`The Coming Australienne': Landscape and Gender in Furphy's Nationalist Thought

By Driehuis, Raymond | Journal of Australian Studies, March 2001 | Go to article overview

`The Coming Australienne': Landscape and Gender in Furphy's Nationalist Thought


Driehuis, Raymond, Journal of Australian Studies


Such is Life is not atypical of 1890s writing, which strongly favours the masculinist tradition. Nor can one categorise Joseph Furphy's writing comfortably in the realist or romantic schools, as epitomised by Lawson and Paterson, which depicted the Australian landscape as either a fiery hell or a vision splendid. Within the context of the 1890s tradition, Furphy stands out because his nationalism challenges many of the conventional views of the period. He testifies to the difficulties that face men and women in the Australian landscape, but does not reduce this struggle to a nighmarish hell. He praises the beauty of the environment in his writing but does not ignore the dangers. Furphy is a learned man, a bushman and a bookworm, who aimed to position the Australian experience, or Australian `newness', into the European cultural tradition. Furphy wanted to use the Australian experience to revamp certain British traditions, especially gender roles and relationships. Yet Furphy also aimed to position the European cultural tradition, most notably its literature and its rationalism, firmly into the Australian experience. Furphy wanted to tackle the ignorance that was at the core of many judgments made about the Australian experience and its evolving national character, particularly in the Australian colonies themselves. Of chief importance to national character is the moral role played by women, as outlined by 1890s feminism. The sum total of this exercise for Furphy is to construct an Australian character that is capable of positioning the colonies comfortably in both the European and Australian cultures, making rational and moral judgments in the light of `national well-being'. In nineteenth-century Australia, the effects of climate and landscape on the emerging national type were hotly debated, with eclectic contributions from all walks of life.(1) The main theme of this debate was the fate of the Anglo-Saxon species in the Antipodes.(2) Many Bulletin articles testify to this fascinating phenomenon in a variety of ways. Some articles promote an evolutionary degeneration of the British stock, while others lay claim to an evolutionary regeneration that will see the `Australians' surpass their British counterparts. Generally though, the former view outweighs the latter. But whatever the position, the issue of climate and landscape on national character was a central concern to all. An article published in October 1894 gets to the heart of the matter:

   It is in our power by politic government to alter many of the conditions of
   national life, and so to weaken, if we cannot withstand, the currents of
   deterioration in our national character. If observers and thinkers can but
   determine the nature and force of those currents, and statesmen can erect a
   barrier to their influence, the Republic of Australia will long live to
   amuse its children with the prophecy of Marcus Clarke [that the Australian
   race will be extinct in five-hundred years].(3)

Another article in 1894 suggests that' [i]t would be a good thing for Australians if the average temperature of their continent could be reduced 10 degrees all round', since the `quick change from childhood to adult age [due to climate] tends to weaken the national physique'.(4) However, the latter equally argues that `[t]he bush, giving health and strength not to be found in alleys and factories, dowers manhood and womanhood with dignity.... Theirs is a stoic philosophy; that of the coast is gay and epicurean'.(5) Furthermore, `[t]here is a note of feminine frivolity about Australian cities; a tinge of masculine harshness about the Australian bush' whereby the `cities judge intuitively; the bush reasons logically'.(6) As already mentioned, the flavour of the debate on national character, or the Coming Australian, is ideologically eclectic, with some views even going against the grain of the positive or negative views generated by eugenics and Darwinism.

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