Romance genre captivity narratives & Australia

Guest Post by Merrian Weymouth

@MerrianOW

Janet’s series of opinion posts over on Dear Author about historical North American captivity narratives and the antecedents of the romance genre have led me to try and think out what I know about Australian settlement history – a very general laywoman’s view and to wonder what our captivity narratives would be like. These are the three posts with discussion that form the background to this blog post.

“Life During Wartime” on Dear Author .

“Take The Long Way Home” on Dear Author

“Can’t Find My Way Home” on Dear Author

I started writing a comment to Janet’s “Life During Wartime” post but it became very long and Vassiliki kindly volunteered her blog as a place to share my ramblings.

I can describe three forms of captivity for women that arose from the way in which settlement happened here in Australia but I’m not sure we have equivalent Australian captivity narratives unless we count stories such as Henry Lawson’s fiction of the 1890’s “The Drover’s Wife” about a woman who is captive to her husband’s absence, the bush and the snake, and who does not have her own name.

Women Convicts

Male and female convicts arrived on the First Fleet in 1788 and the last convicts to be transported to Australia arrived in Western Australia in 1868. Female convicts made up 20% of the convict population. Nearly all white women who arrived in Australia in the late 18th and early 19th were convicts; that is, they were captives of the government. To grow the colony, women were needed to breed the next generation. This meant that in Britain women received the harsher penalty of transportation for offences. Women, especially those of marrying age were transported mainly for petty theft and property crimes. Their function was to give sexual gratification to the men of the colony and have babies. The government turned female convicts into unpaid sex workers. Crowds of men would meet the arriving ships to pick whom they wanted. Male convicts had the capacity to earn their passage back to Britain after their term had expired. The reality for women, especially once children were born, was that transportation was a life sentence.

Effectively any existing marriages of all female convicts arriving on Australian shores were set aside. Female convicts were initially sent to ‘factories’ and their way out of these harsh holding cells was to be taken as servants (often a euphemism for concubine) or directly into a co-habiting relationship. Men could go and view the women; there are descriptions from the Parramatta Factory of men dropping a handkerchief at the feet of the one they selected. The women had the choice as to whether they picked up the handkerchief but given the limited options they faced, was it really a choice? The female convicts’ agreeing to be one man’s partner obtained some protection for the importunities of the many, although even so they were still considered whores.  This attitude to women in the colony was so prevalent that even free women who settled in Australia before the 1830’s wore the same label. Legal marriage was very difficult to achieve for convicts due to the cost of the licence and the lack of Anglican clergy. If convict women had any bargaining power it was because of the scarcity of women, an issue in Australia throughout the 19th century.

Consequently, settler Australia grew into a very sexist, misogynistic culture with very distinct male and female worlds of opportunity and action. Men had great power over women; this made Australia a land where women waited for the man to claim to them and to change things for them where men despised them for this and even as they were desired as wives and de facto partners, they were seen as corrupting whores. The process of settlement built a greater power imbalance into male/female relationships than already existed in the British culture of the times. Free women migrating as potential wives and mothers were subsumed into this culture.

Women and settlement

This leads to a story I was told by a local man about life on the Atherton Tablelands in the hinterland behind Cairns in Queensland. Roads into much of the interior of Australia are an essentially 20th century invention; movement around Australia until around WW1 was mostly via coastal steamers and latterly railways. The vast distances (today it takes around 19 hours to drive 1704 km from Brisbane to Cairns) meant that regional areas could be incredibly isolated. Men who had taken up land in the Tablelands would go down to Cairns, Brisbane or Townsville to find a wife, woo her and marry her then bring her back to their properties. They would deliberately take a long and convoluted trip from Cairns into the Tablelands so the woman would not be able to find her own way back over the distance of several days journey. The isolation of life in these places was a known cause for women wanting to leave; the problem was solved by making sure she couldn’t leave because she didn’t know the way out.

White men abducted Aboriginal women as sexual and working slaves. This was a common practice of stockmen moving large cattle herds over great distances and particularly of Sealers working in Bass Strait who abducted women from Tasmania.

White women living with Aboriginal tribes was so rare as to be regarded as mythical and only potentially occurring when ships were wrecked on the coast, not because of abduction.

