Academic journal article Antipodes

White Settler/Big City: Mimicry and the Metropolis in Fergus Hume's the Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Academic journal article Antipodes

White Settler/Big City: Mimicry and the Metropolis in Fergus Hume's the Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Article excerpt

IN THE LATE EIGHTEENTH AND EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURIES, IN such works as Robert Southey's Botany Bay Eclogues, the young Australian colonies were imagined simultaneously as barren wastelands, utopias of social renewal, and exotic byways of sinister criminality. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the imagery of a frontier wilderness populated by adventurers and transported convicts persisted even as the colonies developed into a multi-ethnic urban society rapidly progressing to a democratic Federation with a high degree of political autonomy. In the last decade of the century, the most popular image of Australia in England came not as literature students might expect from Micawber or Magwitch, but in fact from the bestseller of the day, a remarkable mystery set in Melbourne, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume. This New Zealand-raised lawyer's success in the rather new genre of urban detective fiction allowed him to immigrate to London, anticipating a career as a popular fiction writer. He would soon be eclipsed by Conan Doyle in this genre, but his signature novel remains interesting not only as detective fiction. A novel that begins as a rather pedestrian murder mystery deepens to reflect the peculiar ways the search in the colonies for self-renewal and the utterly fresh start ramifies into a weird quest dogged by shifting identities, obstinate and revenant criminality, and a sense of the futility of colonial escapism.

But this is consistent with the broad ambiguity of South Seas colonialism. Australian colonies were seen as essentially white, and as bringing European civilization to an untamed waste. But at the same time, the founding colonists had been, after all, an unsavory lot, exiled criminals or those who had failed somehow in the colonial homeland. The promise of the colonial city, the Melbourne of Hume's fiction, is of starting over, making oneself new; more, it is the promise of corrupt Europe itself made new. In Hume's immensely popular novel, the colonial city hides the same paradoxes as London itself: modernity and respectability sustained by teeming masses and filthy slum life. Beneath the newness and promise of a blank slate world was a repressed legacy of scandal and shame, of dirt and crime. Hume's novel ends, remarkably, with its young lovers fleeing the corrupt world of Melbourne to start life over in Britain.

Leaving was exactly Fergus Hume's own strategy for making it in Australia. He left for London just two years after the success of his mystery novel. It had sold 400,000 copies in England, 750,000 abroad, making it, according to Australian critics Michael Pollak and Margaret McNabb, "for many years . . . about the best known Australian book in Europe and America."1 But Hume was more a deracinated colonial than an Australian: born in England in 1859 and raised in New Zealand, he became a lawyer and lived only about three years in Melbourne before emigrating in 1888 to pursue his career as a novelist. His second Melbourne novel, Madame Midas, was said to have been written on shipboard (Pollak and MacNabb 15-16). Madame Midas was only a modest success; and though he ground out some 130 novels (he died in 1932), he sank into obscurity, rapidly eclipsed by Haggard, Kipling, and Conan Doyle, whose 1887 A Study in Scarlet may well have been a response to Hume's popular urban detective fiction.

Some critics will find this descent into obscurity not undeserved. Madame Midas suffers from thick melodrama, clumsy dialogue, and characters whose eccentricities reflect mere caricature, but its portrait of corruption in the gold fields and suburbs of mid-century Melbourne is vivid and compelling. My claim is not that Hume is an undiscovered major novelist. Yet Hume's one great popular and artistic success, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, does deserve to be better known and studied. Hume's novel is noteworthy for its shrewd exploration of those counterpoints of civilization and savagery, of social climbing and hypocrisy, that characterize the greater novels of imperial adventure by Conrad and Kipling. …

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