Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 1, Bookstall Co. (update)

Last year I wrote a series of posts about 1922, drawing primarily from Trove. I enjoyed doing it, and have decided to repeat the exercise this year, and perhaps continue annually, to build up a picture of the times. My first 1922 post was about the NSW Bookstall Company which was established in 1880, but which around 1904 began publishing and selling Australian books for one shilling each. When I started my 1923 Trove search, this company featured heavily, so I’ve decided to lead off with an update of it.

Now, I noted last year, that the company’s longstanding managing director, A.C. Rowlandson, had died that year, but that the company planned to continue. During this year’s research, I found that in 2000 the University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library put on an exhibition titled “Sensational Tales: Australian Popular Publishing 1850s-1990s”. One of the “tales” concerned the NSW Bookstall Co. They confirmed that the Company had “helped make writing a viable occupation for a generation of Australians, a number of whom – including Norman Lindsay, Vance Palmer and ‘Steele Rudd’ – achieved lasting reputations”. However, they also say that the Company’s publishing program did decline after Rowlandson’s death, and that it issued fewer than 70 titles between 1924 and 1946. By the end of World War II, the Company had “reverted to being a retail distributor of books and magazines”. How much of this decline was due to Rowlandson’s death and how much to changing times, they don’t say, but, from what I’ve read of him, I suspect the former played a role, as Rowlandson was clearly a powerful and inspirational force.

Anyhow, on with 1923. I plan to share the fiction that I’ve identified as published by them in 1923. What is interesting is not just who the Australian authors were and what they were writing, but what the reviewers and commentators were saying about both the company and the specific books, and what it all reveals about Australia’s literary environment of the time.

Bookstall Series books, 1923

Although the University of Melbourne’s exhibition notes the company’s decline, it was still going strong in 1923:

  • Vera Baker, The mystery outlaw (pub. 1920, and 1923)
  • Capel Boake, The Romany mark
  • Dale Collins, Stolen or strayed
  • Arthur Crocker, The great Turon mystery
  • A.R. Falk, The red star
  • J.D. Fitzgerald, Children of the sunlight: stories of Australian circus life
  • Jack McLaren, Fagaloa’s daughter
  • Jack North, A son of the bush
  • Ernest Osborne, The plantation manager
  • Steele Rudd, On Emu Creek
  • Charles E. Sayers, The jumping double: a racing story
  • H.F. Wickham, The Great Western Road

Most of these authors are male. Indeed, Capel Boake and Vera Baker seem to be the only woman here.

I found several references for most of the books listed above. Some were not much more than listings, and some seemed to be somewhat repetitive (which could be due to syndication and/or drawing from publisher’s publicity. It’s hard to know without deeper analysis.) However, there was also some more extensive commentary.

First though, as you can probably tell from the titles, the books tend to be “commercial” or genre books, most of them adventure with some mystery thrown in. One of my 1922 posts focused on the time’s interest in adventure, so I won’t repeat much of that except to say that many of the reviewers/columnists talked about “thrills”, “exciting reading”, fast pacing, and the like. The majority of the novels are set in the bush, reflecting our well-documented ongoing interest in outback stories. But A.R. Falk’s detective novel The red star, is set in Sydney. The Brisbane Courier’s reviewer (23 June) argues that Australian writers hadn’t “developed the field of detective fiction to any extent”, which is interesting given its popularity now. This reviewer praises the book saying that Falk had “written a far better detective story than the majority of those that are imported”. S/he says that “the fight between detectives and a clever gang of thieves and murderers is told in a very convincing manner” and that while “the ending, perhaps, is forced” the story “takes a high place among current detective fiction”.

