In Australian fiction from the colonial period onward the transvestite is a recurrent figure in those rural and bush settings which function as metonyms of Australia, and onto which mythologies of distinctively Australian identities are so often invented. Transvestites continued their service of traversing rural Australia into the 1990s, mapping out spaces for identity formation in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), however this essay will focus on three narratives from the colonial period, to examine the deployment of transvestism in fiction written in the period leading up to Australian Federation in 1901. Such a focus is timely at the advent of the centenary of Federation in 2001 in its investigation of an enduring trope of white Australian identity and its relationship to the occupation and settlement of place. Examination of the operations of transvestic tropism identifies the literal fictionality of such claims by their situation in a highly conventional Romantic aesthetic and epistemology. The texts I will focus on are: Joseph Furphy's Such is Life, published in 1903 but written mostly in the 1890s, Tasma's "Monsieur Caloche" (1889), and Ernest Favenc's "The Parson's Blackboy" (1893). I will first outline a number of recurrent narrative and figurative patterns instantiated by the transvestite, and then address each of the fictions in turn.
Fictional transvestism is often indebted to reports of actual people. In colonial Australia newspaper reports the most common accounts were of women who had passed as men for many years and for as many reasons. 1 Sometimes in conformity with actual reports but just as often not, the fictional transvestites are characteristically nomadic, or have temporary residences on the outskirts of settled communities, villages and farms. In Such is Life and "Monsieur Caloche" the transvestites are boundary riders; in "The Parson's Blackboy" the transvestite is an Aboriginal guide who assists a new clergyman on a tour of his outback parish in north Queensland. Despite, or because of, this marginal position, transvestism is a central trope of these fictions. The focalising subjects for whom s/he is a figure of fascination are are itinerant workers, travelling players and touring officials, as all the narratives are tales of wandering, transition and transience.
The transvestite is integral to the mapping of the geographical and textual space of these fictions. The allure the transvestite holds for the focalising subject compels the narrative drive, for the subject's journey across the country is propelled by the desire to unravel the mystery of the transvestite's identity. This narrative of transvestic pursuit and eventual arrest usually comprises a choreographed movement in two steps: in the first, the transvestite leads the subject to the known limits of either geographical scope or fictional genre; and in the second, s/he leads him to a point beyond those limits. In keeping with the Blakean aphorism about not knowing what is enough until knowing what is more than enough, the transvestite nomad or fringe dweller shores up the boundaries of the geographical terrain and narrative by marking the point of their excess.
Yet the transvestite's role as the object of apprehension, which effects an arrest in narrative momentum, means that s/he is a figure of stasis as well as mobility. It is in her/his role as a static figure that the transvestite marks out a new coordinate on the map of the country. As both the mode of movement and progression and the mode of its temporary cessation, transvestism can be read as the mode of both textual representation and figuration. In its function as representation transvestism impels narrative desire and effects a coalescence of the various investments and misreadings of the transvestite's mystery, of his/her secret, along the linear narrative. In his/her function as a figure, the transvestite then hypostatizes these misreadings in a moment of recognition or misrecognition.
This movement from secrecy to revelation is a common enough pattern in fiction but functions to particular effect in transvestic narratives, where the transvestite problematises the conventional relationship between, and conflation of, Truth and Sex. A telling model for his/her particular role as a form of epistemology can be found in Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which, like the Australian fiction of identity-formation, is directly concerned with establishing the relationship between sex and origin. At one point in the essay Freud considers the origins of sexuality in relation to the death instinct. After a brief overview of reproduction in simple organisms he speculates:
Apart from this science has so little to tell us about the origin of sexuality that we can liken the problem to a darkness into which not so much as a ray of a hypothesis has penetrated. In quite a different region, it is true, we do meet with such a hypothesis, but it is of so fantastic a kind; a myth rather than a scientific explanation; that I should not like to produce it here, were it not that it fulfils precisely the one condition whose fulfilment we desire. For it traces the origin of an instinct to a need to restore an earlier state of things.
