Burning down your own house

UntitledA spoiler alert for people who have not yet seen Jocelyn Moorhouse’s recent film The Dressmaker, an adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel published 15 years earlier: it ends with an act of violent retribution, as the returning ‘femme fatale’ heroine Myrtle Dunnage burns her family home (and the rest of the town) to the ground. Interestingly, Ham was born and raised on a farm in Jerilderie, in the Riverina region. Ned Kelly, of course, famously visited Jerilderie in 1879; his Jerilderie Letter promised to visit a similar kind of retribution on ordinary Australians, ‘their property either consumed or confiscated and them theirs and all belonging to them exterminated off the face of the earth…’.

The Dressmaker may not be quite so revolutionary; besides, it is set in the early 1950s, which may explain why it has more in common with A.A. Phillip’s famous essay on the ‘cultural cringe’ than it does with Kelly’s over-heated diatribe. ‘In the back of the Australian mind’, Phillips had written, ‘there sits a minatory [threatening] Englishman’. In The Dressmaker, it’s now a minatory Englishwoman, played by Kate Winslet, who takes on the unsettling, quasi-Gothic role of Phillips’s ‘shadowy figure’. The English Winslet does a ‘perfect’ Australian accent in the film, according to Moorhouse; the character Winslet plays does the complete opposite, leaving Australia to get an English education. When she returns, she’s like a version of Patrick White’s ‘prodigal son’. White’s essay was published in 1958, at the end of The Dressmaker’s decade; bringing its own cultural cringe to bear on Australia, it announced White’s refusal to conform to the ‘dreary dun-coloured’ local literary conventions of social realism. Myrtle does the same sort of thing. Each time she brings out a new dress, the film gets more colourful, and more unhinged.

Coming in the wake of White’s barbed fictional attacks on the ‘average’ Australian, Moorhouse’s film certainly gives us a pretty grim account of the petty-minded resentments of ordinary Australians in a small country town. Whereas White would meander, Moorhouse’s film is relentless. It kills off its characters, one by one: Myrtle’s lover, her mother, the crazy doctor, and so on. It literally evacuates the town at the end, humiliating the occupants, who see everything they’ve worked for go up in smoke.

When Myrtle burns her family home down, she seems exhilarated – and liberated. When a house burns down in Australia, it usually means a bushfire, or perhaps a vengeful arsonist. The unusual thing about The Dressmaker is that, here, the arsonist burns her own home down, and it makes her feel good. No wonder reviewers of this strange, camply exaggerated film felt confused. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw thought the ‘final shift of mood’ was ‘horribly jarring and unconvincing’. On the other hand, Jake Wilson in the Age realised that the signs of arson and revenge were already written into Myrtle’s character: her ‘favourite colour’, he notes, ‘evokes both fire and blood’. When a disappointed Matt Neal in the Standard calls the resolution of the film’s ending ‘a misfire’, he seems oblivious to his own witticism.

How many examples are there in Australian literature of characters who burn down their own homes? In colonial writing there are lots of disgruntled swagmen and laid-off labourers who take revenge by setting fire to their employer’s property: think, for example, of Anthony Trollope’s Christmas novel about a paranoid squatter-employer, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874), published just a few years before Ned Kelly visited Jerilderie. Squatters and selectors are often the victims of arson in colonial literature. But do they ever willfully burn their own properties down? Or the properties of those around them?

The only instance of a character I can think of who does exactly this comes much later on, in a story written (uncannily!) by Jocelyn Moorhouse’s namesake, Frank. The Electrical Experience (1974) is a collection of stories about an intrepid local entrepreneur, T. George McDowell, in a small town on the NSW coast. McDowell is a benign version of the petty, resentful characters in The Dressmaker. ‘I was against small mindedness’, he says, ‘but always for small towns’. He believes in local development, and he’s always optimistic. But his daughter Terri is born during a bushfire (‘A post office savings bank burned down….A difficult birth. The sky was black’) and his mistress, a policeman’s widow, is killed by a burning tree as she drives away from the town.

One day a ‘singular event’ changes his perspective on life: ‘the burning-down of the Crowhurst house’. Crowhurst is an accountant who, ill and dying, asks McDowell to do something that completely contradicts his investment in small town growth and development: namely, to set fire to his house. McDowell, the story tells us, ‘went along with the unnatural act that had befallen him’: reluctantly at first, but soon he relishes the task. He douses the house in petrol, strikes a match and watches it burn to the ground, leaving ‘no trace’ of Crowhurst and his family history. ‘Later, George could not remember when his body had been more alive’.

One of my students went to the Burning Seed festival earlier this year, an event held in the Matong State Forest in NSW, about a hundred kilometers north east of Jerilderie. Burning Seed (http://www.burningseed.com/) replicates the spectacular Burning Man festival in Nevada: but it’s a forest event, not a desert one, and the focus on the ‘seed’ emphasises growth and the possibility of regrowth. Large wooden structures are built, in particular, a wooden effigy and a temple, to form a ‘city’. When the festival draws to a close, participants watch as these structures are ritualistically burnt down and (as the website says) ‘the city disappears again without a trace’. As they enjoy the spectacle, festival participants may very well feel just like T. George McDowell, or Myrtle: more ‘alive’ than they ordinarily are. I thought about Burning Seed at the end of The Dressmaker: all those wooden structures (built specially for the film?) set alight and going up in smoke. But the film is also the opposite of the festival. There is no ‘again’ to look forward to when it’s all over: when Myrtle takes the train to Melbourne (and then back to Europe) at the end, it’s pretty clear that minatory Englishwoman isn’t coming back.