Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

'Riverina Rasped the Scales from My Eyes': Riverina Politics in Furphy's Such Is Life

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

'Riverina Rasped the Scales from My Eyes': Riverina Politics in Furphy's Such Is Life

Article excerpt

In response to a request from A.G. Stephens for some biographical notes for Such is Life publicity, Joseph Furphy implored him:

In casting these into form, for heaven's sake don't go into detail. I daren't. For one thing, I was widely known as a crawling Conservative, till I met the Lord in the way to Damascus, and the usages of Riverina rasped the scales from my eyes. Even now, I can never live down the fact that I have been a Vic. squatter's land-dummy. My old Dad-whom heaven assoilzie!-used to boast that no Liberal vote had ever been recorded by a son of his. In fact, politically and sociologically-"O lord! Thou knowest what a blanker I've been!" (14 January 1902) (Letters 84-5)

Furphy declares his own political shiftfrom a Conservative in the 1860s to a Socialist in the 1890s and Such is Life records some of the conditions that instigated this shiftin allegiance. It is set in the last year that he worked as a bullocky from Hay, extending a few months beyond his abandonment of bullock-driving. It is, in part, an examination of the experience that 'rasped the scales' from his eyes, leaving him a political radical. The political context for the novel is particular, rather than the generalised notion of a rising labour movement that we often ascribe to the 1890s. Read in this perspective the novel marks some of the important changes in attitudes to land in Australia.

John Barnes speculates that Furphy had dummied a selection in 1866 on the Campaspe River near Kyneton on behalf of a family friend, Charles Young. Young later became a minister in the Conservative government that dismissed the reform government of Graham Berry in 1881 (OT 80, Serle 9, 'Charles Young'). As Minister for Water Supply he was still close enough to Furphy's father to appoint him as government representative on the Echuca and Waranga Waterworks Trust (OT 104). For all Furphy's self-mockery he was certainly not misrepresenting his father's politics to Stephens, and probably not exaggerating his own Conservative past. Both Such is Life and Rigby's Romance reference Graham Berry's ideas-Tregarvis, the selector who falls foul of the squatter McGregor in Such is Life is a Berryite, and in Rigby's Romance Steve Thompson declares himself 'a Berryite to the bone' in opposition to Collins's 'rotten' Conservatism (RR 70). Through the 1870s Berry and other liberal reformers battled against the entrenched power of the squatters whose property franchise allowed them to control the Victorian Upper House. The Furphys must have been aware of this political crisis which 'took on a violent class aspect' (Serle 8). It also marked the shiftin Australian political attention 'from trade and the rights of property to the labour theory of value and the dignity and equality of manual work' (CroftTC 230).

The long-standing debate about the significance of the absence of shearers from Such is Life and the relative political merits of Such is Life and Rigby's Romance is often imbued with a retrospective understanding of Australian labour history (Phillips, Barnes 1956, Wilding). We now regard the formation of the labour movement in the wake of the shearers' strikes of the 1890s as the beginning of the struggle for wage justice and are likely to forget that, until the 1880s, liberal thinkers saw land ownership as the key to social justice. Though Furphy was revising Such is Life through the 1890s, his political perspective is still coloured by the dream of land ownership that drove Australian political debate from the 1860s. Migrants excluded from landowning in Scotland and Ireland, like Furphy's parents, were particularly inclined to see land as the source of future wealth and political power. It was a liberal individualist or even Conservative goal to become a member of the landowning class. Indeed, in Such is Life the new Irish immigrant, Rory O'Halloran, meeting Tom Collins in the 1860s is amazed that his ownership of a selection doesn't make him wealthy: 'At home iv a body hed twenty English acres o' good lay lan', at a reasonable rent-let alone a great farrum like thon-he needn't do a han's turn the year roun', beyant givin' ordhers' (62-3). …

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