Monday musings on Australian literature: A view from 1930

Today, another post in my occasional series of posts about Australian literature from the 1920s to the 1940s, this one featuring two critics of the time, HM Green (1881-1962) and Nettie Palmer (1885-1964).

To do this, I’m using, primarily, a 1930 review in The Adelaide Advertiser of HM Green’s book, An outline of Australian literature, and a 1930 article the The West Australian by Nettie Palmer on the sudden flowering of the Australian novel. Both articles offer a brief survey of the Australian novel to date, with Palmer’s providing an update on “now”.


The Advertiser’s reviewer notes that Green’s work is “admirably done”, and “covers all noteworthy ‘creative literature’—verse, prose, fiction, plays, and essays—from the earliest date to two years ago”. S/he goes on to name the works Green admires (with, given the paper’s location, a special reference to South Australia). The reviewer identifies two South Australian-relevant writers. One is Mrs Aeneas Gun’s We of the Never Never, which, Green admits, is “void of plot as are the lives of most people” but which, our reviewer says, is “one of the most popular of Australian books, perhaps because the lives of most people have so much in common with those of its characters”. The other is new to me, William Hay. Green has criticisms, but he also allows The escape of Sir William Heans to be “one of the most notable novels Australia has produced”. Our reviewer believes the same praise could be applied to Hay’s “fine story of the convict days” Herridge of Reality Swamp

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper's Hill

After this, the only writers our reviewer mentions from Green’s book are women, starting with Rosa Praed, Tasma, and Ada Cambridge. S/he writes that “in spite of the pains [they] lavished on their work, they are probably to the present generation not much more than names”. Green apparently wrote that Cambridge was in “some respects, ahead of her time, and though many of her advanced opinions have now been accepted, we are not quite ready for all even yet.” Our reviewer continues that Cambridge’s ability to feel “so poignantly the wrongs of the world enabled her, as the author [Green] says, to pierce deeper into the heart of humanity than most Australian writers have done”.

Our reviewer concludes with a whole paragraph on Catherine Helen Spence who, s/he writes, “bears a name not so conspicuous as it ought to be in Australian literature”, primarily because of her political activity. However, s/he writes ‘so competent a literary judge as the late Chief Justice Way … paid her the compliment … of describing her writings on proportional representation as “real literature for their terseness, strength, and brilliancy”.’ Green also praises Spence’s work:

The first and best, Clara Morrison [sic], written in the fifties, has, like the rest, been out of print undeservedly, if its merits are as great as Mr. Green says. It does not always follow that an omnivorous reader is a master of the pen; but Miss Spence was one of the best read women of her day, and as a novelist learned her craft from the greatest writers of her own sex in the nineteenth century, and had intelligence enough to perceive their faults and steer clear of them.

Unfortunately, my understanding of Green’s view is rather limited, here, so please just treat this as a taster. I’ll return to him again one day, because his was an important voice at the time.


Palmer argues in her article that until the early 1920s, “the novel in Australia was a matter for apology”, but that there had recently been unexpected advances – in “the right direction”. 

She then does a bit of a recap starting with the early novels, of which only a few were still in circulation, including:

obviously, Clarke’s Term of his natural life and Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms, less obviously, some novels by Mrs. Campbell Praed, ‘Tasma’ and Ada Cambridge.

She then makes the interesting comment that there were others “with considerable power and importance” but they “were hardly novels in form”, like Tom Collins’ “remarkable omnium gatherum of the Riverina in the ‘eighties, Such is life“, and “such of Lawson’s short stories as were lightly linked together by their theme”.

Then come more women, with, around 1900, Miles Franklin’s “vivid, sardonic yet girlish confession, My brilliant career“, Barbara Baynton’s “painful, remorseless Human toll“, and a bit later, Katharine Prichard’s Pioneers (my review), followed by her “much more serious and original book, Black opal in 1920″, which had, to the time of writing, “never been well distributed and recognised”. There was not much else “except for commercial novels that were without roots either in the soil of Australia or in that of art”. 

Palmer never pulled any punches! She continued, “looking round us we saw, on the whole, desert”. The causes were clear, a major one being authors depending on “English publishers who naturally preferred to please English readers by giving them no Australian books except those showing, Australia as another America, a wild-west in which an English hero (magazine type) would have monstrous, adventures showing the superior prowess of his race”. The results was that

authors who desired to write simply and truly, of life in Australia as they knew it were hampered, to the point of paralysis, by a sense of hostility. No one wanted their books in advance. No one wants any new art form, handling new subject matter, until it has come into existence — and often not then!

