Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 1, redux)

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility

In 2011, my Jane Austen group started a slow read of her novels in chronological order of publication, which meant that we started with the 1811-published Sense and sensibility. By slow read, we meant that each month we’d read a volume of the chosen novel, given most novels in those times were published in three volumes, and discuss just that volume to see what new ideas or insights we might have. We finished the project in 2017. Having spent the last five years looking at other works by Austen (like her Juvenilia) and exploring other topics relevant to her, we decided last year that it was time to “do” the novels again. So, once again, we’ve started with the first one.

For some of you, this will seem very dry, but for those of us who love Austen, there is much to be gained from these slow reads. If you are interested in what I wrote last time on volume one, check out the post, but here I’m sharing what thoughts popped up for me this time.

First though, I’ll repeat the caveats from 2011. I’m assuming that most readers who come to this post will know the plot. (If you don’t, Wikipedia provides a good summary.) Also, this is not a formal review but simply a sharing of some of the ideas that struck me during this slow reading.

Slow reading of Volume 1

I have always liked Sense and sensibility, while my dear Mum thought it one of her weakest. (There’s no accounting for tastes! In my group there are many who will never forget that Mum loved Northanger Abbey, which some of them don’t like much at all.)

Anyhow, here goes. It’s fascinating how each read of an Austen book focuses the mind on something different. That’s the richness of Austen, and what makes her a true classic. In my last slow read, my first-volume thoughts focused particularly on the idea of judgement, and money and income. This time, other ideas came to the fore for me, some partly affected, I think, by current concerns.

Autobiographical first novel?

But first, an idea I hadn’t fully thought through before was that it could be seen as a “typical” first novel, by which I mean, it has strong autobiographical elements. Anyone who knows Austen always think of this novel’s basic set-up of in terms of her life: the fact that Austen, her mother and sister, lost their home on the death of their husband/father, and had to wait for the kindness of relations to come to their aid, just as happens to the Dashwoods. However, on this reading, I realised there were other autobiographical elements. Others in the group had come to the same conclusion, and yet none of us had discussed this last time. Curious.

So, for example, our two sisters, the younger musical Marianne and the older artistic Elinor mirror musical Jane and her artist sister Cassandra. Moreover, Jane, we believe, was lively, like Marianne, compared with her more sober older sister. If Austen did draw on herself for Marianne, however, she’s gorgeously self-deprecating – though she does present Marianne as over-enthusiastic and excitable but fundamentally sound. There are several other elements we could point to from Austen’s biography, including her flirtation with Tom Lefroy being reflected in Marianne’s with Willoughby. They are very different men, but both men are whisked away by relations from the attractive but unsuitable, ie not-rich-enough, girl.

Appearances deceive?

Perhaps partly because I’ve been listening to ABC RN’s Face Value series, I seemed to be particularly alert to the many references to appearance. Admittedly, Austen describes appearance in all her novels, but it felt pointed here in a way that I don’t recollect seeing in later novels.

So, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are both described as not handsome, but both are appealing for their good understanding and interested attention in others. Willoughby, on the other hand, is described differently. When he appears on the scene, having rescued Marianne from her fall in the rain, Austen says that Mrs Dashwood would have would have been grateful had he been ”old, ugly, and vulgar”, but his “youth, beauty, and elegance” gave him added interest.

As for the women, Sir John Middleton and Charlotte Palmer talk of Elinor and Marianne as being pretty and therefore marriageable, while Lucy Steele is seen by the perceptive Elinor to have “beauty” but to “want … real elegance and artlessness”. And then there’s Mr Palmer who, just like Pride and prejudice’s Mr Bennet, had chosen his wife Charlotte for her beauty not her sense. Beauty, Austen seems to be saying, is something we should not give undue credit to.

Fond mothers?

Another issue which caught my attention this time around concerned mothers and mothering. Mothering (poor or lack of) features in many of Austen’s novels. Lizzie Bennet’s mother (Pride and prejudice) is silly; Emma (Emma) and Anne (Persuasion) don’t have a mother; Fanny’s (Mansfield Park) is too busy; and Catherine’s (Northanger Abbey) is away from her at a critical time. By contrast, Sense and sensibility has several active and involved, though not necessarily great, mothers, from the loving, hands-off Mrs Dashwood to the ultimate controller in Mrs Ferrars.

Very early on Mrs Dashwood’s style of mothering is described and Mrs Ferrars’ is hinted at, in relation to the apparent growing attraction between Elinor and Edward.

Some mothers might have encouraged intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except for a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality.

Mrs Dashwood, who is probably the most present mother in Austen, is loving but not always wise. When Marianne falls into excessive despair at Willoughby’s sudden, unexplained departure, Elinor suggests she ask Marianne directly about her relationship with Willoughby. Mrs Dashwood replies that she “would not ask such a question for the world … I should never deserve her confidence again … I would not attempt to force the confidence of any one”. Elinor disagrees, seeing “this generosity overstrained, considering her sister’s youth … [but] … common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs Dashwood’s romantic delicacy”.

However, Mrs Dashwood does provide good “maternal” advice to Edward, suggesting that finding some useful employment would help him be “a happier man”. She then mentions his mother:

Your mother will secure to you, in time, that independence you are so anxious for; it is her duty, and it will, it must, ere long become her happiness to prevent your whole youth from being wasted in discontent.

We haven’t met Mrs Ferrars at this point in the novel, but earlier references to her have not suggested a particularly loving or even dutiful mother. If Mrs Ferrars is one matriarch in the the novel, Mrs Jennings is another. Austen tells us that “She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world”. She comes across in Volume 1, as gossipy, “vulgar”, but good-natured. Without second-guessing the next volume, let’s say that I think she warms as a motherly character then!

Her younger daughter, Charlotte Palmer is pregnant, but the older one, Lady Middleton, is the mother of three young children. She is the “fond mother” who “will swallow anything”. Her very existence depends on her role – she only comes to life when her children are around – and the shrewd Steele girls take advantage of this.

For Austen readers, the issue of mothers in Austen’s novels is a loaded one. Why are there so few sensible mothers in her novels? There is much we don’t know about Austen’s life, and one of the mysteries concerns her relationship with her mother. Some Austen researchers believe it was prickly. We’ll never know, but great mothers are rare in her novels – which may or may not tell us something .

And …

Other issues that grabbed my attention included the many references to goodness, compassion and kindness, and, not surprisingly, to sense and sensibility (which I briefly discussed in my previous volume 1 post).

Goodness appears on page 1, when we are told that Mr and Mrs Dashwood had shown “goodness of heart” to the uncle from whom they had inherited Norland, the estate that Mrs Dashwood must leave after her husband dies. As the volume progresses, Marianne talks of Edward’s “goodness and sense”; Sir John Middleton is described as being of “good heart”; and Colonel Brandon as having a “good nature”. These are not just words. Sir John’s “good heart” translates into real and practical kindness to the Dashwoods, and Edward values the “kindness” of the Dashwood family “beyond anything”.

