The convict narratives: Genre and autobiography

Mauger, Matthew P. (1999). The convict narratives: Genre and autobiography M.A. Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Mauger, Matthew P.
Thesis Title The convict narratives: Genre and autobiography
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1999
Thesis type M.A. Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Total pages 129
Language eng
Subjects 19 Studies in Creative Arts and Writing
Formatted abstract
During the period of transportation to Australia autobiographical narratives purportedly written by convicts were frequently published in Britain, America, and the Australian and Canadian colonies. Most are in the form of short pamphlets, though there are also broadsides and other much longer works. They demonstrate a variety of styles, some engaging in political debate, some with clearly didactic intentions, and others ostensibly honest accounts of experiences in the penal colonies. These often intense narratives, taken individually, act as personalized snapshots of a historical period over which controversy still rages, as the debate provoked by the 1988 publication of Stephen Nicholas's Convict Workers has demonstrated (e.g. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart in '"Convict Workers, 'Penal Labour' and Sarah Island"). However, as Kay Walsh and Joy Hooton have suggested about Australian autobiographical narratives in general, it is only when considered as a group in their historical and cultural contexts that the significance of the individual texts can be asserted as revealing "actual, lived effects of structural features . . . and . . . the individual responses to these features and changes"(2).

Despite the wide diversity of the convict narratives, this thesis theorizes them as a distinct literary genre in order to provide a context within which their wider literary and cultural significance may be discussed. It also analyses the genre's roots in popular travel writing and criminal histories in an attempt to locate the texts within the literary marketplace into which they were introduced.

George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things analyses the "prototype theory" of classification, which prioritizes how objects are perceived and interacted with as indicative of category membership. Whereas traditional classification theory had implied that all category members must be identical, prototype theory's most important achievement is in demonstrating that particular category members can be judged to be more representative than others. The boundaries between membership and non-membership are effectively blurred. Prototype theory's approach is adopted in this thesis as a critical tool for a flexible examination of genre. The thesis conducts a close examination of the convict narratives' structure and elucidates the dialogue between text and reader (the translation in literary discussion of prototype theory's concentration on perception and function) in order to develop a deeper understanding of how these diverse texts operate as a genre. A critical perspective on this dialogue is gained through application of H. Porter Abbott's theory of autographic reading (by "autographic" Abbott refers to a literary attitude distinct from both the fictional and the factual) in which the author's trustworthiness as a faithful disseminator of events is called into question. Though such a reading stance may be considered as threatening to texts, it is shown to be a stance on which they nevertheless rely for the achievement of their ultimate intentions.

There has been little critical work which examines these narratives as a group of texts; they are rarely anthologized, and they seldom draw more than brief references in 'histories' of Australian literature. Though both Anne Conlon and A. W. Baker consider a significant number of these works, they shed little light on their generic identity or on their location in cultural terms. This thesis aims to redress this imbalance, suggesting the importance of the narratives in any consideration of early literature in Australia.
Keyword Prisoners -- Australia -- Biography
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