Skip to content

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian women writers, 1930s

August 11, 2014

In July I wrote two posts based on Nettie Palmer’s 1920s assessment of great Australian novels. In 1935, another Australian novelist, Zora Cross, wrote an article about Australian women novelists and poets. I enjoy reading these contemporary perspectives, and I think some of you are interested too … do let me know if you aren’t.

I’ve said it before I think, and that is that there were two flowerings of Australian women’s writing in the twentieth century, one in the 1920s-40s and the other in the 1970s-80s. It’s a bit early to tell but I’m wondering whether we are experiencing another one now. Let’s hope so – not at the expense of our male writers, but recognised and read, alongside the men.

I don’t know Zora Cross (1890-1964) as well as I know Nettie (and Vance) Palmer, but she was a recognised novelist, poet and journalist in her day. Her aim in her article, published the Sydney Morning Herald in 1935, was to demonstrate the strength of women’s writing. She starts by naming writers who, at that time, had been writing for twenty years or more – writers still known to us (Miles Franklin and Mary Gilmore), and those far less known, if not pretty much forgotten (Louise Mack, Ada Holman and Dora Wilcox). The only one I know of these last three is Louise Mack – as she is in my TBR pile. Cross then mentions younger writers, of whom only one, Katherine Susannah Prichard, is well-known to me. The others are Dulcie Deamer, Vera Dwyer, Ella McFadyen and Nina Murdoch. When I read these lists, I wonder which of today’s writers readers a century from now will know. Sometimes I wish I did believe in eternal life – or, reincarnation!

Like Palmer, Cross uses headings in her article, so I will again follow.

Success abroad

Nettie Palmer, ten years earlier, also talked about writers succeeding abroad, but Cross writes of two different sorts of successes. One is that achieved by writers who started writing “at home” and then move abroad. She names several, again mostly not well-known now – Helen Simpson, Alice Grant Rosman, Dorothy Cottrell – and one completely unknown to me, and about whom some quick Google searching has revealed nothing, Daniel Hamlyn. Hamlyn, she says, won The Bulletin’s second novel competition, the first one having been jointly won by Katherine Susannah Prichard and M. Barnard Eldershaw. I think I’ll need to actually go to a Library and research The Bulletin to discover more about her! Cross doesn’t mention Christina Stead, but as Stead only published her first book in 1934, that’s not surprising.

The other “success abroad” Cross mentions is that achieved by those who hadn’t left home. One of the most interesting of these is, she says, Eleanor Dark. She does, however, name several others, all unknown to me, so I’ll just mention a couple which stand out because of her comments. One is Georgia Rivers whose novel, The difficult art about a young girl growing up, “is a most unusual book”. She doesn’t elaborate, but this has piqued my interest. Another is Jessie Urquhart who, she says, “will not, I think, do her best work until, like Alice Grant Rosman, she  relinquishes journalism for fiction”. An intriguing comment from a novelist-poet-journalist! It would be interesting to know whether Urquhart needed her journalistic work to survive. The last one I want to mention is Mary Mitchell who achieved London success with the wonderfully titled Warning to wantons. Cross tells us that this book is not Australian so “of little importance to us here. She could write, I’m sure, a good Australian society novel, for which there is a waiting public.” I hadn’t realised until this point that her article is not just about Australian women writers, but about Australian women writers writing about Australia.

Literary competitions

Here Cross mentions Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw (aka M. Barnard Eldershaw), and another writer I don’t know, Velia Ercole, as writers brought to notice through winning competitions. But, as Palmer did (though under her “abroad” category), Cross focuses her attention here to Henry Handel Richardson who, she says, was introduced to Australia by Nettie Palmer.

Cross, like Palmer, praises Richardson, saying that few “have equalled her in style and form of production”. She says that fame finally came with the last book in her Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy, Ultima Thule, which she describes as “lucid and sincere”. Nonetheless, she does suggest that “there are faults to be found from an Australian point of view” with the novel, “but few with the presentation of it”. She’s not clear about what these faults are, though suggests that many may “question the worth” of such a detailed look at “a failure’s life”.

Ethel Turner

Cross’s last heading is devoted to Ethel Turner, whose juvenilia I plan to review later this year and who is famous for her novel Seven little Australians. Cross again shows that her interest here is writing about Australia when she says:

Too much stress cannot be laid on the fact that Ethel Turner, from the moment she opened the door of an Australian house and showed the world what we were really like, has been a guiding star for the best. She has not been able to give us adults as real as children but the germ is there.

