Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – Adelaide

This will be the fifth in my occasional “Let’s get physical” series, and I’ve chosen Adelaide because this week I’m spending a few days in this city, the state capital of South Australia, bookending a trip to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

Adelaide, which was proclaimed as a British colony in 1836, is located in the country of the Kaurna Aboriginal nation. Unlike Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart, it was established as a place of free settlers. That didn’t mean, unfortunately, that indigenous people fared any better. Their culture and language was, apparently, destroyed within years of white settlement there, but it’s a particular story that I don’t know enough about to go into here.

St Peters Anglican Church, 1880s

St Peters Anglican Church, 1880s

Adelaide has many reputations, including being the city of churches, the home of one of Australia’s best-loved arts festivals, one of the world’s most liveable cities and, oh dear, the city of corpses. Stephen Orr, whose rural novel The hands I reviewed recently, has written a non-fiction book called The cruel city. He apparently reports that author Salman Rushdie once suggested Adelaide was “the perfect setting for a Stephen King novel or horror film”. Poor Adelaide. This is not based on the number of murders, but on the fact that for two or three decades in the mid to late twentieth century it had more than its share of “gruesome or distressing murders”, starting with the still unsolved disappearance of the Beaumont children in 1966. They have never been found and their story was used as a cautionary tale for all Australian children growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Stephen Orr’s Time’s Long Ruin, which was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2011, was inspired by the case.

South Australian Museum roofs

Roofs, 1850s, in the old Police Barracks and Armoury courtyard

But, my main point of this series of posts is meant to be “the physical” – and I’ll start by saying that I like Adelaide, and the reasons are partly physical. It’s a small city, and I like small cities, and it has my favourite style of climate, a Mediterranean style featuring warm to hot dry summers and mild damp winters. It can get hot there, very hot occasionally, but that would be a small price to pay to my mind.

Jane Jose writes about Adelaide in her book, Places women make, which I recently reviewed. She describes the city as follows:

Adelaide, in settled south Australia, has its circle of green hills around the city, its expansive pale-blue desert skies and an inheritance of parklands and colonial architecture.

That was then

But now, let’s flash back to those early colonial days, to 1859, and the first novel by a woman to be published in South Australia, Marian by Maud Jeanne Franc (pen-name of Matilda Jane Evans). Early in the book, Marian’s future employer comes to Adelaide to interview her. Here he is arriving at the house:

He reached it, and a moment after was shown into a little parlour, half-dark it appeared to him, for the blinds were let down to exclude the sun, and everything appeared bleak as he entered.

It was typical of those days that people would draw curtains or blinds against the sun. Wise of course in high heat, but my understanding is that it was done against most sun. And the result? Bleakness!

Jumping to the mid-late twentieth century, we have Adelaide-born authors Barbara Hanrahan (b. 1939) and Murray Bail (b. 1941). Hanrahan, who wrote the gorgeous autobiographical novel The scent of eucalyptus (1973) (my review)worked hard to find her Australia. As a child, she writes in her novel, she struggled to find “the sunburned land” of her reading and history in the town where she lived, and only really found her “place” after she left:

l feel it’s of value to divide my life between England and Australia . . . Two places, so different that one illuminates the other. London so large that I may lose myself, which means find myself because I can be anonymous. Adelaide – smaller, strange, this place where I began from, the place of childhood, of legend. (personal papers, n.d. 1978?)

Murray Bail found it a provincial place – “overwhelmingly reactionary, Protestant, and fiercely defensive of time-honoured standards” – and he, too, escaped, first to India in 1968, and then to London in 1970. This, presumably primarily inspired by Adelaide, comes from his Notebooks 1970-2003:

When I think of ‘Australia’ I first see its shape. It is quickly followed by scenes of slow-moving dryness, muted colours, and some of the great white trees. Of people in general, it is often the young, flushed mothers in sleeveless cotton dresses yanking or carrying children on the hot city asphalt.

Homesickness: habits of a landscape acquired over time. (London June 1970 – November 1974)

His first novel, Homesickness, was published in 1980. It is on my TBR.

This is now

Born ten years after Bail, and in the tiny South Australian town of Minlaton, novelist-poet-librettist Peter Goldsworthy set his  2003 novel Three dog night partly in Adelaide and partly in central Australia. In it, Martin brings his English wife back to Adelaide. Here they are driving into the Adelaide hills:

The day has taken its name to heart: a Sunday from the glory box of Sundays, a luminous morning saturated with sun-light and parrots. Happiness rises in my throat, thick as cud; the world outside the car, wholly blue and gold seems almost too much for my senses, too tight a squeeze.

‘Paradise’, Lucy murmurs, smitten.

At last, the “real” Adelaide – blue sky, gold sun and birds! Of course, this is a novel, and “paradise” is not that easily attained. Indeed, the novel (which I read long before blogging) is really rather dark.

I will end here, but I must first defend Adelaide against those charges of provincialism, because in 1970, after Hanrahan and Bail had left, reformist politician Don Dunstan became Premier of South Australia, and things changed. Pretty soon Adelaide (and the state) became one of Australia’s most socially progressive places. Just goes to show what a visionary leader can do!

PS I haven’t read it, but JM Coetzee’s Slow man is set in Adelaide.