Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 4, Adventure novels

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, it became clear as I delved into Trove that certain genres or forms kept recurring in the reviews and articles I was reading about Australian literature. I plan to share them over the next few 1922 posts, starting with adventure in this post.

You might remember that my first 1922-themed post was on the N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Adventure novels, it seems, were among their popular fare. A brief article in The Australian Worker (22 February) discusses a couple such novels, but starts by saying that the N.S.W. Bookstall Co.

continues to deliver the goods, and as the goods, in the shape of vigorous yarns by Australian writers, appear to be selling well enough to make a further continuation certain, the company can be congratulated in believing years ago that local talent would make good if it were given the chance hitherto denied it.

Adventure novels

Some of you might remember a recent Monday Musings I did on Australia’s favourite genres, in which I reported that a Swiss-based study had determined that Adventure and Classics were our favourites. I won’t revisit that now, as you can read the post and its source information yourself if you’d like, but I was surprised that Adventure seemed so popular now. I am not so surprised, however, given the still relative newness of the Australian settler colony in 1922, that adventure was popular then. What did surprise me, however, was that, despite the longstanding strength of the bush myth, the bush was not the main setting I found – but I did find a few.

One was titled The black opal. I don’t know how many novels have been titled The black opal, but they abound, including Katharine Susannah Prichard’s of 1921. In 1922, however, there was one by journalist-cum-novelist Jack North. The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (16 September) writes that it is sub-titled “A story of Australian love and adventure”, but that

it is more than that. Notwithstanding the melodramatic incident which Percy Lindsay selected for his cover design, The black opal is a wholesome, well-written novel in which the lure of the bush triumphs over the glamor of the city.

I think “Jack North” might be a pseudonym. He had written, at that time, two other popular novels, Harry Dale’s Grand National and The son of the bush, plus, apparently, scenarios for the “movies”. (The article writer used those quotation marks for this clearly still strange new medium.)

A more traditional-sounding bush-adventure novel is Roy Bridges’ historical fiction, The cards of fortune, which the writer in the Kandina and Wallaroo Times (20 December), says is set in “the stirring days of the first settlement in Tasmania”. (Not sure all would call those days “stirring”, at least with a positive connotation!) It is, says the writer, “an appealing love story which is developed with the aid of stirring adventure”. (There’s “stirring” again”.) The novel, about a bushranger hunt, is described as a “bright little story of the early days”. Adventure novels are, I guess, escapist!

Island adventure novels

The most common adventure novels I found, however, were island adventures, which I think could qualify as a sub-genre?

The Australian Worker article I mentioned in this post’s opening briefly discusses two novels, S.W. Powell’s Hermit Island and Jack McLaren’s Feathers of heaven. The reviewer clearly admires the publisher, but not necessarily these books. They are both set to the northeast of Australia, and, s/he says,

are big-bulged with thrilling adventures in those places where the codes of life, to put it mildly, are not exactly of the parlor or the Sunday school variety.

They hope “this island type of yarn won’t be overdone”, because, they say

There’s plenty of love, and adventure, and goodness, and badness in Australia without going north-east in a boat to look for these elements of a readable story.

I will digress briefly here to say a little about Jack McLaren (1884-1954), because he was quite a prolific and popular writer. According to Wikipedia, he wrote novels based on his own experiences and was renowned for his “authenticity of background”. The son of a minister, he apparently ran away from school when he was 16, and worked as a cabin boy and seaman before landing in North Queensland in 1902. For the next 10 years he worked and travelled around the islands north and northeast of Australia, like Fiji, Java, New Guinea, Malaya and the Solomon Islands. He wrote for The Bulletin before turning to novels in 1919. Feathers in heaven was around his 7th novel.

The writer in the Kadina and Wallaroo Times (8 March) says that McLaren was one of Australia’s most popular authors. Feathers in heaven, this writer says, “is a novel of stirring adventure written round the illegal hunting of New Guinea’s beautiful birds-of-paradise … [and] … of course there is a girl in the story”. For this writer, the novel offers “wholesome adventure”.