I won’t continue because we’ll have to see how or whether these issues remain to the fore as I read on, or whether others will raise their heads. Instead, I’ll close one one of those insights that I love reading Austen for. It’s on Mrs Dashwood not being prepared to consider the tough possibilities (in this case concerning Marianne and Willoughby):

But Mrs Dashwood could find explanations whenever she wanted them, which at least satisfied herself.

How often do we justify things to ourselves that we’d be better not to? Mrs Dashwood isn’t alone I think. (Or, do I speak only for myself?)

Roll on volume 2.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Red Witch

Last week, I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s biography, The red witch: A biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It was beautifully emceed by Lisa Hill, of ANZLitLovers, and involved three speakers, Karen Throssell, award-winning poet and the only grandchild of Prichard; Nathan Hollier, the publisher; and, of course, the author himself, Nathan Hobby.

A brief intro

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

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) has to be among Australia’s most interesting and significant writers. I first read her in my teens when, keen on civil rights and concerned about racial discrimination, I read her novel Coonardoo. I loved it, though I’m sure my response was naive and typical of those earnest times. However, I never forgot Prichard.

She wrote thirteen novels, a memoir, plays, reportage, poetry and short stories. She won the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition with The Pioneers (1915) (my review), and in 1929, Coonardoo shared the Bulletin’s Novel prize with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, which brought her notoriety that dogged her through life.

So much is known about her, and yet so little, because, although we have her son’s Ric’s 1975 biography, Wild weeds and wind flowers, there has not been a comprehensive biography – until now.

The launch

Before I share the highlights of the launch, I’ll reiterate a comment I made on my post on contemporary responses to Coonardoo, because it speaks to the challenges faced by KSP researchers. I wrote:

I was horrified by the frequency with which Prichard’s name was spelt incorrectly. This must have driven Hobby mad in his research. She is frequently written as KathErine, not KathArine, and occasionally Catherine, and even Kathleen. Really? Then, there’s her last name, which was often reported as PriTchard not Prichard. It must have driven HER mad too, at the time. Sometimes, too, her married name, Mrs Hugo Throssell, is used.

It is truly astonishing how often her name was – and still is – got wrong.

So now, the launch …

After the usual introductory comments and acknowledgement of country, Lisa introduced the three speakers, and then were were off, starting with Karen Throssell who had the honours of formally launching the book.

Karen referred to the title, suggesting the word “witch” connotes independent women who defy convention, which accurately captures her grandmother. (An aside, I remember when Nathan asked us bloggers to vote on the titles he was considering for his planned biography, long before he had a publisher. None of them was The red witch, but what an inspired title it is.)

Anyhow, Karen went on to read her poem “My fairy godmother” about her doting gran, the “wild Bohemian”, KSP. She mentioned the challenge over the years of protecting her family’s reputation, referencing her recently published book about her father, The crime of not knowing your crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO.

Karen then turned to Nathan’s biography. She initially feared he was focused on some of the personal secrets in Prichard’s life, but was pleased that his biography does, in fact, focus on KSP’s intellectual and political ideas more than her “private peccadillos”. What she likes most about the biography is Nathan’s detailing the “journey of the individual books” including KSP’s travel to the places in which her books were set. She also likes his coverage of the various books’ reception, particularly of Coonardoo, which she described as an “act of literary empathy”.

She declared the book launched and the floor (or screen) was handed over to Melbourne University Press’s publisher, Nathan Hollier. He spoke briefly, noting that early reviews had praised Nathan’s “capacity to write and tell a story … with felicity … without overt authorial intrusion”. Books, he said, are not ephemeral, and he believes this one will stand test of time as a resource for literature, culture, history, and Australians generally.

Then it was Nathan Hobby’s turn. After introductory acknowledgements, he got onto talking about the process and challenges of writing the biography. Given the reputational issues that have dogged KSP’s family, he said he had been apprehensive because he was aware of the pain that had been caused to the family by scholars and others.

He was grateful that the publisher let him go to 150,000 words. (As we bloggers who followed the project on Nathan’s blog for several years know, this was still a challenge, because he was initially keen on a three-volume biography. But, I suspect it’s a good decision, and maybe Nathan can now write a bunch of articles using all those treasures he had to cut!)

He talked about the value of the Internet for modern research, praising, in particular, Trove. It was especially useful for him as a Western Australian, and even more when the pandemic and travel restrictions hit. It would be utopia, he said, to have all of Australia’s archives digitised. Yes!

Nathan talked a little about the art of writing biography, and referred to some other biographers, but I didn’t catch the names. He talked about the challenge of resolving contradictions in your subject, and quoted one writer – if I’ve got this right – as describing biography as the “art of human betrayal in words”. In terms of writing his own, he said he had to juggle the constant tension between the chronological and the thematic. He also talked about the style of biography which involves the “biographer on a quest”. He suggested this works well when there is not much material, such as Brian Matthews’ Louisa, on Louisa Lawson, but this was not a problem he faced with KSP! He said that his aim was to show “a lived life”.

Oh, and he thanked all his supporters for their encouragement and camaraderie.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’m just sharing some:

  • On deciding what to cut and what to keep in the editing: his criteria were how the material related to the bigger picture, its literary and political significance, and whether it explained who she was and/or her work
  • His favourite KSP work: perhaps Coonardoo, but he also has a soft spot for the Wild oats of Han. KSP saw The roaring nineties as her most important work.
  • On what KSP would make of Russia today: Russia is not really a Communist nation today; he can’t see she’d like Russia or Putin.
  • Most exciting moment: many Eureka moments, often little things like finding a grocery receipt from their honeymoon in Hugo Throssell’s papers.
  • Most challenging moment: different types of challenges, such as technical ones in accessing material, and writing ones like determining a structure.
  • Difference in public reception of KSP and Jean Devanny (from academic Carole Ferrier): Devanny would probably answer in terms of class. Ferrier commented on the rivalry between the two: Devanny felt KSP had been “taken up” by the Community Party. KSP’s image was “respectable” whilst Devanny’s was “disreputable”. Ferrier said the women encompass some of the issues faced by women as revolutionaries.

A big thanks to all for a smoothly-run and engaging launch. Now to read the book …

Further reading

Sydney Writers Festival 2022, Live and Local (Session 1, and only)

This is the fourth year I’ve attended Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local live-streamed events at the National Library of Australia. I nearly missed it this year because, somehow, I didn’t see the usual advertising. However, I caught it just in time, and was able to attend an event that particularly interested me. For the rest, my time was already committed so … next year?

