Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 5, Novels and their subjects

On the basis that what novelists write about provides some sort of insight into their times, I’ve done a little survey of the books published by Australian writers in 1923 to see what their subject matter might tell us about Australian life and literature 100 years ago.

First, here are the books I found, mostly via Trove:

  • J. H. M. Abbott, Sydney Cove
  • Vera Baker, The mystery outlaw
  • Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Jewelled nights
  • Capel Boake, The Romany mark
  • Roy Bridges, Green butterflies
  • Dale Collins, Stolen or strayed
  • Arthur Crocker, The great Turon mystery
  • Bernard Cronin, Salvage
  • A.R. Falk, The red star 
  • J.D. Fitzgerald, Children of the sunlight
  • Frank Fox, Beneath an ardent sun
  • Mary Gaunt, As the whirlwind passeth
  • Jack McLaren, Fagaloa’s daughter
  • Mary Marlowe, Gypsy Royal, adventuress
  • Catherine Martin, The incredible journey
  • Jack North, Son of the bush
  • Ernest Osborne, The plantation manager
  • Steele Rudd, On Emu Creek
  • Charles L. Sayer, The jumping double
  • H.F. Wickham, The Great Western Road

Twenty books in total, six of them by women. Unfortunately, I am not at home so can’t check these against 1923 in the Annals of Australian literature (but I’m sure Bill will when he sees this post!) Wikipedia’s page 1923 in Australian literature includes a few others: D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, but he’s not Australian though the book was set here; Arthur Gask’s The red paste murders, but Project Gutenberg Australia says it was published in 1924; and Nat Gould’s Beating the favourite, but he died in 1919, and I can’t find much on this book. Further, from his biography, he is as much English as he is Australian. However, it is worth sharing that Andrews in the ADB says that Gould “inaugurated the Australian sporting novel”. Charles L. Sayer’s 1923-published The jumping double represents this new genre.

For this post, I’m sticking with my neat 20! Of these, around a third seem to be historical novels. J.H.M. Abbott’s and Mary Gaunt’s were set in the early days of the colony, while those by Vera Baker, Capel Boake, Arthur Crocker and H.F. Wickham encompass bushrangers in some way. Roy Bridge’s Green butterflies is an interesting member of this “historical” group. J.Penn (writing in Adelaide’s Observer, 5 May 1923) explains:

There is something decidedly unusual in a story which starts in Tasmania in 1830, and ends in Victoria at the present time. The title is the weakest thing about “Green Butterflies” … In this book, Mr. Roy Bridges fulfils much early promise, and shows himself definitely one of the novelists who count.

Bridges spans this almost 100-year period by telling the story across two or three generations of a family, taking its readers from the horrors of colonial Tasmania, with its “savage blacks and even more savage bushrangers … being put down by Governor Arthur”, to the “dirty settlement” of Melbourne, and then on to the present day, when, says a character, “the war has changed everything; we’re not narrow as we used to be”. So, a recognition here of the impact of World War 1 on Australian society, although war novels didn’t become popular for another few years.

Bushrangers were prevalent in the historically-set novels. The worst of the bushranger era had ended by the 1880s, but they were clearly still foremost in the public imagination, particularly in terms of escapist adventure. Further, with bushrangers being a particularly Australian form of outlaw, their presence would have appealed to those wanting Australian stories.

The rest of the novels were, as far as I can tell, set in more contemporary times, though some of the synopses were not completely clear about their period. The majority were adventure and/or mystery novels. (We know Australians love mystery and adventure!) A couple were set in New Guinea (including New Britain). One is Jack McLaren’s Fagaloa’s daughter, which Hobart’s World (8/11/1923) described as “a tale of stirring venture among the savages of Papua and adjacent islands, with white men doing deeds of unusual daring afloat and ashore”. The titular daughter ‘is given a European education, and is clever and beautiful, and “white all through,” despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that she is the offspring of colored parents’. She apparently proves her worth when her white trader husband is attacked by a “cannibal hill-tribe”. Meanwhile, Ernest Osborne’s The plantation manager was described in The Armidale Chronicle (11/4/1923) as “adventure on a North-Western Pacific plantation” that “gives a striking account of the difficulties a manager encounters in developing tropical estates. A bright love story is interwoven throughout the adventures with the head-hunters”. You get the picture! White colonialism, fear of other…

