Class In Australian Colonial Fiction

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Class in Australian Colonial Fiction


Across the globe literature plays a vital role I understanding the origins and evolution of a community within a specific setting. Several authors have delved into the definition of literature but one most common and outstanding understanding of literature is any form of written works which is considered to be an art form or any single writing that is deemed to have an artistic value or intellectual value often due to deploying language in ways that differ from the ordinary use of the language (ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences, 2015). Therefore, literature can be a great artistic tool in the preservation of culture, believes and religion of people explaining their origin and the changes that they have undergone as a community through the different historical times. The culture and believes of a community define their social values and the relationship between the young and the old, women and men, class, and also defines their boundaries within the society for existence of social order and harmony in a society.

It is acceptable that a community or a society has its way of understanding their past, their origin and how these two factors have influenced their current world. This can be analysed through the different historical times that the society existed. For the best interest of this study we can narrow down and contextualize our understanding of literature in the context of Australia. Australia is a subcontinent located due south east of the Eastern Africa coast and due south of Asia. Like many other countries, most of Australia’s recorded history lies on the eighteenth century after colonial settlement. It is believed that the earliest community, the Aboriginals settlement on mainland Australia can be traced back to 50,000 years. Much of Australia used to be populated with an exception of the dry areas that only attracted settlers about 25,000 years ago. Due to the improvement of climate, the land experienced a proportionate growth in population. Before the arrival of the British, an estimate of around half a million diverse people inhabited Australia and spoke around 250 indigenous languages. These tribes were split into 250 ‘individual nations’ most of which were in alliance with one another and its own language.  As the ruthless force of the British colonization spirit, many inhabitants were driven out of their homes and even killed. A variety of alien Eurasian diseases rapidly spread among the indigenous settlers and killed most of them (National Heritage Places , 2004).

With the above brief understanding of Australia, it’s important to note that literature plays a key role in exploring the evolution of a community and how the social values and culture is passed on from one generation to the other. Therefore with this little understanding of Australia how then did the Australians learn about their culture, class, social values and norms? This forms the main focus of our study which seeks to explore and understand how literature intervene in the ways in which class is understood, across three different historical periods from the colonial, post-colonial and to the contemporary Australian society. Notably, this study shall explore the concept of class as understood by the various authors of literature in the Australian context including but not limited to the works of Barbara Baynton, Miles Franklin, Joan Lindsay and Elizabeth Jolley. Writings have unequivocally affected the people’s perspective on certain societal issues as either by expressing them a manner of exaggeration or providing vague information or misinforming readers.

If we decide to believe the common definition of the concept class then we do not have an option but agree only on the two main classes which are; the working and middle. In an objective sense, this paper will zoom in on how the class strata is described and defined, for there must be a variant aspect of upper class and middle class.  Literary materials help us in understanding the role of individuals in the Australian society and also gender with keen focus on feminism (ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences, 2015).

  1. Statement of the Problem and Context

Authors like Manning Clarke, Kenneth Gilder and Russel Ward have written articles about the Australian post-colonial Identity. Most of them have characterized the Australian society as an anti-capitalist in nature which has adopted welfare associations as a form of livelihood. The idea of mateship is subjectively up for debate within the social strata. Like any society, of course Australia has social structures but how prominent and evident are they?

Writers such as Penn claim that the Australian bush which is the native landscape is the biggest protagonist of Euro-Australian literature. As it provides the land mark for identifying Australia, this bush helps a reader rediscover the Australian Identity (Penn, 2007). Describing Australia in Marxist terms becomes difficult due to the lack of objectivity in the nature of studies surrounding the concept class.

Magazines such as The Bulletin helped in creating the Australian national idea, laden with values like anti-authoritarianism, equality and unionism against belligerence towards the bush. Writers like Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson romanticized the bush in a way that evokes a sense of self-identity because it was uniquely Australian and different from European which would make it easy for the indigenous to easily relate and familiarize themselves with it. The Bulletin Magazine was only published by bush writers.

The Australian Legend by Russel Ward scrutinized the Australian character and Nationalism seeking to track the development of the ‘national mystique’ as he refers to it. Ward describes national character as a people’s ideology much as it was exaggerated and hence connecting experiences and ideas on other’s reality (Ward, 1958).

