Monday musings on Australian literature: 1940 in fiction

As many of you know by now, Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they nominate a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The current year is 1940, and it runs from today, 10-16 April. As has become my practice, I am devoting a Monday Musings to the week.

1940 is a bit of a landmark year in Australian literature because it was the year that our significant literary journal, Meanjin, was first published – in Brisbane, by Clem Christesen. Its name comes from the Turrbal word for the spike of land where the city of Brisbane is located.

My research located books published across all forms, but my focus is fiction, so here is a selection of 1940-published novels:

  • E.C. Allen, Old Eugowra
  • Martin Boyd, Nuns in jeopardy
  • Roy Connolly, Southern saga
  • Frank Dalby Davison, The woman at the mill (short stories)
  • Dulcie Deamer, Holiday
  • Arthur Gask, The house on the fens and The tragedy of the silver moon
  • Beatrice Grimshaw, South Sea Sarah; Murder in paradise: Two complete novels
  • Michael Innes, The secret vanguard; There came both mist and snow; and The comedy of errors
  • Bertha A. Johnstone, Stream of years
  • Josephine Knowles, Leaves in the wind
  • Will Lawson, Red Morgan rides
  • Eric Lowe, Framed in hardwood
  • Nevil Shute, Landfall: A channel story and An old captivity (both of which I read in my teens)
  • Helen Simpson, Maid no more (see my post on Helen Simpson)
  • Christina Stead, The man who loved children (Lisa’s review)
  • F.J. Thwaites, Whispers in Tahiti
  • Arthur W. Upfield, Bushranger of the skies
  • Franks Walford, The indiscretions of Iole
  • Rix Weaver, Behold, New Holland (A Darned Good Read’s review)

Children’s literature was going strongly at the time, with books published by four authors still remembered as writers of our children’s classics, Mary Grant Bruce, May Gibbs, P.L. Travers, and Dorothy Wall.

I wasn’t going to focus on poetry and drama, but Bill, who checked my list against the Annals for me (as my copy is in Canberra, thanks Bill) added that Katharine Susannah Prichard’s play Brumby Innes also appeared in 1940.

There were very few literary awards at the time. The ALS Gold Medal went to William Baylebridge’s poetry collection, This vital flesh, though it was announced in 1941. The award actually announced in 1940 was for the 1939 winner, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, so I think I can also mention it here.

Writers born this year include some favourites, whom I’ve reviewed here, Carmel Bird, Marion Halligan and Geoff Page. J.M. Coetzee who migrated to Australia partway through his literary career was also born in 1940.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers were saying about Australian literature, and fiction in particular. In the last “year” I did, 1929, I found great enthusiasm to support and promote Australian literature, and this was still evident to some degree in 1940. It was war-time, but interestingly that didn’t feature heavily in the book-related articles I found.

“Fictional magazines” banned

One news item that did reference the war was reported by many papers in April. It concerned the Federal government’s decision to ban the importation of “fiction magazines from non-sterling countries”. The stated aim was “to conserve our overseas’ credit” (Queanbeyan Age, 23/4/1940), with The Forbes Advocate (16/4/1940) reporting that “it is estimated that this will save £100,000 a year in dollar exchange”. Exceptions to this ban were, as Adelaide’s The Advertiser (2/4/1940) reported, “magazines dealing with current news topics or technical and instructional publications”. Many newspapers added brief commentary to their reporting. The Advertiser, for example, commented that these banned recreational magazines had “little or no literary value” and that some had already been banned “because of their false accentuation of sex, horror and crime”. But, the point made by many, and I’ll quote The Advertiser again, was the benefit to Australian writers and illustrators:

Besides its wartime value in conserving dollar exchange, the restriction of imported fiction will, it is hoped, create a wider home market for Australian writers and illustrators.

And thus Australian stories for Australians! The Forbes Advocate took the argument further, arguing that ‘”Made in Australia” on nearly everything required in the Commonwealth would bring abounding prosperity’ – and make this continent, “mighty”.


Some reviewers commented on the “Australianness” of Australian novels they reviewed. Tasmanian Bertha A. Johnstone’s immigrant story, Stream of years, was described by her home state’s Mercury (6/4/1940) as “truly Australian and truly good” while Adelaide’s The Advertiser (28/5/1940) says of one of its denizen’s debuts, Josephine Knowles’ Leaves in the wind:

A FIRST novel by an Australian writer, apart from its intrinsic value, is of importance because of the proof that it furnishes that literary talent in this country is not stagnant.

The Argus (28/10/1940), on the other hand, reviewing Rix Weaver’s pioneer fiction, Behold New Holland, concludes that “Miss Weaver has wisely avoided any aggressive Australianism. She makes it a romance of pioneering adventure, vividly told, that would appeal to an English or an American reader”.

Many of these 1940-published novels were set in the bush, or in exotic locations further afield. Indeed, Echuca’s The Riverine Herald (24/6/1940), writes that one of Australia’s “most prolific” writers, Will Lawson, had ‘”gone bush” at Tahmoor (N.S.W.)’ in order to “complete his newest novel without any city distractions”. The novel was Red Morgan rides, a bushranging story.

What about the city?