Our Kadina and Wallaroo Times writer also discusses Powell’s Hermit Island, identifying it as being “of the Islands adventure class”, and set “off the beaten track” in Tahiti. It involves suspicion of piracy, for which there is “circumstantial evidence” and “develops rapidly to a wholly unexpected climax”. Sydney’s Sun (12 February), reviewing the same novel, makes a strong point about its Australian quality, starting the review with:

For a fine adventure story, neatly told, it is not always necessary to go overseas. Here is an Australian author, S. W. Powell, who knows the knack. Hermit Island is excellent value … The yarn is as capably done and as well imagined as any that comes out of California, and it has the advantage of speaking our own Australian language. 

S.W. Powell had, at the time, written four popular island-adventure novels. The genre was clearly a goer back in the 1920s.

Another reviewer, this time in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette (18 July), discusses Powell’s The pearls of Cheong Tah. Like the previous reviewers, this one comments on Powell’s inclusion of humour in his novels – along with tragedy and romance.

Some random concluding observations

Did you notice the focus on “wholesome”? “Little” things like this provide such insight into their times.

Also, I struggled to find cover images. These books may have been popular, but most were cheap paperbacks and have not, apparently, survived well. Neither have the literary reputations of most of their authors. As always, it’s interesting to see how popular authors of a time fare over the long term. Could it be argued that the more popular a work, the greater the likelihood of appealing to more ephemeral interests and tastes and therefore of dating?

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 3, ALS Women’s Night

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, I was intrigued that, in 1922, the Australian Literature Society held a Women’s Night. This Society was formed in Melbourne in 1899, with the aim of encouraging both the study of Australian literature and Australian authors.

According to the National Library the Society:

  • held regular meetings which included talks, recitations, readings of unpublished works, musical items and reviews
  • established a general library of first editions and important Australian works which it maintained for nearly eighty years.
  • published a journal Corroboree from 1921 to 23

In 1928, it established the ALS Gold Medal to be awarded to the author of the best novel published in the previous year. The first winner was Martin Boyd’s The Montforts, but that, obviously, came after 1922! What also came later was that this society merged in 1982 with the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which continues to award the ALS Gold Medal.

Now, back to 1922, and the Society’s Women’s Night. I’ve had a little look at Trove for 1920 and 1921, and while there are references to women’s topics being discussed at ALS meetings, it seems that 1922 may have been the first time they devoted a night to Women’s writing.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there were just two papers presented: Australian Women Prose Writers, by Mrs Vernon Williams, and Australian Women Poets, by Elsie Cole. Before I share the idea that inspired this post, I did find mentions of Women’s Nights in 1927 and 1929. In 1927, The Age (July 12) reports that there was a paper on Stella Miles Franklin, followed by some readings and recitations of works by women, while in 1929, The Age (July 15), again, reported that the night would ‘take the form of a debate, the subject, being “Australia is Lacking in a Back Ground to Inspire Romantic Writing”‘.

And now, back to 1922 again. The report in Table Talk (August 3) reported that Elsie Cole’s paper on the poets said that “We had reason to be proud, if critical, of our present output of women’s work” and that “the prospect for the immediate future was encouraging”. Unfortunately, none of the reports I read gave any details about the content of the papers, so what, for example, were the criticisms?

As for Mrs. Vernon Williams’* paper on the prose writers, they reported her saying that “one outstanding feature of the Australian novel is its purity” but they didn’t elaborate. Williams also apparently said that the Australian novel was full of sincerity and the glamour of romance.

The report shared one other idea from the talk, which was that:

In the early days of Australian literature the output of women writers was more prolific than that of men writers, because the opening of a new continent did not give men opportunity to concentrate their activities in that direction.

