On being prim and proper in the bush


I’m not really a bush girl – most of my out-of-doors adventures are at the beach, particularly at Goolwa, the beachside town where my partner’s parents have a shack. This week has been most glorious, as I have stayed down at Goolwa for a week myself, with no company except for Ben’s dog Angus. I have read nine books, and written 10 000 words, and blogged almost every day, as you may have noticed.Angus and I have gone for long walks along the beach, and the entire stretch of sand is empty, from our house to the next seaside town town, and you feel like you could be the only people to have ever walked along that beach.

So while I know the Australian beach, I am not very well acquainted with the Australian bush. I found it interesting that two books that I have read this week – Seven Little Australians, and Picnic at Hanging Rock – both renowned Australian classics – are set partly in ‘The Bush’. Especially as, apart from a few scenes set in ‘The Bush’, these stories could have almost happened in England. Yes, there is talk of Australian Cattle Stations, and there are a few black fellas, but for the most part, the characters and the way they interact with their environment feels decidedly English.

Seven Little Australians was written in 1894, and Picnic at Hanging Rock set in 1900, a time in Australian history when, I suppose, Australians living in Sydney or Melbourne or Adelaide were trying to make a piece of Britain overseas. The food that the seven little Australians eat (mutton, and buns, for example) feels like English food, and the lessons the girls have after the dreadful Picnic at Hanging Rock feels like lessons characters in an Enid Blyton boarding-school story would be taught. Mentions of Bondi Trams, the Adelaide Express, or news from Melbourne made me jump, as I had almost forgotten that the story I was absorbed in was set in my home country. (This may also have been because Adelaide is not mentioned very often in stories – not like Melbourne and Sydney are).

It got me wondering if Australia in the late 19th Century was as Britain-centric as these books make them appear. I know that Seven Little Australians was written by Ethel Turner with an English audience in mind, which might be why the children seem in some way to resemble heroes from E Nesbit books. When both books talk about the bush, I think they romanticise it – it is a mysterious, dangerous place, where people can disappear of the face of the earth within ten minutes, and you never know what life-threatening element is around the corner (true, to a certain extent, but grossly dramatised, I feel).

But was Australia really as English as these books make them out to be? It seems strange to think so, especially comparing it to now, when I see Australia as a melting pot full of flavours from all over the world. Maybe these authors were concentrating on a particular part of Australia, and a particular type of Australian, who, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, tried to pretend that they weren’t far from Britain, and the characters who showed a different side of Australian life were scrubbed out. I don’t know enough about Australian history to answer.

I’d like to read a book set in the same time period from the point of view of someone from a different background, to see if Australia really was as it is described in the two books above.




  1. Gypsy

    What about Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park? It’s set in Sydney 1873 I was also going to suggest Jackie French’s Nanberry:Black Brother White but it’s 1789. Both good reads though I think.

  2. This was Henry Lawson’s take,

    “This was the loyalty which sent several hundred jingoes and several thousand pounds to assist England in crushing a brave nation of savages who were fighting for a country of no earthly use to anyone but themselves…Why on earth do we want closer connection with England? We have little in common with English people except our language. We are fast becoming an entirely different people. We are more liberal, and, considering our age, more progressive than England is. The majority of English people know nothing of Australia, and even the higher classes understand neither us nor our country. The latter entertain a sort of good-natured contempt for us which is only the outcome of their contact with our own shoddy aristocracy, which is several degrees more contemptible than that of England.

    The loyal talk of Patriotism, Old England, Mother Land, etc. Patriotism? after Egypt, Burmah, Soudan, etc. Bah! it sickens one. Go and read His Natural Life, and other natural lives, by Marcus Clarke, and then talk of the dear old Mother Land that gave us birth. “

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