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The snob who snubbed Australia's Indigenous imagination

  • 01 May 2015

In 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