New Norman Lindsay novels: stitched together stories of friendship and family seen for the first time


Megan Mooney Taylor, Swinburne University of Technology

Norman Lindsay’s novel for children, The Magic Pudding, turned 100 last year and was widely celebrated. But the Lindsay family’s auction of three previously unseen manuscripts could help us gain a greater understanding of his novels for adults.

The manuscripts were held by Lindsay’s family since his death in 1969, and they have never been seen, aside from a few close friends and members of Lindsay’s family who were trusted readers.

They were auctioned by Sydney Rare Books in June, and all three were purchased by the State Library of New South Wales for the Mitchell Library Rare Manuscripts Collection, which has significant Lindsay holdings.

Turning brittle pages

Lindsay published eleven works of fiction from 1913 to 1968, including Redheap, the first novel by an Australian-born writer to be banned for import into Australia in 1930 from English publisher Faber and Faber after it was declared obscene by authorities.

His writing generally focused on small groups of friends, schoolmates or families and their complex relationships. The struggle for independence from the dominating and restrictive family is a constant theme in his work. These threads also tie the newly emerged manuscripts together.

To a literary archival researcher, these manuscripts are golden and shining and magnificent. To the average reader, though, they are a bit on the scrappy side.

Lindsay sewed his manuscripts together with thread, and then bound the spine in leftover canvas scraps he had lying around his studio. These bindings still hold, but not securely.

As the pages turn, the age of the manuscripts can be felt in the brittle fold – rather than bend, of the paper. There are brown cigarette burns on some of the pages, notes and even the sketch of a female face on others.

Norman Lindsay with wife Rose, circa 1920. Photoraphed by Harold Cazneaux.
State Library of NSW

Three novels

Previously unseen novel Uncle Ben shows Lindsay’s cheeky side. Photographed by Lionel Lindsay.
National Library of Australia

The three novels, Bungen Beach, Landfalls and Uncle Ben, were written between 1940 and Lindsay’s death in 1969. Bungen Beach, was refused for publication by Angus and Robertson. They took another of his novels, Dust or Polish? instead, and released it in 1950.

The novels are a thematic continuation of the issues Lindsay addressed in his earlier, published, works; the restrictions of domesticity on the intellectual and sexual development of adolescents, the importance of homosocial relationships, artistic freedom and the social restrictions of small-town life.

The bigger story these manuscripts tell is one of a writer, an artist, who couldn’t let his mind or hands rest, who needed to be creating constantly. He had themes of creative and intellectual, as well as sexual and social, freedom on his mind. From Landfalls:

‘Hanged if I believe that only getting food out of it, and making a joke of it, solves the problem of life,’ he said.

‘And what is the problem of life?’ asked Cardigan blandly.

‘Well, hang it, developing – expressing yourself somehow. I mean, if you have something to say – if you want to write, for instance. Hang it, even developing a faculty – medicine, for instance…’

Lindsay sketches at Springwood. Photograph by Harold Cazneaux.
Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

This drive led him to write novels when the dusk fell and the light on his hilltop studio at Springwood was no longer conducive to painting.

Even though the narratives in two of these novels repeated many of the themes, and sometimes even the scenes, of novels he had written before, he was compelled to write them, to see if he could find a more effective form for his stories.

Bungen Beach follows two families living in a small community on the New South Wales coast, and the gradual sexual awakening of two women in those families, Vera and Norina.

This theme is one found in other Lindsay works, including Redheap, Pan in the Parlour, The Cousin from Fiji, and Miracles by Arrangement. Bungen Beach begins with two male escapees from the city, Archer and Pilbury, who add tension and humour to the narrative.

Landfalls, the novel dedicated to Lindsay’s biographer John Hetherington, returns to the town of Redheap to explore similar themes of sexual awakening, the ignominy of social and class restrictions, and the necessary escape from the home:

‘Well, they’re that high,’ said Elfie, which rewarded Ronald’s diplomacy with a smooth section of her midriff for investigation.

