Cameron’s themes

Gender, Class and Race in the City

Brisk and shapely as this double-plot structure evidently is, there is much more, both in terms of story and also recognizing issues and forces in contem- porary Australian life. The history of the city of Melbourne and that of the Vic- torian colony are both realized and occluded; the structures and dangers of social and personal life in this newest of worlds are explored but also elided; a quest for a valid and functioning set of values is recurrent but not always successful.
Cameron’s underlying pattern of gender tensions has special meaning in a country where men had long seriously outnumbered women and where past attachments proved an embarrassment for many social aspirants. That conflicted model seems to lead to male-male relationships being treated in a positive, even eroticized, way. Harry is especially valued: he has a “sweet expression” on his mouth and a “gentle light” in his eye (5) and he has exercised “noble self-sacrifice” (8) over his loss of Linda, all of which shows his “personal and mental superiority” (12). It appears fitting then that “this noble man” (39) should both inherit wealth and property and also spread his generosity to the lower-class youth Billy, and especially to Robert. Harry’s faithful action arises from what the text does not hesitate to call his “true and constant love” (30) for Robert, and the point is emphasized: Harry “hungered and thirsted for the love of this dear foolish fellow” (47).
The text seems to pull back from celebrating male homosexuality by stress- ing “the pure and holy affection he felt for Robert” (57), but that does not restrain the insistently seductive representation of Robert himself. He has “a beautiful person and a winning way” (30), and when he is on the town, gam- bling and drinking, “his form seemed to have even more elasticity, even greater grace” (47). His young co-worker Freddy is a “handsome, dark-eyed youth, who worshipped Robert, and had been awfully annoyed at his marriage, as he was deprived of his company” (31). Readers might put this down to the homosociality of single-sex schools and Victorian domestic gender separation, but more seems implied when Harry turns up with the money to save Robert from jail: “There was a dead silence for a few minutes, and then Robert rose, and clasping Harry in his arms, printed a passionate kiss on his face” (79). Robert, realizing his disgrace, offers to “rid the world” of himself as “unfit for such love,” but first he is calmed by Linda “embracing him” and then “Harry’s arms were soon around his neck” (79). The threesome survives: Robert fathers two children by Linda, and as for Harry, “[t]he most perfect love subsists between the two” (82).
It seems a classic case of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has called the “be- tween men” role of the heroine: she acts as both conduit and cover for homo- erotic feeling.9 We never know what Linda looks like: the gaze of the text avoids fetishizing her body, unlike Robert’s. We learn she has a “little hand” (37), and almost immediately Hugh observes her “matchless beauty,” which is both “rounded” and “filled up” (37): it seems she is only physically potent to his degraded eye. Marian, however, has strong physical presence. As well as the “white arms” (28) that euphemistically enfold Robert in his first dere- liction, we see her powerful, strongly made-up face at the start, and we hear her seductive singing voice (27); but against those attractions stand her vig- orous rejection as a form of Lamia by Harry the saintly male:
…that woman is as cold and calculating as she is beautiful; she has none of the foibles that bring her sisters to an ill end early. She is in her way a philosopher, and while not disdaining love and pleasure, looks on money as the great aim of existence. Cold and heartless and cruel, she resembles one of those terrible demons who, the better to ruin their victims, assume a fascinating human form [47–8].
Her final letter speaks of the “passion” of her love, a quality Linda never offers to trouble the masculinist processes of the text. Marian may be active, splen- did, cunning and enduring, but like her sister Bella and her unnamed mother, she is in a male-oriented world and is finally a victim, as few women were in the earlier fictions of Sue and Reynolds: she experiences a sexualized switch- back of love and pain like women in Lippard and Judson.
If on the issue of gender Cameron’s text seems both traditional and under- scrutinized, in terms of class it operates within a narrow social stratum, focusing on professional city life, with some socially lower comparators. But while Australia lacks both the peaks and depths of European structures of class and those of income indicated by Lippard and Judson, that does not mean it is, or ever was, without serious socio-economic tensions. One sub-plot deals with Billy Dawson, the small, thin inner-city boy met on the first page. His father was an artisan carpenter in Collingwood, a working-class suburb that was respectable, even radical: Clarke spoke of the “fierce democracy” of its resi- dents.10 But first father, then mother were seized by drink—a real problem in mid-century Melbourne11: Billy’s baby sister died, his eldest sister, like so many ill-fortuned young women, became first a seamstress, then a prostitute. He falls into bad company and is close to jail. Through a chance meeting, and her own passive saintliness, Linda employs him as a house boy; when his old acquaintance catches up with him, Harry takes him under his patronage, and he will by the last page become part of Robert’s thriving merchant busi- ness. Harry changes his name to the more respectable Willy quite early (48), but the text, less decisive about altering lives, only adopts this for the final section of narrative (67).
