In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Australia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Online Archives
  • Primary Source Anthologies
  • Histories of Australian Literary Criticism
  • Indigeneity, the Contact Zone, and Colonial Violence
  • Emigration
  • Early Colonial Literature to the 1860s
  • Settler Fiction from the 1850s
  • Settler Poetry
  • Landscape and Environment
  • The 1890s
  • Print and Periodical Culture
  • Metropolitan Influences and Transnational Circulation

Victorian Literature Australia
by
Philip Steer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0196

Introduction

The Victorian period demarcates a crucial period in the settler colonization of Australia. Although the settler invasion had commenced with the landing of the so-called First Fleet of convict ships in 1788, the number of transported convicts peaked in the 1830s, the year of Victoria’s accession. In 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, the Australian colonies—New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, and Western Australia—formally federated to create the Commonwealth of Australia. Between these events, the growing settler population explored and expanded across the continent, with devastating impacts for its Aboriginal peoples and ecosystems alike. The growing settler economy was also meshed ever more tightly with Britain’s, spurred by the discovery of gold in the 1850s and the constant expansion of pastoralism. Australia’s settler literature emerged against this backdrop. Victorianists, however, have typically viewed the settler colonization of Australia through the lens of British novelists, especially Charles Dickens and to a lesser extent Anthony Trollope. Settler writing offers a broader and more immediate—though still limited—range of insights into processes of invasion, racial violence, environmental change, and identity formation. Victorianists considering the remarkably large body of 19th-century Australian literature must also reckon with the rich and complex field of Australian literary studies. The area of colonial textual production that has historically received greatest attention is the writing of the 1890s, long seen as marking the emergence of a distinctive national identity, but now interrogated for the starkly gendered nature of its literary and critical procedures. A long-standing interest in Australia’s landscape has now broadened into an ecocritical focus on climate, ecosystems, and introduced species. The extensive open access digitization of colonial newspapers and periodicals has also spurred a flourishing of print culture and periodical studies. One of the enduring challenges of studying Australian literature for the insights it offers into Victorian imperialism is the almost total lack of Indigenous writing in English.

General Overviews

Several general histories of Australian literature have been produced since the 1980s that offer valuable perspectives on colonial writing, each marked by distinct editorial priorities and critical approaches. Hergenhan 1988 presents the most diverse and selfconsciously revisionary range of perspectives. Pierce 2011 is the most recent literary history to offer extensive coverage of colonial textuality. Thorough accounts of colonial authors, genres, and themes are also contained in Bennett and Strauss 1998 and Webby 2006. Serle 1973 is a literary history from an earlier critical moment that nevertheless remains of continuing value for its willingness to consider colonial literature in a wider cultural context that includes painting and architecture. For those needing to look beyond literature to historiography, Bashford and Macintyre 2013 is a valuable starting point due to its lucid but detailed account of Australian history prior to the twentieth century. Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia 2017–2022 is a remarkable and sobering digital humanities project that makes visible Australia’s stark history of racial violence.

  • Bashford, Alison, and Stuart Macintyre, eds. The Cambridge History of Australia. Vol. 1, Indigenous and Colonial Australia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    A recent historical work that usefully balances depth with breadth, covering the period up to Federation in 1901. The introduction provides an overview of Australian historiography. Part 1 addresses periods of history, including chapters on the key decades of the 1850s and 1890s. Part 2 is organized around thematic concerns such as environmental transformations, Indigenous and settler relations, gender, art and literature, and transnational connections.

  • Bennett, Bruce, and Jennifer Strauss, eds. The Oxford Literary History of Australia. Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Turns away from the revisionary tendencies of Hergenhan’s Penguin New Literary History of Australia. Reasserts a focus on mainstream literary genres and canonical authors, although lengthy chapters nevertheless ensure coverage of a large number of texts. Features two chapters on writing prior to 1850, and three focused on the period 1851–1914.

  • Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia 1788–1930. Newcastle, NSW: University of Newcastle, 2017–2022.

    A deeply researched catalogue, map, and timeline of over four hundred deliberate and unlawful killings of six or more undefended people during the colonial period. Introduced by a detailed discussion of methodology, definitions, and evidence. Vital for understanding the unfolding terror of settlement. Contributions edited by Lyndall Ryan et al.

  • Hergenhan, Laurie, ed. The Penguin New Literary History of Australia. Ringwood, VIC: Penguin, 1988.

    An explicitly revisionary literary history of Australia that foregrounds a diversity of writers rather than a narrow concentration on canonical figures. The introduction assertively conveys the critical context of the 1980s, criticizing earlier literary histories as unadventurous in conception. Two sections focus on the nineteenth century, containing ten short chapters, with a focus on a range of genres, themes, and contexts.

  • Pierce, Peter, ed. The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    The most recent history of Australian literature featuring extensive coverage of colonial writing. The short introduction identifies a consistent dialectic in Australian literature between parochial national writing and cosmopolitan engagement with British literary heritage. Twelve chapters are devoted entirely or in part to the nineteenth century, each focused on a genre or theme, and four other chapters also offer surveys that span the entirety of Australian literary history.

  • Serle, Geoffrey. From Deserts the Prophets Come: The Creative Spirit in Australia, 1788–1972. Melbourne, VIC: Heinemann, 1973.

    Despite offering a dated thesis about the lack of value in Australian literature prior to the 1890s, Serle’s work remains useful for its willingness to link writing to other domains of culture. Each chapter not only surveys prominent writers but also considers contemporary developments in painting, music, architecture, education, and linguistics.

  • Webby, Elizabeth, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Webby’s introduction offers a helpful survey of Australian literary historiography from the colonial period onwards, along with an account of Australian postsettlement history. A chapter by Penny van Toorn offers a history of Indigenous writing across the history of settlement, as does Richard Fotheringham with history of theatre in Australia, while Webby addresses changing tastes in writing and reading during the nineteenth century.

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