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.
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.
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”.