But, the cultural cringe is strong, Cross implies, when she says that Australians do not recognise that Turner’s children are as immortal as Alice [in Wonderland] and much more real than Anne of Green Gables. Fighting words, eh! She names writers who have followed Turner, including Mary Grant Bruce whose juvenilia I reviewed earlier this year.


This is not one of Cross’s headings, but after her discussion of Turner she writes a few paragraphs about other writers and writing. She refers to “imaginative women writers [who] are immersed in journalism”, playwrights, and women who write humorously, such as Miss Lloyd and her book Susan’s little sins. Couldn’t resist mentioning that one!

She then writes, curiously, that:

All of our women writers are well read, none very keen about sport, though golf and tennis and sometimes dancing play a part in their leisure moments. All are earnest, sincere workers.

I wonder why she felt the need to say all this? Anyhow, she follows this by saying she has left one writer to last, Mary Gilmore “whose hobby may well be ‘the finding of new writers'”. Dame Mary Gilmore wrote poetry and prose, though Cross, rightly, believed that it’s for her poetry that she’ll most be remembered.

And here, I’ll conclude with her conclusion because – well, see what you think:

Our women aim at truth in writing just as the men do: and this is characteristically Australian. We do not need to read Russian literature to inspire us to realism. Our country, born of suffering and hardship, has shaped our character, and out of it is coming a literature entirely different from any other. Women are doing their share in the building up of this national literature just as they did their share towards the making and shaping of the nation itself.

So there!

Delicious descriptions: Some thoughts on Ouyang Yu’s language

August 10, 2014

I didn’t get around, in my recent review of Ouyang Yu’s novel Diary of a naked official, to discussing his language, so couldn’t resist another post.

As you would expect in an erotic novel, particularly one framed as a diary, the language is rife with obvious – and consciously so on the part of our narrator – sexual references and innuendo. It is, to put it baldly, in your face. Yet there are, also, some subtle undercurrents. I’ve chosen one excerpt to illustrate some features of the language. Reading it will also give you a feeling for the tone, which is, among other things, conversational, self-confident and unashamed. At one point, Shi Ma (the narrator) describes his diary as “the only confessional” that he can have in a world where there are “no priests of any religious or religious denominations worth my trust and confidence”, but from my understanding of the word “confession” I’d read this as irony.

Names are an issue in the book – as you might expect in a diary. Shi Ma uses initials for most of the significant people in his life: W is Wife and D is Daughter, for example. The women he “loves” tend to be anonymous or go by aliases, which are often flower names, such as Acacia, Daffodil, Goldenrod and Nasturtium. Some characters though have more ordinary names. Consider this:

However passionate and deep one’s love is, it tends to peter out like a brisk fire that burns with passion and heat, only to burn itself out at the end of the day. Peter – what a name in association with the phrase ‘peter out’ – had an affair with Third, the third daughter in her family, a pretty girl who did frames for his paintings, but had to marry a Singaporean woman when he went to Sydney. Third fought tooth and claw to stop him from marrying and going. According to Sam, Third threatened suicide but didn’t; instead, she left scratch marks all over Peter’s back, traces of love when gone, turned sour and resentful.

Love seems to have two faces, one loving, the other hating. Sue is a typical example. Like the name ‘Peter’, this name is portentous. I would run miles away from any woman by that name because who knows if she is not going to Sue you one day? In fact, when a girl I loved reported that her name was ‘Sue’, I said: It’s not a name you should have. I’d much prefer you call yourself ‘Su’ or ‘Soo’. In fact, Soo with two holes in it is infinitely preferable to Sue with a ‘u’. She seemed to like it and said: I’ll think about it.

Besides including an example of the book’s sexually explicit language, this excerpt also addresses two of the novel’s concerns – love and power. Shi Ma discusses “love” endlessly, all the while behaving in an exploitative and generally loveless manner. He is obsessed with sex but desires love, and seems unable to reconcile the two in any meaningful way. Power, on the other hand – who has it, how it is used, what effect it can or does have – is one of the undercurrents of the novel. Ouyang Yu reveals a world in which power, particularly between the genders, is a complex business (with business being perhaps the operative word!) Women in his novel do wield some power, but whether that power is to their (or anyone’s) benefit is a question Yu leaves for the reader to consider.

