Monday musings on Australian literature: 1930s, moving beyond “gumleaf and goanna”

Time for another post inspired by Trove, this one, as often happens actually, discovered while researching something else. What I discovered was the discussion that went on in the 1930s about Australian fiction’s coming of age – and the fact that much of this was down to the women writers of the time (about which I have written before).

This post will focus on what critics and reviewers were saying about the Australian novel and its creators, and I’ll start with an intriguing competition that was run by Sydney’s The Sun in 1934. The competition was, apparently, for “a short comment on the progress of Australian fiction since the war”. What a fascinating competition idea? The competition report sums up the entries as follows:

Nobody expressed regret at the passing of the “gumleaf and goanna” phase — that tiresome exploitation of externals, of the obviously distinctive things in the Australian scene. Contestants commented on the decline of blood-and-thunder melodrama, and on the entry into Australian prose of high imagination and feeling for style (notably in the works of Henry Handel Richardson). Several commented on the success of women writers (H. H. Richardson, Kathleen Pritchard [sic], G. B. Lancaster, Helen Simpson, and others), and the use of themes of universal interest, even if the setting be Australian.

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1927/8) (State Library of New South Wales [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

This idea that Australian prose was moving away from a focus on melodrama and simple plots to exploring deeper issues and concerns runs through all the articles I read from the decade. As The Sun’s writer says, the setting, for most, was still Australian, but the core issues were becoming more universal. (Also running through the articles, unfortunately, was an ongoing issue with getting Katharine Susannah Prichard’s name right – something I’m sure biographer Nathan Hobby knows all about, and then some!)

Anyhow, the winner of the competition, a Miss Constance Wallace of Roseville, wrote that:

The Australian novel at last has broken from the convention of gum-trees and wide open spaces. It is losing its colonial, narrow atmosphere for a more vital and a broader national—and International—outlook. It has achieved a deeper humanity and a more virile quality. No longer is it mere landscape painting; the canvas begins to glow with the warmer tones of human emotions.

She names, among others, Henry Handel Richardson, Helen Simpson, G.B. Lancaster (pseudonym for Edith Joan Lyttleton), M Barnard Eldershaw, and a man or two, including Ion Idriess.

Meanwhile, back in 1931, The Canberra Times reported on two talks given to the Canberra Society of Arts and Literature by eminent men of letters of the time, Kenneth Binns and Harold White. Binns discussed M Barnard Eldershaw’s Green memory. He described the plot as “strong, dramatic and dignified” and as proceeding “with that quality of inevitableness which is characteristic of all great dramatic writing”. He liked the characterisation, describing the interest being in “the pull of character against character, instinct against instinct” in the two main characters, but he also commended the authors’ ability to delineate their minor characters. In terms of style, he described the pair as “masters of vivid, picturesque yet dignified writing”, likening them to Robert Louis Stevenson, “in their use of picturesque and arresting words and metaphors, and also in their command of highly pregnant short sentences”. Binns believed that Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw had “produced a book which not only delights but which also adds dignity and significance to Australian letters”.

Book coverWhite talked about Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930), starting by contesting some of the criticisms from Australian critics. He described the trilogy as having “a structural harmony found only in very great novels” and he dispensed with “the question of whether the author had produced a typicallv Australian book or not” by saying it was “a universal work, and that should be enough”. (So there!) White, like Binns, then went on to talk about the work in detail – plot, characterisation, style, and so on, concluding, our reporter says, that

with this one book, Australian fiction took its rank with European conception of the novel as a form of art through which the real experiences of life are recorded sincerely and honestly. At the same time the author had recreated a period in our social history and added two living creations to the world’s great characters in fiction.

In 1934, a writer in The Age reviewed a later work by Henry Handel Richardson, The end of a childhood, which s/he described as “a collection of odds and ends”. Some of this the reviewer felt would “add little to the author’s reputation”. However, the work includes some sketches of girlhood, in which, says the writer, “slight as they are, Mrs. Robertson [sic!!!] displays a penetrative knowledge of the mentality of young girls”. The book concludes with four stories, which, our writer finally praises, reveals the “psychological subtlety which has proved a valuable asset in her portrayal of characters on a larger canvas”.

Moving on, in 1937, an article in Adelaide’s The Advertiser discussed Katherine [sic] Susannah Pritchard’s [sic] (honestly!) novel Intimate strangers, which the writer argues represents a development in Australian fiction because it “gives one the impression that Mrs. Pritchard [sic] is feeling her way towards what one may call the sociological novel”. The writer has some reservations about the book, but also praises it because Prichard

has grasped so well … the essentially challenging nature of marriage — the surrender that it calls for but which cannot wholly be given; the individual aspirations that, in its infinite demands, it so often submerges; the regrets it cannot completely banish; and the whole complex and unfathomable business of two distinct personalities being required to find a common denominator.

