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Monday musings on Australian literature: Random thoughts from the mid-1930s

December 9, 2019

I’ve written a few posts in recent months about Australian literary culture in the 1930s – on moving beyond “gumleaf and goanna”, on setting vs character, and two (here and here) on where Australian literature was heading. This week, I’m returning to the topic to share a random selection of comments made about Australian fiction in the newspapers around the middle of the decade, a time when life was still pretty tough due to the Great Depression.

Writing from real life

Book coverC.H. Wales (whoever s/he is) was inspired by the death of John McCarthy, who inspired ‘Irish Mac’ in Mrs. Aeneas Gunn’s 1907 novel, We of the Never-Never, to write about the frequent use made by Australian authors of people from real life in their novels. Writing in Adelaide’s Chronicle in June 1934, Wales comments that “the ways of life in the outback are accepted as a commonplace by people in the Commonwealth, but are learned of with amazement by people overseas” and suggests that it is therefore “no wonder, then, that our authors weave the romance of this life into their novels”. A life, he says, that includes cattle stations as big as Surrey and more, that involves using a flying medical service, and in which children who are five years old have “never seen a shower of rain”.

Wales names some contemporary writers continuing this tradition – William Hatfield’s Sheepmates (1931), which is dedicated to “the real life characters in the book”; Myrtle White’s evocatively titled No roads go by (1932); and, more famously, Ion Idriess’ Lasseter’s last ride (1931), which “adds another illuminating but tragic page to the annals of Australian exploration, which in years to come will supply a useful link with literature dealing with the history of the foundation and development of our Commonwealth and Empire”.

Interestingly, the two male writers here have Wikipedia articles, but not Myrtle White. However, like them, she does have an ADB entry (linked on her name), which includes this:

When her three children were older and she had some leisure, White began writing. At Wonnaminta, despite endless interruptions, she worked meticulously on her drafts which she typed with one finger. The result was No roads go by (Sydney, 1932), an account of life at Lake Elder, rather in the tradition of Mrs Gunn’s We of the NeverNever. With humour and resilience, White described the remote station surrounded by sand ‘insidiously creeping up the six-foot iron fence, which was our frail barrier against all that moving country’. Drought, flood and near death were presented in intense but restrained prose.

Stories about the past

Historical fiction, it seems, was as popular then as it is now. My random reading of “new fiction” columns revealed a goodly number of novels about Australia’s past, including:

  •  John K. Ewers’ Fire on the wind (1935) is, says the reviewer in Melbourne’s Leader, “a story of Gippsland nearly forty years ago, culminating in the disastrous bush fires of February, 1898”. Ewers, says the reviewer, was a school teacher in Perth who “has not lived in Gippsland, but he has derived his local color from relatives who spent part of their lives there, and lived through the terrible experiences of Black Thursday […] 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”.
  • Alice Meagher’s The moving finger (1934) was published to coincide with Victoria’s centenary. The South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus reviewer writes that “while not a history, the story gives an interesting outline the early days. There is a brief mention of the Eureka stockade, and a realistic description of the heart-breaking work in the mallee country. The graphic story of a bushfire helps to make one realise what the pioneers of this country had to go through.” The West Australian reviewer (below) says that it shows “the growth of the State in a comparatively brief period of time”.
  • Book coverBrian Penton’s Landtakers (1934) is described as being among “other readable novels published in Australia”! Damned with faint praise? This West Australian reviewer describes it as “the usual type of tale that deals with Penal Settlement days, whereof Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life is the great and abiding examplar”. Penton, who has a Wikipedia page like Ewers above, was an Australian journalist and novelist. Landtakers, his first novel, apparently sold well.

It’s interesting to see the specific mention of Ewers’ lack of personal experience about Gippsland and how he overcame that. I also liked the inference that fiction can tell us about who we are.

Other stories

Book coverTrove revealed many other books of different genres and styles, so I’ll share just a few, the first group coming from the West Australian (linked above):

  • F.E. Baume’s Burnt sugar (1934), described as “a powerfully-written romance of North Queensland, and of Italian settlers, slightly at variance over their racial divergencies”. Baume was a journalist, author, and radio and television broadcaster, well-known to some boomers!
  • Winifred Birkett’s Three goats on a bender (1934), described as “a highly farcical story, which has, however, its amusing moments”. I’ve mentioned Birkett here before, as she won the ALS Gold Medal in 1935 for another novel, Earth’s quality.
  • J. J. Mulligan’s A gentleman never tells (1934), described as “the surprising adventures of the versatile Lord Gerrard Fitzgerald in London, Paris, on the Riviera, in Egypt and elsewhere”. The reviewer calls it “a modern picturesque story” and “remarkably entertaining”. S/he also says that it’s “none the worse for getting away from the conventional and often tedious setting of the ordinary Australian novel”. But, Mulligan doesn’t appear in Wikipedia or the ADB.
  • Robert Waldron’s The flying doctor (1934), described as “the first romance — so far as we are aware — in which the leading motive is that admirable movement for supplying medical aid to persons in isolated districts of Australia by means of flying machines”. As with Mulligan, I can’t find him in Wikipedia or the ADB.