Ouyang Yu, Diary of a naked official (Review)

August 9, 2014
Ouyang Yu, Diary of a Naked Official

Courtesy: Transit Lounge

When I was offered Chinese-born Australian writer Ouyang Yu’s latest novel Diary of a naked official to review, I was warned that it is rather graphic. And so it turned out to be, but, not having read Ouyang Yu before, I did want to give it a go. The accompanying publicity sheet describes it as “Ouyang Yu’s most commercial novel to date – erotic fiction set in contemporary China”. So now you, my blog readers, have also been warned.

Where to start? Perhaps with the title. Not being an expert on Chinese culture, I wouldn’t have fully understood the title if it hadn’t been for the back cover. It explains that “naked official” is a recognised term in China describing men who locate their wives and children overseas, where they also deposit all their money. The men remain in China “naked” and, in this case at least, “totally free” to indulge in whatever they desire – which brings me to the subject matter of this novel …

The main part of the novel comprises diary entries written by our naked official (who may be named Shi Ma and so that’s what I’ll call him) over a period of three months*. In it he details a life driven by satisfying carnal pleasures with no desire (ha) to rein them in. He is so focused on “enjoying” other women – young, beautiful ones – through pretty much any act you could imagine and then some, that he has no time or energy for intimacy with his wife, who does not move to Australia until halfway through the novel. “Sex”, he says early in his diary, is “a keyword of our times, it is like a poisoned liquid that seeps into the minds of everyone, including women”. (Including women, eh! How gender plays out in the novel, in fact, could occupy a whole post).

Framing the diary is the encompassing conceit that the story is presented to us by a writer, who is probably Chinese-Australian and who had found the diary on a USB stick left on a Melbourne train. He decides to present it in its entirety “with a bit of editing here and there, just to make it less offensive to the middle-class sensitivities in this country”. He warns his readers, just as I have, to be prepared for an assault on their “moral values”.

As you have probably gathered by now, this is a clever, complex and rather slippery book. I say slippery because it looks like it’s a critique (or satire) of modern China, of a world where obsession with sex and fast adoption of capitalism collide, and where increasing independence for women sees “concubine” become “working girl” with different expectations. But, when you comprehend that the character “publishing” this diary is based in Australia – and that writer-translator Ouyang Yu spends his life between Australia and China – you see that this is no simple tale. This is not to suggest that the book is autobiographical but rather that, through these layers, Yu plays with our minds, and forces us to recognise that Australia and China have more in common than we may think.

The layers are complicated further by the fact that Shi Ma himself works in a publishing house. His job is to recommend works to his boss, B, for publication. B, though, rarely agrees with him. Our narrator says:

But it is books that speak the honest truth to a hurting degree that are denied the chance of publication because the comfort zone is outstepped and our core values are challenged.

And so, Shi Ma, whose life of self-centred debauchery alienates us, also draws us in with his desire to publish difficult or confronting works. Publishing now, he says, “is dictated by MM, money and market through B, Banker of Books”. At one point, he considers whether a particular erotic book

might be considered for publication if not recommended outright. In today’s China, things are much more confronting, and much more physically permissive than a decade or so back as it is good for the economy … Still, I am not sure because B may object on the basis of market and censorship.

Censorship in China is one issue, but western readers are only too aware that publishing in so-called “free” countries is by no means free of the impact of the market. Shi Ma is pretty devastating in his comment on publishing:

In the scheme of things, an excellent book, by the time it is edited and published, becomes a good book, and a good book, a so-so book. It is amazing how a so-so book can sell, such as the one penned by the guy called Hung Heavens, but I have ceased to be amazed by the mediocrities as the world is made for them, books written by the mediocre for the mediocre, like common food, eaten only to be shat.

In another interesting layer, Shi Ma is given the job of assessing applications for “self-funded poetry”. Ouyang Yu, himself, is a poet and clearly knows only too well how difficult it is to get poetry published.

