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.
Brent 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.
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.