Jane Gleeson-White: Fishnets and facial hair: A landscape of flight and imposture

What does it mean to be ‘Australian’ and a writer, now? I’m going to answer this question in two parts, first from my experience of writing about Australian writers – and then from my point of view as Australian and a writer now.

I grew up in Sydney with my head in Enid Blyton’s English boarding schools, Sartre and Camus’ Paris, and the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. At 17 I left school and went straight to Paris. No one would have been more surprised than my 17 year old self to learn that I’d one day write a book about Australian literature.

Appropriately enough for this conference, it was through the Australian landscape that I really fell in love with Australian literature, after spending four months driving around Australia. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I was completely awed by the beauty of this continent, by the breathtaking variety of rock and earth and water and sky. It taught me that what I most responded to in Australia’s poets from John Shaw Neilson and Adam Lindsay Gordon to Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright and Les Murray was their passionate response to place.

My book Australian Classics starts with Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms from 1882 and ends with Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet published in 1991. It covers 50 works of literature chosen to reflect some generally recognised set of Australian classics as well as my own idiosyncratic tastes. So it’s hard to know if the most surprising thing I found they all had in common reflects Australian literature in general or my peculiar inclinations. But today I’m assuming the former.

It would surprise no one to discover that so many of these so-called Australian classics were concerned with the bush and its folk hero, the bushranger. Such as Boldrewood’s bushranging tale Robbery Under Arms and Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, with its feisty new sort of heroine at large in the Australian bush. This heroine, Sybylla Penelope Melvyn, is fiercely patriotic and worships Australian writers, notably its bush poets like Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. As she says:

‘The pleasure, so exquisite as to be almost pain, which I derived from the books, and especially the Australian poets, is beyond description. The weird witchery of the mighty bush, the breath of wide sunlit plains, the sound of camp-bells and jingle of hobble chains, floating on soft twilight breezes, had come to these men and had written a tale on their hearts as had been written on mine.’

When My Brilliant Career was published in 1901, the year of federation, Bulletin’s literary editor AG Stephens declared that ‘the very first Australian novel’ had been published. 

Another famous Australian novel concerned with the outback and Australian landscape is Patrick White’s Voss.

Voss opens in the early spring of 1845 and tells the story of the ill-fated journey across Australia of a shabby disturbing German named Johann Ulrich Voss. Here’s White’s Australian landscape: 

‘They had entered, as it happened, a valley sculptured in red rock and quartz, in which a river ran, rather shallow and emotional, but a river of live water such as they could remember, through the valley of wet grass. Heat appeared to intensify the green of a variety of splendid trees, some sprouting with hair or swords, others slowly succumbing to a fleshy jasmine, of which the arms were wound round and round their limbs … And there were the birds. Their revels were filling the air with cries and feathers, rackety screams of utter abandon, flashes of saffron, bursts of crimson, although there were also other more somber birds that would fly silently into the thoughts of men like dreadful arrows.’

When White won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, the judges said he’d introduced a new continent into literature.

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is another prize winning Australian novel which draws on its bush and bush-ranging mythos. Here’s Carey’s telling of Kelly’s first view of Joe Byrne in the now iconic helmet forged from plough metal: 

‘The 3 of us stood back in silent veneration as the Soldier of the Future turned his back to walk with steady tread there were a slight squeak from the cockplate swinging from its wires did ever such machine of war tread upon the earth before?’

But as I worked through these 50 classics of Australian literature, two themes emerged which surprised me. One because I hadn’t expected it to recur with such frequency, which was flight: from the law, to go on the road, from the bush to the literature of Europe, or from Australia to the northern hemisphere. I’ll return to this later.

The other recurring theme surprised me because I hadn’t expected it at all. It seemed to go against the received wisdom about Australian literature and mythology, of the lone man in the bush on horseback or with a metal helmet, the image of Australia so beloved by the rest of the world and still churned out by us, most recently by Baz Luhrmann in Australia and John Hillcoat and Nick Cave in The Proposition.

This theme was imposture. The recurrence of mistaken identity, imposture, cross-dressing and fluid sexuality in the Australian imagination is not much remarked upon – but perhaps would come as no surprise to anyone who knows Alexander Downer once dressed in fishnets and stilettos, to anyone who’s seen Priscilla Queen of the Desert, or grew up on Aunty Jack and Dame Edna Everage, to anyone who’s watched Peter Allen (or Hugh Jackman in his place) sashay across the stage with maracas and frills, or Chris Lilley as teenage girl Ja’mie King or any of his other female impostures.

In Robbery Under Arms there are whole scenes of imposture and a hero known only as Starlight, whose true identity is never known, only rumoured. In Such is Life there is a stallion called Cleopatra, a spirited boy called Jim who turns out to be a woman, and a kangaroo dog called Pup whose real name is ‘The Eton Boy’ and who is not a faithful hound or even a good kangaroo hunter, but a spoilt thieving wastrel whose good looks allow him to do as he pleases.

In Marcus Clarke’s convict story His Natural Life there is a series of impostures based on the real life story of a butcher from Wagga called Arthur Orton who claimed to be the missing, presumed dead British aristocrat Sir Roger Charles Tichborne.

In Eve Langley’s The Pea-pickers two sisters change their names to Blue and Steve and wear moustaches and men’s clothing. Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days features a cross-dressing diplomat.

And then there’s David Malouf’s beautiful poetic novel An Imaginary Life based on the exile of the ancient Roman poet Ovid, whose masterpiece is called Metamorphoses and tells of shape shifting, transformation and the creation of gods.