I have, I know, digressed somewhat, because the examination of publishing is only one aspect of this novel, and I probably haven’t given you much sense of its actual narrative. The novel does have a story, albeit a flimsy one based around sexual exploits. There are recurring characters, including the aforementioned B, a mother and daughter with whom Shi Ma has a complicated relationship, his friend Sam, and various working girls. However, while Shi Ma, himself, does develop to some degree – becoming “absolutely bored with a multitudinous accumulation of bodies” – none of the other characters are “developed” or even “rounded” in the usual way of fiction, because this is not a traditional novel. It is, rather, what I’d call an “ideas novel” that explores not only what is happening in modern China but also, more generally, what a sex-focussed, market-driven world looks like. And it ain’t pretty. Human relationships and original artistic expression are measured by money, and such values as love and morality are degraded in the wake.

Diary of a naked official is a book that shocks and appalls, but that can also surprise and even make us laugh. In it, Ouyang Yu, unlike B, is not afraid to expose “the night in our hearts”. Shi Ma is not a sympathetic character and yet, at times, he makes sense. There are no easy answers, and this book certainly doesn’t provide any. It does, however, ask some very pointed questions.

Ouyang Yu
Diary of a naked official
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2014
ISBN: 9781921924705

(Review copy supplied by Transit Lounge)

* In an interview I heard with Ouyang Yu, he pointed out that the diary starts on 4 June (the Tiananmen Square date) and ends on 11 September (9-11 in other words). More layers, you see …

Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award

August 4, 2014

I have mentioned the National Biography Award before, but have never dedicated a post to it. Since this Monday musings coincides with the announcement of the 2014 award, I thought it would be a good time to write a little about this award.

The National Biography Award was initially endowed by Geoffrey Cains, with support a little later by Michael Crouch, and is managed by the State Library of NSW. Its aim, says its website, is “to encourage the highest standards of writing in the fields of biography and autobiography, and to promote public interest in these genres”.  As of 2013, the winner receives $25,000, with each shortlisted book receiving $1,000. I like the fact that more and more awards are providing a monetary prize for the shortlisted works. Associated with the award, since 2003, has been an annual lecture on the subject of life-writing. The list of lectures, and papers if available, can be found on the State Library of NSW’s website.

The shortlist for 2014 was:

  • Alison Alexander, The ambitions of Jane Franklin

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

    Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin (Allen & Unwin). This one intrigues me as Lady Jane Franklin, about whom I’ve written before, was one of those amazing 19th century woman who came to my attention through contemporary novels, including Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Andrea Barrett’s The voyage of the Narwhal, and a book of poetry titled Jane, Lady Franklin by Tasmanian Adrienne Eberhard. The biography is subtitled, Victorian lady adventurer. I don’t know Alexander, but she is apparently a Tasmanian historian.

  • Steve Bisley’s Stillways: A memoir (HarperCollins Publishers). Steve Bisley is an Australian actor and this book, the website says, is “a classic memoir of an Australian childhood in the sixties”. That in itself gives it some appeal to me.
  • Janet Butler’s Kitty’s war (University of Queensland Press). This one is on my TBR. It is based on the war diaries of World War 1 army nurse Sister Kit McNaughton. In 2013 it won the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australia. Butler works in the History department at La Trobe University.
  • John Cantwell & Greg Bearup’s Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror (Melbourne University Publishing). Cantwell was a Major-General in the army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ended up with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has written this with Walkley Award winning journalist, Greg Bearup.
  • Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archives (Melbourne University Publishing). Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick lived in the Russia during the Cold War, while researching for her doctoral thesis. She apparently felt at home in Russia, but, as a foreigner, was always seen by Soviet authorities as potentially a spy. The book explores this part of her life. Fitzpatrick is regarded as an expert in the field of Soviet/modern Russian history.
  • Gideon Haigh’s On Warne (Penguin Australia). Australians will know immediately the subject of this biography, the flamboyant, controversial but highly-talented cricketer Shane Warne. Gideon Haigh is a journalist who has written several well-regarded and award-winning books on sport, media and the automotive industry (among other topics).

All books I’d willingly read … though Alexander’s and Butler’s would be my top priority.

And the winner is: Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin! Now I really do want to read this book … It was a little tricky to find who won via a normal Google search several hours after the announcement, so I turned to Twitter and there it was (of course). Will it be reported on Australian television news tonight? I wonder!