From the above-linked Leader article comes the comment that “there are few Australian novels ‘with a purpose’ in these distressful days” but that Ambrose Pratt “has attempted one in his new book, Lift up your eyes.” (1935). The reviewer wonders, however, whether the book

will add to his reputation as a writer or really further the causes of the ideal life and social and moral reconstruction which, it is to be presumed, are part of its justification. It is a Melbourne story, and some of its pleasantest passages describe hill-scenery and touch on life in and around the Victorian metropolis. But the strain upon the credulity of the reader is excessive and there appears to be an almost complete disregard of the “unities.”

S/he finds it hard to reconcile “the idealism and the religious intensity of feeling attributed to the leading male character” with his “Machiavellian conduct of a gigantic gamble in wheat”, but suggests the book “will excite curiosity and discussion”. Pratt was a prolific novelist who appears in both Wikipedia and the ADB. ADB says that in 1933 he founded “a League of Youth dedicated to the ‘protection and preservation of the flora and fauna of Australia’ and ‘the development of ideals of citizenship in the minds of young Australians'” and that the latter aspiration was reflected in Lift up your eyes.

Book CoverThose versed in the period will know that I’ve not included some of the better known writers. This is partly because some have been mentioned in previous posts, but more because they didn’t pop up in my random search of this mid-30s period. One did, however, appear – Christina Stead’s The Salzburg tales. However, I have decided to hold it over for a future post as she’s worth a special focus.

Notwithstanding the above, the most notable observation to make, of course, is how few of these books and authors we know now. That may not be a bad thing, given the reviewers’ comments, but I love that Trove enables us to obtain a picture of what was being written and read at the time, and what the commentators thought. It all contributes to our knowledge of Australia’s culture and literary history.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2019 11:26 pm

    Re ‘A Gentleman Never Tells (which sounds rather naughty!), I wonder if the reviewer meant ‘picaresque’ rather than ‘picturesque’? A picaresque novel is generally an account of the adventures of a roguish character, often written satirically.

    • December 9, 2019 11:45 pm

      I agree Teresa. I must say I wondered that myself, at first wondering if I’d missed fixing a Trove error, but I double-checked the original article, and it’s “picturesque”. Whether that’s what the reviewer intended we’ll never know, but like you I thought “picaresque” sounded more likely.

  2. December 10, 2019 12:39 am

    I suppose the only place these books might be now is in the state library’s repositories … assuming that they had deposit rules back in those days too.

    • December 10, 2019 3:24 am

      Good question Lisa. Legal Deposit for the National Library came with the Copyright Act of 1968. Different states have different acts. However, I checked Trove, and each of these books is held in multiple libraries, most from 9 plus libraries (and the NLA features in most if not all of these – I didn’t check in close detail.) It’s interesting, in fact, to see just which libraries hold them – mostly the National and various state libraries, but also various university libraries. The national and state libraries were pretty assiduous in collecting Australian publications before legal deposit because they were their collecting mandate.

      Anyhow, as an example, Mulligan’s A gentleman never tells is in 9 libraries (according to Trove): NLA, four state libraries (including SLV), three university libraries (including Canberra’s ADFA Library which has a big focus on Australian literature and holds many of these books), and, would you believe, the Launceston Mechanics Institute.

      • December 10, 2019 7:11 am

        BTW Have you seen reports of what they’ve done to our state library? It’s a ‘community hub’ now and the future venue for the Comedy Festival. *sigh* They are proudly tweeting photos of small children running amok. I mean, literally, running. (We have Story Time for 0-2, 2-5 year olds at my library and I am in and out of it all the time, and I have *never* seen them running around like that. Our librarians gently teach them to sit down and listen to stories!)

        • December 10, 2019 9:12 am

          Oh no, I haven’t. I’m all for libraries reaching out to communities, but in keeping with their role. Being a venue for the comedy festival doesn’t bother me too much. Our cultural institutions here all have performances at times. Writers Festival panels of course, but our museums and galleries also have musical concerts in their foyers and halls. But I agree that these are not places for behaviour more suited to the playground. Kids, as I recollect, aren’t usually allowed to run in school corridors or, really, even in classrooms normally, are they?

