Friday, 20 July 2012

Old Songs in the Timeless Land: Medievalism in Australian Literature by Louise D’Arcens

An absorbing account by a leading Australian medievalist of one of the undernoticed foundations of Australian culture and identity. D’Arcens shows that late nineteenth century novelists, especially women writers, were acutely aware of the medievalism of the pre-Raphaelites and the William Morris circle, and read these formations both as  searching critiques of modern materialism, and also as a set of ideas and practices capable of collapsing into mere fashion. D’Arcens has also researched poetry – the work of Adam Lindsay Gordon is richly medieval, as he identified with the hard-riding heroes of the border ballads, including his namesake and, he claimed, relative Edom o’ Gordon.

Perhaps the most unusual element of the book is the work done on popular literature and especially theatre: everything appeared on the stage, often in magnificently elaborate settings, and the full panoply of medievalism occupied the theatre, and also appears in cartoons and other popular treatments. But underlying the book, and addressed directly in the Introduction and elsewhere, is the element to which medievalism for some Australians justified the seizure of the country and the subsequent treatment of the native people: some Australians felt they were like Saxons, Vikings and Normans, taking what they liked through the virtue – and by implication the validity – of their physical power.

This is a book to interest and entertain the intelligent general reader as well as the serious student, but also one that poses some searching questions about the bases and ideologies of  white Australian culture.

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