These are grim times, so you might have assumed that our current predicament is today’s topic, but no, we are going back to 1929. My, if there was a grim time, 1929 heralded such a one. However, it’s not the Depression I’m going to either. In fact, the article I found in Trove, which inspired this post, was written in July 1929, and published in Adelaide’s The Advertiser on 31 August, that is, before the big crash.
What, then, was the grim continent – and why? You’ll have realised, given this is my Monday Musings on Australian literature, that it’s Australia – and you’d be right. The article was written by “a Special Correspondent London” and it discusses three recently published novels: James Tucker’s The adventures of Ralph Rashleigh, M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built, and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo.
As an aside, would you believe that the authors of these books were not named in the article. Moreover, the first book’s author, whom I didn’t know so had to go looking, wasn’t named in an article announcing its serialisation. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again: the author is the important thing! Books don’t appear out of thin air. They come out of darned hard work, and the author should be noted and remembered.
Anyhow, back to the “grim continent”. The article focuses mostly on the outback, so I’ll deal first with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s urban novel, which, as many of you know, shared the inaugural The Bulletin prize, in 1928, with Prichard’s Coonardoo.
The article commences by telling us that “because of its unusual character and the starkness of its pictures of Australian life in the convict days”, The adventures of Ralph Rashleigh was receiving the most attention by the reviewers. However, Mr. Arnold Bennett, “who reviews books in the intervals of writing them, prefers to lavish his praise on A house is built“. He wrote in the Evening Standard that Barnard Eldershaw’s book is
“beyond question, a very notable novel … an extraordinary book … a major phenomenon of modern fiction. Not one scene not three scenes, but many scenes in it are magnificent.”
Bennett apparently spent a whole column praising the book. Our Special Correspondent says:
“It is Mr. Bennett’s pleasant habit to describe with gusto the things he likes; nevertheless, the joint authors of A house is built should be gratified by such commendation from such a quarter”.
I reckon! (I do like the “describe with gusto”, and the little hint that this is perhaps not proper critic style!)
The article’s main focus, however, is a column in the Evening News by another novelist-critic, J. B. Priestley, “a sound critic of the younger school”. Priestley wrote about all three books in his column, which he headed “The grim continent”. Our correspondent wrote that he concluded his piece:
with the interesting confession that all the stories he has read about Australia and the Australian bush have succeeded in depressing him. He quoted with approval the complaint of a character in Coonardoo, that “it’s all so ugly and empty,” and added that there must be something desolating about the raw emptiness of the bush, a something not friendly to literature.
Our correspondent, however, suggests that this sense of the bush is “an emanation of literature rather than of the bush itself”. S/he suggests that many of those who know the bush do not find it ugly, cruel and cheerless:
Mr. Priestley writes from a purely literary knowledge of Australia, and if he feels so depressed about the country, his range of reading must have been restricted to the authors who, in Marcus Clarke-Henry Lawson tradition, have emphasised the more sombre aspects of pioneering and bush life.
S/he goes on to suggest that Priestley and his ilk could try other authors who offer “authentic” accounts of the outback, like “Mrs. Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never in which the humor and beauty, as well as the tragedy of the bush are admirably brought out.” S/he also disputes the evocation of the bush in Coonardoo:
The bush, comprehending in that vague term the vast pastoral spaces of inland Australia, is far from being the perennial abode of misery and despair: a region inhabited by sullen despairing people who are for ever yearning (in the words of the woman in “Coonardoo”) to “get away from it all.”
S/he romanticises, somewhat, the “folk” who “fight the stern and sometimes losing battle with Nature”, arguing you can’t help but “admire their courage, cheerfulness, and steadfastness of character”. We don’t know who this “special correspondent” is, or what experience they have had. However, s/he does make the point that the “bush,” is not all of Australia, that there are “millions of people living in the Australian towns and cities” who know little or nothing of the bush.
Finally, s/he turns to “the convict tradition” which is the subject of James Tucker’s The adventures of Ralph Rashleigh, and which
survives in Australia for literary purposes only; a fading echo of old, unhappy far-off things. The bad old days provide excellent material for novels of the romantically historical type, or for grim pieces of literature like “The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh.”
S/he concludes by applauding the fact that “good Australian literary work” is being appreciated in London, but says
It is not so agreeable to find one or two sombre aspects of Australian life stressed as if they were representative of the whole.
S/he suggests that should J.B. Priestley ever visit Australia, he would find “a land, not of grimness and gloom, but of color and sunshine”. Moreover, s/he asserts
contact with its people and conditions will provide an effective antidote to the depression with which some of its literature seems to fill him.
I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at that.
Anyhow, I enjoyed the article for revealing that Australian literature was being read and paid significant attention in 1920s England, and for its perspective on our ongoing discussion about the “the bush” and Australian literature. There’s a defensiveness, and a romanticisation, that you often find in expats, as I presume “special correspondent” is, but s/he makes some important points too, one being a disconnect between what people were writing and/or reading, and the reality of contemporary Australian life.
For Aussie readers in particular: whether you agree or not that there was such a disconnect, do you think we have matured to the point now where there is more alignment between who we are and what we are writing?