Hsu-Ming Teo traces the origins of the rural romance genre and the history of literary representations of romantic love on Australia’s rural frontier.
Over the last ten years the fastest-growing Australian literary genre has been the rural romance; also known humourously – but disparagingly – as ‘chook lit’. Various media have carried stories about how Rachael Treasure’s debut ‘ru-ro’ Jillaroo (2005) became a bestseller and paved the way for other rural romance writers. The genre is treated as a new phenomenon in Australian publishing; yet the outback – and white Australians’ relationship with it – has always been an important backdrop to Australian love stories.
In mid- to late-nineteenth-century love stories, colonial Australian society was by no means regarded as conducive to romantic love and marriage. One of the main reasons why love fails in colonial romances from the mid- to late nineteenth century is because of the misogynistic and irresponsible masculinity that developed along the frontier, a masculinity antithetical to the notion of the domesticated husband who loves his wife – a requisite happy ending for successful romance.
In many Australian romance novels, masculine frontier culture leads to physical violence and abuse, as in Mary Gaunt’s novel Dave’s Sweetheart (1894). Of all the romance novels produced during this period, Dave’s Sweetheart, set in the goldfields of Victoria, considers love at greatest length and is particularly bleak in its assessment of the failures of love on the frontier and of marriage as a degrading, soul-destroying option for women.
For the heroines of colonial romances, the frontier is also characterised by irresponsible fathers and absent mothers who put their daughters in untenable situations where it is difficult for them to marry for love. For example, in Broda Reynolds’ The Selector Girl (1917), Marion Pike, the ‘selector’ girl of the title, has no desire ever to marry because of her father’s abusive treatment of her mother. She tells one of her suitors that a ‘dear, pretty little wife, gentle and submissive’ is ‘something I could never be with any man, not – not now. I’ve seen so much of father, and I’ve longed so often to be in Mum’s shoes for just five minutes now and then so that I could flatten him’ (44).
Dell Ferris, the heroine of Mabel Forrest’s The Wild Moth (1924), fares even worse initially; she meets the hero when her father tries to kill her with an axe in a drunken rage, and the hero is forced to shoot him. Both novels end happily with the heroines marrying noble, decent and ‘wholesome’ men who are notably different from other men on the frontier. Yet one of the obstacles these heroes have to overcome is the heroines’ aversion to marriage and their belief that a happy domestic life is impossible to achieve because of what Marilyn Lake calls the misogynistic ‘masculinism’ of colonial Australian frontier culture.
One of the things that made men so dangerous on the frontier was the rampant alcoholism that accompanied the culture of mateship and the concomitant rejection of domesticity, either in the form of lifelong bachelorhood, or the not infrequent abandonment of wives and children. This issue was not emphasised as much in colonial romance novels, but in several post-Federation romance novels such as Marie Bjelke Petersen’s The Captive Singer (1917) or Mabel Forrest’s Hibiscus Heart (1927), the heroes’ propensity towards alcoholism constitutes the most significant obstacle to romantic courtship and marriage.
Clearly, the obstacles arising specifically from the Australian colonial context and from frontier life are many, and many of these issues continue into the post-Federation period. What, then, makes love, courtship and marriage succeed in Australian romance novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century?
This is where the early Australian romance anticipates the contemporary rural romance. Romantic love succeeds in the colonial and Federation romance novel because of the redemptive power of the Australian bush.
In this regard, women’s romance novels differ in important and significant ways from other Australian literature of the period. Where colonial literature had represented women as being out of place in the Australian bush or frontier regions (an echo of the adage that ‘the Empire was no place for a white woman’), early Australian romance novels celebrate and validate women’s place in the bush.
The Australian bush purifies, transforms, strengthens, unifies, shelters lovers and enables love to succeed. Broda Reynolds’ The Heart of the Bush (1910) and Rosa Praed’s Miss Jacobsen’s Chance: A Story of Australian Life (1886) and The Maid of the River (1905) all feature love stories where the bush plays a significant part in forming the characters of the ‘Australian Girl’ and what Richard White calls the ‘Coming Man’.
The bush can be harsh, frightening and destructive: the hero and heroine of Reynolds’ The Heart of the Bush get lost in the wilderness for eight days, getting caught in a bush fire and nearly dying of exposure. Yet those who can survive and thrive in its harsh environs emerge a superior species to all others and more likely than most to make love relationships succeed.