Damon Galgut, Larissa Behrendt and Paige Clark in conversation with Sisonke Msimang: Saturday 21 May, 4pm

I was thrilled that this was the session I could attend, as Damon Galgut’s The promise is my reading group’s May book, and I hope to read Larissa Behrendt’s After story for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week in July. I am also interested in Paige Clarke’s She is haunted, which was longlisted for this year’s Stella Prize, and in Sisonke Msimang, who, besides also being an author, is a wonderful advocate for diverse storytelling. The session was billed as: “to explore the responsibilities and opportunities of the creative writer and artist, and ask: who gets to tell a story?”

Before the session started, a brief message from Festival Director, Michael Williams, was streamed to us, in which he talked about the Festival’s theme, Change my mind, having been chosen to reflect our current uncertain times. This was followed by a very neat animated graphic on the theme.

The audience at our venue was very small – under 10 people – which is significantly less then I’ve ever experienced before. I didn’t feel it had been as well-advertised as in previous years, but the NLA staff member on duty thought, probably rightly, that there was too much else going on – like an election!

The limits of imagination

(I will use first names to describe the speakers, because that seems appropriate for describing a “chat”).

Sisonke commenced by acknowledging country, noting that this was a country rich with stories. She then of course introduced the writers, and explained that the topic they’d been “given” was Who gets to tell a story. However, she said, this conversation has been going for a long time, and will keep going, and the authors on the panel had written great books that we also want to hear about, so, she said, “we will be subversive” and try to cover both! I think the audience appreciated that, though in the end, the focus clearly was “who gets to tell the story”. The question was explored well, but it was clear that, while he gave it his best shot, Damon, as the only “white” and only male on the panel, was the most challenged by Sisonke’s probing.

How do you help students understand or handle this “who-tells-the-story” question?

Sisonke, noting that all panel members also teach writing, thought to approach the “who-tells-the-story” question via their teaching. Good one! She also took the opportunity to note the current attack on humanities as a discipline.

Larissa spoke at some length, teasing out the issue, starting with how layered it is. For example there is a diversity of First Nations across county, and she can’t tell stories from nations that aren’t hers. In fact can’t tell all the stories of her own nation, because they aren’t all hers. This runs counter to the Western academic tradition which is founded on the principle of sharing stories, of being entitled to know everything in the academy.

So, her approach is to ask students, Why is this your story to tell? She made the point that as a lawyer she needs to consider when it’s your role to tell a story, and you should create space for others to tell it. She does, however, believe it is possible to write from a range of perspectives; she’s done it herself, having written from male and non-Indigenous perspectives. The question then is How well do you know the story you want to tell?

Paige observed that to write “other” characters you need to research, and she, personally, is not prepared to do that. But, to students, she would ask Why do you want to, or think you need to, write the story? Could the story be written in the writer’s own identity-space; could they approach the topic from their own space?

Damon felt that South Africa, where he’s from, has gone from being behind the times to being ahead in these issues, though I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that. He quoted Nadine Gordimer who had often been challenged on her right to speak for black South Africans. Her reply was, What did James Joyce know about being a woman, and yet he wrote that wonderful Molly Bloom soliloquy? Fiction, he said, is about imagination. “Judge me by the results”. He feels that if we limit what we are allowed to write we might as well give up fiction. (I have some sympathy with this, as many of you know, but I also feel there’s a power issue at play and that past gaps in stories need to be redressed.)

Sisonke followed his comment with, but …

Can there be harm done by the attempt to tell a story that’s not yours?

But, by what culture do you assess the achievement? By the prize culture? This has seen the canon of writing about Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal writers being judged by non-Aboriginal people who have the same perspectives as the writers. Is this valid?

Larissa stated that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important, which also, she said, brings in the relationship of politics to writing. She – and I appreciated this coming from a First Nations writer, because I agree with her – thinks that Kate Grenville’s The secret river made “an extraordinary contribution”. Grenville, she said, didn’t feel need to fill in the gaps with assumptions about Indigenous people in the story. She also admires Liam Davison’s The white women (Lisa’s review). Both authors confront the impact of colonisation without putting themselves in the place of an Aboriginal person.

Damon commented that he’s not a woman, but he needs to imaginatively take that step. He used the words “being allowed” to write, say, a woman character.

Larissa responded by saying that the question is: What is the ethical framework you create for yourself when you are creating a character? It’s not so much what you are allowed to do, but that you should act ethically. What are the parameters you create for yourself. However, Damon felt that in South Africa, the question is “are you allowed”?

What is better about this moment?

At this point Sisonke, who asked such pointed, interesting questions, said rather than focusing on where we are “not permitted to go”, why not look at it from a positive point of view?

Larissa said current times come off the back of a lack of diversity in the canon, and that we are seeing a time of incredible burgeoning in First Nations writing across all genres. The are more opportunities for stories to be exposed deeply, for deeper understanding of diversities. We are enriched by greater intellectual exchange.

Paige, who self-describes as Chinese/American/Australian, shared that there were no identity markers in her first stories, written ten years ago, because she felt that if she wrote as a Chinese woman, she would not be listened to. Now, it feels comfortable writing from her identity.

Damon was startled by Paige’s statement, and felt that he wanted to stay silent on this as a white male. And then, somewhat reversing his previous statement, as he himself admitted, he said that he wanted to defend the right of writers to go anywhere but as a white South African, he knows there are places he can’t go. He hasn’t, he said, ventured out of white perspectives because he doesn’t know them.

Sisonke, wanting to push him a little further, responded that there was a feeling that in the current culture “white guys are going to lose by the canon being challenged”, but she feels it doesn’t have to be a loss, so, what’s positive, she asked?

Damon said that he doesn’t feel personally deprived. But, he felt that a significant positive is that new voices have been introduced. However, he would not venture into voices not his own.

The books

Sisonke then asked the authors to read excerpts from their books that she had selected. Clearly she’d thought hard about and prepared well for the session.

Larissa introduced her reading by explaining a little of the plot which takes us on a literary tour of England with a First Nations mother and daughter. She said the book explored the English canon she grew up with and that she still loves. But, she said, she also grew up with the richness of Indigenous storytelling, and that her novel marries these two traditions.

Sisonke asked Larissa about setting her book in “the heart of empire”. Larissa, a lawyer as well as writer, replied that the seed for the book lay in her observation of non-Indigenous legal people being dismissive of lndigenous people. She wanted to put her characters in a place, Britain, where they would be confronted, a place which has never really reflected on what it did. But, she said, storytelling is also about healing. Further, being overseas makes you think about yourself differently. She wanted her characters to experience that.

Paige read an early story from her book which is about race at its heart, and the gulf between mother and daughter caused by intergenerational trauma. Sisonke added that she’d chosen this excerpt because it beautifully captures the intimacy between mother and daughter, the trust that’s inherent and the trust that’s broken.

Paige said that her stories are autobiographical, but fantastical too. They are almost auto-fiction she said, in that she didn’t have to look far for them.

Damon’s excerpt featured a 13 year-old-daughter, Amor, who overhears a promise made by her father makes to his dying wife to give a home to a loyal black worker. Damon beautifully captures the innocence of this young girl – “history has not yet trod on her” – who wants the promise honoured.