Anyhow, once I knew the winner, I was able to search on that and found a Sydney Morning Herald article which quotes chair of the judging panel (and a previous winner), Jacqueline Kent, as praising the book for its detailed portrayal of a “highly intelligent, vital and strong-minded woman” She said that “This is a biography that drew on a huge amount of research but is also very light on its feet”. Apparently Franklin, according to the Herald, had left behind “8 million words in journals and correspondence”. Alexander is reported as saying that the biography would have been impossible without a “Find” key to search documents. Isn’t modern technology grand – though the “find” function can’t completely replace in-depth reading during which you can find all those wonderful serendipitous details that make research such fun.

The meeting of art and literature, at the Singapore Art Museum

August 2, 2014

SAM ExteriorMr Gums and I have had a busy few months, with, unusually for us, two overseas trips in less than four months. Both were family-inspired: Canada in April-May to visit our daughter, and then last week Koh Samui to help Mr Gums’ sister and husband celebrate their 40th anniversary. We decided to spend a few days en route to Samui in Singapore. What an interesting place it is. Although, technically, a new country which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, it has a much longer history, dating back to the second century. What we know as “modern” Singapore, though, began when the British, via Sir Stamford Raffles, established a trading post on the island in 1819. We didn’t see anywhere near enough but we tasted its variety –  including my topic for this post, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

SAM is housed in a gracious old 19th century missionary school building – the St Joseph’s Institution run by La Salle Brothers.  The building was constructed in stages, from 1855 to completion in the early twentieth century. It was acquired for the museum in 1992. SAM describes itself as having “one of the world’s largest public collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian artworks, with a growing component in international contemporary art”.

The current major exhibition, which will run for a year, is Medium at Large: Shapeshifting materials and methods on contemporary art. SAM explains that it

explores the idea of medium in contemporary art, probing some of the most fundamental and pressing questions of art – its making, and also our experience, encounter and understanding of it.

It’s the sort of exhibition I enjoy – modern, confronting and/or provocative, with useful interpretive signage. Of course, I enjoy the famous, classic galleries like the Louvre or Prado, just as I like to read classic novels, but I also enjoy seeing what contemporary artists are doing and thinking. I loved the concept behind this exhibition. In our increasingly fluid, interactive, interdisciplinary world, a focus on how art is made and how re relate to it, seems very relevant.

The exhibition comprises 32 artworks and apparently draws mainly from the museum’s permanent collection, but it also “includes loans and commissions from Singaporean, Southeast Asia, and Asian artists”. We are seeing more Asian artists here in Australia, but it’s exciting to visit Asian galleries where we can see art and artists less familiar to western gallery-goers. And so, we saw two portraits made using live bullets on sandpaper (by Filipino artist Alvin Zafra), and a sculpture made with human hair (Dutch-born Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma’s Shaggy). We saw works that play with medium and form, such as an oil painting overlaid with a video projection (Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka’s He was a good man), a distressingly mesmerising video of a woman dancing on butter captured also in still photographs (Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s Exegie – Butter Dance), and another video in which a taut rope springs and snaps through architectural spaces (Singaporean Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Space Drawing 5). Our minds were challenged by a video installation called The Cloud of Unknowing (by another Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen) in which various residents in an apartment complex experience some sort of epiphany or understanding of something mystical. Some of the works, including this last one, have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

RenatoOraro's Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

Renato Orara’s Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

But, since this is primarily a litblog, I’ll finish with two works that incorporate books. The first one is, in fact, the first work that confronted us in the exhibition, Filipino Renato Orara’s* Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403). It comprises a lamb cutlet, finely drawn in ballpoint pen on a page of the Bible, a page from Job. Since Job is primarily about how humans can comprehend why an all-powerful God lets good people suffer, the piece raises all sorts of questions about “the lamb of God”, about sacrifice. The label suggests other tensions too, such as between word and image, between open/public (when the book is open) and hidden/private (when the book is closed), and, through imposing what is essentially a chop on the Bible, between the sacred and profane. I would add another tension – that between wonder at the delicacy of the execution of the image and feeling “gross” from seeing a lump of fatty meat on the Bible. A surprising work that stays with you.

