I came across a reference to the 1934/35 Melbourne Centenary literary competitions quite by accident, but they intrigued me so I decided to investigate further. Here’s what I found …
According to an article in the La Trobe Journal (no. 34, October 1984), there was much discussion about whether to celebrate the centenary in a major way or not, but it was eventually decided to go ahead because of its importance, and because visitors “would circulate money and create jobs”. A valid reason, given, as the article says, that “Australia was slowly recovering from the world-wide depression”. Unemployment was falling, it says, but was “still at a serious level.”
So, a celebration was planned, to span last six months, starting with a Henty celebration at Portland in October 1934 and finishing with “the anniversary of the Batman and Fawkner settlements at Port Phillip in 1935.” The celebrations included, among other things, several competitions including the MacRobertson Centenary Air Race and the Melbourne Centenary Grand Prix.
The article also mentions that the Centenary Council sponsored The Centenary gift book. Edited by Frances Fraser and Nettie Palmer (who has appeared here before), it was, apparently, entirely written and illustrated by women. The things you learn.
There were four literary competitions – for a poem, short story, novel and war-novel. Before I discuss them, though, I’d like to share a comment about the competition which I found in the notes accompanying a 2007 exhibition mounted from the Monday University Library’s Rare Book Collection, Australian Women Writers 1900-1950. The comment comes from writer Marjorie Barnard (who has also appeared here before):
Marjorie Barnard pointed out to Leslie Rees with some irony that the 1934 Victorian Centenary literary competition was worth £200, while the golf championship attracted five times that amount.
Plus ça change, eh?
The first prize awarded was for the Poem, announced in August 1934. It was worth £50, and there were 179 entries. The winner was Furnley Maurice, pseudonym of Frank Wilmot who apparently founded the Melbourne Literary Club in 1916. His winning poem was ”Melbourne and memory”. Ninety-six lines long, it was described by the judges – W. F. Wannon, Nettie Palmer, and Enid Derham – as “a work of beauty and permanence.” The announcement in Adelaide’s The Advertiser (11 August) says it “consists of irregular but cadenced and rhymed verse”, and describes its theme as “the impact of Melbourne today upon a sensitive observer.” I like the “sensitive observer” bit!
Commentators describe it as “an early attempt to capture the everyday life of a city through references to familiar places.” It opens Maurice’s collection, Melbourne odes. The Oxford companion to Australian literature says that the odes overall “deal with places and events familiar in the life of the city: the Victoria Markets, the annual agricultural show and orchestral concerts in the Melbourne Town Hall”. One, “Upon a row of old boots and shoes in a pawn-broker’s window”, describes the plight of the unemployed, and is, the Companion says, “a powerful radical commentary on the economic misery and injustice of the time.”
The Short Story prize, also worth £50, was announced next, in September. For the short story and novel prizes, entries had to be submitted under a pen-name, to ensure blind judging. The announcement in the West Australian (29 September) said the winner was “‘Caspar Dean’ for the story entitled ‘Sea Hawk.'” ‘Caspar Dean’, they then divulge, was none other than novelist Vance Palmer (whom you’ve also met here). There were 119 entries.
Brisbane’s columnist, “The Bookman”, in The Courier Mail (6 October) is more expansive:
In the writing of a short story, many attempt but few succeed. It is an art that requires both study and practice, for a good short story is the concentrated essence of incident and character, dovetailed in a manner that carries conviction. Mr. Vance Palmer is the present-day master of the short story in Australia, so it is not surprising that he won the prize for the best story in the Melbourne Centenary Short Story Competition. It is said that Henry Lawson’s outstanding success as a writer of short stories was that he hung a lamp on every place that he wrote about. Vance Palmer has many of the characteristics of Lawson, but he is less dramatic; he has a far greater vocabulary, a more polished style, and a better knowledge of the world. Sincerity is his strong suit in novels, stories, plays, or poetry.
