Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the first decade (1958-1967)

Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin, c. 1940s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

This month we expect to see the announcement of the Miles Franklin Award longlist. While it’s no longer Australia’s richest literary prize, it is still the best-known and, if you can measure such things, our most prestigious. It is managed by a Trustee using the estate left for that purpose by author Miles Franklin. It was first awarded in 1958 for a novel published in 1957. Until the late 1980s, the award was dated for the year of publication, not the year of granting the award as now.

Given that we are now in April and interest in the award will be hotting up again, I decided to potter around Trove and see what commentators and/or authors thought about it in its first decade. (See the Award’s official site if you’d like to see a complete list of winners.) My intention is not to give a potted history or a thorough analysis of the award’s early days but to share some interesting snippets which provide some insights into the life and times … Ready? Here goes …

Politics and the award

Where there’s kudos to be had, you’ll usually find a politician. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the first prize, worth £500, was given by the Prime Minister of the day, R.G. Menzies. That first winner was – fittingly, really – Patrick White’s Voss. I say fitting because White is also our first (and only to date) Nobel Prize Winner for Literature. Anyhow, The Canberra Times of 3 April reported on the ceremony:

Mr. Menzies said the novel in Australia was reaching maturity in a “turbulent activity of blossoming world literature.”

He said with the small encouragement being given by the Commonwealth literary board, “a career of art and literature” was an increasing possibility.

What do you think “turbulent activity of blossoming world literature” means? And, did careers in “art and literature” become more possible? I think the “Commonwealth literary board” refers to the Commonwealth Literary Fund, which underwent some changes in Menzies’ time.

In 1959, the award was won by Randolph Stow’s To the islands. Once again, there was a political response, albeit an indirect one. The Canberra Times of 24 April reported on Mr. Haylen (Labor MP for Parkes) speaking in the House of Representatives during the debate on the Universities Commission Bill:

He said it was a sorry state of affairs that of the 17 books that had been considered for the Miles Franklin award for 1958, only five had been printed in Australia.

The winning novel had been printed in England.

He said further assistance should go towards the establishment of a subsidised university printing press, similar to the Oxford and Cambridge University presses in England.

Fascinating. I have written before on the wonderful work done by our university presses. He also said the Commonwealth Government should support the establishment of a chair of Australian literature in every Australian university.

A posthumous award

The third book to receive the award was Vance Palmer’s The big fellow. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has read it as part of her Miles Franklin reading project. She feels it’s not up to the standard of the first two winners, and wonders whether it was one of those lifetime achievement awards. Certainly, the Palmers were significant supporters of and contributors to Australia’s life of letters in the 1930s to 1950s.

The award was accepted by Palmer’s wife Nettie at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, quite a contrast to the first award ceremony being “a literary gathering in the Rural Bank building” in Sydney.

Multiple wins

Patrick White Terrace

Patrick White Terrace, National Library of Australia

Several writers have won the award more than once, with two writers – Thea Astley and Tim Winton – winning four times. By the end of the award’s first decade, two writers had won it twice – Patrick White and yes, Thea Astley. In addition to his Voss win, White won the 1961 award with Riders in the chariot, and Astley won the 1962 and 1965 awards with The well dressed explorer and Slow natives.

The Canberra Times of 21 April quotes the judges on White’s Riders in the chariot:

 After reading, and re-reading this book, we have no hesitation in saying that it is a great novel, a novel that moves us to admiration for the creative impulse that has produced it. Its philosophy may not be original, but its people, their environment, and their actions are indisputably so.

They also describe what they believe to be its message, asking “is it not legitimate to expect a message from a work of this poetic and philosophical cast?” Yes, I think it is!

On Thea Astley’s second win, The slow natives, The Canberra Times of 22 April quoted the judges as saying that she was “A brilliant novelist with an inimitable style of her own”. But it was this in newspaper’s report that I found particularly interesting:

Most of the novels were well worth reading, and it was noted with interest that more writers than usual dealt with urban or country town themes, fewer with the outback and the aboriginal problem. There was more satire, more wit, and a considerable flavour of sophistication.

Noted by the judges I presume. Fewer dealt with “the outback and the aboriginal problem”. What to say to that except that it’s probably good to see writers moving onto more town and city themes than the outback, given where most people live, and, presuming that most of the writers were white, it’s also probably a positive thing that there were fewer books about “the aboriginal problem”! The thing about reading these older newspaper reports is the insight they provide into past attitudes.

The lesser-knowns

As always with awards, there are wins, like Vance Palmer’s, that haven’t remained in the public eye. I’ll share two others from the first decade. First is George Turner who shared the 1963 award with the better known Sumner Locke Elliot. Turner’s novel was The cupboard under the stairs. Once again Lisa comes to our aid with a review (and she liked this one better!). The Canberra Times wrote an article on 13 July a couple of months after the announcement. There is a reason for this belatedness. Apparently at the time of winning the award “it was impossible to obtain a copy in Australia”. Indeed, they say, “the first printing sold out so quickly that no copies ever reached Canberra”. This makes me think of MP Mr Haylen, and his desire for university presses, because Trove shows that Turner’s novel was first published in England. At least we don’t have that problem now!