Part of Titarubi's Shadow of surrender (2013)

Part of Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender (2013)

The other work, Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender, comprises multiple components in a large space. I could not quite fit it all into my photo but it contains large, open, blank books on benches, with chairs, and with big charcoal drawings of trees on the walls. It was commissioned for the Indonesian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. It’s a complex work, with additional layers of meaning contained in the knowledge that the wood used in the furniture comes from colonial-era railroad tracks. The pieces are burnt, which apparently references the charcoal the artist’s mother cooked with, but which also links to the charcoal tree drawings. And, of course, trees provide the paper and wood used for books and furniture, suggesting a cycle of life theme too. The label refers to the fact that the books are empty implying a “tabula rasa” and the idea that it is time to re-write history or re-learn lessons, and thus develop anew leaving past colonial constructs.  An article about the Biennale on Titarubi’s website says that in this work he links “sakti” (‘divine energy”) “to both education and the environment, to knowledge and the natural world”. Another powerful and emotive piece, as you can see.

SAM was our last “sight” in Singapore and rounded off our visit very nicely!

* While researching where Orara was from, I discovered an article about artists using ballpoint pens. It starts with: “Accessible and affordable, the ballpoint pen has become the medium of choice for artists to make obsessive abstractions, extreme drawings, and playful riffs on venerated ink traditions”.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The novel in Australia, 1927-style, Part 2

July 28, 2014

Today’s Monday Musings is Part 2 of my two post series discussing Nettie Palmer‘s article, “The novel in Australia”, that was published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927.

As I did in last week’s post, I’ll use her headings to share her view on Australia’s great novels.

A novelist abroad

Here she discusses Australian writers who wrote their novels while living overseas, Australians being, as we know, good travellers. It’s no surprise that her choice of the best known novel written while its writer was abroad is Henry Handel Richardson’sMaurice Guest (1909), which is a “brilliant story of music-student life in the Leipzig of the ‘nineties”. (This is another languisher on my TBR pile).

Palmer then tells us about Richardson’s Australian trilogy, The fortunes of Richard Mahoney, which she wrote mostly from her home in England though she “revisited Australia about 1912 to verify impressions”. Palmer’s article was written before the third book in the trilogy was published, but here she is on the first two:

The writer’s knowledge of the period – costumes, food, and customs – is immense but the “Fortunes” is never a mere costume novel: there is character all through. All Henry Handel Richardson’s novels, even those whose setting is wholly Australian, are better known in Europe than here, and are discussed at length in German and Scandinavian literary encyclopaedias and reviews. In America too, they have received deep attention. Victoria is fortunate to have found such a chronicler, more fortunate than it knows yet [my emphasis].

Cultural cringe, or because Richardson was based overseas? Whatever the reason, recognition of her work did increase through the century. The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Richardson, written in 1988, discusses her reputation briefly, and touches on the unevenness of her reputation – overseas and in Australia.

Contemporary novels

Palmer concludes her article by looking at contemporary (to the late 1920s, that is) novels, and names a few she deems significant.

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katherine Susannah Prichard’s works, she says, “are the fruit of an intense devotion to her subject matter. Her gifts are mainly two: first, that of brilliant impressionism, then a rare power of writing group-scenes.” In Black Opal, for example, the opal miners are “standing about chaffing each other and discussing the universe, every man of them alive”. She says there are similarly vivid scenes of groups of timber-getters in Working Bullocks. “Such scenes”, she says, “are too difficult for most novelists, who shirk them: yet they enrich a book immensely and the reader feels that our everyday life is full of unsuspected charm”.

Palmer then writes something rather strange (to me anyhow). She comments that each of Prichard’s books is located in a different place – the tall-timbers of South-east Victoria (presumably The pioneers, which I’ve reviewed), the opal fields of Western New South Wales, and the saw-milling country in the south of Western Australia. She says:

(Reading over this list of regions I can only feel how wretchedly inconvenient our Australian names are: a mere mention of latitude and longitude! Are we too big to think about? It will take many years for many of our names to become easy and vivid.)

What does she mean? Those names are purely geographical descriptions. The pioneers is, yes, set in south-east Victoria but this region does have a name – Gippsland – which it has had since the nineteenth century. I don’t think I’m on Palmer’s wavelength here at all.

Anyhow she concludes this section with the statement that there’s “little space left for some recent Queensland books” (because, of course, The Brisbane Courier is a Queensland newspaper). She names Zora Cross, whose books “put on record the changing years of a South Queensland [ha!] district” and M. Forrest, whose novels “have that special quality which readers of her verse would expect – a power of painting in words the rich details of Queensland’s unexplored landscapes”.


As I read this article I pondered what criteria Palmer was using to define quality novels. Good characterisation, meaningful realism (if that makes sense), and a capturing of Australian identity seem to be what she was looking for. Fortunately, she has a go at answering this question herself in her last two paragraphs.

