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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
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.


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.


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
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

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.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary awards back then

October 21, 2014

A comment by blog-reader Ian Darling on a recent Monday Musings post that he supposed literary prizes existed back in 1927, followed by the tardy announcement a couple of days ago of the shortlist for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (see Lisa ANZLitLovers’ post), got me thinking about the history of literary awards.

I’ve long been aware of The Bulletin’s prize for fiction which was inaugurated by its editor, SH Prior, in 1928. The inaugural prize was won jointly by M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built and Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo. The next year, it was won by Vance Palmer for The passage. I’m not sure what happened to the prize except that, according to the Oxford companion to Australian literature, The Bulletin’s next editor, John Webb, established the SH Prior Memorial Prize for Fiction, and it was awarded 1935 to 1946. But, were there other awards? Trove and the Oxford companion came to my rescue.

What I discovered was something that confirmed my understanding of the fundamental raison d’être for awards – to support writers and literature. I know some writers question the value of awards, and we’ve had some good discussions about the issue here, but putting aside some very valid concerns, it’s clear that the impetus is usually to support the writing endeavour. And so, the article on Literary Awards in the Oxford companion starts with this:

The rewarding of Australian writers began soon after the establishment of the first colony when in 1818 Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW, awarded Michael Massey Robinson two cows from the government herd for his services as an antipodean “poet laureate”. Macquarie’s decision inaugurated government patronage of Australian literature.

The article continues to tell us that the government at times found jobs for writers – such as a government inspector of forests job for poet Henry Kendall in 1881! This is supporting literature? (The article also says that the government gave his widow a job as superintendent of cleaners in a government office in 1884!) Interestingly, via Trove, I found a reference to this employment practice in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, in 1916The writer of the article, which was about government encouraging literature through a prize as it was already doing for music and painting, introduced his/her argument with the comment thatPositions in the Government service had in the past been found on two poets — Kendall and Daley — but the positions were unsuitable”.

The Oxford companion continues, saying that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that Australian writers began to receive prizes and awards on a regular basis. It divides these awards into two categories, those that:

  • support creative activity by supporting a writer during the creation of a work (fellowships and writer-in residence programs, being examples); and
  • reward a finished, usually published work.

We all know of current examples of both these categories so, in the rest of this post, I’m going to share (in chronological order) a rather random grab-bag of awards from the first half of the twentieth century:

  • 1908-1972 Commonwealth Literary Fund. According to the Oxford companion, this fund, established by Alfred Deakin’s government was “the first systematic federal government initiative in support of the arts”. For the first 30 years it focused on providing pensions to sick authors and their families or families of authors who’d died poor or “literary men doing good work but ‘unable on account of poverty to persist in that work’”. However, from 1939, as the result of lobbying, the Fund was increased and started to offer annual fellowships and grants to writers, publishers, literary magazines. Through Trove I found articles identifying winners of fellowships in various years. In 1952, for example, fellowships were given to Judah Waten for “a novel dealing with a Jewish migrant family”, Kylie Tennant for “a novel about travelling beekeepers”, Victor Kennedy for “an interpretative biography of [poet] Bernard O’Dowd”, and Xavier Herbert for “the completion of a novel dealing with feminine behaviour in time of war”.
  • 1908 Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work Literary Prizes. Apparently, the First Exhibition of Women’s Work was held in Philadelphia in 1876, but the first Australian one was held in 1907. What intrigues me about these awards is the categories: Story of not less than 100,000 words (with the first prize being £50); Play of three acts, scene laid in Australia; Temperance novel; Esperanto essay; Best historical sketch of Exhibition (Illustrated). Temperance novel? Esperanto essay? Signs of their times, eh?
  • 1909 Tasmanian Literary Awards. I’m not sure exactly of the provenance of these awards as the article is very brief, but again, it’s the categories that intrigue: Essay, open to residents of Tasmania, any age, not to exceed 3000 words, subject, ”Modern Patriotism”; Original poem, not to exceed 100 lines, subject, lines written for “Foundation Day, 1910″; Original tale, not to exceed 3000 words, subject, any connected with some incident of Australian history.
  • 1943 United Nations Literary Competition. This prize is clearly not related to the United Nations, given that body didn’t exist in 1943, but was created by the English publisher, Hutchinson and Co. Presumably its title comes from the fact that entry was open to international writers. It sounds like several prizes were offered, with the overall purse being £10,000. The article gives a range of topics: “Fiction, detective stories and thrillers, autobiography, war experiences and travel, history and biography, essays and belles lettres, poetry, children’s literature, philosophy of religion and general philosophy, scientific and technical literature”. I’m presuming these are not specifically award categories but subjects the publisher knows will sell well and would like to receive?
  • 1946-1951 “Herald” Literary Competition. In 1946 (as far as I can ascertain), the Sydney Morning Herald instituted a literary competition for novels, short stories and poetry. In 1947, Jon Cleary won for his social realist novel You can’t see ’round corners, which spawned a popular television series in 1967 (albeit reset in the Vietnam era). In 1949, however, the judges did not feel any submissions met their expectations, so did not grant first prize in either the novel or short-story categories. They did award second prize to T. A. Hungerford for his novel Sowers of the wind, and third prize to D’Arcy Niland for his Gold in the streets. Niland also won second prize for his short story. The awards were discontinued in 1951 on the recommendation of judges, who felt that “the succession of competitions has been too rapid to allow competitors sufficient time for proper preparation and revision”.