I did find, however, one reference to the city-versus-bush issue. The article, in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (7/4/1940), written by one Sam Walpole, was pointedly headed “Let’s buy a yearbook for our authors”, and commences:

IT is remarkable how little impression seems to have been made on Australian authors by a curious fact recorded in the Commonwealth Year Book —that nearly two-thirds of the population of Australia live in towns. A foreigner would hardly suspect this fact from some stories, a collection short stories by ten Australian writers, mostly of the elder school.

The collection was “Some stories, by ten Australian writers”, and includes some writers we’ve come across before like J. H. M. Abbott and G. B. Lancaster. Walpole continues:

There are some lively pieces in the book — and some, less lively — but only one story (by Ethel Turner, about a hot day in Sydney) makes any serious attempt to describe the urban life which millions of Australians lead. It is odd that so many of our writers either escape into fantasy, or cling in spirit to the days when a steer ripped up Macpherson at the Cooraminta Yard. These days it is more likely that a taxi ripped up Macpherson in Pitt Street. It is time we had an O. Henry to chronicle the pangs and pleasures of Marrickvllle or Balmain, a W. Burnett to write about the Sydney underworld, a Sinclair Lewis to show our more smugly prosperous citizens how ludicrous they really are.

So, we go from those supporting the banning of “fictional magazines” (which primarily came from America) to a yearning for more relevant writing like that being produced in America! A good place to end, I think, this little survey of 1940.

Additional sources:

  • 1940 in Australian Literature (Wikipedia)
  • Joy Hooton and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian literature, 2nd ed. OUP, 1992 (with Bill’s help)

Previous Monday Musings for the “years”: 1929, 1936 and 1954.

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1940 Club – and if so how?

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: 1940 in fiction

  1. Happy to help, anyway I was home and bored.
    I take Walpole’s point that Australian fiction skews to the Bush out of all proportion to our population. Nevertheless, women writers in particular – invisible I know to many men – have been tackling urban issues forever, from Spence in the1850s to Tasma and Ada Cambridge at the turn of the century, to Stead (Seven Poor Men of Sydney anyone?) to Dymphna Cusack and Eleanor Dark in the 1930s. Throw in Louis Stone’s Jonah, and … well, I can’t think of any others (except The Mystery of the Hansom Cab) but I’m sure they are there

    • Could one posit Bill that the more “literary” writers were more likely to write urban subjects because they are more likely to deal with life while genre writers tend to be more about escapism and back then that was the bush and exotic locales. Generalising of course as there are always exceptions but just wondering. Even White’s first novel was set in the country.

      Another male one for you, btw, in William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise set in late 1880s-1890s Sydney. If you haven’t read it, you might like to. He’s the Utopian chap.

      • Guys between the Wars seemed caught up in the whole Bulletin, Lone Hand thing about being resilient in the Bush. You’d think White would be immune but look at, after Happy Valley, Tree of Man, Voss, lots of the Twyburn Affair, the first third of the Aunts Story, and those are just the one’s I’ve read.

        • Yes, I was thinking Tree of man and Voss but the latter is very existential and Laura is in Sydney! But then there’s The solid mandala for example. Somehow White feels different in his concerns. And Happy Valley, though I mentioned it, does have that autobiographical element that first novels often have doesn’t it.

  2. Well, I know a couple of those author’s names, but as you’ve noted, the only one I’ve read is Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.
    And I’ve read Brumby Innes…

  3. I probably read the Upfield book during my uni days, when I went on a Bony binge reading jag! I thoroughly enjoyed them, but the story lines did blur together by the end.

    I’ve read other books by Boyd and Shute, but not the 1940 ones.
    My parents had a couple of Thwiates books on their shelves, but I cannot remember which ones now.

    As always an entertaining and interesting snapshot of our reading habits in the past.

    • Thanks Brona. I have never read the Upfields but I do recollect my parents and maternal grandparents having them and Michael Innes in their shelves. Mum read eclectically but by the time I was aware of her reading she had left the more escapist stuff behind for her old love, the classics, and literary fiction. I’m not even sure now how many of those genre novels she read though I know she had read the Agatha Christies.

      I read all the Shutes. After A town like Alice and On the beach my most memorable included Landfall (plus No highway, and In the wet). I didn’t know Thwaites at all.

    • Haha thanks Carmel … glad you enjoyed it because I really like doing them though would love to have more time to be more thorough. I figure these posts are a start I can always build on.

  4. Taken by reading of “Nuns in Jeopardy” by Martin Boyd !!! Having read much of his work, I’m amazed to see such a title: who would’ve thought ?!
    Kudos to the marvellous Carmel Bird ..

  5. I’m woefully underread when it comes to Australian literature in general, so it’s interesting to see your list of books from 1940, several of which are completely new to me. Of the authors you’ve listed, Nevil Shute is the only one I’m familiar with. (And Christina Stead, I guess, although I’ve yet to read her!)

    • Thanks Jacqui. I think in fact that those are the two most Australians will know. Of the others Martin Boyd and Frank Dalby Davison would be known in literary circles, and Arthur Upfield and Michael Innes were popular writers who lasted for some time, but many of the rest are unknown to me or vaguely familiar because of my research over the last decade.

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