What I have in mind is, of course, the theory which Plato put into the mouth of Aristpohanes in the Symposium, and which deals not only with the origin of the sexual instinct but also with the most important of its variations in relation to its object. (Freud, 1919: 57)
Freud continues by quoting part of Aristophanes' speculations on the origin of love, sexual instinct, and the subject's sexual object, which includes most famously the hermaphrodite, Aristophanes' figure of a pre-lapsarian heterosexual symbiosis.
The trajectory of Freud's argument rehearses the pattern of the journey of discovery, which we also encounter in Australian transvestite fiction. Here, Freud's argument initially moves forward, moving toward Truth and Solution but then, in lieu of the inherently unknown, it offers instead an ancient representation of Truth, a story recounted by Aristophanes in The Symposium. In a further regression, this figure of Truth from Aristophanes' myth itself looks back to an earlier time: a text from antiquity looks back to mythic time. As such, Freud's argument enacts the very same regressive process he identifies as a property of his subject of study, sexual instinct. By the inclusion of the myth at this stage of the argument, Freud effectively crosses genre, from science to myth via philosophy, not only for the substance of his conclusion but also the mode of conclusion. In this sense his text can be said to perform Conclusion.
The invocation of Aristophanes and the hermaphrodite at this point clearly articulates the desire of the speaker himself, which Freud himself admits when he explains its inclusion by the fact that "it fulfils precisely the one condition whose fulfilment we desire". In the relationship it constructs between nostalgia and classical ideals, and the mirrored relationship between the desire of the argument and its thematics, Freud's text announces its influence by, or position within, a Romantic epistemology.
Australian transvestic fictions of travel and occupation of the land follow the pattern of Freud's argument about origins and sexual instinct in all these ways. They, too, deflect the gaze from the specific terms of the discourse that seeks to locate origins necessary, in this context, for a mythology of white Aboriginality. In lieu of the problematics posed by the empirical or historical evidence of such inquiry, they offer a representation of Origin, Truth, Mythology, which, as in Freud's essay, is the myth of the hermaphrodite. In the fiction, too, this necessitates a crossing of genres, for these predominantly realist narratives explicitly discountenance the possibility that such fanciful notional figures could occur within the geographical or fictional parameters of their discourse. For while the characters in these fictions are transvestites not hermaphrodites, they are constructed in ways that allude to this ancient figure and its associations.
The combination of this artistic notionality with both the textual allusions to the real life "personators" in the colonies and the realist parameters of the fiction constructs the transvestite as an empirical hermaphrodite, both real and notional, a living statue. Yet the effect has greater implications still, because the transvestite's capacity to cross between both domains of the notional and the real creates a chiastic exchange which functions to instantiate classical ideality into the world of the real and, concomitantly, to historicise the classical ideal.
The negotiation between a hidden classicism, veiled by romanticism, is a gendered construction for the Greek ideal is masculine, Adonis/Endymion, and the androgyny of this figure does not signify a union of masculine and feminine but a beautiful male body on the brink of manhood. So, too, this body is naked, not robed. Any drapery around the figure only serves to highlight bodily form by the manner it clings to the body, and is not a veil of concealment.
The gendering of the robed and disrobed body is ironically played out in Such is Life. Such is Life, set in 1883, recounts the journey, mainly around the colony of Victoria, of its Shandean narrator Tom Collins. In the course of the novel Tom, who is given to long digressive speculations on most things, pronounces at length on the various human types with whom he has contact, and is particularly interested in the "Coming Australian", an emerging, distinctively Australian white identity. Yet according to his own assessment, "the most interesting character in the course of these scrappy memoirs" is Alf Jones, who is more central to Tom's narrative than he himself ever realises. Unbeknownst to Tom, Alf Jones is a transvestite; and figuratively an hermaphrodite; As such s/he is a figure of a lost, ancient ideality rather than of a future utopia.
Tom spends one memorable evening in Alf's company at Alf's hut, discussing love and literature and listening to Alf's beautiful singing and violin playing. Tom is so fascinated by Alf that he later makes a detour in his travels in the hope of seeing ‘him' again. However, Alf has left by the time Tom returns, and his hut has become a relic or Ruined Cottage, a tourist site of historical interest. In recording his detour or digression to the hut, Tom addresses the reader to explain (and foreground) that he has had to alter his narrative structure in enable him to include more material about Alf. Explicitly here, the transvestite is central to the novel's structure, as s/he compels and directs the narrative.
