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‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’: Tasma, Australia and the French Connection

Judith Johnston


Tasma (Jessie Couvreur) wrote and published her best known Australian stories from Europe for a predominantly English and Australian readership. This article investigates Tasma's only known French publication, ‘L'Amour aux Antipodes’ (‘Love in the Antipodes’) which first appeared in August 1880 in the Parisian periodical La Nouvelle Revue, possibly to capitalise on the popularity of a series of lectures on Australia which she had delivered in various French and Belgian cities. I argue that the novella is designed specifically for a French readership, not only in terms of setting, but also because Tasma's usual critique of gender ideology is replaced with a determined anti-clericalism, possibly in response to current debates in Paris at the time and a wish to avoid the fraught gender politics of the Third Republic.

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  • 1 For these and other details, I am indebted to Patricia Clarke's authoritative biography Tasma. The (...)
  • 2 See Tasma (Jessie Couvreur), Tasma's Diaries. The Diaries of Jessie Couvreur, ed. Patricia Clarke ( (...)
  • 3 The long-running journal (1864-1946) in which many notable early Australian writers had their first (...)
  • 4 Tasma's first published story, ‘Barren Love’, appeared in Hash. A Mixed Dish for Christmas (Clarke, (...)

1Tasma was the pen-name of the fin-de-siècle Australian writer Jessie Couvreur. Jessie Catherine Couvreur (née Huybers) (1848–1897) was born in Highgate, London of parents with strong European connections. Her mother Charlotte was of English and French parentage, and her father Alfred was born in Antwerp, when it was still a part of Holland, and was a wine merchant. Her parents were multi-lingual: English, French and German were the languages common to both. In 1852 the family emigrated to Australia, choosing Hobart in Tasmania for their destination and Alfred Huybers successfully developed the largest warehouse and merchant’s business in the colony.1 Eventually there were seven children in all but Charlotte Huybers always yearned to return to Europe which she eventually did in 1873, taking Tasma (now aged 24 and escaping an unhappy marriage to Charles Fraser in 1867 when she was 18), and her 4 youngest children with her. They sailed on the Windward on 4 March 1873 for London but moved on from there to Brussels and Paris.2 They led a peripatetic life style and were always short of money. Charlotte encouraged her children into artistic educations but apart from Tasma, none were successful. The family returned to Australia in 1875 and lived in Melbourne, while Tasma rejoined her husband. It is during this return to Australia that Tasma’s writing career began with a steady flow of articles and short stories published primarily in the Australasian.3 Patricia Clarke suggests that by late 1877 Tasma had quickly become ‘regarded as a bright new talent’ (60).4 In February 1879 she sailed again for Europe rejoining her family, who had left earlier, in Paris, where she developed a career as a conférencière and continued her successful writing career. In 1883 Tasma returned to Australia to divorce Charles Fraser and in August 1885 she married the distinguished Belgian politician, journalist and economist Auguste Pierre Louis Couvreur in London. She lived the remainder of her life in Brussels.

  • 5 Tasma, ‘A Hint for the Paris Commissioners’, Australasian (24 November 1877), 145.

2Tasma had met Auguste Couvreur in 1880, the same year in which she published the short novella ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’, her only known publication in French, which appeared in Paris in Juliette Adam’s La Nouvelle revue in August, 1880 and in L’Indépendance belge in September, 1880. Since the 1860s Couvreur had embraced specific political aims, chief among which was to establish compulsory State education in Belgium. As was the case in France, he was inevitably opposed by the Catholic Church and the clerical party (Clarke, 83). Couvreur’s anticlericalism was concordant with Tasma’s own ideas on religion. As Clarke notes, Tasma’s articles reveal her own anticlericalism (84) and I located one interesting example (among others) to evidence this in ‘A Hint for the Paris Commissioners’ published in 1877. Tasma begins the article by celebrating modernity, what she terms the age of ‘ingenuity and industry’, of science and innovation. Once, she declares, scientists and innovators would have suffered martyrdom, now however: ‘Scientists, advancing their convictions in the guise of hypotheses, break in the world at large to the cool acceptance of theories our grandfathers would have called "blasphemous"‘, an obvious reference to Darwin’s theories and the subsequent development of evolutionary ideas.5 She designates any opposition ‘to this onward march’ as ‘nothing but a old and enfeebled sentiment—outraged, over-ridden, forced to feel the weakness of its hold on the stronger part of humanity’ (145). I read the modifiers ‘old’ and ‘enfeebled’ as referring to the Church and Clericalism generally.

