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Monday musings on Australian literature: Setting vs Character in 1930s Australian fiction

October 28, 2019

Today’s post continues the discussion started in last Monday’s “gumleaf and goanna” post. It looks particularly at what reviewers were saying about setting/scene and character, through five Australian books that were reviewed in papers during the decade. There was clearly a lot of engagement in the community about the development of Australian literature, and you can expect more posts on the decade!

This post was inspired, though I’m not going to labour the point, by Eric Norton, who wrote in The Courier Mail in 1934. He comments on the over-focus in Australian literature on “some half dozen ‘peculiar’ environments — the farm, the selection, the station, the mining camp, and a few others, which, if not familiar to us in actuality, have become so through the magazines or by repute”. The stories relying on these, he says, “develop inevitably a certain sameness”. For him, “the imperishable in fiction is that which deals primarily with the shallows or the deeps of the human heart” and he concludes with:

In the creation of fiction, as in life, it is character, not setting, that counts; and it is to the Australian rather than to Australia that the local novelist must look for his inspiration.

Book coverBrent of Bin Bin: We now know this pseudonym was Miles Franklin, but it was a pretty well-kept secret at the time. Certainly, the reviewer in Melbourne’s The Age had no idea. S/he reviews Ten creeks run (1930) (see Bill’s review), which was the second Brent of Bin Bin novel. The reviewer has mixed feelings, saying that “the same defects and the same merits” are apparent in it, but then says that “the effect of repetition is to bring out the merits more emphatically and to place the defects in the background”. This reviewer discusses both setting and character:

The canvas is crowded with minor characters, and the author has not sufficient skill to make these minor characters stand out individually; but the mass effect is good as a background to this story of station life on the Murrumbidgee more than a generation ago. Station life has never been more faithfully depicted in Australian fiction, or with so little conscious effort. Most of the more important characters are true to life, and though the story does not reveal much imaginative force on the part of the author in creating dramatic situations, he [ha!] has skill enough to keep the reader’s interest alive.

Birkett, 1939, Unknown, National Library of Australia, Public Domain, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Winifred Birkett, who won the prestigious ALS Gold Medal, for her 1934 novel, Earth’s quality. The reviewer in Melbourne’s Leader, says this book represents a “great advance on her previous book, Three goats on a bender”.  S/he goes on to say that Earth’s quality,

like so many other Australian novels, has a sheep station for its setting, but unlike most of its class it is not a description of station life, but a study in characterisation. And most of the characters are portrayed with the skill of a practised hand.

S/he then describes some of the main and minor characters, noting that one of the minor characters, Anthony, a Cockney man-of-all-work, “stands out with the vividness of reality”. Fascinatingly, however, “Miss Birkett is not very successful in portraying woman characters”. The story is “somewhat bare of incident, but the literary quality of her book lifts it much above the level of most Australian novels”.

John K Ewers: A Western Australian novelist, poet and schoolteacher who was President of the WA branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. His second novel, Fire on the wind (1935), was reviewed in Melbourne’s Leader.  It’s a story about disastrous bushfires in Gippsland in the late nineteenth century. The reviewer notes that Ewers hadn’t lived in Gippsland, but did have “relatives who spent part of their lives there, and lived through the terrible experiences of Black Thursday.” S/he then outlines the plot – a farm saga – including describing the characters, and concludes that “Although the author is not a Gippslander he knows the bush and the settlers, and on that account the background of his story has the note of realism. His best portrait is that of the aged Colliver, who, despite his narrowmindedness and his bigotry, is an engaging old man”. (ADB)

