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Monday musings on Australian literature: World War 1 in Australian Literary Culture

November 17, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, while I was having coffee with Australian Women Writers’ Challenge team member, Yvonne (of Stumbling Through the Past), she mentioned a project at the AustLit website, World War 1 in Australian Literary Culture. Given this year is the centenary – have you heard?! – of the start of the First World War, and given I’ve done nothing to date to recognise this, I thought I could salve my conscience by telling you about this project.

Coincidentally, author Annabel Smith (whose book, The ark, I reviewed recently), wrote a post just last week on war novels. War, she wrote, is one of the topics she tends to avoid reading, though she names a few war novels she does admire. My response was that I don’t avoid war books. Indeed, I’m often drawn to them – not to war genre adventure stories but to, I suppose, “literary war”. My reason is that in wars we can see the very best and very worst of people, and everything in between. Good writers can do so much with this. Then, on the weekend, I read a beautiful essay by Tim Winton in The Guardian about hospitals. I related to his comment that:

Wars and hospitals*; it’s a surprise we write about anything else. Hospitals make rich fictional settings because from the inside they are such chillingly plausible worlds unto themselves …

I like his reasoning, and would argue that wars too represent “chillingly plausible worlds unto themselves”.

So, back to AustLit. They introduce this part of their site by saying that it is

an AustLit research project expanding our coverage of the way the 1914-1918 war has appeared in literature, film, and other forms of storytelling from the conflict’s beginning to the present.

They have been working on it since 2012, and now have 5,000 records in the project encompassing a wide range of forms including “poetry, short stories, novels, plays, films, popular songs, children’s literature, biographies and personal accounts …” The main way they present these is through “curated exhibitions”, which are located in the sidebar as a randomly organised rather eclectic list of topics for exploration, such as Anzac Field Theatres, Sumner Locke: War Romances, Indigenous Diggers, Soldier and Nurse Writers, and Women Writing Women’s Roles. These pages provide links to further pages related to that topic. The site says that more of these “curated collections of data” will be added.

Through these “curated exhibitions” I discovered Sumner Locke, mother of well-known Australian writer, Sumner Locke Elliott, and unbeknownst to me, a prolific writer herself. She wrote plays, short stories and novels – with most of her output being “contemporary romance”, including war romances. AustLit tells us that:

When World War I broke out, Locke’s stories changed sharply.

She still wrote bright, fashionable romances and stories of selection life–but from November 1914, they were war stories and they were, more often than not, about women: wives coercing their husbands to enlist, wives convincing their husbands not to enlist, mothers struggling with the enlistments of their sons, women keeping rural communities running in the absence of men, sweethearts convincing their wounded lovers to marry them even in the absence of limbs or sight.

In all of them, Locke’s ironic tone shines through.

Sounds intriguing! And worth checking out methinks. Some stories can be found in Trove, either via the AustLit page or a search in Trove itself.

Now if, like me, you want to find a list of war novels, the way to do it is not apparently obvious, but I got there by clicking on another link in the sidebar titled Search and Explore the Data. This page provides a link to three “lists” (generated via pre-set search parameters so presumably the results list will grow as records are added to the database):

  • Women Writers and the War
  • Gallipoli Poetry
  • Novels of World War 1

Clicking on links in the above pages should take you to a list of relevant works, but unfortunately there’s a bug which I’d hoped would be fixed by now**. Parts of the AustLit site is only accessible by subscribers. However, I believe this project is supposed to be accessible to all, so, if you are interested and can’t access it via a subscribing organisation, just keep trying.

If (or when) you can click the Novels link you will find a list of over 200 novels. You can sort it by various parameters, including date, reverse date, author. I was surprised to find that David Malouf’s Fly away Peter does not appear in the Novels of World War 1 because it is a novella. The novella is a unique form – and I love the fact that they specifically index that – but I think that most people looking at a list of novels about the First World War would expect to find Malouf there.