  • 6 Claire Goldberg Moses, French Feminism in the 19th Century (Albany, NY: State University of New Yor (...)
  • 7 Sudhir Hazareesingh, Political Transactions in Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994 (...)

3Claire Goldberg Moses, in French Feminism in the 19th Century, argues that anticlericalism, during the years of the Third Republic, ‘was the single most constant unifying force for the entire Left and the single most important issue dividing Left from Right’.6 Moreover, from 1881 the French government passed a series of laws which offered various freedoms, of the press, of assembly, and reformed education to make it secular (Moses, 197 and 209). In fact the key years are 1879 on, when the National Assembly came under the control of the Republican party. As Sudhir Hazareesingh notes, in Political Traditions in Modern France, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the French State was ‘a recurrent problem’ (in particular in confrontations over education) and clericalism ‘a dangerous force’, because it ‘hurled itself into the political battle to destroy the Republic itself after 1875.’7

4Tasma’s œuvre, as I will explore more fully in the next section, is almost always read in terms of feminist critique. However, ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’ does not respond satisfactorily to such a specifically focused reading, at least not without some awareness of the impact anticlericalism was having on French politics at this very particular time. While anticlericalism and feminism are connected, the relationship in 1870s Paris was an uneasy one. As Moses compellingly shows, while anticlericalism did advantage women to some degree in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the arguments were later ‘used against women, to justify withholding the vote’ (210). Tasma’s story appears at an historically very significant moment for republican anticlericalism and republican feminism.

5In the novella, there is an assumption that Tasma’s heroine has to be freed from the religious tenets which dominate her life if she is to find happiness. The story, however, is flawed in that the opening reveals a woman who is strong and confident, leading an independent life, in spite of her religious faith. The conclusion to the tale reveals a woman who is diminished, rather than enlightened, by the embrace of anticlericalism. It is intriguing that Tasma should have produced this conflicted work at a precise moment when changes were afoot, when anticlericalism was about to become the prevailing force but when feminism was in disarray. Juliette Adam, the noted feminist of the 1840s, who managed La Nouvelle revue, represented in her second marriage ‘marital congeniality’ (177) as Moses puts it, and there were differences and tensions between Adam and the dominant feminist group of the 1870s, tensions which in part example the various discords within Third Republic feminism (Moses, 174 and 177). In the following pages I argue that Tasma’s novella reflects these political tensions both in content and intent.


  • 8 Margaret Harris, ‘The Writing of Tasma, the Work of Jessie Couvreur’, in A Bright and Fiery Troop. (...)
  • 9 Bruce Bennett, Australian Short Fiction. A History (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2002 (...)

6As previously noted, from the late 1870s, Tasma had regularly published her short stories and articles predominantly in the Melbourne-based paper the Australasian, but did not publish the first of her six novels, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, until 1890. Margaret Harris has argued that Tasma’s choice of pen-name signifies a ‘declaration of allegiance’ to Australia and that she gives her European readership, of the novels in particular, a sense of Australia’s ‘natural beauty’, its agricultural and mineral bounty, and ‘the opportunities open in the colonies for individuals of energy and enterprise.’8 Alternatively, her Australian readership, Harris adds, receives in its turn ‘her analysis of the encounter of the values of European culture’ with the colonial situation. Nevertheless, modern critics have for the most part focused on gender ideology in both Tasma’s stories and novels, with only a sideways nod to, as Bruce Bennett puts it, ‘her inter-cultural perspective.’9 It is this inter-cultural perspective I want to address through an exploration of Tasma’s only French-language story discovered to date, ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’, published in the Parisian journal La Nouvelle revue in August 1880, as stated earlier.

