Mary Grant Bruce, The early tales (Review)

Mary Grant Bruce, Early Tales

Courtesy: Juvenilia Press

Around a month ago I wrote a Monday Musings post on the Juvenilia Press, and said that I would read and post on some of its publications. Well, here is the first of those posts.

While I discovered the press through its Jane Austen juvenilia, the books I ordered were those for juvenilia by Australian authors. My first reading choice was the Mary Grant Bruce volume. You probably haven’t heard of Bruce if you are not Australian, and perhaps not, even if you are. She is best known as the author of the children’s series, the Billabong books (1910-1942). They were published way before my time, but my mum knew them and gave them to me to read when I was a child. I loved them. They probably contributed to my early love of and identification with the Aussie outback.

However, the Juvenilia Press’s book, The early tales, contains two stories that Bruce wrote for an adult audience when she was working for The Leader newspaper in MelbourneThese stories push the envelope in terms of the Press’s criteria for juvenilia, which is that the works should be written when the author is 20 years old or younger. Bruce was born in 1878, and the two stories in this volume were published in 1898 (“Her little lad”) and 1900 (“Dono’s Christmas”). I’m glad though that they stretched their definition. Rules, after all, don’t always need to be slavishly followed.

I will get to the stories soon, but first, I want to comment on the quality of the publication. It might be juvenilia but it is thoroughly scholarly, as the Press aims. It contains an in-depth introduction, which, in the way of academic introductions, contains spoilers, so beware that if you don’t like spoilers. It also explains the source of the text, and the text itself is comprehensively annotated with notes explaining editorial decisions, linguistic features, and points of literary interest. There four appendices on a range of topics, including how Bruce represented the Australian voice/speech patterns in her writing. And, of course, there is a list of references.

Now to the stories. They are an interesting pair. Both were published as Christmas Supplements of The Leader. And both are stories about families – the first a poor selector family and the second a more comfortable squatter family. However, despite their difference in means, both families experience the challenge of living isolated lives in the harsh Australian bush. Money, it seems, may provide a more comfortable house, an extra room or two, but it can’t protect you from the dangers of a life lived in isolation.

The stories belong to the tradition that includes Henry Lawson’s The drover’s wife (1892) and Barbara Baynton’s The chosen vessel (1896). In both, the father must leave his family for a day or so (wife and toddler son in “Her little lad” and wife and two young sons under ten in “Dono’s Christmas”) – and, of course, a crisis ensues that the family must cope with alone. I don’t want to give the stories away but both stories involve snakes (as does also The drover’s wife). One also involves dangerous illness, and a child and a horse lost in a storm. In both stories, too, characters find themselves short of water. These are all common motifs in Australian bush literature. The introduction explores them, and refers us, for example, to other works, like Banjo Paterson’s poem “Lost” and Frederick McCubbin’s painting of the same title. (Longstanding readers here might remember my post on the lost child motif. I wasn’t making it up!)

What, though, is it all about? With so many stories – of which the four mentioned above are just a few – dealing with such similar subject matter, it’s clear that what is being portrayed is the Australian character, and what is being developed is a sense of national identity. The introduction defines this character as comprising “independence, resourcefulness and resilience”. The fiction, poetry and art of the period portray the hardship and the failures. Citing another McCubbin painting, the introduction suggests that these works don’t idealise, but they nonetheless convey a sense of nobility. (This is a generalisation, of course. Nobility can be hard to find in many of Baynton’s stories!)

I won’t write much more here because I’d love you to read them yourselves*: they are well-told stories that have an emotional punch alongside their historical interest. Rather, I’ll leave you with a couple of short excerpts describing the bush, starting with the opening of “Her little lad”:

Across the clearing fell the first rays of the sun, each laying a path of living gold upon the long, withered grass. They lit up the giant gums, and lingered lovingly in the tangle of clematis and convolvulus which wreathed their great branches; and as they fell the night wanderers of the bush – the awkward wallaby, the giddy possum, and the shy bandicoot – started in affright and fled every one to his hole. Then the sunbeams penetrated still further, through the wild scrub tangle, down to the quiet creek, and there they lay upon its surface, forming, with the reflection of the over-hanging trees, a delicate mosaic of shadow and gold. They opened the buds of the wild orchids, the swaying bluebells, and kindled into flame the orange clusters of the grevillea; and, on the hut in the midst of the clearing, they spread curiously, as who should ask by what right man, with this ungainly excrescence, so marred the face of nature.

