Academic journal article Antipodes

Prison without Walls: The Tasmanian Bush in Australian Convict Novels

Academic journal article Antipodes

Prison without Walls: The Tasmanian Bush in Australian Convict Novels

Article excerpt

POSTCOLONIAL LITERARY CRITICISM IN AUSTRALIA HAS WRITTEN about the bush for more than four decades, employing the term in the simplifying sense that it enjoys in colloquial Australian usage, where it "refers to pretty well all Australia except for the towns" (Kirkpatrick 72). Since Shaffer, readings of the bush as the "feminine other against which the bushman-as-hero is constructed" (Shaffer 52) have become the norm. In such readings, the feminization of Australian space becomes the reason for the bush's representation as a "place of fear, a place that will, dentata-like, consume you" (Kinsella 35). In this, Australian criticism knows itself in agreement with the larger critical consensus of the "androcentric rhetoric of empire" (cf. David; compare Woollacott 314), in which any native landscape-defined as feminine other and often virginalentities explorers and settler societies-defined as masculine-to give full reign to their "paranoid aggression of colonization" (McCann 77). Global as the British Empire's reach once was, this feature of imperialism can only have global ramifications and eventually unites historical perceptions of, for example, landscapes in the US with those of Australia (such as in Head 28)-across the hemispheres and in bold defiance of existing ecologies.

At this point, the level of generalization should have raised critical hackles and yet, it appears, how such theorizing has moved away from actually analyzing the response to Australian spaces is little considered. A distinctly spatial, local experience rather than a globally applicable theoretical outlook has always been part and parcel of fiction about the Australian bush. Despite the undifferentiated colloquial usage of the term, which criticism so far seems to endorse, the bush of Winton's Dirt Music (2002) has very little in common with the environment of Astley's It's Raining in Mango (1987) or Flanagan's Death of a River Guide (1994). It is currently the diligence of Australian historiography that provides an awareness of the extent to which perceptions of highly specific Australian spaces are part of historical representations (as opposed to a more contemporary literary output). Yet every now and then an attentive close reading notes dissonances to the postcolonial critical consensus mentioned above. Kinsella's analysis of Barbara Baynton's short story "The Chosen Vessel" ( 1896) is such an example:

In terms of prospect and refuge, the bush or landscape might be seen to allow him to see her and yet not her to see him. [. . .) As perpetrator, he makes use of the creek to hide, in a sense becoming one with the landscape, and reaches out of it to capture her when she runs from the house with her baby. When he murders her, the curlews take up her cry of murder-not so much in sympathy as in mimicry. (Kinsella 46)

Notwithstanding this nuanced approach, Kinsella eventually re-establishes the global critical consensus over his own local analysis by a frail rhetorical strategy: He would rather see the swagman as (ab)using the landscape than concede that the bush might "conspir[e] with him against her" (Kinsella 46). As his analysis shows, there is fertile ground to be expected for those willing to risk a closer look at the representations of specific Australian spaces in literary texts without the blinds of generalized preconceptions.

Following Boyce's historiographic differentiations of Van Diemen's Land (2009), I will focus on representations of the Tasmanian bush; the panorama will be one of colonial and postcolonial authors, and consider literary, historical, and pictorial representations in turn. Convict novels set in Tasmania would supply a thematic congruence as well as a suitably stable representational focus that can be expected to echo historically established topoi of the Tasmanian bush yet add contemporary shifts and fractures. Yet there is more to my choice of genre:

Popular images of Van Diemen's Land today largely reflect fiction, or more accurately, a single work of fiction. …

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