  • 10 Robert Dixon, ‘Literature and Melodrama’, Oxford Literary History of Australia (Melbourne: Oxford U (...)
  • 11 Fiona Giles, Too Far Everywhere. The Romantic Heroine in Nineteenth-Century Australia (St. Lucia: U (...)
  • 12 Tanya Dalziell, Settler Romances and the Australian Girl (Crawley, WA: University of Western Austra (...)

7Despite this modern critical focus on gender and feminism, Tasma rarely offers the critic a consistent position with regard to gender ideology, except in so far as gaps, omissions and contradictions might indicate a position continually under revision. Robert Dixon, for instance, complains that Tasma ‘turns upon’ the New Woman character in her 1891 novel The Penance of Portia James, the very character who ‘would help her heroine escape from bondage’10 while Fiona Giles, of the same novel, argues that Tasma’s heroines seek, and presumably do not find, a position from which to speak—a discursive space.11 More generally, Tanya Dalziell reads Tasma’s ‘empowerment of white middle-class women and men’ as ‘inconsistent.’12

8There is no reason, of course, why Tasma should contest or uphold the various ideologies of her day consistently or in any other way. The discursive shifting of position, of perspective, is common in nineteenth-century women’s writing, a testing of the water and a strategic drawing back so as not to alienate various powerful readerships: publishers, critics, the reading public itself. In Tasma’s case, however, there is another factor which impacts on these shifting perspectives. Unlike almost any other successfully publishing British author in the 1880s and 1890s, Tasma’s were specifically travelling narratives, both figuratively and literally, a label which can be applied to the novels of the 1890s and to the earlier short stories. Her narratives are both about travel, new scenes, different places, inter-cultural encounters, the criss-crossing of oceans, the traversing of both European and colonial—specifically Australian—spaces, and actually did travel, written wherever she happened to be at the time and shipped to their publication destination, and then shipped again, to their various readership destinations. As Patricia Clarke comments, Tasma:

made a concerted effort to earn as much money as possible, sending articles to the Australasian from Paris and several Central European countries. From her base in a hotel in the Latin Quarter, she reported as she had done since 1879 on the cultural life of France. Probably neither before nor since have readers in Australia had the opportunity to read so consistently and in such depth about the intellectual life of Europe (84).

  • 13 Tasma, ‘Literary Notes from Paris’, Australasian (16 April 1881), 488.
  • 14 Tasma, ‘Home Impressions’, Australasian (18 October 1879), 487.

9Tasma, as Clarke’s comment supports, was not, however, permanently domiciled in Paris, writing for Parisians, nor in London, writing for Londoners. Had she been her work might well have lacked its dynamic quality: a quality generated by her peripatetic life style. Reporting on a banquet in France in 1881 to honour Juliette Adam, director of the periodical Nouvelle revue, described by Moses as ‘influential’ (162), Tasma noted only one other woman present, a novelist publishing under the pseudonym Henri Greville, who she notes, ‘writes novels which deal with French society under its present aspect’. Tasma was never a domestic writer targeting a safe, home audience and dismisses Greville’s novels as having ‘nothing very powerful or original in them.’13 What lends her own work power and originality is that through the lens of language, her inter-cultural perspectives allow her the opportunity to see and compare daily lives in a range of settings, conforming to or resisting a range of ideologies. She sees clearly enough that any change to gender politics, to religious ideology, will always be slow. Observing an abandoned, half-finished crematorium, Tasma writes in her Australasian article ‘Home Impressions’, that metaphorically this building represents ‘a type of the uphill progress of a new idea, and in the scattered bricks round its base something that spoke of the destructive power of prejudice.’14 Progress will always be hindered by prejudice: and in the late nineteenth century especially, the most polemical texts reflect this in response to a political, cultural and physical environment almost constantly in a state of flux. France, perhaps more than any other European country at the time, could be described in this way. Indeed, Hazareesingh describes clericalism at this time as ‘a cry of political anger and religious despair’ (100).

  • 15 Tasma, ‘Monsieur Caloche’, repr. in A Sydney Sovereign, ed. Michael Ackland (Sydney: Angus & Robert (...)
  • 16 Susan Martin, ‘Why Do All These Women Have Moustaches?’ Gender, Boundary and Frontier in Such is Li (...)