Beginning in the 1830’s, the Government assisted the immigration of single women between the ages of eighteen and thirty to work as domestic servants and to become wives. Migration to Australia boomed with the discovery of gold in the 1850’s. The population tripled in the next 20 years bringing migrants from countries outside the British Empire. It was not uncommon for migrant women from Europe to marry fellow countrymen by proxy who had already settled in Australia. They made long journeys alone to a new future with nothing but their hope that they were married to good men. Often not speaking any English, their point of contact with the wider Australian world was dependent on their husbands.

Women and the land

Female captivity in Australian historical terms cannot be considered without thinking about our relationship with the land and the great, absorbing silence of the bush. The dominant myth of 19th century settlement was that of the lost child who wanders into the bush never to be seen again. There are many sad stories of real events. Children traditionally represent the future in stories and poems. So these are stories about the harsh and alien environment and European uncertainties and fears about being swallowed whole by the realities of making a life here. Aboriginal people were never the abductors in real life or in stories, they were the ‘black trackers’ who searched for and hopefully found the missing; able to do so because of their relationship to the land and under the direction of white men leading the search parties and dominating their environment. Many free settlers were remittance men, disgraced in some way or unable to fit into British society so sent to, or escaping to Australia with the intention they vanish into the Terra Nullius; the empty land. The long sea journey to Australia meant that settlers were unlikely to see family or friends ever again e.g. until late in 19th century letters back to Britain could take two years to receive a reply, so the land and its distances itself was the captor.

What’s in a name…?

Female life in early settler Australia was determined by strong systemic, social and cultural imperatives implemented through government policy of the day and shaped by the geography of our silent landscape. A whole category of women whose sexual consent was neither needed nor required were created by government fiat. The actual process of settlement turned women as a group and as individuals into nameless objects. “The convict stain” is the colloquial term for having a family heritage of descent from convicts (1 in 7 Australians has convict blood). It was not until well into the 20th century that the stain was regarded without shame. It seems to me the shame wasn’t in the transportation for crime but in what happened on these shores. Australian women settlers were made nameless and silent and ashamed. Their self-reliance, loyalty to each other, determination and economic successes were hidden away by the general view taken of female convicts and inherent cultural misogyny. In the North American captivity narratives, women and children are named and have some form of individual agency in contrast to the nameless, silenced women of early Australian settlement.

Further questions

In her post “Take The Long Way Home” Janet says: “Romance, beyond its focus on a romantic relationship, is also very much preoccupied with the relationship between the individual and society, between freely chosen love and social obligation, between personal aspirations and social roles.” In the case of the female convicts – personal aspirations are likely to have been reduced to being raped less and their relationships primarily instrumental – what can you do for me and what must I exchange for it? Where is the romance?  Are any meaningful mutual obligations possible between individuals? If the state is your rapist what do you owe the social contract? Convict women and the Aboriginal women who survived these early years of settlement were seen as recalcitrant and always ready to battle authority, they were always other.

How does our Australian settler cultural history and mythology construct and engage with the romance genre? How do the captivity, marriage of convenience and ‘fated mate’ tropes of the romance genre then speak to our historical experience of convict and immigrant women and proxy brides for strangers?

If we accept the modern romance genre as seeded from the history and myth of the North American captivity narratives does this enforce markedly American approaches to thinking, writing and reading the romance genre even when readers and writers come from other cultures?

Some Background:

“The Proposition” film set in the 1880’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Proposition

“Lost” painting by Frederick McCubbin http://www.artistsfootsteps.com/html/McCubbin_lost.htm

Books about female convicts http://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/index.php/resources/books

“Bush Studies” by Barbara Baynton http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100141.txt

“The Drover’s Wife” by Henry Lawson (scroll down to find story)  http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00108.txt

“The Babies In The Bush” by Henry Lawson (scroll down to find story)   http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00025.txt

“WHITE WOMAN WITH BLACK TRIBES Believed To Be A Myth“  in Gippsland Times Thursday 7th February 1935 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/62949799

Merrian Weymouth can be emailed at mezzky.mow@gmail.com

  1. “If we accept the modern romance genre as seeded from the history and myth of the North American captivity narratives”

    That’s a huge ‘if”, though, and I’ve yet to be convinced. If elements of the current popular romance can be found in ancient Greek prose romances, chivalric romances and fairy tales, then the North American captivity narratives would just be one more potential influence on romance as it currently exists, and not necessarily the most important, and certainly not the earliest, of them.

