Monday musings on Australian literature: Memorable Australian fictional families

A bit of a fun post this week that I hope will engage you, regardless of where you live or what you read. This post is a sort of companion to one I wrote back in 2017 on Memorable Australian characters. I’ve had this post in mind ever since then, but have kept putting it off because – well – how many truly memorable fictional families are there in Australian literature? I have a few which I’ll share below, but first I thought to whet your appetite with some non-Australian ones like, of course, Jane Austen’s Bennets and Louisa May Alcott’s March family.

What makes a memorable family? Is it the relationship between the members? Is it the liveliness or some other strong characteristic of certain members? Is it the family’s ability to rise above misfortune or tragedy? Is it the chemistry of the family as a whole? Or is it all in the writing?

So, here is my list, presented alphabetically by the family’s name …

The Darcys: When I thought about this topic, Ruth Park’s Darcy family was uppermost in my mind. It comprises parents, daughters, a son-in-law and more as the books progress. I first read The harp in the south (1948) and its sequel Poor man’s orange (1949) in my mid-teens and I loved them because of the warmth of the family – they were real, they disagreed with each other, they struggled to make ends meet, but they fundamentally loved and supported each other. I also loved that nearly four decades later, in 1985, Ruth Park wrote a prequel, Missus (my review), in which she tells how the parents, Mumma and Hughie, met and got together. The thing about these books is that not only do they contain the story of an engaging family, but they tell an important story about early to mid-twentieth century Australia.

The Lambs and the Pickles: Winton’s two families, like the Darcys, have become classics of Australian literature – as is the house in which they live together, the titular Cloudstreet (1991). Park’s novels are very much about the Aussie battler, and so, in a way, is Cloudstreet, except that it’s a book of a different time and a different literary sensibility. Winton uses his families to confront us with our assumptions about who we are. Wikipedia quotes Australian picture-book author, Mem Fox, as saying “If you have not read Cloudstreet, your life is diminished . . . if you have not met these characters, this generous community, these tragedies, the humour. It is so wonderful.” Can’t say much better than that. For some, Cloudstreet is our GAN.

The Langtons: This family does not, I suspect, jump immediately into people’s minds, but Martin Boyd’s Langton Tetralogy, which started with The cardboard crown in 1952, and finished a decade later with When blackbirds sing (Lisa’s review), offers a fascinating insight into a very different sort of family to the Darcys, Lambs, and Pickles. The Langtons are well-to-do and are based on Boyd’s own, somewhat eccentric, intellectual and artistic family. They, the Langtons, think little of whizzing over to England when life is unsatisfying in Australia. I have read the second novel, A difficult young man (my review), and would happily read more. Wikipedia quotes academic Gillian Dooley on why these books may not as well-read today:

“Boyd’s subject matter is no doubt the principal reason for his neglect. By any standards, his prose is strong and luminous and his novels are beautifully crafted and immensely readable. But the late twentieth century had little patience with the scandals and vicissitudes of Anglo-Australian aristocratic families, with no apparent connections with convicts, sealers or whalers, or the indigenous people. Boyd was admittedly something of a good old-fashioned snob.”

Like Lisa, and I believe Dooley, I think Boyd’s novels are worth reading for their writing, their wit – and for their insights into a different place, time and people. I don’t agree with what seems to be a fairly common notion that the well-to-do are neither valid nor interesting to read about – particularly if the writing is of high calibre.

Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians

The Woolcots: If you don’t know who the Woolcots are, you are probably not Australian! They are Ethel Turner’s family in her Seven little Australians series. These are children’s books so the family focus here is on the seven children, their relationships with each other, and what they get up to. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Seven little Australians, the first in the series which was published in 1894, was an instant hit in Australia and overseas. Here is some praise from Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin (7 November 1894) which suggests why it was popular:

Because there is no preaching, or homilies on the evils of wrong-doing, children will read the book more readily, and they will be dullards who will escape the moral tone of it. Our authoress gives us nice descriptions of Australian scenery, all the more attractive that they are truthful and not over-coloured. Old hands, we dare-say, will pick holes in the book, but on the whole it is truthfully realistic. 

So that’s my (very) little eclectic list. I know there are others but my aim is not to be comprehensive but to start a discussion about some of the “classic” families in literature and why we like them.

Now, over to you. Who are your most memorable families, Australian or otherwise, and why?

45 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Memorable Australian fictional families

  1. I’m certainly with M-R, the Bluegums were my first Australian family. Though the first who sprung to mind when I began reading your post were the Boyd’s in their various incarnations as Langton’s and Montforts.
    Then of course there is Miles Franklin’s extended family who populate nearly all her fiction.

