One of the things I really like about the Australian Classics Library is the author photos on the front cover, because I like being able to visualise the writer. Knowing what an author looks like doesn’t usually matter to me when I’m reading, and indeed it’s quite possible to sit next to a favourite author on the tram or train and never know that they are there. But early writers of Australian literature deserve to have their ‘otherness’ celebrated with a photo that places them in their historical context. Like this chap Ernest Favenc, the epitome of a 19th century European, confident yet thoughtful, with a hint of some mystery on which he broods.
Favenc was an explorer and a wanderer – he was at home in the bush as Henry Lawson never was. Using his experiences as a jackeroo, a drover, and a prospector in places new to Europeans, he knew and wrote about the outback as few people could, even today. I noticed in this in the very first story, A Cup of Cold Water, in which a man exacts a terrible revenge for his father’s death. Although people do die in the Outback these days, it’s nearly always the result of stupidity, hubris, a failure to prepare, a lack of respect for the perils of the climate and environment or neglect of the guidelines for remote outback travel. Very rarely it is due to perfidy and it makes headlines when it is. In modern times fear of the Outback has been superseded by pragmatic respect for its dangers – because we have seen nature shows depicting the diversity of life even in the Red Centre deserts; because we know about and respect Aboriginal traditional ways of living there; because there is abundant technology to lessen the risks, and because the place is infested with grey nomads in their 4WDs doing the obligatory Outback retirement trip.
In Favenc’s day, however, there was a profound awe about the unknown and apparently lifeless, empty inland Australia. In A Lucky Meeting he depicts a sense of alienation with his images of decay, death and treachery:
Loose, puffy soil, broken into mounds and hollows, seamed with gaping cracks. On these dusty mounds were heaped thousands of tiny shells; in the hollows drooped a few withered stalks of nardoo. On all sides the gaunt lifeless trees. Two exceptionally wet years had, in some remote time, deluged the plain, and the long-standing, stagnant water destroyed the timber.
This state of things is not uncommon in many parts of the North Australian interior. In the deepest hollows of these dry lake-beds lie the bones of fish, which have escaped their feathered enemies, to perish slowly as their native element evaporated. On the broader expanse, bleached skeletons are mouldering: the grotesque-headed pelican and the dingo, with a wild-dog snarl on his fleshless jaws. Bird and beast have made for the lake after long, long flight and hot dusty tramp, only to find there drought, disappointment and death. To the north-west, where a bank has formed by the action of the steady south-east monsoon, layer after layer of dead shells has been deposited by the constantly-lapping wavelets, weak forms of life that have lived and died in the waters of the ephemeral lake. Beyond and around these depressions wherein the overflow of a rarely heavy rainfall accumulates, are the great plains whose treeless edges meet the sky in an unbroken straight line. Where the tall columns of dust revolve in a wild waltz, where, in summer time, the air is so aglow with heat that it throbs like a living thing, and in this fierce atmosphere is born the treacherous mirage: a bush becomes a tree, a stone a rock, and the hard- baked clay-pan a blue lakelet. This is riverless Australia, the sun-god’s realm, the region of short-lived creeks, lost for ever in these dead, dry lake-beds. (p73)
Impressions of the interior like this created a demoralising anxiety about its awful isolation, so the vulnerability of man and his horse was keenly felt. With little other than his water-bag, some basic supplies, a gun and an inadequate map if he was lucky, a prospector set off into the unknown needing to trust his fellow-man. Any betrayal of this trust was a shocking crime. Favenc’s character Manning deals out rough justice in revenge because it was ‘impossible to sheet [it] home by law’, (p9): ‘I have brought you here’, he says, ‘ to die the same death you condemned [my father] to’ (p13). Although this crude law of Favenc’s Outback is balanced to some extent by a manly moral code (as in That Other Fellow, for example) his belief that bushmen were entitled to judge some acts implacable in the normal justice system sits ill with my modern citifed ideas about morality.
That gulf in cultural sensibility widens as I read on. The Rumford Plains Tragedy is a brief comic piece, but it’s based on the same pragmatic attitude towards legal and moral niceties, as is The Mystery of Baines’ Dog and Bunthorp’s Decease. A Haunt of the Jinkarras is a bizarre story featuring ‘savages of the most degraded type, far below that of the common Australian blackfellow’. (p23) offensively depicting them with tails as if they were creatures somewhere along the evolutionary ladder between ape and man. Tranter’s Shot mocks ‘interfering’ white Southerners’ objections to what Favenc ironically calls ‘black atrocities’ (p28) by sending the new Super – a ‘black-protector and a temperance-advocate’ – on a search for a massacre that never was. The Parson’s Blackboy parodies southern respectability with a joke that rests on a shared understanding that association with Aboriginal women was thought to be demeaning…
Nevertheless, there are stories in this collection that are good fun, especially for fans of mild horror. In her Introduction, Cheryl Taylor writes that Favenc’s storytellng methods are unfashionable now and that ‘narrative twists that produced superstitious shivers or religious gratification a century ago have little power over present-day readers’. (p ix) Well, I’m not so sure about that. Claustrophobics like me are always going to be spooked by stories of people trapped in caves with rising waters, as in A Haunt of the Jinkarras. In Spirit-Led men go in search of a fabled gold reef much like Lasseter’s but return in madness when their guide fatally ignores a dream telling him to ‘go back’. The Hut-Keeper and the Cattle-Stealer has a heart-thumping ride in the darkness so exciting that I’d be tempted to read it to my year 6 classes were it not for the casual racism that mars so much of Favenc’s work. His attitudes to the Aborigines were patronising and insensitive at best and amoral at worst.
These stories are a window on attitudes and beliefs that Henry Reynolds has shown to be widespread in the 19th century frontier regions. Unpalatable as aspects of them are, they’re a part of our history, and Tales of the Austral Tropics would make useful reading for students of Australian history or anyone else interested in exploring mindsets of our past.
Author: Ernest Favenc
Title: Tales of the Austral Tropics
Publisher: Sydney University Press, 2009, first published 1894
Source: Sydney University Press review copy.