Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 2, Reviewers on Australianness

This is the second post in a series I plan to do this year inspired by articles in Trove from 1922, that is, from 100 years ago. My first post was on the NSW Bookstall Company, and I have several more 1922 post ideas. However, I thought a good choice for the second one would be to share some of the things reviewers/critics/ columnists at that time were saying about “Australianness” in the writing. Representing Australia – writing Australian novels – seemed to be important. But what did that mean to them?

I’ll start by repeating something from my first 1922 post. The columnist from Freeman’s Journal (July), wrote that Vance Palmer’s upcoming book, The boss of Killara, was “an entertaining story, … most entertainingly written, and … true in every detail to Australian bush-life”. I wanted to share this again because, by the 1920s, Australia was (and had been for some time) a highly urbanised nation, and yet bush-life seemed to define us in most reviewers’ (and presumably our own) eyes. It suggests that was our point of difference from the rest of the world, regardless of the truth of our lives.

Note that not all books discussed in 1922 were published that year, but most were.

Historical fiction

I didn’t come across a lot of historical fiction, but there were some, and when I did, reviewers were interested, naturally, in whether the past was properly evoked. The Western Mail’s (November) reviewer approved of J.H.M. Abbott’s Ensign Calder, saying that “The writer’s descriptions of life in Sydney, early in the nineteenth century during the governorship of Macquarie, are very faithfully rendered”. Wikipedia’s brief article on Abbott quotes Miller and Macartney from their book, Australian literature. Miller and Macartney describe his writing as being “of a simple kind, without subtleties or motive or characterization, against a background of the Australian past as revealed by historical records, and introducing actual personages”. So, not great literary writing, but accurate. This assessment (acceptance) was, I found, also a fairly common thread in 1922.

Romance and adventure

I will write more about adventure in a later post, because it seemed to be a popular genre. However, it’s worth sharing here some reviewers’ thoughts relevant to this week’s topic.

One adventure story exponent was Walter G Henderson. He was a country solicitor and grazier, as well as writer, and his novel, Bush bred (serialised in 1918, published 1922), was an adventure romance. J. Penn, who wrote for Adelaide’s Observer, called it (July) “a truly Australian product”, then described the wild adventures of its protagonists, including on the goldfields north of Port Augusta. He notes – and I found it interesting that this is one of the things he chose to emphasise – that “the author’s knowledge of camels and their ways is extensive”. Penn also writes that the 1922 edition included a commendation from Viscount Novar who, says Penn, claims that “the preservation of fugitive incident, illustrating different phases of life in a developing country, is a valuable contribution to literature.” Here, at least, is a reference to the idea of “illustrating different phases of life”.

Another popular adventure book was Jack North’s The black opal, which The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (May), describes as “a wholesome, well-written novel in which the lure of the bush triumphs over the glamor of the city”. See!

Mrs Norman (aka Mabel) Brookes’ novel, Old desires, is set partly in Cairo, but, writes the reviewer in Adelaide’s The Mail (October),

Separate from its dramatic qualities, the book is most admirable in its prelude chapters of way-back Australian life. Description of the recognisable routine, normal and often exciting, of station experience in the great interior, has, of its kind, seldom been more truthfully achieved. Occasional conventions link it, nevertheless, to a standard of accomplishment more familiar. Harris tweeds here preserve their familiar and apparently irresistible smell. That Mary, climbing through the stockyard fence, should vouchsafe a generous display of stocking is unimpressive to reading mankind inured to daily main street exhibition requiring neither fence nor stile.

As I’ve said before about these older Trove articles, I love their formal language. Formal this may be, but we get the gist that her description of Australian (station) life is authentic, albeit her English origins can’t help creeping in. Oh, and poor Mary, showing off her stocking unnecessarily, given the (city) worldliness of her readers!

What seemed to be mostly admired about “Australian” novels was not so much their exploration of Australian identity, or other themes, or their writing, but their description of Australian life. The reviewer in Brisbane’s Telegraph (August) of William Anderson’s The silent sin says

The great merit of this story in our eyes is that it is thoroughly Australian. The characters are Australian, and for the most part the scenes are laid in New South Wales and Queensland. For the rest it is told without pretension to literary ornament. 

