Australia was colonised and settled by the British – towards the end of the eighteenth century – at precisely the moment at which the Gothic novel emerged as a clearly defined genre back home. Its colonisation also followed the Gothic revival in architecture in Britain, which was to influence large-scale metropolitan architecture in Australian cities later on: for example, in the 1860s reconstruction of Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral or the Great Hall at Sydney University with its distinctive kangaroo gargoyle, or the ANZ Bank (the ‘Gothic Bank’) which was built in Melbourne in the 1880s (Randles 2006: 151, 158). As for the architecture of the Gothic novel itself, however, there were those who thought that Australia was simply too new to accommodate it. Around the time Sir Edmund Thomas Blacket was designing Sydney University’s neo-Gothic Great Hall, the immigrant journalist Frederick Sinnett wrote a foundational literary essay, ‘The Fiction Fields of Australia’ (1856), in which, paraphrasing Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso’ (1633), the Gothic novel in Australia was cast, perhaps with some regret, as a sheer impossibility:
Australia may well have seen few old ruins by this time. Even so, it soon became the site of what Tom Griffiths has called an ‘antiquarian imagination’ which – through the early work of colonial collectors of ‘curiosities’, naturalists, amateur archaeologists, ethnologists and historians – infused the newly settled country with a remarkable sense of the ancient (Griffiths 1996). In colonial Australian fiction, this found one sort of expression in a fascination with the ‘timelessness’ of Aboriginal people, as well as in fantasies about the discovery of a Lemuria (a lost or forgotten civilisation) that revealed settler Australians’ proximity to vibrant prehistorical forces: as in George Firth Scott’s The Last Lemurian (1898), which finds a lost race of people in the Australian desert, or J. D. Hennessey’s An Australian Bush Track (1896), where a group of settler entrepreneurs discover the remnants of a great civilisation in a place called ‘Zoo-Zoo land’ somewhere in northern Queensland. There are at least two ways of understanding these strange Gothic romances: first, through their creation of what
Melissa Bellanta has called a ‘fabulated’ nation, full of wonders and strangeness, luxurious and Edenic, even utopian (Bellanta 2004); and second, as a means of eliding (or at least, sublimating) both the depressed and dispossessed predicament of actual Aboriginal people by this time, and the harsh, austere realities of settler life in the bush.