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The Bird of Paradise

V. The Past as Foreign Country

V. The Past as Foreign Country

When Dutton lost his court case, he fled to New Zealand, where he wrote a book set in America, whose protagonist travels to South Africa. This is an impressive escapist sequence; Dutton is running out of uttermost parts of the sea. The South African episode is short; as it parallels Dutton's life, we know it relates to a brief and unconcluded period. But the choice of America for the main action of The Bird of Paradise is interesting.

The Bird of Paradise opens with the following disclaimer:

In disclaiming any allusions to characters or parallel cases connected with the Australasian Colonies, and with the assurance that it is entirely founded upon occurrences in the United States of America whose history has been communicated to the Author...1

We know that the disclaimer is a fiction; but the assurance is probably true. Dutton's brother Robert, a dental surgeon (as is his fictional counterpart Brosie), appears to have received his qualification at the University of Philadelphia.2 In his brother, Dutton may have had a contemporary source for his setting; but The Bird of Paradise is not a history or a travel novel. Dutton's America is a balmy place where pine trees grow in river valleys with tobacco and cotton, and it never seems to be winter: Australasian place names (Bendemeer, Summer Hill, Myamyn) creep in towards the second half of the book, and the distinctive nature of the country is not convincing. Perhaps the greatest omission in a novel about American society is American people. Eugene belongs to a family of English immigrants. Marvel is part Scottish and part Welsh. Eugene's loyal groom, Patrick Flynn, is Irish with a comic accent; another source of comic relief is the “Gallic” woman, Madame de Pompadour. Many minor characters are identified by similar origins; no one is from here. A colonial preoccupation?

Dutton begins the story in Texas in 1833, portraying it as an idyllic southern state of America; this was actually one of the most exciting periods in Texas's history, during which it won independence from Mexico, later joining the union in 1845. The text is scattered with references which were contemporary for the author but impossible for his characters. Some appear to be merely indulgent; Dutton, apparently fond of racehorses, gives his protagonist's family a filly bred from Kirkconnel (winner of the Two Thousand Guineas in 1895) but also Alice Hawthorn (a more contemporary champion). The reason for Dutton's choice of historical setting is obscure. It is possible that he simply chose the most well-known event in American history – the Civil War – and counted backwards to place his protagonists at a point where their personal histories could fit nicely into the intervening time.

The choice of setting, then, may be of more interest from a reader's point of view than from the writer's. What appeal might a story about pre-Civil War America have had to the reading public? This is a question which would bear further research, but some scattered facts suggest a context. Lydia Wevers, describing a contemporary New Zealand collection, notes, 'About 140 of the 2000 books in the Brancepeth library are by American authors... There is also a small but clear emphasis on Civil War novels, and regional or historical fiction...'3

That history, and the Australasian region, intersected in a curious way, which is described by Paul Giles in an article concerning “Antipodean American Literature”:

There was a particular antipodean coda to the American Civil War when the Confederate warship Shenandoah arrived in Melbourne in January 1865 and, in breach of the neutrality rules officially laid down for all British subjects, was refitted by Australians sympathetic to the southern cause. Though opinion in the city was generally divided, there was widespread support for the traditional society of the American South within Melbourne's social establishment.4

Dutton was from Victoria. (He would have been six years old at this time of this incident).

A much later event may also have influenced his choice. Just five months before The Bird of Paradise was published, the American humorist Mark Twain visited New Zealand and Australia. He was a international celebrity who received great acclaim.5

1 Dutton, William Henry. 1896. The Bird of Paradise. Dunedin: S. N. Brown and Co., p.iv

2 “Painful Divorce Case. Dutton Vs. Dutton. Mr R Dutton in the Box.” 15 August 1894. The Argus, Melbourne, p6.

3 Wevers, Lydia. 2010. Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World. Wellington: Victoria University Press, p198.

4 Giles, Paul. 2008. “Antipodean American Literature: Franklin, Twain, and the Sphere of Subalternity.” American Literary History, 20(1): 22-50, p39.

5 Parsons, Coleman O. 1962. “Mark Twain in Australia.” The Antioch Review, (21)4 :455-468, pp455-456