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Delicious descriptions: Clare Wright’s sources on the Australian landscape

November 13, 2014
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While the focus of Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, which I recently reviewed, is the role of women in the Eureka Stockade, the book offers a wealth of wonderful insight into the times. As regular readers know, I have a specific interest in descriptions of landscape so I greatly enjoyed contemporary descriptions of the environment that Wright includes in her book. I can’t resist sharing some with you.

In the first chapter, Wright quotes from the diary of Englishman Charles Evans who walked to the diggings with his brother and another companion. He wrote of one place along their journey:

the scene from the hills was lovely beyond expression—the sun had set and a mellow twilight and the silvery rays of a full moon shed a soft light over the beautiful landscape … I cannot remember any scene in my own country … to excel it—I was going to say, perhaps even to equal it. (from his diary, 1853-55)

Ballarat Diggings c.1852

Ballarat Diggings c1852 – not so ugly, but before the rush was in full swing (Courtesy: State Library of South Australia, B29496

By contrast, English journalist William Howitt comments on the destruction of the landscape in the service of digging for gold:

The diggers seem to have two especial propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees … Every tree is felled, every feature of Nature is annihilated. (from his book Land, labour and gold, 1855)

According to Wikipedia, Howitt’s body of work draws from “his habits of observation and his genuine love of nature”. Environmentalism, as we know only too well, didn’t spring up in the twentieth century, but I always enjoy, albeit with a certain chagrin, coming across concern about environmental degradation in writings from the past. Wright, with her characteristically evocative language, writes that several diarists and letter-writers comment on the ugliness of the diggings. They “emphasise”, she says, “the conquest of culture over nature, the bulldozer urgency of conquest.”

For some reason that doesn’t fully make sense to me, Wright also quotes Mrs Mannington Caffyn from a book published in 1891, but I’ll share it because Wright did and because it is such an evocative description of Australian sunlight:

Australian sunlight is quite original, and only flourishes in Australia [me: Funny that!]. It is young and rampant and bumptious, and it is rather cruel, with the cruelty of young, untried things.

Many – though of course not all – of the 19th century sources Wright quotes in the book have a picturesque way with words. Mrs Caffyn’s example here was written for publication, but I enjoyed the expressive language used by several of the diarists and letter-writers too. The aforementioned Charles Evans, for example, says this of the plains between Melbourne and Ballarat:

stretching as far as the eye could reach were immense grassy plains undulating in emerald folds like the swell of the ocean.

I may write another more serious post on this book, if I can get my head into gear, but hope you enjoy these little descriptions in the meantime.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Dorothy Johnston, writer and Barbara Jefferis Award judge

November 10, 2014

Literary awards, their role and import, have come under frequent discussion here at Whispering Gums. So, when writer Dorothy Johnston, whose The house at number 10 and Eight pieces on prostitution I’ve reviewed and, more relevantly, who was one of the judges for this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award, suggested a guest post on the Award, I was more than happy to take her up on it.

I have never met Dorothy but I have “known” her for a long time as she was one of Canberra’s famous Seven Writers who published the anthology Canberra Tales in 1988. I became “reacquainted” with her more recently via blogging and her appearance in The invisible thread anthology edited by Irma Gold for Canberra’s centenary last year. It’s been a lovely rediscovery. Dorothy has published nine novels – literary fiction, and crime-mystery novels, mainly. Two of her novels – One for the master and Ruth – have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Dorothy blogs at her website Dorothy Johnston.

For those who haven’t heard, this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award was shared by Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts and Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest. Here is Dorothy’s story about her experience as a judge.

***

The idea of splitting the Barbara Jefferis Award between The Night Guest and Sea Hearts did not come up before the three judges (myself, Margaret Barbalet and Georgia Blain) met at the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) in Sydney, at the end of September.

LanaganSeaHeartsI enjoyed working through the 72 entries, making notes, keeping in mind the selection criteria, (a work of literary merit that showed women and girls in a positive light), starring the books I knew I would want to go back to. I had no idea whether my favourites would find favour with Margaret and Georgia.

After about 6 weeks, we exchanged our long lists. One novel was common to all three of us – Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a brilliant study of a woman who believes there is a tiger in her house. Others on my long list didn’t show up on those of the other two judges, but both had included Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. I went back and re-read it more carefully, and was, as the saying goes, blown away.