However, it is an excellent resource, providing a comprehensive survey of a centenary of First World War literature. If you hover your mouse over a title, an abstract may pop up, though this is not universal. On the admittedly rare occasion where AustLit has located an online version of a novel – such as in Trove or Project Gutenberg – they provide a link. One example is Scottish writer RW Campbell’s The Kangaroo Marines, published in 1915. Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 2:

Sam Killem, Commanding Officer of the Kangaroo Marines, sat in his Recruiting Office chewing a cigar in the usual Australian style. Now and again he looked at his recruiting figures and smiled. “Five hundred men in three days,” he mused. “Not bad for you, Sam; and good stuff at that”–for Sam was a judge of men. He was a squatter and as rich as Croesus. His big, bony frame spoke of strength, while his eye and face told the tale of shrewdness and resource. He was forty, and successful. Three hundred miles of land was chartered as his own. His sheep were counted in thousands, and his brand as familiar as a postage stamp. Yet, in all his struggles for success, Sam had found time to be a patriot. He had served as a Tommy in the African War, and since then had commanded a corps of mounted men in the back of beyond. He was the fairest yet fiercest, the most faithful and fearless man in the force. A man who disobeyed his orders always received a knock-out blow, for Sam boxed like a pro, and hit like a hammer.

Hmm … “the fairest yet fiercest, the most faithful and fearless man in the force”. There’s some alliteration run amok! Campbell says in his preface that he wanted “to write deep in the annals of our literature and military history this supreme devotion, this noble heroism” of the ANZACS. It’s not an official history, but his attempt to picture the war. “The cloak of fiction”, he says, “has here and there been wound round temperamental things as well as around some glorious facts.”

Even if I don’t read more of this book, I love that AustLit has enabled me to dip into it. I do hope they keep producing projects like this and BlackWords (on which I’ve posted before).

* You never know, but you may see a post in the future on Australian hospital literature!
** I notified “the bug” over a week ago.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2014 6:26 am

    What a really wonderful resource! Hospitals are really amazing places as long as you are one you love is not there because of some terrible reason. They make for great fictional TV shows too!

  2. November 18, 2014 9:51 am

    How lovely of you to give us this write up!

    The exhibitions are intended as a sampling of the material available in the exhibition, which is why they’re so oddly eclectic. The majority have been built by Robert Thomson, who has been the lead researcher on this project since 2012, but the rest of us contribute our own expertise or interests to some of them. For example, one of our senior researchers is an expert on the theatre of the period, so he’s built an exhibition on digger troupes.

    You can, if you have access to the website through a subscribing institution, explore the records in any way you want. From our advanced search page, you can limit your search to the World War I dataset only. At the bottom of the right-hand column on the advanced search page, there’s a drop-down menu for ‘Project’; select World War I, and you’ll only get results from that dataset. You can look at all the records, or limit it in any way you like: form, genre, author’s gender, subject, setting, etc.

    The extreme malleability of the search page is one of the great joys of the new AustLit engine, but advanced search is a feature currently limited to subscribers.

    (We are still actively looking into the bug, but it is a slippery issue, and so far our programmers have not managed to pin it down.)

    • November 18, 2014 3:24 pm

      Thanks AustLit. Glad you appreciate the write-up. It’s a great project – and the eclecticism is fun. As a retired librarian (or just as me!), though, I’d love to see the list in alphabetical order. Not sure why really since the topics are so eclectic but it just suits my brain to “see” the ordering principle in a list!

      Thanks for telling us about the sophistication of the advanced search. I suspect a lot of people (Australians anyhow) would be able to access the database through their libraries? At least, I know I’ve been able to do that.

      What a shame re that bug … hope they can work it out.

      • November 19, 2014 9:04 am

        The list of topics in the exhibition itself, Sue? I think that might be a function of more than one finger in the pie, there: I noticed this morning that they’re essentially in alphabetical order now (except for External Resources down the bottom), so I suspect Robert Thomson (the primary researcher, and an extremely orderly man) has been tidying them up.

        • November 19, 2014 10:46 am

          Yes, thanks AustLit, that’s what I meant. I wondered if it was a reason like that … Sumner Locke is still out of order – that threw me particularly! It is an eclectic list of things one may not expect or be looking for, but an order helps ground us, and is particularly helpful makes when you come back knowing what you are looking for.

  3. November 18, 2014 3:49 pm

    Austlit is one of the resources I can access from home through my membership of the State Library of NSW. I think the other state libraries offer similar services.

    • November 18, 2014 5:16 pm

      Thanks Judith … yes, I understood that was the case but thanks for confirming SLNSW. Nice not having to go into the library, particularly when you live remotely!

  4. November 18, 2014 4:44 pm

    AustLit have very kindly given me access even though LOL I’m not an organisation but I honestly can’t understand why it’s not open access. I mean, what is the rationale for it?