Firstly, she says that:

the most satisfactory definition of a good novel seems “the revelation of character through narrative,” but the character need not be only human. There is also the character of a country.

She then suggests that good novels break new ground, with the author “giving part of himself away, revealing his personal vision of ‘men, coming and going on the earth'”. On this point of innovation, she quotes Randolph Bedford, who appeared in Part 1 and who, she says, satirised the idea that “the average publisher loves words written to a formula, to please a reading public which dislikes anything new”. Bedford apparently said of this public:

It loves to read some old friend it recognises, so it can say, “How original it must be, because I know it so well”.

Oh dear. Have things changed do you think?

Palmer then presents her own definition of “a more genuine kind of originality” – and it’s to do with the difficulty of making “Australian life and character their theme”. She concludes:

Some day, when a novel about life in Indooroopilly seems as natural as one about Piccadilly, we shall thank those who turned the first sods so fruitfully.

So there it is really. The cultural cringe. This I think has changed.

* Wikipedia tells us she was Iris Murdoch’s second cousin twice removed. A remote relation, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless!

Roslyn Russell, Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (Review)

July 27, 2014

A week or so ago my local Jane Austen group had a guest speaker at our meeting, Roslyn Russell, the author of Maria returns to Barbados. Russell is a local historian who has written this historical novel based on Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park. She is also a lapsed member of our group, so of course we had to ask her to come and talk to us about it. Most of this post draws from my report of her talk, which she titled Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park: Fictionalising the legacy of slavery in Mansfield Park.

Regular readers probably know that I’m not a fan of fan-fiction or sequels of well-known works. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have read any if it hadn’t been for belonging to the Jane Austen Society of Australia. However, having read Deidre Shauna Lynch’s essay, “Sequels” in Jane Austen in context, edited by Janet Todd, I decided that I should relax my “rule”. Lynch convinced me that these books are an important part of our understanding of Austen as a literary and cultural icon. Consequently, I have now read PD James’ crime novel Death comes to Pemberley (my review) and Jo Baker’s Longbourn (my review). Roslyn Russell’s historical novel is my third. In it, she imagines that some ten years after being banished to the country, and upon the death of her companion Aunt Norris, Maria Bertram goes to Barbados and learns about slavery and the abolition movement.

There are, I’m gathering, many different reasons why writers want to write sequels or fan fiction works. For Russell, it was, as she writes in her author’s note, inspired by two passions: her love of Jane Austen and of Barbados. Barbados? How many Australians have been to, let alone developed a passion for, Barbados? Not many, I expect. It was her museum work, in fact, which took Russell to Barbados and there, its history – and particularly the history of its plantations and the practice of slavery – reminded her of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in which the leading family, the Bertrams, draw their prime income from their plantation in Antigua.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and Slavery

Russell commenced by telling us that although most of the characters in her novel are fictional, some are based on real people. Before discussing this further, however, she read the excerpt from Mansfield Park which contains the only reference to slavery:

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?”

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like— I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” (MP)

She noted that this shows Maria and Julia’s lack of interest in the source of their family’s income. She then referred to cultural theorist Edward Said’s discussion of the novel and his statement that it is not appropriate “to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave”. Said, she told us, did not apply 21st century attitudes to his assessment of Austen, but suggested that her work, as that of an author who belonged to a slave-owning society, should be analysed in context and in terms of what she does and doesn’t say rather than simply attacked as being complicit.

Ros then briefly outlined some of Austen’s known or probable connections with plantations:

  • the family’s close relationship with her father’s friend, the plantocrat James Langford Nibbs who was also Austen brother’s godfather. Nibbs apparently took his son out to his plantations in Antigua to settle down his unruly behaviour, which rather mirrors Sir Thomas’ taking Tom out to his plantation.
  • Austen’s aunt-by-marriage, Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was born in Barbados, though went to school in England.
  • Mrs Skeet who is mentioned in Austen’s letters. Skeet is a common name in Barbados, suggesting she had a connection to slavery*.
  • the Holder family of Ashe Park, also friends of the Austens. Holder, too, is a common name in the Caribbean.

The title Mansfield Park, itself, could also reflect Austen’s awareness of the slavery issue, as it may have been inspired by Lord Mansfield who was famous for adjudications which contributed significantly to the eventual abolition of the slave trade. (This is the Lord Mansfield who became guardian of his mulatto niece Dido, fictionalised in the recent film, Belle).

