Oscar and Lucinda, which deals directly with issues of British imperialism in colonial Australia, wryly comments upon the Victorian expansion of the British Empire. Lucinda makes a fortune because solicitors sell her parents' land that she strongly feels belong to the Aborigines from whom the British — and by extension her family and herself — have stolen. The stories of Oscar and Lucinda expose the myth of empire building as a glorious pursuit.
Colonization and British imperialism are themselves a form of storytelling. Conquering the new and unexplored land, mapping it out, is a story. In his dreams and ambitions, Mr. Jeffris "would write such journals as the colony had never seen. Every peak and saddle surveyed to its precise altitude. Each saw-tooth range exquisitely rendered. His prose would have a spine of steel and descriptions as delicate as violet petals" (350). The schisms between what Mr. Jeffris writes in his journal, what Oscar witnesses, and what stories are passed down by the Aborigines illustrate how history is re-written. These different accounts also illustrate how difficult it is to distinguish fact from fiction even in the case of Oscar and Lucinda, although there is otherwise little doubt cast upon the narrator's own version of his great-grandfather's story. "The assertion that 'our people had not seen white people before' suggests a date earlier than 1865 and a more complex parentage than I am able to trace" (395). In the two chapters, "An Old Blackfellow" and "Glass Cuts," the narrator gives the reader an Aborigine account of Mr. Jeffris' party in the words of Kumbaingiri Billy. The Aborigines supposedly do not understand the actions of the white men. "One thing they did not understand was the boxes on the wagons: they got the idea the boxes were related to the stories. They thought they were sacred. They thought they were the white man's dreaming" (396). In fact, they turn out to be correct. Glass assumes a mystical importance to the Aborigines as it does throughout the novel in the forms of the Prince Rupert's Drop and later in the glass church.
Jeffris' ambitions to explore and chart unmapped country is to create a story to go down in history. In charting the land, he lays claim to it, being the first white man to see it and the first to give an account of the Aborigines and the landscape. Jeffris does not see himself as merely charting unexplored territory but making history:
Mr. Jeffris did not like the church but he was certainly not without a sense of history. Each pane of glass, he thought, would travel through country where glass had never existed before, not once, in all time. These sheets would cut a new path in history. They would slice the white dust-covers of geography and reveal a map beneath with rivers, mountains, and names, the streets of his birthplace, Bromley, married to the rivers of savage Australia. (374)
Through exploring this land first, Jeffris earns the right to name the territory and label it. He marks ownership. His act of naming is an act of appropriation that claims the land for the English.
Just as in Byatt's Possession and Swift's Waterland, the characters (or narrator) attempt to retell history and so make sense of and appropriate the past. Oscar and Lucinda looks back at an earlier time in British history, at the beginning of a family's history in a new country and at the exploration and colonization of Australia. Oscar and Lucinda is very much about the origins of history in the form of Mr. Jeffris' deliberate and conscious effort to make and write history in his journals and also Oscar's missionary work which essentially entails bringing the stories of Christianity to the Aborigines. The novel also compares the two versions of Oscar's story, those created by the narrator and his mother. The narrator never really tells how he constructed his version of Oscar's story. On the first page, he describes the daguerreotype and says that it seemed obvious to him that his great-grandfather that he was holding his breath and attempting not to twitch. Oscar and Lucinda offers an almost complete appropriation of history because he revises it so completely from his mother's story of Oscar as pioneer clergyman.
Last modified 1998