I haven’t seen this specifically articulated before, and would love to know exactly what she was talking about. The first “Australian-made novel” novel, Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (my post), was published in 1830, with the first novel by a woman published in Australia, Anna Maria Bunn’s The guardian, appearing in 1838. But, “the output of women writers” did start before this. Dale Spender writes, in Writing a New World: Two centuries of Australian women writers (see Bill’s post), that from very early on women wrote letters and

women’s ‘world of letters’ provides an alternative and rich resource of information. Women’s thoughts and feelings find expression in a literature which stands as a repository for women’s consciousness and a record of their endurance in the strange land. So the letters of Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning, for example, tell a story of settlement, create heroines of stature who experience a series of adventures which could readily and reassuringly be recounted ‘back home’; but at the same time these letters plot personal struggles with independence and identity. Miles Franklin begins My Brilliant Career at the point at which Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning leave off …

Women’s letters and journals, as Spender shows, provided a rich and important literature, but novels by women did start appearing by the middle of the century with Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison in 1854, and Louisa Atkinson’s Gertrude the Emigrant in 1857. Ellen Davitt followed with a crime novel in 1864, and then, in the 1880s, novels by Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, Tasma, and others were published.

Presumably it’s to these novelists that Williams refers, but, to suggest that, somehow, men had less opportunity to write in the colony’s first century feels like a backhanded compliment – as if women’s lives were easy, and men’s not. However, her recognition of the depth of women’s writing tradition is notable. It’s a recognition that got lost by the middle of the 20th century and that we are still trying to recover now. I must try to access Williams’ paper.

* AustLit explains that Mrs Vernon Williams is the writing name for Elvie Williams, the wife of Vernon Williams, who was “a member of the Australian Literature Society, Melbourne”. She had two articles, “Australian Women Novelists, Parts 1 and 2”, published in two consecutive issues of Corroboree : The Journal of the Australian Literature Society, vol. 1 nos. 10-11, July-August 1922, but they aren’t available online.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Red Witch

Last week, I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s biography, The red witch: A biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It was beautifully emceed by Lisa Hill, of ANZLitLovers, and involved three speakers, Karen Throssell, award-winning poet and the only grandchild of Prichard; Nathan Hollier, the publisher; and, of course, the author himself, Nathan Hobby.

A brief intro

Katharine Susannah Prichard
KSP, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) has to be among Australia’s most interesting and significant writers. I first read her in my teens when, keen on civil rights and concerned about racial discrimination, I read her novel Coonardoo. I loved it, though I’m sure my response was naive and typical of those earnest times. However, I never forgot Prichard.

She wrote thirteen novels, a memoir, plays, reportage, poetry and short stories. She won the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition with The Pioneers (1915) (my review), and in 1929, Coonardoo shared the Bulletin’s Novel prize with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, which brought her notoriety that dogged her through life.

So much is known about her, and yet so little, because, although we have her son’s Ric’s 1975 biography, Wild weeds and wind flowers, there has not been a comprehensive biography – until now.

The launch

Before I share the highlights of the launch, I’ll reiterate a comment I made on my post on contemporary responses to Coonardoo, because it speaks to the challenges faced by KSP researchers. I wrote:

I was horrified by the frequency with which Prichard’s name was spelt incorrectly. This must have driven Hobby mad in his research. She is frequently written as KathErine, not KathArine, and occasionally Catherine, and even Kathleen. Really? Then, there’s her last name, which was often reported as PriTchard not Prichard. It must have driven HER mad too, at the time. Sometimes, too, her married name, Mrs Hugo Throssell, is used.

It is truly astonishing how often her name was – and still is – got wrong.

So now, the launch …

After the usual introductory comments and acknowledgement of country, Lisa introduced the three speakers, and then were were off, starting with Karen Throssell who had the honours of formally launching the book.

