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.


‘Modern-day bushrangers’

How modern is the Australian bushranger? Or rather: how archaic? This question has come up recently as police try to find Gino and Mark Stocco, a father and his son from Queensland who have been on the run in country Victoria and New South Wales for some considerable time. Stealing cars and petrol, using bush tracks and back roads and living in the bush semi-permanently, these two men might very well recall old Ben Marston and his sons Dick and Jim in Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms. Media reports have called them ‘modern-day bushrangers’; police images of Gino and Mark Stucco show them both wearing long, bushy beards, colonial-style. They shoot at the police, just as Boldrewood’s bushrangers did; and they provoke the police and taunt them. They also work on farms and – when a dispute arises with their employers – they ransack and destroy the properties: more like disgruntled swagmen than bushrangers, perhaps. I read somewhere that the father and son were jailed in 2007 for stealing the identities of other people in order to travel on a luxury yacht. The colonial bushranger was also a stealer of other people’s identities: think of Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight, or E. W. Hornung’s Stingaree (who even impersonates the N.S.W. detective who is trying to apprehend him).

George E. Boxall’s History of the Australian Bushrangers (1899) had thought that bushranging ended with the nineteenth century: it couldn’t be modern. ‘It was’, he wrote, ‘rather an excrescence on, than a development of Australian character….it is extremely improbable that there will ever again be a Frank Gardiner or a Ned Kelly to incite the young and thoughtless to deeds of violence’. But the bushranger – like colonialism itself – generates a prolonged aftermath, a series of residual effects that last for a surprisingly long time: right into the present day. In Boldrewood’s novel, Dick and Jim distance themselves from their father to make the point that he is an old bushranger, someone who did things differently: leaving his wife without a second thought, abandoning his farm and family to live (often alone) in the bush, and slowly losing his influence over his sons. To underline the point that he is a relic of times past, Ben Marston dies towards the end of the novel, while Dick lives on and gets a second chance. Boldrewood is a bit like Boxall: the bushranger cannot persist and younger Australians have to have a positive future.

But no one yet has drawn much of a distinction between Gino and Mark Stucco. It’s as if father and son are exactly the same, doing everything together, carrying on in the same way. Who is influencing who here? A report on them in the Australian turned instead to the grandfather, who confessed that he was ‘disappointed’ in his son and his grandson, but added: ‘I can’t say anything’. The same report noted that Mark Stucco once robbed his own mother. So far, the mother has also kept quiet – just like Dick’s mother in Boldrewood’s novel, who barely says a word. There really is something weirdly colonial about the Stuccos. In Robbery Under Arms, the bushrangers enjoy reading about themselves in the newspapers. Starlight seems to subscribe to all the country papers and reads them out, one by one, relishing the reports of police incompetence. Perhaps the Stuccos are doing the same as they circle teasingly around the places colonial bushrangers – real and fictional – once inhabited.

A bushranger is devoured by an eagle

In Thomas McCombie’s Adventures of a Colonist; or, Godfrey Arabin, The Settler (1845) an ‘outlandish settler’ is mistaken for a bushranger; but he puts his audience’s anxieties to rest by reassuring them that, now ‘the majority of the Colonials are free’, bushranging ‘will soon be out of date’. As we know, of course, bushrangers played out their careers right through the 19th century, even as commentators kept insisting that the colonies had seen the last of them. Even so, by 1845 bushrangers could be regarded as part of ‘the old days’. In this respect, they functioned as something archaic that seemed to persist against the odds, a relic or residue that didn’t go away.

In his excellent book Van Diemen’s Land: A History (2008), James Boyce discusses one of the earliest bushrangers, Michael Howe: ‘the only Australian bushranger’, he writes, ‘to pose a genuine alternative to the colonial government’s political authority’. The first book of ‘general literature’ to be published in Australia was Thomas Wells’s 1818 account of Howe, ‘the last and worst of the bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land’. He may been the worst, but he certainly wasn’t the last. In Old Tales of a Young Country (1871), Marcus Clarke read a copy of Wells’s ‘wonderful work’, a ‘dirty little pamphlet of 36 pages’. After committing many crimes, Howe is pursued deep into the Tasmanian forests where, alone and trying to survive, he becomes delirious. ‘He kept a journal of his dreams’, Clarke writes, ‘a journal written with blood, on kangaroo skin’. Making his way into the mountains, he intrudes into ‘the rocky home of hermit eagles’ – Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles, presumably. Here, Howe sits in the midst of ‘some of the sublimest scenes of nature…a lonely bushranger…confronted with his God and his own conscience’.

