Monday musings on Australian literature: Jane Austen and the Stolen Generations

Yes, you read right, this very brief Monday Musings post is about what Jane Austen might have said – did say in her way – about the Stolen Generations.

What makes great literature great is its timelessness. By this I mean the fact that what is said in, say 1815, is still relevant in, say, 2018. It is this timelessness, in particular, that makes me love Jane Austen. She is so right, so often, about human nature and human behaviour. So, while the quote I’m planning to share comes from British not Australian literature, and from 1815 not 2018, it relates closely to an issue that is currently very important to Australians, the Stolen Generations.

Here’s the quote:

There is something so shocking in a child’s being taken away from his parents and natural home. (Emma, ch. 11: Mrs John Knightley on Frank Churchill being removed from his home after his mother’s death)

“Something so shocking”. There’s nothing much more to say, is there … except that …

… when I drafted and scheduled this on February 7 for posting on Monday February 12, I hadn’t remembered that the next day, February 13, was the tenth anniversary of the Australian Government’s Apology to the Stolen Generations. How freaky – but how appropriate – is that? It’s also rather concerning because, as Reconciliation Victoria says:

As we approach the anniversary of the historic Apology we know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are still grossly over-represented in our prisons, in out-of-home care, are still dying in custody and are still subjected to racism on a regular basis. There is still much work to do.

It’s a continuing blight on our government, on all of us, that we have achieved (are achieving) so little by most measurable standards.

For those who would like to hear the speech PM Rudd made in the Australian Parliament, here is the YouTube link.

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Jane Austen and the Stolen Generations

  1. What’s freaky is that I am this very minute at my computer writing a Jane Austen post on #MeToo. All right, the last bit was a lie, though if I come up with a quote I’ll share it, I’m writing about the Jenkins biography.

    It is a continuing blight on us. Native title shouldn’t be hemmed around with restrictions designed to protect the grazing and mining industries; indigenous people should receive education and health where it is convenient to them, not thousands of kilometres away; and funds should be spent on actual Indigenous controlled projects, not on more employment for white bureaucrats.

  2. Which relates to a New Matilda article I saw the headlines of earlier to-day. If compensation to the survivors of institutional sexual abuse (and little enough that will be – when you think of it) then why was it not equally offered to the Stolen Generations! Why the words but then NOT the financial recompense, too. Brava, WG – I feel likewise about the fair (or the dark-haired – according to sister Cassandra’s portrait anyway) Jane Austen! And too right, wadholloway – as you say! But with PM who can airily dismiss the Uluru Statement from the Heart – we still indeed have a long way to go.

    I was at a large family gathering in Windsor NSW on Saturday last. 230 years since the wedding of my great x 3 grandparents. There was Registration – then various ceremonial events – a service in historic St Matthews (a Francis Greenway/Lachlan Macquarie church completed in 1820) in Widsor and a Dinner – over 350 seated. At each section of the day there was firstly a Welcome to country from a Dharug descendant (at the U of Western Sydney) then Acknowledgement of Country from one of those attending – herself Wiradjuri I think – but in any event from the Yass district. This is a small victory and sign of progress – enabled by the brilliant Organiser of the event – against some murmurings I understand – but not to be dissuaded. One of her family line – a young woman at the time in 1904 (her father was (a) John Howard – lovely irony – who wrote a poem lamenting the miserable treatment meted out to the original inhabitants – sentimental – but heart in the right place. Here I quote the final four lines of her seven-verse poem:

    And when in the great hereafter, we are called to give account,
    Will our oppression of those poor natives, stand in the major amount
    Of sin that is placed against us? God grant that it is not so,
    But somehow it seems but justice, for the injustice of long ago.

    30 years ago there was a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the same couple’s wedding – held in the then Regent (now The Four Seasons) Hotel just above Circular Quay – the footprint of the hotel encompassing the land where their two homes stood in the period up until 1810 and the move to Windsor. The person in charge of that gathering denied my wife and me the right to attend. Recently a letter I had sent her came into my possession – with her apparently later annotation – and garbled – a kind fictional/factional distortion – and this is what was written:

    “Jim is all for aborigines and wanted me to make the family anniversary of 88 into an apology to the aboriginals – made threats to force that on the night.” Untrue about the threats to force the issue on the night – but the seeds of her charge lay much further back. Some elements are more-or-less true – insofar as back in the earliest of our communication – around 1980 – I had pondered the setting up of an educational scholarship for Indigenous children – or alternatively a collection of books for the pre-school “Murawina” – in Redfern. From the Family. She knocked that kind of thinking promptly on the head.