    Take E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, for example, which Janet mentions in her posts. I think you could well argue that it owes a lot to a long tradition concerning horses and horseback rescues and abductions and it also needs to be placed (as Hsu-Ming Teo does in detail in Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels) in the context of European ideas about the Orient. She argues that

    The invention of the pornographic East needs to be read against the slow decline of Ottoman power and the rising encroachment of European nation and empire building at its expense. It was against this backdrop that, starting in the nineteenth century, British authors began to turn their attention away from the Ottoman harem, with its corruption and consequent loss of power, to the romanticized desert of the stalwart, liberty-loving “noble Beduin” – thus paving the way for the setting and story of The Sheik. (21)

    • I tend to think of the modern romance genre as filtered through a funnel and we are at the pointy end. All of those things you mention are connected to and present in the structure and tropes of the genre at once and the nearest influences such as the Captivity Narratives were themselves shaped in their presentation by all that past.

      • Yes, but I think there are probably some things which feed into the American romance-writing-funnel which may not be present, or may be present in much lower quantities, in the British-romance-writing-funnel. And the Australian romance-writing-funnel is likely to be somewhat different again.

  2. What an amazing, fascinating essay!

    Beyond the Harlequin contemps I’ve read that are written by and/or set in Australia, the first Romances that came to mind when I was reading this are two by Candice Proctor: Night in Eden and Whispers of Heaven. The second features a male prisoner who falls in love with the daughter of a local wealthy family. The first features a female prisoner who is the subject of one of those arranged marriages. The silent landscape Merrian talks about is very much a character in the novel, as well. Curious about anyone’s comments on these books.

    If we accept the modern romance genre as seeded from the history and myth of the North American captivity narratives does this enforce markedly American approaches to thinking, writing and reading the romance genre even when readers and writers come from other cultures?

    I do think that genre Romance as we think of it in America, at least, is very much dominated by Anglo-American social values, although that does not mean it hasn’t been influenced by other types of narratives from other cultural contexts. Still, the dominance — for me — of British and American literary influences is pretty strong in the genre, even in genre Rom set in other countries (including Australia).

    That said, I think there’s room for all sorts of renovation and adaptation and variation in the genre, beyond NA captivity narratives, sentimental fiction, etc. But I wouldn’t argue that the genre as a whole has drastically evolved past those forms. Which is one of the reasons I’m so interested in how the Indian-produced and set Mills and Boon books are going to develop.

    White men abducted Aboriginal women as sexual and working slaves. This was a common practice of stockmen moving large cattle herds over great distances and particularly of Sealers working in Bass Strait who abducted women from Tasmania.

    This is one reason I noted in the comments to one of my posts (and in a post, I think), that for me there’s a big difference between a captivity narrative and a slave narrative, even though the slave narrative is a type of captivity narrative. At some point, though, the power differential becomes so vast and the potential for exploitation via romantic union so high, that I think it’s extremely, extremely, extremely difficult to pull that kind of relationship off in a Romance without going the route of fantasy egalitarianism (Virgin Slave, Barbarian King), pure erotic fantasy (not sure how I feel about this), or converting the slavery into less disenfranchising captivity.

    As you noted in your essay, the captive has to have agency to make any kind of relationship consensual enough to be romantic. And I think it’s even more difficult to pull the slave narrative Romance off when the historical circumstances are part of one’s own cultural, racial, or national history.

    The dominant myth of 19th century settlement was that of the lost child who wanders into the bush never to be seen again.

    Which is in stark contrast to the settlement myth of the US, which was conquest of the “virgin wilderness” and Manifest Destiny. Even though many women, who were also living in near to whole isolation in the absence of their husbands, were suffering from all sorts of types of depression and other damaging effects of their situations.

  3. I think any narrative involving the female convicts is a slave narrative not a captivity narrative. The rape began on the transportation ships as well. You can have a romance story with a male convict because he has opportunities to act with agency and to create his own agency and while subject to the lash and other punishments he was not a slave. The female convicts as a whole did not have these opportunities to act with agency or to grow their agency.

