What is it in us, what is it in me… that we should be so divided against ourselves.
The Conversations at Curlow Creek, David Malouf
Treatment of Class in a Fringe of Leaves and The Conversations at Curlow Creek.
Looking back at the Australian history from European point of view, it may be said that Australia itself was perceived mainly as a former British colony; thus the implication is that on the one hand Australian Literature is strictly connected with English literature, but on the other Australian novelists want to highlight the fact that it differs in its nature. There is a wide list of main topics that Australian writers are concerned with, however the main themes that appear are connected with aboriginality, mateship, democracy, national identity, complexity of life in Australia and egalitarianism. The last concept appears to be extremely important, since it highlights that all human beings are equal in fundamental worth of social status. Moreover, one must not forget about that to a great extent literature inspired by convict tales, experience of colonists and Aboriginal storytelling. Expressing the nature of Australian identity, writings by Patrick White or David Malouf appear to be complex for their presenting the antagonisms that exist in the real world: the struggle between the old and new, settlers trying to cultivate land, contrast between city and bush, or the civilized versus the savage. On the one hand one can perceive the status of convicts brought to Australia, whilst on the other the hardship and the struggle for survival in the harshness of life in the dessert.
However the idea of equality, friendship and loyalty continues to be crucial in Australian writings, there is also an internal struggle between the member of the society, as it was brought to new continent from the European land. In relation to novels by White and Malouf, this essay is to explore the structure of society as well as compare the treatment of class and social values in A Fringe of Leaves and The Conversations at Curlow Creek.
As far as A Fringe of Leaves by Patrick White is concerned, his postcolonial novel is set in 19th century and deals with shipwreck of Ellen Roxburgh. The story itself is based on a real event that involved Eliza Fraser. Undoubtedly, White’s novel is marked by complexity; he deals with numerous topics that are crucial to Australian identity as well as those that are universal: repressed sexuality, the role of nature and culture in human life, colonialism or the structure of the society. The latter topic may be perceived as profoundly important, since in A Fringe of Leaves White presents the reader a wide range of social groups as well as human behavior that is conditioned by the social status. The reader is able to decipher all kinds of interactions between members of main groups presented in the novel: English middle class, Irish emancipates or Aborigines. Interestingly, White refrains from giving ready-made opinions and statements; as a merely observer, he gives the reader carte blanche in creating their own estimations.
As stated before, the author presents different social groups that existed in Australia; those include the English middle class, that also remains diversified; the Irish emancipates, that largely consists of convicts transported to the prenatal colony; and Aborigines ,who are native inhabitants of the island. To start with the middle class, it is represented by several characters presented in the novel: Austin and Ellen Roxburgh as well as Miss Scrimshaw among others.
The presentation of middle class shows the concern with breeding and good manners, social connections to members of aristocracy. For middle class society, one can be admired and respected because of his or her connections with the members of aristocracy, not because of their generous or gentle character: even if you are an evil person, knowing higher class will win respect of others. Moreover, the importance of having polite and often artificial conversations with others is highlighted by Miss Scrimshaw’s remark about Ellen and her stating that she would not trust a silent woman. Again, one can notice the significance that is attached to maintaining surface appearances. Ungari asserts that ‘These figures appear as static creatures, subservient to social principles. Their characterization turns them into caricatures: the women are petty and vapid, while the men are shallow bureaucrats’.
What is worth to notice, there are certain differences between the members of the same class, yet coming from different places. This peculiar attitude seems to be expresses in one of the conversations between Mrs Merivale and Miss Scrimshaw. While pondering over the Cornish background of Ellen Roxburgh, Miss Scrimshaw states that never before was she ‘on intimate terms with any individual of Cornish blood’. Surely, what may be sensed form that utterance is a bitter hostility and malice towards non-English. Additionally, a strong criticism of people of Cornish descent may be visible in another utterance by Mr Roxburgh: ‘Who would have thought that a crude Cornish girl could made over to become a beautiful and accomplished woman?’, that indicated biased attitude of dominant class towards Cornish people. Certainly, the middle class wants to be perceives as a highly cultured and well-mannered, possessing the privilege of educating the crude working class and primitive natives.