    And then, in the lead up to the Bicentennial I had pondered writing a general kind of essay on the wider range of the family – reflective of its connections via marriage to the cultural diversity of the nation itself – even, I thought, of Indigenous members of the family. I wrote a paragraph for inclusion in the next little Family newsletter then being sent out once or twice a year – inviting any members of the family to write to me – directly – if they so wished – giving some flavour of their ethnic or cultural or linguistic heritages – or indeed Indigenous backgrounds. “Nope!” came back the firm reply from the gatekeeper. She had discussed my “divisive aims” with some nameless group of her acolytes and all had agreed with HER. (Who were these nameless fellows – no hint – perhaps merely the voices in her own head?) I would not be provided that chance either it seemed – “and, further,” she wrote – “there were indeed aboriginal (sic) members of the Family (now prepare yourself for the gasp of horror…) but they would be too embarrassed for anyone to know!” In one of those marvellous ways of serendipity – after a couple of years on exchange to Japan through 1991 and 1992 – I returned to my school (then Nelson Bay HS) and taught a fairly close (2nd and some degrees removed) cousin who had just entered High School who was of that family that the gatekeeper had been telling me about. Those gods up there – how they look after us!

    Times are moving on – we can see that while some troglodyte-like attitudes exist – and are fanned into outbreaks of ugliness via the kind of views held by folk such as the Minister for Home Affairs and of right-wing shock jocks – Jane Austen was already showing the way, Marion Howard a century later could see that terrible things had been done/were still being played out – and now a further century on – young Pauline Galloway of the Family from out of Yass can speak up for her own Indigenous ancestry in Acknowledging the country where we were having our Family reunion.

    Earlier this evening I watched Australian Story – about the return of Mungo Man to Lake Mungo – in far western NSW. Muthi Muthi and Ngiyaampa countries intersect here – and there was Roy Kennedy – of the Ngiyaampa people – speaking about the importance of this repatriation – the father of one of my more significant students from my 2nd year of teaching at Hay War Memorial HS – the writer Gayle Kennedy. And only about five years since my own visit to Lake Mungo! Yes, things are moving on – in ways truly reconciliatory – we just need the process to be more equitable and compensatory and with true respect to the scores of millenia during which this land was cared for by the First Nations! (Apologies for the length of this WG. But it’s so important!)

    • Thanks for this Jim, particularly for your family history story. 1988 and you weren’t invited because of your sympathies. Wow!

      I need to research my family more, but I do know my great grand father was disliked by many in Gulargambone because of his sympathies with / for the local people. We have indigenous implements, including a boomerang (big, heavy, solid) that was given to him. I treasure this story. He was a Welsh-born minister.

    • I attended the Mungo Man Return, both the ceremony at Mungo shown in Australian Story, and the concert in Mildura the next day. Great vibes, great optimism – don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by so many people in such a short space of time! I know Roy and Beryl Kennedy well, and I think I’ve met Gayle a couple of times.

  3. It is very insightful to tie Jane Austen’s quotation to the horrendous events relating to The Stolen Generations. Her writings do indeed involve universal wisdom. I know a little bit, but just a little bit about The Stolen Generations. People sometimes do such terrible things.

    • They do Brian, thanks. And I loved the opportunity to say that people knew it was wrong to le more children AND of course to point out why we still read classics. They reach beyond their time.

  4. Always good to revisit that apology. I watched it on the day with the kids at school. Say what you like about Rudd, but he had the courage to make that apology the first item on the agenda for his new government, and thanks to Jenny Macklin and her sterling work on collaborating with Elders, it was framed in a way that goes down in history as a great moment on the way to reconciliation.
    As for now, well, there aren’t any words for the contempt I feel for Turnbull and his behaviour regarding ATSI affairs…

  5. One day the phone rang. A stranger introduced himself. “I’m hoping you can help me. I’m Aboriginal. I was taken away as a small child and I’m trying to find my family”.