Instantly Mucker said ‘Let’s have a feel of high stomach’s on you, Trix,’ which abated Trixy’s primness to a squeal of ‘Ouch – that’s my real stomach.’

Fido passionately desired to approve himself an easy fellow on those terms, but his speechless adoration of Queenie could not bear to take liberties with her anatomy…

This novel is less cohesive than Bungen Beach or Uncle Ben, and the cast of characters sometimes feel outside the author’s control.

Scene of the crime

The return to Redheap as a setting is significant as it is the first time Lindsay returned to the fictional town after the novel of the same name was censored. Two of his other novels, Saturdee and Halfway to Anywhere, follow the same themes as Redheap and can be considered with it as a Bildungsroman trilogy – a literary coming-of-age genre – but their fictional township remains unnamed.

Lindsay felt the impact of the censorship keenly; he was worried he would be arrested and decided to leave the country, sending a telegram to The Daily Telegraph as his ship sailed:

Goodbye to the best country in the world, if it was not for the Wowsers.

The decision to revisit the fictionalised space that caused so much trauma would have been loaded with both emotion and rejuvenation.

Lindsay sets sail, circa 1930. Fairfax archive.
National Library of Australia

Of the three novels, however, it is Uncle Ben that is the most polished and well-executed. It brings in new characters and themes as well as drawing on Lindsay’s expertise in ships (he made models of them) and mining (his hometown of Creswick was a gold-mining town).

Seated on the slips of the boat shed, he and Ben smoked their dark plug tobacco while they recalled remembered ship’s runs, of which old sailors have the phenominal [sic] memory that a cruder faculty in the world of sport transfers to the pedigrees and performances of racehorses. But the record of a ship’s run is not merely a dry entry in her log, but a testimony to her lines, her masting and sailing plan, and the skill of those who handled her, vindicating a tradition in sea craft from Odysseus to Captain Walgett of the Cutty Sark.

The character of Uncle Ben, a wanderer and adventurer who returns to his family home following a mining accident, is richly drawn and complex, as well as having Lindsay’s signature humour and cheek. In one scene, Uncle Ben collects all the leftover food on the dining room table onto his plate, covers it in tomato sauce, and eats it noisily and joyously, to the discomfort of his snobbish nephews and nieces.

These new novels, each bringing their own clues from Lindsay’s rich imagination and unique perspective, add depth and understanding to research and study of Lindsay’s creative output.

This week is Sydney Rare Book Week.The Conversation

Megan Mooney Taylor, Sessional Academic in Creative Writing and Literature, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reading on Instagram


The link below is to an article reporting on how many thousands of people are now reading novels on Instagram.

For more visit:
https://ebookfriendly.com/people-reading-novels-instagram/

Ten novels to help young people understand the world and its complexities



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Nataliia Budianska via Shutterstock

Fiona Shaw, Northumbria University, Newcastle

In this confusing and often conflicted world, children’s author Gillian Cross has summed up what it is about reading fiction that is so important: “Good stories help us make sense of the world. They invite us to discover what it’s like being someone completely different.”

As the author of a children’s novel myself, I’m going to double down on this and say that if this is important for adults, it’s 100 times more important for children.

Children passionately want to understand what’s going on – and fiction is a potent way for them to do this. A study by education professor Maria Nikolajeva found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.

In the wealth of recent fiction for children and young adults, here are ten powerful stories for young people, addressing some of the most important, and troubling, questions we face today.

1. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion)

Imagine being imprisoned for your whole life. Imagine growing up like Subhi.

Life in a refugee camp. Source=Orion.

The nine-year-old’s world ends at the diamond-shaped fence – the outer edge of the detention centre he is detained in with his Rohingya family in Australia.

Fraillon draws a vivid picture of life inside the fence – vulnerable people fleeing persecution, only to find – instead of the peace and sanctuary they so desperately need – indifference and hostility.

