I read this book while embodying the bush cliche – lurching between cattle stations and floodplains, rainforest and thick scrub, dipping into the stories by the light of campfires and fading torch batteries. Given these unexpectedly apt settings I suppose I could have found myself in good company with a book of colonial romance fiction. But the truth is, I’m not sure how much of it I actually enjoyed.
Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver offer the reader a selection of short stories dealing with love, marriage, money, deception, despair and the development of female identity through the eyes of the colonist. The earliest, Hal’s ‘The Desolate Homestead’, is dated 1866, while Rosa Praed’s 1909 offering ‘The Bushman’s Love Story’ is the latest. Bush properties, cattle stations and small country towns are the most common locations, although the passage from England also features quite regularly, ships apparently being considered fertile ground for romance and drama to blossom.
In the interests of full disclosure, Austen and Heyer aside, I am not a great reader of romance fiction; in fact, I generally find it rather insipid and insulting. To wit, I spent a good deal of this book wondering how I was supposed to feel, not just about the stories individually but about the collection as a whole. Henry Lawson’s offerings ‘A Love Story’ and ‘An Unfinished Love Story’, and Francis Adams’ ‘A Bush Girl’ aside, I found it difficult to just read a story and embrace it for what it was. The critical eye of the postcolonial/feminist literary scholar kept peeping open, insisting on some form of deconstruction, character analysis and exploration of the underlying presumptions about class and race that inform the stories.
Given that they are between 100 and 150 years old, applying contemporary literary standards to them is probably a bit unfair. And there were certainly stories in which the dramatic tension was tightly wound (‘Victims of Circe’, ‘Cross Currents’) and the characters multidimensional and believable. However, I couldn’t help but feel that in some cases (‘Barren Love’, ‘The Larrikin of Diamond Creek’, ‘Miss Jackson’) the voices were patchy, the characters thin and the drama contrived. Aboriginal Australia is all but absent in these texts, save for ‘The Inside Station’ in which Aboriginal people are posited only as ruthless antagonists whose massacre of an entire homestead is the catalyst for the development of white romance. This is a pity because I feel there is something rather large at play between the very brutal nature of colonialism and the development of colonial romance, and I would have liked to see more exploration of that.
Gelder and Weaver frame their anthology by discussing the exploration of the image of the Australian girl (not so much the Australian woman). There is an awkward tension embodied by the archetype, which is perhaps best described by one of the characters themselves (quoted also by the editors in their introduction):
Whoever else goes under, she will always come out on top. And not a bit because she sticks out for what she supposes are her rights. She don’t care about rights… There’s nothing she can’t do – ride as well as any stockman, sit a buckjumper and cut out a scrubber on a cattle camp. And she can cook a dinner that you’d enjoy eating, and make her frocks—and look stunning in them too. And as for brains. Why, she’s taken her M.A. degree in Sydney University, and now she’s training herself to deal with the Woman Question…
A sense of this conflict surfaces in the narrative development of many of these stories: more traditional Western gender roles are embodied in the Australian bush only with great difficulty and so the role of the female (before marriage, especially) is altered. It is telling, perhaps, that the story which is most faithful to prescribed social roles (and the expectations, perhaps, of a regular reader of the romance genre) is the syrupy ‘Lorna Travis: A Christmas Story’, set in Toorak. Comparison between Australian girls and English/American girls occurs regularly: ‘There was something lazy and languishing about these ample, pale-faced girls with their second-rate “English society” airs.’ The resultant altering of traditional femininity comes into conflict with the typical romance narrative, however, which relies on stereotype and social expectations for much of its charm and plot development. Because of this discord, stories often begin with a sense of refreshing difference (much like their heroines) and a feeling that they might step right out of the boundaries of the genre. In most cases they never quite make it over the edge, and by the denouement have fallen right back into old tropes and familiar narrative grooves.
Still, and perhaps this is an issue of semantics, I feel like the term ‘romance fiction’ implies a much more generic model of storytelling than what is offered here. These are stories that deal with love and marriage, but I think it would be misguided to approach them as fodder for wish-fulfilment. And it’s good to have stories like this in an easily accessible form, for posterity’s sake if nothing else. But a seasoned reader of romance would probably be more amorous towards them as recreational reading than I am. As a collection of historical texts I found them interesting and educational, but rather infuriating all the same. The variety of stories is to the anthology’s credit, I think, but I found it difficult to get a handle on the tone of the collection, and came away from it all feeling rather unsettled. But perhaps I’m just too political.