The Canberra Times liked the book, which is about a farmer’s nervous breakdown. It has some faults they say, but overall “it is a compelling story, and as a study of madness it explores ground rarely covered in Australian literature.” Madness. That’s language we wouldn’t use now, isn’t it?

The other is Peter Mathers Trap, which, yes, Lisa has also reviewed. She found it hard going, but how wonderful that we have a review available online. Bloggers provide such an important service when they review older books! Thanks Lisa. Anyhow, according to The Canberra Times of 21 April, Mathers was living in London when his win was announced, and expressed surprise that he had won. Its story is pessimistic, Lisa says, pitting Melbourne’s slums and pubs against “glittering” society, and its main character, Jack Trap, is of mixed background, including indigenous Australian. Most reviewers, it seems, saw it as satire. However, Mathers, The Canberra Times says, “preferred not to call the novel a ‘satire’, but a ‘comic novel’ in the tradition of Irish writers from the 18th century down to Flan O’Brien, who died recently.” Hmm, an Australian Flan O’Brien. That has piqued my interest – in addition to the fact that I hadn’t heard of Mathers before (besides seeing him in Miles Franklin lists, that is).

… and finally

I did not specifically look for articles in The Canberra Times! It just so happens the most interesting articles that popped up in response to my search terms came from it. A comment on the quality of The Canberra Times or something to do with what papers have been digitised?

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin Award, the first decade (1958-1967)

  1. White of course said after his second win that he no longer wished to be considered. Fair enough, he was head and shoulders above the pack. As for Vance Palmer, I am astonished. Still, I suppose it was some reward for Nettie’s lifelong devotion to his career.

      • I looked up the Palmers’ letters and while the MF isn’t mentioned there is a querulous letter from Vance in 1958 complaining about The Big Fellow coming only equal first in a novel writing competition with a first-timer.

        • Interesting, Bill. Since MF was awarded after his death I guess it’s not surprising that there aren’t letters about it, though presumably he was hopeful.

  2. Goodness, I thought, what has Sue been up to? Why all these pingbacks on my blog, and to some of my most obscure titles?!
    Well now I know, what a super post, I really enjoyed reading this:)
    I’d better get cracking with reading the next decade before you do your next post…

  3. Hi WG,
    One of the Miles Franklin Award judges, Craig Munro, has written a memoir – ‘Under Cover: adventures in the art of editing’ – which provides a nifty and entertaining snapshot of Australian writing and publishing over the last 40 years. I couldn’t find anything about it amongst your posts and it seemed fitting to mention here. Incidentally (in relation to your post… though central to his story!) Munro worked as QUP’s inaugural fiction editor, championing ’emerging’ writers (including Peter Carey and Olga Masters) and Indigenous stories by Indigenous writers (also establishing the David Unaipon Award).
    Best wishes, Jane
    PS… I’ve been ‘following’ for a while now but this is my first comment, so I might throw in a belated note of appreciation for this blog, and your dedication to it.

    • Thanks Jane for commenting. It’s lovely to hear from you. I’d heard of Craig Munro but didn’t know of his memoir. It certainly sounds interesting, and I’ll see if I can find it. (I loved Hilary McPhee’s Other people’s words, which I read long before blogging). I wasn’t aware of his role at QUP. It was their publishing of Olga Masters and others in the 1980s that brought them to my attention, and made me love them ever since.)

      • I suppose Menzies might have been referring to the literary upheavals connected with Soviet Union and its literature post-Stalin and the emergence of literatures from Africa and other areas of the world that had seemed marginal.

        I don’t think we are much more enlightened these days. In the UK there seems to be a big increase in all sorts of hate crime so I just don’t buy the idea that we are all so much more humane and enlightened- that just ain’t so.

        • Thanks Ian for that idea. It makes sense. I’d love to see more of his speech to see if he explains it more.

          As for being more humane and enlightened, that’s really tricky. The older I get the more I feel human nature doesn’t change much but I like to think that politically we’ve moved at least a little in the right direction – in terms of human rights (for women, indigenous people, mentally ill people, etc etc). Not to say we can pat ourselves on the back because that would be insensitive to all that’s still wrong, but still, some progress??

  4. Sorry about the semi-rant! Of course you are right, in the era of Trump and Putin it is sometimes difficult to be optimistic!

  5. Oh, this is such an interesting post, Sue. You say that bloggers provide such an important service when they review older books, but I’d also argue that putting things into context (such as the history of literary prizes), as you have done here, is just as important.

    • Oh thanks kimbofo (haha, when I wrote your name, autocorrect offered “akimbo for”!). Anyhow, that’s nice of you to say. I enjoy the challenge of writing these, so I’m glad that others enjoy them too.

  6. Award season is upon us! Why is it so many of the rewards are given out in spring? Ah wait, I bet it has to do with the publishing cycle/calendar. Yup, just answered my own question.

    But here is another. Patrick White got a terrace, did Thea Astley get something? A garden, a gallery?

  7. Hi Sue, a very interesting post. I always look forward to the Miles Franklin Award. It always seems to cause some controversy. I looked at past winners, and noted too that I had not heard of The Trap by Peter Mathers, or Elizabeth O’Conner’s novel The Irishman. I have of course heard of Vance Palmer but have not read his book either. I will try to obtain them from my library..

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