Chamier the Epicurean

My thesis from the University of Auckland: “Chamier the Epicurean: The Life and Works of George Chamier (1842-1915)” (2008)

The abstract:

George Chamier (1842-1915) was an engineer and novelist, who was born and died in England, but spent most of his life on an eccentric orbit around the outskirts of the British Empire—through New Zealand, Australia and China and back to England again. After he had established himself as an engineer in Australia, he looked back on his life in a trilogy of autoethnographical novels, which work through the problem of how an “unsettled settler” such as he might get settled in the settler colonies. Philosopher Dick (1890) and A South-Sea Siren (1895; 1970, see 2nd ed.) are set in the eighteen-sixties in North Canterbury, New Zealand on a back country station [Horsley Down] and in a small town [Leithfield] respectively; The Story of a Successful Man (1895) is set in the eighteen-seventies in “Marvellous Melbourne.”

This thesis examines Chamier’s life and (fictional) works in the light of two key questions.

The first is: How can we understand the distinctive critical perspective on life in the settler colonies in the early days of European settlement that his novels articulate? The “outside insideness” of his position as an unsettled settler can account for the critical purchase he has on his own culture. Such a perspective is unusual in the history of local settler literature, not just because it is critical of settler society or “unsettling,” but because it is critical in an unusual way: Chamier unsettles himself by problematising his own position as a settler, thereby generating a critical autoethnography—to borrow Deborah Reed-Danahay’s definition, a critical “self (auto) ethnography” that is also “the ethnography of [his] own group,” his own ethnos (people).

And the second question that informs this thesis is: How can we understand the relation between his life and works, given the degree to which the former seems to inform the latter? In the novels, he makes sense of his life in hindsight as a sentimental education. He has his autoethnographical “stand-ins” take on a series of sentimental personas in the attempt to get themselves settled as they move through the Australasian colonies in an ironic appropriation of the grand narrative of settlement as a progress from frontier to town to city. To see his life in hindsight as “mapped out” in this way was a gesture of aesthetic settlement that enabled Chamier to achieve an Epicurean equanimity he was able to find only fleetingly in the scramble of life in the settler colonies.

See also:

George Chamier, War and Pessimism (1911): philosophical and literary essays.

Philosopher Dick is online at the NZETC (see his author page).

My essay from JASAL: “George Chamier and the Native Question” (2006).

A capsule bio at dnzb.


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