Ward goes ahead to say the ‘typical Australian’ as a person who does not allow other people’s opinion to affect their mode of thinking, in other words, a ‘practical man’. Ward goes ahead to describe the bush man as ‘a great innovator who does not focus on perfection but performing a task as best as they could. A man driven by technical nous, ready to work for a cause in an impulsive manner. He swears consistently, occasionally prone to heavy drinking and one with a problem of gambling. Also the Australian man is arrogant and sceptical about pursuing culture, intelligence and religion.’

Ward also says that the native Australian,” … believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but … probably a good deal better … He is a fiercely independent person who hates officiousness and authority … Yet he is very hospitable and … will stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they maybe wrong.”  Here Ward describes the spirit of unity the typical Australian harbors, considering their counterparts as equals and friends for better for worse.

According to Ward, the Australian bush legend peaked in the 1890s after a rise in the native born population becoming a majority. Intellectual development and the organization of writers propagated the bush ethos hence giving strength to the labor movement. Older readers and also the contemporary reader may come to loggerheads when trying to mirror the ethos portrayed in ‘the Legend’ and the present community values. How does egalitarianism compare with the nature in which the native Australian views a foreigner seeking asylum?

With influences from the Western world, especially from the United States of America, Australia is undergoing gradual changes in order to fit into the global sphere of economic competition. Collectivism is slowly becoming history while giving in to the individualistic idea (Stephens, 2003).

Similarly, Manning Clarke was also pro-egalitarianism as he openly rejects the influence of class struggle as the underlying factor to historical development. By the time he wrote ‘The History of Australia’, Clark had rejected the ideology of the Marxist class structure on progressive history. Clark’s works theme the correlation between the Australian continent and the values of the Europeans that settled there in the late 18th century.

Majority of the authors have focused on the historical aspect, the political and social orientation of Australia and done so little in exploring the concept of class fully. This research seeks to fill this gap of knowledge by exploring how the concept of class has been explored by the authors such as Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, and The Well by Elizabeth Jolley. It will explore how literature intervenes in the ways in which class is understood, across three different historical periods from the colonial, post-colonial and to the contemporary Australian society.

Research Aim

This research seeks to explore how literature intervenes in the ways in which class is understood, across three different historical periods from the colonial, post-colonial and to the contemporary Australian society.

Research questions

  1. How is the concept of class defined across the different historical ages and by different Australian authors?
  2. How have the authors explored the theme of class in the novels?
  3. How has class evolved through the different historical period as explored by the authors?
  4. What are the main precepts of class in the novels?

Relation to conceptualization

How class conceptualization develop , theoritization of

One author with deep analysis dideeferent time,

Recent criticism of class concept, atuthor, gender, class, contecxtualizing ward in recent time, lit convey, methodologizasi mitos


Talking about people, time pressure, detik….



Method, topik,


  1. This research will add knowledge to the field of Australian literature in terms of exploring the concept of class, one of the most left out aspects in exploring the Australian literature.
  2. This research will add knowledge into the field and can be availed for future reference by other researchers.


According the English Oxford dictionary defines the term ‘social class’ as ‘a division of society based on social and economic status’. Kohn and Slomczynski 1990 depict the term ‘social class’ as groups which are established with relation to the ownership and the control they hold over means of production and also other individuals labor power (Kohn & Kazimierz, 1990).

The term ‘social class’ does not hold a specific etymology but can be traced to the mid-16th century when it was introduced as an English word. The word first came up during the industrial revolution when a larger part of the population was allowed the type of education and cultural refinement which was for the select landowners of the European ‘leisure class’.

Vladimir Lenin argues that class involves a number of people in a population that differ due to the place they live in a historically shaped society. These individuals may differ with relation to productivity, their role in labor organization and also the share of wealth they accrue and the mode of acquiring it (Lenin V. , 1919).

Karl Marx also categorized class structure through the mode of production in a capitalist setting. Marx characterizes class according to the conflict between the major players who are ; the bourgeoisie- capitalists that claim ownership to means of production and the working class who provide labor (also referred to as the greater proletariat) (Marx K. , 1959).

