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.
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!
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.
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!