10This lengthy preamble comes about in part as a reaction to the puzzle that is ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’ (‘Love in the Antipodes’) which, as I have noted, appeared at a politically significant moment in August 1880. The puzzle is on two counts. The first is that, as it stands, both in the original and in translation, the story seems poorly constructed and lacks the very real power of the two English-language tales which preceded it, both of which were published in 1878 in the Australasian, ‘Monsieur Caloche’ and ‘A Philanthropist’s Experiment’. Both these earlier stories have a palpable and significant French connection, but also both are cleverly ironic and subtle, playing on Bennett’s ‘inter-cultural perspective’ for all they are worth. In ‘Monsieur Caloche’, for instance, an apparently effete young man, badly scarred with smallpox, applies for clerical work to Bogg and Company in Melbourne. Interviewed by the bullying, underbred Sir Matthew Bogg, a proudly ‘self-made’ man, the lad is stigmatised for his ‘Frenchiness’. He is deliberately sent to a sheep station up country where the work is hard but where he wins the respect of the men. On an inspection tour, Sir Matthew, infuriated by his failure to break him, strikes him with a whip and the lad stumbles away into the bush. Two days later his body is discovered and revealed to be that of a young woman.15 As Susan Martin remarks, the Australian environment had offered the young woman ‘freedom and escape’ from her facial disfigurement, adding, ‘it is not a hostile environment which has killed Henriette Caloche but her treatment by Bogg.’16 Nevertheless the focus of this story is clearly on gender politics.

  • 17 I wish to thank Associate Professor Beverley Noakes for reading both the French original and the tr (...)

11The second puzzle is that ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’ appears, in terms of gender politics at least, to be very very conservative and unlike any other of Tasma’s productions in this respect, bringing inconsistency with regard to gender to an apparently new and critically unwelcome level.17

  • 18 Elinor A. Accampo, ‘Gender, Social Policy and the Formation of the Third Republic’. Gender and the (...)
  • 19 Tasma, ‘Notes from Paris’, Australasian (21 February 1880), 231. In fact France's colonial ambition (...)
  • 20 Peter France, ed. New Oxford Companion to Literature in French (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995). See also (...)

12To help solve these conundrums, it seemed appropriate to begin by investigating the journal in which Tasma’s story had been published. The Nouvelle revue was launched in October 1879 under the direction of Juliette Adam, feminist, novelist and polemicist. In 1879 the Third Republic was in its tenth year, but as Moses notes, the Third Republic had been ‘a decade in the making’ (197). It was a political period which symbolised notable progress in France: industrial, scientific and economic, but also extensive and at times intrusive social legislation.18 As noted, religion was about to be separated out from education, and it was a period of colonial expansion for France, although as Tasma herself remarks in ‘Notes from Paris’, ‘France does not rank high among the nations as a coloniser.’19 The Third Republic saw the burgeoning of left-wing movements and trade unionism, and various feminisms.20

  • 21 There is perhaps a hint of irony here in Tasma's use of the word ‘notabilities’. This term was appl (...)

13La Nouvelle revue, then, was clearly a periodical tied to the radical and shifting politics of its day. This is confirmed by Tasma herself in ‘Literary Notes from Paris’ in her description of the banquet given in Adam’s honour by the contributors to the journal, ‘notabilities’ writes Tasma, ‘in the world of letters, of science, of the arts, of fashion, and of politics.’21 In particular she notes the presence of Emile de Girardin, whose work calls for ‘freedom of thought, speech, and social and commercial action’ as Tasma puts it, and of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer. She comments of both with her characteristic acerbic wit and humour:

  • 22 Tasma, ‘Literary Notes’, 488. Tasma would later take advantage of this shorter sea route and Clarke (...)

where one is fighting for the establishment of an abstract truth, or political measure, one may fight to the end, and where one can point to a canal, which has become a highway for all the ships in the world as a proof of the soundness of one’s opinions, one may sit down contented. Those who abused M. de Girardin in the beginning will do so as long as they have voices left, but a passage through the Mediterranean and Red Seas must have a silencing effect upon those who were the loudest in proclaiming that M. de Lesseps was a pickpocket.22

  • 23 Tasma, ‘Notes from Paris’, 231.

