Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 2, The Platypus Series

My first post in my Monday Musings 1923 series featured an update on the 1880-established NSW Bookstall Company, which, you may remember, focused on supporting Australia’s writers and readers by publishing Australian books and selling them for just one shilling each. In 1923, another publishing initiative appeared on the scene, Angus and Robertson’s Platypus Series.

This series, though, is a little more complicated. In 1923, as far as I can gather, the books were published by Angus and Robertson under their own imprint. Then, from 1924 to 1929, some, though maybe not all, were published under a different Angus and Robertson imprint, Cornstalk Publishing, before returning to Angus and Robertson in 1930. Through all this, however, it remained the Platypus Series.

So now, let’s get to 1923, to November in fact, when newspapers started reporting on receiving the first 8 books in a new series of books from Angus and Robertson. They all reported that seven of the books were classics, with the eighth, J.H.M. Abbott’s historical novel, Sydney Cove, being new fiction. The books, at half-a-crown (2/6), were more expensive than Bookstall’s 1 shilling.

The articles made some other interesting points, prime of which concerned the economics and profitability of publishing. Western Australia’s The Beverley Times, put it particularly clearly:

The publishers suggest that they [the books] could not have been turned out in Australia had not Henry Ford’s methods been applied to their manufacture by a Sydney firm of printers and binders. “More power to the elbow” for the venture has kept thousands of pounds worth of work in “this country,” and good Australian books which have perforce gone out of print have been made available with more to follow. 

Most articles reported on the “mass production” used to produce the books, though only some referenced Henry Ford. Some quantified the amount as £10,000.

Many of the articles, like those writing about the NSW Bookstall Company, commended Angus and Robertson for, as Sydney’s The Sun wrote, “catering for the local market by encouraging the local author”. Some added their own flavour to their description of the series. Victoria’s The Ballarat Star, which described Angus and Robertson as “one of the firms that believes in Australian literature for Australians”, provided its own perspective on the state of Australian literature:

We are, as a nation, rearing our own literary atmosphere. It is not a hasty progress, but it is in sound lines, and when a firm of the standing of Angus and Robertson, of Sydney, can find that it pays to keep Australia to the front in the matter of the “making of books,” well, there is encouragement for the authors also.

And I did love The Sydney Stock and Station Journal‘s little admonition to readers, that there are “other volumes in preparation — sixteen promised by next February, so you can’t growl about the high cost of good reading any more”. But, it’s The Sydney Morning Herald which provided the most information about the Series’ overall plans. It advised that “at least 84 volumes are contemplated”, across several categories – “For Boys and Girls,” “Fiction,” Poetry,” and “Miscellaneous” – and concluded that from what they knew “it is clear that anyone who purchases the series will acquire much of the most characteristic literature that Australia has produced”.

Platypus Series books, 1923

The first eight books in the series were published in 1923:

  • J. H. M. Abbott, Sydney Cove
  • Henry Lawson, Joe Wilson 
  • Henry Lawson, Joe Wilson’s mates
  • Amy Eleanor Mack, Bushland stories, stories for children
  • Amy Eleanor Mack, Scribbling bus
  • Louise Mack, Teens: a story of Australian school girls  
  • Louis Mack, Girls together (a sequel to Teens
  • Ethel C. Pedley, Dot and the kangaroo

Most of the articles discussed the books, but tended to say the same things – whether due to syndication or publisher’s press release, I’m not sure. One of the repeated comments was that the set included “five of the best School Library and Prize books ever written”. That’s a big call. “Ever written” in the world? In Australia? And which were the five? None make it clear. But it sounds good.

While many of the articles gave a little extra information about the new book, Abbott’s Sydney Cove, The Ballarat Star, cited above, wrote more than most on the other books, saying that the two Henry Lawson’s were ‘fine specimens of what the London “Academy” well termed the “artless art” of Henry Lawson’. It also praises Louise Mack’s two books – both for their writing and for being Australian:

She makes the Australian school girl really live, and in her two books — Teens and Girls together which is a sequel— any Australian children will revel because it is their own atmosphere free from artificiality, and redolent of the Australian school life, which is so different from that of England or America. One of these days outsiders who try to write school stories of Australia will have to go to Miss Mack and Ethel Turner, and Ethel Pedley and Amy Mack, and many others of our Australian girl writers for Australian atmosphere.

