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Monday musings on Australian literature: The novel in Australia, 1927-style, Part 1

July 21, 2014

Nettie Palmer was one of Australia’s leading literary critics, not to mention essayist and poet, through the 1920s to 1940s. I have mentioned her several times in this blog, including in my post on Australia’s literary couples. She also mentored younger women writers such as Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. However, what I want to discuss today – and next week – is the article she wrote in 1927, about “The novel in Australia”. It was published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927.

She starts by commenting that the number of “good novels written in Australia has been small”. There are reasons for this she says but discussing those is not her aim in this article. Rather, her plan is to reduce her list of “good” Australian novels to just the best. The result “is a nugget of surprisingly high quality”. And now my plan is to share with you those nuggets that she defined for her readers back in 1927. It makes for interesting and sometimes surprising reading. Here goes, using the headings she did.

Some early nuggets

She names two.

Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood) (Public Domain from the National library of Australia, via Wikipedia)

Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood), by Henry Walter Barnett (Public Domain from the NLA, via Wikipedia)

Henry Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), which is a book I have in my TBR and would love to find time to read. I’m not sure I had heard of it until a few years ago but it keeps popping up in unusual places which has piqued my interest. It has, Palmer says, without elaborating, “a very colonial outlook”.

Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms (1882), which I defy any self-respecting Australian to say they haven’t heard of (though I suspect many of us haven’t read it!). She does elaborate over one and a half paragraphs on this one! She writes that, despite its “truculent title”:

It is one of those rare books that can please on several different counts – as an adventure story, as a sketched historical background, and as a sons psychological novel.

I love that she praises it for its “fine and unexaggerated vernacular, without dropped aitches or other irritating apostrophes to spot its pages”. She sees it as a model for good novels in Australia.

Some successors

Palmer then says that it was a “long time before the simplicity and naturalness of that book was again reached”, but eventually some more nuggets appear.

Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life (1870), but she does not elaborate.

Mrs Campbell Praed’s (or Rosa Praed as I know and have read her) “easy flowing books now almost forgotten” (1890s). Books being forgotten is, clearly, an age-old problem! Anyhow, she names one, which I haven’t read, Longleat of Koralbyn.Wikipedia tells us that it  was first published in 1881 under the exciting (my description!) title of Policy and passion! No wonder it was republished under a different title. I have read Praed’s rather raw The bonds of wedlock (1887). I laughed at Palmer’s comment that Praed’s books are set in Queensland but “the writer shirks the whole problem of making her Queensland live in the readers’ sight”. That could mean a number of things – but the important thing, I suppose, is that she likes Praed’s writing!

Then, though her subject is novels, she mentions short story writers, naming Louis Becke, Price Warung (whose stories I’ve reviewed), Henry Lawson and Albert Dorrington.

She concludes this section with the following:

For many years it has seemed that only short stories would ever be published again (and those only in fugitive form): any novels that appear have had every sort of circumstantial opposition to overcome.

Fugitive form? Does she mean in magazines (like The Bulletin, established in 1880) and newspapers rather than something more permanent like books? I suspect her comment about the difficulty of getting novels published is not totally incomprehensible to writers today?

Novels after 1900

Her choice of novels from the early twentieth century includes a couple of authors I don’t know. Regular readers here will recognise which ones they are by not having seen them mentioned here!

First up, of course, is Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career which she describes as a “bit of ironic auto-biography, set in an up-country township of the drearier sort”. Palmer, from the point of view of 1927, hopes that “some day she [Franklin] will be able to repeat her early success, looking through the opposite end of life’s telescope”. Franklin did achieve fictional success again, in the late 1930s, with All that swagger.

She then names Randolph Bedford’s – quick quiz question: have you heard him mentioned here? – two novels. True eyes and the whirlwind (1903) and The snare of strength (1905). (Don’t you love these titles?) Palmer describes the first as “a novel of the picaresque style, a useful type for expressing the nomadic youth spent by many Australians before they find their life’s work”. Interesting. I hadn’t quite realised just how far back the idea of Australians as travellers extends, but it reminded me that Patrick White spent time jackarooing in Australia, in the 1920s, and travelling overseas as he sought a place for himself in the world. Overall, she says, Bedford’s work “is never without a fine gusto”. Sounds worth checking out.

