Recurring themes in Australian Literature to 1950

Contrasts between the city and the bush, the rich and the poor, and insiders versus outsiders

Australian literature, from British colonisation through to 1950 covers a large body of work and genres. Such a selection may include diverse subject matter such as convict settlement, the gold-rush, nationalism and federation, feminism, larrikinism and the effects of European contact with Aboriginal people, yet among these works a common thread of contrasts can be discerned. In particular, the contrasts between city and bush life, the rich and the poor, and insiders versus outsiders are themes that recur continually in the literature and have been employed widely by writers as a means of commenting on and documenting Australian society and attitudes towards national identity, race and gender.

The contrasts between the city and the bush are a common and recurring theme in Australian literature. According to Gary Clark, “engagement with the environment is a pervasive presence in Australian literature” (429), so it is unsurprising that comparisons of the natural landscape to the urban environment are one way in which this contrast is made. In addition to this, the city is compared with the bush via the different lifestyles, attitudes and values of Australian people living in each (Seal, “The City or the Bush”). These comparisons can be found in the works of Henry Lawson, A.B. Paterson, Miles Franklin, Katherine Susannah Prichard and Kylie Tennant.

Henry Lawson, in Up the Country, paints a bleak portrait of the bush landscape, writing of “those burning wastes of barren soil and sand” and claiming that “the country’s rather more inviting round the coast” (Curtin University, “The City or the Bush?” 3-5). He also writes of a lonely and difficult bush life, “where gaunt and haggard women live alone and work like men”, a theme that continues in his story The Drover’s Wife, in which “the bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees” and the drover’s “wife and children are left here alone” (Curtin University, “Henry Lawson” 7). The negative aspects of bush life for women appear again in his poem The City Bushmen, in which “his toiling wife is thinner than a country wife should be” (Curtin University, “The City or the Bush” 8). The implication in this selection of Lawson’s work seems to be that the bush is not a suitable place for women and children, and that it is unfair of a man to place his family under such hardship.The opposing view was presented by A.B. Paterson in the Bulletin debate which focused on city versus the bush and romanticism versus realism in Australian literature (Wilde, Hooton & Andrews 130-131). In Defence of the Bush is a reply to Lawson, and Paterson remarks that while the city is grim and immune to nature, the bush has moods that change with the seasons, and that bush people are “loyal through it all” (Curtin University, “The City or the Bush” 7). InAn Answer to Various Bards, Paterson writes of how a bushman who has moved to town looks back with fondness on his previous life “when his face was somewhat browner and his frame was firmet set, and he feels flabby muscles with a feeling of regret” (16). Paterson’s view is that the bush provides a healthier lifestyle than the soft comforts of city living, an idea that is also presented in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.

Sybylla, the protagonist in My Brilliant Career is fond of both Lawson and Paterson’s work and “Franklin also loves her bush-dwellers” (Carr 163). Sybylla’s sense of national pride is clear:

I am proud that I am an Australian, a daughter of the Southern Cross, a child of the mighty bush. I am thankful I am a peasant, a part of the bone and muscle of my nation, and earn my bread by the sweat of my brow, as man was meant to do. I rejoice I was not born a parasite, one of the blood-suckers who loll on velvet and satin, crushed from the proceeds of human sweat and blood and souls. (Franklin 245)

This passage also pays respect to the “sons of toil and of Australia”, who “struggle uncomplainingly against flood, fire disease in stock, pests, drought, trade depression, and sickness, and yet have time to extend your hands and hearts in true sympathy to a brother in misfortune”, and to the plight of bush women “who scrub and wash and mend and cook, who are dressmakers, paperhangers, milkmaids, gardeners, and candle-makers all in one, and yet have time to be cheerful and tasty in your homes” (245). Miles Franklin is demonstrating respect for both bush men and women in a romanticised way, yet the passage also contains a negative portrayal of the wealthy “blood-suckers”.

Written three decades after My Brilliant CareerCoonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard is a novel set in the remote north-west of Western Australian and paints a more realistic picture of the often harsh and lonely bush life. In drought, “the country was dead and dry for hundreds of miles, even the mulga dying” (11), although Mrs Bessie recalls that “she had seen those plains, a flowing sea of grass and herbage; and believed the good seasons would come again” (11). The loneliness of life in this area is portrayed as the reason for white men turning to “black velvet” (56), which is how Sam Geary refers to the native Aboriginal women, who he uses as sexual objects to suit his own needs. The loneliness of bush life is contrasted to the city and coastal areas: firstly, in Jessica’s rejection of Wytaliba station; and secondly, in the fact that Hugh travels from Wytaliba to the coast in order to recover and receive treatment for typhoid after his mother’s death. Coonardoo presents the harsh bush as unhealthy for white men and women alike, in addition to the harmful effect of their presence on the indigenous population.