William Hatfield (pen-name of English-born writer Ernest Chapman): This author I hadn’t heard of. He was best known for his novel Sheepmates (1931), but the review I’m focusing on is for his 1933 novel, Desert saga. It buys right into our modern discussions about who can write what story, because it is, says the The Age’s reviewer, “about a tribe of aborigines in Central Australia, who, when the story opens, had never even seen a white man.” Our reviewer says the author provides “an interesting account of tribal customs and ceremonies, but the primitive conditions of life of an aboriginal tribe do not provide the variety in scene, incident and character, which are the main essentials of a good novel”. Of course, there would have been be good character to explore here, but Hatfield wouldn’t have been the man to do it. Hatfield is on firmer ground when he introduces white men, and explores their relationship with Indigenous people. The reviewer concludes that it’s obvious that Hatfield “has studied the Australian aborigines, and that in presenting their customs, habits and mentality, in the form of a story, he has adhered to truth”. Hmm … how does the reviewer know – and yet, it’s interesting to see that Indigenous people appeared in fiction more often, perhaps, than we might have thought. (ADB)

Kay Glasson Taylor (who, Bill identified last week, used the pseudonym of Daniel Hamline, and was second place-getter in the 1929 Bulletin Prize): The reviewer of her novel, Pick and the duffers (1930), commences by noting that the Australian story “must stand on its own merit, and not by implication or suggestion strive to emulate something of quite different atmosphere.” S/he was commenting on the claim on the jacket of “Pick …” that “Pick is an Australian re-incarnation of the immortal Tom Sawyer.” Our reviewer finds such comparisons dangerous. S/he writes that like several recent Australian stories, “the setting of Pick and the duffers is Queensland, and it deals with some lively incidents connected with cattle duffing on “Coomera” and adjoining stations … It is quite a good yarn, with plenty of action and incident”. It also, interestingly, has an Aboriginal character, Gordon, who is a friend of 11-year-old protagonist Pick. But, for our reviewer, it’s a “a good story for boys, but to adults, Pick becomes tedious with his posturing and posing and precocities”. Not much character development here!

I have more, but will save them for another post another time. I’m enjoying exploring the period, particularly seeing the reviewing style, and what reviewers looked for in and thought about Australian literature.

Any comments?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2019 12:48 am

    It’s a common complaint, that writers in attempting to depict Australianness fell back on the stereotypes of farm and desert.

    This is true, right through to today. But critics even in the 1930s clearly felt able to ignore earlier writers like Ada Cambridge, Tasma and much of Rosa Praed, who wrote character based novels about people living in the metropolis. And even as early as the 1920s writers were beginning to explore working class living and working conditions eg. Seven Poor Men of Sydney.

    I’ve argued elsewhere that Miles Franklin revived her moribund career by concentrating on “men’s” issues of mateship and bush life. It’s interesting to see other less well known authors who followed the same path. I wonder if Birkett felt she wouldn’t be published unless she included some gum trees and sheep. (and thanks for the links).

    • October 29, 2019 8:13 am

      Thanks Bill. I did read a writer who did exactly what you said and referred back to older writers like Cambridge. That might be part of next week’s post.

      Clearly there were exceptions even in the 1930s as last week’s post included – like Cusack, M. Bernard Eldershaw, who set stories in the city. Interesting question about Birkett. I note that she’s not in ADB despite having won that medal.

    • October 29, 2019 10:03 am

      It is indeed a common complaint especially, as I hear it, from young urban writers wanting more space for their urban stories. I suspect that Eric Norton is a city fellow!
      But what we must not forget was that in the early C20th right up to WW2 something like 95% of Australians lived and worked in rural Australia. I know this because many years ago I went to a conference about the future, and one of the sessions traced the nature of work from primarily agrarian, through to industrialisation and then to the age of information technology. I’ve never forgotten that stat. (And much of what they predicted, back then in 1988 or ’89, has come to pass).
      Population density is now completely in the reverse to those early days, but if we are talking about AustLit and who it was written for, then the Australian market up to WW2 was predominantly rural, and those ‘cliched’ settings were the world they lived in.
      And if the market was overseas, i.e. Britain, then IMO those readers would most likely be more interested in an ‘exotic’ location rather then a city much like their own.

      • October 29, 2019 10:53 am

        Lisa, I don’t deny the point you are making, though I think the 95% figure is the number of Australians who had rellos in the country. Australia’s population in 1900 was 3.8 million and Melbourne and Sydney alone made up 25% of that.