Dymphna Cusack, JungfrauAnother writer praised during the decade is Dymphna Cusack. In another 1937 article in Adelaide’s The Advertiser, the reviewer praises Cusack’s Jungfrau (my review). The reviewer starts with:

“IT is not wholly fanciful to suggest that within a decade or so most novels of ideas will be written by women,” a distinguished English literary critic wrote recently. “Modern intelligent men,” he added, “express themselves and their thoughts more easily in autobiographies, biographies, essays, and books of travel than in the form of fiction. And the future of the English novel is already largely in the hands of women.”

Our reviewer goes on to suggest that we should test this idea against the Australian novel, and starts by referencing Henry Handel Richardson. However, “are there”, s/he asks, “any young Australian women writers to succeed her in making the future of the Australian novel a brilliant one?” Well, yes, is the answer, and one of these is Dymphna Cusack as evidenced by her debut novel Jungfrau. I loved the writer’s reference to the cover, when s/he describes it as “a novel that — despite its title and its publishers’ absurd pictorial jacket— is arrestingly Australian in every way as well as being a fine piece of fiction”.

S/he goes on to praise Jungfrau, for its portrayal of Sydney, giving

a valuable picture of our city life that should do much to dispel persistently recurring illusions abroad concerning Australians’ homes, culture, manners, and way of speech.

Not only is Jungfrau “interesting and convincing”, s/he writes, it is also

extremely well-written, the prose having an effortless continuity and forcefulness which make it delightful to read, as, one feels, it must have been delightful to write.

The writer praises Cusack’s “lesser characters”, saying she “has endowed the very least of them with life; they are all so easy to believe in, and so easy to like or laugh at or despise.” And finally, s/he concludes that “altogether, the young writer is very much to be congratulated on her first book; on her irony, insight, and deft handling of human nature”.

So, Henry Handel Richardson, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, and Dymphna Cusack … all praised, with clear argument, for progressing Australian fiction through the quality of their writing and their characterisation, and by tackling bigger and more universal ideas.

Have you read these authors, and, if so, what would you say?

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: 1930s, moving beyond “gumleaf and goanna”

  1. Of these writers I’ve only read Henry Handel Richardson (because of Penguin and Virago paperback editions). I remember FRM as a powerful trilogy pretty much doing for the novel in Australia what the great European realists had done. I seem to remember Germaine Greer arguing that The Getting Of Wisdom was Richardson’s best work and that the reputation of Mahoney was overdone because of its vastness (not sure that I agree with her). I wonder if the excellence of this massive novel had something to do with Richardson having spent a lot of time in Europe with distance giving perspective? In Scotland the same could be said for Robert Louis Stevenson.

    • That’s a good question Ian, to which I guess we’ll never really know the answer – but I’m sure distance can give perspective that in the right hands, like hers, can enrich a work. I need to read Stevenson as an adult – as I’m sure I’ve said before!

  2. I will of course include this post in the writing about AWW Gen 3. The one writer who is missing is Eleanor Dark who had 3 novels out by the time Jungfrau was published (1936) and who of course fits the ‘beyond gumleaf’ theme. Christina Stead was just getting started, though Seven Poor Men of Sydney was out.

    It’s interesting that the writers you quote see the women of this period as writing about universal concerns/relationships whereas I have been looking at Social Realism as the unifying principle. Food for thought! HHR was Australia’s preeminent writer by the 1930s, on the basis mostly of Fortunes, though I think Maurice Guest is the better work and certainly more ‘universal’. I found an old copy of Cuffy Mahoney/The End of a Childhood a couple of years ago. Lisa and I both reviewed it. It has some lovely stories about girlhood. But I don’t resile from placing her in Gen 2, the ‘gumleaf’ generation.

    I don’t have Lancaster/Lyttleton at all, which I’ll have to remedy. And Ion Idriess, who is a very gumleaf guy sneaks in, how’d that happen?

    • Haha, re Idriess, Bill. I nearly left him out because he didn’t fit but I thought that would not have been honest! (That writer who named him also mentioned My brilliant career which is rather long BEFORE the war, so I decided my honesty had limited and that I’d omit that reference!)

      I think your social realism is still valid as a unifying principle. A couple of the writers referred to that aspect, particularly in relation to Prichard of course.