In November, it was the Novel’s turn, and the result was more surprising. Firstly, there were joint winners, and secondly one of the winners was unknown. The prize, donated by “Mrs James Dyer”, the sister of Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, was worth £200. There were 153 entries, and the judges were, said Melbourne’s The Age (24 November), Enid Derham (senior lecturer in English at the University of Melbourne), H. W. Allen (Vice-master of Ormond College) and Frank Wilmot (Furnley Maurice who won the Poetry prize). The winners were ‘Redhead’ (Frederick Sydney Hibble) with his novel Karangi, and ‘Ivan Power’ (Vance Palmer) with The Swayne family. Sydney-based Hibble set his novel in country New South Wales, while Palmer’s was set in Melbourne.
The Age’s report says – somewhat politically incorrectly now – that:
… Mr. Hibble was overjoyed. He said he had written the book hurriedly, having spent only four weeks on it. Mr Hibble is a cripple, and in receipt of an invalid pension. Mr. Hibble has written a number of short stories, and had his book sub-edited by a Sydney woman journalist.
Hibble apparently became disabled in 1919 “after suffering an illness during the flu epidemic.”
Now, I’ve never heard of FS Hibble, but “Pegasus”, writing in the Book Talk column in Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin (26 January 1935), is highly impressed:
The Swayne Family, by Vance Palmer, which I dealt with a few weeks ago, was an outstanding novel of its kind, and Karangi, by F. S. Hibble … which I have just read, is as fine a piece of well-balanced realism as has appeared in the history of the Australian novel … the beauty of both books, to a great extent, lies in the fact that the setting is not emphasised, as has been the tendency in many Australian books, but just taken for granted, as it should be, and treated as a strictly subordinate part in the creation of a work of art. Both take their vitality from the vividness of their characterisation, and the deft working out of relations between these characters; but, whereas The Swayne Family depends for its interest for the wide sweep which it takes over the various members of three generations, Karangi is a much more detailed study of the working out of one particular character upon the background provided by scarcely more than a dozen characters in all.
S/he goes on to say that while both are “outstanding” novels,
I think “Karangi” by far the finer achievement. If the writer’s hand appears to lack the mature experience of Vance Palmer, the depth of his insight into human nature might appear to be greater, his capacity to make the very ordinary people he has chosen for his characters appear unique, his handling of the development of the character through pressure of the emotions, and his sense of the dramatic in his presentation of the tale betoken an author who will yet go very far.
And yet, as happens surprisingly often, this was Hibble’s only book, though he had several short stories published.
Finally, the War Novel. This prize, also worth £200, was made by the Victorian branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League as its contribution to the Centenary. The conditions, according to Hobart’s The Mercury (March 1934), were that:
Candidates must be persons who served abroad during the war as members of the Australian Imperial Force, the Royal Australian Navy, or the Australian Nursing Service. The novel must deal with the life of the Australian soldier in the war, and his reaction to the various conditions, environments, and the experiences through which he passed. The sequence of the story and the descriptive matter must be accurate historically and geographically, a condition which certainly will distinguish any war novel from any other one has read.
Hmm, so a Nurse could enter but the subject had to be a “he”, “the Australian soldier”?
The winners were announced in Melbourne’s The Age on, appropriately, Anzac Day in 1935. I say winners because first (£150) and second (£50) prizes were awarded. The first went to Over the top by ‘Sar-Major’ (pen-name for JP McKinney, Surfers Paradise, Queensland), with the second going to Summer campaign, by ‘Roger Walters’ (C.W.W. Webster, Melbourne). There were over 50 entries, with the judges being Sir Keith Murdoch, Sir Harry Chauvel, and Mr. Phillips (a Melbourne barrister). A note in Miles Franklin’s papers at the State Library of NSW, states that her novel All that swagger “was entered in the Melbourne Centenary Prize Competition in 1934”.
Over the top was published by Angus and Robertson as Crucible.
But, JP McKinney of Surfers Paradise rang a bell. The newspaper reports didn’t help, though, because the reason I recognised his name came later. Yes, he’s the man who became the husband of one of Australia’s most famous poets, Judith Wright. The things you learn, as I said before!