TEXT review

Romance edition

review by Tessa Chudy

David Brooks & Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Southerly: The Romance Edition Vol 70 No 2
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 2010
ISBN 9781921556142
Pb 224pp AUD$26.95


This is an impressively thick book-like journal that presents itself as a themed edition – romance – no less, and appears complete with a tacky and vaguely disturbing,  retro romance cover reproduction. The back cover blurb however emerges as the most satisfying thing about this edition. It raises some provocative questions about the nature, meaning and place of romance in Australian literature. Most of these questions, sadly, remain unanswered.

I am not, I must confess, a romance fan, but a fascination with the workings of genre and, yes, the promises raised by the back cover blurb were quite enough to hook me in. I was soon disappointed, all those promises, but at the end of the journal I was none the wiser.

The essays were easily the most compelling part of the journal. Roslynn Haynes’ piece on Marie Bjelke Petersen looks at the way romance conventions were subverted to serve Petersen’s personal and religious ideological agendas. Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver’s piece on Louise Mack is a compelling historical exploration, looking at the literary climate as well as Mack’s specific body of work. Using Alfred Buchanan’s concept of ‘pseudo-literature’, Gelder and Weaver ponder the possibilities of an Australian literature while at the same time questioning if such a thing is even possible. Toni Johnson-Woods’ deconstruction of ‘Adventures of a Squatter’, a male colonial romance, is certainly fascinating on a number of levels, and provides an intriguing insight into a literary climate, that was by nature conservative and almost exclusively heterosexual in its focus.  Jessica White looks at the bizarre and fascinating relationship between Rosa Praed and her partner, who could inhabit the character of a past life as a roman slave, and how this impacted both on Praed’s writing and her perception of herself. Nicolette Stasko in an intriguing and provocative piece looks at biographical memoir writing and how it can be read as conforming to the conventions of the romance genre.

The Blaiklock lecture about the body spirit continuum in the writing and art of Barbara Hanrahan ties in nicely with the review of Hanrahan’s biography in the final section of the journal. It does explore issues of eroticism, sexuality and the representation of the sacred, and is provocative and informative, but does this really fall under the mantle of romance? Anne Marie Priest’s essay on the life and loves of Gwen Harwood is certainly filled with innuendo but finally it seems to be more about undercutting the apparent sexless perceptions of the poet and reclaiming her sexuality rather than about the nature of romance in her work.

Whether taken apart or together these essays do not create a coherent or comprehensive overview of the state of romance in Australian literature. Nor does the selection of fiction add to the picture with only the haunting brief piece ‘Littoral’ by Belinda Campbell really playing with the conventions of romance, with its vivid imagery and sense of impossibility. True ‘The Leaving’ explores the end of an affair but it doesn’t really engage with romance conventions and emerges as a rather cold piece. ‘Political Correctness’ is a cynical delight, it could possibly be defined as a post romance snapshot of a relationship where the passion has long departed, but that is a bit of a stretch.

There is quite a lot of poetry and it becomes slightly overwhelming at times, some of it does seem to deal with romantic themes, but I would probably have preferred to read a bit more about the concepts or lack of concepts − of Australian romance in whatever form – fiction, poetry, etc. Of the six reviews that sit at the end of the journal only one deals in any sense of the word romance – Sophie Clarke’s review of Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver’s Anthology of Colonial Australian Romance.

On reflection it seems that most of the romance explored here is from the colonial era, the myth of the colonial romance emerges as a fluid thing, undercut by sexuality and individualism but what happened to the genre after the colonial period who, what, where, when? Surely there have been stirrings of some description, mutations, genre crossings, playfulness, confusion?

Okay, okay, I will admit to being picky, even very picky, but I do like my promises fulfilled. Yes there is some interesting work here on Romance in Australian literature, however what is presented is not enough to create a clear picture of just what Australian Romance is or means in a broader literary context. If anything I found myself with an ever-expanding list of questions that for now remain unanswered.



Tessa Chudy is currently undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Southern Cross University. She is especially interested in the intersection of gothic and noir and the role of the landscape in fiction. Tessa is also a visual artist and lives on the mid north coast of NSW.


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy