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Gender and Class Oppositions in A Fringe of Leaves

Investigates some of these contextual issues in White's A Fringe of Leaves.

Patrick White?s novel A Fringe of Leaves is based on an historical event and set in a period particularly significant to Australia?s history. Yet, like postmodern writing in general it is a novel that, in Malcolm Bradbury?s words, is ?not so much a substantiation of reality as a questing for it?. The novel explores the potential for humans to achieve perfection and self-knowledge, and examines the role of society in allowing us to reach these epiphanies. In this way, A Fringe of Leaves is deeply reflective of the social mores in nineteenth century Australia. The text challenges patriarchal gender organisation, which was undeniably part of the hegemony of that society. It is critical of the fact that the patriarchy restricts individuals from achieving true self-knowledge by enforcing repressive social ideologies and spiritual dogma. The construction of oppositions between masculine and feminine traits foregrounds the severity of this patriarchal order and suggests that we must be freed of these social impositions in order to achieve true self-knowledge. The social structures and attitudes represented in A Fringe of Leaves also reflect the deeply entrenched class-consciousness that informed Australians during colonialism. The dominant British middle class marginalised everyone who did not share the same ancestry or social status.

In each of the societies presented in the text ? England, Moreton Bay, and the Aboriginal tribe ? there is evidence of men constructing women as an ?other?, with specific traits and roles that oppose their own. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that ?One is not born, but rather becomes a woman? it is civilisation as a whole that produces this creature? only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an ?other??. The ?otherness? of women in the text is highlighted by the use of contrasting characters and situations. Patrick White wrote, ?I say what I have to say through the juxtaposition of images and situations and the emotional exchanges of human beings?.

A Fringe of Leaves normalises the idea that a woman?s experience is constructed only in relation to men. Ellen realises that ?the whole of her uneventful life had been spent listening to men telling stories?. In the patriarchy, her own remarkable experience is obscured by society?s need to produce a convenient version of the truth. Mrs Roxburgh is unable to confide in anyone; the Commandant is only interested in a ?factual narrative? which he can use for practical purposes. As Mrs Roxburgh?s time in the colony draws on, the reader comes to the understanding that the ?fate or chains which her human beings were imposing on her? restrict her from meaningful conversation. The chaplain Mr Cottle falters as soon as Ellen admits the truth about the way her spirituality has changed, his ?lips moved wordlessly?, unable to form sentences which may acknowledge that his patriarchy sanctioned her experience.

In a similar way, Mr Oakes is terrified of hearing about Mrs Roxburgh?s life or experience ? when he watches over her at night he desperately tries to remain anonymous so that he can stay out of her world, assuring her repeatedly ??Tis nobody?. The irony is that as a pioneer farmer, Mr Oakes is at home exploring the ?barren, stony, forbidding, empty and hostile? land, but is entirely incapable of exploring something as proximate as his own mind. White makes this paradox clear when immediately after his watch Mr Oakes goes ?straight into the morning he knew? wiping his hands on the rather greasy rag he used when he rinsed the cows? teats before milking?.

Most of the other male characters in A Fringe of Leaves are constructed with the same emotional inhibitions. Austin Roxburgh, who was ?taught as a boy to suppress emotion?, is constructed as an opposition to the emotional and passionate Ellen. Austin?s obsession with his Virgil represents the way in which his life is lived in the ephemeral. The choice of Virgil?s Georgics is deeply ironic, because the text is an exploration of man?s relationship with his environment ? a subject that Austin will never experience himself. Austin becomes the archetypal scholarly and sickly individual who has no concept of the reality of life. We are told ?His mind glided marvelously when not threatened by the shoals of human intercourse or the bedeviled depths of his own nature?. Austin?s lifestyle clearly contrasts with the earthy Mr Oakes, who lives his life only in relation to nature. Both, however, are emotionally retarded ? implying that is a characteristic shared by all men. The effect is that male emotional inhibition is naturalised in the text.