I’m pleased to see that she also includes in her list, Barbara Baynton and her novel The human toll (1907) which, she says “had a strong, if acrid life of its own … full of bush tragedy”. That’s our Baynton!

And finally, in this group, she names Louis Stone’s Jonah, “a Sydney story of young larrikins, done with sincerity”.

Palmer ends this section with a cry that is surely universal:

Out-of-print, out-of-print – that is what one has to lament about all these books! Many novels deserve to die in their year of birth, but what of those that have permanent quality? We can only beg for new editions.

I will conclude my discussion of her article in next week’s Monday Musings.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2014 11:55 pm

    The good thing is that some of these are available for the kindle. I read that Rosa Praed’s book are ‘occult romance.’

    • July 22, 2014 12:07 am

      You’re right Guy … It’s great being able to access OP books as we’ve discussed before I think. I want to read more Praed. There’s an author here currently working on a book about her and her daughter. That will be interesting, though is probably a couple of years at least off.

  2. July 22, 2014 1:35 am

    I’ve a couple of these in my kindle as well to try at some point the Clarke book is one of them as it was on abc list of Australian classics

    • July 22, 2014 1:40 am

      Oh that’s great to hear Stu … It’s a start just having them in your TBR I reckon.

  3. July 22, 2014 5:23 am

    I will have to investigate some of these especially if I can get them from Project Gutenberg.

    • July 22, 2014 8:35 am

      Sydney Uni’s Digital Collections site is useful too, if you’re looking for Australian books: http://adc.library.usyd.edu.au/index.jsp?page=home

      Responding to Guy’s point above: some of her books are occult romances but not all of them. I’ve got The Soul of Countess Adrian as a .pdf if that’s the kind of Praed you’re after. The one I’d recommend, out of the few that I’ve read, is The Romance of a Station, which is fictional-autobiographical and neither occult nor romantic.

      • July 22, 2014 9:24 am

        Oh thanks DKS. yes, I think I’ve mentioned SETIS from Sydney Uni before but appreciate your doing here. And thanks for recommend in some of her non-occult books as the only one I’ve read as you know is The bonds of wedlock. I’ll try to read that Station one myself. Ext.

    • July 22, 2014 9:22 am

      I’m pretty sure several of them are there Stefanie … As I’ve seen them before. Praed … Though, despite Guy, I’d probably not start with her occult ones though.

  4. July 22, 2014 9:44 am

    Again, thanks for intro. to me some of the ‘historical’ writers of your country. I’m afraid none of these is available here but as Stefanie suggested, maybe Project G. just might have them.

    • July 22, 2014 5:13 pm

      Thanks Arti … They do … And you can check their sister site Project Gutenberg Australia.

  5. July 22, 2014 10:11 pm

    Well, I’m pleased to say I’ve read three of these, My Brilliant Career (of course), and two that are reviewed on my blog, Robbery Under Arms (which I really enjoyed, it stands the test of time) and For the Term of His Natural Life – as well as my review there’s also a guest review by Dr Lurline Stuart who published the Academy Edition of it, which is the definitive text with essays and annotations and all sorts of beaut stuff. And I’ve read Baynton too, though not that novel.
    Nettie Palmer published a book about Australian Literature, the name of which escapes me at the moment, but I would dearly love to get my hands on it one day.
    Does she not mention Ada Cambridge? Or was she later than this date?

    • July 22, 2014 11:20 pm

      No she doesn’t Lisa … And no Ada Cambridge was mainly turn of the century … The two I’ve read were anyhow. There are others she doesn’t mention too …

      • July 23, 2014 6:18 pm

        Well, that’s interesting. I’ve only read Cambridge’s Thirty Years in Australia, which isn’t a novel, but I must say I’m surprised by the omission. LOL I’d better get on and read a Cambridge novel to see if was deserving or not!

