Alternative Families, Natural Disasters and Colonial Settlement: Henry Kingsley’s Australia

Settler’s Residence, Grampians, by Christopher B. Herbert, c. 1880. Image Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

By Grace Moore, The University of Melbourne

Family dynamics are intrinsically emotional at the best of times, with each family unit constituting an emotional community, with its own internal rules and ‘systems of feeling’.[1] While some of the emotional responses we encounter when examining nineteenth-century literature and history may seem remote, others resonate just as much today as they did over 100 years ago.

My work on early European settlers in Australia and their responses to bushfires examines the role played by fiction in negotiating the strangeness of the Australian landscape and the often extreme affective responses that it evoked. In many of the texts I’ve examined, natural disasters are shown to threaten the stability of the family, just as they often do in real life. Stories, including J. S. Borlase’s ‘Twelve Miles Broad’ (1885), show characters with signs of what we would today label ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ and reveal the mental anguish that an event like a bushfire can trigger. Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859) is a novel that resists this type of plot, pitting a family against a sequence of challenges thrown up by the natural world in a bid to demonstrate settler robustness.[2]

Kingsley himself was no stranger to either the pressures of family life or the trials associated with migration. A younger brother of the novelist Charles Kingsley, Henry seems to have been caught up in some form of scandal during his time at Oxford. He left without taking his degree, using an opportunely timed legacy of £500 to move to Australia in September 1853. While Kingsley was reluctant to speak of his time in the colonies, we know that he spent some time at the Goldfields in 1857,[3] where he was unsuccessful. While he returned to England in 1858, he seems to have been an extremely poor correspondent during his absence. The critic John Barnes speculates that a character in Charles Kingsley’s novel Two Years Ago (1856), who never writes home and whose mother as a consequence believes that he has died, was based on Henry.

Kingsley wrote The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn after his return to England, and the novel reflects the generosity of an expatriate community in Australia who seem to have taken care of the young man after his lack of success at the diggings. These experiences perhaps explain Kingsley’s interest in alternative models of family, which he explores through the story, whose characters emigrate to Australia en masse. While some of the group are related to one another, a number – including the eponymous narrator, Geoffry – are bound together by strong bonds of friendship, rather than by blood. The characters live with and near one another and face trials together over a number of years before, having made their fortunes through sheep-farming in Australia, they return to England with their colonial wealth.

The plot engages with the idea of the colonies as the ‘children’ of Britannia, a popular trope at a time when migration to imperial outposts was on the rise. Kingsley’s characters – who are members of the landed gentry fallen upon hard times – transpose their class values wholesale to Australia, where they behave towards the community around them in a semi-feudal way . As I’ve noted elsewhere, there was a growing belief that Australia should not simply be a place of plunder; prominent figures including Anthony Trollope argued that those who made money in the colonies should not decamp back to the mother country at the first opportunity, but should instead commit to lives of civic responsibility in their new homes.

Trollope’s idea of what came to be known as ‘Greater Britain’ was not an attractive one to Kingsley, whose characters never form an emotional attachment to Australia. They are a tight-knit group, building homesteads that are insular, and maintaining a sentimental attachment to the old country, which is perhaps best illustrated by an exchange between the heroic young Sam Buckley and his fiancée, Alice. Recounting his memories of the England he left as a child, Sam declares, ‘My impression of England is, that everything was of a brighter colour than here; and they tell me I am right’. Alice responds, ‘A glorious country… so ancient and venerable, and yet so amazingly young and vigorous. It seems like a waste of experience for a man to stay here tending sheep, when his birthright is that of an Englishman’ (253, ellipses mine). Alice may never have seen England, yet the tie she feels is almost familial. Her restless yearning for a ‘home’ she had never seen was common among the descendants of migrants.

While the characters ostensibly settle into their home away from home, the novel is punctuated with episodes which remind them of their great physical and cultural distance from England. There are bushfires, explosions, storms, earthquakes and deaths in the bush. The characters demonstrate heroism as they are faced by challenge after challenge and their re-fashioned family provides a defence against the dangers of settler life. While the narrator shows extraordinary psychological insight in some instances (most notably in relation to the character Mary, who is estranged from her criminal husband), the characters reveal few signs of distress, even after the drama of facing ‘blinding smoke’ and ‘a million tongues of flickering flame’ (203).

It is fascinating to consider a scene that appears almost in the middle of the novel, where the narrator extols Australia’s remarkable growth and development, marvelling at its architecture and technological progress. Yet in response to Geoffry’s assertion, ‘I see here the cradle of a new and mighty empire’, his friend, Major Buckley, declares, ‘Two rattling good thumps of an earthquake… would pitch Melbourne into the middle of Port Philip, and bury all the gold. The world is very, very young, my dear Hamlyn’ (224, ellipses mine). Buckley’s comment signals a sense of fragility that he feels about the colony, its unpredictable ecosystem, and its potentially transient wealth. His emphasis on the youth of this new world suggests that Australia is too much of a child to be relied upon, with the instability of its land pointing to a broader instability.

This distrust of the colony’s capricious landscape ultimately makes the characters in The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn settlers who are unable to settle. Their homes and livelihoods are repeatedly threatened, challenging their efforts to maintain an English lifestyle on the other side of the world. While initially the group retreats into the family life they have created for themselves as a sanctuary against Australia’s otherness, they eventually yield to the emotional pull of the mother country, using their colonial money to buy back property they had relinquished and to re-establish themselves as members of the landed gentry.

Back at home, as almost all the cast slowly re-assembles itself in Devon, the characters enjoy a life of prosperity. As with the endings of so many nineteenth-century novels, this one is solipsistic: Australian-made money may fund this return to the past, but the reader is left with no sense of any affective tie to the life they have abandoned. Kingsley’s alternative model of the family remains intact, yet it is also shown to function most effectively in the familiar surrounds of the mother country.

Unchallenged by storms, floods or fires, Kingsley’s characters retreat into a world of comfort, which even draws in the reader as part of the group, listening to Hamlyn as he reads his manuscript of ‘recollections’ aloud. This experiment in extending family ties is shown to be most successful when the group is back in England, where its social status is affirmed and where there are few threats to its stability. As an emotional community, Hamlyn’s band of friends has been well and truly tested and, having demonstrated that they will stand together in adversity, the characters are granted a quiet family life at home.

The novel, and its apparent rejection of Australia, angered some nineteenth-century readers and reviewers, most famously Joseph Furphy, the author of Such is Life (1897). He objected to Kingsley’s Arcadian depiction of Australia and his characters’ exclusive class politics. According to this logic, the family Kingsley creates is best suited to life back in the old world, upholding the values of the mother country, rather than adapting to the world of the Australian ‘child’ colony.

*This post is a condensed version of a paper I will deliver at the ‘Family Ties’ symposium at the University of Otago. A copy of The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, abridged for school use, is on display at the accompanying ‘Keeping it in the Family’ exhibition.

For more on settler family histories, listen to Grace Moore on Radio National New Zealand, discussing ‘Authors and family in the 19th century.‘ 

[1] Barbara Rosenwein, ‘Worrying about Emotions in History’, American Historical Review 107, 2002, p. 842.

[2] Henry Kingsley, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (Hawthorn: Lloyd O’Neil, 1970).  Subsequent page references provided in-text.

[3] John Barnes, ‘A Young Man Called Kingsley’, Meanjin 30.1 (March 1971), 76.


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