But Subhi finds hope in his friendship with an Australian girl from outside the fence. (Age: 11+)

2. The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew (Red Ink)

What if Germany had won World War II and the UK was now part of a Third German Reich? This is a coming-of-age story with a difference – 16-year-old Jessika is a talented ice-skater in a high-ranking REICH?family.

But her friendship with subversive, courageous and desirable Clem threatens everything: her family, her future, and her very life. This is a story that paints the dangers of totalitarianism in vivid language. (Age: 12+)

3. Boy 87 by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Press)

Fourteen-year-old Shif lives in a country that conscripts its children into the army. The country isn’t named, but may be in Africa. He wants to play chess with his best friend Bini and race him home from school. But the army comes calling and the two must flee.

Shif experiences at first hand the brutality of a totalitarian government, then the trauma of migration and trafficking. Despite this, the story manages to be hopeful. (Age: 12 +)

4. The Jungle by Pooja Puri (Ink Road)

Sixteen-year-old Mico is surviving his life in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. Without anyone to look out for him, he must look out for himself, living on his wits and his luck. Using careful research, Puri shows us what life is like as a refugee, owning nothing, not even the clothes on your back or the blanket you sleep beneath.

She shows us the desperation and terrible lengths refugees will go to, to try to find a home. But when Mico meets Leila, we see, too, the hope – and the risk – that friendship brings. (Age: 12+)

5. After the Fire by Will Hill (Usborne)

Moonbeam has lost her mother and she only knows life inside The Fence – it’s a life controlled by cult leader Father John.

Life in a cult.
Usborne

But one night a devastating fire burns that life to the ground – the buildings, the people, the leader are all gone and only Moonbeam and a handful of children survive. Moonbeam and the others must now discover the world beyond the fence.

Can she do this when Father John has told her to trust no one outside? Using the WACO siege as his source material, Hill explores the power of brainwashing and cult identity.

Moonbeam’s search is for a truth she can stand by now, and for the mother she thinks must be dead. (Age: 12+)

6. I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan (Macmillan)

Written in the voice of its smart and self-deprecating heroine, British Muslim Pakistani teenager Muzna, this is both a coming-of-age novel and a thriller. Muzna navigates her life at home and at school, working out how to have her own identity and her own ambitions, not those imposed by her parents, religion, school or friends.

And, as her relationship with Arif develops, the story becomes a thriller, and the stakes become very high. (Age: 13+)

7. The Territory trilogy by Sarah Govett (Firefly Press)

What happens when the sea levels rise? Govett imagines a flooded world with dwindling resources and not enough dry land for everyone. Choices have to be made, about who stays on the dry territory, and who is banished beyond the fence, to the dreaded Wetlands. But when 15-year-old Noa finds herself beyond the fence, she discovers that not everything the adults have been telling her is true. (Age: 13+)

8. Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias (Scholastic)

Following Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, a far-right Nationalist party has come to power.

Living in a far-right Britain.
Scholastic

Only those born in Britain (or BB as they are known) are allowed to live legally – everyone born outside the country is subject to immediate arrest and deportation and failing to report illegals is a crime.

Mathias has set her thriller in a British dystopia that is more scarily plausible than ever.

The young protagonist Zara is an illegal living in this scary new Britain – and falling in love with Ash might be the most dangerous thing she could do. (Age: 13+)

9. Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)

It’s ten years since Joe saw his brother Ed – and now Ed is on death row, facing execution for the murder of a police officer. What do they know of each other now? Ed says he’s innocent of the murder, but everyone else believes he’s guilty.