14De Lesseps canals changed shipping lanes and shipping times, and as Tasma remarks in her February 1880 column, ‘Notes from Paris’, nations from all points of the compass owe France ‘more in the drawing together of their various people than if she had planted the tricolour in every corner of the globe.’23

15Producing an Australian story for a targetted French readership may have been inspired by Tasma’s presence, six months prior to the publication of ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’, at a lecture in December 1879, celebrated in her ‘Notes from Paris’ for the Australasian:

  • 24 Tasma, ‘Notes from Paris’, 231.

It was something of a pleasant surprise the other night, on the occasion of a lecture given at the Salle Géographique by a French gentleman who had travelled through Australia, to find that the hall was closely packed, and that some hundreds of people had come through an atmosphere considerably below freezing point to hear about those mysterious antipodes, in which gold diggers, convicts, and cannibals may wander among strawberry beds at Christmas time.24

  • 25 Tasma, ‘Notes from Paris’, 231.

16Tasma also remarks in the same column that: ‘Vacuous stories, of a kind that no paper published in Australia would admit into its columns, figure largely in even the foremost French journals.’25 This latter comment is a little alarming. I wondered if Tasma had taken the easy option and offered a vacuous love story of the kind she obviously knew Parisian journals would be prepared to print. Does this explain the story’s apparent weaknesses?

  • 26 Patricia Clancy, trans. ‘Introduction’, Love in the Antipodes by Tasma, 1880 (Canberra: Mulini Pres (...)
  • 27 Clancy, 9.
  • 28 Accampo, 24.

17Certainly the translator of ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’ into English, Patricia Clancy, warns her readers that ‘Literary French tends towards abstraction, with a much greater dependence on noun rather than verb constructions, which can sound more pompous or melodramatic than English. . . and does not lend itself to the wry humour or the easy conversation so typical of her best writing’, a comment attempting to explain the story’s apparent semantic crudities.26 Clancy also comments that ‘Mrs Murray’s complete abdication to Arthur, though it may be temporary, is nevertheless unusual and not so pleasing to the modern reader.’27 It is difficult at this distance in time to determine the tenor of the Nouvelle revue’s readership. Would such a readership find it difficult to accept a heroine who dominates all those around her, despite Juliette Adam’s major contribution to French feminism? Or is it more obviously a case of such feminism having to be downplayed? As Moses observes, 1870s politics were characterized by repression and specifically ‘feminist organizing was halted’ (196). Elinor A. Accampo reminds us that as ‘the labour and socialist movements became more organized in the 1880s and 1890s. . . the ‘woman question,’ which previously had held first place on the congress agendas, ceased to have any place at all’. There was also a move to ‘secularize women. . . to remove them from the influence of the church and its antirepublican allies.’28 The lack of free expression in particular has important resonance for any underlying gender politics in ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’.

  • 29 Margaret Harris, ‘Hobart and “Home” in Tasma and Mrs Humphrey Ward’, Australian Literary Studies in (...)
  • 30 Tasma, ‘Notes from Paris’, 231.
  • 31 Ian Henderson, ‘Mid-Victorian Reading and the Antipodes’, Australian Literary Studies 22 (2006), 29 (...)

18Margaret Harris has commented that all six of Tasma’s novels might generally be described as centering ‘on their heroines’ negotiations of identity in marriage although this, Harris adds, ‘belies the intensity of her obsessive interrogation of gendered behaviour, particularly her frank examination of men’s physical and mental abuse of women.’29 In ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’ the negotiation takes place, but it is, at first sight, surprisingly centred around religious ideology (soon revealed as a form of anticlericalism) which at one level appears to displace gender politics from the story’s core, but at a more profound level, complicates it. And this, perhaps, is where ‘Antipodes’, or as Tasma herself designates the region, the ‘mysterious antipodes,’30 comes in and where we can, after all, locate Tasma’s sense of wry humour and ironic play. In a pertinent article, Ian Henderson points out that ‘the Antipodes’ had two traditional meanings, one empiricist, but the other ‘mythopoetic’, existing ‘for philosophical or religious reasons’, adding that the logic of the term ‘almost inevitably engendered Antipodean culture and society in terms of an inversion of European hierarchies’. In a footnote to David Fausett’s Writing the New World we are told that ‘standard features of the genre included women who ruled men, lawyers who begged from the poor, deer that pursued dogs, and so on’. Moreover, ‘the antipodes’ might be considered ‘an unruly imaginative space.’31


