Louise Mack, The world is round (Review)

Louise Mack, The world is roundI’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.”
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.

aww2017-badgeLouise Mack
The world is round
Pymble: Angus & Robertson, 1993 (orig. pub. 1896)
ISBN: 9780207180163

25 thoughts on “Louise Mack, The world is round (Review)

  1. I completely agree that this sort of writer should not (if this is possible because I suppose almost every novelist will one day be forgotten) be too easily cast away. Louise Mack sounds like a delightful writer whose light touch comes through in your extracts. Sometimes the secondary novelists capture something that is simply unavailable elsewhere. I got rid of a lot of books recently and I don’t regret that but I do have some pangs about all those worlds let go!

  2. I’m not about to disagree with you about reading ‘classics’, and as you say, one of the reasons is that whatever fictional story is being told, there will be lots of truth in the environment or setting – in a way that historical novels can only approximate. Another reason is that I would rather read old, good writing than contemporary, middlebrow writing, of which there is far too much to too little purpose.

    • Yes, very true, Bill about historical novels being only able to approximately that sort of knowledge and understanding. What good (ie not your genre ones) historical novels do instead is, like historians, offer a new perspective on the past which is something those living through a time can’t do.

  3. WG: I am one who does indeed revel in the clear cold weather of a NSW coastal winter – and “delicious” seems to be my word of choice for that freshness. I live more than half the year dreading the arrival of heat – the other anxiously watching the evening news to ensure that the following day may be endured! It was a summer spent in southern Scotland which properly alerted me to the fact that my ideal maximum is a mere 22 degrees C. I was in Japan just recently – not a maximum above 13 degrees nor below 10 degrees – I was fully alive – walking home at night from catch-up parties in the city centre to my accommodation three or four kms distant without a qualm or shiver in the world. Louise MACK – a name on my radar but never read. Thanks for this introduction!

    • Oh not me, Jim! I do have friends who don’t like the extreme heat but I think they’d all say something like March (or April) was the best month. As for me I think my Queensland childhood set my course. I don’t LOVE days of 35°C plus, but I’d prefer them to days of 13°C. Hot days make me feel alive, while cold ones make me want to curl up and hide. A northern Queensland coastal town in the winter – now that’s something!

      You will probably like Louise Mack!

      • That would make you an ideal companion for my wife. Way back in the past when it was still possible – I would muse moving to Tasmania while she was looking northwards to north coast NSW. Part of the tensions of internal body thermostats. Of course slightly north of Sydney coastal winters are mild – compared to your up-country ACT climes – much milder than the mid-late autumn temperatures I was quoting for western Japan. This morning here is warming up Wednesday January 11 – though as yet overcast – muggy is the best word – as we enter a period of days of over 40s degrees C – you’ll be in the thick of that – good luck!

        • Yes we know all about different internal body temps here, Jim. We are currently in Thredbo, but returning to the heat tomorrow!

          My brother lives in Tasmania and we have ongoing friendly jibes about the weather. Not warm enough there for me, whilst we are too warm for him.

  4. I was first introduced to Louise Mack in a wonderful book written by her niece, Nancy Phelan, first published in 1969 and which I found in a second hand shop. The book is such a gem, in which Nancy writes about her amazing childhood at Chinaman’s Beach, with holidays at Palm Beach, Hunter’s Hill and Cobbity. During her childhood depicted in this book, Nancy’s family home is always brimming over with literary luminaries of the day, including her aunt Louise In particular I loved her descriptions of Sydney harbour having been taught to be ‘good in a boat’ by her lawyer father. This experience encouraged me to read Nancy’s biography of Louise, ‘The Romantic Lives of Louise Mack’, published by University of Queensland Press in 1991 who is described by Nancy as being ‘impetuous, unconventional, exasperating and outrageous woman’, I commend it to you.

    • Thanks so much Wendy for sharing this, because I don’t think many of us have actually read Nancy Phelan. It’s clear that Nancy hasn’t written, as Lisa feared, a hagiography but rather had the measure of her aunt – and yet she seems to have had affection for her. I think it was she who wrote that Mack died “possessionless”. I was interested that she didn’t say “poverty-stricken” which was intended to confirm, I’m guessing, where her values lay.

  5. so fun to find such overlooked and forgotten treasures! You are right, there is value in second tier classics which are of cracking reads and were bestsellers in their day. I have to ask, what little snack photobombed you book cover photo? 🙂

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