Crossan’s verse novel explores a single summer, perhaps Ed’s last, as 17-year-old Joe struggles to understand what has been done to his brother – and to himself. (Age: 13+)

10. The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre (David Fickling Books)

What will the neighbours think?
Fickling Books

The only picture book in the list, McIntyre’s delightfully illustrated story explores how intolerance and scaremongering can run like a mad fever through a community. When new neighbours move in to the tower block, hysteria builds quickly, until finally the other animals discover the truth about their newest neighbours. (Age: 2+)The Conversation

Fiona Shaw, Senior Lecturer, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The 2018 *Book Shimmy* Awards


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the 2018 *Book Shimmy* Awards, for young adult novels published in the USA in 2018.

For more visit”
https://www.epicreads.com/blog/2018-book-shimmy-awards-nominations/

‘Insta Novels’


The links below are to articles that take a look at novels on Instagram.

For more visit:
https://bookriot.com/2018/08/22/nypl-insta-novels/
https://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/will-anyone-read-ebooks-on-instagram
https://publishingperspectives.com/2018/08/new-york-public-library-initiates-insta-novels-classics-instagram/

Refuge in a harsh landscape – Australian novels and our changing relationship to the bush



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Summer afternoon, Templestowe by Louis Buvelot, 1866. The bush was commonly seen by 19th-century writers as a place of despair.
Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Hickey, La Trobe University

In 1790, Watkin Tench, the first officer with the First Fleet and a member of the fledgling British colony, stood on what we now know to be “The Heads” of Sydney, hungry and pining for news of England:

Here on the summit of the hill, every morning from daylight until sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon in hope of seeing a sail. At every fleeting speck which arose from the bosom of the sea, the heart pounded and a telescope lifted to the eye…

Tench’s palpable yearning for the mother country is an early account of British despair upon first settlement in Australia. One hundred years later, the sentiment remained. Many settlers were still unhappy with their surrounds, as evidenced in Edward Dyson’s musings in his 1898 short story The Conquering Bush:

The bush is sad, heavy, desparing; delightful for a month, perhaps, but terrible for a year.

In Barbara Baynton’s works, meanwhile, tales of harsh female experiences were set against even harsher Australian landscapes, devoid of respite or pleasure. In her 1896 short story The Chosen Vessel, a young wife and mother left alone in her bush home is stalked, raped and murdered by a swagman:

More than once she thought of taking her baby and going to her husband.
But in the past, when she had dared to speak of the dangers to which
her loneliness exposed her, he had taunted and sneered at her.

For over 200 years, the white sentiment of desolation and anxiety about this “untamed” land has pervaded much of Australian literature. Children went missing, men went mad, and women suffered what writer Henry Lawson called the “maddening sameness” in The Drover’s Wife and Others Stories. “Oh, if only I could go away from the bush!” wails Lawson’s central character in The Selector’s Daughter.

Desolate refuge

The works of these early writers did much to reveal the challenging realities of the bush. Those eking out an existence in a land where soil and weather disagreed with European sensibilities and practices were met with hard work. And what a place to work! There was little room for bucolic tranquillity in a land of drought, flood and searing heat.

Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.
Picador

But, in the 21st century, there has been a change in how Australians read and write about the bush. Author and ecologist Tim Flannery, for one, urged his fellow country men and women to “develop deep, sustaining roots in the land” in his address as Australian of the Year in 2002 – which is what many of our contemporary writers seek to do. Unlike their predecessors, they’re increasingly likely to write about the bush as a destination for escape, rather than a place from which to flee.

Author Tim Winton’s Dirt Music does exactly that, as told through the tribulations of protagonist Luther Fox. After being forced out of his small south-west Australian town White Point for the crime of theft, he does not flee to the city; instead he journeys to a more remote region: the Kimberley.

Lost, injured and starving, Fox does not curse the land for his fate. Rather, he accepts his minor place in the universe and begins to come to terms with his family history through listening to and appreciating the powerful land:

He knows he lives and that the world lives in him. And for him and because of him. Because and despite and regardless of him.

Others, like Peter Temple in the The Broken Shore, highlight the beauteous potential of working with the land, as opposed to fighting it.

