I’ve had Louise Mack’s debut novel, The world is round, on my TBR for about 20 years. Published in 1896, when she was 26 years old, it’s a fairly straightforward tragicomedy about a young well-to-do 21-year-old girl, Jean, who aspires to be a writer, and the two men who love her, the 30-plus-year-old self-confident, successful lawyer-and-writer Musgrave, and the around-25-year-old, shy and financially struggling Harrison. It’s a short work, a novella really, being just 93 pages in my edition.
Now, when I was searching Trove for information about Mack for this week’s Monday Musings, I found a couple of articles about her writing, amongst a myriad about her lecture tours. One was written in 1895, before this novel was published but after some of her verse and short prose pieces started appearing in journals like the Bulletin. The article quotes Mrs Bright, editor of Cosmos:
In these early days it is not possible to predict the place that Miss Mack is destined to fill in Australian literature. At present she shines chiefly in dialogue and a quaint, satirical style; peculiarly noticeable in sketches like “A study in Invitations.” In time she may develope [sic] a faculty for descriptive writing, which will supply the only quality now lacking to ensure her high rank among the popular novelists of the day.
The other was written in 1896, soon after the publication of her novel. The writer says:
Miss Mack has a particularly taking satirical style, but her descriptive writing is hardly up to her ability in the other department. Were she to but slightly improve in that qualification it would enhance the already strong position she has attained in the ranks of popular writers.
So, the praise is qualified. Her niece, the writer Nancy Phelan who wrote the introduction to my edition, discusses her not living up to this early potential. She notes that a common view is that she was “praised too soon, told she was good and encouraged to rush into print” when she needed time to sit back and think, and “be disappointed”. Phelan writes:
She wrote instinctively … but without proper guidance and criticism her work too often became facile. Facility, with a fertile imagination and love of inventing stories, made her a successful romantic novelist but it eroded her talent, and years of formula writing elbowed aside the poet. She never lost her poetic awareness but had little occasion to use it. Haste, lack of reflection, putting words on paper before they were ready robbed them of their true value; it was quicker and easier to write of trivial events than to try to address deep, difficult thoughts and emotions.
Yet in all Louise’s books there are glimpses of the writer she might have been. Even in her most idiotic novels there are occasional patches of true feeling or sensitive descriptions …
Why have I written all this? Well, partly because it might explain why this particular writer from the past has sunk from view. However, I’d argue that The world is round is worth reading – for a couple of reasons. One is that it is a good read, in which you can see why she received early praise. As our 1895 and 1896 writers above say, her dialogue is good and she has a lovely, light, satirical eye. (I’m going to share an excerpt which shows both of these in a Delicious Descriptions next week.) The other is that it is a good example of why “classics” (or older works) are worth reading. I’m going to focus my post on these two points.
a “brilliant little study”
The 1896 writer notes that “the reader’s report” for this novel described it as a “brilliant little study of two men and two women, sparkling and witty, and told in a graphic style”. It is a fun read, still today. It has a light touch, never wallowing in the issues it raises, and not weighed down with long explication or too many adjectives that you sometimes find in debut novelists. There are moments of sadness or pathos – obviously at least one of the would-be lovers is going to be disappointed, for a start – but Mack never becomes sentimental. (You can see this skill in those columns I referred to in my Monday Musings.)
The story is told third person, chronologically, in named chapters – “Musgrave”, “Jean”, “In which a friend is brutal” – and takes place in various interiors, such as James Musgrave’s chambers, Harrison’s classroom, and Jean’s home. Mack draws on the life she knows, presenting a picture of a small group of characters moving around each other in a small environment. This is very reminiscent of Jane Austen, to whom there is a tongue-in-cheek allusion in this conversation between Jean and Musgrave:
“I don’t suppose I will ever be a George Eliot, or a Thackeray, but perhaps I may be a–”
“Miss Austen! oh, surely I’ll be something b–I mean surely I won’t be like her.”
“She did some good work.”
I mean to say! Anyhow, Mack’s descriptions of her small group of people and their interactions ring true, while also drawing on standard literary tropes, like the well-to-do heroine and her poor friend, the experienced confident suitor and the awkward poor one. The plot plays out, perhaps more through little vignettes than a flowing narrative, but it is enjoyable to read, largely because these vignettes are well-drawn, and confidently mix a light tone with the occasional darker one. I’ll leave the story there.
on reading “classics”
As I was reading this old book or forgotten “classic” (let’s not get into the definitions of “classic” here now), I started thinking about why we read such books. It’s easy to explain those classics that belong to the canon: they address the big universal themes or ideas, their writing is skilled and timeless, and, often, they have innovated or contributed something to literary culture. But, what about what we might call the second rung, books like Mack’s The world is round? Are they really worth reading over contemporary writers? I’d say yes, and one of the justifications is in the first line of Mack’s novel. It starts:
Sydney was revelling in the clear, cold weather of June, the most delicious month of the Australian seasons.
Now, that is not an attitude most Australians would have today, but is clearly how the colonials, those transplants from mild temperate Britain, felt about Australia’s climate. In other words, books written in a different time can provide a fascinating insight into the attitudes and values of that time. They might be fiction, but they can’t help also betraying their era. For students of colonial Australia, Mack’s novella offers some delightful insights into “the life and times”.
I don’t want to bore you with details, but will just share one more example. It concerns the poor friend who tells Jean that she “can’t write about Australia, it doesn’t appeal” to her. She admits she’s a “Colonial” but she knows nothing of bush life. She says, “I’ve never taken my country into my soul, and never will until I get away from it”. However, she’s poor, and is offered a job governessing in the bush on a cattle station. She learns to love the Bushies and to prefer them over “the posturing, pseudo-intellectual Sydney set”. She writes several pages to Jean on the subject. Now, this friend plays a role in the plot in terms of providing a counter assessment of Jean’s literary skills and there’s a plot reason for sending her away, but I can’t see much reason for this little outburst, except for Mack to make some point about colonial society and its values.
So, there you have it. This is less review, more wandering reflections, but I hope I’ve convinced you that Louise Mack is a worthy addition to the list of past writers who should be kept alive.