Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers in England, 1911

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I’ve devoted a few Monday Musings recently to Australian writers in the first few decades of the twentieth century. I expect to do a few more in coming months, as I’m enjoying the research. Today, I’m drawing from a report of a talk given by Barbara Baynton in Sydney in 1911 to the Writers and Artists Union. The article, titled “England and the Australian writer: Barbara Baynton’s experience” appeared in a column in The Argus titled Page Twenty-One, written by arts journalist Norman Lilley (d. 1941).

Barbara Baynton will be well-known to readers of this blog as over the last year I’ve separately reviewed the short stories in her collection, Bush Studies. This book was published in England, after she had not been able to get it published in Sydney. However, as she explains in her talk, it’s not easy …

English publishers

Baynton told her audience that she’d explored many avenues in her search for a publisher – the English Society of Authors, the London-based Agent-General of New South Wales, publishers themselves, and, by accident, a man reading for a publisher. It was this man, Edward Garnett, who, in the end, read her work, liked it, and submitted it to Duckworths. Along her journey though, she was offered money by a publisher for one short story only; was told by another, Heinemanns, that it didn’t “touch short stories”; and was asked for “absurd sums” by others to cover the printing and distribution of her book. As I read all this, I wondered how much has changed!

Lilley comments that Baynton found “Literature … to be a costly pastime – that is, legitimate literature as distinct from sensational novel writing.” The latter, he says, could be made to pay “if you could catch the vogue and tickle the popular taste”.

The English mind

Baynton clearly spent some time discussing what English readers would read. Lilley reports:

Englishmen were not interested in Australia; they knew nothing about it, and did not want to learn. They regarded it as a land of strange contradictions, where the birds did not sing* and the flowers had no smell, and the trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; and nothing could persuade them that eucalyptus was not our national scent. They might read about the adventures of an Englishman in Australia; but they declined to take any interest in the country itself.

Baynton said, he reports, that “you cannot score a popular success with serious matter”. Again, one wonders how much, really, has changed – in terms of reading tastes, not in terms of interest in Australia, I mean.

Anyhow, Baynton apparently went on to say that writers who included “plenty about princesses and earls and gilded palaces” did sell! She gave popular English writer Marie Corelli as an example of this sort of writing. I discovered a brief paragraph about Corelli written in 1904 in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal. The writer reports on one Rev. R. Eyton, of Bathurst, who, apparently said that “children were left with the minds utterly untrained, and no wonder that their literary zest is satisfied with writers like Marie Corelli. They never have had a chance to judge between literature and trash, which is certainly rough on the lady whose books have such a vogue.”

Baynton also mentioned Australian-born English writer HB Marriott Watson. She said he had been a great literary success, but that “the better written his books were the worse they paid. To make a commercial success he had to be frankly sensational”.

Baynton, you can see, was not afraid to express her opinions! In fact, she also mentioned Conan Doyle who made “₤2000 a year or more out of fiction that was not literature at all”! The most successful Australian writer, financially speaking, was Albert Dorrington, but his work “was not legitimate literature”.

Unfortunately, Baynton also referred to what we know as “the cultural cringe”. Lilley reports that “she was ashamed to say that a great part of general public here seemed to think you must have the English hallmark, and that the Australian was of no value”. Interestingly, she also said that America was interested in Australia, that “American magazines would take what the English publishers rejected as ‘peculiar’; and so the Americans encouraged clever writers”.


Baynton’s talk was, as I indicated in the first paragraph, given to a union audience and so union issues, particularly in terms of remuneration for writers, were touched on. She gave examples of payments writers could receive in different countries and from different publishers. She mentioned that the people “who made the largest incomes out of literature were the middlemen – the agents”. She said that England badly needed a writers’ union.

Unionism, Baynton preached to the converted, “was wanted in the literary profession: to force prices up – to make the rich papers pay decent rates for writers’ brains”. She argued that shareholders, like herself, should receive smaller dividends so that the men and women who did the work could be properly paid. Good for her.

Russian writing (and the English mind, again)

At the same meeting, Lilley reports, Dora Montefiore, the English-born Australian writer and founder in 1891 (according to Debra Adelaide’s Australian Women Writers: A bibliographic guide) of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW, also spoke on writing and publishing in London. She gave the example of trying to find a publisher for a translation of some Maxim Gorky stories. Montefiore, according to Lilley, said that:

a very wide circle of readers had not been expected for them, as the English mind, being the very reverse of introspective, could not easily understand the psychology of the Russian mind, and was consequently prone to call such work as Gorky’s morbid**. The English made mistakes, promptly forget them, and went on again; they disliked exceedingly thinking about them, or dwelling on any process of thought. The Russian was the reverse of this …

If you are English and reading this blog, what do you think … about then, and now.

The moral

Lilley concludes his report with

The moral that Australian writers should stay in their own country, and by uniting should make conditions good enough for the best of talent, seemed obvious.

* They clearly hadn’t heard the Australian magpie!

** Coincidentally, you may remember that I reported in my Monday Musings on Baynton that she’d been likened to Gorky for her grim realism.

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers in England, 1911

  1. I had just composed a long comment and signed in when I received an error message and the whole thing vanished. Very irritating. So I’ll just say that I’ve enjoyed your posts about these pioneers of publishing very much. It is rather astounding how things have changed since those early days! I am also glad for those digital archives which allow us to (sometimes) read those early works which are not easily available elsewhere any more. Nothing sadder than a good story lost to the moths of time…

    • Oh, don’t you HATE that, vyvienn – when a comment you’ve crafted is lost. Infuriating. Glad you persevered enough to comment again. And glad that you like the historical posts. I’m loving doing them. It is interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t – sometimes the change is only in degree it seems.

  2. Interesting stuff. I live in Barbados and I will be moving Australia within the next two years, so I thought it would be interesting if I tried to learn about my soon to be new home through its writers.

    When I asked around for recommendations for good Australian writers, Barbara Baynton’s Bush Stories came highly recommended, but I knew nothing about her until I read your excellent post.

    If you happen have any other recommendations for good Australian writers that would be awesome.

    • Welcome wandering bookmark. Coming to Australia eh? Moving permanently? I could recommend so much. Perhaps it would be good if you told me a little about your interests. I’ll also pop over to your blog.

      • Well I’ve had a pretty restless upbringing; I’ve hopped about the Caribbean and lived in the U.S. for a while, but I think I’ll be Australia for a good while if not permanently.

        My interests are a bit like my upbringing, in that they are all over the place, but I do prefer fiction.

        Thanks again for the recommendations!

  3. Totally fascinating… as you say not a lot has changed (and with short stories there are almost no magazines that still print them). The English mindset (I’m half English and half Scottish) is probably still much the same. There is one strand of English/British thinking about Australia that Jane Rogers writes about in her novel Promised Lands – that of Australia as a possible utopia. That’s marginal but probably was there in some writing.

  4. I don’t think much has changed in the literary world regarding quality. It seems there are always stories of top-notch literary works being rejected by publisher after publisher until finally someone recognizes it as a gem. In spite of that, it won’t be a bestseller, that belongs to Fifty Shades of Grey and Da Vinci Code and the like. Baynton seems to be rather clear-eyed about the whole thing which is admirable.

  5. Thank-you again for researching and posting this. A necessary corrective (and a sobering one) for those of us who complain, in this online info-tainment age of ours, about a lack of serious literature and a lack of seriousness about it. Because it seems it’s always been the case!

    Interesting when you consider that someone like Patrick White apparently considered Britain and Europe to be culturally superior to Australia, and yet the Brits by this account were at least as closed-minded as the Australians that so frustrated him.

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