The best historical novels on women at the Australian frontier

Who am I?

What makes me passionate about this topic is the racism I’ve witnessed, the books I’ve read, and my deep love of landscape. Australia is a nation built on immigration but it’s also a land with an ancient Indigenous culture, and this is reflected in the books on my list. Born in Melbourne, I grew up in Sydney, and then lived for some years in the UK. I hold a PhD from the London School of Economics and I’m a professor at the Australian National University. I do hope you enjoy the books on my list as much as I have.


I wrote...

The Philosopher's Daughters

By Alison Booth,

Book cover of The Philosopher's Daughters

What is my book about?

The Philosopher's Daughters is a tale of two very different sisters whose 1890s voyage from London into remote outback Australia becomes a journey of self-discovery, set against a landscape of wild beauty and savage dispossession.

From London to remote outback Australia, two sisters – pulled apart by love – are brought together by tragedy. When Harriet Cameron follows her sister, Sarah, to the harsh Australian outback – as dangerous as it is beautiful, as mysterious as it is wild – she is alienated by the casual violence and great injustices of outback life. Harriet’s recovery from this alienation begins with her growing friendship with an Aboriginal stockman and her increasing love for the landscape. This fragile happiness is threatened by murders at a nearby cattle station and by a menacing station hand seeking revenge.

The books I picked & why

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River of Dreams

By Anita Heiss,

Book cover of River of Dreams

Why this book?

Anita Heiss is an Australian academic and author of a number of insightful books on what it’s like being Indigenous in Australia. Her novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray begins in 1852 with a catastrophic flood that is a metaphor for the disastrous effects of European colonisation. Told mainly through the eyes of a young Wiradjuri woman, the novel is a powerful exploration of the clash of cultures that followed European settlement and appropriation of the land. It is a vivid and moving depiction of the unbalanced power relations between the races as well as between men and women.


Voss

By Patrick White,

Book cover of Voss

Why this book?

Patrick White was an Australian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Voss is one of his best books, and one that I’ve read again and again, as it brings new insights about human psychology and the Australian landscape with each reading. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Voss is an epic story of a German explorer who leads a doomed expedition across Australia, even while his relationship with Laura in Sydney develops. The novel is a poignant love story written in the most exquisite language, while it subtly draws out cultural differences between the Indigenous inhabitants and the European settlers. It is not a book to be rushed through but is one to savour.


The Territory

By Ernestine Hill,

Book cover of The Territory

Why this book?

Although The Territory was published in the 1940s, the book is as vivid as if it came out last year. Neither a novel nor a history, it is an evocative account of Ernestine Hill’s extensive travels around Northern Australia, the Aboriginal and white people she met, the stories she came across, and the joys and hardships she faced. I view it as essential reading for anyone planning to visit the Top End of Australia. I first read it while I was mapping out the plot of my own book, and was blown away by Ernestine Hill’s evocation of The Territory


Salt Creek

By Lucy Treloar,

Book cover of Salt Creek

Why this book?

I love this novel for its beautiful imagery, its character development, and its deeply sensitive portrayal of the clash of civilisations that was to prove so devastating to the countryside as well as to its original inhabitants. Salt Creek tells the story of the European settlers’ incursion in the mid-1850s into a remote coastal region of South Australia, and it focuses on one particular family’s struggles with establishing themselves in a land that already belonged to others. 


The Commandant

By Jessica Anderson,

Book cover of The Commandant

Why this book?

I love this novel by Jessica Anderson for its subtle psychological insights and its powerful evocation of an Australian colony in its early days. Set in the 1830s, The Commandant tells the story of a young Irish woman arriving in Australia to visit her sister, whose husband runs the Moreton Bay penal settlement, where he is much-hated by the convicts for his fanatical implementation of punishments. Becoming the object of a convict’s obsession, Frances feels responsible for that convict’s brutal lashing and is changed by the experience. The Indigenous people are shadowy figures in the background, for Anderson’s focus is on the brutality of the penal regime and how it affects a young woman’s innocence. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Australia, Sydney Australia, and Australian Outbacks?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Australia, Sydney Australia, and Australian Outbacks.

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