Kirby (1996) argued that the situation of class in Australia is widening as compared to the colonial times. There has been a gradual growth of the lower class which has threatened the traditional egalitarianism and old mateship in the contemporary Australian society (Kirby, 1996).

In Australian legends, characters undergo all sorts of metamorphosis, being curved through brutal streaks of experience so as to become the ultimate bush character. It is through this adverse exposure to the harsh reality that a character’s identity is discovered and related more to the bush situation. The characters may undergo changes in intelligence for instance enlightenment, discovering of the opposite sex and also maturity (Penn, 2007).

The place of women in the Australian community

As a masculinist state during the colonial times, Australian women played no peculiar part as compared to the other societies. Many legends have the protagonists as stereotypically male, much as women have endured the same struggle, or rather worse. Most women have already described themselves as strong and capable and can also independently face the Bush problems just the same way as men or better. In most societies, women were regarded to as with all sorts of limitations which were wrong (Penn, 2007).

Women were more domesticated and their role was definitely holding up the house. Women could rarely play a part in mainstream politics during the 19th century. Like other Aborigines, women were marginalized and would rarely play a prominent role in the society rather than being just mere workers. In ‘My Brilliant Career’, Miles Franklin takes us through the life of an Australian bushman who broke off from societal expectations and in the process of emancipating herself from the chains of patriarchy. She explains on the contrast in livelihood both upcountries where she lived with her parents and in the suburbs of Talbingo where her grandmother lived. Her autobiography ‘My Brilliant Career’ has been a window through which we rediscover the place of a woman in colonial Australia. Franklin exposed herself to a magazine ‘The Bulletin’ whereby the question of ‘The Woman’ was addressed. Tailored and carved to bush readership, the magazine strongly appealed to Franklin, greatly influencing her feministic attitude.

Later Miles Franklin personally yearned for when women would become as free as man, making their own decisions and shaping their own destinies. The question of equality began to burgeon gradually and evoked a form of aggressive rebellion during her adolescence. Through her experience, whereby her mother was laden with the pressure of marriage that immobilized her from exploring new heights, Franklin thought that women deserved more. This experience brought to light her feminist ideas, including her father abandoning her mother when she was of a young age. My Brilliant Career exposes a burlesque imagery of her life, evoking fury from her humourless mother.

My Brilliant Career shed light on the issues women experienced during the late 19thcentury, like chauvinism, women regarded as a lesser being, patriarchy and over dependence on men in the societal structure. Franklin’s experience as narrated through this autobiography gives us a clear image of the typical Australian society. It is full of demotivated women, from Susan’s experience (Stella’s mother). When the man of the house is not around, everything goes north.

Lindsay too expresses her share of how the woman was viewed in her novel “Picnic at The Hanging Rock”. As an individual fascinated by nature and spirituality, Lindsay decided to leave it to the audience to conclude whether it is truth or fiction. The character’s association with the setting, a prestigious middle school where the lost learners attended exposes a hidden meaning. Many have argued that Lindsay’s book was just a façade to issues that were happening in Australia and instead of tackling them openly, she decided to fictionalize them in an attempt to blur the situation. Spiers, a PhD student during the novel’s 50th anniversary criticized this issue. She argued that the story has been mythicized so as to cover up real issues. An example is the smallpox outbreak and the colonialist murders were that Spiers claims were better stories as compared to headlining fiction (Lindsay, 2008).

Baynton’s ‘A Dreamer’, begins with a frantic woman in an isolated environment where she must make her way home alone. She walks through a familiar bush described with hostility, fear, death and uneasiness. Her childhood memories keep bringing up guilty thoughts of her past and with the uncanny landscape. The horrific experiences provide us with a baseline to view the place of women, whereby they had to undergo certain transitions in order to adapt to the bush life. To rediscover their state, to fight for their position, in order to come up with an ‘enough is enough’ and ‘equality’ ideologies, they had to experience the blatant darkness in life. The bush experience was unselective, punishing whomever got in its way, scathing everyone who resisted and this gave the woman strength and power to acquiesce and get empowered (Banyton, 2001).

