Monday musings on Australian literature: a “grim continent”?

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.

Book cover

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.

Book cover

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?

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: a “grim continent”?

  1. I wonder if the critics were aware that Ralph Rashleigh was not historical fiction but was written at the time (early 1800s from memory) and had just been discovered.
    The country is pretty bleak where Coonardoo was set (and written). I went passed the turnoff to the station just last week.

    • Thanks Bill. I think some/most were, as I understand that that 1929 edition had a foreword by its editor, the Earl of Birkenhead! I’m thinking of devoting a Monday Musings to it, actually, because it made quite a splash.

      So long since I’ve read Coonardoo, but I imagine it would be!

      • He’s more at home in Gens 1,2,3 than he is in 4 and 5, so that would probably suit him quite well.

        Jan 2022 will definitely be Gen 4 (1960-1989), and I’m inclined to go on to Gen 5 which Kim and Bron and Kate and so on would probably identify with. But I might do a post later this year and put the question to the vote. After all, we probably have 10 more years before we run out of puff.

      • I hesitate, because there are already too many ‘Weeks’ for me to keep up with to add another one that’s been done before. Besides, he doesn’t need to do that. He could just add reviews that turn up, to the relevant page. That’s what I did most recently when he wrote a review of Lovesong, I added it to my Elizabeth Jolley page which I set up in 2018.

        • I guess I don’t do a lot of weeks, because there are too many as you say. For me AWW and your Indigenous one are the two that I’m committed to, and I would love to deepen my reading of older AWW and the week provides the impetus!

  2. Astounded to read that those authors were not named!
    As the the question you pose: I do think our writing is more aligned with reality. Sometimes, perhaps, things get a little too gritty. I fact, I have seen comments (referring to short stories in particular) that too many of them are sad and I think that is because they reflect the times we live in. Perhaps, though, we need a bit more romanticisation, with a pinch of of humour.

  3. The bush was for Australia what the prairie was for the US. The latter just received more literary dedication. Sometimes I wonder what made of Australia such an outpost of English literature in comparison with the US.

    • Thanks Shaharee. You mean in a way that US literature didn’t?

      This is a complex question. First we have to agree with the proposition and secondly look at what drove Australia’s literary development.

      Can you explain a little more what you’re thinking?

  4. Well, lots of Far West literature made its way to Europe, even got translated in several languages. Stories about pioneers, the Mayflower, native American tribes, the gold rush, etc… I don’t have any recollection of 19th century Australian writers writing stories about the aboriginals, the settlement of farmers in the outback, the discovery of mineral riches and their early exploration, etc… Maybe because the biggest part of the first settlers were deported criminals and other marginalized people like young pregnant girls without husbands, hookers, … and the remaining ones their wardens? And the aboriginal never reached such a cult status as the Native American. Thinking of it, Australia was probably considered by many as the UK’s garbage bin. Nothing very glamourous, interesting, or romantic about that I suppose? As you indicated in your post, some Australian literature got some attention in the UK, but never received the level of attention that North American literature received and for sure very little made it’s way outside the UK. I never did any research about this subject, but this is the impression I have, based upon my own observations.

    • I’m sure Sue (Whispering Gums) is preparing to answer this as I write, but I had a really visceral response to reading your Comment. All my forebears came out to Australia from the UK in the 1850s and none of the women were hookers. One was an illiterate Irish girl who came out on an assisted passage to be a servant (and ended up wealthy) and all the rest were ordinary farmers wanting to try their luck and work hard in a new land.

      As it happens, the moves into the interiors of the USA and and of Australia commenced at pretty well the same time, the 1840s, though of course the Mayflower, the settlement of the US East Coast and the slave trade date to a a couple of hundred years earlier.

      Australian writing was not separate from British writing until the 1890s. Two or three male writers became well known prior to then – notably Marcus Clarke and Rolf Boldrewood – but the very popular at the time writing of women writers was suppressed by academics, and by our deference to English culture, for the best part of 100 years.

      I suggest you read Catherine Helen Spence or Ada Cambridge, both available free on Project Gutenberg, and then write again and tell us what you think. Titles I recommend include Clara Morrison, Sisters, The Three Miss Kings.

      Your right, the original Australians weren’t given “cult status” and when they weren’t being pushed of their lands they were largely ignored. The first time they came up in a popular book that I can think of is Mr Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never (1902).

      Bill Holloway

      • I knew you’d give a more thorough answer Bill! The “hookers” did set me back a bit … but it’s interesting to hear how others see Australian history. Once we’ve educated ourselves about what really happened, we need to educate others!

    • Thanks Shaharee, for explaining your understanding. Quite a bit of what you say is true, but free settlers started coming to Australia very early on, from the 1790s, so it was a more diverse community than people might think. A major difference between us and the US is that the British regarded Australia as “terra nullius” and therefore not owned by anyone. The treaties that occurred in the USA with the Native Americans didn’t happen here, for example. However, I think the fact that we were settled 100 years or so after the USA, and that we were a penal colony to start with, does affect the trajectory of our literature – as does the “cultural cringe” which is something Americans never suffered from. They were independent from England whereas we looked back to the home country (and Europe) for a long time as the arbiter/benchmark of culture! It’s very complicated, as I think you’ve recognised!

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