Sisonke commented that none of the characters are easy to like. She said that non-South African readers see the characters as exaggerated, cartoonish, but that people who know South Africa “know” these characters. She asked Damon what he was trying to do with “that unlikability”. He replied that Amor is the moral centre because she doggedly wants the promise honoured. He believes that Apartheid was possible because of a failure of imagination, by which I understand him to mean the failure to imagine yourself in the shoes of others.

Q&A

There was the usual question about influences, but the answers were not always the usual! Damon said that his answer partly encompasses a response to Sisonke’s earlier question of the positives to be gained from contemporary literary culture. He said there’s been gain in there now being a platform for other voices, and that every book you read shows you another version of the world. (He added, as an aside, that you can tell which public figures read, which don’t. This got a wry laugh from our small audience and the other panel members.)

Larissa essentially echoed Damon by saying that through reading you experience so many views of world, across cultures and perspectives. She then added that First Nations elders are like libraries, and that they value people as they get older – the “library of elders”. (This reminded me of a discussion I’d had earlier in the week when lunching with friends. We talked about ageing and the idea of being “elders”, though whether we are respected as such in white culture is the question.)

Paige answered more traditionally by naming Amy Hempel who, she says, does rawness and vulnerability, economy and minimalism, so well.

And here the session abruptly ended when the well-prepared Sisonke was told they’d run out of time. What a shame!

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 2, Reviewers on Australianness

This is the second post in a series I plan to do this year inspired by articles in Trove from 1922, that is, from 100 years ago. My first post was on the NSW Bookstall Company, and I have several more 1922 post ideas. However, I thought a good choice for the second one would be to share some of the things reviewers/critics/ columnists at that time were saying about “Australianness” in the writing. Representing Australia – writing Australian novels – seemed to be important. But what did that mean to them?

I’ll start by repeating something from my first 1922 post. The columnist from Freeman’s Journal (July), wrote that Vance Palmer’s upcoming book, The boss of Killara, was “an entertaining story, … most entertainingly written, and … true in every detail to Australian bush-life”. I wanted to share this again because, by the 1920s, Australia was (and had been for some time) a highly urbanised nation, and yet bush-life seemed to define us in most reviewers’ (and presumably our own) eyes. It suggests that was our point of difference from the rest of the world, regardless of the truth of our lives.

Note that not all books discussed in 1922 were published that year, but most were.

Historical fiction

I didn’t come across a lot of historical fiction, but there were some, and when I did, reviewers were interested, naturally, in whether the past was properly evoked. The Western Mail’s (November) reviewer approved of J.H.M. Abbott’s Ensign Calder, saying that “The writer’s descriptions of life in Sydney, early in the nineteenth century during the governorship of Macquarie, are very faithfully rendered”. Wikipedia’s brief article on Abbott quotes Miller and Macartney from their book, Australian literature. Miller and Macartney describe his writing as being “of a simple kind, without subtleties or motive or characterization, against a background of the Australian past as revealed by historical records, and introducing actual personages”. So, not great literary writing, but accurate. This assessment (acceptance) was, I found, also a fairly common thread in 1922.

Romance and adventure

I will write more about adventure in a later post, because it seemed to be a popular genre. However, it’s worth sharing here some reviewers’ thoughts relevant to this week’s topic.

One adventure story exponent was Walter G Henderson. He was a country solicitor and grazier, as well as writer, and his novel, Bush bred (serialised in 1918, published 1922), was an adventure romance. J. Penn, who wrote for Adelaide’s Observer, called it (July) “a truly Australian product”, then described the wild adventures of its protagonists, including on the goldfields north of Port Augusta. He notes – and I found it interesting that this is one of the things he chose to emphasise – that “the author’s knowledge of camels and their ways is extensive”. Penn also writes that the 1922 edition included a commendation from Viscount Novar who, says Penn, claims that “the preservation of fugitive incident, illustrating different phases of life in a developing country, is a valuable contribution to literature.” Here, at least, is a reference to the idea of “illustrating different phases of life”.

Another popular adventure book was Jack North’s The black opal, which The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (May), describes as “a wholesome, well-written novel in which the lure of the bush triumphs over the glamor of the city”. See!

Mrs Norman (aka Mabel) Brookes’ novel, Old desires, is set partly in Cairo, but, writes the reviewer in Adelaide’s The Mail (October),

Separate from its dramatic qualities, the book is most admirable in its prelude chapters of way-back Australian life. Description of the recognisable routine, normal and often exciting, of station experience in the great interior, has, of its kind, seldom been more truthfully achieved. Occasional conventions link it, nevertheless, to a standard of accomplishment more familiar. Harris tweeds here preserve their familiar and apparently irresistible smell. That Mary, climbing through the stockyard fence, should vouchsafe a generous display of stocking is unimpressive to reading mankind inured to daily main street exhibition requiring neither fence nor stile.

As I’ve said before about these older Trove articles, I love their formal language. Formal this may be, but we get the gist that her description of Australian (station) life is authentic, albeit her English origins can’t help creeping in. Oh, and poor Mary, showing off her stocking unnecessarily, given the (city) worldliness of her readers!

What seemed to be mostly admired about “Australian” novels was not so much their exploration of Australian identity, or other themes, or their writing, but their description of Australian life. The reviewer in Brisbane’s Telegraph (August) of William Anderson’s The silent sin says

The great merit of this story in our eyes is that it is thoroughly Australian. The characters are Australian, and for the most part the scenes are laid in New South Wales and Queensland. For the rest it is told without pretension to literary ornament. 

Realist fiction

Then as now, older books were given new life, and one such book was William Lane’s 1892 novel The workingman’s paradise (my review). The report is not about a new publication, but about its being serialised in Brisbane’s Daily Standard (August). The columnist writes – remember, this is 30 years after its original publication – that

It is truly a remarkable book, more remarkable now, perhaps, than when it was published, because it is as inspiring to-day as it was intended to be then, and its story of the class struggle and road that lies before the Labor movement has increased in significance by the developments of the last quarter-century.

At last, a book that deals with some critical issues! Yes, yes, I’m showing my colours, I know, but I’m sure that won’t surprise you!

This is a brief, and superficial survey, but it comes from several pages of Trove hits and is a fair representation of what I saw as trends at the time. I have found some, let us say, outlier articles, which I will also share as 2022 progresses!

Shelley Burr, Wake (#BookReview)

Regular readers here will know a few things about me. One is that I don’t regularly read crime, and another is that for three years, before the pandemic struck, I was the litblogging mentor for an ACT Writers Centre program. One of the last two participants in that program was Shelley Burr, author of the just-published crime novel Wake.

In my post on that 2019 program, I introduced Shelley as follows:

Shelley Burr is working on a novel, and took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s well-regarded Hard Copy program last year … She is particularly interested in what she calls “drought noir”, which term sounds perfect for some of the crime coming out of Australia at present. Shelley has had her writing place well in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages program.