When the novel’s protagonist, Joe Cashin, leaves the city to return to his home town on the cold, south-west coast of Victoria, he does so a shattered man. With only the battering winds, shrieking cold and his dogs as company, Joe attempts to rebuild the home of his ancestors. He does not curse the sea for the death of his father or bemoan the land or its conditions. Rather, he finds a way to live in it alongside the people he grew up with:

Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves clinging to the liquid ambers and maples his great-grandfather’s brother had planted, their surrender close. He loved this time, the morning stillness…

Other authors such as Robert Drewe, Kate Grenville, Cate Kennedy, Murray Bail and Jenny Spence also create plots that entail leaving the city and finding refuge and peace in the Australian bush. This is a markedly different trajectory from that of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife or even the doomed schoolgirls in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, who journey through the scrub and rock to never return.

For the love of farmland

This sentiment toward the land does not aim to romanticise one’s “return” to nature. Rather, it’s as much concerned with exploring the cultural practices intrinsic to Australian land.

This is most apparent in literary interpretations of farming, or “pastoral” literature (writing that idealises country life). UK scholar Terry Gifford has coined a key term to consider here: “post-pastoral”, which is a “discourse that can both celebrate and take responsibility for nature without false consciousness”.

Gifford’s view is that post-pastoral is provisional and can be adapted to different regions. It does not idealise rural life. Nor does it exist only to highlight the harsh realities of life on the land. Rather, it seeks new ways of looking at the pastoral in all its forms.

In Australian writing, we appear to have an emerging “co-pastoral” discourse – a place where humans and the land co-exist. Humans do not, after all, always have to be the agents of disaster, and the land does not always have to be mundane and unforgiving.

Christie Nieman’s 2014 novel As Stars Fall.
Pan Macmillan Australia

This is the case for Winton’s follow-up play to Dirt Music, Signs of Life, where we learn that Luther Fox and his partner Georgie return from the Kimberley to live and work on the Fox family farm. At the end of the play, Georgie resolves to harvest olives on the land.

Christie Nieman’s 2014 novel, As Stars Fall, follows the story of a family stricken with grief after the death of a mother in a bushfire. The children and their new friend, a daughter of farmers, begin to heal by uniting to save an endangered bush stone-curlew – an injured bird whose chicks also perished in the flames. The farming father is an avid birdwatcher who, in the end, suggests building a native refuge for the stone-curlew on his property.

“Farmers aren’t what a lot of people think they are,” writes the mother who dies in the fire.

They care a lot about their land and the wild animals that live there. They really do want to know the best things to do, and how to help the natural environment in a way that doesn’t hurt their own livelihoods.

Here, Nieman attempts to cast new light on farm culture, as one deserved of respect rather than contempt.

Another key figure is Australian bush romance writer Rachael Treasure, whose work fits firmly in the co-pastoral lens. The bestselling author of five books and self-confessed “bushland babe” supports sustainable farming and partly uses her work for advocacy. Treasure says she “consciously writes for a wide audience, because storytelling is the most powerful vehicle to convey your message”.

The Farmer’s Wife by Rachael Treasure.
HarperCollins

Her message is that regenerative agricultural practices, such as pasture cropping, are the only way forward – not only to feed the country, but to heal a damaged land. If this needs to be told with a healthy mix of humour, tragedy and passion under the gum trees, then so be it.

“For the first time in her life, she saw the land with clear vision,” Treasure writes of her main character, Bec Saunders, in The Farmer’s Wife – who against the wishes of her husband and father, begins to farm without fertiliser, pasture crop, and build ground cover. Bec hopes that her children will “never see a sod turned again in their lifetime” and vows to “celebrate the seasons, not fight them”.

In this sense, Treasure’s work in The Farmer’s Wife is not environmentalist “green” literature. Farms mean clearing, crops, machinery, pesticides and animals whose hooves destroy the fragile landscape and whose methane contributes to greenhouse gases.