But, she argues, things were starting to change by 1924. The first volume of Henry Handel Richardson‘s “great trilogy” (Australia felix) had appeared in 1917, but the second, The way home, was published in 1925. However, it received little notice in Australia, as “the air was not kindly yet to a genuine work”. However, soon after, Katharine Prichard’s “Working Bullocks, radiant, with awareness of the timber country and its challenging beauty” came out. Its “artistic ‘seriousness'”, she said, “made it more possible for other serious books to be recognised in Australia; and this has actually come about”.

These new novels included Martin Mills’ The Montforts, Vance Palmer’s psychological study The Man Hamilton, and the third volume of Henry Handel Richardson’s trilogy, Ultima Thule, which she described as having “deep literary significance”. A “particularly responsible London critic” called it a masterpiece, and she praised it herself, as being “symphonic in form, with sustained, and developed themes”. The trilogy was received so well by “serious readers in England, the Continent and America”, she felt, that it raised the status of Australian literature.

Book cover

But there’s more! Richard Mahony typified “the misfit”, but types of characters were also appearing, such as “pioneers who could take what advantages there were in the new world about them”. M. Barnard. Eldershaw’s A house is built features such a character. She also praises Brent of Bin Bin’s Up the country and Ten Creeks Run, which contain complex, full lives. And she makes the point I quoted a couple of months ago, about the lack of exploration of “aboriginal life of Australia” and Prichard’s Coonardoo.


So, did Green and Palmer agree about Australian fiction to that point? To some degree – particularly regarding those turn of the century women writers – but I did only read a review of Green (not Green himself) as Bill (The Australian Legend has). Also, Green’s book is a more encyclopaedic one about Australian literature while Palmer’s article focuses specifically on the novel.

Touchstone in his review of Green’s Outline in Melbourne’s The Herald shares Green’s assessment of what’s characteristic of Australian versus overseas literature:

“an independence of spirit, a kind of humorous disillusion, a careless willingness to take a risk, a slightly sardonic good nature and a certain underlying hardness of texture,” but, “in all but the best of it there is a lack of intellectual content, as compared, with work of similar level overseas.” 

This last point is, I think, where Palmer was seeing change in the mid-1920s, which is about when Green’s work finishes. Palmer concluded, with some relief it seems, that “we begin to have books that we can send abroad as our contribution to the literary world in the important form of the novel, the development of character by narrative”.

Note: Bill, Lisa and others have reviewed many of the books listed here. Please check their blogs if you are interested.

15 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: A view from 1930

  1. Nettie Palmer makes me want to start a fight, which is odd because I generally admire her. So lets start with HM Green. I don’t know “An Outline”. My references (and thank you for the link) are always to A History of Australian Literature in two volumes and 1,550pp which goes up to the 1950s. I have a couple of versions but the latest was revised by his daughter Dorothy Green in 1985. Green is amazing, like a blog, he just discusses Oz.Lit., moving slowly through each period, pausing to discuss each writer.

    Nettie Palmer was unlucky to be writing at a time when books were hard to obtain. Spence had been out of print for 50 years and the other women for at least 20. Only the three or four same old men stayed in print and were discussed as relevant. I’m disappointed she dismisses Such is Life because she and Vance spent a lot of time on it (Vance wrote the original Introduction). Yes Australians had to contend with English publishers, but it wasn’t as black & white as she made out. Angus & Robertson were already publishing in Australia – they rejected both Miles Franklin and Christina Stead. The Bulletin published Such is Life (in 1903) and the Bookstall Co. took up Steele Rudd. And of course many, many Australians were published as serials in magazines and newspapers.
    Sorry, I’ll stop there.

    • Ah, so it’s not the Green you had, Bill. It’sclearly a precursor.

      Both reviewer and Palmer make the point re books being out of print. In fact she says, people better saw the skill of Ultima Thule after the previous two were republished.

      I thought you’d be interested in her descriptor of Such is life. I didn’t feel she dismissed it here so much as not calling it a “novel”?

      You make fair points about publishing , but I suspect so does she – perhaps women writers in particular had trouble getting published in Australia?

      Anyhow, thanks for your comments. I was hoping – expecting – you’d engage with this post. I need to move on though, as I feel I’m going around in circles a bit now with this late 20s early 30s era.

