Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 6, Great Australian novel (again)

The things you find in Trove! As l was trawling Trove for my 1922-project earlier this year, I came across a reference to the Great Australian novel. Just one. So, I put it aside, thinking it would be a neat, quick little post for a busy week like this one. Little did I know …

Before writing this post, I thought I should do one more quick little search. Nothing much came up, except that buried in one of the few articles my search retrieved was a reference to a book titled The luck of 1825 by Horace B. Pithouse. Launceston’s Daily Telegraph (18 November), wrote that “the rough draft of the MS was originally sent for sake of a criticism to the de Garis Great Australian novel competition”. The de Garis Great Novel Competition? Ever heard of it? I certainly hadn’t.

So, I decided to do an Internet search, and up popped the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) with an article on one Clement John De Garis (1884-1936). Heard of him? I certainly hadn’t.

However, he was quite a character, and you can read about him at the link on his name above. In a nutshell, ADB lists his occupations as aviator, financier/investor, novelist, produce merchant, and short story writer, and describes him as “a man of effervescent charm and superhuman energy—a ‘prince of ballyhoo'”. Born in Mildura, he got involved in the dried fruit industry and was entrepreneurial in developing and promoting the product. But, it didn’t stop there. ADB writes that his “ambitions took on a manic quality and he began to see himself as all things to all men. A self-constituted patron of the arts, he launched a Great Australian Novel Competition”. This competition was advertised in 1919 with a closing date in early 1920. Hobart’s World (3 January 1920) promoted the competition, which had three prizes (£300 for first, £150 second, and £100 third). The goal was a “really great Australian novel”; the writer had to be Australian born; and “the story must be typically Australian”, which did not mean that ‘”local color” must be that of a shearing shed, or of the thirsty tracks in the Never Never.’

A humorist named “Dip-Tin” in Western Australia’s The Moora Herald and Midland Districts Advocate (5 May 1920) promoted it in verse, and included this on the potential subject matter:

There’ll be yarns about Ned Kelly. 
And Judge Bevan, and Oenpelli— 
Bet your life! 
And be sure each central figure 
Will become a dinkum digger, 
Plus a wife. 

Late in 1920, the winner was announced – Frank A Russell’s The ashes of achievement. Heard of it? No, nor have I! And that’s not surprising because the reviews, overall, were poor. Take this one (with an unreadable by-line) in Perth’s The Call (31 December 1920), titled ‘When DeGaris slept! The prize Australian novel candidly reviewed. A literary “Dud” – which isn’t brilliant – and isn’t even Australian’. You get the gist. The writer critiques the book’s failure at length, exposing its weaknesses in subject-matter, characterisation and language. If you’d like to know how to thoroughly pan a book, here is a good example, and if what he (I think it’s a Hector) says about it is right, his assessment is fair enough. Hector (?) concludes that:

With the publicity that has been given it The ashes of achievement will probably be widely read. But it will not be remembered.

The Queenslander (1 January 1920) agrees with The Call, albeit with brevity:

The C.J. DeGaris Publishing Company is worthy of commendation for its courage and confidence, because the work of publishing in these days is a very expensive business, but if the remaining novels are not better than The ashes of achievement the effort to enhance the literature of Australia will not be very considerable. There is more real Australian atmosphere in a few chapters of a score of other Australian novels than in the whole of Mr. Russell’s very long and mediocre production. The test of a novel lies in its atmosphere and character studies, but while in the 30 chapters of “The Ashes of Achievement” one is continually meeting new characters, and as suddenly dropping them, there is none of any outstanding merit …

I did find one positive report – in Perth’s The Southern Argus and Wagin-Arthur Express (8 January 1920) – but it was cursory:

Under such circumstances [that is, winning this prize] one would naturally expect a good novel, and one is not disappointed. The ashes of achievement is an Australian novel, by an Australian author, and not flavored with gum leaves to make it so. It maintains the reader’s interest from beginning to the end, and will rank amongst the best of international novels.

Fair point about the “gum leaves”, but …

I’ll leave De Garis here, and will get to the article from Smith’s Weekly (16 December 1922) that inspired this post. It starts by saying that ‘about once a week in our “esteemed contemporaries,” Australian authors are adjured to write the Great Australian Novel’ and goes on, tongue-in-cheek, to explain why it’s so difficult. It’s because, for example, Australian heroes and heroines can’t match the English versions with their titles and valets, and rose-leaf skin. Further,

No British hero or heroine has to work. Readers dislike working heroes and heroines. They know all about work without reading about it. 

Smith’s writer concludes:

Instead of picturesque characters, ivy-clad ruins and dear old London, we have galvanised-iron, bank managers, kerosene-tins, gum-trees, the golden wattle-bloom, shearers’ strikes, drought, the W.C.T.U., the blue, blue sky (over-worked), the last-lady-help-but-one, Old Pardon the son of Reprieve, Clancy of the Overflow, and dear old Woop Woop.

That is all the material we have. Personally, I don’t see how we can make the Great Australian Novel out of it. 

Love it … the less said about the Great Australian novel the better, I reckon.

This was the sixth post in my 1922 series.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night; 4. Adventure novels; 5. Art books

32 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 6, Great Australian novel (again)

  1. The title “The Ashes of Achievement” seems eerily, not to say hilariously, self-prophetic. Did no-one imagine at the time that perhaps Mr Russell was pulling everyone’s legs? Perhaps a serialised Ern Malley saga might come closer to the elusive Great Australian Novel. I can see parallels with the searched-for, longed-for Inland Sea, not to mention the Southern Continent itself.
    So here’s my pitch: my Great Australian Novel, entitled “Hidden In a Summer For a Million Years,” it begins with the Dropbears, Bunyips, and Banksia Men (& Women) undergoing mature-age re-training as anthropologists (thank-you, Ms Araluen). Each one has to do a thesis on cultural identity over a year, and report their findings and conclusions at the end. It’ll be like the quest for the Holy Grail, but without the rattling chain-mail.