Co-pastoral literature does not dismiss the manufactured gardens, the introduced plants or the people who admit to wanting to work the land for profit. Nor does it forget the original Aboriginal landowners whose agricultural practices we now value. It does, however, seek to establish harmony between humans and the land.

Australian literature has long straddled this line between interpretations of bush life as harsh and incompatible, or of mutual benefit and interconnectedness.

The ConversationBut in fleeing to it, seeking refuge from it and working with it, our authors allow us, unlike the homesick Tench, to turn the telescope inward, toward the land and to ourselves.

Margaret Hickey, Lecturer in Academic Communication, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reading classic novels in an era of climate change



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Smoke rises over the city of Manchester in William Wyld’s painting Manchester from Kersal Moor.
(1852).
Wikimedia commons

Philip Steer, Massey University

There is a strange and troubled kind of intimacy between our own moment of climate change and 19th century Britain. It was there that a global, fossil fuel economy first took shape, through its coal-powered factories, railways, and steamships, which drove the emergence of modern consumer capitalism. The Conversation

What might we now find if we look again at the literature of the 19th century? Although Victorian writers lacked our understanding of a warming planet, we can learn from their deep awareness of the rapid and far-reaching ways that their society was changing. In their hands, the novel became a powerful tool for thinking about the interconnections between individuals, society, economics, and the natural world.

North and South

One place to start thinking about such things might be Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), a classic example of the “industrial novel” genre that flourished in the middle decades of that century.

Most of the novel’s events take place in the industrial town of Milton-Northern (Manchester), the epicentre of Victorian coal-fired industrial production. Our protagonist, Margaret Hale, is forced to relocate there due to family circumstances, and her first numb impressions are that the environment, the economy, and the city’s urban geography have all been transformed by fossil fuel consumption:

For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay … Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.

Milton is covered in a thick layer of pollution as a result of the town’s industrialisation, as depicted in the BBC mini-series North and South (2004), which starred Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Gaskell brings her refined but impoverished heroine into contact with a forceful cotton-mill owner, John Thornton — imagine if Pride and Prejudice were set in a factory. Their love plot offers a symbolic means of restoring harmony to a nation disrupted by the new economy, as Margaret softens the edges of Thornton’s laissez faire practices and brings about improved relations with his workers. As he admits to one of his acquaintances, near the end of the novel,

My only wish is to have the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere ‘cash nexus’.

Thinking about this resolution in light of the fossil fuel economy, however, what comes into focus is how vulnerable this harmonious social vision is to wider social and environmental forces. By the novel’s conclusion, the global market — the source of raw materials, investors, and customers — proves to be so powerful and destabilising that the harmony of Thornton’s factory can provide only temporary solace at best, and he is bankrupted:

Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually… . Few came to buy, and those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for credit was insecure… . [F]rom the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known that some Milton houses of business must suffer[.]

Looking back at North and South now, we can see how interconnected its vision of a fossil-fuelled society and the economy is, and how artificial the borders of the nation prove to be when faced with the instabilities that it causes.

The Time Machine

Australian author James Bradley suggests that writers today, grappling with how to represent climate change, have found genres such as science fiction more suited to the task than classic realism.

“In a way this is unsurprising,” he comments, because of those genres’ interest in “estrangement” from everyday circumstances, and their fascination with “experiences that exceed human scales of being.”

The last decades of the Victorian era were, like now, a stunning time of generic innovation, and prominent amongst those late-century innovations were the “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells.

The Time Machine’s bleak view of humanity’s future (seen here in the 1960 film adaptation) is a chilling one.
George Pal Productions

In The Time Machine (1895) Wells found a narrative device that would allow him to think about social and environmental change over enormous spans of history. Near the end of the novel, the inventor of the machine undertakes a voyage to the very end of the planet’s history:

I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained… . I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct… .
From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the stir that makes the background of our lives — all that was over.