Of the mystery novels, Stolen or strayed by Dale Collins received more attention than most, partly because he was already a journalist, but also because this novel, like several in this post, were part of the Bookstall series. I plan to feature him specifically in a later post. Stolen or strayed moves between underworld Melbourne and the Murray River, and received mixed reviews. Another Bookstall mystery, The red star by A.R. Falk, is set in Sydney’s underworld. The Brisbane Courier (23/6/1923) wrote that Australian writers hadn’t “developed the field of detective fiction to any extent”, but that Falk had

written a far better detective story than the majority of those that are imported. The scene is laid in Sydney, and the fight between detectives and a clever gang of thieves and murderers is told in a very convincing manner. The ending, perhaps, is forced, but otherwise the story takes a high place among current detective fiction.

Bushrangers in the country and the underworld in the cities, plus the occasional offshore exotic location, were popular settings and subjects at the time, suggesting that the focus on “the bush” was at least lessening as the Australian nation developed. That said, Steele Rudd’s On Emu Creek was about a city man turned farmer, and followed his pattern of using humour rather than mystery or adventure to tell its tale.

But, I’m going to conclude on something quite different, Catherine Martin’s The incredible journey. Bill has reviewed her second novel, An Australian girl, published in 1890. The incredible journey was her last. Margaret Allen writes in the ADB:

Catherine published, under her own name, The Incredible Journey (London, 1923) which, written very effectively from an Aboriginal woman’s point of view, was about a desert journey to recover her son, taken by a white man. H. M. Green found it a most interesting and realistic novel.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, I struggled to find a review of this novel in the newspapers in Trove. Far better to write about mystery and adventure novels, it seems, than one attempting to represent a First Nations’ experience. While I don’t imagine it was First Nations assessment that the novel was written “very effectively from an Aboriginal woman’s point of view”, it is at least encouraging to see someone recognising the cause. (I have now ordered the book.)

So, there you have it. I could write more on my 20 books, but I think this gives you a flavour.

Thoughts anyone?

Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update); 2. Platypus Series; 3 & 4. Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (1) and (2)

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 5, Novels and their subjects

  1. Where are you going to keep your books, now that you are a two-residence family?
    (We did this living in two places for a while, with The Spouse’s flat and my house. It nearly drove me crazy because whatever I wanted was always at the other place. It was handy when he had a gig in town, but when we wanted peace and quiet and space my house was better, and that’s where we ended up.)

    • Yes, very good question Lisa. Mostly in Canberra as the apartment here is very small, but I might bring some TBRs here! Here will mostly be the children’s books, puzzles and games. Currently, the bottom two shelves of the bookcase contain lego constructions!

  2. I never knew that about Incredible Journey, now I’m going to have to revise my ideas about who was first to write a sympathetic Aboriginal narrative.
    I do include DH Lawrence’s two Australian in the canon; and so does the Annals. But just for you I’ll get out of bed and check what else they have for 1923.

    • Very good of you Bill! And thanks.

      I’m sort of happy to include them in the Australian canon, but here I wanted to focus on what resident Australian writers were writing about.

      The Catherine Martin interests me, too. I was excited to discover it. Both Pandora and more recently Sydney University Press included it in their Australian classics series which says something about it, I think.

  3. There’s 5 or 6 in the Annals, that you don’t have, including one Vance Palmer. Also one in French by Paul Wenz who was a grazier in the Riverina who wrote bush stories for the French market.
    I’ve found in the past that the Annals sometimes are a year out from what is in the front cover, so that may be the explanation.

    • Thanks Bill, I’m cross that I didn’t have it with me. Vance Palmer’s Wikipedia page has one for him for 1923 too. I wonder if it, like a couple of those I did find in Wikipedia’s 1923 page, came out in December, hence not appearing readily in 1923 Trove articles.

  4. Isn’t Charles L. Sayer the bloke who issued the definitive list ? – or am I misremembering ? (I thought I had invented that word, but once I’d typed ‘mis’ the infuriating Microsoft engine filled it out !!!) If it’s remotely possible that I’m right, I can only comment on his ability to (one presumes) sell books AND be an ‘authority’ ..

  5. Australian writers hadn’t “developed the field of detective fiction to any extent”….

    I wonder if it is common in Aboriginal culture to tell mystery stories. Or, is the detective-type story firmly rooted in western culture? Surely there is a form of justice in an effort to achieve fairness (or a stratification of classes) in every culture, so if someone is killed, what happens?

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