Tales of Old Travel: Predecessors of David Malouf's 'The Conversations at Curlow Creek.'

By Morgan, Patrick | Australian Literary Studies, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Tales of Old Travel: Predecessors of David Malouf's 'The Conversations at Curlow Creek.'


Morgan, Patrick, Australian Literary Studies


David Malouf's most recent novel The Conversations at Curlow Creek is written in the style of a fable, a story whose basic structure is familiar to us. Two boys grow up together in a great house in Ireland around 1800. One, Michael Adair, an orphan, is fostered in the home of the second, Fergus Connellan, the heir to an estate. A close bond develops between them, and with a neighbouring girl, Virgilia, with whom they are both in love. But their temperaments gradually diverge; Fergus immerses himself in the plight of ordinary Irish folk, while Adair remains more detached. Their personal and political trajectories remain unresolved at home. As men, both come independently to Australia. All the cards are reshuffled on the great inland plains of New South Wales, where their divergent life histories are played out. Fergus, having discarded his upper class heritage, reappears as the bushranger-rebel Dolan, who has moved away from society into the high plains, perhaps to lead an insurrection. In contrast, the more austere Adair has improved his position in the world. Now a soldier-policeman, he seeks out his former companion.

Malouf's choice of subject matter is not arbitrary. His story is one version of an archetypal Romantic story, whose particulars change according to the teller, but whose lineaments remain the same. In mainstream English fiction of the nineteenth century, it is the story of two men, one of whom succeeds and the other loses both his loved one and his inheritance. In response to this dual catastrophe he disappears, changes his name, and goes into exile, immersing himself in the mire and grime of existence, and feeling badly done by. The Australian variant is that the disappearance or exile takes place here. It is essentially a story about two similar people who travel to Australia in the early days and take the contrary paths which the country offers them, or of two warring potentialities within the same personality which are given rein in Australia.

One element of the extended fable is a contrast between the orphan and the heir. The foundling finds himself in Australia, makes his fortune and establishes an identity. Frustrated in social advancement at home, he sees Australia merely as a roundabout mechanism for improving his status and financial position in England. The heir sloughs off the burden of his English inheritance, goes incognito, and rejoices in Australia as a welcome escape from the tightness and constraints of upper-class English life. The venturers are doubles, secret sharers in the same quest, but temperamental opposites (e.g. masculine versus feminine, active versus reflective). Some residual mystery may attend their eventual fate.

Both travellers are like troubadours, venturing into unknown lands to win by feats of enterprise the hand of their idealised lady when they return. But one does not come back, since he has found a new love which he fully embraces, Australia. In some versions (e.g. Boldrewood's Nevermore) the loved one herself travels out to Australia.

One character becomes a gentleman and may achieve here a quasi-aristocratic status, not available to him in England, by keeping up respectable ways, and making his fortune through land, labour or gold. The other voluntarily renounces his exalted status, and embraces low life and the attractive levelling spirit of early colonial life. This reflects how fluid the Australian social order was, how rapid changes in fortune and status could be.

One of the two may become a soldier or policeman, asserting the need for order, restraint, control and established structures in a new and unformed world which constantly threatens to descend into anarchy. The other gravitates to the opposite end of the social spectrum, the convict-bushranger fraternity. (Compare the divergent paths taken by the Belgian overseers and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, and the Shillingsworth brothers in Capricornia.) The antipodes is not just the other, but the opposite, the overthrowing of the old moral order. …

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