These two entries stayed at the top from then on, while we emailed back and forth. Part of the reason for having 72 entries is that the award covered 2 years – 2013 and 2014 – and included self-published titles. By far the greatest number of entries came from the big publishers – Penguin, Allen & Unwin, Random House – though, as it turned out, 4 of the 7 shortlisted book were published by small, or small to medium presses.

We didn’t have to make a firm decision on our shortlist before the meeting; but once in Sydney we only had a morning to finalise it, then choose a winner, and then we had to spend the afternoon writing our report.

I’d had to give up some of the books on my long list because they didn’t find favour with Margaret or Georgia, and the same went for them. One I regretted letting go was Elemental by Amanda Curtin, a terrific story of a young girl growing up in a Scottish fishing village, and what happens to her subsequently. On the other hand, All The Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld, which the others both included, and which, as readers will know, won the Miles Franklin, I thought was over-rated.

McFarlaneNightGuestIf I had to make one general remark about the books that made it onto the shortlist, I would say that each one is utterly itself. What do I mean by this? I mean that, a few pages in, I recognised the voice as original, distinct, perfect for the narrative; they fitted hand and glove. So often I found that an author began promisingly, but then could not sustain the voice. Or, right from the beginning, the author pandered to one contemporary fashion or another. When you’re reading your way through 2 years of entries, you quickly learn that following the fashion is a bad idea.

There’s no whiff of conformity amongst the shortlist. Amy Espeseth’s Sufficient Grace focuses on two young women and their difficult lives in an isolated religious community. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, by Tracy Farr, introduced me to an extraordinary musician and her instrument, the theremin.

Pilgrimage, by Jacinta Halloran, is about two sisters, one of them a doctor, and what happens when their mother is diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts takes ancient selkie legends as its starting point and moves in a wholly original direction. Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is another novel that borders the surreal in an original and quite wonderful way. The First Week, by Margaret Merrilees, is, by contrast, a realist tale that cuts to the bone.

The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska, an ambitious and far-reaching story of Papua New Guinea in the years since independence.

We also highly commended Laura Buzo’s Holier Than Thou.

But back to that meeting at the ASA. We already knew each other’s preferences. We’d picked the same top two and could not choose between them. There didn’t seem a hair’s breadth, or knife point to tip the balance. We called in Lucy Stevens, who was overseeing the judging process. Lucy sat at one end of the table balancing the two books in her hands while we reached the decision to award the prize to both.

The presentation was held in the renovated foyer of St Barnabas Church, Broadway, a lovely light-filled space. It was a beautiful Sydney spring evening. There was music and champagne. I realized – not that I hadn’t known it before, but it came to me suddenly – that we were here to celebrate books and their authors. Angelo Loukakis, Executive Director of the ASA, welcomed us. David Day, who is Chair of ASA’s Board of Directors, spoke about Barbara Jefferis and the bequest. Tara Moss spoke about women and the arts. I looked around me. Everyone in the room cared about, and many worked hard to foster and promote, Australian literature. When I stepped up to the podium, to give my judges’ speech, I had a big smile on my face.

***

Thanks a bunch Dorothy for giving us your insider’s perspective on awards judging. I can see it wasn’t an easy job and love that you’ve shared your thoughts with us.

Dorothy (I’m sure) and I would love to hear your thoughts – on awards, on judging, on these particular books, or on anything else her post has inspired you to think about.

Clare Wright, The forgotten rebels of Eureka (Review)

November 9, 2014
Book cover, The forgotten rebels of Eureka

Courtesy: Text Publishing

Wah! Once again I delayed reading a much heralded book until my reading group did it*, and so it is only now that I’ve read Clare Wright’s Stella Prize winning history, The forgotten rebels of Eureka. The trouble with coming late to a high-profile book is how to review it freshly. All I can do, really, is what I usually do, and that is write about an aspect or two that particularly interested me. Since other bloggers have already beautifully covered one of these, the history**, I’m going to focus on Wright’s writing and the approach she took to telling her story. I won’t be doing this from the angle of historical theory, as I’m not an historian, but in terms of her intention, and her tone, style, and structure.

