Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary culture in colonial Australia

National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia, from the other side of Lake Burley Griffin

Bill of The Australian Legend’s AWW Gen 1 Week, which has just finished, focused on the authors and the books they wrote about colonial Australia. However, what about the readers? I’ve been planning to write a post on literary culture in colonial Australia for some time, and today seems to be just the right time! My post draws heavily on retired academic Elizabeth Webby’s 2011 John Alexander Ferguson Memorial Lecture titled “Reading in colonial Australia” which was published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (vol. 97, pt. 2) in December 2011 (available online). Webby starts by recognising the work done by lawyer-book collector-bibliographer Ferguson whose much-researched collection is at the National Library of Australia and who is commemorated there by the Ferguson Room.

It’s a fascinating lecture, for the content and for the discussion of the information sources Webby used to discover who read what in colonial Australia (1788 to 1901). (I’m always interested in the research process.) There are letters, of course, from colonists back to home, asking for books. Then there are advertisements listing personal libraries for sale. Early explorer George Bass’s library for example contained mostly books on medicine, science, law, theology plus classical authors like Horace, Virgil and Homer. A library typical of “gentlemen’s libraries of the period”. It contained very little fiction.

Another explorer, a couple of decades later, was John Oxley. His library was sold in 1828, and, Webby writes, it

displayed a decidedly stronger taste for fiction, indicating the shift towards novels as the main form of recreational reading which began in this period, although still deplored by many. When John Oxley’s library was sold by auction in Sydney in August 1828 about half of the 330 or so lots listed in the catalogue were works of fiction. They included such recent publications as Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of the Crusaders (1825), the American novelist Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (1827), as well as Gothic thrillers like Anne Radcliffe’s Gaston de Blondeville (1826) and Mary Shelley’s early science fiction tale Last Man (1826). Oxley clearly was a regular purchaser of the latest English books.

Later in the article, discussing attitudes to women readers, she refers to the sale of “a lady’s library” in 1833. While she didn’t see a list, it was described as comprising ‘upwards of six hundred volumes, chiefly standard Works, by the most esteemed ancient and modern authors, forming altogether a collection of English Literature rarely to be met with out of Europe'”. She uses this to counter the belief that women only read fiction!

Another fascinating source of information about what people were reading are advertisements for missing books. Fascinating. Besides providing information about what people had in their libraries, they also tell us how precious books were. In some of the ads she found, people threatened legal action or offered rewards. So, of course, I went to Trove to see what I could find. I found some of those Webby describes, but I also found one from June 1830 that seemed to be about recalling books that had been lent out and were now needed back for an estate auction. The list is fairly long, and looks like one of those aforesaid typical “gentlemen’s collections”. It has classics, sermons, theological works, essays, dictionaries and so on, but very little fiction, except for Sir Walter Scott, who’ll appear again later! The list ends with the statement that “The Public are also informed, that this extensive and valuable Library will in a short time be sold by Public Auction, of which due notice will be given. As Mr. HOWE’S Library is well known, it would be useless to make further comments at this time.” Clearly they expected the books to be returned, but I wonder what sort of comments it was useless to make?

Webby also explores lending libraries. They varied greatly. Some were set up by churches, and focused on morality and religion, with “frivolous” or “pernicious” publications being excluded. Some were created for “the colonial elite”, such as the Hobart Town Book Society and Sydney’s Australian Subscription Library. And some were set up to provide reading matter for working people. These were the Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Arts whose buildings are still familiar sights in Australian country towns. The short-lived Hobart Town Mechanics Institute was founded in 1827, and Sydney had established its Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in 1833. By 1834, it had “upwards of five hundred volumes … consisting of works on science, history and general literature, chiefly contributed by the liberal donations and loans of members and friends.” Indeed, Webby makes several references to people being asked to donate books from their own libraries to, for example, make them available to “the enquiring mechanic, who can find time to dive into their contents.” In truth, though, mechanics did not comprise the main memberships of these organisations.

And here is a good point to discuss what Webby calls the fiction debate. Those of you interested in the history of reading will know that novels were disparaged for a long time. I’ve written before about Jane Austen’s famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey, in which she described them as works

in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.