    • November 18, 2014 5:19 pm

      I think that it’s a money thing, Lisa – I guess the subscriptions are critical to its continuation? Maybe they will respond here and explain that. It’s a start I think that they are creating these publicly accessible projects.

  5. November 18, 2014 8:05 pm

    What would Australian lit. do without you ? – and that is NOT a joke. I firmly believe you should be bloody HONOURED for services to it – research, reading and reviewing services. You are brilliant, Sue Terry !

    • November 18, 2014 9:45 pm

      Oh, M-R, you need to get out more! But thank you. I do enjoy what I do.

      • ian darling permalink
        November 19, 2014 12:16 am

        This sounds a useful resource. I agree that war and literature do go together powerfully but perhaps less in terms of battle scenes etc but with war as a background. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky is an example. i wonder if the wars of the 20th century were perhaps best depicted in satirical novels such as Good Soldier Schweik or Catch 22? But a novel like The Kangaroo Marines reminds us that a more “heroic” mode has also been present in fiction.

        • November 19, 2014 12:49 am

          Yes, Ian, I agree, less in battle scenes. You know, I haven’t read Suite Francaise though it’s on my virtual TBR. You’d recommend it?

          I’m not sure I’d say they were best-depicted by satirical novels though I think satire plays an important role. Schlink’s The reader or Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow are significant reads I think – but they’re not satirical and neither are they heroic. I think we do eschew the heroic mode these days, if not always for satire, certainly for a more realistic or questioning tone/approach.

      • November 19, 2014 5:31 am

        Getting out today. So there.
        {grin}

  6. November 19, 2014 9:01 am

    Even though we’re a subscription service, our access is actually quite wide! If you are a member of any of the following, then you already have full access to AustLit:

    — almost all Australian universities
    — National Library of Australia
    — Australian State Libraries
    — Northern Territory Library

    All Australian schools have free access to AustLit.

    Some overseas institutions subscribe to us, as do some local libraries. And we are always happy to get requests for temporary guest access. (Email us at the main AustLit email address. We’re terribly friendly!)

    • November 19, 2014 10:41 am

      Thanks for expanding on the access issue AustLit … yes, I access through NLA or a university I do some work for depending! I think my local public library system does too though I haven’t checked them for awhile. But I was wondering about overseas. Clearly it’s worth overseas readers here checking.

  7. November 19, 2014 10:59 am

    On the question of open access, AustLit provide open access to a range of content and all schools have free access, but, unfortunately, we must generate some income from subscriptions in order to keep on delivering the services and content our users love us for. We wish it was otherwise but, so far, we haven’t found a generous enough benefactor to allow us to keep our wonderful researchers and indexers on staff without subscriptions. We are grateful to the State and National Libraries, the University libraries in Australia and internationally and the network of municipal libraries who provide access to their patrons.

    • November 19, 2014 11:41 am

      Thanks AustLit … that’s what I’d read … we’ll all just have to lobby the money-people to support Aussie Lit won’t we. It’s great that there are so many opportunities now through which people can access you, and often from home using their user cards.

  8. November 19, 2014 11:25 am

    An additional note on the listings of WWI novels: based on the feedback here, we have adjusted the parameters of that search so that it now includes both novels and novellas. No more missing David Malouf for our users!

  9. November 19, 2014 11:28 am

    Thank you for writing about this Sue – and thanks for the mention. The Auslit World War I project is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand how the war was imbued in the mindset of the period. It will be interesting to see how people explore it and connect it with other aspects of WWI history.

    • November 19, 2014 11:43 am

      Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Yvonne. I often pop into the AustLit site but clearly hadn’t for a while. I love that they link to content where they can at Trove, Gutenberg etc.

  10. October 16, 2015 6:58 pm

    Missed your post on this last year, but was just looking for an overview of WW1/ Aust literary culture, and Google took me to you! Thank you once again. Link to Sumner Locke particularly helpful – she and Katharine Susannah Prichard were very close; Locke’s son even claims Prichard split the novel competition prize money with her, due to a pact they’d made when they both entered.

    • October 16, 2015 8:28 pm

      Thanks Nathan. I’m glad Google did the job then when it was most useful. That’s interesting about Prichard and the prize. And nice to hear. A bit like Carrie Tiffany’s generous action when she won the Stella.

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