Realist fiction

Then as now, older books were given new life, and one such book was William Lane’s 1892 novel The workingman’s paradise (my review). The report is not about a new publication, but about its being serialised in Brisbane’s Daily Standard (August). The columnist writes – remember, this is 30 years after its original publication – that

It is truly a remarkable book, more remarkable now, perhaps, than when it was published, because it is as inspiring to-day as it was intended to be then, and its story of the class struggle and road that lies before the Labor movement has increased in significance by the developments of the last quarter-century.

At last, a book that deals with some critical issues! Yes, yes, I’m showing my colours, I know, but I’m sure that won’t surprise you!

This is a brief, and superficial survey, but it comes from several pages of Trove hits and is a fair representation of what I saw as trends at the time. I have found some, let us say, outlier articles, which I will also share as 2022 progresses!

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 2, Reviewers on Australianness

  1. That business of the bush being how (I think) we wanted to be seen ..
    Mary Grant Bruce and her YA novels are prime examples: when I was reading everything I could lay my hands on, back in the good old days when I was young, I clearly remember thinking that this might not be truly representative of Australians at home, so to speak; but it was how I would like it to be ..

    • Thanks M-R, she was mentioned in one of the articles I read. One of the posts I’m thinking of in on children’s lit then, and of course she’s one. I did love her when I was young as I loved family stories, and I did love the exotic nature of bush life, being different to my suburban one at the time. I did live in an outback town for three years, but in the town. I was close to pastoral properties but lived a town life even then.

  2. This might interest you… I’ve just acquired a copy of The Australian Novel, a Critical Survey by J O Anchen who was the Senior Inspector of Schools in Victoria. He begins with A History of Criticism in Australia, by which he seems to mean books rather than press reviewing. He starts with GB Barton’s 1866 Literature in NSW, and moves onto other academic critics from before the period you are interested in here.
    He notes that there was a gap of 20 years between that lot and anything new. He dismisses Zora Cross’s An Introduction to the Study of Australian Literature (1922) and Nettie Palmer’s Modern Australian Literature (1924) as “brochures”. I can’t speak for Cross’s since I’ve never seen it, but I’ve just (finally!) got a copy of Palmer’s and it’s a book not a brochure. A slim book, yes, but not not a brochure. He then goes on to commend at length HM Green who was published in the 1930s.
    He writes about the importance of ‘sound, fearless and authoritative criticism’ to authors, and writing in 1940 he’s not impressed. Relevant to your theme here, he writes:
    “In Australia there are two opinions as to the worth of the novel and both are uncritical and extreme. Some praise the good and bad alike because the works are Australian. Others, and they are in the great majority, will not read any novel that is Australian”.
    He goes on to say that “the desire to encourage has led to much unsound criticism and the result has not been in the best interests of the novel in Australia. For many years there was a double standard of evaluation — one for Australian and one for non-Australian novels.. Judgements were false because the standard was prejudiced.” and “the fundamental principle implies that application of local colour will not hide nor compensate for defects in craftsmanship.”
    Citing Hardy as an example, he says that his novels benefit from his local speech, customs and scenery” but “their merit lies in their intrinsic worth”. He dismisses our unique Australian plant and animal life when applied to mediocre work but thinks it’s because the novel was “mainly concerned with the outback”. Of the twenties he says “a suggestion that authors should give some attention to life in the cities was coldly received. The country scene with local colour, freely applied to mark the work as unquestionably Australia, was regarded as an Australian author’s proper field.”
    I’d love to know the source of that opinion!

    • Oh thanks Lisa… That seems spot on re what I’ve been reading. It’s sort of understandable that those who wanted to promote Australian literature would be generous in their writing about it. But as I found, many reviewers did distinguish somewhat between content and writing/style.

