2017 20:40

    Oh and everyone from Cloudstreet!

    • September 27, 2017 20:54

      Haha, well I did say them, but decided I wouldn’t go down the whole family route. But they are good-uns.

  19. Lithe lianas permalink
    September 27, 2017 22:29

    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.

    • September 28, 2017 07:33

      Haha, yes LL, you’re right, I must have! But I’m glad you’ve mentioned Dickens. Joe is a lovely character to include.

  20. buriedinprint permalink
    October 3, 2017 09:54

    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!

    • October 3, 2017 11:15

      Thanks Buried, and I’ve read all those Canadian characters your mention. Alias Grace a TV series? I’d love it to come here.

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