Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary series

Series and literary fiction are not, I’d say, common bedfellows, not the way, for example, that series and crime, or series and fantasy, or, even, series and children’s/YA books are. However, there are significant literary fiction series, of which I’ve reviewed some of here – Willa Cather’s Great Plains trilogy, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, and Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell series. The first two Cromwell books – Wolf Hall (my review) and Bring up the bodies (my review) – won Booker Prizes, and the final one is scheduled (at last) for publication this year.

This week, I expect to post a review of a book in an Australian literary fiction series, and it’s this which inspired me to write today’s post. As I do with these sorts of posts, I’m just going to present my selection (as this by no means comprehensive) in list-form – in chronological order of the publication date for the first book in the series.

  • Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career series: Unlike the rest of the series below, there are just two books in Franklin’s series, My brilliant career (1901) and My career goes bung (1946). This latter she wrote soon after the first but it wasn’t published until much later. However, like others below, the first has become a much-loved and studied classic.
  • Eleanor Dark’s The timeless land trilogy: This is an historical fiction series dealing with the early history of European settlement in Australia. The first book, The timeless land (1941), is an Australian classic and has been taught in schools. It is significant, particularly given its time, for telling the story from both European and Aboriginal Australian points of view. The subsequent books are Storm of time (1948) and No barrier (1953). 
    Book cover
  • Ruth Park’s The harp in the south trilogy: The first book in this series, The harp in the south, was published in 1948, and is now an Australian classic which is regularly taught in schools. I wrote a little about it in my recent review of Park and husband Niland’s memoir, The drums go bang. The other two books in the series are Poor man’s orange (1948), and the prequel in terms of story chronology but the last written, Missus (1985) (my review). The series, an example of Australian social realism, tells the story of the Darcy family of Surry Hills, Sydney. The harp in the south won The Sydney Morning Herald’s competition for an unpublished novel, in 1946.
  • Book coverGeorge Johnston’s My brother Jack series: George Johnston’s My brother Jack (1964) is also now an Australian classic. Both it and its sequel, Clean straw for nothing (1969), won the Miles Franklin Award, and both are regularly taught in schools and/or universities. The third book is A cartload of clay (1971). The series is semi-autobiographical, about Johnston’s own life, starting in the between-the-war years.
  • Rodney Hall’s The Yandilli Trilogy (also known as A Dream More Luminous Than Love): This series comprises Captivity captive (1988), The second bridgeroom (1991), and The grisly wife (1993). All three have been shortlisted and/or won significant literary awards, including, for The grisly wife, the Miles Franklin.
  • Steven Carroll’s Glenroy series: This six book series comprises The art of the engine driver (2001), The gift of speed (2004), The time we have taken (2007), Spirit of progress (2011), Forever young (2015), and The year of the beast (2019). Like Johnston’s series above, it is based on his own family and their life in the Melbourne suburb of Glenroy. As in Park’s series, the final novel is a prequel, so the first, chronologically, and is set in the country rather than the city/suburb where the rest are set. Four of the titles have been shortlisted for significant literary awards, with The time we have taken winning the Miles Franklin Award.
  • Kate Grenville’s The secret river series which started with a controversial bang with The secret river (2005), when Grenville locked horns with historian Inga Clendinnen over novelists writing history. Anyhow, this series is a little different from some because The lieutenant (2008) (my review) deals with early settlement but is based on an historical figure, not Grenville’s fictional Thornhills, while the third book, Sarah Thornhill (2011), is a more traditional  sequel to The secret river. The secret river was shortlisted for several awards and won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for fiction.
  • Audiobook coverSteven Carroll’s Eliot Quartet: Carroll must love writing series, because he also has a series inspired by TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. Three of the four have been written, to date: The lost life (2009), A world of other people (2013), and A New England affair (2017). A world of other people was a joint winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award (Fiction).

While I don’t naturally gravitate to series, I have read and enjoyed some. It’s interesting that so many of the above have won awards and/or have been (or still are) standard literature texts. It suggests that authors can and do sustain both literary quality and readers’ interest in a continuing subject. Many of the above have also been adapted to other art forms, including plays and television miniseries.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reviewed many of these, which you can find by searching her blog.