Alf's hut offers Tom a kind of sanctuary, a respite from the peregrinatory imperative of his narrative. In this narrative of emphatic ocular perspective, of a world where people constantly emerge and diminish beyond the line of the horizon, Alf's hut is a site of physical and emotional repose. At this resting point the linear trajectory of the gaze can rest temporarily on a still surface, and in this way, hypostatizes the transvestite as a figure of its desire.
The lack of dimensional perspective in this encounter also facilitates the maintenance of the transvestic illusion, for Tom cannot position Alf within the events and characters of the linear narrative. We are first directed to Tom's seemingly wilful myopia, to what he cannot see. Most obviously he does not ever suspect that Alf is not a man despite many clues that Alf is also Molly Cooper, whose sad history Tom has already heard in various explicit and indirect ways. It is one of the ironies of Tom's encounter with Alf that Alf does not wear the crepe veil used to cover his/her disfigured face until the morning light renders it necessary as a gender disguise. During the course of their evening together, then, Tom has gazed on the transvestite unveiled as a woman, and he describes in detail her face, which has no nose but a scar that runs down the middle and across to one eye. Tom, however, does not see a woman unveiled but a veil of woman: "Who is she?" he asks himself repeatedly, unaware of the aptness of his question, for Tom is trying to identify the woman who must, by his reckoning, be the cause of Alf's melancholy. 2
The unveiled transvestite in Such is Life does not present any realised Truth or Solution, even though Alf could resolve many of Tom's immediate and ongoing questions. Yet while this encounter is a transient meeting; a pause in the journey not a destination or conclusion; the transvestite presents, in an unveiled state, the lineaments of a lost ideality perceived in terms of classical statuary. S/he hereby instantiates a figure of European origin as a defining mark on the landscape of the text. The sequence of veiling is telling in this encounter in that we encounter the unveiled face before it is covered over. Tom describes Alf's unveiled face:
More beautiful, otherwise, than a man's face is justified in being, it was (apart form sex) as if Pygmalion's masterpiece had fallen heavily, face downward, and then sprung to life, minus the feature that will least bear tampering with. The upper half of his nose was represented by an irregular scar, running off toward the left eye, which was dull and opaque; the other was splendid soft and luminous. And as he sat in the full light of the lamp, with his elbow on the table, in order to shade with his hand the middle part of his face, the combination of fine frontal development with exquisite and vigorous contour of mouth and chin was so striking that I involuntarily glanced round the hut for a bookshelf. (Furphy, 1991: 244)
The reference to Pygmalion's masterpiece identifies Alf as an artefact or a man-made ideal, which is a commonplace trope of the transvestite in fiction. Also, the focus on "fine frontal development" and the "contour" of the face constructs the ideality according to Greek statuary by its privileging of profile, delineated shape and form rather than, say, colour, tonality and depth. Tom expounds on the legacy of classical art in conversation with Alf in the context of a debate about the relationship between love and beauty, which is cruelly ironic given Alf's disfigurement. Tom argues that the personal beauty of a woman exists only "in approximation to a given ideal; and this ideal is not absolute; it is elastic in respect of races and civilisations, though each type may be regarded as more or less rigid within its own domain." (Furphy, 1991: 260) The western European ideal, derived from classical Greece in Tom's argument, is thus not absolute but has become definitive:
... if no specimen of classic art had survived the dark ages, I question whether we would implicitly accept as our present ideal the chiselled profile, in which physiognomists fail to find any special indications of moral or intellectual excellence. But when we based our modern civilisation on the relics of ancient Greece - directly, or through Rome - we naturally accepted the ideal of beauty then and there current. (Furphy, 1991: 260)
Thus, according to Tom's own criteria, Alf is the Greek ideal fractured, "fallen heavily" into the domain of real, into the vicissitudes of history, and the genre of realism. In this capacity the transvestite recalls that other transgendered figure of classical statuary, the androgyne Adonis/Endymion, who, poised at the brink of manhood, is a representation of potential and becoming. Alf, too, is representative of potential, but most significantly, of lost potential. For in the novel's claims to national attainment or maturity, the allusion to the hermaphrodite, a memorialised image of western ideality and of origin, must be first claimed then occulted for the text to locate itself and its nationalist project within modernity. In this way the text circumvents the problems posed by claiming antecedents of a western country more directly related the Australian colonies, namely the mother country England.
