"This Project combines historical and fictional narratives set in or around lighthouses, interwoven with a deeper commentary on the human condition. The objective is to discern patterns in publication and popularity; commonalities in theme and character development (or regression); as well as exploring setting as ‘character’, an external manifestation of internal turmoil."
Bianca Millroy | Writer, Project creator.
This exhibition explores the intersection between historical fiction, eco-fiction and magic realism embedded in Australian literary fiction, specifically on the topic of lighthouses. Although the primary focus is on lighthouses and lighthouse keepers in literary (historical) fiction, the project scope will also include, more broadly: Australian narratives set ‘at sea’, on islands, involving shipwrecks or situated in remote landscapes that echo the phenomena of coastal isolation, known as a ‘liminal’ space, or the place ‘between’ land and sea – hence the focal theme.
As this news clipping quotes, "Lonely, but it's all worthwhile."
The Sydney Morning Herald, 5th March 1973
"Joanna Murray-Smith’s novel, Judgement Rock, is a chamber drama for three characters, set on a remote island off the Tasmanian coast, which seems to have become Australia’s symbolic heart of darkness over the last few years; a nowhere place onto which allegorical images can be projected, or a kind of wilderness area remote from the outside world in which the nation’s own primal dramas can be played out. The island’s isolation is what has attracted Iris, a botanist in search of the rarely sighted, possibly extinct, flame orchid. Iris is aware that islands are highly significant for scientists, as they are isolated places where it is possible to test science’s own limits: its desire to ask questions, its desire for hard edges, for beginnings and endings. Iris ends up marrying the lighthouse keeper, Noah, although it is questionable whether what they feel for each other is love. Halfway through the novel, a mysterious sailor called Joe is shipwrecked, comes to live with Iris and Noah, and brings darker passions to play." Source: Australian Book Review
'Kate and Harriet are best friends, growing up together on an isolated Australian cape in the 1880s. As daughters of the lighthouse keepers, the two girls share everything, until a fisherman, McPhail, arrives in their small community. When Kate witnesses the desire that flares between him and Harriet, she is torn by her feelings of envy and longing. One moment in McPhail’s hut will change the course of their lives forever.
Inspired by a true story, Skylarking is a stunning debut novel about friendship, love and loss, one that questions what it is to remember and how tempting it can be to forget. Skylarking reimagines the events learning up to the shooting at Cape St George Lighthouse and the lives of two determined young women coming of age at that point in Australian history'.
Source: Black Inc. publishing
'1926: Tom Sherbourne is a young lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Western Australia. The only inhabitants of Janus Rock, he and his wife Isabel live a quiet life, cocooned from the rest of the world. One April morning a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant - and the path of the couple's lives hits an unthinkable crossroads.
Only years later do they discover the devastating consequences of the decision they made that day - as the baby's real story unfolds...'
'A captivating, beautiful, and stunningly accomplished debut. The story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who make one devastating choice that forever changes two worlds.' Source: Penguin Books.
Film directed by Derek Cianfrance (2016) 133mins
Film directed by Shirley Barrett (2010)
110mins View AustLit record
Film directed by Shirley Barrett (2010) 110mins
Meredith, 30 and unmarried, arrives at a remote lighthouse island with her uncle, the new head keeper. Bad weather and misadventure leave her marooned with only the sullen and withdrawn assistant keeper, Fleet, for companionship. A tender, faltering courtship ensues...
Source: Screen Australia
"I loved the life of the island, because I knew my body was more alive than it was on the mainland. People asked how we stood the isolation...but in some ways, it was more stimulating to have your senses turned up."
