Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s pioneer novelists
One of the reasons I started this Monday Musings series was to encourage me to read, think and/or learn about my country’s literature, but in doing so I mostly write about books and authors I know and have read. Occasionally though I explore authors and works that are not so familiar to me. Today’s post is one of these.
A few months ago I wrote posts on two books on Australian literature written by Colin Roderick in the late 1940s. As I researched these posts, I came across a reviewer who wondered how many Australians knew about “the first Australian-made novel”. The unidentified reviewer was writing in The West Australian in 1950. I suspect the same question could be asked now … and so today’s post will name some of our novelistic firsts (as best I’ve been able to identify them) in case there are others like me whose knowledge of our history is a little vague.
- First Australian-made novel: Quintus Servinton, by convict (forger) Henry Savery (1791-1842). It was published in Hobart in 1830. The West Australian reviewer writes that “apart from being the first novel written, printed and published in Australia, [it] has several other noteworthy features. It was the first novel to give a participator’s impressions of life on a prisoner’s transport”. In fact it is a fictionalisation of Savery’s life. (An etext is available from the University of Sydney’s SETIS project).
- First Australian-born novelist: John Lang (1816-64), who was apparently born at Parramatta. He went to Cambridge in 1838 where he become a barrister, and returned to Sydney in 1841, before leaving again a few years later to live in India and England. According to The Oxford companion to Australian literature, “the enigma surrounding the life and personality of John Lang has not, even a century later and in spite of considerable literary research, been completely solved”. It is, however, believed he wrote the fiction work, Legends of Australia, which was anonymously published in 1842. The Oxford companion suggests that authorship of this “would entitle Lang to the distinction of being the first Australian-born novelist”. There is a biography of Lang by Victor Crittenden. Its title says a lot: John Lang: Australia’s larrikin writer: barrister, novelist, journalist and gentleman. I was interested to read that he was also a contributor to Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words.
- First Australian-born woman novelist to publish a novel in Australia: Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872), who was the subject of a previous Monday Musings. Her novel Gertrude, the emigrant girl: A tale of colonial life was published in 1857. (An etext is available from the University of Sydney’s SETIS project.) I should say that The Oxford companion (mentioned above) is a little less categorical about her place in Australia’s literary history, stating instead that she is “one of the earliest Australian novelists and the first native-born woman to fictionalise Australian domestic, pastoral and bush life”. Did, I wonder, another Australian-born woman fictionalise something else before Atkinson’s work?
- First indigenous Australian writer to have a book published in Australia: David Unaipon (1872-1967), who was born at a mission in the Tailem Bend area of the Murray River. (His father was our first Aboriginal preacher.) Unaipon’s best-known work, Native Legends, was published in 1929. He wrote, apparently, in a classical style, much like Milton. I should say that Unaipon was not, technically, a novelist, but his pioneering role in Australian literature warrants his inclusion here, I think, particularly since the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writers is often awarded to a fiction writer.
I wonder if there are Australian (or other) readers of this blog who have read any of these authors or their works? And if you’re not Australian, what do you know about your country’s pioneer novelists?