    We chatted. All he had was his birth date, a surname and the name of a small town in western Victoria. Had he tried Line-up (the organisation set up to reunited families)? Yes, but they’d had no luck. I went through other possibilities, Aboriginal welfare archives, hospital records, local Aboriginal organisations and historical societies in that area. Yes, he’d tried them all, no luck. He’d been looking for years. He’d got my name through the grapevine of people who knew of people who knew something about Aboriginal history.

    It was a long amicable chat about the trials and tribulations of researching Aboriginal families. But at the end I had to say “I’m very sorry, but I can’t help you either.” I’ve never forgotten the conversation or the feeling of utter uselessness.

    Like Jim, I am descended from early Sydney convicts (don’t think there’s any connection to Henry Kable!) and a bunch of other early immigrants. Although I haven’t met them all personally, I know the names of many of the thousands of Australians I’m related to, by decent or marriage. I can see family resemblances in old photos. I can call in at an historical society in several NSW towns and be certain that I’ll be related to someone there. And I can be delighted when I meet a distant relation and find that we have family stories and skills in common.

    This man knew that he was related to many other Aboriginal people, and that they were out there somewhere. But he did not know of and had never met a single one. His children would grow up without knowing (on his side) a grand-mother or grand-father, aunts, uncles, cousins, or any family stories.

    So it wasn’t just about taking the children away from their parents. It was amputating them, and their children and their grand-children, on down the generations, from their family history, their place in the world, the fundamental core of their life.

      • Jeannette: I have just come back to revisit this page – and how confirming my own stance to find your own stories here and being known, too, to Roy & Beryl. I was going to correct you on the Line-Up to Link-Up – but clearly it was one of those auto-correct typo matters and you had already spotted it. When I was teaching in Inverell at Macintyre HS in the period 1974-May 1976 I attended my first ever political rally on the banks of the Macintyre River. A woman spoke – Indigenous, returning after years away (overseas, even, I believed) outlining the petty racism re housing, being served in stores – that was still present in the town, and reminding me of some instances I had observed, too. She was Coral Edwardes (sp?) who went on to found Link-Up with Peter Read. That was the town/school where I first used literature to address issues of bigotry and prejudice. My first steps – faltering but my start in addressing issues we are still grappling with – thanks to the weakest of political leadership in Canberra. How good to read your thinking and that of Lisa Hill – and of course our reviewer/moderator WG!

    • Thanks for sharing this Jeanette. I can imagine that story sticking with you, how helpless you must have felt. This “amputation” is the point so many make. It’s hard to imagine having no connection with your history isn’t it?

      BTW I’m from early Sydney convicts too – 1792 was the first arrival and he married a convict who came out a few years later. This is via my paternal grandfather. There is now a school named after than convict.

      • Jane Austen was a great novelist and moralist but….didn’t the wealth of the Bertrams in Mansfield Park come from their (slave) plantations in the West Indies? This without any great sense that this is wrong, although I am sure that Austen would have meant Sir Thomas to be a humane owner.

        Robert Burns came pretty close to becoming a plantation overseer in Jamaica and that would have dented his humanitarian reputation!

        • Yes, there’s much discussion as you probably know, Ian, about Mansfield Park and the slavery issue. There is evidence that Austen would have known quite a bit about the slave trade – with family involvement not to mention brothers in the Navy. People have commented that Mansfield could have been named for Lord Mansfield who was anti-slavery. Is there an irony intended here about a place that supported itself from West Indian plantations was named for an anti-slavery judge (if it was named for him)? It’s hard to know now what nuances readers of the time would have taken from this probable naming and the brief reference to slavery. Why does Fanny want to discuss the issue? And why was there “dead silence” when she raised it?

  6. The quote is so relevant for us too, here in Canada where we’re still dealing with the aftermath and consequences of residential schools in the last century, or indigenous children being taken out of their home and placed in foster care. Just last month, our Indigenous Services Minister held an emergency meeting with First Nations leaders and unveiled a new direction, shifting away from apprehension, removing at-risk children from their homes to non-native foster homes to focus on prevention and early intervention. Classics are called classics for their timelessness and universal relevance. You’re absolutely right, WG. And this is just another evidence of the brilliance of Jane Austen’s insightful writing.

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