Karen referred to the title, suggesting the word “witch” connotes independent women who defy convention, which accurately captures her grandmother. (An aside, I remember when Nathan asked us bloggers to vote on the titles he was considering for his planned biography, long before he had a publisher. None of them was The red witch, but what an inspired title it is.)

Anyhow, Karen went on to read her poem “My fairy godmother” about her doting gran, the “wild Bohemian”, KSP. She mentioned the challenge over the years of protecting her family’s reputation, referencing her recently published book about her father, The crime of not knowing your crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO.

Karen then turned to Nathan’s biography. She initially feared he was focused on some of the personal secrets in Prichard’s life, but was pleased that his biography does, in fact, focus on KSP’s intellectual and political ideas more than her “private peccadillos”. What she likes most about the biography is Nathan’s detailing the “journey of the individual books” including KSP’s travel to the places in which her books were set. She also likes his coverage of the various books’ reception, particularly of Coonardoo, which she described as an “act of literary empathy”.

She declared the book launched and the floor (or screen) was handed over to Melbourne University Press’s publisher, Nathan Hollier. He spoke briefly, noting that early reviews had praised Nathan’s “capacity to write and tell a story … with felicity … without overt authorial intrusion”. Books, he said, are not ephemeral, and he believes this one will stand test of time as a resource for literature, culture, history, and Australians generally.

Then it was Nathan Hobby’s turn. After introductory acknowledgements, he got onto talking about the process and challenges of writing the biography. Given the reputational issues that have dogged KSP’s family, he said he had been apprehensive because he was aware of the pain that had been caused to the family by scholars and others.

He was grateful that the publisher let him go to 150,000 words. (As we bloggers who followed the project on Nathan’s blog for several years know, this was still a challenge, because he was initially keen on a three-volume biography. But, I suspect it’s a good decision, and maybe Nathan can now write a bunch of articles using all those treasures he had to cut!)

He talked about the value of the Internet for modern research, praising, in particular, Trove. It was especially useful for him as a Western Australian, and even more when the pandemic and travel restrictions hit. It would be utopia, he said, to have all of Australia’s archives digitised. Yes!

Nathan talked a little about the art of writing biography, and referred to some other biographers, but I didn’t catch the names. He talked about the challenge of resolving contradictions in your subject, and quoted one writer – if I’ve got this right – as describing biography as the “art of human betrayal in words”. In terms of writing his own, he said he had to juggle the constant tension between the chronological and the thematic. He also talked about the style of biography which involves the “biographer on a quest”. He suggested this works well when there is not much material, such as Brian Matthews’ Louisa, on Louisa Lawson, but this was not a problem he faced with KSP! He said that his aim was to show “a lived life”.

Oh, and he thanked all his supporters for their encouragement and camaraderie.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’m just sharing some:

  • On deciding what to cut and what to keep in the editing: his criteria were how the material related to the bigger picture, its literary and political significance, and whether it explained who she was and/or her work
  • His favourite KSP work: perhaps Coonardoo, but he also has a soft spot for the Wild oats of Han. KSP saw The roaring nineties as her most important work.
  • On what KSP would make of Russia today: Russia is not really a Communist nation today; he can’t see she’d like Russia or Putin.
  • Most exciting moment: many Eureka moments, often little things like finding a grocery receipt from their honeymoon in Hugo Throssell’s papers.
  • Most challenging moment: different types of challenges, such as technical ones in accessing material, and writing ones like determining a structure.
  • Difference in public reception of KSP and Jean Devanny (from academic Carole Ferrier): Devanny would probably answer in terms of class. Ferrier commented on the rivalry between the two: Devanny felt KSP had been “taken up” by the Community Party. KSP’s image was “respectable” whilst Devanny’s was “disreputable”. Ferrier said the women encompass some of the issues faced by women as revolutionaries.