        • October 29, 2019 2:03 pm

          Yes, I’m with you Bill. My understanding, Lisa, is that Australia has always been highly urbanised – despite our view of ourselves. One report I read said that in 1911, 60% of Australians lived outside the capital cities, and by 2006 that was 40%. A large percentage of those living outside capital cities lived in towns, albeit some of them very small so they would know the agrarian life even if they didn’t work in it. My understanding is that we’ve tended to have an image of ourselves that is not borne out by the stats. But, if you can still find that reference, I’d love to see it, so I can correct my assumptions.

          Your points, nonetheless, make sense. Even Aussies may have liked to read about exotic (or romantic) rural locations not their own. We have always liked, I suspect, this pioneering view of ourselves?

          (PS have made the fix.)

        • October 29, 2019 3:25 pm

          I wonder if the difference could be accounted for by modern estimates reckoning in the Indigenous people who weren’t counted in the census until 1967? And perhaps the vast army of itinerant workers and their families?

        • October 29, 2019 4:12 pm

          It’s possible, Lisa, but I’d be surprised really if they made that much difference. We need an historical demographer!

        • October 29, 2019 5:31 pm

          The indigenous population was tiny compared with the post-goldrushes European population. I had verified figures in the post I did on the single Noongar land claim, but I think the Noongar population in 1900 was as low as a couple of thousand, and the nation’s around Sydney in particular had been very nearly wiped out by smallpox.

        • October 29, 2019 11:01 pm

          Yes, that was my thought Bill … I don’t think their numbers would have made up that percentage difference.

  2. buriedinprint permalink
    October 29, 2019 8:15 am

    I enjoyed reading these, although the only author I’ve read is Miles Franklin (and only her famous one). It strikes me that similar arguments are made about Canadian writing, that only one region/setting/milieu is represented (but, as in Bill’s comment above, it’s not accurate here either, although you can make the case by selecting a number of classic texts, for any region really).

    • October 29, 2019 8:27 am

      1920s-1930s Canada may appear next week Buried! I just have to pull it together a bit. I’ll be interested in your comment if I get it organised.

      As for accuracy, I guess these reviewers are talking about the bulk of what was being published and sold and seeing a changing trend. There are always those ahead of the curve, aren’t there?

  3. October 29, 2019 6:04 pm

    So. How are your reviews going to be … erhmmm … reviewed long after we’ve all gone, eh, ST ? [grin]

    • October 29, 2019 6:47 pm

      Trust you M-R!! [grin back] Good question, and one that I’m glad I won’t be here to see answered.

  4. Meg permalink
    October 29, 2019 7:06 pm

    Hi Sue, I have not heard of Winifred Birkett or Daniel Hamline. I thought Christina Stead, especially for her novel Seven Poor Men of Sydney, would have been mentioned in the reviews,

    • October 30, 2019 12:53 am

      Thanks Meg. Yes, it’s interesting that she didn’t come up. Of course that book was published in 1934 and was Stead’s first, so maybe she didn’t really grab the attention of the reviewers (though Cusack’s debut novel was picked up.) Also, it may just be that it didn’t appear in my random selection of articles – I couldn’t read them all as there are thousands. I plan to continue reading more from this era, and if she appears I’ll shout it to the rooftops!

      • ian darling permalink
        October 30, 2019 2:27 am

        Would the literary situation in 1930s Australia perhaps reminiscent of the Scottish in the late 19th century where, despite the massive increase in urban living, the kailyard school of sentimental and couthy rural idealisations were the most commercial fiction?

        • October 30, 2019 8:25 am

          Yes, I think we are probably talking more commercial fiction here, Ian. Stead, Cusack, M. Barnard Eldershaw, for example, were writing urban stories.

  5. October 31, 2019 7:31 am

    It is fascinating to go back to these old reviews. One would think that they would say a lot about the time times that they were written in. However, a lot about these reviews actually sound fairly contemporary.

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