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
C.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 Never–Never. 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”.
- Brian 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.
Trove 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.
Those 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.