115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fire, Time and Memory in Victorian Settler Fiction

Grace Moore, University of Melbourne

This paper will examine the ways in which Australian settler fiction of the nineteenth century engaged with bushfires.  Arguing that growing knowledge of fire led to new understandings of time and the seasons, I shall consider changing representations of fire in mid-Victorian melodramas and in later, more serious fiction.


Fire, Time and Memory in Victorian Settler Fiction


This paper will examine how Australian settler fiction and poetry stage shifting notions of temporality in relation to bushfires.  The fire was an important plot device in settler writing, initially adding a touch of local colour for readers back home in England through stories of melodramatic rescue.  However, by the end of the nineteenth century, understandings of fire had begun to change, as settlers began to learn that fires were not simply one-off catastrophes, but rather they were recurring phenomena.


Underpinning my arguments with theories of affect, in particular Brian Massumi’s work on ‘fear of future fire’ and the philosopher Alexander Bain’s work on trauma, I shall argue that as settlers became increasingly conscious of the cyclicality of bushfires, their understandings of time and its relation to landscape altered.  Realist writing responded to this deepening knowledge of the Australian environment, and instead of emphasizing the fleeting drama of a fire, fiction began to focus on its seasonal return. These stories (which are exemplified by works including Louisa Atkinson’s _Tressa’s Resolve_, 1872 and JS Borlase’s ‘Twelve Miles Broad’, 1885) highlight the extreme vigilance that accompanies heightened knowledge and memories of the land.  We see characters waiting for fires to arrive in scenes that are often agonizing in their slow pace, leaving them caught, as Barbara Eckstein expresses it, ‘between bushfire and approaching’ (16). Yet we also see bushfires, both actual and anticipated, accumulate memories of fires that have come before, and the devastation they have caused.


Memory and nostalgia play important and complicated roles in nineteenth-century attempts to mediate and manage the Australian landscape, exposing the fiction of a land that could be tamed or pastoralized to become just like the home settlers had left behind.  Drawing on the fire historian Tom Griffiths’s notion of the amnesia that enables survivors of bushfires to return to the site of the blaze and to build anew, I will examine representations of characters who doggedly rebuild their old lives.  In particular I shall consider the fraught nature of ‘willed amnesia’ or the denial of the reality that fire will return, while also considering connections between memory and place.