Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 4, Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (2)

Last week I wrote about Canadian librarian, George Locke, commissioning Australian critic and journalist AG Stephens to compile the “best 100 imaginative Australian and New Zealand books” to be sent for exhibition in Toronto’s public library”. I ended on the commission having been completed, but I did not include his list because, not only had it taken me a while to find, but it then needed some editing before I could download it to share.

I’m not going to share the whole list, now, either. It is long, and probably not of core interest to most readers here. So, I plan to introduce the list, and then share selections – and, of course, I’ll give you the link so those of you who are interested can peruse the lot.

The list

After trying a few search strategies to locate the full list, I finally found it in Adelaide’s The Register (11 August 1923), in J. Penn’s “Literary Table” column. I’ve come across his columns before during my Trove searches, but have not yet found much about him. So, let’s move on. I’ve noted his name for further research, along with other mysterious by-lines I’ve seen.

Penn starts with some background. Stephens, he says, “was not required to display the historical course of literature”, nor “to include works of record, works of science, works of reference”:

His task was to choose works of literature identified with Australia or Zealandia, typifying Austra-Zealand character, suggesting life and thought native to Australia or Zealandia at the present day, yet readable and valuable elsewhere by reason of their art, by force of their genius. 

Penn suggests that “as a natural consequence of the change of environment, the character of Australians, and to a less extent of Zealandians, is gradually differentiating itself from the character of the parent British stock”. Some of the books in the list, he says, “exhibit this evolutionary change” while others reflect, in various degrees, “some of the qualities of world-wide literature”. Stephens, he continues, believes that the body of Austra-Zealand verse, which is “chiefly Scottish or Irish in origin”, is comparatively good. Regarding the rest, he quotes Stephens:

Austra-Zealand prose is good only in short stories. The best of the few long novels have been written by Englishmen. The list shows a distinct quality of English literary persistence, and a distinct preference of the Celtic mind for brief flights in prose and verse. Several books in the field of travel and description have a charming novelty. The juvenile books are excellent.

Interesting, eh? Not surprisingly, the list is verse-heavy. It is presented in categories …

  • Anzac (6)
  • Art and Illustration (8)
  • Drama (2)
  • Essays and Criticism (4)
  • Fiction (21)
  • Juvenile (11)
  • Reference (4)
  • Travel and Description (10)
  • Verse (34)

    … and is annotated with Stephens’ comments, which were presumably intended for Locke and his library.


    Book cover
    • 21. Becke (L.), By Reef and Palm, London, 1894. The first admirable short tales of the best East Sea writer since Melville. Neither Stevenson nor Maugham equals his graphic presentation of island nature and human nature.
    • 22. Bedford (E.), The Snare of Strength, London, 1905. An impetuous characteristic Australian novel, not shaped to gain its proper literary effect.
    • 23. Baynton (B.), Bush Studies, London, 1902. Short stories realizing with peculiar force and feeling the life they describe.
    • 24. Bartlett (A. T.), Kerani’s Book, Melbourne, 1921. In prose and verse the book of a typical young Australian.
    • 25. Browne (T. A.), Robbery Under Arms, London, 1888. Still the best bush story and the best long fiction written in Australia.
    • 26. Clarke (M. A. H.), For the Term of His Natural Life, Melbourne, 1874. Based on the records of the English convict settlement in Tasmania early in the 19th century. Picturesque, dramatic, and forcible at its epoch, it is moving into our literary past.
    • 27. Davis (A. H.), On Our Selection, Sydney, 1898. Lively humorous sketches of farm life and character.
    • 28. Dyson (E. G.), Factory ‘Ands, Melbourne, 1906. City life and character shown with brilliant satirical humour.
    • 29. Franklin (S. M.), My Brilliant Career, London, 1901. The first novel of a high spirited Australian girl- individual and characteristic.
    • 30. Furphy (J.), Such is Life, Sydney, 1903. Lengthy, slow, meditative, a lifelike gallery of bush scenes and bush people.
    • 31. Hay (W.), An Australian Rip Van Winkle, London, 1921. Personal and descriptive sketches are fully written and skilfully elaborated.
    • 32. Kerr (D. B.), Painted Clay, Melbourne, 1917. An Australian girl’s first novel, representing current fiction.
    • 33. Jones (D. E.), Peter Piper, London, 1913. The book of a typical Australian girl.
    • 34. Lawson (H.), While the Billy Boils, Sydney, 1896. Early collection of stories and sketches by the chief of Australian realistic writers.
    • 35. Lloyd (M. E.), Susan’s Little Sins, Sydney, 1919. Rare fertility of natural humour.
    • 36. Mander (J.), The Story of a New Zealand River, London, 1920. Best recent Zealandian novel, truthful and powerful.
    • 37. Russell (F. A.), The Ashes of Achievement, Melbourne, 1920. Placed first in De Garis prize competition of several hundred writers.
    • 38. Stephens (A. G.). ed. The Bulletin Story Book, Sydney, 1902. Many Austra-Zealand short stories permanently highly valuable.
    • 39. Stone (L.), Jonah, London, 1911. Keen observation, firm characterization, and witty exact description of city life.
    • 40. Wolla Meranda, Pavots de la Nuit, Paris, 1922. An Australian woman’s novel written in English, and first published in a French translation—a vivid story of sex in Australian scenes.
    • 41. Wright (A.), A Game of Chance, Sydney, 1922. One of the best books of a popular Australian writer of two score sporting stories. 