Power of Place and Landscape

Australia is one of the oldest continents on earth that was given ‘light’ through discovery by the Europeans. As the Bush was considered a hostile environment for women to live in, they had to acquire some certain traits similar to males to be considered tough. Characteristics emanating from these landscapes have intensely affected the characters used in narratives. For example, harsh weather conditions, isolation and the unforeseen dangers have contributed greatly to shape character’s identity and qualities.

Much as the mystery overrules its agenda, the novel symbolizes the Australian bush in a more gothic and horrific way. Lindsay characterizes the aboriginal environment as silent to issues, compared to the suppressed thoughts within the colonial Australia spheres.  Picnic at Hanging Rock depicts the hidden issues, unknowable and terrifying pointing blame to the British colonialist (Romensky, 2017).

Lindsay further exposes the Australian landscape as fearful and loathsome. Picnic at The Hanging Rock is an imagery of the horrors in the colonial Australian Bush. The manner in which the Europeans silenced and never acknowledged the presence of the Aborigines by implicating on their culture and geographical locations. Through the novel, Lyndsay mirrors the situation of Australia as a people devoid of history and identity until the British came. The Europeans brought with them a structure in the format of capitalism. The colonialists subjected the aborigines into forced labour making them view themselves as lesser beings compared to the colonizing power. Since then, whoever owned land and mega properties was considered influential and powerful hence higher on the social ladder. Therefore, the Aussie’s only relate to their environment due to the recent settlements (Lindsay, 2008).

Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies also portrays the bush as an isolated and hostile setting that antagonizes the people who live in it, with a continuum of place and time which makes for an uncertain future and unknown history. Bayton illustrates a people without the consciousness of history due to a lack of significant culture. To a land with no history, places are devoid of time due to perception rather than the existent environment (Banyton, 2001).

Steele (2010), claims that the ostracized Aborigine had to face the consequences of a long and extant history so as to awake from their subconscious amnesia which has gripped the Australian culture from politics to landscape perception. Through the alien and weird landscape, the Europeans had to experience as settlers, they were confronted by the reality and their deepest fears on their cultural history. The settlers had to shape and carve it in a way that would help them easily adapt to the Bush life. This lead to them to impose, label and even physically tamper with the landscape to suit their own interest.

Gelder (2007) also argues that mostly what makes the Australian literature is the preoccupation of land which replaces the occupation itself, which does not sensitize the existent element. Through deliberately ignoring the presence of the native inhabitants of the bush, the emigrant writer makes it a form of tabula rasa situation in which they have to implicate and derive a new form of history. The Australian henceforth develops with the few recorded or foreseeable history in which they lay their basis of livelihood. If one grows knowing they lack a history, they will hold onto the thought. The bush nature gives a different view of the other, and however loathsome they could be to them, the will see them as their superior. The Australian would therefore strive to achieve on the par gauged through the colonialist eye (Gelder, 2007).

Baynton’s ‘A Dreamer’ and ‘The Chosen Vessel’ illustrate that even in the Australian tradition, the land is the defiant concept and the rebel from which writers create an existing idea; cross-referencing and linking history, culture and morality. However, in the reality, the land is alien and strange. The main character in ‘A Dreamer’ is alone in an unfriendly land devoid of history and identity. ‘The Chosen Vessel also shows death in a hostile and uncaring environment. Through studying these narratives, we conclude that religion and western culture have not in any way stepped up to answer questions about the bush that linger in the inhabitant’s minds. The settler is caught up in a limbo, a continuum of a specific characterized Australian bush linked to the presence of hostility.

The description of the kind of environment that exists in the story ‘A Dreamer’ cuts a forlorn figure of the bush, a violated society laden with uneasiness. The protagonist tries to reclaim her past and personal history from the landscape, making us believe Baynton depicted a kind of rejection to the attempts of European in forcing and implicating their own history on a people without a significant historical presence. As the woman struggles to face the bush in its terms, she does not succeed but only after she seeks a hand from a giant tree. This illustration shows that it was not easy to conquer the bush without proper help from a battle hardened and experienced bushman with the ways of the Australian bush.

