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The snob who snubbed Australia's Indigenous imagination


George Herbert CowlingIn my final year of English Literature at Melbourne University, my tutor was Mrs Cowling. Those were the days before students began addressing staff by their first names.

In Mrs Cowling's case, even if the prevailing custom had been more relaxed, neither I nor any of the class would have dared to use her first name — which, as it happened, was Muriel, though I didn't know that at the time. Mrs Cowling was formidable. Her significant physical presence was accentuated by a commanding mien, impeccable English enunciation with that faint suggestion of superiority that so often accompanied anglo-verbal elegance in pre-multicultural days, and an impressive depth and breadth of literary reference supporting rock-firm opinions.

All of which in 2015 sounds, no doubt, unpromising. But as I and the rest of the class discovered slowly but with increasing admiration, Mrs Cowling was a wonderful teacher and not quite the immovably stern, stereotypical Pom of our early and shallow assumptions. All these years later, I wonder just how burdened she was in teaching literature to Australian students, which she continued to do into her 80th year, by her husband's notoriety. What! I hear you say, Notoriety?

Muriel Margaret Cowling came to Australia from Leeds in 1928 with her husband, George Herbert Cowling, who had been appointed Professor of English at Melbourne University and who would hold that position until 1943. At about the half way mark of his incumbency, Cowling published an article in the Melbourne Age in which he proposed that Australia lacked the history, traditions and accumulated lore and legend which supplied the writers of fiction and poetry with their material.

'There are no ancient churches, castles, ruins — the memorials of generations departed,' he wrote. 'You need no Baedeker [the guide to world travel first published in 1827] in Australia. From the point of view of literature this means that we can never hope to have a Scott, a Balzac, a Dumas ... nor a poetry that reflects past glories.'

The lengthiest and strongest of a wave of responses came from the Australian critic, P. R. 'Inky' Stephensen, who, by baldly listing the complaints of 'the learned professor', as he called him, exaggerated what many saw as their outrageous Anglocentric and Eurocentric bias. 

Cowling wrote that 'Australia is not yet in the centre of the globe, and it has no London'; 'The rewards of literature in Australia are not good enough to make it attract the best minds'; 'In spite of what the native-born say about gum trees ... our countryside is "thin" and lacking in tradition'; 'Australian life is too lacking in tradition, and too confused, to make many first-class novels'; 'Literary culture is not indigenous, like the gum tree, but is from a European source'.

Debate about what would and should supply the Australian creative imagination had been going on in Australia as early as the 1870s when Marcus Clarke defined the 'dominant note' of the Australian bush as 'weird melancholy'. At the turn of the century, Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy and Banjo Paterson were very much concerned with what Australians should write about and how their stories and poems might best express the Australian landscape and its people. They saw these as central questions to be answered with native wit and in a local, recognisable voice.

Pre-empting and contradicting the Cowling view, Furphy, in Such is Life, notes, but explicitly celebrates the absence of, 'ancient churches, castles' and so on and regards the tradition-choked past as enshrining 'usages of petrified injustice ... fealty to shadowy idols [and] memories of fanaticism and persecution'. In a debate around the campfire about the Burke and Wills expedition, Mosey, one of the bullockies, refers to Europe as those 'ole wore-out countries'.

Much has changed and yet little has changed since Cowling published his article in 1935 and Stephensen exploded in response. Neither of them considered the Aboriginal past, in the words of Amy McGuire in New Matilda, those 'hundreds of Aboriginal nations who made this land home for almost 60,000 years, who managed the vast swathes of country under an extraordinary and complex land management system that incorporated aspects of their spirituality'.

Neither did Philip Ruddock, then Immigration Minister, on 11 October 2000, when, as reported in the Age, he said, 'We're dealing with an Indigenous population that had little contact with the rest of the world. We're dealing with people who were essentially hunter-gatherers. They didn't have chariots. I don't think they invented the wheel.'

And the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, nailed it down for an international audience in Brisbane last year. 'Australia', he said, 'was nothing but bush' before the British invasion, and life, until the British convict system set an alternative example, was 'extraordinarily basic and raw'.

Over to you George and Muriel. Lead me to the nearest available, dramatic, legend-haunted ancient castle and pull the drawbridge up after me. Or, to quote Furphy again, and still honouring the past, 'Go to; I'll no more on't. It hath made me mad.’