Even Miles Franklin’s iconic bush tale is marked by a tale of imposture – or attempted imposture. Ironically, this quintessential bush tale was rejected for publication in Australia. In desperation, Franklin sent her manuscript to Henry Lawson. 

Lawson told Franklin she’d ‘done a big thing’ and agreed to champion her. So when he sailed for London in 1900, Lawson took Franklin’s manuscript with him. Thanks to Lawson, My Brilliant Career was published in 1901 in Edinburgh – and received immediate critical acclaim in Britain and Australia. 

But despite its enormous success, nine years after it was published Franklin removed it from sale – and prevented it from being published again while she was alive. On her death in 1954 she left instructions that My Brilliant Career not be published for a further ten years. Why? 

Because Franklin had written it assuming that her identity as a young girl would remain secret; she did not want My Brilliant Career to be mistaken for autobiography. She had written to her publisher in Edinburgh demanding that her age and sex remain secret, hence her use of the pseudonym Miles Franklin.

But her letter travelled to Edinburgh by boat – and by the time it arrived My Brilliant Career had been published, complete with a preface by Henry Lawson revealing the author’s identity as a young girl. 

Franklin was soon inundated by letters from Australian girls who had read My Brilliant Career as straight autobiography and claimed to identify with Franklin’s life. Franklin was horrified. So to stop them from confusing Sybylla’s life with her own, she withdrew My Brilliant Career from circulation. 

Even Voss, which allegedly introduced a new continent and its landscape into literature, is not about the actual landscape at all. The desert in Voss is more symbolic than physical. It’s a spiritual desert where mystics, visionaries and artists are forged, and also the cultural desert of 1950s Australia. White had never been to central Australia. His vision of the desert is drawn from the paintings of Sidney Nolan and the explorer Edward John Eyre’s journals. 

White began writing Voss in Sydney in 1955, but the novel had come to him years earlier, in London during the Second World War when White was reading Eyre’s journals of his expeditions into central Australia; and also in the western desert of Egypt where White was stationed with the RAF.

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is also an imposture – on a grand scale.

It’s an act of impersonation of Ned Kelly by Carey. Carey was first gripped by Kelly’s story after reading his Jerilderie Letter in the early 1960s. But it was not until years later, when Carey had moved to New York and was guiding friends around an exhibition of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings that he realised he had to write a novel about Kelly’s life – and that to do so he had to use the voice of the Jerilderie Letter, to make Kelly speak from beyond the grave, as he put it. 

Now to turn to the other theme that emerged when I put together these 50 works of Australian literature: flight. The turning from the bush to the literature of Europe – the flight from Australia to the northern hemisphere – is another facet of Australian writing, and reaches from Adam Lindsay Gordon and Christopher Brennan to Martin Boyd and Shirley Hazzard. And sometimes this flight is literal, among Australian women writers in particular: Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead and Shirley Hazzard all fled Australia. Even Barbara Baynton and Miles Franklin, whose work is focused on the bush, lived overseas for much of their lives. 

It seems to me that these themes of flight and imposture recur through the literature of Australia because of our history of colonisation, because of the British settlement – or unsettlement – of Aboriginal land. The history of Australian literature is a story of settler writers attempting to engage with a land they found alien, then claimed and celebrated; of writers Indigenous and non-Indigenous wrestling with the impact of European settlement on Indigenous Australians, their land and culture; and of writers dealing with the fact that Australia’s language – English – was imported from elsewhere and that the literary font of this language lies in the green fields, soft light, low skies and social structures of a small island on the other side of the world. It seems to me that the restlessness spiritual, psychological and physical that recurs through Australia’s literature results from this British imposture on Aboriginal land.

When asked if there was something identifiably Australian about my most recent book Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet, the theme of flight was the first thing that came to mind, because it was born courtesy of a flight from Australia. One of my many flights from Australia was to take up an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. And it was in Venice that I conceived the idea to write about the long forgotten Renaissance monk Fra Luca Pacioli who published the first mathematical encyclopaedia of Europe in Venice in 1494. His encyclopaedia contained the first printed treatise on double-entry bookkeeping, which today underpins the entire global capitalist economy. This seed planted in Venice for a book about Luca Pacioli was fed by an economics degree I took at the University of Sydney and grew into my history of accounting, Double Entry, which was written in Italy and Australia.

But there is another, more interesting connection between Double Entry and Australia. Double-entry bookkeeping created a new category of wealth – capital – and thus made possible the measurement of capital, its increases and decreases, as profits and losses. It therefore provided a mechanism which enabled for the first time the pursuit of profit as the primary objective of business. Its use by British industrialists from Josiah Wedgwood onwards was instrumental in making Britain the first industrial centre of the world and in transforming its landscape. Double entry was implicated in the enclosure of commons, the move of people from the country to the city, the overcrowding of prisons, the conception of land as a commodity, able to be measured, cut up and traded. Does this history sound familiar? It was this complex mix of historical circumstances that led to the colonisation of Australia in 1788 and its conception as terra nullius, as empty land available to be possessed.

So, what does it mean to be Australian and a writer now? For me it does not mean having to write about Australia, but Australia and its land/scape nevertheless remain central to my concerns. Because for me being Australian and a writer now means I must deal with the fact that I live on stolen land – and that the capitalist system that helped to make this possible, conceptually and otherwise, still rules the modern world.