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The ‘Australian Girl’ and the domestic ideal in colonial women’s fiction

Smith, Michelle J. 2014, The ‘Australian Girl’ and the domestic ideal in colonial women’s fiction. In Wagner, Tamara S. (ed), Domestic fiction in colonial Australia and New Zealand, Pickering & Chatto, London, England, pp.75-89.

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Title The ‘Australian Girl’ and the domestic ideal in colonial women’s fiction
Author(s) Smith, Michelle J.
Title of book Domestic fiction in colonial Australia and New Zealand
Editor(s) Wagner, Tamara S.
Publication date 2014
Series Gender and genre
Chapter number 5
Total chapters 11
Start page 75
End page 89
Total pages 15
Publisher Pickering & Chatto
Place of Publication London, England
Keyword(s) girlhood
Australian literature
Summary The vast majority of novels and periodicals read by colonial Australian girls were written and published in Britain. ‘Daughters of the Southern Cross’ were more likely to have access to the Girl’s Own Paper by subscription or to imported fictions that had proven popular with British girl readers than any locally produced depictions of girlhood. From the 1880s, however, Australian authors produced several milestone fictions of girlhood for both adult and juvenile audiences. Rosa Praed's An Australian Heroine (1880) and Catherine Martin’s An Australian Girl (1890)  gave voice to the lived experience of Australia for young women, and their publication in Britain contributed to an emergent reciprocal transpacific flow of literary culture.

Two canonical Australian novels that focus on the maturation of girl protagonists who live on bush homesteads were also published in this period. Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894) and Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901) feature intelligent girls who are not able to be effectively socialised to embrace domesticity. Turner’s Judy Woolcot is distinct among her six siblings as a plucky girl who instigates trouble, while Franklin’s aspiring writer Sybylla Melvyn is informed that ‘girls are the helplessest, uselessest, troublesomest little creatures in the world.’

The 1890s saw an agricultural depression in Australia that only fuelled the urban perpet-uation of the idealised and nationalistic bushman myth in literary and popular culture. The ubiquity of the myth problematised any attempt to situate women heroically within the nation outside of the home. British fictional imaginings of Australian girls lauded their lack of conformity and physical abilities and often showed them bravely defending the family property with firearms. In contrast, Australian domestic fiction, this chapter argues, is unable to accommodate bracing female heroism, postulating ambiguous outcomes at best for heroines who deviate from the feminine ideal.

Judy’s grandmother describes her ‘restless fire’ as something that ‘would either make a noble, daring, brilliant woman of her’, or ‘would flame up higher and higher and consume her’. Turner does not allow Judy’s unconventionality to prosper. Instead, she is killed by a falling gum tree while saving the life of her brother, leaving the future fulfilment of the domestic ideal to her sister, Meg, whose subsequent story occupies Little Mother Meg (1902). Franklin’s Sybylla expresses her inability to be content with the simple pleasures of keeping a home, and this informs her decision to reject a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor. The novel’s indeterminate conclusion does not allow fulfilment of Sybylla’s writing aspirations, situating her outside the feminine ideal yet not affirming the merits of her desire to reject married life.

While Sharyn Pearce suggests that Judy’s tragic end follows a narrative pattern that sup-ports the glorification of male heroes and renders ‘over-reaching women’ as ‘noble failures’, the novel might also productively be read within the context of other fictions featuring girl protagonists of the period, such as Praed and Martin's novels. This chapter makes the case that Turner and Franklin’s thwarted heroines critique the containment of Australian girls to the banalities of the home by exposing the negative and uncertain outcomes for those who desire the freedoms and aspirations permitted to boys and men. Unlike British fictions that champion adventurous girls, these Australian fictions critique the continuation of gendered restrictions in the colonies by proposing that girls who desire excitement and independence ‘should have been…boy[s]’ (as Sybylla’s mother remarks).
ISBN 9781848935167
Language eng
Field of Research 200502 Australian Literature (excl Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Literature)
Socio Economic Objective 970120 Expanding Knowledge in Language, Communication and Culture
HERDC Research category B1 Book chapter
Grant ID DP110101082
Copyright notice ©2014, Pickering & Chatto
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Document type: Book Chapter
Collection: Centre for Memory, Imagination and Invention
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Created: Mon, 21 Jul 2014, 17:41:25 EST by Michelle Smith

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