    So now, some thoughts. Remember that this was 1923. Many of our better-known early 20th century writers were just getting going. Katharine Susannah Prichard, for example, had written just three books by then, and Vance Palmer two. Others, like Christina Stead, M Barnard Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison had not quite started. Of course, some had, and are not included, like Catherine Helen Spence, as Bill (The Australian Legend) would say, and Price Warung, to name just two. Louise Mack is included, but in the Juvenile category – along with writers like Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner.

    Capel Boake, Painted clay

    People will always complain about lists. Indeed, I think an important role of lists is to get book talk into the public arena. I shared some criticisms of this list last week. I’m therefore going to leave that issue and look briefly at what Stephens included. There are books here, for example, that we still know today – those by Barbara Baynton, TA Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood), MAH (Marcus) Clarke, AH Davis (aka Steele Rudd), SM (Miles) Franklin, J Furphy, DB Kerr (aka Capel Boake) and H(enry) Lawson.

    There are some surprises here – for me. Wolla Meranda is completely new to me, and I plan to research her for a future post. EG Dyson’s Factory ‘Ands, with its “brilliant satirical humour” also intrigues.

    As some critics complained (in my post last week), there is one by Stephens himself – but it is an anthology so is surely not, really, self-aggrandisement?

    Finally, his annotations. Love them. Some read a bit strangely – syntactically speaking. However, as well as reflecting his own preferences, of course, they are succinct, not bland, and they convey how the works meet that commission – to represent Austra-New Zealand thought and character in readable but quality literature!


    To avoid writing a tome, I’m now going to share a few from Drama and Verse. Of the two Drama works listed, one is by Louis Esson, who was critical of the list. Stephens includes his 1912 Three Short Plays and annotates it with “exhibits dramatic power as far as he goes”. 

    Verse contains quite a few “Zealandians” (to use the language of the time). Australian poets include many still known to us, like Barcroft Boake, Christopher Brennan, Zora Cross, CJ Dennis, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Henry Kendall. Several poets are noted (annotated) for their satirical or sardonic humour, which appeals to me. But I’ll conclude with one I don’t know, R Crawford’s 1921 The Leafy Bliss. Stephens’ annotation is “Awkward verse with astonishing aptitudes; the uncouth elf suddenly disclosing the high shining face of poetry”. (Should this be “uncouth self”? Anyhow, I love this annotation.)


    Picture Credit: Alfred Stephens, 1906, Public Domain, from National Library of Australia.

    Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update); 2. Platypus Series; 3. Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (1)

    26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 4, Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (2)

          • Haha … so you are going to complain after all!

