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The Australian National University

Je ne sais quoi: Finding France and the French in Australia, 1890–1914

Date and time

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 - 16:15 - 17:30


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU

Image: Paris House Menu, cover art, 1904

(private collection)

Two days before Christmas in 1915, the Premier of New South Wales, W. A. Holman, spoke to a crowd of Australian and French patriots at the Australia Hotel. With confidence, he clamoured at length about the single sentiment of comradeship and mutual understanding that existed between Australia and her ‘gallant’ ally in the war, France. Yet, a few years earlier in 1907, his predecessor, Thomas Bent, found himself in the midst of a small diplomatic incident when he unintentionally castigated one of his political opponents for ‘shooting in the back like a Frenchman’. The episode was soon forgotten as Bent apologised profusely to the ‘gallant’ French nation; if he had caused offense, he was sorry, he had not meant to.

Can a gallant – a civilised – country be populated by deceitful cowards? And if Bent did not mean what he said, why had he said it?

My PhD dissertation seeks to explore the cultural context behind the quickly recanted blunder of the Australian Premier before the foundational years of the Great War. It explores the multifarious set of images and ideas attached to French culture in late nineteenth-century Australia and how these ideas helped shape discussions about whom Australians wanted to be. By focusing on moments of conflict and the articulation of cultural difference, my work examines the various ways in which French culture, a largely disembodied cosmopolitan culture, was used to create social distinctions: between Australians and the French, amongst Australians, and between Australia and the rest of the world

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