        • December 10, 2019 4:46 pm

          No, absolutely not. Running inside — anywhere except a gym — is a recipe for accidents to old and young alike! It is not hard to teach children to be respectful of the spaces they’re in: we had a total of five simple rules at my school, and the first one was ‘move safely’. At the start of the year all classes discussed what this meant in practice, and because the children defined it to cover all contingencies and they understood its purpose, it was easy, if you saw some kid doing something wrong, e.g. kicking some other kid, you could say, what rule do you think you’re breaking, and they always knew which one it was.
          But public spaces are different, they can’t negotiate like you can in a school, they rely on responsible adults teaching their children to behave themselves. And therein lies the problem!

        • December 10, 2019 6:14 pm

          Yes, it sure does, doesn’t it? I was talking to a new neighbour at our street party on the weekend, who teaches year 4, and the issue of parents – the responsible ones and the less so came up. Teachers and anyone involved in schools see it pretty quickly, eh?

          BTW I like that discussion of rules at the beginning of the year. I’ve heard that at other schools too. Engaging kids in the rules and understanding what they are for must surely go a long way to creating responsible and compassionate adults

        • December 10, 2019 6:58 pm

          If you (or your teacher friend) want to see the five rules, click here and scroll to the bottom where you will see links to the rules:
          The 5 rules are the same but what they mean has been changed a little bit, in my day we did not use the word ‘don’t’, everything was phrased in positive terms e.g. ‘Do not bring a mobile phone to school’ would have been ‘Leave your mobile phone at home’. These simple rules worked so well, we were always complimented on the excellent behaviour of our students when they went on excursions or to sporting events. Our parents understood them too!

        • December 10, 2019 11:06 pm

          Thanks Lisa, I’ll check them out. Interesting, though about the change from positive framing which I remember was how we were encouraged to be with our children. It was hard sometimes because that wasn’t how we were brought up.

        • December 11, 2019 10:28 am

          Yes, I think that ‘conditioning’ is precisely why those ‘don’ts’ have crept in. Without me to ‘censor’ them, whoever changed these collations of the children’s definitions, has defaulted to ‘don’t’. (These collated definitions from the class discussions are provided for specialists to go by, and for parents.) Culturally, we tend to be better at ‘don’ts’ than ‘dos’.

        • December 11, 2019 5:49 pm

          We so are! I remember when I was parenting young children trying to get rid of the “don’t” but I wasn’t very good at it really.

  3. December 10, 2019 6:10 am

    All fascinatin, ST ! – but “A Gentleman Never Tells” ??? – “the versatile Lord Gerrard Fitzgerald” ???
    I mean !
    [grin]

    • December 10, 2019 9:01 am

      Great title isn’t it M-R. What a shame it probably isn’t available as an audiobook!

  4. December 10, 2019 11:31 pm

    I’m pretty sure I have No roads go by on my shelves, it certainly sounds familiar. I’ll let you know in a week or so. As for sand insidiously creeping over fences – plenty of that on the edges of the wheatbelt in SA and Vic. Nothing to do with overcropping, overgrazing, oh no. Sand dunes that used to be held by mallee now free to blow over the roads. And “Voss” must be the most famous real character fictionalised in an Australian novel.

    • December 11, 2019 8:48 am

      Oh, that would be great if you did, Bill. Will you read it if you do?

      Hmmm… Ned Kelly probably gives “Voss” a run for his money in those stakes?

      • December 15, 2019 4:30 pm

        OK, I concede Ned Kelly. I can’t see No Roads go By but it still feels familiar – I’ll have to check Mum’s shelves (next year).

      • December 15, 2019 5:03 pm

        Found it! In a shelf of Dad’s books behind the front door. An A&R hardback republished in 1953, illustrated by Eliz. Durack and with “DC Holloway 1.5.63” on the flyleaf – not his birthday, but maybe his (13th) wedding anniversary. In such perfect condition that he may not have ever read it.

        • December 15, 2019 5:24 pm

          Oh excellent – and with illustrations by the, hmm, infamous Elizabeth Durack.

          BTW Am glad I’m not the only one likely to go to my grave with unread books from years ago on my shelves. (I gave two to my SIL last week. She looked at me in astonishment when I said I didn’t want them back, even though I hadn’t read them. That didn’t compute for her.)

  5. ian darling permalink
    December 11, 2019 1:38 am

    Three Goats On a Bender is a wonderful title for a comic novel. There is something very melancholy in contemplating all those now-unread fictions, they presumably had something going for them by being published at all.

    • December 11, 2019 8:53 am

      Agree, Ian, it’s a great title. And yes, you’re right about contemplating all this forgotten books. Some just don’t stand the test of time but others could very well still have something going for them. they need champions to bring them back.

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  1. No Roads Go By, Myrtle Rose White | theaustralianlegend

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