Publication Details

Rooney, M. C. (2004). Stages of Development: Remembering Old Sydney in Ruth Park's 'Playing Beatie Bow' and a Companion Guide to Sydney. Southerly: a review of Australian literature, 64 (3), 95-105.


Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow (1980) can easily be read as a bildungsroman, a novel of self-development or apprenticeship. Falling between the "child" and the "Young Adult" category, it is the story of an adolescent girl who comes to terms with the part she plays in a family romance. This plot, in keeping with other Oedipal dramas, matches personal development with issues of social, cultural and national importance. However, in tension with this thematic of personal and cultural progression is Park's exploration of the contradictory role that the fetish plays in a female coming-of-age narrative. This essay analyses Park's deployment of the fetish object as a medium that introduces her protagonist to working class life in Old Sydney but, at the same time, points to the unreliability of this form of signification. In doing so, the question of whether Park depicts The Rocks as a stage for a story that mythologises personal, cultural and national origins is explored. Is Playing Beatie Bow another narrative about self and cultural maturation that, via recourse to an Irish working-class history in The Rocks, legitimises colonial and postcolonial desires for belonging? Addressing this question is my reading of the novel as a captivity narrative, as well as a bildungsroman. This essay highlights the role of the female as fetish in the captivity narrative. Contrasting fetishism to other, more institutionalised and enshrined, memorial processes, it contests the notion that authorial fascinations with the colonial past are necessarily concerned with totalising ownership claims and/or revisionist historical practices. Finally, Park's cultural performance as travel writer, in her The Companion Guide to Sydney (1973), is linked to Playing Beatie Bow's deployment of the fetish as an object through which capture of the past is always partial and unreliable.

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