That’s higher praise than some of the books received at the hands of our reviewers. J.Penn tended to write a little more analytically. I haven’t been able to identify who J.Penn is, but s/he wrote a new books column in Adelaide’s Observer and Register titled “The Library Table”. S/he generally praised Ernest Osborne’s The plantation manager but did note a weakness at times for ‘making people “talk like a book”‘ (Observer, 5 May) and was critical of Steele Rudd’s On Emu Creek which s/he felt lacked the satirical edge of his Dad works. S/he writes that “Steele Rudd is firmly convinced that his readers will find sufficient fun in the mere fact of some one being humiliated or hurt, without the author’s having to worry to hunt for words” (Register, 19 May). The Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record (3 August) described On Emu Creek as humorous but qualified this with “the reader may be pardoned if he fails to see in the more recent books the same rich vein of humor that characterised the earlier chronicles of the Rudd family” while The Age (5 May) was gentler, calling it “an agreeable story, without any affectation of style, and containing points of humor”

Penn described (Register, 21 April) Dale Collins’ Stolen or strayed as ‘a “shilling shocker” of modern Australia’. Set mostly on the Murray, “it is,” writes Penn “a joyous yarn, and, as generally happens nowadays, the literary style is more than worthy of the tale it unfolds”. Interestingly, though, Collins’ book generated more disagreement than most. The Queenslander (12 May) was less impressed, saying that “neither the workmanship nor the characterisation show any especial ability” and The Sun (22 April) said that “It is a story just good enough, so far as construction is concerned, to lead one to hope that the author will do much better some day.”

Overall, several reviewers commented along the lines of Perth’s Western Mail (26 April) reviewer, who said, regarding Stolen or strayed and The planation manager, that “both books will no doubt be read with avidity by those who care for stories of this kind”. This is fair enough given these readers were Bookstall’s target market.

Now, some quick observations, before closing. I was interested that some reviewers seemed to give the whole plot away, which we don’t see now. Also, I’ve not (yet) been able to identify several of the authors, but a few were also journalists – like Dale Collins and Jack North – and some used pseudonyms, like Capel Boake about whom I’ve written before.

Finally, despite what seemed to be qualified praise for many of the books, it’s clear that the endeavour was valued for providing a career for Australian writers and illustrators at a time when they struggled to get published. And, as Hobart’s Mercury (18 August) wrote

Beyond question, they are more than worth the money, the thing most prejudicial to their success being the gaudy “Deadwood Dick” types of covers in which they appear.

Trove (et al) under threat

You all know how much I rely on Trove. Back in 2016 I wrote a post in support of it when its survival was threatened. Well, it’s under threat again, and Lisa posted on it today. She references an(other) article in The Conversation that addresses not only the situation for the National Library of Australia and Trove, but other significant national cultural institutions like the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Gallery of Australia. These services and institutions are the lifeblood of academics, writers, journalists and other researchers (professional and general). Their role is to acquire, preserve and make available our heritage. They are not dispensable. They are essential.

23 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 1, Bookstall Co. (update)

  1. Thanks for the mention!
    BTW the National Archives site has been down ‘for maintenance’ for days now, and was scheduled to be back online today (Jan 9th) and they tweeted today that it would be up and running again “in the evening’… but Record Search on their homepage still isn’t opening anything.
    It bodes ill…

  2. Dale Collins! I went to school with his daughter Felicity (she had an older sister called Susan). Having a father who was a writer seemed very exotic and mysterious to me.

    Wikipaedia says:

    “Cuthbert Quinlan Dale Collins (9 April 1897 – 3 March 1956) was an Australian journalist and author of popular fiction. He is notable for a series of sea romances written in the 1920s and 1930s, some of which were adapted for motion pictures, including Rich and Strange, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which closely followed his novel of the same name.”

    I believe he wrote a total of about 35-36 books.

    Felicity and I were classmates, and I remember clearly how shocking it was to learn that her father had died – we would have been eleven at the time.

    Felicity grew up to be a librarian and lived in London. She died a few years ago.


  3. Steele Rudd did very well out of the Bookstall Company and was probably until well after WWII the only Australian author to make a living from his writing (I wonder if Ruth Park was the next).

    In Seven Little Australians the girls take yellowbacks with them to read on the train. I believe they were from Bookstall with paper covers.