If you’re not Australian, you may not have heard of the Eureka Stockade. It was a significant event in colonial Australia’s march to democracy and independence, involving the British army and police attacking a stockade created by miners whose grievances included the payment of a compulsory miner’s licence and the fact that this licence, which they saw as a form of taxation, did not give them the right to vote in the legislature. It has traditionally been framed in masculine terms, but Wright discovered, somewhat by accident while researching another project (as historians do!), a new angle – the role of women in the rebellion. There were, she found, over 5,000 women on the goldfields:

Women were there. They mined for gold and much else of economic value besides. They paid taxes. They fought for their rights. And they were killed in the crossfire of a nascent new order.

Consequently, in her book, Wright draws on extensive primary and secondary sources to explore and expose the lives of these women and the until-now-unheralded role that she believes they played in the goldfields, particularly in the lead up to and aftermath of that fateful day of 3 December 1854.

Wright opens the book with three epigrams, one of which is particularly illuminating in terms of my subject. It’s by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey and states that “every history of every country is a mirror of the author’s own interests and therefore selective rather than comprehensive”. Having been interested in historical writing since studying EH Carr’s What is history at university, I like the admission that histories are inherently subjective, regardless of how well researched they are. The historian makes decisions about what s/he will research, what the limits of that research will be, and how s/he will interpret that research. It’s common sense. How can it be otherwise? And so, in this history, Wright’s specific interest in the role of women means that all her research – even research into men’s activities – is viewed through that prism. There’s another implication, too, regarding selectivity: with her focus being specifically the women, we cannot read this book as a comprehensive history of the Eureka Stockade. It complements, or expands, or even jousts with other works.

None of this is meant negatively. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. My point is simply that it’s important, as it always is, to be aware of what we are reading – and I like the fact that Wright recognises this. So, what we have here is, to the best of my knowledge, a thorough but selective history. The text is extensively referenced, with 25 pages of meaningful endnotes and nearly 20 pages of bibliography, and there is a useful index. These are things I look for in a good nonfiction work. The book is logically structured, by theme and chronology, and its (creatively titled) chapters are divided into three main parts: Transitions, Transformations and Transgressions. You can sense a writer’s touch in the alliteration here.

And it’s the writer’s touch I want to turn to now, because Wright has achieved that difficult mix – a well-researched but readable history. It has been written, I’m sure, with an eye on a general, but educated audience. The language is often breezy and even jokey (perhaps a little too much) at times, and yet is replete with classical, Shakespearean, biblical and other literary allusions. She uses metaphor, such as “the cornered lizard bared its frills” to describe the hoisting of the famous Australian flag in the days before the attack. Her descriptions are evocative, and often visceral. You feel you are there in the crowded “tent city” that was Ballarat:

The arrival of the extra troops meant squashing more stinky little fish into an already overpacked tin … From the outside, it seemed like the tightrope was about to snap.

Her stories of the childbirth experiences of Sarah Skinner and Katherine Hancock are devastating to read.

Indeed, I would place this book in the narrative non-fiction tradition. It has a strong narrative drive, with a large cast of characters, some of whom stay with us, some of whom pass through. They include Ellen Young whose poems and letters in the Ballarat Times articulate the mining community’s distress and sense of injustice; hotel-keeper Catherine Bentley who, with her husband, earns the ire of the diggers by consorting with government officials; theatre-owner and actor Sarah Hanmer who donated more to the rebels’ cause than anyone else; and newspaper publisher Clara Seekamp who takes the helm when her husband is arrested for sedition. These women provide significant evidence for Wright’s thesis that women played more than a helpmeet role in the intellectual and political life of Ballarat.

In addition to “developing” these characters, Wright uses other narrative techniques, such as:

  • plot cliff-hangers (much like a screenwriter, which she also is, would do) and pointed aphorisms at the end of chapters
  • foreshadowing to suggest causation: “Even female licence holders expected a modicum of representation for their taxation—as dramatic events would later demonstrate”
  • repetition of ideas and motifs to propel her themes. Take, for example, the Southern Cross. It functions as “a hitching post for existential certainty when all else was in mortal flux” during immigrants’ sea journey from the northern hemisphere to the south (Ch. 3, “Crossing the line”) and is later picked up as a symbol for the rebels’ flag “as the one thing that united each and every resident of Ballarat” (Ch. 11, “Crossing the line (Reprise)”).