Barbados and Maria Returns

Russell then turned to her own book, first addressing the question of why she had set it in Barbados and not Antigua, where the Bertrams’ plantation was. Firstly, she has been to Barbados several times and knows its history. She couldn’t, she said, write about a place she didn’t know. Secondly, Barbados is also the location of a historical event she uses in her novel.

Mansfield Park was written 20 years before emancipation (i.e. the formal abolition of slavery) in 1834. Maria Returns is set about 15 years after MP, and so during the time when the abolition movement was becoming more vocal. Ros explained that the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did not seriously affect the Caribbean plantations: they were “breeding” their own slaves and were essentially self-sufficient. However, the abolition of slavery represented a major threat to their livelihoods, and the plantation families were deeply concerned. By the 1820s the abolition movement was becoming active – mostly among Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists and Quakers.

Ros discussed the historical basis of her fiction. For example, at the dinner party in the English village where Maria first meets abolitionist John Simpson, he talks of a trial in Barbados in which slaves were apparently unjustly convicted of and executed for a murder. This trial did occur and is a reason Russell chose Barbados for her setting. The trial was witnessed by James Stephen** who, though he lived a little earlier than our fictional Simpson, is Russell’s model for her character.

Simpson also talks at this dinner about a slave rebellion, led by African-slave Bussa, that occurred in Barbados in 1816. Bussa was killed in the rebellion. Such slave rebellions resulted in plantation owners becoming harsher. Simpson makes it clear which side he is on. This is a wake up call for Maria who:

had not been aware of the strength of feeling in the wider community against the institution of slavery, from which her own family had benefitted so materially. (MR)

After Maria arrives in Bridgetown she meets or hears of other abolitionists, such as the historically real free coloured man, Sam Prescod (who, with Bussa, is now a national hero) and plantation owner Josiah Thompson. Thompson is fictional but, as a former owner who had downsized his estate and treated his slaves-now-servants well, he has historical antecedents. Men who behaved like he did faced hostility from other Barbadians – and so, in the novel, Thompson is a lonely man who is keen to host Maria and her friends at his home. His willingness to import a teacher from England to teach his slaves also has precedents. Maria realises again that she’d never wondered about her father’s plantations, but she begins now to wonder what her father might think about the people she’s meeting.

Ros then spoke about the treatment of slave women by their white owners, particularly in relation to sexual predation. This forms an important part of the story – but I won’t spoil it here. However, she again spoke of historical precedents – not that we really needed any for this one!  We weren’t, though, quite prepared for the example she gave us, one Thomas Thistlewood who kept a diary of his plantation life. Wikipedia confirms what Ros told us: his diary chronicled “3,852 acts of sexual intercourse and/or rape with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves”.

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Ros illustrated her talk with some wonderful illustrations, including the painting used on the cover of her book, Agostino Brunias’ The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl. She also mentioned some of the sources she used in her research, like Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the blood: A family’s story of slavery and empire.

So, the novel

I enjoyed the read. It is pretty much genre historical fiction rather than literary fiction, so not my usual fare. Russell doesn’t try to emulate Austen, and while her writing is clear, her dialogue can be a little too formal and uniform at times. She includes a lot of information about life at the time, information that Austen herself would not have needed to, and indeed did not, supply. But, of course, this is historical fiction, and modern audiences need background that Austen’s contemporaries didn’t.

Russell spins a credible story, both in terms of the plot she creates and how she develops the characters she draws from Mansfield Park. Maria does change significantly, but Russell convinces us that she could. However, this is historical, romantic fiction, not a fierce novel, so Russell’s more culpable characters, in particular Bertram father and son, are let off more lightly than they deserve. This perhaps mirrors the political reality: after emancipation, the Caribbean plantation owners received in total £20 million compensation, while the slaves received nothing.

What did Austen know and feel about slavery? We’re unlikely to ever know, but in Maria returns Russell has given us some insight into the darker side of life that Austen only hints at.

* Names that are common in slave areas are usually so because slaves tended to take on the surnames of their masters.

** Wikipedia tells that Stephen was great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf.


Roslyn Russell
Maria returns to Barbados
Flynn: Bobby Graham Publishers, 2014
(Kindle ed.)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 757 other followers