  2. I have fond memories of the Melling sisters in Robin Klein’s ‘All in the Blue Unclouded Weather’. They lived life with such gusto. (Copies of the two other titles in Klein’s Melling trilogy – ‘The Sky in Silver Lane’ and ‘Dresses of Red and Gold’ – have sat on my bookshelf for years. I really must get to them…)

  3. Hi Sue, my first thought went to John and Betty, (first school reader), then the Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books – the Kirrin children. I loved the Ethel Turner novels, and Ruth Park’s Trilogy, the Darcy family. My daughter loved the Bluegums and Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow. But, Cloudstreet is top of my list.

  4. The Linton family of Billabong were the first to come to my mind, followed by Thowra’s brumby family/herd in the Silver Brumby books! And proving, yet again, that the only books that have really stuck with me are the books I read in childhood… However, I also love the family in Too Much Lip and, simply to add to the mix, proffer the fairly awful families from The Slap. And wasn’t there a family in Foal’s Bread? Can’t remember now if the reader was meant to like them or not…(I do remember liking the main character).

    • I hoped someone would mention the Billabong books. I nearly did, so thanks Michelle. My daughter would agree with you re Thowra’s family!

      Yes there was a family in Foal’s bread. I recollect they lived in separate houses on the family farm? I didn’t say we had to like them, just that they were memorable! Like The slap families!

  5. I’m glad you included the Woolcot family and that Michelle added the Linton family as they were who I thought of when I saw your topic. My daughter’s generation might think of the Alibrandi family first since they studied that book in High School, but if I asked my mother, she might suggest the Cleary family from The Thorn Birds (although possibly because she watched the film rather than read the book).

  6. As a little girl I imagined myself part of the LInton family (Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong series). Now older, I’ve also loved the families in Cloudstreet.

    • Thanks MsWriter. I suspect we are of a similar age – though, hmm, I suppose the Billabong books were loved for decades and decades, so maybe not! The Lambs and the Pickles are great aren’t they.

  7. Agreed with Lisa Hill on the Pollits, and the consensus on Cloudstreet.

    There are some striking examples in American literature. Faulkner has the Sartoris, McCaslin, Carruthers, and Snopes families, and no doubt more I didn’t get to. Wright Morris has some: McKee, Hibbard, Scanlon, and Muncy. Walker Percy never returned to the level of his first novel, The Moviegoer, but one does remember the Bollings. In Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, the Morgan and Lang families make an impression.

    On the other hand, D.H. Lawrence said that the American is “cold, stoic, isolate”, Some of the big names just don’t go in for families, or write of families that are unsatisfactory in a less interesting way than the Pollits. Henry James wrote wonderfully about his family in his autobiographies; but beyond the Wentworth and Young families in The Europeans, I don’t remember much family structure that goes beyond the old rich man and the presumptive heiress. Hemingway and Fitzgerald are better at couples than at families.

    Possibly the most memorable families are from War and Peace: the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs (with Pierre Bezuhov considered an annex of the latter).

    • Good round-up of families George. When I thought about this I could think of a few English families, more than American ones. Dickens has some – Pip, his sister and her husband Joe are an interesting family, and Austen also has the Dashwoods and the Bertrams, in particular, as well as the Bennets. But often its couples or friends or siblings that come to mind. Hmm, siblings might be an interesting topic because you get the whole gamut from intense rivalry to tender care.

  8. My thoughts went to the Woolcot family first up too Sue. The actor who played Judy in the tv series was a Mudgee girl and I taught some of her nieces and nephews back in the day.

    I would like to add in Henry Handel Richardson’s family in the Richard Mahony trilogy – not always happy together, but memorable…and to my mind our first GAN (but that’s another post!)

  9. I immediately went on a search for Ruth Park at the library, but no luck (and just as well, as it’s this very sort of spontaneous must-read eruption that results in hauling a couple of dozen books home from the library and then descending into complete panic LOL) If you are curious, they have fourteen of her books (including one omnibus edition of this family’s affairs) but not one of them circulates except for Playing Beattie Bow, which I did read as a child but don’t remember at all.

    As for novels about Canadian families, I think the most obvious selection would be the family which grows out of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (although mentioning the family’s name spoils Anne’s love interest and the resulting children of their marriage). The Piper family in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees might be recognizable overseas, too, due to its selection for the Oprah Book Club around the turn of the century (NOW, doesn’t THAT make it sound like aaaages ago LOL): much more scandalous and entertaining, gothic-Canadian some would say, a nice foil for pig-tailed Anne.

    • Yes, I think Anne’s family would be uppermost for many, Buried. And for my daughter, the Little House on the Prairie family. I’ve always meant to read Fall on your knees but never have.

      I think you’ve mentioned before books that aren’t in circulation. Do you know why? It seems unusual for non-local books to be treated that way.

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