Monday musings on Australian literature: The novel in Australia, 1927-style, Part 2

Today’s Monday Musings is Part 2 of my two post series discussing Nettie Palmer‘s article, “The novel in Australia”, that was published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927.

As I did in last week’s post, I’ll use her headings to share her view on Australia’s great novels.

A novelist abroad

Here she discusses Australian writers who wrote their novels while living overseas, Australians being, as we know, good travellers. It’s no surprise that her choice of the best known novel written while its writer was abroad is Henry Handel Richardson’sMaurice Guest (1909), which is a “brilliant story of music-student life in the Leipzig of the ‘nineties”. (This is another languisher on my TBR pile).

Palmer then tells us about Richardson’s Australian trilogy, The fortunes of Richard Mahoney, which she wrote mostly from her home in England though she “revisited Australia about 1912 to verify impressions”. Palmer’s article was written before the third book in the trilogy was published, but here she is on the first two:

The writer’s knowledge of the period – costumes, food, and customs – is immense but the “Fortunes” is never a mere costume novel: there is character all through. All Henry Handel Richardson’s novels, even those whose setting is wholly Australian, are better known in Europe than here, and are discussed at length in German and Scandinavian literary encyclopaedias and reviews. In America too, they have received deep attention. Victoria is fortunate to have found such a chronicler, more fortunate than it knows yet [my emphasis].

Cultural cringe, or because Richardson was based overseas? Whatever the reason, recognition of her work did increase through the century. The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Richardson, written in 1988, discusses her reputation briefly, and touches on the unevenness of her reputation – overseas and in Australia.

Contemporary novels

Palmer concludes her article by looking at contemporary (to the late 1920s, that is) novels, and names a few she deems significant.

Katharine Susannah Prichard

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

Katherine Susannah Prichard’s works, she says, “are the fruit of an intense devotion to her subject matter. Her gifts are mainly two: first, that of brilliant impressionism, then a rare power of writing group-scenes.” In Black Opal, for example, the opal miners are “standing about chaffing each other and discussing the universe, every man of them alive”. She says there are similarly vivid scenes of groups of timber-getters in Working Bullocks. “Such scenes”, she says, “are too difficult for most novelists, who shirk them: yet they enrich a book immensely and the reader feels that our everyday life is full of unsuspected charm”.

Palmer then writes something rather strange (to me anyhow). She comments that each of Prichard’s books is located in a different place – the tall-timbers of South-east Victoria (presumably The pioneers, which I’ve reviewed), the opal fields of Western New South Wales, and the saw-milling country in the south of Western Australia. She says:

(Reading over this list of regions I can only feel how wretchedly inconvenient our Australian names are: a mere mention of latitude and longitude! Are we too big to think about? It will take many years for many of our names to become easy and vivid.)

What does she mean? Those names are purely geographical descriptions. The pioneers is, yes, set in south-east Victoria but this region does have a name – Gippsland – which it has had since the nineteenth century. I don’t think I’m on Palmer’s wavelength here at all.

Anyhow she concludes this section with the statement that there’s “little space left for some recent Queensland books” (because, of course, The Brisbane Courier is a Queensland newspaper). She names Zora Cross, whose books “put on record the changing years of a South Queensland [ha!] district” and M. Forrest, whose novels “have that special quality which readers of her verse would expect – a power of painting in words the rich details of Queensland’s unexplored landscapes”.


As I read this article I pondered what criteria Palmer was using to define quality novels. Good characterisation, meaningful realism (if that makes sense), and a capturing of Australian identity seem to be what she was looking for. Fortunately, she has a go at answering this question herself in her last two paragraphs.

Firstly, she says that:

the most satisfactory definition of a good novel seems “the revelation of character through narrative,” but the character need not be only human. There is also the character of a country.

She then suggests that good novels break new ground, with the author “giving part of himself away, revealing his personal vision of ‘men, coming and going on the earth'”. On this point of innovation, she quotes Randolph Bedford, who appeared in Part 1 and who, she says, satirised the idea that “the average publisher loves words written to a formula, to please a reading public which dislikes anything new”. Bedford apparently said of this public:

It loves to read some old friend it recognises, so it can say, “How original it must be, because I know it so well”.

Oh dear. Have things changed do you think?

Palmer then presents her own definition of “a more genuine kind of originality” – and it’s to do with the difficulty of making “Australian life and character their theme”. She concludes:

Some day, when a novel about life in Indooroopilly seems as natural as one about Piccadilly, we shall thank those who turned the first sods so fruitfully.

So there it is really. The cultural cringe. This I think has changed.

* Wikipedia tells us she was Iris Murdoch’s second cousin twice removed. A remote relation, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless!