    There are exceptions that prove the rule such as Mary Reiby who married well, was an astute and capable businesswoman, becoming wealthy through her own endeavours but still socially outside the emerging society of the day. Despite her successful and happy life she still needed to wash away her convict past by pretending she arrived ‘free’ in 1821 not 1792.

    There are also very interesting stories about wives following convict husbands out, petitioning to have the men assigned to them and then petitioning for land grants and rations and being the legal master of the house. I always think of this picture even though it is about the Scottish rebellions
    http://uploads7.wikipaintings.org/images/john-everett-millais/the-order-of-release-1853.jpg

    England was called ‘home’/the ‘home country’ until the 2nd World War really. If England is home then Australia cannot be and we are lost in our absence from home. I take my land as it is but for those arriving from the green countries of the northern hemisphere, Australia in its distance and strangeness was another planet. This must have led to a psychic dissonance as well as the traumas of transportation. What does it mean for culture formation and the next generation if everyone who were the initial colonists has PTSD?

    I also think one of the reasons ANZAC Day and the remembrance of our WW1 dead has become our de facto national day is tied up with all this. Yes, there was the trauma of the loss of most of a generation and with that of a sense of hope in our national story, but this also is about what we can’t allow ourselves to know about our past.

  4. I think any narrative involving the female convicts is a slave narrative not a captivity narrative. The rape began on the transportation ships as well. You can have a romance story with a male convict because he has opportunities to act with agency and to create his own agency and while subject to the lash and other punishments he was not a slave. The female convicts as a whole did not have these opportunities to act with agency or to grow their agency.

    I think this issue gets to the heart of how the Romance genre often idealizes historical, social, and economic, and cultural circumstances. On the one hand, this idealization can come across as historical denial, with all the attendant problems. But on the other hand, there is something aspirational about the genre’s focus on giving its characters agency to fall in love and the freedom to pursue happiness (and I think this is where you see some of the English/American Enlightenment values still holding on). I think it’s a really complex issue, and something I’m deeply ambivalent about.

    There are also very interesting stories about wives following convict husbands out, petitioning to have the men assigned to them and then petitioning for land grants and rations and being the legal master of the house.

    This would make a very interesting Romance set-up. I wonder if anyone has written a Romance with this foundation. Also, do you know if there are any first-person written narratives, either of female convicts or women who followed their convicted husbands?

    England was called ‘home’/the ‘home country’ until the 2nd World War really. If England is home then Australia cannot be and we are lost in our absence from home.

    Is there a disasporic literary tradition in Australia?

  5. Merrian, I’m curious to know if you’ve read any of Anna Jacobs’ romantic historicals? I don’t classify them as being in the romance genre, but the ones I’ve read do have optimistic love stories running through them, and I’d be curious to know what you think of the way she manages the captivity issue for the heroine. (Mind you, the ones I’ve read didn’t go as far back as the first fleet, but certainly there was a sense in which the women had very limited choices and were under pressure–explicitly or subconsciously–to find a man who could protect them.)

    • I haven’t read any of Anna Jacob’s books but will look for them now with great interest. Writing this post hardened my feelings about the possibility for writing a successful (for me) romance genre story set in these times. I think you could write women’s fiction but there would be so much to elide from a romance genre story. It is a given that every convict woman would have been raped at some point of her journey. Many convict women did go on to make good lives but they were harshly won and many others were broken – when the female factories closed they were made into Lunatic Asylums and there were women who never left them. Male convicts could overcome the convict stigma but women never could because they were seen as whores. I am not sure that today’s readers are ready for that. I also think the socially sanctioned rape culture of the day resonates very closely with the tensions that have been very active IRL and on the Internet today. Reading this description of the arrival of free migrant women in 1834 seems a lot like reading about the way women have been attacked online for example.

      Even the free women arriving sponsored by the government ran the same gauntlet as the convict women. In 1834 the Strathfieldsay berthed at Hobart Town, several thousand men were waiting to greet the female immigrants on board:
      “As soon as the first boat reached the shore, there was a regular rush towards the spot, and the half dozen constables present, could scarcely open passage, sufficient to allow the females to pass from the boats; and now the most unheard of, disgusting scenes ensured – the avenue opened through the crowd was of considerable length, and as each female passed, she was jeered by the blackguards who stationed themselves, as it were, purposely, to insult. The most vile and brutal language was addressed to every woman as she passed along – some brutes, more brutal than others, even took still further insulting liberties, and stopped the women by force, and addressed them, pointedly, in the most obscene manner…scarcely a female was there, but who wept, and that most bitterly; but this, again, was made the subject of mirth, by the brutes that were present.”
      This actually went on for days with the police having to guard the house were the women were staying and being unable to control the crowd. It is also telling that the government had prepared food and accommodation for the convicts who arrived on the same ship but had provided nothing for the women.

