Feminist Review

, Volume 86, Issue 1, pp 198–201 | Cite as

Settler romances and the Australian girl

  • Eleanor Conlin Casella
Book Review

Tanya Dalziell;University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, 2004, 208p, ISBN 1-9206-9420-X £20.50 (Pbk)

Offering a detailed reading of turn-of-century adventure fictions and early ethnographies, this intriguing study explores how highly charged narratives of ‘whiteness’ and ‘femininity’ serviced the invention of colonial Australia. Drawing upon the familiar symbolic figure of the cheeky, white, middle-class ‘New Woman,’ Dalziell defines the ‘Australian Girl’ as not merely a local representation of this controversial character, but rather as a regionally specific manifestation of race, gender, sexual, class, and colonial anxieties. By deconstructing fictional representations of this figure, the author seeks to understand how deeper ideological forces articulated with the emergence of a new Australian nationalism.

Selected texts animate a world of uncertain subjectivities. Dramatic encounters between the Australian Girl and imaginary ‘natives’ (whether fictitiously or ethnographically rendered) sustain the various narrative plots of these literary sources. Dalziell's analysis reveals how themes of alterity (or ‘otherness’) resulting from such adventures serve to highlight tensions over the fictitiousness of the (white) settler subject. Ultimately, they seek to reconcile the disorders of gender and class that so characterized life within this outpost of empire. Her close readings also expose the central ideological displacements through which new capitalist forms of economy (characterized by the extractive mining industry) become not only justified as inevitable, but naturalized as evolutionary progress within the appropriated landscapes of the colonial frontier.

Surprisingly, the role of Australian Federation (enacted in 1901) remains absent from this study. Could the ambiguous and contested subjectivities traced through these literary texts reflect a unique period of social instability while the disparate (and previously separate) Australian colonies searched for an imagined unity under national federation? As a collection of turn-of-century texts, do Dalziell's sources represent a specific, and possibly heightened, discourse of popular anxiety? Indeed, her discussion (p. 49) of the symbolic restoration of the settler economy and ‘gendered racial identities,’ through reference to British superiority, suggests the unspoken fear (and thus acknowledgement) of the artifice of this new antipodean nation. An explicit recognition of the Federation project might help situate the deployment of ‘nationalism’ as a profound, if displaced, theme throughout this literature. While the discursive conditions of nation-building are far from resolved in contemporary Australia, a point elegantly developed in the final chapter of the volume, the unique historic events that surrounded the original creation and consumption of this literature may well have influenced the particular nature of their ‘ideological manoeuvers.’

To what degree can Australia be considered a ‘post-colonial’ nation? Dalziell's introduction offers a sophisticated interrogation of literature on ‘settler’ and ‘second world’ cultures. Of particular interest was her observation of heterogeneous conditions within both contemporary and colonial Australia: ‘the ongoing processes of internal colonisation or so-called fourth world conditions that operate within, and often against, second world formations’ (p. 17). Her study argues that anxieties of appropriation and displacement triggered by such stark and blatant inequalities achieve a form of resolution through the economic narratives of these adventure fictions. Gifts of mineral wealth ‘freely’ offered by imagined ‘natives’ to ‘god-like’ white explorers in the adventure romance An Australian Bush Track (1896) ultimately legitimate the establishment of extractive mining interests (pp. 64–65). In other words, as Dalziell observes, the traditional gift economy becomes inevitably replaced, or even ‘improved,’ by a settler capitalist economy. Simultaneously, since the gift transaction is performed by imaginary ‘natives,’ Aboriginal communities are effectively denied all ownership and connection to the imagined and adventurous lands.

Drawing from later revisions of Marcel Mauss's classic anthropological study The Gift (1950), Dalziell notes the polyvalent nature of the original gifts: the imaginary gold and diamonds ‘move between the conditions of fetishised commodity, social use value and gifts’ (p. 63). However, Dalziell's argument continues by negating the intrinsic materiality of the gifts. She defines the gift economy as essentially the social relations of debt and obligation that flow from object exchange. However, such an approach overlooks a basic premise of Mauss's original work. In a gift economy, both the social and material nature of ‘the gift’ sustain bonds of competition and solidarity between participants. In other words, the social relations are inalienable from the materiality of gifts, and vice versa. Indeed, in the ethnographic fieldwork that underlay his study, cycles of social reciprocity frequently involved a repetitive exchange of the same valued objects over time – these sacred gifts maintained and enhanced their ceremonial power through the sedimentation of exchange over multiple generations.

Perhaps the networks of power and knowledge that sustain the discursive and inherently unstable conditions of settler Australia operate similarly. Dalziell provides a detailed analysis of the power of language in the perpetuation of colonial formations, with various identity categories (including ‘Australian’) coming into existence through the seductive deployment of the words themselves. Would the materiality of this settler nation serve the same function (Cremin, 2001)? Australian historical archaeology has increasingly demonstrated how the ‘heritage’ (defined as both built environment and portable artefacts) of turn-of-century Australia can be deconstructed to reveal equally potent and contested narratives of class, gender, race, and nationalism (Karskens, 1999; Lavelle, 2003; Casella and Fredericksen, 2004; Casella, 2005; Lydon and Ireland, 2005). To this audience, Dalziell's study offers a useful interdisciplinary and comparative example of the power of language in this colonial project. Ultimately, in foregrounding both the unstable nature of these fictitious subjectivities, and the socio-economic dynamics of these narratives, Dalziell offers compelling insight into the process of nation-building that continues to direct the politics of contemporary Australia.


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© Feminist Review Ltd 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eleanor Conlin Casella

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