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The novel in Australia, 1927-style, Part 2

  1. I really got into those Richard Mahoney novels and enjoyed The Getting Of Wisdom. I mean to read Maurice Guest sometime. What is HHR’S current standing in Australia – is she still read. Over here it helped that both Penguin and Virago put out paperback editions of her novels.

    • Oh good for you Ian. My Maurice Guest is a Virago edition. HHR has, I’d say, a pretty good standing in academia – and overall is better recognised and appreciated I think than many other Aussie women greats from the late nineteenth to the first 2-3 decades of the twentieth centuries. She tends to stay in print I think, which helps.

  2. Hell – for some reason my comment disappeared! Anyway, what I was trying to say is that I read HHR’s trilogy years ago and loved it. Was full of admiration and awe. It was one of those works that opened the writing spring in me. The trilogy is for Australia what Dos Passos’s USA is for America – at least in my opinion. Neither of these works seem to have the standing that in my very strong opinion they should have. Correct me if I’m wrong. People seem to go for Maurice Guest more. It’s as though the ambition of the trilogy makes them uneasy.

    Love your posts, WG, and following your wide and varied thoughts. Have been out of the loop recently preparing for Canberra. Will I be seeing you?

    • Thanks Sara. It’s most irritating when a comment gets lost. It happens more to me on an iPad than my laptop I think.

      Interesting question re the trilogy. I know many who’ve read it, including last year an Aussie and an American blogger who did it together as a read-along. And it regularly appears in top Australian book lists – it appeared in the 2000s in lists from the ASA, ABC and ABR, the last two of which were voted by “zither public”. It didn’t appear in the top 10 taught in university which is probably due to its size. So, I think it is holding its own, in terms of reputation at least.

      As for Canberra, are you talking about an event? Have I missed hearing about something? Or, a personal visit? Would certainly try to see you if I could!

      • I’m delivering the 2014 Emily’s List Oration at the Shine Dome on Friday. I mentioned it on Facebook and Twitter but neglected to do so on the blog. Perhaps I’ll attend to it today.

        The Oration will begin at 7:00 on this Friday, August 1. It would be great if you could come. While I was working on the speech I took breaks reading Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I’m loving. I thank you for putting me onto it.

  3. Thanks more things to add to my Kindle, just what I needed! And sadly, I think people still do love books written to a formula, witness the popularity of romance novels, certain types of “chic lit”, certain thrillers and crime series.

    • Thanks for responding to that part of the post Stefanie … I hoped someone would. I agree … It was probably the same in Austen’s time when Gothic fiction and sentimental fiction were all the rage.

  4. Regarding Palmer’s frustration with Australian names: I’m not sure what she means either. However, I’m always very specific about exactly where in Australia I come from, if people ever ask. It doesn’t seem enough to regard myself as ‘Australian’ or even ‘Western Australian’ because both entities are so large. So I tell people I’m from Perth, Western Australia. Then again, perhaps my specificity stems from my being a closet Anglophile, where people really are specific about their ‘region of origin’ and where the differences between them are more pronounced than they are here. Recently I went to hear an author who is originally from Scotland. I was mildly surprised that I was the only person who wanted to know which part of Scotland she came from.

    Thank-you for pursuing this topic of 19th and early 20th Australian literature and publishing. It’s strangely comforting to see that several problems and frustrations with the Life of Letters (i.e. lack of international recognition and good books disappearing without trace) are not confined to our own age.

    • Haha, Glen, I like your honesty in saying “it’s strangely comforting” but I do know what you mean. It perhaps provides an extra authenticity to the whole business – albeit not a very reassuring one.

      Your comment about specificity regarding where you come from is interesting – I’ll have to think a bit more about it. I think for me, it depends on who I’m talking to. If I think they don’t know Australia well, I’ll just say Australia and wait to see if they ask more. But if they are Australian or I realise or think they know Australia, I’ll give more detail.

      • I think it also stems from the fact that my parents, and virtually everyone else in my family, are originally from other parts of Australia (mostly central and south-coastal Victoria.) Those other places are definitely part of my personal heritage and our shared family mythology. But I think Perth is significant for me in a way that is probably unique amongst my ‘tribe’, given that I’m the only one who grew up here.

        • Ah, that makes sense Glen … I used to be like that in the sense that I was born in and associated myself for the longest time with Queensland, particularly when we moved to Sydney, but I’ve been in Canberra for so long now that my heritage feels very diverse (if that makes sense!).

        • That makes perfect sense. And really, I think adopting a diverse perspective with a little specificity (Citizenry of the World with certain favourite haunts) is probably the best way to be.

  5. Pingback: Australian Women Writers, 1930s | theaustralianlegend

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