  • 32 Tasma. Love in the Antipodes (‘L'Amour aux Antipodes’), (1880), trans. Patricia Clancy, (Canberra: (...)
  • 33 Tasma. ‘L'Amour Aux Antipodes’, La Nouvelle revue (August 1880), 880; 848-883. The same story was s (...)
  • 34 At the age of 12 Arthur had been handed a miniature painting, ‘a charming portrait of a child with (...)

19Into this ‘unruly imaginative space’ Tasma brings together a woman who presides all-powerful, both in the running of her station property and in the domestic space of the home, who is, according to a neighbouring squatter, ‘beautiful and stubborn’, who ‘wants to take charge of everything’32 and who is also ‘deeply religious’ and ‘High Church’ (18), on the one hand, and, on the other, a man who is described as ‘what the English call an agnostic, a kind of convinced Positivist’ (14). In terms of religious persuasions then, the hero and heroine are diametrically opposed, as in the common French expression être aux antipodes de, although in terms of class, of education, even of family (they are cousins), no two people could possibly be less at odds with each other. The heroine’s identity, a very settled and assured thing in her own mind, will be subjected to renegotiation by the hero, helped along by chance or fate. Notably, in the French original, he is described as a Fataliste, or one who believes in the inevitability of events.33 The issue of female identity is complicated by the fact that the heroine’s given name is never mentioned, she is always either the ‘little wife’ of the hero’s boyhood dreams or ‘Mrs Murray.’34 The hero, on the other hand is the fully named Captain Arthur Lascelles St. John, bestowing on him a significant presence. The mythic name Arthur (shared in both French and British medieval chivalry) helps to reinforce this gravitas along with his military rank.

20I want to argue nevertheless that this tale is not vacuous, rather it explores a realm of ideas which must, as I have argued, have had some currency and immediacy in the Paris of 1880, and are far more significant than the pedestrian love story to which those ideas are attached. The ‘Antipodes’ of the title therefore becomes an important critical tool in two ways. First, it opposes Australia geographically, even scientifically, in firm contradistinction to Europe (French-speaking Europe in particular) as a space of difference, and therefore of opportunity, which Tasma highlights in the French original by italicising specific Australian terms: ‘station’, ‘buggy’, ‘bush’, ‘homestead’, ‘squatter’, ‘creek’, ‘old-man kangaroo’ and so on. Difference is also demonstrated through landscape description, or, as the narrator puts it, the newly arrived Arthur’s ‘strange natural surroundings’ (22):

They were in that part of Australia on the New South Wales border where vast plains extend right to the horizon. Here one could see dark, thin gum trees with their rough bark hanging like a beggar’s rags and some dull green native cherry trees. The smallest trace of green had disappeared under the burning rays of the summer sun. The north wind wove its way across the plains, its burning breath enveloping everything (22).

21This evocation of a drought-stricken landscape may well have been prompted by the lecture of that French traveller back in December who offered his audience views ‘thrown, as from a magic lantern, by electric light on the opposite wall’. This innovation clearly thrilled Tasma, perhaps provoking a sudden sharp homesickness but also memory of the ways in which the landscape could so suddenly shift with extremes of weather and locale from the lushness of fern trees in rainforest, to the dryness of the open plains. It is difficult to decide if the following comment supports this reading of sharpened memory, or whether it was intended merely to gratify her Australian readership:

  • 35 Tasma, ‘Notes from Paris’, 231.

Though he declared that there was nothing in Victoria to equal the forest scenery around Fontainebleau—a murmur of dissent ran round the room as the most exquisite of fern tree gullies shaped itself on the opposite wall. . . . I think. . . if comparisons be instituted at all, between types so dissimilar—that the triumph would be for Australia.35

The second use of the term ‘antipodes’ as a critical tool is metaphoric, the term playfully but covertly invoked to engage with the religious philosophies of the two protagonists, which are literally poles apart.

  • 36 The French original states ‘minds’, not ‘men's minds’.