A similar process of veiling and unveiling of a statuary figure occurs in Tasma's [Jessie Couvrier's] short story "Monsieur Caloche" (1889). This story narrates the plight of a hapless young Frenchman who arrives in Melbourne prepared for office work. The main subject of the story is his prospective employer, a wealthy colonial capitalist, who is irritated by the Frenchman and sends him to work on one of his outback stations. 3 During a tour of his properties; prompted by the perverse desire to see Monsieur Caloche again; Bogg strikes Monsieur Caloche with a whip, ostensibly for riding one of his horses too hard. Monsieur Caloche runs into the bush, where he is later found dead. Thus the story charts a journey, or a series of displacements, from the city of Melbourne to the outback property to unchartered bushland beyond Matthew Bogg's possession or experience. Bogg and his station manager eventually feel compelled to go into the bushland to look for Monsieur Caloche; it is here the scene of revelation occurs. They first locate the body of Monsieur Caloche, and then, when the manager undoes his vest, discover the body to be female. There, to his horror, Bogg sees:
a girl with a breast of marble, bared in its cold whiteness to the open daylight, and to his ardent gaze. Bared, without any protest from the half-closed eyes, unconcerned behind the filmy veil which glazed them. A virgin breast, spotless in hue, save for a narrow purple streak, marking it in a dark line from the collar-bone downwards. (Tasma, 1987: 25)
As in Such is Life, the female sex of the unveiled woman is defined by a scar, "the narrow purple streak", which Matthew Bogg himself caused by striking at the young Frenchman with his whip. Yet this exposure of the female body; indeed a body killed by overexposure, literally to the sun, and metaphorically to the gaze; is still hidden behind a "filmy veil" to the gaze of Matthew Bogg.
In Tasma's story, as in Such is Life, the reason given for the woman's cross-dressing is facial disfigurement, for the face of Monsieur Caloche has been ravaged by smallpox. This disease is ominous in terms of plot for it also indicates the contagion of transvestism, which finally envelops Matthew Bogg in the scene of revelation. For whereas Matthew Bogg reiterates to himself the capitalist boast that he is a "self-made man", Monsieur Caloche, a transvestite, mirrors back to him an alternative figuration of that locution. Monsieur Caloche is also a self-made man, though in the sense of gender performance rather than the capitalist achievement. However, in the reflexive relationship that the transvestite constructs between these two understandings of the self-made man, colonialist capitalism and the performance of masculinity become inextricable.
In the revelation scene of "Monsieur Caloche", these two versions of colonial self-construction merge on the veil of the surface of Monsieur Caloche's female body, and from that moment Matthew Bogg is haunted by " the slender mournful-eyed shadow" of Monsieur Caloche for the remainder of his life. This envelopment occurs by a veil of whiteness pervading the scene, as the white veil of the surfaceal body takes possession of Matthew Bogg body and soul. Whiteness spreads like liquid on a material surface; the whiteness of the woman's glabrous body; of the pallor of death; of marble and statuary; of purity; and of absence and lack. Matthew Bogg himself instigated this contagion when he hit Monsieur Caloche and "the boy turned so unnaturally white", and now whiteness has returned to him in a libidinal and deathly circulation.
And, in his horror, he also becomes infected by the body's hardness in a conflation of rigor mortis, priapism and statuary ideality. For, like Alf in Such is Life, Monsieur Caloche's body is described in terms of statuary: s/he has a "breast of white marble", and Matthew Bogg later dwells on his/her "dead statuesque form". In this way Monsieur Caloche is also constructed as a lost ideal, for Matthew Bogg's remorse is described as being caused by "a mind awakened too late" (Tasma, 1987: 26); Monsieur Caloche, like Alf, represents an alternative lost to the colonial. Monsieur Caloche is a figure of unreadable antiquity to Bogg in that his encounter with him/her is elemental, ancient or primal. For in this scene, Matthew Bogg, aged 60, encounters sex and death simultaneously and for the first time.
