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

Cannibalism and Colonialism: Lilian's Story and (White) Women's Belonging

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

Cannibalism and Colonialism: Lilian's Story and (White) Women's Belonging

Article excerpt

Lilian, he said, as if reminding me who I was. Lilian, you are an example of the degeneracy of the white races. I must have stood blinking in my surprise and Father hissed, so that the creeping cousin stared, You are sterile and degenerate, and as corrupt as a snake. ('A Friend Gone,' Lilian's Story 178-79)

Introduction: The Postcolonial White Woman?

From Joan Makes History (1988) to The Secret River (2007), Kate Grenville has been concerned with bringing women's histories to light, in order to carve out discursive spaces for women who have existed largely in the interstices between public memory and official history. Women's relegation to the periphery of Australian national formation has been recognised in Australian feminist investigation since 1975 with the publication in that year of Anne Summers' Damned Whores and God's Police and Miriam Dixson's The Real Matilda. Broadly, they argue that men occupy such a privileged relation to Australian identity that masculinity is constructed not only as the representative quality of Australianness, but also as the pre-condition for nationality (Carter 384). In Lilian's Story (1985), Grenville offers a searing critique of Australian gender relations, challenging the marginal status accorded to women in dominant narratives of national formation. Charting Lilian's trajectory as she transforms from a daughter of the colonial gentility into a bag lady shrieking Shakespeare through the inner-city streets of Kings Cross, Grenville represents Lilian as a young woman made mad by the abuses she undergoes at the hands of her father. These abuses extend beyond routine beatings with sadistic overtones to a vicious rape, after which Albion has Lilian incarcerated in an asylum for ten years. Women's madness in Lilian's Story is explicitly framed by the madness of misogyny and male sexual cruelty, and by the paranoid fantasies of gender that sustain male delusion.

The novel's themes of madness, violent family dysfunction, and incestuous sexual violence offer a vivid critique of the family as the site where a skewed Australian identity is produced, displacing the pathology of a young woman constructed as mad onto the family as the site in which the 'pathology of the normal' and the 'normality of the pathological' is reproduced (Hodge and Mishra 217). Connecting the pathology of the family to the 'pathology' of the nation forged by the violence of white colonialism (Thomas 2), I propose that Lilian's Story is a novel about the madness of the colonial project, and of the discourses that sustain and justify it. As Anne McClintock argues, the family is a trope for the wider social context, and is therefore a site for the production of 'national' culture, reproducing wider social relations of inclusion and exclusion (Imperial Leather 45). The individual family is a symbol for the 'national family,' and in the imperial context, the projection of the trope of the 'natural' patriarchal family onto the nation's formative imperial hierarchy was instrumental in the project by which difference as a social category came to explain, and conceal, real social relations of race and gender.

By casting Lilian as a woman who is both eccentric and ex-centric, Grenville engages with the gender politics that situate women outside, or at best, as marginal to the nation. This feminist politics has been noted in critical readings of the novel as an illustration of women's symbolic homelessness in patriarchal cultures (Livett 119-134). Such readings emphasise Lilian's resistance to the 'pathologically deformed' codes of gender that structure Australian national identity (Hodge and Mishra 217; Gelder and Salzman 77-78). In one of the few postcolonial analyses, Bill Ashcroft suggests that Lilian's resistance to Albion's violence and control is a strategy of decolonisation (68, 71). Readings such as these consider the rape narrative as a metaphor for Australia becoming a nation by extricating itself from the colonial frame, inscribing the nation with a postcolonial status through its rupture with the imperial host. …

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