As an historian, Wright is confident and fearless, expressing clear opinions, either as direct statements, or indirectly through her choice of language. She calls the Bentleys’ murder trial, for example, a “morality play”. She asks questions; she offers close analysis of her sources, such as noting that the use of the word “demand”, rather than “request” or “humbly pray”, conveys the diggers’ frustration with authority; and she makes considered deductions by testing textual evidence against her understanding of the times and the work of other historians. She discusses discrepancies in reportage, such as the different witness reports of the fire at the Bentleys’ hotel. But she also, as other bloggers and my own reading group have commented, draws a long bow when she suggests the full moon and menstrual synchrony may have been a factor in so many men leaving the stockade on the night of the attack. She provides some evidence for this synchrony as a phenomenon, and offers other reasons for the desertion, but it feels a little out of left field.

At times her nod to the popular and her push for dramatic effect jars, but Wright’s argument that women played an active role at the diggings and in the stockade is convincing. I’m not surprised she won the Stella Prize, because this is engaging reading that is underpinned by extensive scholarship and clear thinking. It’s exciting to see a work that doesn’t just explore the role of women in history but that puts them right in the action.

awwchallenge2014Clare Wright
The forgotten rebels of Eureka
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
539pp.
ISBN: 9781922182548

* I bet you can hardly wait until next month now!
** Do check out historian bloggers, the Resident Judge and Stumbling Through the Past, and litblogger Lisa of ANZLitLovers.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Gap-filling and Wish-lists

November 3, 2014

Are you a book collector? If so, it probably means you have a wish list of books you want, like Pam at Travellin’ Penguin who lives in Tasmania and collects vintage Penguins or Lisa at ANZLitLovers who collects first edition Miles Franklin Award Winners. Pam lists what she has and what she’s looking for on her blog – categorised under the various Penguin categories, such as Main Series Penguins, that she collects. It’s a hobby and Pam and Lisa clearly enjoy the hunt.

But for some collectors it’s more than a hobby, it’s their mandate. I’m talking of course about cultural collecting institutions – and a critical one here in Australia from a literary point of view is the National Library of Australia. Like most collectors, they have a wish-list which they very sensibly post on their website. Of course, I’ve looked to see if I have anything they want but, I’m not a rare books collector, so it doesn’t look like it. I found it interesting, however, and thought you might too. Here are their categories:

Australiana to 1900

Included here are two books by Rosa Praed, whose The bond of wedlock I read before blogging. One is The brother of the shadow: a mystery of today, and was published in 1886. The other is The Right Honourable: a romance of society and politics, also published in 1886. It’s described as being by Justin McCarthy and Mrs Campbell-Praed (aka Rosa Praed).

Two other books caught my eye. The first one is Limitation of offspring: being the substance of a lecture delivered in the North Melbourne Town Hall, and elsewhere, to large audiences of women only (1893) by someone called Mrs B Smyth. I wonder who she is and what she was telling the women in her audiences. The other is The Parent’s assistant, or, Stories for children (1796) by Maria Edgeworth. Now, Edgeworth is English and never came to Australia, and the book was published in London just 8 years after the British settled in Australia. Why, I wonder, is this particular book on the wish-list under Australiana, which is about books published (or printed) in and/or about Australia? There must be an Australian connection, but it’s not clear from the list.

Australiana 1901-1950

National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia, viewed from Commonwealth Park on the opposite side of Lake Burley Griffin

There are three more Rosa Praeds in this list: The ghost, by Rosa Praed, published in 1903;  The Insane root: a romance of a strange country, by Mrs. Campbell Praed (without the hyphen!), published in 1902; and Stubble before the wind, published in 1908, but with no author identified until you click the link and find, yes, the hyphen-less Mrs Campbell Praed again.

Other books caught my attention, too, but I’ll name just one: Australskem bushi. Upravil a prelozil, by Stepan von Kotze, published in Prague in 1921. The State Library of NSW has a copy. Trove’s listing describes it as “a Czech children’s book about the Australian Outback with particular emphasis on Queensland”, making it a good example of collecting books published “about” Australia. I’d love to know what a Czech writer said about the Australian outback in the 1920s.

Australiana 1951-2005

I suspect that the Library has more gaps than the ten listed here, but what is listed makes interesting reading. No Rosa Praed this time as she died in 1935!

As before, the list is varied giving a sense of the breadth of the Library’s collection. For example, it includes Belly flop by contemporary writer Morris Gleitzman. This surprised me, as I’d have expected that the Library would have all of Gleitzman’s books – until I read on. What they are looking for is specifically the children’s large print edition published in England in 2005.