Onto the whiteness of the body, this blank velum, is "the narrow purple streak" of the whip mark across the breast. This mark, too, is contagious. As if the smallpox that disfigured Monsieur Caloche were still infectious, s/he brands Matthew Bogg upon the face with shame, for it "seemed to Sir Matthew that a similar mark, red hot like a brand, must now burn on his forehead for ever."
The accounts of fixated and horrific apprehension in Such is Life and "Monsieur Caloche" derive in part from the Gothic, and conforms to a form of figurative monochromaticism from that genre. In Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, for instance, Emily makes the shocking discovery of the corpse/wax figure behind the black veil. It is a "human figure, of ghastly paleness", a (representation of a) rotting corpse (Radcliffe, 1969: 334). And in the chilling graveside scene of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, Walter Hartwright approaches the grave, whose tombstone reads "Laura, Lady Glyde", yet is greeted by a woman in black, who lifts her veil to reveal the face of Laura, Lady Glyde (Collins, 1975: 378). The face of Laura, now altered by the same marks of attrition that characterised her shadow double, the eponymous Woman in White, now slides between her own and that of the corpse
In each of these apprehensions of (illusory) horror underneath the veil there is a monochromatic switch from black to white, from the veil of dress or mask to the veil of the body. The outer veil is black and the underlying veil is white, like the surface of the white body it reveals in abjection. The monochromatic opposition of black and white is crucial to the effect achieved, as it figures the most extreme distance between expectation and apprehension, dread and abjection, separation and envelopment. However, while the two veils are either definitely black or white, one can change to its opposite at any moment. For the fact that one so often gives way to the other results in each becoming suggestive of its opposite.
This cross-over is clearly evident in Charlotte Bronte's Villette and the monochromatic dress of Lucy's transvestite nun. When Lucy first sees the nun, she cannot discern whether she is dressed in black or white, as the two are at first interchangeable, then appear to bifurcate the seeming spectre:
I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts are straight narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled white." (Bronte, 1978: 222).
Like those illusory horrors in Radcliffe and Collins, Lucy's nun is also a trick, a costume game. Lucy's tearing apart of her own demon, therefore, only requires the ripping apart a material costume. Her previous confusion and paranoia regarding the actuality or notionality of the transvestic disguise is thus resolved, though their implications lose none of their resonance. Matthew Bogg is also confused about the actuality or notionality of the transvestite. Here, however, the act of striking at his own demon or shadow double results in actual death, for Monsieur Caloche is not only an illusion, metaphor or ploy. The transvestite in this fiction is an actual historical person.
The implications of the confusion between the metaphorical and historical status of the transvestite refers directly to the colonialist enterprise which the story critiques. For, as Stephen Greenblatt discusses in relation of the colonial discourses of the New World, "[t]roughout the discourse of travel there is very little distance between a representation and a representative" (Greenblatt, 1991: 120). In the colonial capitalist project of Matthew Bogg, which is one explicitly concerned with the possession of people and the land, people only function as representations of his ownership. The transvestite is the apt figure of this confusion because of the way in which s/he locates identity within the domains of performance and representation. But in the reflexive relationship established between the two self-made men, the union of representative and representation on the white veil of contagion, which results in Bogg being (metaphorically) branded with Shame, Bogg becomes a representational figure in the mimetic economy but retains unchanged status in the colonial economic circulation of power.