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: George Herbert Cowling, 'Inky' Stephensen, Marcus Clarke, Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy, Banjo Paterson



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Existing comments

I do hope I'm not breaking any hearts by revealing a particular partiality to your most enriching and erudite writing, Prof. Matthews. You've hit the nail on the head with your vignette about Muriel C. and her equally delightful husband. Of course, Australia is advancing (fairly slowly we must allow) in the literary stakes. Soon, I'm sure, we'll have something to crow about to those 'ole wore-out countries'!

Pam | 30 April 2015  

"...impeccable English enunciation with that faint suggestion of superiority that so often accompanied anglo-verbal elegance in pre-multicultural days..." I love it.

Frank | 01 May 2015  

Great stuff Brian. In our tutorial with Mrs Cowling on James Joyce she announced firmly that she had not read Ulysses and didn't intend to, a small matter it seemed that didn't stop her from taking the tutorial.

Bill Hannan | 01 May 2015  

G. H. Cowling: 'Australia lacked the history, traditions and accumulated lore and legend which supplied the writers of fiction and poetry with their material.' Thank heavens. Old out-dated traditions need vigorous pruning if they are to be converted from stumbling blocks to stepping stones. For every visionary seeking to uplift the human spirit, there are a thousand diehard conservatives trying to keep us mired in the once useful ways of a bygone era.

Robert Liddy | 01 May 2015  

Brian, I always love your pieces but this one is special, because I also was a student of 'Mrs!" Cowling and I found her a wonderfully supportive tutor. Not one, as you say, that you would address by her first name, but someone you felt about as a friend as much as you admired her as a teacher. That was in Second Year in 1959. I wonder did you and I meet then? I am in close contact these days with her then young colleague as tutor to Second Year, Jenny Dallimore, now Professor of English, Jenny Gribble, and she too talks fondly of 'Mrs' Cowling. I have been involved in advocacy for justice to Aboriginal people for years now and I congratulate you on what you say about our unawareness of their culture. It wasn't just George Cowling, and it wasn't only then. Bruce Pascoe's 'Dark Emu', 2014, gives a startling account of how advanced in agriculture and settlement the Aborigines were at the time of white settlement and how during the frontier push the records of what people like Mitchell, Sturt and others found were not only disregarded, but conveniently, even deliberately, buried. A sense of the Aboriginal Australia Pascoe shows from early records is indispensable to us in the move towards Constitutional, or other, recognition. And again you remind us of just how good Furphy was, is. Many thanks.

Joe Castley | 01 May 2015  

Just in case any Martians are following this blog: Ruddock and Abbott are correct in their assertions. Sydney as a developed city was simply non-existent prior to 1788. There was, as Abbott said "nothing but bush" there. Anyone without the anti-Abbott bug knows he wasn't denying that aboriginal communities lived in that bush at the time, anymore than he was denying that kangaroos and wombats lived there too.Secondly, Abbott said that, to the convicts and crew of the first fleet, "everything would have seemed so extraordinarily basic and raw". Does anyone who has read the memoirs of the first fleeters seriously doubt this? How can it possibly be termed "snobbish" to admit this fact? Finally, here is the non-controversial factual matrix which supports Mr Ruddock: 1. There is no evidence of any more than "little" contact between the indigenous population of Australia and the rest of the world before 1788, especially those living in the southern and interior parts of the continent. 2. Australia's aborigines were essentially hunter-gatherers. 3. They didn't have chariots. 4. They didn't invent the wheel. Again, not snobbery. Just facts. And another fact to finish off: the "snob" Tony Abbott has over the years spent much of his free time in aboriginal communities - more so, I'll wager, than most of his outraged non-aboriginal critics.