That novel she was writing was Wake. It won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2019. It was also shortlisted for the 2019 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award, which gave her a Varuna fellowship, and the 2020 Bath Novel Awards, which is an international award for emerging writers. Judge for the Bath award, literary agent Jenny Savill, wrote of Wake:

With forensic attention to detail, the reader is effortlessly drawn into the small town, rural Australian setting and a community in mourning. Immersive and riveting.

Savill was right on all fronts. Burr’s attention to detail is forensic, and readers (even non-crime readers like me) are “effortlessly drawn in”. I was thoroughly engaged from the opening pages, and this is because, besides being a crime novel, it’s a novel about character, and what happens to people when terrible things happen to them. How do people respond, and why do different people respond differently? It confronts readers to think about our own responses. How would we respond if it happened to us? And, how would, or do, we respond when it happens to others?

Wake is about a cold-case that took place on a remote farm some twenty years before the novel opens. Nine-year-old Evelyn (Evie) McCreery disappeared from her bed one night, never to be seen again. This means the novel alludes to a longstanding Australian writing tradition, that concerning the lost child. However, this motif has layers of cultural complexity that are not central to this novel, so I’m just mentioning it and moving on.

Now, the plot … as the book’s promotion says, “no forced entry, no fingerprints, no footprints, no tyre tracks”. Evie’s twin sister, Mina, has grown up in the wake (pun intended!) of that disappearance. She has never fully recovered and is quietly trying to solve the mystery on her own. The novel opens with the clearly fragile Mina doing her shopping under the kindly eye of a local shopkeeper. A stranger, who turns out to be private investigator Lane Holland, approaches her, but she is not interested. The novel progresses from this point with the twists and turns typical of the genre until its inevitable – though not completely expected – resolution.

Wake is carefully plotted, with, for example, hints concerning Lane Holland and why he has chased this particular case being gradually shared. Wake is also well-paced, starting slowly, and gradually building intrigue until near the end when the pace hots up. Suddenly, the chapters become shorter, causing the alternating perspectives, which characterise the narrative, to become more urgent.

As I mentioned above, the characters are a major strength of the novel. Mina and Lane are sensitively developed. Both are driven by past trauma, and can be tough and prickly, but both also exhibit moments of vulnerability and tenderness which help us care about them. There are a few other characters, the main ones being Mina’s more together friend Alanna whose sister had also disappeared around the same time as Mina’s, and Lane’s much younger sister Lynnie. Though minor, they too have flesh.

The narrative is chronological, with occasional flashbacks filling in some gaps. Other gaps are cleverly filled in by entries on a social media forum, MyMurder, which open some of the chapters. They add a thoughtful layer to the story, by conveying how such mysterious cases catch the public attention and how obsession with them can play out. They show how crime aficionados, conspiracy theorists, and others, can spear wildly away from the truth and potentially, if not actually, cause mental harm to those most touched by the crime.

So, yes, I was impressed. The writing and plotting is so sure, and Burr’s exploration of the crime is considered, sympathetic, and grounded in reality. There is drama – of course – but it properly serves the story and the complexity of the emotions, reactions and consequences that Burr is exploring. This made for engrossing reading for a non-crime reader like me, but Wake is also, if the awards tell us anything, great crime reading. It’s a page turner, with depth.

Now, I’d better at least mention the setting, given I’ve referenced Burr’s interest in “drought noir”. Wake is set in rural central New South Wales. Burr, herself, grew up in regional New South Wales, and her grandparents had a farm in regional Victoria, so her writing of place and country life felt authentic. The setting adds tension because Mina and her father Liam’s property is remote, remote enough that they have installed alarms on the gates to announce the arrival of visitors. You can’t be too careful when you live so far away from help.

However, the property also neatly reflect the challenges being faced by Australian farmers in climate-change-affected times. It was a working farm, but the disappearance of Evie consumed the family’s energy so much that viable farming fell by the wayside. In a nice political touch that speaks to our times, Burr has Mina and her father moving into working it as a conservation project.

Wake earned Shelley a two-book deal with Hachette, and is about to be published in the USA. Having now read it, I’m not surprised. I recommend it.

Shelley Burr
Wake
Hachette Australia: Gadigal Country/Sydney, 2022
360pp.
ISBN: 9780733647826

(Uncorrected proof courtesy Hachette Australia)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (4)

The current winners of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists were announced recently. I haven’t seen much publicity, so given I’ve reported on this award for the last two years, I thought I’d do it again this year. It’s a worthwhile award, and one that has seen writers go on to develop good careers.

Just to recap, the award was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. It’s an emerging writers’ award, open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book (novel or short story collection) is published. They don’t have to be debut novels, though they often are – like this year’s three winners.

The winners, as announced by Robert Moran, a culture reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (winner, $8,000) (see Brona’s review)
  • Ella Baxter’s New animal (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2022 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, and the 2021 Readings Prize ) (see Kim’s review)
  • Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award) (see Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey; critic and poet Thuy On; and a 2011 SMH Best Young Australian Novelist Gretchen Shirm (whom I’ve reviewed). The number of awards used to vary, but in recent years they seem to have settled on three. The prize money comes from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

The Herald‘s Melanie Kembrey, writing in the emailed newsletter I receive, said of the candidate books:

There were clear recurring thematic interests, including consent, cultural identity and the environment; many were coming-of-age tales; and others experimented with different forms and styles. It was tough selecting the winners and many of the entrants have bright futures.

She also commented on the importance of prizes like this:

It’s tough being a novelist, let alone an emerging one. There are the occasional unicorn stories: novel selected for Oprah’s book club gets adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster and sets author up for life. But these stories are rare. The reality of life as a writer, even more so a new one, is writing around day jobs, trying to flog your manuscript, being at the mercy of publishers, and then releasing your novel and watching this thing that has consumed you disappear into the depths without leaving a ripple.

This is why, she says, this award was created all those years ago.

The winners, briefly

You can find interviews with the three authors in the Robert Moran article linked above.

Diana Reid (26)

According to Kembrey, Love and virtue is “a piercing examination of university campus culture” or, as Brona puts it, “a campus novel about sex, power and consent”. Very today themes, eh? This novel has been making quite a splash amongst bloggers and readers, including Daughter Gums to whom I gave it for Christmas.

Brona said that “It’s an easy, quick read, but layered with oodles of moral grey areas and nuanced, contemporary issues”. She appreciated the way the novel deals with the complexity of consent, and said that Reid “does not shy away from contradictory behaviours or the realities of modern life as seen through the eyes of young adults”, although she did feel it was more a novel for the age-group it’s about than for older readers. Reid wrote this when she was 24, just after she left university.

Ella Baxter (36)

Of New animal, Kembrey says its “caustic tone … will crack you up”. Kim would agree. She loved this book, describing it as “a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally”. Literally, because the protagonist works in a funeral parlour. Kim suggests that the novel is part of the new genre of “Millennial angst” but, she says, it’s not “as navel-gazing as most of those” and is “highly original”. I am tempted.

