2022 Thesis

This year I’m looking at depictions of domesticity and housekeeping in the novels of early colonial women writers in Australia. Writers like Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Theresa Vidal, and Louisa Atkinson (above) were telling tales of women’s lives in the mid-19th century, and these lives reflected the Victorian ideals of domestic wellbeing and social respectability of the time. With a carefully-tended home seen as a symbol of settled domestic existence and thus imbued with moral qualities, it seems a rich theme to investigate as how women’s fiction played a part in creating an “Australian” identity as descended from, but different to, the United Kingdom motherland. I’m especially interested in exploring the juxtaposition of these homely fireside comforts with the outer spaces of the land they were attempting to colonise.

I want to know how much of colonial ideals were tied to hearth and home and how this was depicted through the works of these women novelists. Colonial aspirations were often hamstrung by the realities of colonial conditions and I would like to examine how this is portrayed in fiction. I aim to demonstrate how Spence, Atkinson and Vidal employed genre, narrative structure, settings and themes to emphasise particular, favoured aspects of colonial life and perhaps draw attention away from the brutal realities – particularly those concerning the displacement of Aboriginal people whose very existence was under threat.

I’d like this research to acknowledge the contribution these novelists made to Australian literature, and the unique position they had in the often turbulent story of the settlement of Australia. I would also like to give more context to their purportedly realist depictions of colonial Australia and compare them with the historical information available to us now. Literature is often a rich source of historical evidence and I’m interested in how these women’s works, given the Victorian fiction style of venerating domesticity popular at the time, contributed to colonial propaganda. I particularly want to consider the glaring excision of First Nations experience (or when included, a misunderstanding of it at best) in these nationalist narratives. How did the themes of domesticity and homemaking in Australian women’s fiction contribute to or reflect colonial ideals of the time? What did they omit in this narrative? And what part do these works play in the Australian canon as a whole?

Well, that’s the plan, anyway! We shall see…