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In the eye of the beholder : representations of Australian Aborigines in the published works of colonial women writers

Date

2007

Authors

Dawson, Barbara

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Abstract

This thesis explores aspects of identity, gender and race in the narratives of six white women who wrote about their experiences with Australian Aborigines. Five of the works relate to nineteenth-century frontier encounters, described by middle-class, genteel women who had travelled to distant locations. The sixth (colonial-born) woman wrote about life in outback Queensland in both the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Her perceptions and opinions act as a foil to the five other texts, written by British-born authors. My analysis of these works takes into account current colonial racial attitudes and the nineteenth-century utilitarian urge to "educate". It involves discussion of the influences during the nineteenth century of the Enlightenment idea of "man's place in nature", of evangelical Christianity and the role of underlying notions of race based on scientific theories. All these aspects inform the women's works, directly or indirectly. While reflecting ideas about Aborigines expressed in male colonial narratives, these female writers deal with their relationship with Aborigines from a woman's perspective. I have researched the women's social and economic backgrounds in order to investigate biographical factors which lay behind their racial views and perceptions. The thesis explores the influences of publishers requirements and reader expectations on the way Aborigines were represented in published works. The writer’s need to entertain her audience, as well as to "educate" them, often led her to incorporate the traits and language of popular literary trends. Two of these were English Victorian romantic fiction, and the "ripping yarn" adventure narrative, popular from the late nineteenth century. The incorporation of these literary genres often resulted in conflicting messages, and a confused and ambivalent rendition of Aborigines. Within the dynamics of the male power structure at the frontier, these selected female narratives offer another perspective on interracial relations. The six texts refer to the fractious climate of colonisation. They are told by women mostly constrained within the expectations of ladylike decorum and often strongly influenced by the abiding literary contexts of the nineteenth century. What the writings show is that as women grew to know Indigenous people as individuals, representations of Indigenous humanity, agency and authority replace racial cliches and stereotypes, and literary imperatives.

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Nineteenth-century women, Indigenous Australians, frontier encounters, race relations, intercultural communication, friendship, race, gender, identity

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Thesis (PhD)

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DOI

10.25911/5d723ab2df250

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