In Tasmania, John Cook is known as 'The Keeper of the Flame'. As one of Australia's longest-serving lighthouse keepers, John spent 26 years tending Tasmania's well-known kerosene 'lights' at Tasman Island, Maatsuyker Island and Bruny Island. The life of a keeper was one of unexpected joy and heartbreak. But for John, nothing was more heartbreaking than the introduction of electric lights. A beautiful memoir from one of Tasmania's last kerosene lighthouse keepers. A story about madness and wilderness, shining a light onto the vicissitudes of love and nature.The Last Lighthouse Keeper is a love story between a man and a dying way of life, as well as a celebration of wilderness and solitude.'
Source: Allen & Unwin
Note: Publication date is July 2020.
Arden Beacon arrives in the salt-swept port of Vigil with a job to do. Tasked with using the magic in her blood to keep the lighthouse burning, she needs to prove herself worthy of her family name. But the coastline Arden must keep alight – battered by a sea teeming with colossal, ancient beasts – is far from the cultured, urban world she knows. It is a place of secrets, rumours and tight-lipped expectations of a woman’s place. The town folk whisper about Arden’s neighbour, Jonah Riven, the hunter of leviathans. They say he murdered his wife. They say he is as much a monster as his prey. Arden cannot get this shadowy stranger out of her head. A plot swirls around the lighthouse keeper, the hunter and the authorities. Arden must make sense of these dark waters – before they wash her away.'
'A sensational debut novel perfect for fans of Outlander and The Binding. This is gothic, epic, romantic fantasy at it’s very best; a tale of magic, intrigue on dangerous waters and a love story for the ages.'
Note: Published in March 2020
Fleeing their pandemic-stricken homelands, a shipload of migrant workers departs the UK, dreaming of a fresh start in prosperous Australia. For nine-year-old Cleary Sullivan, deaf for three years, the journey promises adventure and new friendships; for Glaswegian songstress Billie Galloway, it’s a chance to put a shameful mistake firmly behind her; while impoverished English schoolteacher Tom Garnett hopes to set his future on a brighter path. But when a crew member is found murdered and passengers start falling gravely ill, the Steadfast is plunged into chaos. Thrown together by chance, and each guarding their own secrets, Cleary, Billie and Tom join forces to survive the journey and its aftermath. The Trespassers is a beguiling novel that explores the consequences of greed, the experience of exile, and the unlikely ways strangers can become the people we hold dear.
Author's note: The two Queenscliff lighthouses make cameos in Part 2 of The Trespassers.
'At the outbreak of World War I, Fay’s isolated life on bleak, windswept Breaksea Island takes a dramatic turn. As a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Fay knows semaphore and Morse code and responds when the soldiers on the ships signal to her. Soon, the soldiers are semaphoring messages for their loved ones, which Fay then telegraphs on their behalf. Although they never meet, Fay eventually becomes friends with one young soldier who has no family. After the soldiers depart for the battlefields of Egypt and Gallipoli, Fay follows their fortunes and continues her long-distance conversations with them through letters and postcards.
Based on the true story of Fay Howe, this gentle tale brings to life the hardships of those left at home during wartime. Drawing on fascinating archival material, and interweaving fact with fiction, Dianne Wolfer and Brian Simmonds deftly recreate this period in Australian history from the perspective of a young girl... and brings to life the hardships of those left at home during the war,' (Freemantle Press, Goodreads).
'Melding personal, familial, and colonial history, this evocative novel explores the importance of love, family, and self-discovery'
A tiny coin found inside a Cloudy Bay oyster, a postcard of a white-haired child leaning against a beached dinghy and a coconut peeled and carved once upon a time on the Batavian coast. These trinkets, found in a sea chest, and the fragmented memories of her grandfather's tall tales are all Essie Lewis has left of her family history.
After her grandfather's death, Essie returns to Bruny Island, Tasmania and to the lighthouse where her great-great-grandfather kept watch for nearly 40 years. Beneath the lighthouse, she begins to write the stories of her ancestors. But the island is also home to Pete Shelverton, a sculptor who hunts feral cats to make his own peace with the past. And as Essie writes, she finds that Pete is a part of the history she can never escape.