What Billy separates himself from was called “larrikinism,” though the text, language-aware like all the city mysteries, says this term was not used ten years before (18). Of Irish origin, and later used in a relatively positive way for the spirited young, in the period the term referred to teenage gang members who would harass, rob and threaten respectable citizens and were always able to disappear into the lanes and passageways of the city: the problem was much discussed, including by Clarke in the essays collected under the title “A Colonial City.”12
The inner Melbourne warrens the larrikins inhabited were where Billy’s parents sank: Graeme Davison comments that “as early as 1857 … the worst parts of Melbourne had been identified as ‘the back slums’ and compared to ‘the most crowded parts of Spitalfields and St Giles.’”13 Melbourne literature, from Marcus Clarke in the 1860s to Fergus Hume in 1886, explores with Reynolds-like vigor and some scopophilia the lanes of inner Melbourne that thread behind the grand streets. These lanes were homes to the gamblers, drinkers, streetwalkers and thieves who operated along the fine mercantile boulevards of Collins and Bourke Street. Also fallen into this world is Will Slabang, formerly cashier at the bank. In a crucial scene on his own way down Robert declines manly sports with his fellow workers, then by accident meets Will, and they walk down Collins Street and round into Elizabeth Street for a drink at a sordid bar.
They are going downhill and west, in more than a literal sense. Ahead of them lay the West Melbourne Swamp; near where Elizabeth Street joined the Yarra River was the Immigrants’ Home, the sink for the desperate, includ- ing Hugh Hanlon at his nadir. On the bank nearby is where the swamp people meet, and drink, and fight. Much contemporary commentary focused on the dark edges of Melbourne society, the marginal people who, in a Victorian version of a shantytown, basically lived in the wattle groves along the river— the local climate was usually benign enough. Cameron’s contemporary John Stanley James discusses the phenomenon in “The Outcasts of Melbourne,” one of his Vagabond Papers, and Davison edited a collection of historical essays with the same title.14

Robert never falls so far, but Slabang does, and is eventually fatally wounded in a fight on the bank as the swamp people try to rob the now wealthy- seeming Billy. Worse happened there to Billy’s sister: the novel starts with him unknowingly witnessing her murder. A key plot sequence, deep in the novel, tells how Bella, with her sweet nature and good looks, became Hugh Hanlon’s girlfriend. Her innate virtue, even in her fallen state, made him marry her, but when he fixed on Linda and was unable to dissolve his earlier connection, he murdered Bella. But not all the humiliated poor are tragic like her or lucky like Billy. Polly, his oldest sister, rose through her beauty and force of character to be rich, powerful—as Marian Lee, dark female force of the story. She too loves Robert and, like her sister, will be faithful to love until death. Through Polly/Marian and her suggestively named Eros Villa the story offers its version of the sexualized narrative that Reynolds and Lippard often deploy, though without their explicitness.
Much is made by Cameron, like Judson, of the dives and license of inner Melbourne, and this was a widely noted feature of the city: Robert and Marian alight from a cab at a dubious hotel on Swanston Street, dwelt upon by the text as a haunt of “fast characters” and “splendidly dressed sirens” (47). The block between Bourke and Lonsdale Street just north of the smart center of town was long a notorious location for houses of assignation and quasi-brothels: a 1860s map shows 20 of them clustering around there.15
If class hostility and possible mobility, both down and up, is a clear theme of the novel, some historical formations are touched on more lightly, indeed euphemistically. Convictism was a direct inheritance in New South Wales and what was only recently being called Tasmania—formerly known by the forbidding name of Van Diemen’s Land. But the penal system cast its shadow in Victoria; much of the urban underworld in the novel has links back to the convictism that lasted until a generation before Cameron’s time. Patsy Quinlan, the unregenerate larrikin who harasses Billy Dawson and both acts for and reveals the secrets of “the ring,” speaks in a slang that reaches back to the convicts; Granny Truckler, a servile-seeming inner-city shopkeeper with surprising wealth, also reveals her connections by speaking like a cockney. The most assertive link with the bad old days is the figure of “Metallic Megath- erium”—one of Cameron’s many allegorical names (a feature shared with Reynolds, Lippard and old-style moralist melodrama): a megatherium was an atavistic giant sloth. His shadow, as a convict turned entrepreneur, money- lender, gambling fixer, falls heavily across the activities through which Robert ends up massively in debt. Megatherium and his ring symbolize corrupt finance, the unproductive monetary capitalism that Cameron, like his ideal character Harry Robertson, wishes to see dissolved in favor of productive business—as the weak but at least honest bank accountant, “that mild old man” (29), recommends: “[P]atience is of all virtues the greatest and when you see other men make sudden fortunes, learn to control yourself and be patient. Time, industry, and perseverance are the stones which build the edifice of fortune” (30).