In The Battlers, Kylie Tennant presents contrasts between the city and the bush and also highlights the changing nature of Australian society as modernisation and urbanisation were advancing in the 1930s. In her description of the Woodstock Road, Tennant writes of “wide, open, generous country” (223), but then of “cars that swirled past in a cloud of callous dust” and commercial travellers that “were hurrying through these little ‘dumps’ of towns contemptuously and racing to the big centres” (224). The adjectives callous and contemptuous demonstrate that an increasingly urbanised Australian society is beginning to look down on the bush and its people. Despite this, The Battlers portrays the bush as being superior to the city and continues the established Australian myth of anti-authoritarianism (Seal, “The Battlers”). The most potent example of this is in Snow’s reflections on his life as a battler outside of society; that “it was funny how the travellers were getting to be like the blacks”, “just as much a separate race, distinct from the people who lived in towns” and that “white ‘dole-chasers’” have their own language and moral code of mateship and helping each other out (192). Snow then considers city-dwellers:

All along the coast, sheltered to the west by the high wall of the mountains and to the east by the sea, the cities lay; where people could live in flats and have central heating and air-conditioned houses and refrigerators; and forget about the barrens and the barbed wire over the ranges. They could talk tariffs and exchange rates and stock-market quotations. Maybe, if they went on talking war and business long enough, something in the way of an apocalypse would come of it; they would be strangled, swallowing their own tongues. A faint disgust took Snow as he thought of streets of concrete and asphalt, and roaring trams, and people jammed together as though they were gummed to a fly-paper. (192)

This key passage espouses the battlers as the true Australians (Seal, “The Battlers”), and Snow is clearly looking down on city life and concerns. Although the depression affected city and bush people alike, it is on the bush travellers that Kylie Tennant has chosen to base her narrative, and again the theme of city versus the bush is paramount.

A second recurring theme in Australian literature is the contrast between the lives of the rich and the poor. Miles Franklin in My Brilliant Career provides numerous such contrasts, in the life of Sybylla’s family in poverty, her move to comfort at Caddagatt, and again in her service to the M’Swat family. The passage discussed earlier with its reference to “blood-sucker’s who loll on velvet and satin” (245) is a celebration of the hard-working poor over the rich. This theme continues in both Jonah and The Battlers.

Louis Stone’s novel Jonah marks a shift toward city life and is set in the working class Sydney suburbs of Waterloo and Redfern in the early 1900s. The contrast in this book is between Jonah’s early larrikin life on the streets and his later success as a wealthy business owner, in a new world of urban capitalist opportunity. A 1928 review of Jonah by poet and critic Nettie Palmer states that “Jonah’s rise in life through skilled use of advertisement and publicity at a time when such things had not been exploited as they are to-day makes very interesting reading”. Certainly it is true that Jonah rises from the streets and “The Push”, however the ending of Stone’s novel questions whether ambition and wealth lead to happiness. It is the hard work and poverty of Chook and Pinkey that are given the novel’s final paragraph:

Chook and Pinkey did not need to stare at sixpence before spending it, but their fortune was long in the making. Meanwhile Chook consoled himself with the presence of a sturdy son, the image of Pinkey, with a mop of curls the colour of a new penny. (168)

A review from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1911 states that: “So Jonah is left, his success turned to dust and ashes destined never to gain his heart’s desire”. So, while Jonah provides a contrast between the protagonist’s poor and rich life, it also contrasts between the life of Jonah, fuelled by ambition and the lives of Chook and Pinkey, fuelled by love. This could also be seen as perpetuating the theme of celebrating the poor over the rich.

Although set decades later in an even more highly urbanised Australian society, The Battlersfocuses on the bush, with the “white dole-chasers” (192) moving from town to town at the mercy of local police, collecting the dole and occasionally turning to crime to survive. One of the battlers, Miss Phipps, observes the “Australian aristocracy” (173) while working at a hotel, honourably returning a large sum of money to wealthy station-owner Tolly Sampson, after his drunken son mistakenly gives it to her. Although a minor storyline in the novel, this is a striking example of how the author sets the battlers on a higher moral plane to wealthy characters such as Tolly Sampson and his son. It is likely a sign of the great depression era that the capitalist optimism seen in Jonah is now replaced with the difficult and disadvantaged life of the battlers.