A Fringe of Leaves normalises gender-role stereotypes and constructs a clear opposition between the tasks that Victorian men and women were expected to perform in the family and in society. The man has the duty of choosing a suitable wife and, if necessary, assimilating her into his class. Austin Roxburgh performs this task admirably on Ellen Gluyas. She feels, not surprisingly, as though ?the details of her life had been chosen for her by whoever it is that decides?. Mrs Lovell reinforces the lack of choice that women have in the matter:

?A woman, as I see, is more like moss or litchen, that takes to some rock or tree as she takes to her husband. An? that is where we belong?.

Women take on the Victorian ?domestic virtues? ? the role of being ?a carer? for husband and family. Ellen describes the protection of her husband as her ?chosen vocation?. A number of traits were expected of all married woman in upper or middle class society. Their commitment to their husband was expected to be absolute, and, as Mrs Roxburgh was taught by her mother in-law, ?a lady?s role in life is to listen?. They were equally expected to be actively involved in the trivial conversations of the time such as those parodied in the social prologue. Miss Scrimshaw ?would never trust a silent woman?. The Commandant expects ?sweetness and compliance in a woman?, and Mr Roxburgh reveals that ?a wife?s modesty suits a husband?. Clearly, the social power resides with the men in A Fringe of Leaves.

The first epigraph provides a paradigm of understanding for the concept of women being constructed in relation to the needs and expectations of men. The quotation, ?A perfect Woman, nobly planned, | To warn, to comfort and command? is from Wordsworth?s ?She was a phantom of delight?. The apparition that Wordsworth describes in this poem perhaps epitomises the qualities Victorian men expected in a wife. Stereotypical feminine traits like ?love, kisses, tears and smiles? are there, as are some of the roles men expected their wives to play, ?to warn, to comfort and command?. Mr Roxburgh sees Ellen ?not only as his wife, but also his work of art?. He considers her training a ?project? to create a beautiful, charming, not necessarily intellectual but socially acceptable companion?. This demonstrates the extent of the sanctions which the patriarchy afforded men to craft women in any way they choose; after all, ?There is more wax in a woman. She is easily impressed?.

The role of women as the child bearer is represented in the ?fecund? Mrs Lovell who remarks, ?They will always depend on us because we are the source of renewal.? In the same breath, she suggests that ?a woman can look to the future, don?t you see?? Indeed, Miss Scrimshaw is prophetic when she predicts that Mrs Roxburgh deserves some ?ultimate in experience. For which she would be prepared to suffer, if need be?. We are told that these are characteristics unique to women which cannot be understood by men ? there is much, for example, that Mr Merrivale, by virtue of his ?sex and nature? is prevented from understanding. It is also suggested that women more easily than men develop a relationship with God because of their superior emotional capacity. ?Prayer?, Mr Roxburgh suspected, ?came more easily to women through their cultivating a more intimate relationship with God.?

The text makes frequent references to the thoughts and dreams of the female mind. It is often implied in the first few chapters that women share a collective consciousness. This Jungian concept is challenged in chapter seven, when Ellen is clearly defined by her own experience rather than by a pre-ordained ?essence?. Although the text does delve into Mrs Roxburgh?s thoughts, it leaves a degree of ambiguity surrounding the ?female psyche? in general. Mrs Roxburgh remarks, ?the mind is not always sheltered, Captain Lovell, from its own thoughts and imaginings?.

A Fringe of Leaves does, however, naturalise other feminine traits. It suggests that women are emotional creatures who operate intuitively rather than rationally. When Ellen encounters the gang of women convicts, we are told that ?Women? are more resentful of another woman?s intercepting their thoughts and mingling with their fantasies?. Mrs Roxburgh is ?soon absorbed into tribal dreams? during her time with the Aborigines. These dreams foreground the extent to which women?s sensuality and passion are restrained by a repressive morality and restrictive society in Britain. Miss Scrimshaw is interesting exception. She is a spinster and a virgin, and clearly something of a misfit in the social circles she frequents. She is constructed as an opposition to Ellen; and it is made clear she does not represent her gender. She admits , ?I am a woman only in my form, and not in the essential part of me? This exception aside, women in the text are constructed as emotional and intuitive and spiritual, and men as rational and pragmatic and secular.