Do you have favourite literary fiction series (and yes, you can include The lord of the rings if you must!)?

40 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary series

  1. This is a great idea for a post, Sue. I’ve read and reviewed the Kate Grenville series, but pre-blog I loved the Ruth Park trilogy and ADORED the Johnston (My Brother Jack is my favourite book of all time; have read it at least 4 times and think I’m probably due a re-read.)

    In terms of non-Oz trilogies, I can highly recommend Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy and Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy — both are series that would easily make my Top 40 books of all time 😊

  2. Fascinating post. These books and series all sound worthwhile. As for literary series that come to mind, Anthony Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire as well as his Palliser books come to mind. I also liked Phillip Roth’s Zuckerman books.

  3. My favourite non-Australian is Evelyn Waugh’s Put out more Flags. SF is series heaven but the two I like most, works by Ursula Le Guin and Ian M Banks, are not really, but just novels set in a common universes. Of course I must mention Miles Franklin writing as Brent of Bin Bin and the series she wished she had called Up the Country instead of giving that title to the first book. I am very pleased you opened with MBC/MCGB but I could argue at length that it is not a series at all, that in fact the latter encloses the former (as Go Set a Watchman encloses To Kill a Mockingbird) but space …

    • I haven’t read those Waughs Bill.

      I should have defined series, as it does seem to be used loosely to mean “connected” rather than always sequels. Like Le Guin and Banks? I think Carroll’s Eliot books are like that too, and Grenville’s. So I’m happy to include MBC and MCBG. Still, I should have mentioned Brent of Bin Bin as well.

  4. Hi Sue, the Australian ones that immediately I thought of were The White Thorntree by Frank Davison (2 Volumes), and Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson.

        • Gums, you and Bill (and perhaps other bloggers) need to lean on local publishers to get some of these books republished, or turned into ebooks. Save your faithful readers from frustration! (Maybe you could get your heads together and come up with an Australian Top 100 out of print novels!)

        • Hi Neil, I’ve been out at Reading Group all night, and have missed all this conversation … but Lisa has answered your comment about getting these books republished: Text and Allen & Unwin are the main publishers doing this, but Sydney University Press, Fremantle and others also have smaller programs republishing older works. I have written about this on my blog before (but long before you started reading): this post and this one are two.

  5. Hi Sue and Bill, The White Thorntree Volume 1 and 2, I read both quite young and married, and I found them to be great revealing reads. I loved Man-shy and Dusty, even though I cried in them. Also, the latest trilogy I thought of was J M Coetzee novels on Jesus.

  6. Oh, I feel embarrassed that you’ve referred your readers to my blog, because although they will find all the Stephen Carroll series, they will mostly be let down. I’ve read nearly all of the others but they’re not reviewed because I read them pre-blog. And I’ve always meant to finish the Yandilli Trilogy but haven’t got round to it yet.
    Maybe this will be the year when I catch up with all the books I’m ‘gunna read’…

    • Oh yes there are some good children’s/young people’s series aren’t there, Rose. I loved Seven Little Australians, and the Billabong books when I was growing up. Thanks for reminding me of them – well of Seven little Australians which led me on to the others.

        • Yes, I thought of those Marsden books when I wrote Billabong, but felt I couldn’t keep going adding more and more. I read the first three to my daughter and then, as I always do with series, I got bored. (I stopped reading Harry Potter to her too at no. 3. Fortunately by the time we got to these two number 3s, she was reading at that level to herself so I didn’t leave her traumatised!)

        • It sounds as if book number three in a series is your cue to stop reading 🙂 Glad to hear your daughter was interested enough in what happened next to continue on her own.

  7. I would add the Frank Moorhouse Edith trilogy, Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahony (originally published as a trilogy).

    I’m still trying to work out if I can fit in a reread of Wolf Hall and BUTB before the third book hits the shelves in march 🙂

    • Oh yes, the Edith trilogy. Thanks Brona.

      Good for you if you do reread those two first. I’m just going to have to rely on memory. I bet she’s glad to have that over. Such pressure on this third one.

  8. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation: from Fleishman is in Trouble, to … | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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