A big thanks to all for a smoothly-run and engaging launch. Now to read the book …

Further reading

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (2)

Last Monday I introduced the Australian Pocket Library (APL) which was a series of cheap paperbacks produced under the auspices of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF). Its initial purpose was to provide Australian reading matter to Australian POWs but, in its final form, was intended by the CLF to play a bigger role in promoting Australian literature at home too. Planning started in 1943, with publication occurring between 1944 and 1947.

In last week’s post I shared part of an article on the APL by academic, Neil James, and some thoughts on the selection by a contemporary critic and literary editor, RG Howarth who discussed the library, taking as his starting point that the library was intended to contain “standard” works. I will return to James, but first, more from contemporary commentators on Trove.

Standard?

I’ve chosen to focus on P.I. O’Leary (1888-1944), a journalist and poet who, like Howarth, was committed to promoting Australian literature, and who also took up the “standard” question. P.I.O’L (his by-line) wrote an extended article about the APL in the Books and Bookman magazine of the Advocate in 1944 (17 May). He commences his article, titled “We parade our masterpieces”, with:

What is a “standard” Australian book? How many of the books selected by the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund to form the nucleus of an “Australian Pocket Library” are “standard” works? These and other points in this commendable enterprise are here considered.

Overall, he commends the endeavour, because too many works have been out of print. He sees the Library as representing “a belated national appreciation” of Australian writers. He is “not heady with any enthusiasm for an attempted, forced growth of literature in Australia”, he says, arguing that you cannot force produce great novels or great poems. However, “Australia has, and has had, many subsidised industries—and there is no reason why the literary industry … should not have some assistance in the shape of grants to writers”. Then he gets onto the issue of “standard”.

He doesn’t really know ‘what entitles an Australian literary work to be styled a “standard” book’, he says, but supposes that

Robbery under arms has passed the test, together with, say, We of the Never-Never, On the track and Over the sliprail, Such is life, and a handful of other books.

However, the selection of some of the other books as “standard” works, “sets up an energetic speculation as to what special passport a book must carry in order to cross the frontier”. (Love the language.) He knows how difficult it is to make such choices, but writes that “some books selected do not appear to me to even be borderline cases”. Then, like Howarth, he puts forward his views on some of them.

He agrees with Howarth’s questioning the inclusion of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus, asking “what standard does it set up?” He thinks it the weakest of her novels, and “not comparable to Working bullocks or Coonardoo as a skilful work of fiction”. (Howarth named Working bullocks and Pioneers as better.) Like Howarth, he also questions the inclusion of Brian Penton’s Landtakers (read it anyone?) as “standard”, describing it as “largely sound and fury”. 

P.I.O’L also discusses representativeness, asking whether the selection is “representative” of “our writers’ books”. He feels that “as a foundation selection it is … satisfactory”, arguing that “a start had to be made somewhere”. Howarth, he says, agrees, given the limitations the CLF was operating under. Moreover:

Allied Servicemen are not literary cognoscenti balancing niceties of literary values, characterisation, form. If you were to ask most of them in what order they would place the writers of their own polyglot land they would probably very honestly say that they were no judges—and had not read many books, American or otherwise, anyhow.

Then he tackles Howarth’s discussion of the gaps, the works that should have been included. Again, I loved his language:

And when you start offering a register of names of writers whose works should be included in the “Australian Pocket Library” you push your keel into a wide sea—one, sometimes of trouble. 

He disagrees with some of Howarth’s suggestions – we are mostly talking poets here – and makes his own, but you can read it yourself if you are interested. Overall, he agrees with Howarth’s support of the project, quoting Howarth’s statement that the CLF should be “congratulated on the vision and courage of the enterprise”.

Legacy?

Now, I’ll return to Neil James’ 2000 article because he has some interesting points to make about the selection, and the APL’s legacy.