Another interesting relations may be those observed between English middle class and Irish – a visible dislike between them. In one of the early scenes, when heading home in a carriage, Mrs Merivale loudly complains about the opened window of the carriage ‘as though a particle of dust might have affected her precious throat; for they had begun to approach the Brickfields in the neighborhood of which the fellow Delaney had chosen to live’. Perceiving herself as a superior, Mrs Merivale shows blatant disregard for Irish emancipates; this attitude may be connected with the fact that Irish constitute a minority as well as they were inhabiting Australia since they convicted of a crime and transported to Australia. As a considerable majority, English people often felt superior because of their background and connections. In addition, the contempt for Irish is represented by the way Mrs Merivale treats Delaney, a member of Irish working class. Not only does she underappreciate his honesty and sense of humor, but also criticizes the way he behaves – for example the manner he carries pork. In addition, the class difference is underscored by the way Mr Roxburgh perceives working class: crude, brash and prone to offend his sense of sensitivities. Although he ‘had the greatest faith in the working class’, simultaneously he remains clear as far as their position in the social ladder is concerned – members of working class should not cross the boundary set by their background. Irish emancipates as well as Aborigines are presented as the opposition to the cultured and superior English Victorian society. In a sense, certain oppositions are created: English versus Irish, Colonialists versus the natives. Additionally, one must remember that Australian society was originally built upon the concept of punishment. A British citizen who was sent to Australia was deprived of the benefits of a first class citizenship. Aborigines and convicts were at the bottom of the social scale. The only difference between these two groups was that convicts were at times able to be granted a pardon and could become squatters. Some aborigines were entitled to this right later in history, more reluctantly, by the stations’ owners.
As far as the Aborigines are concerned, they presented as savage and lack any culture. However, after the time Ellen is captured by the natives, the attitude towards the representations of Aborigines changes: they are ceased to be presented as lacking culture – in fact their culture is rich, however is significantly different form that of colonists. While living in their group, a certain reversal may be noticed: here the white person is the slave.
White explores the theme of the damaging impact the society has on individual, draws on the convict system, analyzes the relationship between the imprisonment and freedom. Paradoxically, the imprisonment in Australia may constitute a sole chance to escape from the illusion of freedom that live in society offers, since instead of giving an individual free will, the society imposes on him or her a set of rules – the act of disobeying those rules equals being ostracized. Jack Chance, a bushranger, while hiding in a bush ceases to be a member of any social class. Having the opportunity to come back to the society, he chooses to live in bush, away from social limitations, since once he was physically and emotionally wounded by them. He shows that life outside the society is possible and quite often constitutes a better solution that remaining paralyzed by social conventions.
Surely, confronted by nature, class loses its importance; good manners and social code do not remain valid. This can be especially seen in dramatic acts of eating snake or cannibalism performed by Ellen. Driven by hunger, she is prone to challenge and break social conventions. As one can notice, it is Ellen who remains a cross figure in the novel: although she is of working class origin, she married a middle class man. Surprisingly, Ellen does not try to conceal her background and is able to relate herself to other members of the working class. Ellen combines working class and middle class; although her father was an uneducated, frequently drunk, poor farmer, Ellen’s mother and husband introduced her into the world of good manners and education. Surely, it may be assumed that Ellen’s shipwreck constitutes a breaking point in her life. The experience of shipwreck, capture, life in bush and final return to “civilization” enables her to gain knowledge about herself, knowledge that is not imposed on her by the Victorian society. Ellen’s husband, though educated, is impotent. Hence, middle class and the civilization it denotes is equal with corruption and passivity. Not being protected by the civilization, Ellen’s quest for identity resulted with the self-awareness and knowledge about the society she used to live in. Although middle class provide a certain kind of knowledge, it symbolizes the repressed sexuality and passivity. Life in bush liberates her sexually – in that sense she is liberated from strict rules governing society she used to live. Physically captured by Aborigines, her soul is liberated which act is envisages in the statement: ‘She was finally unhooked. Then the shift, and she was entirely liberated’. Goldsworthy notices that ‘as is emphasized by the contrasting of European with Australian characters in many of his novels and stories, an absence of any coherent sense of community in ordinary Australian life is one of the targets of White's social critique.
 Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves (London: Penguin books, 1977), p. 9
 Elena Ungari, ‘Patrick White’s sense of history in A Fringe of Leaves’ in Australian Studies, 2 (2010), p. 3
 White, p. 7
 ibid, p. 121
 White, p. 18
 ibid, p. 186
 Cicero, Karina R., ‘Time and Language in Patrick White’s A fringe of Leaves’ (thesis, Universidad Catholic Argentina, 2010)
 Patrick White, p. 221
 Kerryn Goldsworthy ‘Fiction from 1900 to 1970’ in Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, ed. by Elizabeth Webby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 105-133 (p. 128)