Sugarcane and the Wet Tropics: Reading the Georgic Mode and Region in John Naish’s Farm Novel The Cruel Field (1962)

Elizabeth Smyth


Many critics consider the pastoral ideal as key to understanding Australia’s rural development and therefore interpret regional literature as either supporting or working against that ideal. However, this approach is problematic for a farm novel centred on labour and a harsh reality. This essay introduces the georgic mode as a new interpretative framework. In a reading of John Naish’s The Cruel Field (1962), I identify georgic conventions of the harvest, seasons, labour, harsh conditions, heroism, and farming instructions. These conventions convey insights into the wet tropics bioregion of the mid-twentieth century. Regional insights arise from depictions of sugarcane, seasons, rainforest, Indigenous people, and women. I argue that sugarcane farming and Indigenous fishing align with the georgic mode. My inclusion of Indigenous fishing extends concepts of the georgic and subverts a pastoral tradition. Spatial boundaries situate the farm and sea as georgic, and rainforest as pastoral. This delineation recognises human management of country beyond the farm. This essay has repercussions for how ‘the pastoral’ is understood and positions the georgic mode as integral to interpretations of the farm novel. Along the way, I correct a lack of critical attention to the Welsh-migrant writer, John Naish, and build on Cheryl Taylor and Elizabeth Perkins’ research on North Queensland literature to revive and reshape understandings of ‘the North’.


John Naish; georgic; pastoral; farm novel; seasons; harvests; sugarcane; farmers

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