  2. I’ve got the H M Green. The novel gets 8 pages in a booklet of 64, of 24 are the bibliography. He mentions Henry Handel Richardson first and calls the trilogy “one of the world’s great novels’, moving on to Furphy “who belongs to Australia as Richardson belongs to the world”. While not dismissive of Furphy he points out that “he is a man of one book”. He notes that he’s more representative than Richardson, and “like Lawson, he reflects the Australianism of his day, but the emphasis is quite different; whereas with Lawson it is mateship, with Furphy it is its assertion of rights”. he also says that Furphy has an intellectualism that Lawson lacks, but is not a stylist like Lawson.
    He then goes on to talk about Brent of Bin Bin, (noting their similarities to the novels of Miles Franklin), describing them not as works of art but as a rambling and discursive saga… clumsy, excruciating but with ‘real conversations’ among typical men and women and “very much alive”.
    Then, as your reviewer noted he goes on to Mrs Aeneas Gunn, Louis Stone, and WG Hay.
    KSP is recognised, as the “chief Australian novelist today”, naming Working Bullocks and Coonardoo; and goes on to name Kylie Tennant “almost a generation younger than KSP” and Eve Langley and her single novel.
    Other authors mentioned are Leonard Mann, Norman Lindsay, brian penton and Xavier Herbert, plus Vance Palmer, and Frank Davison. Noting that many of the leading novelists are women he mentions Barnard Eldershaw. and Eleanor Dark; Christina Stead, he says, has talent which never comes to full fruition.
    He finishes up with a reference of “Martin Mills’ long resident in England with a witty saga novel, and Robert Close, “A promising member of the tribe of Conrad”.
    It hadn’t occurred to me to review this book because I’m really only interested in the novel, and only interested in the history of Australian writing in a desultory way. It’s on the shelf with other books I dip into only when occasion arises…

    • Thanks Lisa for all this. I should have looked for other reviews, I think. Interested in his comparisons between Furphy and Lawson, and how they compare with Palmer’s references to them.

      Never heard of Robert Close. You?

      • There’s a Robert Close at Goodreads. born 1903 and author of Love Me Sailor, Eliza Callaghan, The Dupe, a Story of the Sea, and an autobiography called Of Salt and Earth. I’m guessing some kind of nautical career?

        • Well guessed – sort of, Lisa. You inspired me to check Wikipedia where he is. And, it says:

          “His early life was clouded by disappointment. He hated school, and HIS PASSION FOR A LIFE AT SEA was blighted when he was found to have colour blindness. Tuberculosis thwarted a possible singing career. During the 1930s Depression, he worked variously as a labourer, manager, salesman, and debt collector. He was an avid reader and won prizes as a short-story writer.” There is a little more, including info about Eliza Callaghan, if you are interested.

  3. Hi Sue, I hope I am not repeating myself, because I thought I sent this similar post earlier in the day. I too have the H M Green book. I also have Cecil Hadcraft’s book Australian Literature, published 1960. He mentions in detail on both Green and Nettie Palmer. The book covers poetry, fiction literary essays and criticisms from the early colonial days. Green, he say was one of the first to cast judgement on Australian authors. In regard to Palmer’s book on Henry Handel Richardson he says it is the best one by an individual author. Bill, would be happy to know that Hadcrtaft is very appreciative of Furphy’s Such Is Life (5 pages). “Although we tend loon on Furphy as a humorist, one of the best of ‘Such is Life’, it is a story of great pathos…Furphy tells the story from the point of view of one of the men who are searching.” In the final chapter of the book title “Crystal Ball, Hadcraft says “Australian Literature like English Literature.. is as yet greater in its poetry than in its fiction. Its poetry came of age about the turn of the century when Brennan completed the verse he was to publish later. Its fiction came of age with Richardson’s trilogy. I like Hadcraft’s last line. “Indeed a spectator of the scene is tempted to think that, even more than poetry, criticism is sitting pretty.”. .

    • Thanks for the mention Meg. Everyone should love Such is Life. I have a couple of interesting Aust.Lit books that my father collected, one by Clement Semmler – Twentieth Century criticism, and a NSW Ed Dept inservice training handbook from 1969 which cites Hadgraft in it’s list of five ‘best textbooks’. Interestingly Lecture 1 begins “Most books on Aust Lit spend a good deal of time discussing the English origins of Australian writing but few devote any attention to the influence of the aborigines (sic) on our culture”.

    • Oh thanks Meg. I hadn’t heard of Hadcraft at all. I love that he had a “Crystal Ball” chapter, too. Interesting comment about place of poetry in England and Australia.

  4. Hi Sue, thanks for the information on Hadgraft. This book fascinates mefor many reasons but one is because it has a slip of paper in addressed to Cec…. ‘I have taken the liberty of correcting it’, signed by Craig. So in the book there are crossing outs and new words written. At the front of the book he has written under Cecil Hadgraft (sorry I keep typing Hadcraft). “with an appendix on drama by Eunice Hanger. I Googled her: Eunice Hanger (1911-1972), playwright and schoolteacher, was born on 8 March 1911 at Mount Chalmers, Queensland,” I wish I knew who Craig was, and what influence he had on further publications.

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