Monday musings on Australian literature: First winners of The Bulletin Novel Prize
“Once again women have proved that they can triumph over men”! So starts a 1928 newspaper article announcing the winners of the first Bulletin Novel Prize. Hmmm … fascinating to read this the week we heard that eight of the ten books longlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award are by women. I don’t like to think that today we are talking about one gender triumphing over another, but about equality of opportunity to be published and considered for awards. However, I suspect there was an element of competition back in those more gender-divided days.
The Bulletin Novel Prize was announced in 1927, and was first awarded in 1928. The first First Prize was shared between three women writers – the previously published Katharine Susannah Prichard for her novel Coonardoo, and the debut collaborators, Majorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, writing as M. Barnard Eldershaw, for their A house is built. Third prize went to Vance Palmer, husband of Nettie Palmer. (He went on to win the prize in its second year with his most famous novel, The passage).
I’ve mentioned this prize before in a post on early literary prizes. Today I thought I’d share some of the reporting on the first award because – well, because I found it interesting. And I found it interesting for two main reasons, besides that opening salvo. One is that most of the reports I found via the National Library of Australia’s Trove focus more on Prichard than on M. Barnard Eldershaw, presumably because she was a well-respected, award-winning, previously published author, while they were unknowns. My other reason relates to how her winning book was described.
The main article announcing the award – the one starting with the words with which I opened this post – appeared in city and regional newspapers throughout Australia. It tells us nothing about A house is built, but has this to say about Coonardoo, which was a ground-breaking and controversial novel for its depiction of “the sexuality of white men and black women” (ADB). The article describes it as follows:
‘Coonardoo’ is thoroughly typical of her penmanship, frank, vigorous, full of life and movement. Its setting is a station in the north-west of Western Australia, where a widow brings up her only son. Its men and women, made to live in her pages with remarkable reality, are typical of those who are everywhere making the real Australia — the Australia that is outside the cities. The relationships of the white settlers and the blacks, dealt with firmly and quite frankly, supply the main theme of the story. Coonardoo from whom the novel takes its title (the word means “the well in the shadow”), is a little black girl of unusual type. In the background is the pioneering life; and woven through the story are the strange superstitions of the aboriginals and their weird customs. ‘Coonardoo’ is unquestionably one of the most powerful and absorbing novels ever written in Australia.
I love what this tells us about the times. There’s the idea that “real” Australia is “the Australia that is outside the cities”. It’s taken us a long time to accept, in our literature, that we are and always have been, in fact, a highly urbanised nation. And then there’s the description of Coonardoo as being “a little black girl of unusual type”. What does this mean? The writer doesn’t explain, and it’s too long since I’ve read the book for me to identify whether indeed she was of “unusual type” or whether this is the white writer’s assumption that any indigenous person mixing in a white world was unusual? The writer also tells us that the story is woven with “the strange superstitions of the aboriginals and their weird customs”. How far we have come since then (I hope) to the point where we now see indigenous customs as not being “superstitions” or “weird” but an alternative world view, and one that we non-indigenous Australians not only respect but can learn from. Articles like this provide such rich pickings for researchers looking for values and attitudes of past times, but also for more casual readers like me interested in seeing where we have come from.
There are several brief articles announcing the prize, and a few advising that Coonardoo would start being serialised in The Bulletin forthwith, but I’ll just share one other. Its headline is: “PRIZE NOVELISTS: VANCE PALMER’S SUCCESS”! Why does third prize-getter Vance Palmer get the headline? We could jump to the conclusion that it’s because he’s a man, but the more likely answer is implied in the opening sentence: “Much satisfaction was expressed in Brisbane yesterday at the announcement in the “Courier,” in a message from Sydney, that Katherine Susannah Prichard, of Western Australia, and Vance Palmer, of Caloundra, had achieved success in the “Bulletin” prize novel competition”. The newspaper from which this article comes is The Brisbane Courier, that is, the main newspaper for the state in which Palmer was born. We’re not parochial! Poor old joint winners Flora S. Eldershaw and Marjorie Barnard don’t get a mention until the second paragraph.
I wonder what people reading our papers a hundred years hence will think of the assumptions and values we express!