22That the story engages primarily with religion and that this is directly connected to antipodean imaginative space is made clear at the outset. On Arthur’s decision to emigrate the narrator comments: ‘Settling in a country that has taken shape in the nineteenth century would rid one of all the prejudices in the old world that came from institutions created when men’s minds were still enslaved’ (14).36 Moreover, Arthur finds the idea of a new life appealing ‘in a land where there would be no monument of servitude to the past’ (14). The rejection of formal religion (what Tasma, as cited earlier, had termed ‘an old and enfeebled sentiment’) is obvious. This is a different take on the usual version of terra nullius, as applied to Australia, in which travellers and settlers alike read the absence of monuments as lack, in terms of civilisation, rather than as an opportunity to embrace and proselytise new ideas. Tasma’s use of words like ‘enslaved’ and ‘servitude’ confirm specific engagement with religious ideology. Arthur’s determination to change his life provokes the comment: ‘Three centuries earlier, he might have thought that God was calling him, and he would have gone out and established a new religious order’ (11). Moreover, the ivory box which holds the miniature of his cousin, his ‘little wife’, is labelled a ‘reliquary’ and the coral beads around his cousin’s neck ‘were as significant to him as the beads of a rosary to a devout Spaniard’ (12). Such semantics run counter to the description of Arthur as an agnostic.

23The plot is laughable. After a long illness Arthur has decided that life as a cavalry officer is idle and banal. He decides he must change his life and gazing at the miniature it seems to say ‘emigrate too’ and so he takes ship for Melbourne, Australia. He reaches the antipodes at the beginning of summer, takes a room at one of the better hotels, and is ‘surprised to find that a buffet supper was served for residents as in Paris’ (15). Such comments indicate Tasma’s awareness of her French readership. Arthur meets an old friend and joins the exclusive Melbourne Club. His friend is a squatter whose next door neighbour is the ‘beautiful and stubborn’ Mrs Murray (17), a woman Arthur has just seen through the window. The narrator remarks: ‘As Arthur studied her, he felt a kind of jolt inside himself.’ (17) Thus almost at first glance Arthur realises that Mrs Murray is his long lost cousin, the little girl of whom it had been said that she would be his wife one day. She is seeking a tutor for her son, and Arthur decides to offer himself. As he explains to his friend, ‘I really want to earn my own living, I haven’t forgotten my Greek, Latin or mathematics’ (18). The only objection is that he is too handsome. This objection is overcome by hiding his commanding eyes behind dark blue glasses with his hair plastered down to make him look ‘avuncular and bookish’ (19). Romantically of course he is now in an impossible position, unable to approach her on equal terms in his role as employee, and with competition from an Anglican minister ‘still young, plump and pink’, but whose thick lips and bull neck denote an ‘animal nature’ and who is, according to the narrator, ‘smooth-tongued like all priests’ (27). Tasma’s anti-clericalism seems pronounced in such narratorial comments. However, despite this dubious competition, as the weeks pass by, Arthur’s love deepens even as he realises that ‘she was an autocrat as well as a gracious lady. Was there a man who could conquer this domineering woman. . .?’ (27).

  • 37 Tasma, ‘Notes from Paris’, 231.

24However, Arthur’s tales of other lands, both ancient and modern, powerfully affect the heroine’s imagination so that for her as ‘she listened to him the horizon seemed to widen. Her imagination drifted in such vast spaces that all her land at Tamburoona could not fill it’ (31). It seems that despite those wide Australian plains, the hub of her universe has been after all narrow and confined, only briefly broadened by vague childhood memories of heather-flecked grass and damp mist (31). These comments reveal the way in which Tasma sees that the remedy is to open and broaden the mind, to give the heroine a sense of a world beyond her own, containing people ‘for whom the whole Australian continent was not as important as the smallest island of the old world’ (31). Tasma brings into play a popular nineteenth-century dichotomy, that of the Old world and the New. Tasma never plays one off against the other, however, rather her work tends to emphasise the need to know one another. As she remarks of the lecture on Australia and a comment made about Australian journalism in ‘Notes from Paris’ which I addressed earlier, the ‘really surprising thing connected with it is the fact that comparison in such a matter between France and Australia should be possible.’37