The operations of the transvestite in Such is Life and "Monsieur Caloche" provide a clearer optic by which to examine the full implications of transvestic deployments in other, less complex colonial fiction. One such instance is Ernest Favenc's short story "The Parson's Blackboy" first published in 1893 and anthologised in the Best Stories from The Bulletin 1881-1901, Australia's premier literary journal at this time, in a commemorative edition to mark Federation in 1901. "The Parson's Blackboy" recounts the misadventures of a gormless young clergyman, newly appointed to a "parish" in far north Queensland. As the parish extends into remote bushland areas the parson is assigned an Aboriginal "valet" as a guide through the bush. The clergyman does not realise that this valet, Charlie/Charlotte, is a woman until she divests herself of her masculine garb and emerges naked from a lagoon - a location off the main track of the remotest point of call. The parson is shocked by this discovery and correctly predicts that his unwitting association with an Aboriginal woman will be perceived badly by the church authorities. He eventually decides to leave the church and settles to become "one of the most popular men in the district". Thus it is the combination of the journey into unchartered territory and the sex of an Aboriginal woman that enables the ex-parson to occupy part of the land.
In this story the veil operates in one of its most common associations, that of the monasticism. In the reflexive mirror established between transvestite and subject, the parson is shown to be hiding the truth of his sex, as does Charlie, by the fact that he has taken the veil of holy orders. In the scene of revelation, where the veil is cast aside, the union of his white masculinity and her Aboriginality constructs the ex-parson as the desired hybrid of Australianness, the white Aboriginal.
It is telling that there are no statuary visions and no contagion of whiteness in this story of achieved hybridity. There are no references to classical antiquity here because the Aboriginal woman fulfils the function of the representative of an ancient culture. There is no contagion of whiteness because the body onto which this awakening is written is black not white, and because the recognition of sex functions to instate a presence; of sexuality, masculinity and occupation of the land. And, in a direct inversion of the relationship between notionality and facticity used to critique colonial capitalism in "Monsieur Caloche", the Aboriginal transvestite in this story disappears as soon as occupation is assured. For s/he is a metaphor, an illusion, only a representation, and the colonial identity is attained by her possession.
The transvestite can thus be seen as a faciliating figure of these fictions, which speculate about the ways the colonial constructs an identity separate from the historical specificity of his European origins, but not the Idea of Europe and western culture. But in the transvestite's representation of a European antiquity, origin and ideality, the spectacle only carries the conviction of a performance. Yet in his/her representation of an Aboriginal antiquity s/he is entirely dismissed as a metaphor or ploy, so that the historical specificity of Australian origins is not considered. In each of the narratives discussed here the transvestite disappears from the parameters of the fiction leaving the subject behind, and hovers as a memory - thereby fulfilling another requirement of a realised identity: the nostalgia for a lost ideality. The transvestite's departure from the fiction signals a return from ideality, metaphoricity, spirituality, to banality and disappointment, which is, ironically, the desired achievement.
1. Judith Rodriguez identified Furphy's source for Nosey Alf in her essay "The Original Nosey Alf", Australian Literary Studies 7, no 2 (1975) pp 176-184. Furphy's novel also mentions the infamous Victorian "personator' Edward de Lacey Evans aka Ellen Tremayne.
2. See Julian Croft's article for an extended discussion of this question in relation to Furphy: "Who is She? The Image of Woman in the Novels of Joseph Furphy", in Who is She? Images of Women in Australian Fiction, ed Shirley Walker, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1983.
3. Susan Martin provides a convincing reading of the colonialist politics of "Monsieur Caloche" in her essay "Why do all these Women have Moustaches: Gender, Boundary and Frontier in Such is Life and "Monsieur Caloche"', Southern Review 25, no 1 (March 1992), pp 68-77.
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Bronte, Charlotte (1978) Villette, London: Dent.
Collins, Wilkie (1975) The Woman in White, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Favenc, Ernest (1973) "The Parson's Blackboy" in The Old Bulletin reader: Best Stories for the Bulletin 1881-1901, Melbourne: Lansdowne Press.
Freud, Sigmund (1919) Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London: Hogarth Press.
Furphy, Joseph (1991) Such is Life, 1903 The Annotated Such is Life, ed. Frances Devlin Glass, Robin Eaden, Lois Hoffman and G.W. Turner, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Greenblatt, Stephen (1991) Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Radcliffe, Ann (1969) The Mysteries of Udolpho, Vol 2, Dent: London.
Tasma [Jessie Couvrier] (1987) "Monsieur Caloche" 1889 in From the Verandah: Stories of Love and Landscape by Nineteenth Century Australian Women ed. Fiona Giles, Melbourne: McPhee Gribble.