Looking at the selection nearly sixty years later, James writes

The titles selected reflect clearly the nationalist agenda in Australian literature … `Representative Australia’ in 1943 derived from the Bush, and the democratic values which seeped into Australian culture from its historical struggle against the natural elements. Most of the titles were originally published in the 1920s and 1930s, but some went back to an earlier age to engage with the grand narratives of exploration, adventure and colonisation. The list sets up literary values, social values, and national-historical values as interchangeable. This is hardly surprising given the primary influence of Palmer, whose published and broadcast criticism sought to define an Australian literature in national terms … It was a nationalist canon in paperback set for a wide distribution, and it sat comfortably with the government’s war-time agenda.

James shares the many practical challenges the CLF confronted – acquiring rights to the books, cover design, production problems, and agreeing on price with the publishers. And he describes the project’s demise, ending up publishing 26 of the finally planned 39. It’s all interesting and you can read it in the article. I want to end with his discussion of the legacy because this is most relevant to us now.

First, he says, it “represents the first officially selected and endorsed canon of Australian literature” and one recognised at the highest level of government. Furthermore, the APL played a significant, though not recognised, role in the “unprecedented transformation in the publication and recognition of Australian literature” in the 1940s and 50s. However, the importance of the Library has been lost partly, he argues, because the “nationalist outlook” of the selection was rejected a decade or so later by the universities, resulting in the writers being expunged from the canon.

The failure of the venture also had an impact on publishing. The CLF withdrew from “acting as de facto publisher” and became more reactive than proactive in publishing ventures. Had it succeeded, and had the CLF ‘continued to foster a nationalist canon of writing, there would have been, at the very least, more than “one set of values [to rule] the entire roost”, as Max Harris put it’.

More significant, though, I think, is James’ argument that the failure of the APL “effectively delayed the literary paperback in Australia by two decades”. He believes that the 1930s Penguin revolution in Britain “could have been reproduced here in the 1940s” with the APL its “de facto trial run”. Unfortunately, its unappealing format, which was “far too compromised by wartime conditions … killed off any good will towards paperbacks amongst booksellers and publishers”.

How fascinating. It was not until the 1960s, James says, that the literary paperback returned to the Australian scene, and not on a major scale until the 1970s. This fundamentally influenced “the character and the accessibility of Australian writing”, by which he means that because mass cheap paperbacks were not available as they were in Britain and France, “the readership of Australian literature was to remain the middle classes rather than `the multitude’.”

James concludes – in 2000 – that the Australian Pocket Library is worthy of “further scrutiny as part of the assessment of individual authors, and in understanding the evolution of Australian cultural values”. He also suggests that, “given the current paucity of an available Australian backlist” it may contain lessons for a classics publishing program! Well, it may not be the same model, but the Text Classics imprint, which began in 2012, has picked up the baton of cheap affordable classics and run with it. As far as I can tell, ten years later, it is going strong, with a catalogue that is diverse but, like the APL, constrained at times by access to rights.

Sources

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (1)

Bill and Lisa have already posted today in recognition of ANZAC Day, Bill’s titled ANZAC Day 2022, while Lisa’s is about Martha Gething who is featured in the book, Australian women pilots: Amazing true stories of women in the air. My post, in fact, comes to you courtesy of Lisa who, last week, emailed me with the subject line, “A Monday Musings Topic?” She wrote that while reading Nathan Hobby’s soon-to-be-published biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, she’d “learned about the existence of the Commonwealth Pocket Library, cheap paperbacks for distribution to POWs during the war”. She closed her email with, “Of course I thought of you…”.

Now, I’m always happy to hear ideas, particularly ones like this which come with a link to a scholarly article. I was especially grateful, this time, because I had been pondering a topic relevant to ANZAC Day, given Monday was going to be THE day. She handed me my post on a platter, so, thanks Lisa!

Australian Pocket Library

I should start, though, by saying that it appears it was called the Australian Pocket Library, not Commonwealth Pocket Library, as Hobby describes it. Wilde, Hooton and Andrews’ The Oxford companion to Australian literature says:

The Australian Pocket Library was a series of austerity paperbacks published with the help of the then Commonwealth Literary Fund during the economic restrictions imposed by the Second World War.