Michael Burrows (33)

Kembrey describes metafictional Where the line breaks as “a playful take on academia and history”. Lisa found it an absorbing, unconventional novel that “interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend”.  It has, apparently, three narrative threads, which include one focusing on PhD student Matt, and another on his WW1 hero, Alan Lewis. The playful take on academia comes partly through the footnotes which, I’m told, readers should not ignore. It sounds like my sort of book.

These three books appeal to me, as being meaty but not overly earnest. I can’t help noticing, though, that it doesn’t look like a particularly diverse list.

Have you read any of these books?

Six degrees of separation, FROM True history of the Kelly Gang TO …

Winter is icumen in! Can I say that? For many of you, it’s not that cold here in Australia, but in Australia, my city of Canberra is the coldest capital city in the country. It’s the only thing I don’t like about living here. But, we will survive. Meanwhile, we have things like blogs and memes to entertain us. So, let’s get onto this month’s Six Degrees. As always, if you don’t know how this meme works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book, and for April it’s a novel I’ve read, but not since blogging, Peter Carey’s award-winning True history of the Kelly Gang in which Carey tackles on of Australia’s big (bushranger) myths.

Courtney Collins, The burial

There are so many angles to take from here. One could be its unique syntax (and go to Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl woman other). Another I considered was titles that people aways get wrong. There is no “The” at the beginning of Carey’s title, but that led me down a path I didn’t have time to fully investigate. So, I decided to go with content, and choose Courtney Collins’ The burial (my review), because it is also historical fiction about a bushranger, albeit a women, Jessie Hickman, whom most of us had never heard of.

Arielle Van Luyn, Treading air

Now Courtney Collins made quite a splash with this novel in 2012, but we’ve not really heard from her since. Another novelist we’ve not heard from again (yet) – though her novel didn’t make quite the same splash – is Ariella Van Luyn, and her 2016 historical fiction, Treading air (my review), which also focuses on a real, albeit small-time, historical character.

Book cover

Next, I’m staying with historical fiction – and writers we’ve not heard much from – but the link I’m choosing is the Brisbane 1940s setting (though only part of Treading air is set in Brisbane). The book is Melanie Myers’ Meet me at Lennon’s (my review). Both books mean something to me. Van Luyn’s book is partly set in Townsville where my Mum was born. And, my Mum became a teenager in 1940s Brisbane and experienced the wartime Brisbane that Myers writes about. She also knew Lennon’s.

Book cover

But now, we’ve spent too long in Australia. I was going to say, in historical Australia, but I’m sticking with historical fiction and linking to another another World War 2-set novel, Emuna Elon’s House on endless waters (my review). Both this novel and Myers’ alternates between the present and a past mystery, but Elon’s also moves between the Netherlands and Israel.

Sawako Ariyoshi, The doctor's wife

We are staying with historical fiction – who knew I’d read so much of it – but I’m linking this time on the idea of translation. Elon’s novel was translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel. Sawako Ariyoshi’s The doctor’s wife (my review), which tells of the Japanese doctor who developed anaesthetics for surgery, was also translated (from the Japanese) by two translators, Wakako Hironaka and Ann Silla Kostant.

Haruki Murakami, Blind willow, sleeping woman

My final link is a bit of a cheat, because it too was translated from Japanese by two translators, Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin. Its Haruki Murakami’s Blind willow, sleeping woman (my review). I say it’s a bit of a cheat, because this is a collection of short stories so it’s perhaps a little more understandable that there might be more than one translator. However, if you don’t like that, let’s just say the link is another Japanese authored work. Take your pick.

And thus, like last month, I am back to more women writers in my link, with five this month. We have, however, travelled a little, from Australia to Japan, via The Netherlands and the Middle East. We have spent quite a bit of time in the early to mid twentieth century, except that with Ariyoshi we did go back to the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. I can’t think of any real link between the starting and ending books except – and maybe this is a good one – both Carey and Murakami were born in the 1940s, and both have had significant writing careers.

Now, the usual: Have you read True history of the Kelly Gang? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Nigel Featherstone on Christos Tsiolkas’ fearlessness

This week, Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing, was published, and I plan to attend the launch later this month. In the meantime, it seemed apposite to discuss his essay on Christos Tsiolkas in Reading like an Australian writer. Those of you who have read Nigel’s blog will know that he’s a Tsiolkas fan, so it’s not surprising that he was commissioned to write on him for this anthology. As it happens, I’m a Tsiolkas fan too, so this was one of the essays I was keen to read.

Fearlessness

This essay, though, is a little different to the previous essays I’ve discussed from this anthology, because it’s more about Tsiolkas’ oeuvre than one work.

Early on, Featherstone references Orwell’s essay, “Why I write”, noting that “political purpose” is one of those reasons. Tsiolkas is “one of Australia’s most politically attuned writers of his generation”. It’s relevant to explain here, as Featherstone does, that Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants, is gay, and identifies as a socialist and atheist. Given this (and, I would add, given the grittiness of many of his novels), it is “truly remarkable”, says Featherstone, that in our contemporary conservative Australia, Tsiolkas has had significant critical and commercial success.

Featherstone starts at the beginning – with Tsiolkas’ first novel, Loaded (adapted to film as Head on), which was published in 1995. Now, Featherstone is a writer too, of course, so he is particularly interested in exploring Tsiolkas’ craft. To do this, he shares specific excerpts/quotes* which reveal, among other things, why he titled his essay “Fearless”. Tsiolkas is audacious, from the opening paragraph of his first novel.

I mentioned above that Tsiolkas is “gritty”, which is my description of in-your-face writing like Tsiolkas’. Featherstone doesn’t use that word, but it’s what he means when he says that the writing “could come across as crass”. It doesn’t, though, he says, because it feels confident, which is why readers stay with it.

How he makes it feel confident is the thing, isn’t it? It may partly be in the way, as Featherstone puts it, Tsiolkas “pushes his prose towards poetry”, by which he means “the language is doing more than one thing at once. Featherstone also refers to the epigraph for Loaded. I love that, because I do think the epigraph can contain serious clues to a work. Epigraphs are not there for fun (or, if they are, the fun is also part of the meaning!)

Featherstone looks at what emerging writers can learn about writing with audacity (or fearlessness): it requires, he says, writing not just from the brain, but the body (chest, gut and crotch) and it requires caring deeply about the characters (no matter how flawed).

Featherstone also identifies Tsiolkas’ main concerns – “class in Australia, and the power and privilege of whiteness” – and he describes one of Tsiolkas’ “many strengths” as “his ability to explore political concerns through the depiction of the everyday”. This is certainly how I think of The slap and Barracuda . I wrote in my Barracuda post:

“This dissection of worlds, of  “class”, and of anglo-Australia versus immigrant Australia, is an ongoing concern for Tsiolkas. We came across it in his previous novel, The slap (my review), and we see it again here. Tsiolkas is not the only writer exploring this territory, but he’s one of the gutsiest because he’s not afraid to present the ugliness nor does he ignore the greys, the murky areas where “truth” is sometimes hard to find (though he doesn’t use the word “truth”).”