The introduction doesn’t discuss whether Bruce also had an environmental agenda, but she clearly recognised “man’s” impact. But for now, here is the sun, in “Dono’s Christmas”:

The sun was already up, and seemed to be climbing quickly into the cloudless sky; it was going to be a real scorcher, Dono thought, and he resolved to push on as fast as he could before the great heat commenced, when he hoped to be in the shade of the bush. So he cantered sharply over the hard-baked plain, where the sun had split big gaping fissures in the dry earth …

Reading these stories reminded me why I so enjoyed her children’s novels way back when. What a thrill to have discovered this little book at the Juvenilia Press.

awwchallenge2014Mary Grant Bruce
(ed. Pamela Nutt with students from the Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney)
The early tales
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780733429415

* The book only costs $12 plus postage, from the Press.

18 thoughts on “Mary Grant Bruce, The early tales (Review)

  1. I’m not sure if I have asked you this before, Sue, (I usually pester everyone about it) but what is your opinion of these introductions that contain spoilers (or introductions at all, for that matter)? Personally, I never read them until after I have read the stories but schools and universities insist on diving into the fiction from the platform of the introduction and I always find this unnerving. It seems to me that too many students are told how to read and interpret fictional works, to the detriment of fresh insights. I so wish that the comments, explanatory notes and views on interpretation could be published at the end.

    • Good question karenlee – and overall I’m with you. I’m not so concerned with the specific issue of spoilers in academic oriented texts but your point regarding fresh insights is a valid one. I think it depends here on the introduction. Most of the value of this particular introduction was in situating the works in a particular place and time which many students may not know. It could prevent those reactions based on a misunderstanding of the situation. For example, these days students could recoil from the stereotypical for the time exhortation of a two-your-old boy “to look after your mother”. Or, they might see the “lost child” plot a bit melodramatic without understanding its place in 19th-early 20th century Aussie culture. So often people discount books because the values they seem to convey are antagonistic to ours, but older books do need to be read in the context of their times.(Take Jane Austen for example – “oh, it’s just about the marriage market among people with money”. Wrong.)

      So, I usually enjoy and appreciate a well-written introduction but I almost never read them first – not so much for the spoiler issue but because I do want to read the work unencumbered. I have often said exactly what you’ve said – why not make them an Afterword. However, because of the sort of publication this is, I did read it through in order to gain a sense of what they are trying to do.

      You do ask good questions!

  2. It is interesting that so much of Australia’s fiction (juvenile) is about the outback and heat of Australia. Do you come across many books about places like Tasmania where it is the cold and wind that creates the danger in a country especially being lost in the bush here? I have not read a lot of juvenile Australia as I spent the first 40 years in the USA and only the past couple of decades here. I am enjoying your focus on ANZ this month and as always really. You do the country proud in unearthing such a great aspect of it.

    • Now that’s a question Pam! I can’t recollect any children’s books that specifically deal with Tasmania. There are of course adult novels and films described as Tasmanian Gothic that deal I guess with the cold, dark forest. The Silver Brumby books are set in the mainland high country where it is exposed and can be cold and dangerous, but they are primarily about horses. I haven’t read them to can’t comment in any more detail than that.

      It would be great it someone replied here with some Tasmanian books for kids that saw the landscape’s challenges in a completely different way.

  3. Mary Grant Bruce does write about the bush but her bush is not the outback. She was born in Gippsland, Victoria, and the Billabong homestead of the novels was located in Northern Victoria. You don’t have to go very far outside Melbourne to be in the bush, even today. VIctorian summers are hot but winters can be cold. It is the dual harshness that made it so hard for settlers and squatters to scrape a living from the land.

    • Thanks Judith, you’re right of course, re the dual harshness of heat and cold – though it’s the heat that is probably more often emphasised in the literature? I’m trying to remember how Katharine Susannah Prichard described the landscape in her Gippsland-set novel The pioneers (1915). I certainly remember Eve Langley’s rather later book, The pea-pickers, referring to mist, fog and cold in Gippsland.

      As for the bush and the outback, yes, you’re right there too but in my childish mind to which I was referring they were one. In fact I was going to mention the point made in the textual annotations quoting a writer (Morris) in 1898, that “when the word [ie bush] was used in the towns, it means all the uninclosed and uncultivated country … when in the country, ‘the bush’ means more specifically the forest”. (In “Dono’s Christmas” the property is enclosed, btw!) I think there’s a whole issue here re usage and meaning that would be interesting to explore – it’s something that I’ve been pondering a lot in my thoughts about Aussie lit and culture. What do we all mean – literally and metaphorically – by these terms when we use them?

  4. Nan Chauncy wrote children’s books set in Tasmania. She won Children’s Book of the Year in the 50’s I think. I remember being given one of her books as a child. Might be worth following her up. I think she was born in the UK but lived in Tasmania.

    • Oh thanks Mary … Great to hear from you. You know, while I know of Nan Chauncy, and probably read her like you in my childhood – must have, given all the time I used to spend in the libraries – I don’t recollect ever having one of her books which is a shame.

  5. Pingback: May 2014 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge

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