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Monday musings on Australian literature: 1936 in fiction

April 5, 2021

As some of you will know Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) have been running for some time “reading weeks, which involves their choosing, somewhat randomly, a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The next one is 1936, and happens from 12-18 April.

Despite my best intentions, I’ve not yet managed to take part, though I know several of my blogging friends have. I might this time – we’ll see – but, regardless, I’ve decided to focus on that year in my Monday Musings, a week in advance, to provide some inspiration perhaps?

1936 was a pretty tumultuous time in Europe with, for example, the Spanish Civil War, the 1936 Summer Olympics and Hitler’s aggressive display, not to mention the Nazis amping up their power and control. Things were generally quieter in Australia, with Joseph Lyons our Prime Minister.

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau

However, it was a busy time in literature, with several writers we know publishing novels (and other works but my focus here is novels). Here is a selection – links on names go to my posts on that writer:

There weren’t so many literary prizes then, as now, but Miles Franklin’s All that swagger won the 1936 SH Prior Memorial Prize for Australian Literature, and Eleanor Dark’s Return to Coolami won the ALS Gold Medal.

Several authors were born this year, including Marian Eldridge (one of the Canberra Seven), Robin Klein, Kate Llewellyn and Alex Miller.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers of the time were saying about Australian literature, and it’s pretty much as I’ve written in my other Monday Musings posts on the era – the ongoing concern about lack of recognition of Australian writing, of Australian writers having to go overseas to make a living, of most publishing of Australian authors happening overseas.

Perth’s Western Mail, announcing the publication of the Australian writers annual, starts with:

Too long have the Australian public been kept in ignorance of the wealth of literary work that is and has been done by Australian writers, the ranks of whom are increasing every year. Perhaps the fault lies with the reader, perhaps the reason can be found in a lack of publicity. 

Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin focuses on the the quality of what is being produced, arguing that Australian literature, while naturally looking to England, “is gradually tending towards a measure of independence”. Indeed, citing Henry Lawson and CJ Dennis (admitting “he may not touch greatness”), this writer says that “brief as is our history, it has developed its own romanticism”.

The Hebrew Standard of Australasia also argues that things are improving, but names women writers. It says:

It is not so many years ago since the prefix ‘Australian’ when applied to anything literary, artistic, or cultural, provoked the ire of editors and the sneers at would-be highbrows. Yet, even then, much, had been done by writers here in our midst to put Australia into a very appreciable place on the literary map. 

It then names Ethel Turner (whose writing for children avoided “the stilted and moral” stories common at the time). It continues to say that, what Turner did for children’s literature, others are “endeavouring to do for literature in general”. Unfortunately, though, confirming my opening paragraph, it says that “many of our best have had to go abroad to achieve fame, such as Henry Handel Richardson and Helen Simpson”. However, confirming Western Mail’s supposition, it suggests that “we still have many people with us whose work, given proper publicity [my stress], would make the term ‘Australian’ respected in any part of the world”. One of these is Eleanor Dark.

Apparently, someone was listening to all these woes, and it was a politician! Many newspapers around the country wrote about the Budget statement made in Parliament by then ex-PM, James Scullin. Melbourne’s The Herald starts its report with:

It is doubtful whether “the life austere that waits upon the man of letters here” can be given more than a suggestion of comfort by the helping hand of Government. Yet the generous speech for which Mr Scullin caught the Federal Speaker’s eye yesterday will be approved and possibly have influence. 

It describes Scullin as a “book-lover … who earnestly desires the advancement of his country in things of the mind and spirit.” Scullin identified the minimal support the government had given to literature, and then, as Melbourne’s The Age and Hobart’s Mercury outline, he named various ways in which the government could help, such as:

  • increased payments to struggling authors (rather than the minimal pension currently offered);
  • the establishment of a literary prize for the best Australian works;
  • supporting/undertaking/providing grants for the publication of nationally significant books now out of print, of works of national value, and of new works struggling to find a publisher.

Interestingly, the Mercury reports that he suggested that “wealthy people in Australia might follow if a lead were given by the national Parliament”, while The Age shared that Scullin believed that with more time for leisure available “in the machine age”,

Literature offered the best scope to utilise this added leisure with profit to Australian culture. 

The Sydney Morning Herald’s report is also worth reading.

I’m not sure that much happened immediately, but Wikipedia (linked on his name above) says that, with the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Scullin was responsible for a dramatic boost to the Commonwealth Literary Fund‘s budget in 1939. A start!

And, of course, it was another Labor politician, Kevin Rudd, who created the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, in 2007.

Additional sources:

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1936 Club?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2021 23:13

    I’ve already started reading Rebecca West’s The Thinking Reed for the 1936 Club, but if I get time I might try and read Return to Coolami too…
    (I bought it for Eleanor Dark Week in August, but I’ve got others I can read for that).

    • April 6, 2021 08:17

      Thanks Lisa. I knew you’d started the West. Glad Coolami will be read this year, regardless!

  2. April 5, 2021 23:14

    I found this post really interesting. I didn’t realise the Prime Ministers Literary Award was only started under Kevin Rudd. I thought it was earlier. So my learning of the day. Enjoyed this. 🐧🐇🐇🐇

    • April 6, 2021 08:19

      Thanks Pam… I guess I strongly remember the PM’S Literary Award, because it was such a red-letter day. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. April 6, 2021 00:09

    Really interesting post – thank you! I hope you can join in – some lovely Australian titles there for 1936! 😀

  4. April 6, 2021 05:47

    Not I ! – not a lot of audiobooks around back then, the year before Stringer was born ..
    Interesting to read of so many well-known authors who were about, though ..

  5. April 6, 2021 13:56

    M-R’s comment about audiobooks made me think of Athur Upfield’s Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries. Sadly, I was a year out. Mr Jelly’s Business, set in WA, was 1937. But read it anyway M-R, Bolinda are sure to have it.

    Thanks for the MF mention. All That Swagger made the male literary establishment very happy, while Eleanor Dark, Kylie Tennant, KSP and all the rest of Gen 3 got on with establishing a real Australian Lit without all that Bush romanticism nonsense.

    • April 6, 2021 14:35

      Interestingly, Wikipedia, but not the Annals, did have an Upfield published in 1936: Wings above the Diamantina! I didn’t include EVERY book, but I probably should have included this one. I got stuck on the one before it in Wiki’s list: EV Timms Uncivilised, because as far as I could tell it was mainly the script for a movie.

      LOL Re All that swagger!

  6. April 6, 2021 18:56

    I’ve started reading All that Swagger – the race is on to finish and review it in time 🙂

  7. April 8, 2021 07:17

    Is it still the case that “many of our best have had to go abroad to achieve fame”??

    • April 8, 2021 08:10

      Ah, good question Kare. I guess that means on how much fame. But I think many creators these days can make good careers in Australia, though many won’t be known outside here. I think that back then, many could not get recognised in Australia. Writers for example. There was little publishing here – there’s a lot now – but there was also cultural cringe (ie Aussies were not as good as others). I think that later has improved immensely over the last few decades.

      • April 8, 2021 18:37

        That’s good to hear though it’s still hard to get access Aussie writers here in UK – the cost of the books is very high and the libraries don’t seem to stock them (presumably because of the cost). So unless they are re-published by one of the big international chains for the UK market, they are not visible

        • April 8, 2021 20:58

          Yes, I’m not saying it’s great but at least they get a hearing at home now and don’t HAVE to leave! Better but not perfect.

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