Conceptual Framework

Class Theory

Karl Marx, a great philosopher came up with the class theory which originated from a series of personal interests, human struggles and social alienation. Politics and economics also played a great role in the formation of the class theory with the questioning on the origin of income in a social setting. Unlike the other earlier theorists Marx defined class as an embedment of productive relations rather than social status. His economic views concentrated on the production aspect rather than the distribution hence the foundation of the class theory.

The Marxian theory has it that an individual’s position in a class hierarchy is defined by the role the individual performs in the production process and that political and ideological differences are determined by class position (Parkin, 1979). In his definition Marx defines class as group of people who share common interests. They are aware of those interests, and work together in the achievement of those interests. According to Marx, it is normal for antagonism between different classes in a society as each class seeks to advance their ideologies and believes (Vogel, 2013). For instance it is in the beast interest of the laborers to maximize on the wages and the benefits carried to their work while on the other hand the capitalist is interested in maximizing the profits while using the laborers. Therefore, their interests are not the same hence differences in class. Based on this, Marx came up with two classifications of class based on the owners of the means of production and the controllers of the labor powers of production. The capitalists won the means of production or purchase labor from the others in society. The workers sell their labor power to the capitalists.

Marx opined that the social conflicts that are experienced within a society originate from the class aspect but without much knowledge of the two opposing classes. The conflict is informed by the concept class consciousness. Class consciousness is the self-awareness of a social class, its ability to work for its rational interests and the understanding of the roles that are presented to their class based on their historical orientations.

Marx defined historical materialism as the ways in which the structure of the economic system of a society influences everyday life and experience. The historical materialism is used as foundation for base structure of a society which uses technological factors in determining the economic growth of a society. The base structure is defined as those systems laid down by those in power in order to propagate their interests at the expense of exploiting the working class (Marx & Engels, 1848). Marx maintains that the base structure is set by those in power in order to continue the class conflict as they advance their agenda of oppression. He also acknowledges the ability of the lower class to come together as a way of coming up with a new ruling class.

Engels (1884) argued that the change of land ownership from the public to the private ownership of land resulted to oppression of women in society. In private land ownership individuals who do not own land they are enslaved and have to work for the masters in order to earn a living. Engels argues that this resulted to the creation of the private and public spheres which apportioned men wages inappropriately as compared to the women. Engels argues further that the oppression of women in society is as a result of social relations and the desire for men to control women labor a sexual faculties which have become institutionalized in the nuclear family. Engels looks at the Marxist historical perspective as the main source of the widespread of the social phenomena associated with the female sexual morality, virginity, sexual purity, and violent punishment on women who commit adultery (Lenin V. , 1997).  This analysis traces its ascent from the rising slave-owner class as the ancient mode of production and the desire to ensure that inheritance is passed on to their own offspring. As such, gender oppression is closely related to class oppression and the relationship between men and women in society is similar to the relations between proletariat and the bourgeoisie (Engels, 1884). Engels argues that the oppression experienced by the women in society is a manifestation of the competition of the interests of the capitalists and the ruling class.

Social Feminism

Social feminism arose in the 1960s and the 1970s leading to the feminist movement that interconnected patriarchy relations with capitalism. Social feminists have broadened the Marxists theory of feminism which opined that capitalism is the main source of women oppression in society (Lapovsky Kennedy, 2008). They also reject the argument presented by radical feminists which has it that patriarchy and gender roles are the primary source of women oppression. In other words, the social feminist believe that women are unable to support themselves financially because they are interdependent on the male. They view economic dependence as the main source of women oppression in society. The social feminists believed in the fight for women’s social, economic and political justice.

Social feminist also agree with the Marxist concept of historical materialism which has it that the amount of capital that one has is both defined by the historical period and conditions of lives that they lived (Buchanan, 2011). The social feminists looked at how sexism, gender and division of labor influenced the economic system of the time. They reject Marxists view that class and class struggle are the major concepts used to define historical growth and development. The social feminist view the issue of gender oppression as subset of oppression and instead they have focused on how to empower women to understand how gender and class can work in both advantage of men and women (Lapovsky Kennedy, 2008). For instance they argue that if an office boss marries a secretary in his office, then the women assumes the class of the husband.