Northanger Abbey was published in 1817 so Austen’s defence is contemporaneous with the period we are discussing. Webby quotes James Ross, editor of the Hobart Town Courier, as supporting novel-reading in 1831. He defended the so-called “frivolous” reading tastes of members, arguing that recreational reading was valid after the “toil of a long day in some official, public or private arduous operation.” He also argued that reading English novels was, as Webby puts it, “almost a patriotic duty”, because these books

keep alive in no small degree that amor patriae, that attachment to our mother country and that familiarity with the manners and relish for the habits of our countrymen which is at all times so desirable.

Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe, first published 1819.

Webby identifies some of the fiction that was being read – including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Bulwer Lytton – but the author who pops up most frequently in her survey of the early to mid-nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott. The first book order from the 1826-established Australian Subscription Library, for example, included only one novelist, Scott.

And the 1836 report of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts defended the inclusion of novels in its library, with the argument, you’ll see, that is still used to defend, for example, the reading of comics. The report says:

… it ought to be remembered, that a taste for reading has to be formed before works of a more philosophical character will be relished or appreciated, and that if any book is likely to accomplish this more speedily than another, it is the works of Scott–containing, as they do, a vast fund of historical information, mixed up, in an agreeable shape, with the manners and customs of different periods.

Webby discusses much more, including the role of periodicals and newspapers in reading culture. She also writes about “reading aloud”, but I might save that for another post.

It’s clear from Webby’s lecture that the information available was scattered and incomplete. She praises Evandale Subscription Library in Tasmania which “stands out for the completeness of its records”. Please note this any of you who are currently involved in organisations, such as reading groups: keep your records! One day, some researcher will want them!

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary culture in colonial Australia

  1. I will review Waverley later this year, which I think is Scott’s first novel (hence “by the author of Waverley”). I have a full set of ‘Waverley’ novels courtesy of my late father, I’ve only read a couple but really like Ivanhoe, with its Jewish heroine, which I’ve had since I was a boy.

    Interesting that Austen and Scott both published anonymously (Scott published poetry under his own name) presumably to avoid notoriety. Bulwer-Lytton is a generation younger so by the time he started publishing novels I guess it was ‘respectable’ (I have his Harold). Wikipedia says his wife published a slanderous novels about him, he committed her to an asylum, public uproar forced him to have her released, and she wrote another. His life might be interesting than his fiction.

    • Thanks Bill. And as recollect Scott admired Auster for her ability to Unk great stories without all the bluster of his. I’ve only read one Scott, Old mortality I think it was, and I recollect enjoying it but have never turned to him again. My mother liked Ivanhoe.

  2. Walter Scott was everywhere in the early 1800s- the most influential of all 19th century novelists but so little read today. Scott made fiction respectable. I tried Old Mortality too and was rather fascinated by it (Scott the inventor of historical fiction) but didn’t quite finish it.

    • Thanks for this Ian. Interesting about Scott. Why do you think it is? Is it because his work was more like what we’d call “genre” today? And doesn’t have that extra layer – language, style, message/commentary that keeps, say, Austen, Dickens, Bronte alive?

      • He does have a rather heavy style and his (extraordinary) virtues are ones that have gone out of fashion. Old Mortality, I remember, is a historical novel that deals with real intelligence and subtlety the religious conflicts of 17th century Scotland. His journal is also well worth reading…but they do reveal a very crusty reactionary character as well as a heroic one!

        • Thanks Ian for this. Yes, I think your description of “a rather heavy style” ! what I was thinking from my single foray a long time ago. I’m not averse though to reading him again, perhaps Ivanhoe because it’s the one everyone seems to know.

          Hmm … but perhaps I should try the journal, crusty reactionary character notwithstanding!

  3. I’ve often wondered about the reading available to my ancestors in colonial Canada, and I suspect that it parallels the Australian experience. Outside the ‘big cities’ and the provincial capitals, I think that newspapers formed most of the available reading content for working people. No wonder the popularity of serialized novels!