So, I liked that when talking about the short story “Tourists” from Merciless Gods, Featherstone says:

In this relatively simple tale the author reveals the racism that exists at the core of Australia’s masculinity and the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular.

In fact, I don’t just like this, I love it, because, for me, “the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular” is the main idea behind The slap. As Featherstone writes, “Tsiolkas is a social critic as much as he is a writer of literary fiction”. True, and it’s not particularly surprising. Some of my favourite literary fiction also encompasses social criticism. (Think Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things or Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip.)

The last work Featherstone looks at is Damascus (my review) and again he starts with the first paragraph, and teases out its power – the precision which which Tsiolkas can convey multiple layers of fear. He see fear as being one of the novel’s themes. The opening of this novel is truly terrifying, but another point Featherstone makes is Tsiolkas’ ability to “contrast the heavy with the light”. (Some readers, I know, struggle to find the light in Tsiolkas’ work, but I’m with Featherstone. It is there.)

Nigel Featherstone perfectly meets the brief of this anthology, which was to share how a writer reads. His essay contains very specific lessons that can be taken from Tsiolkas’ writing. However, in doing this, he also conveys the two prongs that make writing sing for me – fearlessness in style, structure and/or content, and generosity in attitude to tough characters and/or ideas. Tsiolkas epitomises both, and so, I think, does Featherstone.

* Do read the essay to see all the great excerpts.

Nigel Featherstone
“Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 125-136
ISBN: 9781742236704

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (2)

Last Monday I introduced the Australian Pocket Library (APL) which was a series of cheap paperbacks produced under the auspices of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF). Its initial purpose was to provide Australian reading matter to Australian POWs but, in its final form, was intended by the CLF to play a bigger role in promoting Australian literature at home too. Planning started in 1943, with publication occurring between 1944 and 1947.

In last week’s post I shared part of an article on the APL by academic, Neil James, and some thoughts on the selection by a contemporary critic and literary editor, RG Howarth who discussed the library, taking as his starting point that the library was intended to contain “standard” works. I will return to James, but first, more from contemporary commentators on Trove.

Standard?

I’ve chosen to focus on P.I. O’Leary (1888-1944), a journalist and poet who, like Howarth, was committed to promoting Australian literature, and who also took up the “standard” question. P.I.O’L (his by-line) wrote an extended article about the APL in the Books and Bookman magazine of the Advocate in 1944 (17 May). He commences his article, titled “We parade our masterpieces”, with:

What is a “standard” Australian book? How many of the books selected by the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund to form the nucleus of an “Australian Pocket Library” are “standard” works? These and other points in this commendable enterprise are here considered.

Overall, he commends the endeavour, because too many works have been out of print. He sees the Library as representing “a belated national appreciation” of Australian writers. He is “not heady with any enthusiasm for an attempted, forced growth of literature in Australia”, he says, arguing that you cannot force produce great novels or great poems. However, “Australia has, and has had, many subsidised industries—and there is no reason why the literary industry … should not have some assistance in the shape of grants to writers”. Then he gets onto the issue of “standard”.

He doesn’t really know ‘what entitles an Australian literary work to be styled a “standard” book’, he says, but supposes that

Robbery under arms has passed the test, together with, say, We of the Never-Never, On the track and Over the sliprail, Such is life, and a handful of other books.

However, the selection of some of the other books as “standard” works, “sets up an energetic speculation as to what special passport a book must carry in order to cross the frontier”. (Love the language.) He knows how difficult it is to make such choices, but writes that “some books selected do not appear to me to even be borderline cases”. Then, like Howarth, he puts forward his views on some of them.

He agrees with Howarth’s questioning the inclusion of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus, asking “what standard does it set up?” He thinks it the weakest of her novels, and “not comparable to Working bullocks or Coonardoo as a skilful work of fiction”. (Howarth named Working bullocks and Pioneers as better.) Like Howarth, he also questions the inclusion of Brian Penton’s Landtakers (read it anyone?) as “standard”, describing it as “largely sound and fury”. 

P.I.O’L also discusses representativeness, asking whether the selection is “representative” of “our writers’ books”. He feels that “as a foundation selection it is … satisfactory”, arguing that “a start had to be made somewhere”. Howarth, he says, agrees, given the limitations the CLF was operating under. Moreover:

Allied Servicemen are not literary cognoscenti balancing niceties of literary values, characterisation, form. If you were to ask most of them in what order they would place the writers of their own polyglot land they would probably very honestly say that they were no judges—and had not read many books, American or otherwise, anyhow.

Then he tackles Howarth’s discussion of the gaps, the works that should have been included. Again, I loved his language:

And when you start offering a register of names of writers whose works should be included in the “Australian Pocket Library” you push your keel into a wide sea—one, sometimes of trouble. 

He disagrees with some of Howarth’s suggestions – we are mostly talking poets here – and makes his own, but you can read it yourself if you are interested. Overall, he agrees with Howarth’s support of the project, quoting Howarth’s statement that the CLF should be “congratulated on the vision and courage of the enterprise”.

Legacy?

Now, I’ll return to Neil James’ 2000 article because he has some interesting points to make about the selection, and the APL’s legacy.

Looking at the selection nearly sixty years later, James writes

The titles selected reflect clearly the nationalist agenda in Australian literature … `Representative Australia’ in 1943 derived from the Bush, and the democratic values which seeped into Australian culture from its historical struggle against the natural elements. Most of the titles were originally published in the 1920s and 1930s, but some went back to an earlier age to engage with the grand narratives of exploration, adventure and colonisation. The list sets up literary values, social values, and national-historical values as interchangeable. This is hardly surprising given the primary influence of Palmer, whose published and broadcast criticism sought to define an Australian literature in national terms … It was a nationalist canon in paperback set for a wide distribution, and it sat comfortably with the government’s war-time agenda.

James shares the many practical challenges the CLF confronted – acquiring rights to the books, cover design, production problems, and agreeing on price with the publishers. And he describes the project’s demise, ending up publishing 26 of the finally planned 39. It’s all interesting and you can read it in the article. I want to end with his discussion of the legacy because this is most relevant to us now.

First, he says, it “represents the first officially selected and endorsed canon of Australian literature” and one recognised at the highest level of government. Furthermore, the APL played a significant, though not recognised, role in the “unprecedented transformation in the publication and recognition of Australian literature” in the 1940s and 50s. However, the importance of the Library has been lost partly, he argues, because the “nationalist outlook” of the selection was rejected a decade or so later by the universities, resulting in the writers being expunged from the canon.