If convictism is in the wings and can morph into modern larrikinism and corruption, other destructive forces are observed, but with a racist rather than a guilt-conscious eye. Unlike the genuinely liberal Reynolds, but very like Clarke,16 Cameron offers a clear and repeated anti–Semitism. He represents a range of Jewish financiers in hostile stereotype: the worst is Mahaleel Methuse- lah, whose name conveys unnerving antiquity as well as foreignness: both are offered as un–Australian. Jewish caricatures appear at Megatherium’s elbow as he gambles and jokes, and money lending is improbably seen as an exclu- sively Semitic practice. There may be some wider critique of banking in the name of the Collusive Bank, the young men’s employer, and even Mr. Over- draw the earnest accountant, but Cameron’s inquiry into financially unre- spectable dealings is basically held at the level of a simple racist response. Equally common in its period is the representation of the Chinese as fugitive and dangerous inner Melbourne citizens — they suborn even the larrikins into losing money at fan-tan, and “fat oily Chinaman” (42) is as automatic and hostile a response as the heavy-accented caricatures of Jewish financiers. Sla- bang’s name is certainly Germanic but also non–Semitic. It seems, like the name of the dirty but kindly Irish cook-shop owner, Mother Hash, a routine semi-racism used to delegate weakness and disorderliness outside the realm of true Britishness, and so Australianness.
Racism can operate through silence as well as being unacceptably vocif- erous. Like most of Australia’s other delightful and fertile areas, what became known as Port Phillip Bay had supported a large and prospering Indigenous population, but their numbers were reduced even more drastically than in other contact areas, both through introduced disease and also through imposed life disruption which led to social separation, lower birthrates and destructive lifestyles. At least 10,000 Kulin people were in the Melbourne area at first contact in the 1830s, but by the gold rush—only 20 years later—their num- bers were reduced, it is estimated, to less than 2,000.17 The Victorian settle- ment encounter lacked the earlier period’s attempts at conciliation, clumsy and finally unsuccessful though they were, and operated directly in the devel- oped hostile mode. Unlike in the Sydney and Hobart regions, Indigenous names were rejected for city areas. The only Kulin place-name used in early Melbourne was Yarra for the main river, and this is itself an error: the actual name was Birrarung, meaning “ever-flowing.”18 A generation on, in Cameron’s text there is only one mention of the former landholders, when the Yarra Bank is remembered—interestingly, with a translation of the correct Indigenous name—as having been once a location of “the deities of the dead race that peopled the banks of the ‘Everflowing,’ ere great Melbourne had risen on its banks” (43). The recognition is scarcely positive: that race is pronounced firmly “dead” and the successor city is very much alive and firmly, or perhaps anxiously, “great.” And yet there also seems a self-critical semi-awareness of forced and doubtful supplantation, as what had been a social and productive center of Indigenous life is shown as the location for murder, strife and des- peration in the white community, for what the text calls “all the sin and shame the river has seen and will see” (43).
This is where Billy at first watches his unrecognized sister being murdered: this is where a sacked hangman, a former larrikin gang leader and Bess, “the terror of the Melbourne swamp” (43), attack Billy. Only the magisterial inter- vention of Harry Robertson and his rowing friends, like Rodolphe arriving with backup in a Paris tapis-franc, can save the life of the socially redeemed Billy from this site of what seems very much like reverse evolution among the whites.
Equally negative in method and impact is the way the novel writes land taking out of its story and so out of Australian history. Harry’s distant relative rewards him for his excellent character by leaving him money and property. But there is a euphemizing shuffle: he was an “old colonist,” which means he had taken a great swathe of land and somehow had his seizure legitimated. The wealth appropriated from that land taking, through dispossession of its previous possessors and, not by the way, the exploitation of convict and cheap labor, as well as the support and legitimation of colonial governments at both ends of the world, has now been separated from its embarrassing origins. The old colonist built himself a mansion in St Kilda, and that is where Harry lives, by the water, in easy reach by train and cab of the emergent sophisticated metropolis. The radicalism of the gold period and the quest for land rights by small settlers had, under the slogan “unlocking the land,” put great pressure on the massive seizures of terrain by the early squatters,19 but the novel elides that substantial social and political tension into a moralized transition to a sea-side lifestyle. The world that Cameron realizes is not only a world of conflict; it is also a world of change, change that can permit the disavowal of past activities, both heroic and brutal.


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