      I see Cross’s book was published in 1922. I’ve come across a couple of references to her but not re that book. I’m still reading, but maybe it came out late in the year and was dissussed more in 1923. Or, there wasn’t much interest!
      I agree re Nettie Palmer’s book. Short but not a brochure. When was Anchen’s book published?

  3. I find that the older I get the more I appreciate the books written so many years ago. I think it is the adventurousness of the characters, the way their lives were lived (without modern conveniences), how life was coped with during hard times . There is a “feeling” throughout them with the descriptions and the vocabulary. And a bit of it has to do with being disappointed in the shallowness or people trying to be too clever in modern lit. I’m sure the same things happened years ago in publishing but by now those books have been weeded out and if a book has survived this long there must be something to recommend it. Of course that’s only my humble opinion. lol

    • Haha Pam, I love your humble opinion! I too like reading books from the past though I think for different reasons. I’m not particularly interested in the adventurousness as you describe it besides it’s just being interesting. I think every era has its challenges. I’m just interested in lives whether it’s Austen times or Civil War times or whatever. If the story is well told and some interesting lives or ideas being explored I’m interested.

      I’m not sure the “best” books have always survived. So much is affected by “values” so for example women’s writing, art, music etc has had to be located and brought to the fore. A lot of it is good stuff but it was overlooked for various reasons.

  4. It is interesting that you are writing posts about what it means to be Australian, and I just went to the America Writers Museum in which one exhibit was about what it means to be American. It seems that, at least in 1922, folks had an idea of what they thought it meant to be Australian, or perhaps what they wanted Australia to look like (that bush image). But the American exhibit was largely undefinable. Every story is so varied that there is no true image of America. Granted, with our current politics it seems that you and others outside the U.S. may have no trouble picturing America: loud, boastful, loves guns, perhaps white nationalists, etc. And I agree that that image is not wrong. But aside from those folks, the rest of America is so mishmash, so far from a single image of what it means to be America. And that, to me, is pretty cool.

    • People love to generalise, Melanie, I think and so, yes you are right to a degree that those descriptions are how many people see Americans. Of course, I’ve lived there a couple of times, and have spent quite a bit of time online with Americans since 1997 (internet book groups, and then blogging) so see it a bit differently. I tend to go back to origins, and how America and Australia, as New World countries started. For me that explains a lot. I think there are some overall images that Americans subscribe to – freedom, individual rights, and how great America is – that are held to tightly and that underpin some of those cliches, even though for many individual Americans those values / Images of America don’t result in their being loud, gun-toting, white nationalists. (I think, too, American settlement, being around 100 years older was also more affected by the Enlightenment and its philosophies? There was an idealism at play.)

      Australia’s white settlement origins are very different. Rather than people freely choosing to come here to escape persecution etc, o ur people were sent here against their will, to hard conditions and a LONG way from home. That resulted in some very different, fundamental attitudes. Given most people stayed on the coast – and built towns and cities there – it is interesting that the “bush” image was (still is, to a degree) so strong.

      • Melanie, I hope WG allows me leave to humbly disagree with her answer above. By the 1820s the great majority of white settlement in Australia was undertaken by free emigrants from the United Kingdom. By the 1850s settlement of the US prairies and Australia’s eastern states was almost exactly parallel, with the wide open spaces being cut into mile square blocks for farming. (But yes, the great majority of Australians did then and do now live in a few cities along the coast).
        The great difference between the two countries, in my opinion, is down to slavery and the Civil War, which respectively never ended and is still being fought.

        • That’s true Bill re the “free emigrants” here, but I still feel that our two origins explain a lot, regardless of what happened as settlement developed. Those origins in the US regarding escaping persecution and the accompanying high focus on individual freedom still plays through to today. The Civil War has a lot to say about internal differences in America that continue to the present, but less so about the over-riding American values I’m talking about, though the War probably affects the emphases in different parts of America placed on those values.