    • Ha ha Glen. ”Hector” ended his review on the “ashes” idea. As for pulling legs, I only read a few reviews, but no, I didn’t see that thought, though you have a point!

      Love your GAN idea (and glad you acknowledged Araluen as inspiration for it!) when do plan to start on it!

  2. LOL I just Googled it, in the hope that it might show up at Gutenberg Australia, and lo, look how Amazon describes it!
    “This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” The blurb goes on to say that it’s in the public domain, but I can’t find it at Gutenberg, neither the US or Australian sites.

    • To think that any kind of ashes could ever be considered culturally important *dodges flying cricket bat*

    • I meant to check Gutenberg, Lisa, but ran out of time. I did though find it at that London company Forgotten Books, which classifies it as children’s! I don’t fully understand their modus operandi but I come across them often when I’m looking for obscure books.

      Re e-books, I guess that though it’s in public domain no-one has given it priority, which says something, eh!

      • Well, TBH, I had no plans to read it. But I would have liked to scan it to see how much (if at all) it deserved the criticism it’s had… only because Creme de la Phlegm (by Angela Bennie) has made me alert to past failures of Australian reviewing when it comes up against something new (e.g. Patrick White’s High Modernism).

        • Yes, completely understand, but these reviews provide petty telling detail about why they don’t like it, while the positive one that I read said little. However, I only read a few and it doesn’t hurt to keep an open mind, does it. I don’t think we can ever forget that reviewers regularly get new things wrong – like the poor responses to now loved musical works by Beethoven and Mozart, art by Monet, etc.

        • I think it’s interesting to read about them, if only to see how tastes have changed. I have a couple of early books in the Best OzLit genre, and they’re fascinating.
          And of course, I don’t forget, my blunders are archived at Pandora so maybe someone will be chuckling over them when I’m long dead and gone.

        • Yes, it is I agree Lisa. As for blunders, me too. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know if someone in say 50 years time did a PhD on the role of litbloggers in the early 21st century.

        • Hehe, I know they’re keeping an eye on us. Remember when the ABR had a piece by Kerryn Goldsworthy about contemporary reviewing and interviewed me for it? And someone else, whose name I forget, contacted me ages ago about some research he was doing, something to do with the Stella which (still!) only counts print reviews when there is a whole ecosystem of readers and reviewers online. I don’t know what became of that…

        • Yep, that’s true for a lot of things, even in libraries. Quantitative measures tell very little … it’s so hard to measure what you want to measure. Which, in a way, says why should Stella bother trying to measure the online world as it’s even more difficult to get nuanced data from.

        • Well, that was the NAPLAN argument. Just measure the things that are easy to measure. Teachers would say, fine, but don’t pretend that’s the whole picture or try to draw conclusions from it that simply aren’t there. But *sigh* that incomplete and mostly useless data is still used to compare school performance and many parents judge their child’s performance by it too, despite the best efforts of teachers to explain that it’s just a snapshot that is well out of date by the time results are available.
          And that’s the problem with the Stella. They use inadequate data to mount the argument that women don’t get a fair share of reviews in print media. But if there’s a declining pool of readers who read print media, and the vast majority of readers get their reviews elsewhere, there’s very little significance to the print data, especially since there’s a generational divide between readers of print media that has to be paid for, and readers of online media that’s free.
          All book prizes are a nice idea, but I’ve never believed the foundational myth that proponents claim as justification for the Stella.

  3. Hi Sue, I have just finished this satisfying read. Featherstone showed the importance of freedom, and also they importance of human connection. Lewis gave both to Patrick.


  4. The line about the book being widely read but not remembered was a ripper of a put down.
    And, Clement John De Garis had an extraordinary resume. I wonder how many of his achievements were true?

  5. Well, I’m glad DE Garis constituted himself a literary patron, there are worse things he could have done with his money. I take it the prize only went for one year – a bit optimistic to think that that would be the year the GAN was written. It can’t have been very well publicised or Miles Franklin would have entered. At this point I have a brain wave. I know there is a de Garis connected with MF. Search. Dr de Garis was one of Australia’s first women doctors and from memory was one of two Australian women who commanded the SWH hospital in Macedonia (Serbia) where MF also served in WWI.

    • Yes, I agree Bill, his heart was in the right place. But no, I don’t think it was offered again as far as I can see.

      Wow, though, good catch re Dr De Garis. You’d think there’d have to be some connection with a name like that.

    • Clement de Garis and Dr Mary de Garis were brother and sister (Mary’s middle name is Clementina), which was pretty obvious as soon as it became apparent they both had Mildura in their background. Mary doesn’t get an ADB entry but is tacked on the bottom of their father’s, Elisha.
      There is a biography, from Deakin Uni, 2014, Woman War Doctor by Ruth Lee

  6. I don’t know where I’m going to end up when I’m dead, but I want the sign “a woman of effervescent charm and superhuman energy—a ‘princess of ballyhoo’” right near me.

    Also, thanks to Adriano Zumbo I know the word “dinkum” because he brought to the U.S. audiences, “fair dinkum tasty.”

    • Sounds good to me!

      Haha re “fair dinkum” though you wouldn’t usually use it quite like that. It’s usually used to describe a person, “he’s a fair dinkum bloke” or to emphasise true truth of something you’re more likely to say, “that’s a tasty burger, fair dinkum”. But what you say here isn’t wrong, just not the way we normally hear it. I love that you know our Adriano …

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