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.