Hmmm … we might continue this discussion another day.

Jane Austen, Lady Susan (Review)

October 19, 2014

AustenLadySusanPenguinIt is a truth universally acknowledged – I know this is a tired old joke but I seem programmed to do it – that Jane Austen fans will collect multiple editions of her works. There are many reasons for this behaviour, but one of them is our interest in different introductions. And so, although I already had a copy of Lady Susan, in the Minor works volume of R.W. Chapman’s The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, I bought the Penguin edition for my Kindle because it had an introduction by Margaret Drabble. And I have a second confession to make: this is a rereading, but my reason for rereading has little to do with the reasons I gave in my recent post on Flanagan. The reason is simple – my local Jane Austen group decided to schedule it for our October meeting. I was happy with that. As far as I’m concerned all bets are off my usual “rules” when it comes to Jane Austen.

If you’re not an Austen fan, you may not have heard of Lady Susan. It is a complete novella that sits between her Juvenilia and her adult novels. It was written, we believe, in 1793/4 when Austen would have been 18-19 years old, but was not published until 1871, well after her death, when her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, included it in his memoir of her.  It is epistolary in form, something she tried again with Elinor and Marianne. While one she rewrote in her well-known third person omniscient voice, retitling it Sense and sensibility, for some reason she didn’t go back to Lady Susan. One reason might have been its subject matter.

 “the most accomplished coquette in England” (Reginald of Lady Susan)

Lady Susan is a beautiful, 35-year-old widow of four months, who is already on the prowl for a new, wealthy husband. The novel opens with her needing to leave Langford, where she’d been staying with the Manwarings, because she was having an affair with the married man of the house, and had seduced his sister’s suitor, Sir James Martin. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law Charles Vernon and his wife Catherine, whom she’d done her best to dissuade him from marrying. She’s not long there before Reginald, Catherine’s brother, arrives to check her out because, from what he’s heard,

Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect.

Of course, the inevitable happens and the artful Lady Susan captivates him. Meanwhile, Lady Susan wants her 16-year-old daughter, Frederica, to marry Sir James, the man she’d seduced away from Miss Manwaring – but sweet, sensible Frederica wants none of this weak “rattle” of a man.

You’ve probably worked out by now that this is not Austen’s usual fare. Lady Susan belongs to the 18th century tradition of wickedness, lasciviousness and adultery, forced marriages, and moralistic resolutions. The novel’s characters tend to be types rather than complex beings, and it is racily written, with a broad brush rather than a fine pen. And yet …

“Lady Susan is not wholly a villain” (Margaret Drabble)

This is also where Austen’s mature touch starts to appear. For all Lady Susan’s self-centred “bewitching” machinations, she is also, as Drabble says, “witty, energetic, intelligent and charming”. Drabble and other critics argue that Lady Susan’s spirit can be seen in characters like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and, particularly, Mary Crawford who, like Lady Susan, comes from London where she moved in “fast” circles. How could a teenaged country parson’s daughter imagine into being such a duplicitous character? Austen was, we know, a great reader and read the gothic novels of her day. She also knew the behaviour of Mrs Craven, the mother of her neighbour Mrs Lloyd. According to Drabble, Mrs Craven “had treated her daughters shockingly, locking them up, beating them and starving them, until they ran away from home …” just as Lady Susan’s daughter ran away from school. And, as her letters demonstrate, she was capable of bite.

We don’t know why Austen didn’t pursue this book, besides making a good copy of it in 1805, or why she didn’t try again to write about a beautiful 35-year-old widow.

Hints of what’s to come

All this is well and good, and I loved the read, but my main reason for reading these early Austens is their insight into the writer to come – her wit and irony, and her commentary on human nature. Lady Susan, having been written on the cusp of her maturity, is particularly interesting in this context. The melodrama, for example, is toned down, compared with the books Austen would have been reading. Frederica isn’t locked up as she might have been in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (my review), there are no rapes as we see in Richardson’s Clarissa. Austen is moving, in other words, towards the naturalism of her favourite topic, “3 or 4 families in a Country Village”.

I love Austen’s irony, and there’s plenty in evidence here. A good example is when Reginald, completely convinced by Lady Susan, writes to his father of how she has been misrepresented, saying that this

may also convince us how little the general report of any one ought to be credited … I blame myself severely for having so easily believed the scandalous tales invented.

The joke is on him because, of course, he should believe these “scandalous tales”. One of the complexities of the novel is this issue of gossip – who should believe what and whom? As Austen readers know, gossip plays a significant role in her characterisation and plots.

Other ideas and themes that we see in later novels also appear in Lady Susan. Bad mothering is one. Another, more specific, is this delightful comment on accomplishments, reminding us of the discussion between Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley and Elizabeth at Netherfield. Lady Susan writes to her equally scheming friend Alicia Johnson:

Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the languages arts and sciences; it is throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list.

And then there’s that main reason I love Austen – her terse, pithy commentary on human behaviour. There’s much in Lady Susan, including

but where there is a disposition to dislike a motive will never be wanting


Silly woman, to expect constancy from so charming a man!

Have I convinced you to give it a go? I do hope so.

Jane Austen
“Lady Susan”
in Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
London: Penguin Books, 2003
Kindle Edition EISBN: 9780141907901

Available in e-text.


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