25The crisis in ‘L’Amour aux Antipodes’ comes when Mrs Murray believes that she can ‘bend the will of God’ (33) and bring about an end to the drought. She decides to perform an ‘act of humility’ through fasting and dressing in black, but betrays instead ‘self-importance’ and ‘vanity’ (33). Her religious performance is overturned by the Chinese gardener lighting fireworks in his own attempt to propitiate the gods and bring about an end to the drought, and the narrator comments:

Finding herself in collusion with her heathen gardener to extort a direct response from heaven was a discovery which Mrs Murray’s pride as a woman and as a Christian should have found extremely distasteful. What caused her most annoyance, however, was to know that the tutor had witnessed her discomfiture (34).

But like a miracle the rain comes and Mrs Murray is exultant. She obviously believes ‘herself almost a force to be reckoned within the world. Had she not just performed a miracle for her station?’ (35). The following day the heroine and her son revel in this new, revitalised world:

Nature seemed to rejoice in being alive. Birds. . . were chattering in the wet branches; insects were chirping in their holes. Patches of light danced among the trees and an intoxicating smell rose from the earth. It was a universal hymn to equal all your church litanies. . . . It seemed to her that nature celebrated her presence by sounding all the notes in its infinite scale (36).

26The creek is in flood and young Bobby, running ahead, gets swept away. Heroically Arthur, naturally enough, comes to the rescue: ‘Thanks to his nerve and physical strength’. With the revelation of Arthur’s ‘inexpressible feelings of tenderness and love she clings to his knees and kisses his hand’ (37), an act singularly close to worship. The cloying sentimentality of this is cut away almost immediately when Mrs Murray asks Arthur: ‘You are what is called a determinist, are you not?’ (38) because ‘she had suddenly been made to see that being a member of the Anglican Church was not enough to make her exempt from the universal laws of nature’ (38). The issue of religion seems amazingly out of place in the denouement of a love story, but serves to demonstrate where the real focus of the work lies, when it is followed by a reflective interrogation regarding determinism and religion: ‘Was she not alluding to the vital question facing people in all lands, in all religions, throughout history; to the problem we ponder and will always ponder for as long as there are human voices to send prayers on high or hurl curses to the wind?’ (38).

27Arthur explains his scepticism, ending with a Darwinian demonstration as to ‘why it is reasonable to believe that we humans are merely more or less developed descendants of monkeys’ (39). The reader is told ‘For the first time in her life, the overwhelming consciousness of the infinite swept through her mind and made it falter’ (39). Tasma then intriguingly compares her condition to ‘that poor woman in the Gospel who was weeping because her master’s body had been taken from her’ (39). Without religion, our heroine asks, ‘What will become of me? Who will protect me?’ and when she turns around Arthur is by her side. This juxtaposition of Arthur with Christ is both a bold one and determinedly anticlerical.

28The story ends with the comment that ‘happy countries have no history’, a positive version of terra nullius, and this happy couple are married in a civil ceremony, not a church one. The translation ends with that squatter neighbour triumphing that ‘She’s met her match at last’ (41) but the French original literally states ‘she has found the master she needed’. This might be interpreted as a joke harking back to the story’s beginning when Mrs Murray comes to town seeking a school master (that is, précepteur) for her son. Alternatively, however, the comment may play more daringly on the concept of mastery in religion. In the French original the reference above to the fallen Mary Magdalene at the sepulchre seeking Christ’s body uses the term son maître, just as Sinclair does at the very end of the tale (Elle a trouvé le maître).

29It seems that Tasma maintains the imaginative possibility of an antipodean space in which the old European hierarchies and ideologies of religion and politics can be overturned. She does, however, conveniently and carefully ensure that references to formal religion are specified as Anglican (l’Église anglicane), and therefore Protestant, for her French-speaking readership, a possibly judicious decision in terms of avoiding French clerical affront and any existing legal objections. In this tale, however, the woman who ‘aims to command rather than charm’ (20), who usurps masculine authority, once a possibility in mythopoetic versions of antipodean space, is, despite geographical distance, still too unruly a concept for a readership caught up in the anticlerical and predominantly antifeminist politics of the Third Republic.

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