The relationship between Aboriginal men and women portrayed in the text develops White?s criticism of the patriarchy by highlighting the power difference between the sexes. The Aboriginal women are both underfed, receiving only ?occasional morsels? in keeping with their humble station? and overworked to the point of being deformed from ?bearing children and carrying loads?. These features of a male-dominated society are clearly more overt in the Aboriginal culture; European males effectively conceal their patriarchal order by social and religious institutions which function to maintain the dominant social order.

The class consciousness of the characters in A Fringe of Leaves is established in the social prologue. White presents a criticism of the dominant middle class by satirising the conversation between Miss Scrimshaw and the Merrivales. The first opposition that is identified is between the Cornish Mrs Roxburgh and the other, more ?civilised? English families. When Mrs Merrivale mentions that Ellen is from Cornwell, Miss Scrimshaw is quick to clarify that she has never ?been on intimate terms with any individual of Cornish blood?. It is implied that anyone that does not have ?faint tea-rose complexitions? is ?other? on the basis of their ancestry. The use of this phrase is rather comical, especially if we imagine Miss Scrimshaw dressed entirely in brown, with her bird-like ?strong nose? and ?long teeth?, commenting on the particular variety of skin colour of her family. When Mr Roxburgh later remarks to Ellen, ?Who would have thought that a crude Cornish girl could be made over to become a beautiful and accomplished woman?, we realise that the dominant class assigns particular characteristics and roles to people of Cornish descent ? Mr Roxburgh is surprised that Cornish earthliness could be replaced with middle class aloofness so easily. We are told that his mother, old Mrs Roxburgh, takes to Ellen out of a sense of duty to her son rather than because of qualities of Ellen as an individual. She sees Ellen as a product of upbringing in Cornwell, expecting a particular ?constitution in a Cornish hoyden?.

An opposition between the British colonists and the Irish sub-culture is also established in the social prologue. Mrs Merrivale?s shows contempt for Delaney, an Irish member of the working class. She cannot stand everything from his direct and honest approach to his different sense of humour and the inelegant way that he carries pork. On board the Bristol Maid, the opposition between the middle and working classes is gradually normalised. Mr Roxburgh has to wear a ?rhinocerous hide for strangers, particularly those deficient in education or of an inferior class?. Austin clearly feels as though all members of the working class will be crude and brash and offend his sensitivities. He ?had the greatest faith in the working class?, but at the same time he asserts that they have a particular role to play which should not be overstepped.

It is also made clear that class consciousness is an equally important part of the psyche of the lower class as it is the middle class. He wonders ?whether the mate had been concealing from the beginning a streak of that contempt which members of the lower classes often harbour against their betters?. This contempt is implied by the continued inability of the crew on board the ship to communicate meaningfully with the Roxburghs. Additionally, just as the middle class has particular expectations about the way the working class behaves, the working class believes that all of their ?betters? are the same characters in different disguises. Oswald is surprised when Ellen reveals her modest background and her ability to relate to members of the working class.

In addition to the middle class constructing oppositions on the basis of ancestry and profession, it also used wealth as a measure of social acceptability. Miss Scrimshaw assures Ellen that Mr Jevons? diamond ring ?need not make him morally reprehensible?. Although upward mobility is a relatively modern concept, it was possible, although difficult, in nineteenth century Britain to become a member of the dominant middle class by being of a suitable profession and being relatively wealthy. Although Miss Scrimshaw at first appears to be flustered about such a gratuitous display of wealth, she shortly afterwards states that, ?it is what one expects, surely, of a gentleman?.

Australian society to this day remains stratified into classes, largely based on material wealth. Although it purports to be egalitarian, this is not the case. Perceptions of Australia from abroad and the reality of Australia from within have been divergent for much of its history. The second epigraph alludes to the fact that the text will uncover things we would prefer remain hidden, ?we have nothing of the sort here?. Indeed, A Fringe of Leaves reveals the truth about the power structure of colonial Australia. It does so by a savage parody of dominant ideologies and constructing oppositions between genders and classes. These oppositions are juxtaposed with Ellen Roxburgh?s experience of shipwreck and capture, which allows her to reach self-knowledge when free of the strictures of Victorian society.

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