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.