    Thank you for your research, Sue.

    • Thanks Debbie. Yes. I suspect you’re right about colonial Canada. It’s hard to imagine reading a serialised novel now, though I suppose today’s soap opera and other TV serials – particularly miniseries – would be our equivalent.

      • Serialized novels used to be quite common in SF magazines – I can remember going up to the Union library, Melb U, every month to catch up on the latest Heinlen. (yes I know, nearly 50 years ago)

        • The first magazine I picked at random, Analog, April 1974 (Have I told you I don’t give ANY books away) contains 2 novelettes, 2 short stories and a serial.
          Venture Science Fiction Monthly March 1964 advertises “the third part of Robert A Heinlein’s heroic serial “Glory Road” and the customary science article by Isaac Assimov”, short stories by Philip K Dick, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Poul Anderson.
          Those really were the days!

        • Wow, Bill, that’s just over 40 years ago. Fascinating. I’ve been like you about books, and am still that way re fiction and main non-fiction but I have started giving about magazines, cookbooks (though that’s been hard) and particularly reference books, but I do expect to downsize in a decade or so and I won’t be able to take everything with me so I’m trying to start preparing now (in my head as much as in practice.)

  4. *chuckle* I’m just thinking about what might constitute the ‘records’ of the reading group I most recently belonged to… more about the wine that was drunk and the renovation tradies that were recommended and the junior cricket team scores than books, I suspect…

    • Oh dear. Still that’s part of the culture isn’t it? I think for some, reading groups provided, still provide, an opportunity for women to have their own time. There’s always some chat in our group about these sorts of things – these days it’s travel, politics and grandchildren, but we are rigorous about starting our book discussion at 830pm and it continues until about 9.30pm when the host usually gets up to make the tea and coffee. We have an almost complete record of the books we’ve read – about 15 missing from 30 years – and a blog record for the last ten.

  5. Hi Sue, My book club is a bit like Lisa’s. We discuss the book intermittently between other topics of interest! It has been operating for many years, but we do not keep a list of books we have read. However, if a book is nominated that we have already read, most of us remember it. I think my local library has over 20 book clubs they organize, and they probably have a list and reviews of the books read. I remember when I belonged to one, each of us put in our own reviews.

  6. Elizabeth WEBBY – one of THE great teachers at Sydney University – and a great promoter of evenings with local and foreign writers – before writers festivals! Alec Derwent HOPE, Keri HULME, Salman RUSHDIE. Not only local writers – and can you image – mid-1980s – sitting in an audience of maybe 50 maximum – to listen to a group of writers – including Salman RUSHDIE? True!

      • You missed? – then I must have missed equally – by NOT being in Canberra – something else of historic and literary moment. My first time in Canberra was nearing the end of my TDP Dip.Ed at Sydney in late 1970 – a trip based around Comparative Education practice – private/state/and teacher training – in Melbourne (we’d already done the equivalent in Sydney) – then through the Riverina – greetings and conversation with Al Grassby at the Yoogali Club just outside Griffith – and finally Canberra. We stayed at Bruce Hall – I met one of his grand-children – then a student in the Hall – we had time with educational heavies (no names remain) but clearly things were progressive in the National Capital! On a recent visit to Canberra I attended a political book launch at the ANU – interview of Terri BUTLER (a Qld MHR) by Andrew LEIGH (a Canberra MHR) re her book Labor of Love. Lots of interesting but, so far as I know, political, writers were also there in attendance.

        • Thanks Jim. Sounds like a great trip. Re your last point, very likely. A local literary venue has commented to me that their program has a high level of political content and that these sessions tend to get better numbers than their fiction ones!

  7. This is a fascinating topic. I never thought too much about The history of what people actually read. Like many I focused on what was being written.

    The disparagement of novel readers and thier defense is also an interesting topic. That is a very good Jane Austen quote.

    • Thanks Brian. I’m glad you find it interesting. It’s the sort of social history I enjoy. I love that Austen quote, and probably quote it too much! I love the word “only” in it.

  8. Pingback: Australian Book Review | theaustralianlegend

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