            Yes, it could have been. I have still to read Nathan’s book. Just such hard times at the moment as you’ve probably seen – not reading a lot at all – so I don’t have a good sense of her recognition/reputation in the east in those first years after her novels started coming out. Three were published before this list. ADB describes him as “anticlerical and an acknowledged free-thinker in youth and middle age” but he could still have been politically conservative.

    1. My list, even at the time, would be different, but given the active misogyny of the Bulletin, I’m surprised Stephens included any women at all. As for ‘self-aggrandisement’, many of the authors named would have worked with Stephens and have been first published in the Bulletin – Baynton, Lawson, Furphy, Rudd to name the most obvious.
      Interesting that For the Term of his Natural Life was ‘already slipping into the past’. By the 1970s it was one of only two or three readily available early Australian novels.

      • Yes, Bill, I was suprised to see some of those women represented. He had long left the Bulletin by this time so while he had presumably worked with these authors time could have worked its magic to some degree. He was a literary agent for at least part of his life as well so some could have been even closer to him. So I take your point, but only partly …

        As for For the term … just shows how you never can tell!

      • Yes, I know M-R, but I like the fact that he didn’t eschew books about Australian girls! He was selecting, really, books for display in a public library so like any good librarian, really, (though he wasn’t one) I guess he had an eye too on appealing to a wide range of public library readers. I should perhaps have said this in my post!!

          • I love the double negative, M-R! I thought the phrase a little quaint … but no, I just meant that it was probably worth making the point in my post about his possibly having an eye on the audience as well as on the “letter” of the commission.

            BTW It’s interesting how positive he was about Australia’s juvenile fiction. It seems to be an area we have often done well in – and are still, today.

    2. Your last sentence made me realize that I never read reviews from you or Bill describing a uniquely Australian book that is funny. I’d say Lantana Lane fits, which I’ve read, but what else?

      • Ah, interesting, Melanie … I think I’ve written about several books that have humour but “funny” books are I guess different. Steve Toltz’s novels have very funny scenes, and Malcolm Knox’s Bluebird is funny too. But mostly we are talking satire which may not be the same as what you mean?

        • I remember you saying that Vera made you laugh a few times, though I’m not sure if the author intended that. She might have, considering how she was writing about her own experiences.

          • Yes, that’s one of the ones I was thinking of. I’m of the view she did intend us to see the funny side behind the grimness of his behaviour, because there is humour – oftendark or satirical – in all her writing.

      • I avoid writers trying to be ‘funny’, especially newspaper columnists. Some books I read have comedic or playful elements, eg. Jane Rawson, Formaldehyde or Miles Franklin, Old Blastus of Bandicoot – I don’t think they are meant to be taken seriously, but nor do they make me laugh out loud.

        Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection series was often taken as funny, but it generally seemed to me that that was city folk laughing at them strange country folk – think Beverly Hill Billies, or what was that series thrown off by The Egg and I? I’m sorry Melanie, but as I scan my shelves I can’t see one work of humour.

        • Oh! Ma and Pa Kettle. Oddly, the bits I’ve seen of the show are very unfunny, but the description of who these people were, as best as MacDonald describes them, is hilarious. Yes, a bit part of it stems from their lack, but in their lack they’ve found acceptance and a way of being, and I think a lot of that, based on what MacDonald wrote, stemmed from a choice to be lazy (such as lighting a bar on fire instead of scooping out the manure). We also have the phrase “redneck ingenuity” that highlights the creativity that comes from a lack of resources, which I find funny because it’s so mind-bogglingly smart. However, I do see that patronizing laugh that you referenced. I found Lantana Lane really funny because people get into trouble through their own stubbornness or creativity when making up games or side hustles. Perhaps “funny” or “comedy” aren’t the right terms.

          • Yeah, Ma & Pa Kettle. I’m so old that the only time I have seen them is in a country town hall watching movies off a 16mm projector. And we country folk thought they were hilarious (and more than a bit familiar).

          • Some of my best memories are of my neighbors, who were definitely country but astoundingly funny. I wonder where the line is between laughing at people and laughing because their personalities are so surprising.

          • I can’t remember ever having astoundingly funny neighbours, but sounds wonderful. As for the line, I guess you just have to be careful about when and where you laugh?

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