    • Thanks Bill. For reasons which will hopefully become obvious in the next week I was only thinking recently about Ruth Park and how hard she and D’Arcy Niland worked to make a living out of writing.

      How interesting about Seven little Australians. How on earth did you you remember (work out) that?

        • I’ve never thought about exhibition notes – I don’t get out enough!

          If you have yellowbacks stuck in your mind you’ll run into them every now and then. I seem to remember them on a rail trip in Ada Canbridge’s A Mere Chance (looks: Proj Gutenberg don’t have word search function).

        • That Yelllowbacks link you sent was from an exhibition – did you realise?

          I think I’d discovered that before about Prof Gutenberg and understand why … the texts are buried at another level. Such searching requires a different database structure. At Republic of Pemberley you can word search Austen’s texts, but book by book. At PGA you’d have to download Seven Little Australians and use you r own system to search it, which works ok if you know which book you want to search but not so if you want to cast your net wider!

  4. I was so taken aback by
    that you mention here at the end of your post, when I read it in The Guardian (to the website of which I have a subscription – dunno what that says about my politics, but people know I’m NOT a conservative), that it’s all I could think of and my mind flew straight to WG upon reading it. It is one more thing that astonishes me about our new government: don’t they see how much kudos there is to be gained ????????

    • I subscribe to The Guardian too M-R (well, the app on my iPad). I love that your thoughts flew to me! Many, many people use Trove but invisibly to the rest of us because they cite the sources they find there rather than it, itself.

      Hopefully the government does, but to give them some due, they haven’t been sitting on their hands since they came to power BUT now it’s time to turn to arts and culture!

        • I like your passion and certainly hope they tackle this soon. The inequitable treatment of our cultural institutions versus the AWM is a disgrace given the relative values they offer. That the AWM is one of the most “physically” visited is not a true measure of its relative value and role in Australian life and thought.

  5. Thanks Sue, for your, as always, thorough research and unique take on the topic. I really enjoyed your historical snapshot.

    I tried to leave a comment on your blog but it does not work, for what seem to be complicated reasons related to my blog, which I cant figure out I’m afraid. Xxx

    • HI Paula … this is you! Sorry, I’ve just found this. It had gone into moderation because this email address hasn’t commented on my blog before – and I had missed it as I haven’t had a moderated comment for some time.

      It’s lovely to hear from you. Thankyou! x

  6. Now I must say I’m terribly curious about Children of the sunlight: stories of Australian circus life. What is this circus life in Australia of which they speak?!

    That review about a book being just good enough to hope the author is better in the future is, I think, a verdict many of us have made, and so I had to laugh at that. It’s as if we’re saying, “Yes, this book was not great, but boy howdy, it can only get better with the potential I see!”

    And I object; I do believe Bill tends to give away almost the entire plot of most books he reads. I poke at him about it every once in a while, because I’m so certain some of what he writes would be a surprise had I read the book myself!

    • We had quite a few travelling circuses back in the day, as they say, Melanie, and still have them … though now they mainly do acrobatics, clowning and side-shows, mostly in country towns.

      And yes, we might say it a bit differently but as you say that is the sort of comment we sometimes make about debut authors. I liked the way this one was said! As for Bill, I enjoy your occasional repartees on the subject!

      • I know a lot of circuses are removing animals from their acts due to a history of abuse, which is a step in the right direction. Watching people perform is enjoyable, and more ethical, too.

        • Exactly. I love watching acrobatics in particular. My city banned animals in circuses a long tme ago, resulting in the Circuses “having” to come to the city on our border, Queanbeyan, and Canberrans having to travel (a few minutes) into New South Wales to see them. Needless to say, we didn’t. My understanding is that as of 2021 there are no exotic animals in Australian circuses – no lions, monkeys, elephants etc. Horses and dogs are I think still used in some circuses. I don’t go to circuses, but to acrobatic companies, like our Circa, which appear on theatre stages.

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