A character can be "cowardly" (Cambridge's word) and still become her uncondemned protagonist; she would like to say that people are not admirable all of the time, and an author who respects the flesh of humankind will go along with it. It is as if she makes her people the protagonists and only finds their weaknesses afterwards; it is as though she has met them in the street and continued holding conversations with this good-enough person until one day they do something and she thinks, Oh, this one's cowardly.
It is not ideal, for the protagonist, for all of us, it would be better for the character's life if she could have been some other way but the character was not that other way, she was this way, as people are sometimes this way. "And she had, as has been already indicated, that fault which, of all faults, perhaps, is most common to girls, whether nice or otherwise -- that amiable weakness that is more disastrous in its consequences than many a downright vice -- she was, if not quite a coward, cowardly."
If Catherine Martin describes the body then she will do it in detail, once, ("The complexion was very fair and clear, and when she talked it was often tinged with swift delicate rose-pink ..." An Australian Girl, chapter one), then leave it almost alone with only small bits of existence to remind it that it is there ("said Esther, a smile hovering round her lips"), but the cowardly woman in Ada Cambridge falls in love two hundred pages into the book and her body is still wholly there to throb: "Rachel, feeling all her body like one great beating heart, moved away to the door." Nobody in all of Catherine Martin manifests the same level of ordinary flesh-awareness as this character in an early work of Ada Cambridge. Martin takes pleasure in her describing-duty but she limits her pleasure; it is temporary, Cambridge's pleasure goes on.
They are so different but their dates are so close, Martin 1848 – 1937, Cambridge 1844 – 1926. They have different kinds of self-respect.
There is this careful grand style of Catherine Martin, this self-consciousness, the austerity of the Mallee is in her description of Burke and Wills, the men's reserve, their upright behaviour, even the monotone that she would find later in the scrub she finds in them or around them,
His pallid cheek more pallid grows.
In vain he strives to speak a last farewell
In quiet and measured words: his low tones fell
And trembled, and at last he looked away;
But all around was strangely blurred and grey.
and it is in the priggishness of Stella the Australian Girl, her interest in an German academician is presented to the reader like a Girl Scout badge for worthiness: a sinner expecting to be mistaken for a goodness and I am not God.
I'm your reader Stella, not your mother. Go to the bloody races if you like.
You have my full support I assure you.
Doris in the scrubland dreams and hallucinates, even the Arunta women trekking across the desert in The Incredible Journey are affected by smoke and magic, the rigidity in every case "was strangely blurred and grey," there is an element that resists your grasp, and even the brightest sunlight, the desert sunlight, can't abolish manifestations that seem uncanny; it cannot make things clear.