Not long after McCombie’s novel, Charles Rowcroft published The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land (1846) in London. His bushranger protagonist is Mark Brandon, a handsome, almost gentlemanly figure: a precursor to Rolf Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight and E.W. Hornung’s Stingaree. But Brandon becomes increasingly ruthless, and desperate. Killing a trooper, he flees deep into the bush. In his delirium, he eats a raw kangaroo rat. Like Howe, he determines to write an account of his life in his own blood. ‘He cast his eyes about for something to make a mark with; and he spied, sticking up by the side of the platform, a feather from an eagle’s wing’. As he bleeds and writes, alone in the mountains, he barely notices a shadow passing across the sun above him. When trackers discover him not long afterwards, a ‘great eagle’ is devouring him.

Michael Howe had managed to live successfully for a while in the bush, a nomadic but well-organised, competent man. The term ‘bush ranger’ suggests the ability to move freely through the bush, but also to respect it, or even manage it (rather like ‘park ranger’). In Rowcroft’s novel, Braddon is so in tune with the bush that native species come to define him: he is ‘quick as a bandicoot’, ‘cunning as a platypus’. Boldrewood did the same thing later on with Dick Marston in Robbery Under Arms (1882-83): Marston ‘can swim like a musk-duck’, he is ‘as active as a rock-wallaby’, and so on. But in Rowcroft’s novel, Braddon’s crimes and ego finally overtake him: he disturbs the bush ecology and brings it angrily (and literally) down upon him precisely at the moment when he begins to write his own history.

Colonial Australian detectives

What is the difference between police and detectives in colonial Australia? A quick look at Rolf Boldrewood’s bushranger novel Robbery Under Arms (serialized 1882-83) can give us, as it were, a clue. This novel is set in the 1840s and 1850s, just as the colonial detective is emerging as a recognizable local type. As Dick Marston, Captain Starlight and other bushrangers rob and plunder the colonies, newspapers routinely complain about the inability of police to protect colonial wealth and property. One local journalist remarks, ‘We have always regarded the present system – facetiously called police protection – as a farce’; on the other hand, from the bushrangers’ perspective ‘[t]he whole place seemed to be alive with police’ and the country is ‘thick with police stations’. The police are supposed to protect settler colonials from crime, but they fail to do so. On the other hand, the police are everywhere, reflecting the sense that colonial Australia developed first and foremost (and rapidly) as a panopticon.

When Starlight and Marston are arrested early on, the latter observes: ‘Detectives and constables would seem to be pretty thick in the colonies’. The novel’s key policeman is senior constable Goring, an ambitious man (‘he was sure to be promoted’) who arrests Marston at his homestead. But there is also a detective, who follows Starlight to New Zealand, apprehends him and testifies against him in court. ‘My name is Stephen Stillbrook…’, he begins, in the only speech he ever makes in the novel. But although he appears briefly – rather like Mr Bucket in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House – Stillbrook makes an extraordinary impression on Marston, the novel’s narrator: “A quiet, oldish-looking man got up now and came forward to the witness box. I didn’t know who he was; but Starlight nodded to him quite pleasant. He had a short, close trimmed beard and was one of those nothing-particular-looking old chaps. I’m blessed if I could have told what he was. He might have been a merchant, or a squatter, or a head-clerk, or a wine merchant, or a broker, or lived in the town, or lived in the country. Any of half-a-dozen trades would suit him. The only thing that was out of the common was his eyes. They had a sort of curious way of looking at you, as if he wondered whether you was speaking true, and yet seein’ nothing and tellin’ nothing. He regular took in Starlight (he told me afterwards) by always talking about the China Seas; he’d been there, it seems; he’d been everywhere…”.

A policeman is always a policeman; but a detective’s identity is much more fluid and mutable, as if all sorts of different, unrelated colonial character types could be projected onto him. A policeman is also local, whereas Stillbrook has (‘it seems’) been ‘everywhere’: a feature he shares with the ‘great criminal’ Starlight himself, who had ‘been all over the world’. This is where we see the differences between police and detectives in colonial Australia – in the literature of the period – playing out. Police are ubiquitous, but local and alike; they fail not least because they are so easily identified. But the colonial detective could be anyone (‘a merchant or a squatter’, etc.); his distinction lies in the fact that there is nothing distinctive about him at all (‘one of those nothing-particular-looking old chaps’); and he is already part of a transcolonial, even global, network of investigation.