        • July 23, 2014 6:43 pm

          I think you’d better! I’ve read two at least and I probably would have put her there … I read them in the late 80s though so my memory may be faulty!

        • July 26, 2014 12:57 am

          She was more deserving than Praed, in my opinion. Not only is she more “easy-flowing” but her Australia “live[s] in the readers’ sight,” and the psychology in the Cambridges I’ve read has been more ambiguous and interesting than the psychology of Praed, who keeps falling back on stock characters. Romance of a Station gets her away from that temptation, and that’s why I’d recommend it above something like the extremely stock character’d Fugitive Anne.

        • July 26, 2014 2:10 am

          Thanks DKS … that was my memory but it’s been so long I wasn’t confident about pronouncing.

  6. ian darling permalink
    July 23, 2014 7:27 pm

    I am a bit surprised there is no mention of Henry Handel Richardson. Not sure if the Richard Mahoney sequence had been completed by 1927 but I think The Getting Of Wisom and Maurice Guest had been published and her omission seems a little bizarre!

    • July 23, 2014 11:08 pm

      Ah Ian … That one WILL be rectified in Part 2. But, well spotted. It’s to do with her sub-headings, as you’ll see.

      • July 26, 2014 1:09 am

        “So far the books mentioned have been written in Australia” is a small oversight of hers though. Praed moved to England before she published her first book.

        • July 26, 2014 2:11 am

          Oh good catch DKS … I knew she’d gone to Australia but had forgotten the timing.

  7. August 9, 2014 2:41 am

    Your post reminded me that I’d planned to read Hamlyn some time ago, after Vidal’s Bengala. Susan McKernan, who wrote the modern preface to the Vidal, believed that the author was thinking of Kingsley’s book when she said in her dedication, “It may possibly be deemed strange, if not presumptuous, that after the more recent and highly-coloured pictures of the same subject, this homelier and greyer tinted sketch should be brought forward.” Hamlyn “had been published the previous year by Macmillan with great commercial success.”

    Anyway, I’m halfway through it now, and the characters who have migrated to Australia from Devon keep reminding themselves that they’re British (‘”Conceive,” said Alice, “being in some great European city, and being asked if you were British, having to say, No!”‘) and the protagonists agree that an American Revolution shouldn’t happen in Australia because ” I would hardly like myself, for the sake of a few extra pounds taxes, to sell my birthright as an Englishman,” so there, I think, is your “colonial outlook” — the notion that Australia is a place where British people go to be British (but richer and plumper, with huge cattle stations in Gippsland), and not a place where Australians are Australian.

    • August 9, 2014 7:39 am

      Oh thanks for this DKS. That’s a great observation and just adds to my understanding of how our settlement differences have resulted in some quite fundamental differences between Australia and the US. I have Hamlyn in my pile. Are you enjoying reading it? I mean, is it good to read as well as interesting?

      • August 9, 2014 3:51 pm

        I’m enjoying it. He calls the reader “you” and throws in tit-bits of information especially out of consideration for “you.” “I must try to recall it for you as well as I can, for we shall have much to do with this man before the end.” Sometimes he decides that it would be boring for you if he talked too much about a subject, so he says, Look, I’ll just hint at this and we can move along. He believes in action. He’ll approve of almost any character as long as they’re feisty. He imagines events in the shapes of anecdotes.

        “And in the morning they were married in Hampstead church. Parson, clerk, pew-opener, and beadle, all remarked what a handsome young couple they were, and how happy they ought to be; and the parson departed, and the beadle shut up the church, and the mice came out again and ate the Bibles, and the happy pair walked away down the road, bound together by a strong chain, which nothing could loose but death.”

        (You already know, because of everything that came before the wedding, that the marriage is going to be hell.)

        • August 9, 2014 4:02 pm

          That sounds excellent DKS … and right up my alley. I wonder if I could get my reading group to do it as next year’s classic! I might give it a go.

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