Other works on the list include those by government bodies or small organisations rather than mainstream publishers, such as The application of a drought index system to Australian bushfire control, by A.G. McArthur, published by the Forestry and Timber Bureau in 1966; Back to the best interests of the child: towards a rebuttable presumption of joing [sic] custody, a paper, published by the Child Support Action Group in Adelaide in 1995; and John Perceval: Williamstown and other images, published by Adelaide’s The Galleries in 1989.

Australian printed music

The Library has a large collection of printed music but, as with books, there are gaps. They say “If you can find any of the items listed below, you could help us by donating them to the Library or simply letting us know of their whereabouts”. The list includes works dating back to the 1820s. One that caught my eye, though, is a little closer to home: Canberra fanfare, by Malcolm Williamson and believed to have been published in London around 1973.

Newspapers

The Library doesn’t list titles here but refers to their “search and rescue campaign” that was launched in 2008 by Australian Newspaper Plan (ANPlan) libraries. They make the point that newspapers aren’t wanted only for the news but for “stories of their times, through ads, photographs, and even their design”. As an occasional user of the Library’s digitised newspaper project for Monday Musings, I know exactly what they mean!

Magazines and journals

Magazines, like newspapers and books, are provided to the library under legal deposit regulations, but, they say, gaps still occur. They list a number of these serial publications, identifying their missing issues.

Menus

I love that the Library collects this aspect of our lives. There’s no list here, not surprisingly, but a description of the sorts of menus they want, which ranges widely – including from restaurants, airlines, ships and special occasions. I have the menu from my graduation. I love to look at it – to see the sort of food we thought was special way back then, and how much we paid for it, as well as to remember a special occasion. One day I plan to offer it to the Library!

I wonder how frequently items on the list are found? Have you seen lists like this on the sites of other cultural collecting institutions?

 

Philip Butterss, An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C. J. Dennis (Review)

October 31, 2014
Courtesy: Wakefield Press

Courtesy: Wakefield Press

If you are an Australian, particularly one of a certain age, chances are you studied some C.J. Dennis at school, most likely “The play” from his best-known book The songs of a sentimental bloke. I did, and then, not having read him for decades, I reviewed for this blog his second major book, The moods of Ginger Mick, when it was republished by Sydney University Press. I surprised myself by enjoying it more than I expected. And therein lies the rub. In many ways Dennis is dated. The language of his “larrikins” is unfamiliar to us now, and his people seem to belong to a different place and time. Yet he captivated me. I was therefore interested to read Phillip Butterss’ biography, An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C.J. Dennis, when Wakefield Press offered it to me.

Butterss’ title sounds a bit cutesy, but it was, we must assume, carefully chosen because it conveys Butterss’ main thesis which is that, contrary to popular opinion, C.J. Dennis was not his character. First, though, a little about the man. Described by The Bulletin in 1913 as Australia’s “unofficial laureate”, Clarence Michael James (or Clarrie) Dennis was born in Auburn, South Australia, in 1876. His father was a hotelkeeper, so much of Dennis’ youth was spent in pubs. He showed interest in writing and the arts in his childhood, and his first poem was published in the Critic when he was 21 years old. From then until his death in 1938 at the age of 61 he wrote constantly, producing a large body of work, of which his published books are just a small component. But, my aim here is not, of course, to recount Dennis’ life, for that would be stealing Butterss’ thunder. Far better that you read the book.

I enjoyed the book, though Butterss doesn’t have the flair of, say, Hazel Rowley whose Franklin and Eleanor I’ve reviewed. By this I mean the book doesn’t have the sort of narrative voice and thrust that we see in “literary non-fiction”. Rather, its style is traditional, plain academic reportage. It doesn’t therefore drive the reader on, but it is, nonetheless, a fascinating read for the picture it provides of Dennis, for its analysis of his work, and for its exploration of wider themes to do with Australian culture and society and the role of the artist.