        • Continuing this conversation. I’ve just heard Judith Brett talk about discussion about voting – and the compulsory voting option – in the USA and Australia. In the USA one of the main issues she said was “rights”. This was not an issue in Australia where all the concerns focused on practical issues (how to enforce it etc). She said there was only one naysayer, someone who was anti-conscription, but he was a member of the Labor Party and in the end voted on party lines. These are the sorts of things that to me indicate a fundamental difference that comes from our origins!!

      • I can’t think of an Australian book I’ve read that was set in a city. I read The Silence by Susan Allott, but that was largely set in a suburb. I wonder to what extent large Australian cities are different from large U.S. cities.

        • If you think of the sitcoms Friends or Seinfeld, we don’t have that sort of inner city living, or very little anyway. That seems (in literature) to be restricted to NY, Paris, London. Milly now lives in an apartment less than a km from the heart of Perth but I’m sure it would still feel suburban to you.
          I would propose David Ireland’s City of Women but that would be impossible to get, so maybe Eleanor Dark’s Waterway – set between leafy North Sydney and the city – or Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists – set in (a future) Melbourne, between the city and the gritty inner western suburbs.

        • Yes good point Bill, though I think it is increasing. Don’t forget Ruth Park’s Harp in the south. What about Monkey Grip? Another older book, Kylie Tennant’s Tell morning this, is city based. And there have been a few city-based historical fiction in recent years, like Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden, Janet Lee’s Killing Louisa, Eleanor Limprecht’s long Bay.

        • Hmm, I can’t find any of those books at my library. I tried looking through the catalog and mainly found various “Bush Tales of Australia!” or “Hot Sizzling Billionaire of Australia.” To be fair, you would think a hot wealthy guy would live in a city, yeah? Maybe I’m getting close!

  5. As I wrote last week in my review of The Red Witch, KSP said in 1907, “so strenuously national is the spirit of today, so lively and vigorous the sense of our growing strength in intellectual and artistic life, that Australian literature is abandoning this ‘imitativeness’, these swaddling-clothes of its infancy, and adopting the toga virilis of originality.” She doesn’t mention Such Is Life, which was clearly original, but still maybe in her mind lumped in with Bush.Lit.

    In passing, my opinion of KSP is that she did a lot for Australianness but not much for Literature.

    I have – the nearest book on my shelves to my desk as it happens – Clement Semmler’s 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism (1967). In the first essay, The Task of Australian Literature (1930), RC Bald writes, “[the Australian reader] looks askance at a novel in which the hero walks down the Block instead of Picadilly, or catches the electric train to Malvern instead of taking the Underground to Hampstead”.

    I know we were still looking to England when I was at school in the 1950s, but is Bald right, was he right at the time he was writing? From where you and I stand we can see a clear history of writing by and about Australians stretching back to Clara Morrison (1854) say but perhaps Australians, and especially academic Australians, before the 1960s, disregarded Australian writing and read only English.

    • Interesting point Bill re “In passing, my opinion of KSP is that she did a lot for Australianness but not much for Literature.” This sort of accords with my comment about some of the reviewers/critics in the the 20s comments commenting of the Australianness issue but not at all on the writing or commenting that the writing was nothing exciting. I suppose you could argue that the things was to get people comfortable with reading their own stories with stories that are accessible and familiar, and then start to find new ways to tell the stories that might better meet those stories’ needs plus the writers’ needs to explore and innovate and not say the same old thing in the same old way?

      Interesting that that Bald article was written in 1930, not long after 1922. Of course, I was specifically looking for writing on Australian fiction (though it’s hard to narrow down in Trove) so didn’t see the full gamut of what was being said then. Certainly, my experience of schooling in Queensland in the mid 1960s was a clear interest in Australian writing – “Call of the gums” was our set poetry text in first year high school, and that year we also did Frank Dalby Davison’s Manshy. That year or next, it gets blurry, we did Vance Palmer’s The passage. (Interestingly, given the wealth of women’s writing at the time Davison and Palmer were writing, I don’t recollect doing novels by women. We did do Judith Wright, however). My guess is teachers then knew little of women writers from the turn of the century and before.

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