Likewise, Theodora Swifte in Praed’s ‘The Bushman’s Love Story’ (1909) has had her character molded by the Australian bush, and she overcomes droughts, floods, agrarian recession and other difficulties to redeem the hero’s property and restore it to him. Life in the bush also permits women certain latitude in gender roles. Because Miranda Garry in Mabel Forrest’s Hibiscus Heart (1927) lives in the bush, she is able to take on many tasks or roles considered ‘masculine’, and it is she who tames the wilderness and makes a home in it, rather than her stepbrother to whom the bush property belongs. In Marie Bjelke Petersen’s Jewelled Nights (1923), the heroine cross-dresses as a young man in order to restore her family fortunes by engaging in mining activities in Tasmania, where she proves to be a far more successful miner than the other men.
Marie Bjelke Petersen, a Danish immigrant, was among the most ardent promoter of the beauties and transformative influence of the Australian landscape. Bjelke Petersen’s The Captive Singer (1917) exemplifies the purifying effects of the bush, where the alcoholic English hero finds the lost English heroine, finds God, and finds the strength to stop drinking, thus allowing him to marry the heroine in good conscience and to resume his position as the heir to an earldom. At the end of the novel, an American woman comments that ‘they are the real thing; only England can produce such types!’ (308). The reader knows though that without their transforming experience in the Tasmanian bush, neither would have found love nor their calling in life.
In these romances, the bush forces romantic protagonists to work and thus creates bonds of cooperation and affection between them. In Australian mythology, ‘mateship’ was forged through the experience of men along the frontier, but Australian romance writers transformed the meaning of mateship to define it as companionate partnership, often held together by the hero’s and heroine’s specifically Australian work ethic. In stories such as Ada Cambridge’s short story ‘A Sweet Day’ (1897) or Alice Grant Rosman’s Miss Bryde of England (1915) and The Back Seat Driver (1928), the capacity and willingness of the Australian Girl to work qualifies her as the hero’s ‘mate’.
Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land (1915) emphasises the same point. The hero Colin McKeith is an imperialist who wants to be a Cecil Rhodes in Australia, pioneering a station in the outback, but to do so he needs the aristocratic Lady Bridget to be his ‘Mate’ as well as his ‘Ideal’ woman. ‘You don’t know the Bush ideal of a real mate,’ he tells her; they work ‘shoulder to shoulder, back to back — no getting behind one or the other — giving up your life for you mate, if it comes to a pinch’ (97).
After many trials in the bush, after nearly giving up on their marriage, Lady Bridget finally learns what it means to be ‘a thorough-going “mate”’ to her husband. In this way, the masculinist ideal of Australian mateship which excluded women was, in the hands of romance novelists, transformed to encompass romance, companionate marriage and a gender equality in rights that depends not on legislation but on love – and hard work, of course.
Rural romances thus have a long provenance in Australian literary history. Short stories about love and romance novels prior to Federation tended to be more pessimistic about the outcome of romantic love in the colonies; both male and female writers of love stories were too aware of the hardships that befell women, especially along the frontier.
After Federation, many of the obstacles to love developed in the colonial romance persisted, but Australian women adopted a veneration for the bush and transformed the bushman into a romantic hero, matched in quality and character by the Australian Girl. The distinctiveness of Australian culture and character was dwelled upon almost obsessively in these novels. In an outburst of post-Federation nationalistic fervor, women writers insisted that Australian character and culture – forged by encounters with the bush – were ultimately sufficient to overcome such obstacles; thus, the post-Federation romance novels are more likely to have happy endings than the colonial romances.
Hsu-Ming Teo is a literary novelist and cultural historian who teaches creative writing in the English Department at Macquarie University. Her first novel Love and Vertigo (2000) won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award and was shortlisted for several other awards. Her second novel Behind the Moon (2005) was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. She is working on her third novel. Her academic publications include Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels (2012) and Cultural History in Australia (2003), as well as a wide range of articles on the history of travel, Orientalism, imperialism, fiction, and popular culture. Hsu-Ming is currently editing The Popular Culture of Romantic Love in Australia, the Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction, and working on a monograph on history and the romance novel. This piece is extracted from her article, ‘”We have to learn to love imperially”: Love in Late Colonial and Federation Australian Romance Novels’, Journal of Popular Romance Studies.