I love the idea that “outsiders” might want to write Australian school stories, but, regardless, this is lovely praise. It then describes Louise’s sister Amy’s books as “two daintily written kiddie stories, written evidently from the sheer joy of writing”, and says that ‘one of the brightest little things in the Bushland stories is the “Bird’s Alphabet.” It is a lesson inside a story for the author had to drag in the scientific name for the familiar silvereye (“Zosterops”), to complete the Alphabet”. And, it commends Pedley’s Dot and the kangaroo as having a “flavor” of Lewis Carroll, and being “a delicious story of the Australian bush inhabitants and their quaint and wonderful ways”.

Finally, while several articles commented on the value of publishing Australian authors for Australians, Sydney’s The World News made this very clear when it praised the initiative “for everyone knows it is far less risky to sell British and American books, and much more profitable, than publishing works by Australian authors”. That said, it was apparently in the Platypus Series (in 1924) that Anne Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables made her first appearance in Australia! Just saying.

Photo credit: From Rolf Boldrewood’s A Sydney-Side Saxon 1925 (via Abe Books)

Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update)

14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 2, The Platypus Series

  1. If I remember correctly the NSW Bookstall Company also published a line of comic books, written and drawn by Australian creators. I will check my own collection to see if I have any.

  2. ‘Many of the articles … commended Angus and Robertson for … “catering for the local market by encouraging the local author”. ‘
    Sighh .. Bound to remark that encouraging the local author by publishing is one thing, but simply publishing isn’t enough. Still, I suppose that back then the very fact of a book’s appearance was marketing enough.

    • Ha ha, you are BOUND to remark that, M-R. Clearly the papers did their best to play their role in this supporting. But I think you’re right. Not many Aussie books were being published then so they were NEWS.

  3. Not a great selection. Lawson’s short stories because they never stop selling, an obscure hist.fic and some kids stuff.
    You and I (and no one else living, probably) have read the Louise Macks, they’re fun and informative about the times (and about the school days of two important writers) but they’re not great literature.

    A technical question. You quote an article in an obscure WA farming town (Beverly) newspaper. Why is it so hard in Trove to see back to the original, city newspaper article? I know how country newspapers worked in the 1960s, they took a tele-type from the capital (in my case from a newsroom off to one side of the Courier Mail newsroom). I wonder if there was a similar system pre-WWII.

    • No, it’s a selection chosen for popularity I’d say, Bill, with a focus on young people it seems, given the four Macks! No Barbara Baynton here. Adventure also featured, Boldrewood in 2024 etc.

      Re your question, I must say that while I often wonder where the “parent” article is in the articles that are clearly syndicated, I don’t try to find them. It takes me enough time to do the searches, to find good enough filters, then do the editing and download the text so I can quote. I frequently wonder though why the search mechanism often retrieves all these small newspapers early in the hit list. I’ve assumed that the SMH (Fairfax) was the origin of many in NSW, and so on for the other states, but I haven’t tried to trace. In many of these ones for Platypus there are core sentences but several articles had their own stamp eg one, the Australian Worker, notably gave special mention to the Lawson first while most went for the Macks or the Abbott. BTW, we might call Abbott obscure but he was a “popular” writer of the day, also published by Bookstall. I like these insights into who and what was being read. I was thinking as l researched this that it was just at the cusp of that next flowering of Aussie lit, particularly the women, of the 1920s to 1940s. I suppose I should have said all this in the post but by the time I share the info, the post seems long enough, so I leave you all to reflect!

  4. Just a wild guess, but I reckon that since at that time and for a good while afterwards, most authors were submitting their content to British publishers, there would have been copyright issues if A&R wanted to publish a local version.
    Plus, in all probability, local authors wanting to submit an MS wouldn’t have known much about what local publishing opportunities there were. There were no support groups to foster awareness which is why this newspaper article would have been so valuable. Even so, without the Federation of Australian Writers (FAW) (not founded until 1928), Nettie Palmer wrote in Modern Australian Fiction (1924), it was hard to know what was available because “there is practically no record of such work [poetry and prose] but in the scattered books themselves. There are not even groups of writers, each group gathered around some centre.”
    It makes you realise that authors are lucky now to have the support of all the writers associations and the ASA and the FAW to help them find the right publisher for their work.

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