      I will probably write more on this, but interestingly Dark did not pop up in the articles I read – but I only read a few. (She did appear in my previous Monday Musings on women of the 1930s though.)

  3. I haven’t read any of these authors, although I have noted a couple for my TBR.

    I was very interested in your post, though, because Canada, too, saw a crystallization, so to speak, of ‘mature’ post-British-colonial literature. I’ll have to do more research but my feeling is that we were about three decades behind Australia.

  4. It is always interesting going back and looking at what folks wee saying about literature and other art in the past. It sounds like this was a time of change for Australian literature. That makes it all the more interesting.

  5. Binns sure was a bloke for dignity, eh ? – he appears delighted that it had entered the realm of literature. Dignity … I wonder what he thought had gone before ?!

    • A man of his times M-R! One of the things I like about Trove is seeing the language and values. What he calls dignity we might approve under a different name? Good question about what he thought went before.

      • I think Australians of ‘dignity’ were overwhelmed by the flood of bush realism – taken to be all of Australian Literature rather than part – particularly Steele Rudd and the subsequent Dad and Dave school, but also all the Lawson, Paterson, Bulletin underpinnings which flowed through to WWI Lit.

  6. I’ve dug out my copy of Vernay’s Brief Take on the Australian Novel for this….
    FWIW He says, “most bestsellers from 1910 to 1940 were historical novels and narratives that portrayed the country in fiction with great verisimilitude”. He mentions Prichard’s Working Bullocks (1926); Vance Palmer’s The Passage (1930) depicting a fishing village life in Qld, HHR’s Richard Mahoney, and Miles Franklin on the bravery of NSW pioneers in Old Blastus Banidcoot (1931), with Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land (1941). The significance of these, he says, is that they “provide a basis for the establishment of national values; it gives scope to imagine a national destiny other than the official one recorded in history books; and it allows readers to exorcise the traumas of the colonial era”.
    War novels, depicting atrocities to show how “absurd and cruel” WW1 was, and its transition to the demystification of war and the anti-hero, get four paragraphs. It’s enough for me to note The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (1929); and Flesh in Armour (1932) by Leonard Mann.
    Bill, he writes about Socialist Realism as fashionable in the 1940s and 50s…

    • Thanks Lisa. I should read that book. I’m guessing the writers in the 30s were wanting to move from this more “national” focus to a more “universal” one?

      Re Social Realism, probably fair point though from my reading, I’d accept that it started in the 30s with Prichard, Barnard, Eldershaw, and others, but really picked up into the 40s.

      • There’s a distinction between Social Realism and Socialist Realism – the latter was Communist Party policy glorifying the worker, and of course many Australian writers at least up to 1956 were Communist.

      • Honestly, I haven’t read enough from the period to know, and what I have read tends to be the well-known titles so there could very easily be lesser-known titles to scupper either or both of Vernay’s ideas or those of your Trove correspondent.
        Just this week, I discovered that Sydney Uni Press are releasing a bilingual edition of a book the first (known) novel of the Chinese-Australian experience. It’s called The Poison of Polygamy and it’s by Wong Shee Ping. My point is that there could be any number of hidden treasures like this one, and until they surface, experts and amateurs alike could be declaring (as I have been known to do) that such and such is the first or only example of this or that, and turn out to be totally wrong.
        That’s what makes it fun, IMO, though if I were an academic staking my job on it, maybe not so much…

        • Absolutely Lisa … we never know do we what’s out there. (There might even be another Austen novel – or, even more of her letters would be a thrill!!)

          I’ve read a bit in this period and quite a lot about it, particularly when I was doing Wikipedia work, but you are right that we can never be categorical.

          That book sounds great – good on SUP.

  7. I find myself thinking of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony fairly often, mainly when I hear people talking about the experience of migration involving dislocation and a sense of belonging in neither the old nor the new country. The FRM captures that with agonising vividness. I haven’t read any of the others, but I remember the brilliant Pram Factory production of her play Brumby Innes in the 70s, its first theatrical outing decades after its prizewinning appearance on the page.

  8. I’m very taken with the gum leaf and goanna phrase, haven’t heard it before but find it so evocative of the time it described and an effective yet subtle put down as Australians saw themselves becoming more sophisticated. I’ve read some of these authors but not the books you’ve referenced, must remedy that.

  9. Hi Sue, I have read the authors mentioned and they did tackle social problems. Maybe because the depression was felt by all. The world had changed and people were more aware of political and social upheavals. So, writing styles changed to reflect these impacts. Life wasn’t gumleaf and goanna, it was complex.

  10. Pingback: Australian Women Writers, 1930s | theaustralianlegend

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