In imagining this bleak beach, Wells is taking up contemporary predictions that the law of entropy meant the inevitable “heat death” of the universe. Global cooling rather than global warming, then, but one thing that resonates now is how the novel views humanity as a species — and a finite one, at that — rather than from a more limited individual or even national perspective.

The Victorians were the first to stare into the abyss of geological deep time, and to confront the idea of natural history as a succession of mass extinctions.

As a result, Wells raises the idea of a future where even technology cannot overcome calamitous natural processes, and dares to imagine a planet without a human presence.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently described a “broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” arguing that the characteristics of the realist novel have made it resistant to representing those environmental and social complexities. Does the realist novel really have nothing to offer and nothing to say in an era of climate change?

The melting icebergs of Breidamerkurjokull’s Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland: is there a role for the realist novel in an era of climate change?
Ints Kalnins/Reuters

One place to look for an answer is another famously bleak Victorian text, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). The plot is set in motion with Tess’s father’s discovery that his family name, Durbeyfield, is a corruption of D’Urberville, and they are in fact descended from an ancient family that once dominated the area. When they are ultimately thrown out of their home, the Durbeyfields end up seeking refuge at a church, amongst the graves of their ancestors:

They were canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their carvings being defaced and broken; their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet-holes remaining like marten-holes in a sand-cliff. Of all the reminders that she had ever received that her people were socially extinct there was none so forcible as this spoliation.

A bit like our own era of increasingly constrained resources, Tess inhabits an exhausted present, and she moves amidst the ruins left by previous generations who have consumed the material wealth that once made life abundant.

Hardy is also deeply attuned to the ecological damage produced by increasingly industrialised forms of agriculture. Late in the novel, when Tess is abandoned by her lover, Angel Clare, she is forced to accept work on the vast and stony fields of Flintcomb-Ash farm.

She labours through a brutal winter, and endures the relentless demands imposed by a steam-powered threshing machine — “a portable repository of force” — that reduces the workers to automatons. Around the same time, Angel abandons England for Brazil, only to find that English bodies do not translate to tropical ecosystems:

He would see mothers from English farms trudging along with their infants in their arms, when the child would be stricken with fever and would die; the mother would pause to dig a hole in the loose earth with her bare hands, would bury the babe therein with the same natural grave-tools, shed one tear, and again trudge on.

Gemma Arterton as Tess in the 2008 mini series adaptation. Stuck on a farm, Tess seesk to make ethical choices despite overwhelming constraints in Hardy’s novel.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Both Tess and Angel — and the anonymous, sundered colonial families — seem to be climate refugees of a kind, caught between hostile climates and the environmental wreckage wrought by agribusiness.

What little Tess of the D’Urbervilles offers in the face of all this bleakness also centres on Tess. For one thing, she doesn’t just think of herself as an isolated individual, but sees herself as part of larger social and ecological collectives — her family, her fellow milkmaids, even the rural landscape.

She persists in her determination to care for those around her — including, most challengingly, the son she gives birth to after her rape — despite the weight of the moral and economic systems that bear down upon her. After her father refuses to let the parson visit, Tess chooses to baptise her dying son herself — naming him Sorrow — and then secures him a Christian burial:

In spite of the untoward surroundings … Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening … putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.

Tess refuses to abandon her project of care despite its futility, persisting with her fidelity in the midst of catastrophe.

Literature in itself isn’t going to save us from global warming — if salvation is even possible, at this point — but then neither, on their own, will economics or science. But if Amitav Ghosh is right, and climate change has revealed an imaginative paralysis in western culture, one thing that the Victorian novel offers us is a means of thinking and feeling about our own moment anew.

The Sydney Writers Festival will host a session on the rise and rise of Cli-Fi featuring James Bradley, Sally Abbott, Hannah Donnelly and Ashley Hay on Friday May 26.

Philip Steer, Senior Lecturer in English, Massey University

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