Tag Archives: queer history

My Library: New Acquisitions

3 books acquired for my research

I really need to stop buying books faster than I can read them.

*pause for mad laughter*

Yeah, we know that’s never going to happen. So while we’re recovering from our hysterical mirth, let’s have a look at three of my most recent acquisitions!

The Outcasts of Melbourne

ed. Graeme Davison, David Dunstan and Chris McConville

The Outcasts of Melbourne

In February, I attended the “Marvellous Smellbourne: early Melbourne’s noxious trades” talk at Docklands Library, presented by John Lack of the Docklands History Group. He spoke about the tanneries, abattoirs and glue factories that gave Melbourne its unflattering epithet, and how the city cleaned up its filthy air and waterways. He also spoke about this book, for which he’d written about the noxious trades.

I’m reading as much as I can about 19th century Melbourne, particularly about the working classes and the era’s social history as well as contemporaneous attitudes towards queerness (rather than what we *think* went on from a 21st century perspective).

The Outcasts of Melbourne offers insights on Chinatown, crime, poverty, disease and “low life” so it should be a rich source of period detail and plot ideas!

Inventing the Victorians

Matthew Sweet

Inventing the Victorians

I found out about this book during the recent broo-haha when author Naomi Wolf discovered she’d misinterpreted data about the death sentences for men convicted of homosexual sex in the 19th century. The radio host and author who highlighted the error live on air was Matthew Sweet, an expert in the era.

I’d been considering getting Wolf’s book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love , partly because its claims of the number of men executed for sodomy seemed at odds with some of my other reading (notably Graham Robb’s Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century).

I’ll still get Outrages in due course – a later edition with the corrections Wolf is said to be making, having found out that ‘Death recorded’ in the old records actually didn’t mean an execution took place. However, the whole thing introduced me to Matthew Sweet, so I’ve picked up his Inventing the Victorians to see what he has to say about what the Victorians were actually like instead of what we only *think* they were like. I’m looking forward to reading what the Literary Review says “overturns cliche after cliche”.

(One thing I keep discovering in my reading is that what people think the Victorians were like has a lot more to do with film and television and narrow interpretations through current social lenses than actual social history.)

Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914

ed. Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt

Pages Passed from Hand to Hand

I don’t now recall where I read of this title, but it came up in relation to all the commentary on the Matthew Sweet/Naomi Wolf commentary.

Among the things that interest me (or agitates me) is how some people like to insist that if two men or two women in the historical past had an intense relationship that ‘they were just good friends and stop trying to make everything gay you’re spoiling it la la la la I can’t hear you!’. I mean. Maybe it was intense friendship and hello, maybe they were lovers negotiating their love in a difficult time when they couldn’t openly acknowledge it, and either is a reasonable view maybe, but statistically a good number of those relationships were in fact deeper bonds and all my reading suggests quite a lot of them were, in fact, and so shush now, and stop pretending gayness never existed before people started labelling it. Shush now.

Ahem.

Pages Passed from Hand to Hand is an anthology of stories published before E.M. Forster’s seminal Maurice that contains the rich coding by which queerness was explored, hinted at, subliminally supported or otherwise threaded into writing during periods where same-sex sexual practices (and by association, same-sex affections, desires and hopes for established relationships) were under the shadow of the law.

The anthology contains stories and extracts by Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James, Kenneth Grahame and many others.

If nothing else, I’ll know which tomes to put subtly into the hands of my 19th century queer characters – from my interpretations of Holmes and Watson to other inhabitants of my historical fiction.

My Library: Such is Life by Joseph Furphy

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. 


Further reading