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Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s pioneer novelists

September 10, 2012
David Unaipon

David Unaipon (1924) (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

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?

29 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2012 06:53

    The book I’m reading now, ‘The Princess of Cleves’, was written in 1678, a bit before Australia’s time. So Australia’s first novel was written by a convict. Funny how it got published.

    • September 11, 2012 08:09

      Just a bit before our time, Tony! I think there’s an interesting story to Savery. It’s worth looking at the intro on the SETIS site.

  2. September 11, 2012 07:10

    This is why I love your blog, Sue – who knew that our first novel was written by a forger?!

    • September 11, 2012 08:10

      Exactly, Lisa (re forger, I mean). I had read of this book a few times … But hadn’t really taken in before who Savery was. Looks like our first genre really was the convict novel!

  3. September 11, 2012 09:47

    I read Gertrude, the emigrant girl while exploring SETIS. The OC might be saying that there had been other non-native-born women writers who had fictionalised Australian domestic, pastoral and bush life. Or perhaps it is saying that the scope of native-born women writing was limited to these subjects.

    • September 11, 2012 10:30

      Did you like Gertrude, Judith? I haven’t read it but my readings about her suggests that her fiction (as against her nature writings) tended to be religiously moralistic (if that makes sense). As for the OC, it would have been good if they’d been clearer, because it could mean all those things that you and I have suggested. They weren’t so circumspect in describing the male writers!

  4. September 11, 2012 11:31

    Thanks for the musings! Fascinating to hear about these firsts. I’m afraid I hadn’t heard of any of them before, so it was great to get a little introduction. I downloaded the pdfs of the Savery and Atkinson novels, and will read them when I get a chance (offline!). I saw on Wikipedia that David Unaipon is on your $50 note – it’s good to see a writer honoured in that way (we don’t have any writers on British notes).

    • September 11, 2012 14:46

      Thanks Andrew … That’s interesting re the money. We currently have three writers on our notes: Banjo Paterson and Dame Mary Gilmore are on our $10 note.

      Good for you downloading those works. The Savery is very long I think! Atkinson was a fascinating woman …I wrote a specific Monday Musings on her if you are interested to find out more about her.

      • September 16, 2012 10:49

        That’s great! We should have more writers on our notes. We used to have Dickens on the £10 note, and further back there was Shakespeare on the £20, but they’ve both been cut now for some reason. Yes I saw your other Monday Musing as well – very interesting! Haven’t got around to reading the ones I downloaded yet, but they’re on my Kindle now so should get to them soon!

  5. September 11, 2012 16:58

    I was once given a book to read by an on old British engineer who had worked on the construction of the Volta River dam in Ghana, where he had stayed to live. The book was written by an Australian woman who came to Ghana and travelled by ‘palanquin’ across the coast, describing many villages which were still much the same, and many tropical forests which were not. It was a fascinating read, but I had to give the book back and must do some research to provide you with an author and title.

    • September 11, 2012 19:19

      Oh Catherine, I’d love to know what it was. I have an eBook version of Englishwoman Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten tracks in Japan, late 19th century, that I dip into every now and then. I’ve also read Flora Tristan’s Peregrinations of a Pariah about her time in South America. She’s Spanish as I recollect.

      • September 11, 2012 22:03

        I’m not having much luck online and I know that the old English engineer has passed on. Will be a difficult search! I remember she made her trip in 1910, the year my grandmother was born, and came from Victoria. Will keep you posted!

  6. September 11, 2012 21:46

    Fascinating post! Have you read Barron Field’s ‘The Kangaroo’ ( It’s a pretty awful poem, but was published in the first collection of poetry produced in the colony. Here’s Field’s ADNB entry: (obviously he wasn’t ‘Australian’, strictly speaking!)

    • September 11, 2012 22:43

      Oh thanks for this skiourophile. I hadn’t heard of him … did wonder about tackling poetry. I love adb online, but that is a particularly fulsome entry. I love this description of his poetry: “Several critics have dismissed them as doggerel, others have enlarged on their merits. Lamb claimed that Wordsworth and Coleridge were ‘hugely taken’ with ‘Kangaroo’.” I read the poem … it’s pretty amazing. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at things like “centaur unfabulous”. Then again it’s hard to get one’s head around how strange Australian nature must have seen to those early white settlers!

      Anyhow, thanks for introducing me to Mr Field!

      • September 17, 2012 01:18

        Australian nature was so strange that he (this is the interesting part of his poetry I think) couldn’t find a description that didn’t veer away from it, and obscure it; the poetic language he had learnt wanted him to add fairies (in “Botany Bay Flowers”) and known mythologies (Pegasus, sphynx and mermaid in “Kangaroo”) and otherwise disguise what was there. Geoffrey Hill says that the schemery of poetry can lead the poet into confessions; Barron Field is confessing that he can’t see straight.

        “Where Hist’ry is not, Prophecy is guess” (from “On Reading the Controversy …”) is not a bad insight.

        • September 17, 2012 23:21

          Oh DKS, you’ve said it beautifully – he’s confessing “he can’t see straight” just like those early English artists and the way they saw – or didn’t see – the Australian landscape.

  7. September 12, 2012 01:27

    There is something amusing and appropriate that your first novel was written by a convict. I had no idea who is credited with the first American novel. It appears to be the Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown in 1789. I have never heard of either. Neither book nor author made much of a splash apparently.

    • September 12, 2012 08:40

      Haha, Stefanie, it does seem appropriate … And right, perhaps. Never heard of your Brown, either.

  8. September 12, 2012 12:27

    Great post, Sue. I downloaded the Savery novel and read the introduction. As others have noted above, I think it’s apt that the convict novel was our first. And by a forger to boot – fantastic! John

    • September 12, 2012 14:36

      Oh great, thanks John … I don’t think Sydney University gets enough credit for its SETIS db. The intro is interesting isn’t it?

      • September 12, 2012 19:45

        Very. Pity his poor wife who came out from England only to find him still playing his old games. Seems she was wise to get back on a ship and head for home!

        • September 12, 2012 20:50

          Absolutely! Not all women were so wise methinks … but then not all had the opportunity.

  9. September 14, 2012 14:47

    These names are all new to me. I’ll have to think about it, but it seems like maybe Miles Franklin is the earliest Australian writer I’ve read.

    • September 14, 2012 23:13

      Hi Fay … it wouldn’t be surprising that you hadn’t heard these names, nor that Miles Franklin is probably the earliest you’ve read. She would be by far the best known out of Australia of our early Aussies. Another could be Marcus Clarke and his For the term of his natural life.

  10. Ian permalink
    September 16, 2012 12:09

    Re: Quintus Servinton – the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery has the press on which it as printed in its collection and will be putting it on display in an exhibition which opens in February. I have recently read A Forger’s Tale, by Rod Howard, an excellent biography of Henry Savery.

    • September 16, 2012 21:33

      Oh thanks Ian … what a precious item to have. I saw that that biography existed … and am not surprised that you’ve read it. Have you read the novel?

  11. September 18, 2012 07:07

    That’s it — those paintings of bushland looking like mowed lawns and parks. And then the gradual development of sight, through Impressionism (which was good for Australian landscape art; that focus on light, unique light) and into the scribbly dash of Olsen, which imitates the physical form of the flora so well, the splinters of things, and the curves and scraps, very different to the North American pine forest (a few days ago I was standing in an American pine forest) which has those solid chunks of bark, then thin direct needles over meagre undergrowth. Bushland is the absence of neatness.

    • September 18, 2012 08:49

      Bushland is the absence of neatness. Exactly. And the light … A critical thing the had to learn to see, then depict.

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