Therefore, from the above discussion, the social feminists and the Marxism views, agree that gender and class are interrelated. The disadvantaged group in the class identity are the women who mostly relied on their husbands for their economic and social growth. The continued struggle for power that led to the establishment of several women groups fighting for the liberation of women can be reflected in the current world through the women empowerment platforms that have been created across the world. The rise to leadership and struggle for power among women in society has been led by the social feminists. The class theory and social feminism play a great role towards understanding the class in Australian society.

Research Methodology and Design

The aim of this research is to explore how literature intervenes in the ways in which class is understood, across three different historical periods from the colonial, post-colonial and to the contemporary Australian society.

This research takes a qualitative approach in understanding and exploring the concept of class in the Australian Society. Qualitative research has been argued to be the most appropriate method of understanding underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations (Given, 2008). Most importantly, for this study, it’s appropriate in helping us understand trends in thoughts and opinions of the authors as literary novels are expressions of the author’s opinion or point of view. Therefore the qualitative approach becomes the most appropriate method in exploring this research. In this regard two approaches of qualitative analysis shall be taken to explore the novels under study.

Thomas and Harden (2008) came up with the thematic analysis. In this analysis the researcher chooses descriptive themes to consider for study. These themes are then analysed across all the novels identified to find consistency or inconsistency in the opinions of the authors. The second qualitative approach in exploring this study is the textual narrative synthesis. In this approach the studies are arranged into different homogeneous groups and the similarities and differences are compared with each other. Lucas et. Al. (2007) argues that this method has proven to be effective in the synthesis of evidence of different types and that it gives a standard format for comparison of different studies.

In analysing how class has been presented in the books, I shall focus on how the authors have presented the concept of class in different levels. Firstly, the research will focus on how the characters are presented with a view of the class aspect. Secondly, the research will focus on the theme class and how it has been interpreted and presented by the authors. The third aspects that will be looked at include the factors that contribute to the concept of class in a society. In this regard several other themes will be analysed such as the gender issues, the role of women in society, landscape, culture and social roles as defined by the culture.

Overview of the Chosen Novels

  1. Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton.

The author Barbara Baynton was born in the year 1857 in the Hunter town of Scone in the New South Wales. The Bush Studies draws on the life of Baynton with Alexender Frater and her childhood life. The author has presented a vivid picture of the Australian life and the myth of Australian mate ship among the poor. The story depicts the position of women in society, they are represented as the poor and exploited by men in society and they do not support each other. With the presentation of the struggles of women in society and suffering under men, the issue of social class cannot be underestimated in this text. This novel becomes a very essential aspect that can be used to help in understanding the concept class in Australia.

  1. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.

My Brilliant Career is a first person account narrative as narrated by Sybylla Melvyn who faces several challenges throughout his growth period. Born in a poor family the young lady struggles to make her life better and her quest for education takes her to stay at her grandmother’s home. At her home her father is a drunk man who always embarrasses her because of her drunkenness. Sybylla is a classic representation of the struggles of the Australian women throughout her life as a lady focused on her goals.

  1. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

This is a 1967 Australian fiction novel that was written by Joan Lindsay. The novel focuses on a group of young ladies from a college in Australia in 1900 that go missing while on a Valentine’s Day picnic at the Hanging Rock. The novel depicts the impact of the disappearances of the women to the local society at large. Although the novel is fiction in nature, it ideally presents a true story with pseudohistorical references. The novel has been identified as one of the Australia’s national folklore.

  1. The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

The well is a story that was written by Elizabeth Jolley focusing on the relationship between   Hester and her young ward Katherine. Hester who used to live with her father in their farm is very possessive of the young ward.  The relationship between the two gets worse when Katherine hits a mysterious creature with a roe bar on their four-wheel drive. The relationship between the two becomes very restrained with Hester dominating over Katherine. This novel gives a clear picture of the women dominance over other women in the Australian society. It contributes to the concept of class in a great deal.


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