In my research about Victorian-era society in the UK and Australia, I sometimes pick up 19th century fiction. Such Is Life – an Australian classic, I’m told – is set in the 1880s, was written in 1897 and not published till 1903. The title comes from what were reputedly Ned Kelly’s last words before he was hanged in 1880, and the phrase pops up periodically as an ironic literary shrug about the whims of fate.
Such is Life is a series of anecdotes about the people government worker Tom Collins meets in his travels in rural Australia. That makes it sound straightforward, which is certainly isn’t, as the novel is punctuated with long and rambling side stories. A tale may start with a campfire story, diverge onto discussions of other, slightly related stories, philosophical tracts and adept interpretations of Shakespeare, before finally meandering back to the original point. The style makes it challenging to read but provides a lot of its charm too.
The narrator, Tom Collins (his name itself a 19th century term for a tall story) spends time with bullock drivers, boundary riders, itinerant workers, graziers and the like. There’s lots of swearing but it’s all signified by terms like “What the (sheol)” (hell) and phrases like “good (ensanguined) shot!” and “poor (fellow)”. I no doubt substituted even fruitier language than he intended while reading, and the use of the substituted terms could be coy but is often very funny in its context.
Some stories are full of humour – like the one where Tom loses all his clothes in the river and his skulking about naked, trying to resolve the issue without scandalising anyone. (The repercussions of this misadventure are discovered some chapters later.) Others are full of the sad, grim reality of bush life with the campfire stories of children lost in the wilderness, some discovered too late or not at all.
(Frederick McCubbin produced several paintings about this deep anxiety for white settlers in this country.)
But there’s more to Such is Life than a relatively realistic though rambunctious look at rural life in Australia at the time.
In my 19th century research, I’m looking for hints and examples of queer life, representation and perception, since contemporaneous accounts keep queerness hidden or coded when it’s not being excoriated. So colour me pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Such is Life is open to queer interpretation in no uncertain terms.
In the first chapter, two men with the bullock teams are noted as disappearing in the night for an unknown reason – Dixon and a fellow called Bummer (the colloquial term for a loafer or layabout). Nothing is explicit, but you can’t convince me that 19th century readers weren’t fully alive to a filthy pun when they read it.
More frequent is a playful and curious sense of gender switching that permeates the story. Tom’s horse Cleopatra is actually a stallion; in the naked escapade, he’s hiding at a farm and hears someone call for ‘Jim’ who turns out to be a young woman named Jemima. Clearest of all is the long sequence where Tom is talking to the disfigured misanthrope, Nosey Alf, and it’s clear to the reader (if not to Tom) that Alf is a woman. Because of previous chapters we can discern who Alf Jones really is and perhaps interpret their reasons for living in men’s clothes, but Tom’s obliviousness means we’ll never fully learn Nosey Alf’s own reasons (or what pronouns are most appropriate).
Such is Life can be hard work to read because of all these lengthy off-piste passages, as well as some pretty convoluted writing. The book is full of difficult to follow dialogue written phonemically, reflecting the multicultural nature of the life. I’d feel the dialect of the Chinese boundary rider’s English was a lot more racist if it weren’t for the fact that Furphy gives exactly the same treatment to the Dutch, Irish, Scottish and even posh English characters throughout.
A book of its time, Such is Life has the expected baseline sexism and racism – yet there’s an egalitarian streak that runs through it, noting at one point: “Better no religion at all – if such lack be possible – than one which concedes equal rights beyond the grave, and denies them here”. In between rough bush talk and rougher bush lives, Tom frequently philosophises on deep questions, including the nature of free will (referencing Hamlet and Macbeth) and notions of love.
For anyone wanting social insight into 19th century rural Australia and to explore some attitudes to queerness, Such is Life is worth a look. It might be best to read it in small bites however, to better digest the strange divergences, dense colloquialisms and long literary discourses
Telling a furphy
As a curious aside, Australian vernacular has a term – a furphy – to refer to a rumour or a false story. You’d think it derived from Joseph’s book but in fact the etymology experts note that it comes from the water carts belonging to Joseph’s brother John: people would gather round John’s water carts for ablutions and gossip, and thus the term gained use.