Monday musings on Australian literature: Nettie Palmer on “Our Own Writers”

Today, I’m going to return to writing about early twentieth century Australian literature. Last year I wrote several Monday Musings on the topic, including two (Part 1 and Part 2) based on an article written by Nettie Palmer in 1927. Today’s post draws from an article Palmer wrote in 1935. It covers some similar ground, but from a different perspective. In that earlier article, Palmer shared the titles of novels that she believed were Australia’s best, commencing with the statement that only a small number of good novels had been published in Australia. In this article, written eight years later, she argues that the Australian novel has arrived.

I was intrigued by her confirmation of an observation I made last year that poetry had the ascendancy in Australian literature. She wrote in her typically direct way:

Furphy, Lawson, Barbara Baynton — a few names of story writers stood out like islands in an ocean of balladry.

Oh dear, but she’s right! (Interesting that she used last names for the male writers, and full name for the female.) She argues that there were a few reasons for this, one being that Australia didn’t have an established publishing industry. A poet, she explains, can get published in a journal and can then pretty much self-publish a collection of his/her works. “The publishing of poetry”, she writes, “can be an amateur matter”. Again I love her language:

It costs less to produce, in the usual small edition, the comparatively few words of a poet, stringing down the page like a small mob of cattle, than to publish the sixty, eighty or a hundred thousand words of a novel, and to put that novel into effective circulation.

Palmer was better known for her literary criticism than for her creative output, but she does have a lovely turn of phrase!

That is the main practical (or “external” as she puts it) reason. The other main reason relates to the form itself, and its development in Australia. She writes of Australia being in the “age of discovery”, novel-wise, the “age” that Russia was, perhaps, at the time of Gogol and Goncharov, and America at the time of Fenimore Cooper. She names some Australian novels (of which more anon), and argues that

Those of our novelists whose books are something more than imitative commercial products have had to write without models, and to descry their own patterns of life in this chaos; their work has indeed been

“All carved out of the carver’s brain.”

Attempting what had not been touched before they had to be original or perish and they have not perished.

The author who most established the novel in Australia, she says, was Henry Handel Richardson, with her trilogy The fortunes of Richard Mahony. She, Palmer writes, managed to break free of “the ‘colonial’ attitude” and “the conventional formula of the happy ending” that had been rife in the 1890s with writers like Rolf Boldrewood. She says that

… the existence of the Mahony trilogy had made publishers less reluctant to handle Australian books of literary quality, and readers less automatic in their demand for a happy ending at all costs.

The happy ending, eh? It’s still with us to some degree isn’t it? Anyhow, she continues:

It used to be assumed, at least by publishers, that an Australian novel would give its characters plenty of “out-west”, but no complex adventures of the spirit. That we are just beginning to live that down is due largely to the world-wide respect for H.H. Richardson, who … though it worthwhile to give 15 years to the construction of a novel on Australia’s major historical problem — that of the immigrant in all his resistances, faced by this new country in all its early crudities.

Have we finished with this topic, I wonder? I don’t think so, but it has become more complex and just as worthy of novelistic exploration, from the settler (past and recent) and indigenous points of view.

Anyhow, now to the names of the writers she identifies as moving the Australian novel on. One is Katharine Susannah Prichard (whose The pioneers I have reviewed). Palmer describes Prichard’s “literary courage” and praises the quality of Prichard’s writing, in books like Working bullocks and Haxby’s circus. She argues that

to suggest as Professor Hancock did some time ago that Miss Prichard has merely covered our geography with descriptive writing is to miss her fathomless and unfailing human sympathy.

Having read two books by Prichard, I agree with Palmer. Is there a gender issue here I wonder in Hancock’s dismissal? (I don’t know Hancock so won’t take this further now, but you can’t help wondering.)

Other writers Palmer mentions are Frank Dalby Davison and his novel Man-shy (which I read in first year high school and which I’ve been keen in recent years to read again), the collaborative author M. Barnard Eldershaw and their novel A house is built, and an author I’m not familiar with, Leonard Mann, and his war novel Flesh in armour. This book she says “in itself would justify that we were now adult” for “his fearless adherence to invigorating fact and his few passages of lyrical ecstasy”. Wow, I think I need to check out Mann.

She concludes by arguing that she doesn’t think poetry should yield its territory to prose but that “the production of imaginative prose literature is necessary to any country today”. Fair enough – we need all the arts to be strong and healthy for us to be an “adult” nation.

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Nettie Palmer on “Our Own Writers”

    • Ah I thought of you as I wrote this Karen. I had looked at the course when you told me about it. It’s an interesting course but does include some very significant writers and works. The older works tend to be non-fiction it looks to me, rather than our older novelists. I didn’t expect that but not it’s not uninteresting or irrelevant. I was also intrigued that they’ve included DH Lawrence. It looks like an interesting course, and does include significant writers like Wright, Stead, Henry Handel Richardson, carey, Scott, Malouf, Winton and Flanagan.

    • Butting in on your question, I’d say that the reading list is not bad but it perpetuates the myth that writers of the nineteenth century never really wrote about Australia as home, or as a place with houses, societies, and families. But they did. See Mary Theresa Vidal’s Bengala from 1860, for example, with its narrative that pivots around domesticity and finance.

      • (But then again I’d like to see an Australian colonial literature course that shoved away the convicts and explorers for once and concentrated on finance as a primary animating force in Australian society at the time, so I’m biased.)

        • I think that’s a fair bias to have. After all, they all came here in the end – whether they chose or were sent – hoping to make a better life for themselves and money was an important part of that. Interesting too to explore (oops!) the role of women in that as many played a significant role didn’t they?

      • Thanks, for butting in DKS. You’re always welcome. Yes, I think this course has a very specific intention centred around landscape – and is driven by Western Australian academics, who may have a particular perspective.

  1. Nettie Palmer was far from the ‘boring critic’, and was very insightful. It would be interesting to read her thoughts on Australian writing today.

  2. I am loving this post and discussion. These early novelists in Oz are some of my favourites for a glimpse into the life and soul of the past. Nettie Palmer should be much more widely recognised today, she was so influential to the growth of Oz literature, and such an interesting person too. She needs a revival! Thanks WG.

    • Oh thanks Anne. I love reading, and reading about our early writers, too as you’ll have realised. I have many gaps but will keep popping them into my reading schedule when I can. Yes, she was an interesting person, I agree.

      • I think its true that richardson wrote her great trilogy in Europe although I believe that she visited Australia for background for the novel. In that way she was rather similar to Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote best about Scotland living outside it. Voluntary exile as the best basis for writing about home? Nettie Palmer doesn’t seem to mention Miles Franklin which seems a bit of a surprise.

        • Yes, Ian, I think Peter Carey has said something about it being easier to write about “home” when you are away. That’s probably a generalisation and depends on the author but I can see how it would work for some people.

          And yes, well-spotted. I noticed Miles Franklin’s absence too. I think it’s probably due to the fact that, except for Richardson whom she saw as an important fore-runner, she was wanting to focus on the new writers of the 1920s/30s. She had done Franklin, if I remember correctly, in her 1927 articles on the novel.

  3. A course that looked at finance would refocus everything, and, true, I think women would play a larger role there; the teachers would be tempted to bring in Mary Gaunt’s book about female suffrage through independent business, and Vidal would suddenly appear. But it would change other things too. What are Geoffrey Hamlyn‘s characters doing in Gippsland? Making money. Why did some Tasmanians want to keep convictism alive? Free labour force.

    • Yes, absolutely … money drives most actions and decisions even when we think it doesn’t! But to look at literature from that point of view rather than the same-old would be very enlightening.

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