Like most biographies, the book has a chronological structure, with the chapters falling rather naturally into neat chunks of his life. I particularly liked the chapters “The Laureate of the Larrikin” and “The Laureate of the Anzac” which follow, respectively, the chapters on the writing and publication of his two most famous books, The songs of a sentimental bloke and The moods of Ginger Mick. Butterss’ analyses of how these books both reflect and explain the ethos of their times is thoughtful. He writes that “the Bloke” (published in 1915)

brings into the city and the twentieth century much of the ethos of the nineteenth-century bush legend, values such as egalitarianism, mateship and anti-authoritarianism. But if he represented a metamorphosis for the noble bushman, the transformation was not only of type and location. There was a shift in tone too. The Bloke was not a mythologised hero like the Man from Snowy River; he was an object of gentle humour. (p. 37)

Butterss goes on to explain that the Bloke also represents quite a “make-over” for the larrikin who, in colonial Australia, had been “street thugs”. He argues that this make-over, the way Dennis’ book “holds together incongruous elements”, “allowed it to smooth over deep faultlines and tensions in Australian culture”. He’s reminding us, I believe, that for all our claims of mateship and egalitarianism, we know it has never been quite so rosy in practice.

More poignant is the chapter “Ruin and Reburnishing 1920-1924″ in which Butterss discusses changing “fashion” in literature – from “larrikin poetry” to “the more personal and intimate free verse of modernism”, and from poetry to novels. Dennis struggles from this point on to retain his popularity and standing – and it’s sad to see, because the effect is financial and emotional, which results in his returning to heavy drinking. He was one of Australia’s early celebrities, and Butterss shows what this meant – the positives such as recognition and money, and the negatives such as the difficulty of repeating the feat and unexpected things like being impersonated. Dennis was not the strongest of men, and many times in his life he fell on the support of others – including businessman Garry Roberts in his early years, publisher George Robertson (of Angus & Robertson), and his wife Biddy. He did not always treat them well in return.

There is another thread that runs through the book, and that is Dennis’ politics, which changed from a leftist-socialist orientation in his youth to a more conservative one after his success. I had not known about this aspect of Dennis’ life and I enjoyed reading examples of his early political writings in which he railed against free trade that closed factories, industries that chopped down gorgeous gums (“the mighty kings”), and politicians who turned their backs on working people. He might have become more conservative as he aged, but he continued to astutely comment on society and culture. His last poem satirises the ABC’s (Australian Broadcasting Commission) push to standardise Australian voices. Here are a few lines:

I have long sought the reason why all men should be as peas
In speech, in thought, in action, e’en in strife.
Uniformity around them
Serves further to confound them,
Since it washes all the colour out of life.

An unsentimental bloke concludes with two chapters that discuss Dennis’ reputation and legacy. Butterss writes that although Dennis, sales-wise, is “far-and-away the most popular of all Australian poets”, his place in Australia’s literary canon has been “marginal”. He quotes one David Carter who wrote in an essay in Southerly in 1997 that “the right kind of failure”, as exemplified by Christopher Brennan’s symbolist poetry, is often regarded more positively by critics than “the wrong kind of success”. In other words, if your poetry is accessible it is not regarded as good. TS Eliot, he writes, said in defence of Rudyard Kipling “that people … are contemptuous of poetry which they understand without effort”. Hmmm … I suspect this is still so today – and it may explain why many people prefer not to read poetry at all. It’s safer that way. Meanwhile, it is somehow gratifying that two of Australia’s most significant and enduring literary-cultural icons – Paterson’s Man from Snowy River and Dennis’ Sentimental Bloke – come from poetry. I thank Butterss for fleshing out the story behind the man behind one of these!

Philip Butterss
An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C. J. Dennis
Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2014
287pp.
ISBN: 9781743052877

(Review copy supplied by Wakefield Press)

Not the Usual Monday Musings

October 27, 2014
Sense and sensibility book covers

Printed and eBooks for Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility

Just for a change – and because I couldn’t resist it – I’m sharing an ad from ABE Books for a first edition 3-volume set of Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility, which was first published in 1811. In case you are interested, the inventory number for the book is #ABE-11685473745.

I’m going to quote the ad in full on the assumption that this doesn’t break copyright. Surely one ad does not represent a significant portion of ABE Books’ intellectual content, and anyhow, as sellers, they presumably want their message to be out and about.