  6. Robin :

    ….there is something aspirational about the genre’s focus on giving its characters agency to fall in love and the freedom to pursue happiness (and I think this is where you see some of the English/American Enlightenment values still holding on).

    That is what we read romance for I think and that is what we hope for the heroines and heroes of our genre stories. I think it is interesting to consider what are the heroines and heroes aspiring too and under what terms? Love is we understand and desire in 2013?

    There are also very interesting stories about wives following convict husbands out, petitioning to have the men assigned to them and then petitioning for land grants and rations and being the legal master of the house.

    ….This would make a very interesting Romance set-up.

    I am not aware of any but also think this is a real possibility but again it would be women’s fiction unless the wife arrives, hubby is dead so she claims a stranger in that role.

    ….do you know if there are any first-person written narratives, either of female convicts or women who followed their convicted husbands?
    I don’t know of any but if you look at the link in the post to books about female convicts, that is a whole website (primarily about Tasmania) about female convicts so they list original sources where possible. Mostly people wrote about convict women I think.

    I….s there a disasporic literary tradition in Australia?

    This wikipedia article gives a reasonable overview of Australian Literature http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_literature

    • I am not aware of any but also think this is a real possibility but again it would be women’s fiction unless the wife arrives, hubby is dead so she claims a stranger in that role.

      I was thinking marriage in trouble, but the set-up you proposed would be very interesting. I could see Cecilia Grant taking on something like that, actually.

      One of the reasons I’m bummed that Proctor is no longer writing Romance is that she took some real risks in the settings she chose. She even set a book in Reconstruction New Orleans, which I think is kind of the equivalent for the US as this period is for Australia.

      Also, it looks like what is referred to as diasporic lit in Australia is not connected to the actual founding of the nation, at least from the perspective of those who were basically forced colonists. That’s sort of interesting, in and of itself.

      Thank you again for writing this – so many important things here to think about and pursue in historical research.

      • People writing at the point of settlement like Watkin Tench, the Governors, etc were servants of the Empire, their time in Australia was a posting, an episode in their service. This makes their perspectives still those of outsiders, in my mind.

        My very scant understanding is that female convicts were about 40% literate I can’t remember where I saw that though, just clicking about on the Internet I come across people trying to tell female convict stories through the glimpses afforded by official records & other people’s observations. Also there are these references people refer too:

        Damousi, J., Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia, 1997

        Daniels, K., Convict Women, 1998

        Oxley, D., Convict Maids: The Forced Migration of Women to Australia, 1996

        Robinson, P., Women of Botany Bay, 1988

        Also I do wonder if a great deal of the virulence (from women and men) directed at our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard arises from these historical realities. In the late 20th century we had the most gender segregated workforce in the OECD and women still earn substantially less than men for the same work and because women’s work is often not recognised as skilled i.e. mens work is more skill based because it is done by men. Gender relations in Australia are not the same as USA or Canada I think; there is a particular historical trajectory that has an impact on how social relations are constructed today.

  7. Fascinating post Merrian. Thank you for sharing your thoughts (and to Vasiliki for providing the venue.) I don’t have anything to add really.

    Although I do have the urge to watch Against the Wind now (I had a massive crush on Jon English way back when. “If I were a minstrel, I’d sing you six love song….” *happy sigh*). Mary and Jonathon were both convicts of course and they overcame much adversity and ended up very happy so I think convict romances *can* work but of course, in that case they were “equal” – arguably Mary had the stronger position (initially) because she could read (mild spoiler). I’m fairly sure that the miniseries did gloss over a fair amount of atrocity however….

  8. I just saw a “Call for Papers for Collection: Captivity / Writing / Unbound” and thought it might, just possibly, be of interest.

  9. I don’t really have anything to add other than to say that this was a fascinating post and equally fascinating commentary.

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