'Elderly and in poor health, Mary fulfils her wish to herself to live out her last days on Bruny Island with only her regrets and memories for company. A long time ago, her late husband was the lighthousekeeper on Bruny, and she'd raised a family on the wild windswept island, until terrible circumstances forced them back to civilisation. The long-buried secret that has haunted her for decades now threatens to break free as Mary relives the events that led up to the shattering revelation. She realises she needs to trust a later generation to put things right. Mary's adult children are respectively outraged, non-committal and sympathetic, but no amount of coaxing, pleading or threats will shake her resolve. Her youngest son Tom loves Bruny as much as his mother does, and can understand her primal connection to that wild island, a place of solitude, healing and redemption for them both.'
'As the Scout sails from England, Kit Lovell cries for the life she is leaving and the life she could have had. Her father was a sea captain who went down with his ship before she was born. Now her mother is to marry a stranger, a lighthouse keeper in the remote colony of South Australia...it soon becomes clear to Kit that this voyage across the world's vast oceans is setting something loose inside her, something she doesn't understand. Her secret encounters with Angel, a mysterious young sailor, seem at one moment completely bewildering and at another crystal clear. And her friendship with the bold and brash young Clarissa is opening her eyes in ways she never thought possible.
'Yet Kit's internal turmoil is nothing compared to the power of the sea in all its moods as the Scout's melting pot of passengers and crew sail into an adventure that will change all their lives forever.'
'The Gabo Island Lighthouse, renowned for its striking red granite tower, was built on the south-eastern tip in the remote wilderness of Gabo Island. Lightkeepers endured much hardship in the early years. Conditions for keepers attending the first light were hard with poor shelter and irregular supplies. Storms often lashed the island, and if one story is to be believed, the tide was a very severe one in 1895 that came right up to the side of the walls of the houses, 16 metres above normal high tide!'
'The Lightkeepers of Gabo Island is a list of keepers and timeline of Gabo Island from 1854 to 2012. It is also a collection of biographies and memoirs of the people that were employed by the lighthouse service, to provide safe shipping on the east coast of Victoria.'
Source: Lighthouses of Australia
If we view these narratives through the lens of the 'liminal' coastal landscape, the voices that emerge are of those who seek a chosen solitude rather than live a life 'in isolation'. Coupled with the ideology that isolation is caused by exposure to the elements, the duality of nature possessing both beauty and danger, becomes apparent. Lighthouses are, by their very nature, symbols of hope and warning. As we know, isolation in nature is typical of the Australian landscape and is true of how setting is often portrayed in Australian fiction, both rural and urban. This duality, when explored in eco-fiction and magic realism, confronts the existence of nature, and more-so, the nature of existence. These narratives are no longer vestiges of a past being eroded by time; they are portals to understanding the future. Despite romantic notions of the long-held tradition of 'keeping the light', the cultural importance of the lighthouse in contemporary storytelling is what illuminates the path ahead.
'People try with an increasing despair to live, and to come to something, some place, or person. They want an island in which the world will be at last a place circumscribed by visible horizons.'
– Robert Creeley
Photo courtesy of Friends of South Solitary Island Lighthouse (FOSSIL)
'The Lighthouse Girl', Hellie Turner (2017): stage adaptation of Lighthouse Girl by Dianne Wolfer
Cape Forlorn, Victor Kendell (1931), film adaptation of Love Storm: People in a Cage (1931) by Frank Harvey
This project has come to fruition through a collaboration between AustLit and volunteer Project Officer Bianca Millroy, a Brisbane-based writer of historical fiction, eco-fiction and magic realism. For more information on Bianca's writing and 'The Solitary Light' project, visit biancamillroy.com
1. Design for South Solitary Island Lighthouse, James Barnet (1878), courtesy National Archives. 2. Close-up of Pt Perpendicular Fresnel lens (2018), courtesy Lighthouses of Australia. Note: all other photos and background images sourced from Creative Commons (Pexels).