The contrasts discussed thus far can also be described in wider terms as being between insiders and outsiders, which can encompass social status, gender, race and education. Examples of this theme in Australian literature include: convicts or gold-rush diggers against the authorities; native-born Australians against so-called “new chums”; white Australians against Aboriginals or other races; and males against females. An attitude of anti-authoritarianism can be found in pre-colonial Australian literature such as convict songs or gold-rush ballads, in addition to later works such as The Battlers. According to The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, songs such as Moreton BayBold Jack DonahooJim Jones at Botany Bay and Waltzing Matildaall helped to create a tradition of anti-authoritarian sentiment (Wilde, Hooton & Andrews 287). This continued with the Eureka stockade and ballads that celebrate the diggers’ uprising, such asA Ballad of Eureka in which “the Tyrants of the Goldfields would not let us live in peace” (Curtin University, “Some Classic Ballads”). The diggers are championed as insiders and are pitted against the authorities – the outsiders.

The Goldrush era also brought with it a fear of other outsiders, such as Chinese immigrants. The song Chinese Immigration by Charles Thatcher warns against a colony some day “under Chinese dominion” (Seal, “Gold and Blood”) and the anonymous ballad The Fine Fat Saucy Chinaman plays into the same fears, with thousands of Chinese girls coming to the colony for their men (Curtin University, “Gold”). In My Brilliant Career, Sybylla as a female is looked down upon and laughed at by a man when she shows concern for a Chinese man’s feelings (179), demonstrating the man’s inability to empathise with the Chinese “outsider”. In addition to this, he laughs off Sybylla’s opinion as inconsequential coming from a young lady.

The difference of gender is a central theme in My Brilliant Career. Sybylla feels both an outsider from her own gender and an outsider from the world at large by virtue of being female. The novel is clearly a challenge to the dominant male social order of the time (Martin 14), though it is interesting then that Sybylla herself looks down on the M’Swat family for their lack of education and “dull narrow life” and “drearily monotonous existence (Franklin 189). Sybylla in fact envies them “their ignorant contentment” and see herself as “a duck forced forever to live in a desert” (203). In other words, her intelligence and aspirations also make her an outsider from common Australian life at the time.

The central characters of The Battlers are also portrayed as outsiders to mainstream society, always travelling and not settling down with the responsibilities of stable family and work lives. Within this clique there is a sense of loyalty and mateship, but this does not extend to outsiders. A review of the novel by George Orwell stated that “the hatred of authority and contempt for the settled agriculturist” are characteristics of the battlers (Matthews, 66). There is a scene in which Dancy reflects “how those farmers, so kind to their own people, had sat up nights to see that the travellers took nothing” (Tennant, 327), showing that while mateship is seen a strong part of the Australian character, it does not always extend beyond a given social group.

Contrasts between the city and the bush, the rich and the poor and the more general concept of insiders versus outsiders are widely recurring themes in Australian literature before 1950. The use of these themes over time provides insights into the ways in which various aspects of Australian society have changed over the same period, but also shows how many aspects of Australian national identity have remained the same, despite external changes. Even across a wide range of subject matter, from the male-centric convict songs and goldrush ballads, the female perspective of My Brilliant Career, the city larrikins of Jonah, the depression-era dole-chasers in The Battlers or the Aboriginal perspective in Coonardoo, a study of the recurring theme of contrasts provides a common thread with which to analyse these works and the ideas behind them.

Works Cited

“An Australian Novel.” The Sydney Morning Herald (N.S.W.: 1842-1954) 14 Oct 1911: 4. Web. 3rd Feb 2012 <>.
Carr, Richard. “Writing the Nation, 1900-1940.” A Companion to Australian Literature since 1900. Ed. Birns, Nicholas & Rebecca McNeer. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2007. Print.
Clarke, Gary. “Environmental Themes in Australian Literature.” A Companion to Australian Literature since 1900. Ed. Birns, Nicholas & Rebecca McNeer. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2007. Print.
Curtin U. The City or the Bush? LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011.
Curtin U. Gold. LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011.
Curtin U. Henry Lawson. LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011.
Franklin, Miles. My Brilliant Career. Project Gutenburg Australia. Web. Accessed 9th Nov 2011.
Matthews, Brian. “’A kind of Semi-Sociological Literary Criticism’: George Orwell, Kylie Tennant and others”. Westerly, No. 2 (June 1981). Web: Curtin University Library e-Reserve.. 3rd Feb 2012.
“Louis Stone.” The Brisbane Courier (Qld.: 1864-1933) 7 Jan 1928: 18. Web. 3rd Feb 2012 <>.
Prichard, Katherine. Coonardoo. Pymble, N.S.W.: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
Seal, Graham & Strickland, Barry. The Battlers. LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011. CD of Radio Broadcast.
Seal, Graham & Strickland, Barry. The City or the Bush. LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011. CD of Radio Broadcast.
Seal, Graham & Strickland, Barry. Gold and Blood. LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011. CD of Radio Broadcast.
Stone, Louis. Jonah. Project Gutenburg Australia. Web. Accessed 9th Nov 2011.
Tennant, Kylie. The Battlers. Pymble, N.S.W.: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton & Barry Andrews. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne: Oxford U P Australia, 1994. Print.

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