The failure of the venture also had an impact on publishing. The CLF withdrew from “acting as de facto publisher” and became more reactive than proactive in publishing ventures. Had it succeeded, and had the CLF ‘continued to foster a nationalist canon of writing, there would have been, at the very least, more than “one set of values [to rule] the entire roost”, as Max Harris put it’.

More significant, though, I think, is James’ argument that the failure of the APL “effectively delayed the literary paperback in Australia by two decades”. He believes that the 1930s Penguin revolution in Britain “could have been reproduced here in the 1940s” with the APL its “de facto trial run”. Unfortunately, its unappealing format, which was “far too compromised by wartime conditions … killed off any good will towards paperbacks amongst booksellers and publishers”.

How fascinating. It was not until the 1960s, James says, that the literary paperback returned to the Australian scene, and not on a major scale until the 1970s. This fundamentally influenced “the character and the accessibility of Australian writing”, by which he means that because mass cheap paperbacks were not available as they were in Britain and France, “the readership of Australian literature was to remain the middle classes rather than `the multitude’.”

James concludes – in 2000 – that the Australian Pocket Library is worthy of “further scrutiny as part of the assessment of individual authors, and in understanding the evolution of Australian cultural values”. He also suggests that, “given the current paucity of an available Australian backlist” it may contain lessons for a classics publishing program! Well, it may not be the same model, but the Text Classics imprint, which began in 2012, has picked up the baton of cheap affordable classics and run with it. As far as I can tell, ten years later, it is going strong, with a catalogue that is diverse but, like the APL, constrained at times by access to rights.

Sources

Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (#BookReview)

Mark McKenna’s engrossing history, Return to Uluru, takes as its starting point the arrival in Central Australia, in 1931, of 29-year-old police officer, Bill McKinnon. Of course, Uluru’s true history reaches back into the almost-incomprehensible mists of geological time, and its human history back to the arrival of Indigenous Australians tens of thousands of years ago. But, a historian has to start somewhere, and McKenna’s choice of McKinnon’s arrival speaks to the particular story he wants to tell.

Uluru

Before I get to that, though, I would like to share my own little story. Mr Gums and I have visited Uluru three times (so far), in 2000, 2009, and 2015. Each visit, we walked around “the rock” rather than climb it, because that was the expressed preference of its traditional owners, the Anangu. In 2019, the climb was finally closed. Interestingly, each of our circumnavigations was a bit longer than the previous one, stretching from around 9kms the first time to around 11kms the last. This is because the Anangu have gradually moved the route away from particularly sacred sections of Uluru. It’s been a very slow process for the Anangu to claw back ownership of their own country and it is to this, really, that McKenna’s book ultimately speaks.

But, that’s not immediately obvious at the book’s opening. It’s divided onto four parts, with Part one, “Looking for the centre”, introducing the reader to Central Australia. It teases out the role of “the centre” in Australian life and culture, pitting its Indigenous history and significance against the early settlers/explorers’ “awe, terror and incomprehension” at what they found. McKenna writes that for the settler “to find the centre was to confront the metaphysical dilemma of being a white man in an Aboriginal country”:

What they saw as empty was layered with story … Where European explorers saw arid desolation, Aboriginal people knew a larder teeming with sources of animal protein and fat and a wide variety of plants that provided nutrition, medicine, tools and shelter.

McKenna then shifts from traditional history-writing to the personal, placing himself in the story by sharing his own experience of the Centre but continuing to reveal its history as well. This approach enables McKenna to reflect philosophically, as well as historically, on what he was doing. He conveys how confronting, and how paradoxical, the Centre can be. “It laid everything bare at the same time as it pushed all language and emotion within.” But, most significantly, he writes how actually visiting the centre “unsettled the history” that he had intended to write. So, let’s get to that.

Part two, “Lawman”, returns to a more traditional history – or biography, now – style. It tells the story of Bill McKinnon, who he was, how he ended up in the Centre, and what he did there. The focus, though, is a particular expedition in 1934 whose goal was to capture some Aboriginal men accused of killing, under Tribal Law, another Aboriginal man. One of these men, Yokununna, was shot and killed by McKinnon. This incident was to be just part of McKenna’s history but, as he wrote in Part one, it became the centre of the book when he recognised that the “biography of one moment in one man’s life encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past”.

“Lawman” is the longest part of the book. Bill McKinnon was a complex man. He unquestioningly bought into the settler project and saw “discipline” as the key to maintaining control, a discipline that, of course, frequently involved brutality. But he wanted “to be both the centre’s law enforcer and its storyteller”. He was keenly interested in the centre’s history, and, writes McKinnon, had “moments of contemplation … when he became faintly aware of the depth and complexity of Aboriginal culture”. He was also a meticulous recordkeeper, and retained his records because “his desire to be present in history was insatiable”.

Part three, “Uluru”, the second longest part, returns, obviously, to focus on Uluru. Here, McKinnon comes back in the frame. He delves more deeply into the settler-era history of Uluru, interweaving it with Indigenous culture and stories. He traces the dispossession of the Anangu, as the settlers moved in, and their gradual return in the second half of the twentieth century. He identifies McKinnon’s shooting of Yokununna at the rock’s Mutitjulu Waterhole as “the foundational moment in a long history of injustice”. It is here that McKenna shows his historian’s eye for the symbolic that makes a point:

Uluru’s creation story and the frontier murder which defined the killing times for the Anangu more than any other event in the twentieth century took place at the same sacred site.

It is also in this part that we see the historian’s drive for the clue that nails the truth, and the challenge that can result. It occurs when he visits McKinnon’s daughter, and is given access to McKinnon’s archives. Remember what a recordkeeper he was? What McKenna finds transforms the story he was telling.

In the final part, “Desert Oak No. 1”, McKenna remains in the frame, as he shares more of his research journey. The focus is Yokununna (“Desert Oak No. 1”) and we start at the South Australian Museum where Yokununna’s skull had been identified. Till this point, I felt McKenna had managed well the tricky business of being a non-Indigenous historian writing an Indigenous-focused history, but I did feel he made a false step when describing the centre as a “region where darkness stalked the landscape”. The word “darkness” seems unfortunate in the context. This, however, is a small miss in a work that recovers a significant story and carefully places it within the context of the return of Uluru to the Anangu in 1983, and the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Returnng Uluru to its rightful owners is a win for all Australians because Uluru is the spiritual heart of our nation, and it’s critical that our heart be in the right place – if you know what I mean!

Return to Uluru is a beautiful book in every way. It is gorgeously produced. Those of us in my reading group who read the physical version loved the paper and the extensive images. We felt sorry for the Kindle readers who missed this experience. But more importantly, Return to Uluru is sophisticated, conceptually, in the structured way McKenna elicits the symbolism from the facts to make very clear not only what happened but why it matters.

For an historian’s perspective, check out Janine’s review.

Mark McKenna
Return to Uluru
Carlton, Vic: Black Inc, 2019
256pp.
ISBN: 9781760642556