HH | 01 May 2015  

Ruddock was not the only politician to disparage the Aboriginal people for their failure to invent the wheel. During the Wik debate, a moment when an attempt to redress some of the injustice of European occupation of Australia was hotly disputed in the courts, the execrable Tim Fischer delivered what he thought was the coup-de-grace to end any hopes the Wiks had of title to their own land: “they didn’t even invent the wheel”, he declared with all the authority of a member of the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. Quite apart from the fact that neither Ruddock nor Fischer invented the wheel either – or anything else for that matter that I’m aware of – it seemed to have escaped their attention that draught animals are not listed among Australia’s native fauna so just exactly what the Aborigines might have done with a wheel is a bit of a mystery. Not only that, Fischer was the same man who once presented to one Bill Gates a hand plaited stock whip as an example of what clever blokes we dinkum Aussies really are. That’s actually quite funny, isn’t it? Anyway, that’s got nothing to do with the theme of Brian’s essay which is the view expressed barely more than a century after European occupation that Australia, lacking any long history and the customs, myths and experiences that go with a long history, was/is thus incapable of inspiring writers. It is an interesting argument but it does not answer a question which has long puzzled me. Why has Australia never produced a Herman Melville, for example? Moby Dick was written barely two centuries after the Mayflower arrived in the New World which fact didn’t seem to restrict Melville. And I would suggest that his inspiration for Moby Dick did not spring from wandering around “ancient churches, castles and ruins” or pondering “the memorials of generations departed.” I would also suggest that the inspiration for Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” came from life experiences well understood by any Australian writer but none have penned anything to compare with it. Why is that so? I wonder if the answer is that, surrounded by colourless characters who think that plaiting a stock whip is a marvelous human achievement, the best that Australian writers can do is something as cringeworthy as ‘The Man from Snowy River.’

Paul | 01 May 2015  

It is regrettable that HH so seriously misunderstands what Brian Matthews has written. Apart from the fact that, to some degree, the indigenous Australians "managed" the landscape and produced grasslands, the real issue here is not the physical and tangible but the music, the poetic legends and the spirituality. These are the essence of life and art: the quiddity of mankind and they were ignored or disparaged by most of the colonists. They saw only the landscape and the different face of nature in deciding that everything "seemed so extraordinarily basic and raw": but they missed the important truth. Thus the essence of the criticism of Messrs Ruddock and Abbott, surely, is their insistence on emphasising the prosaic. This is akin to our Australian fixation on money and business, and the insistence on the belief that "Australia is again open for business" -- as if finance and business are, and should be, what determine us (and, worse, the original owners of this land).

Dr John CARMODY | 01 May 2015  

Dear Brian, Such a refreshing reminder of your own teaching at Flinders Uni.

Maureen Keating | 01 May 2015  

I presume the photographic portrait at the beginning of Mr Matthew's wonderful essay is that of George Herbert Cowling gazing into the middle distance. What is he thinking or wishing: a return to the dreaming spires of Oxford, his wife's failure to prepare her tutorial on Ulysses or the one-eyed treatise he is about to publish on Australia's alleged cultural inferiority? Whatever the reason for his inscrutable pose, Mr Matthews gives us yet another unambiguous portrait of an English intellectual snob, a breed very common in university faculties throughout the Commonwealth up until the 80's. And why was this so? Yet another example I suspect of "the cringe"; a lack of belief in ourselves. MR Ruddock and Mr Abbott both confirmed Monarchists, still believe there is nothing better than a constitional monarchy and so in their way are "cringers" too.
To the graduates of the University of Melbourne, Brian, Bill and Joe, thank you.

Garry Evans | 01 May 2015  

'I don't think they invented the wheel.'
Maybe, but they did invent the aerofoil.

myzomela | 01 May 2015  

I enjoyed reading your article, highlighting the still great gap between A But the saddest part was the quote by the existent Australian PM.
For a better appreciation of an indigenous cultural contribution to Australia why not look at :"Blind Moses" by Peter Latz.

John Pettit | 01 May 2015  

Dr Carmody: cherishing as you do the essence of life, you may sniff at the mere physical development of today’s city of Sydney from bushland over two centuries. Others will beg to differ. Nevertheless that is the context of Tony Abbott’s remarks, made at an international business breakfast before the G20. Needless to say, Abbott was not addressing an academic convention on Australian literature and its relation to aboriginal culture. To see his words so wrenched out of context is to suspect that the good Professor Matthews has as much familiarity with Abbott’s speech as (per Bill Hannan) Mrs Cowling did with “Ulysses”. Ditto for the comments of Philip Ruddock. No, I think I understand Prof Matthews’ point, and the issues he raises are worth discussion. The de rigeur abbottphobia somewhat spoilt an otherwise stimulating post.

HH | 02 May 2015  

Fascinating! Prof Cowling was my grandfather (never met him) and Muriel my grandmother. She used to visit us in England when she always visited Tolkien. I liked her very much. She used to put good books my way. Given the advanced dysfunction of my own family life I wish I'd seen much more of her. I'd sort of gathered that GH was something of a snob -- I believe he exterminated Aussie vowels in his children the moment he heard them. In his defence, he did sterling work collecting Yorkshire ballad poetry and even wrote some himself.

Charles Cowling | 13 June 2018  

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