As the person who brought the ad to my attention said, this is a seller with attitude. Here goes:

3 vols. 1st edition, whispering in a voice quieter than decency, that the days that make us happy are the days that set us free. 19th century 3/4 morocco. A fine set, cleaner than fresh air, and it’s a complete one too with all 3 genuine half-titles, and though this 1st edition is regularly stalked by all collectors, it has a history of amplified appeal to those who are women, so heed this ladies: Buying a 1st edition of Sense and Sensibility without authentic half-titles is more dangerous than open-knife night at the blow fish bar, and more naïve than sexting your face and your kitty in the same picture. Ex-3 significant women collectors (bookplates) of élan who deserve snaps, Dorothy Stewart, Pamela Kingzett, and Sarah Peter, the last named of the 3, a modern goddess who gathered her 1st editions of fiction in English by women, 1 book at a time, and now stands tall with the greatest collection of them ever assembled. By anyone. Anywhere.

Austen invented modern romantic comedy beginning with Sense and Sensibility, and started schooling 7 generations of readers about the intricate convolutions of affection. What they learned from it right away is that all tests of love end badly, that excitement and familiarity are hard to find in one person, that the first duty of love is to listen, and that when the heart speaks, the mind should know it’s tacky to object. In the 20th century they came to understand that the only real proof of love is trust, that sometimes there are more differences within the genders than between them, that love must be transformed from the flame at first into the light that lasts, and that all men fall somewhere between apes and gods, and the best a wise woman can hope to do, is pick one that’s traveling in the right direction. Now we’re in the 21st century and a new generation of readers just balance Austen’s charm against the realities of daily life, appreciating that “desperate” is not a sexual preference, that the fastest way to improve a relationship is to see love as a verb rather than a feeling, and that a woman can find a blunt equality with men by going to therapy, where she can talk about herself for an hour, just like a guy on a date

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Don’t you love this  – particularly the ad writer’s understanding of what Austen was (is) about? I reckon Jane Austen would have.

On the literary road … in Melbourne and thereabouts

October 26, 2014

Once again we are visiting our first-born in Melbourne and taking the opportunity to visit places we haven’t yet explored in this city and state. I’ve managed on this trip to tick off a few more “bucket list” items.

Captain Cook’s cottage in Fitzroy Gardens.

IMG_0554I first learnt of this cottage in my childhood when my siblings and I would collect Golden Fleece service station swap cards on road trips. These cards introduced me to all sorts of sights around Australia but three particularly took my fancy – Jenolan Caves with those amazing formations; the John Flynn Memorial in central Australia, because of the HUGE rock on top of it; and Captain Cook’s cottage because, yes I admit it, it was cute. The picture showed it with ivy growing over the walls, and for someone living in outback Queensland, that was romantic. I’ve seen the first two sights long ago, but for some reason had not seen the cottage – until now. It’s as cute as I expected, and a wonderful example of preserving the home of a significant person – albeit thousands of miles from where it was built.

And, it has a literary reference because upstairs was a display of a selection of the sorts of books people read in the 18th century – and there wasn’t a novel amongst them as the sign confirmed! This reminded me of Jane Austen’s famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey in which she argues that novels convey a “thorough knowledge of human nature” in the best language.

Harold Holt Memorial at Cheviot Beach.

Cheviot Beach

Cheviot Beach

Harold Holt was prime minister of Australia in December 1967 when he disappeared at Cheviot Beach while swimming. He was never found, leading, of course, to all sorts of conspiracy theories.

This is not particularly literary, except that the event did spawn much writing – journalistic, historical and biographical – including My Life and Harry written the year after his death by his flamboyant wife, Dame Zara Holt.

Immigration Museum, in the old Customs Building.

A more recent wishlist item, but a significant one, is Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. It tells the story of migration, primarily in Victoria, and so starts from around 1830s. I liked that it paralleled this story with that of the original inhabitants discussing how migration and migrants impacted them and their lives. This aspect of the story could be stronger, but I guess the main focus is the immigrants. I liked the way the museum incorporated historical/political facts, through a timeline and other displays, with personal stories of immigrants told in text, voice and visuals.

IMG_0552The extra treat for me here though was a little serendipitous find. Recently, I had a discussion, in some online forum or other, with the Resident Judge about different styles of museums. She talked about liking museums where you can discover little things for yourself. I was reminded of this discussion when, out of the blue, in a display about identity, I came across a statement by novelist Ouyang Yu. Born in China, he now lives primarily in Australia where he established his literary career. At least, I assume the statement is by the novelist as his identity wasn’t divulged. I rather liked discovering him in this place, but did wonder why he wasn’t further identified.

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