Exoticising Colonial History: British Authors’ Australian Convict Novels

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The historical novel, which from its origins was intended as a ‘vehicle for the constant intertwining of present and past’ (Hamnett, 2006, p. 32), can be expected to ‘signal a discourse community’s norms, epistemology, ideology, and social ontology’ (Berkenkotter and Huckin, 1993, p. 475). Since 1830, Australia has continued to develop its own brand of historical fiction in the convict novel, which now encompasses more than eighty texts by Australian authors, many canonised, some deservedly forgotten. The genre’s hybridity, typical of the historical novel proper (de Groot, 2010, p. 2), emerges from its fusion of memoirs, romance, Gothic, Realist, Naturalist and Newgate novels. Nine texts have so far been analysed in Laurie Hergenhan’s Unnatural Lives (1983), though he has refused to attempt a generic definition and eschews comparisons, pointing instead to the diversity of form that Australian convict fiction shares with the historical novel (1983, pp. 6–7, 10, 12).

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... 27 It is generally agreed that, from the 1960s, the dark shadows of Australia's convict past (1788-1868) gave way to national pride, since, as stated by John Bradley Hirst, 'after years of shame and denial,' Australians saw their country as 'a better place than the old world,' where criminal people in England 'could make a fresh start.' 28 Manning Clark was an early voice in the revisionism of Australia's convict history and opened a line of thought that became prevalent: Australian convicts were 'permanent outcasts of society' who came from a distinctive criminal class with 'psychological aberration[s].' 29 He thus epitomises, in Nicholas and Shergold's words ('Unshackling' 6-7), a de-romanticising trend contrasting with the early nationalist idealisation of convicts as founding fathers. Unlike the general romanticising trend that Therese M. Meyer perceives in British authors' Australian convict novels, 30 Bird's fiction follows the bitter demystification started by Clark, which in her work leads to ironic pride, no longer at a national but at a personal level in her most recent characters as will be shown later in the analysis. She presents this demystified pride to the reader in combination with the disclosure of past genocide. ...
The writings of Carmel Bird (Patrick White Award 2016) are a suitable literary canvas from which to explore a central concern in the work of a white Australian woman writer of Celtic descent: the need to reconcile herself with two dark chapters of Australia’s history; namely, the convict past and Indigenous genocide. This paper investigates Bird’s controversial focus on Australia’s – particularly Tasmania’s – past dispossession from her debut novel in 1985 to her present-day production. The use of exile, abjection, secrecy and what Julia Kristeva calls ‘the semiotic chora’ – together with different tropes such as Derrida’s crypt, incest, unpleasant corporeity and the neocolonial ghost – allows Bird’s subaltern voices to emerge and break the ‘great Australian silence.’
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