(The Fund’s involvement is probably where the “Commonwealth” confusion came in.)

There is, of course, far more to this story than The Oxford companion had time to tell, and I’m going to share some of it with you. In addition to reading the article from the Australian Literary Studies journal sent to me by Lisa, I also did a Trove search – of course! The project, it seems, generated quite a bit of excitement in bookish circles – and why not!

Neil James, in the article Lisa sent me, provides a history of the series. It started with an idea in 1943 and ended with publication of the last books in the series in 1947. Its active life, in other words, was short – but James argues that its legacy, both positive and negative, was significant. I’ll return to this in part 2, because there is so much to explore.

Origins

James explains that in 1943, Prime Minister Curtin had been approached by the AIF Women’s Auxiliary for Prisoners of War which wanted cheap editions of Australian books for Australia’s POWs. The Auxiliary had been choosing books for parcels going overseas, but were finding that “practically every Australian book we would wish to include is now out of print”. Prisoners of war everywhere, they said, ask for books about their homeland. The request was referred to the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF), and it ended up with Vance Palmer, who was on the Fund’s Advisory Board. He “immediately latched onto the idea”, not just for “the POWs, but also for the cause of Australian literature”. Never let a chance go by, eh! Vance and his wife Nettie Palmer, as many of you will know, were significant supporters and promoters of Australian literature, as well as being writers themselves. 

Anyhow, Palmer advised that the task was beyond private publishers: the paper would not be available, and, anyhow, “most publishers do not know what to print and how to get the copyrights”. It was, in other words, a job for the CLF. Indeed, writes James, the Fund had apparently had ideas since 1939 for “a standard library of Australian works”. Here was their chance.

Cutting to the chase, funding was granted and the process commenced. You won’t be surprised to hear that choosing the actual books was fraught. Various publishers wanted their books included, but Palmer was, says James, “sceptical of Australian publishers” because they’d proven themselves to be “cautious” regarding publishing Australian literature. A committee was formed to choose the books. The plan was that “the CLF would have editorial control but the publishers would pay for production and distribution”. Publishers “which had the rights to a book chosen would have first option to publish it in the Library” but they had to agree to “conditions governing cover design, format, royalties, and price”. James explains why publishers supported a scheme in which they took all the financial risk but gave “creative control to a Canberra committee”. The reason was, in a word, paper!

The list, primarily chosen by Vance Palmer and Flora Eldershaw, was not universally approved. James reports that CLF’s Board chair “was consulted only when the list was virtually set”. He was apparently a little put out, commenting that it “is possible that other considerations than merit have determined the choice”.

The books

And here, I’ll turn for a while to Trove, and what the critics, reviewers and journalists thought. One of those was R.G. Howarth. He was founding editor of the literary journal, Southerly, and literary critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. According to Lee, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography,  he “influence[d] Australian writing through deciding who would or would not be published in the 1940s and 1950s”. His sole criterion was “literary quality”, not “political and ideological considerations”.

Howarth wrote about the new initiative in 1944 (April 29), starting with the basic plan: it involves twenty-five “standard” Australian books, “designed for members of the Australian forces (including prisoners of war) and members of the Allied forces in Australia, as well as for the general public”, and to be sold at prices ranging from 1/3 to 2/. The list includes 10 novels, plus collections of short stories, “descriptive books”, histories, verse, a scientific work, and essays.

He comments that the poets, Lawson, Paterson, and Dennis, “will undoubtedly solace and stimulate the fighting-man” as well as “renew their own popularity”. He describes the novels, which included currently out-of-print books, Robbery under arms, We of the Never Never, and Man Shy; the best of Australian novels of the last war, Leonard Mann’s Flesh in armour, which is “unhappily little known because unobtainable”; and Katharine Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus, Brian Penton’s Landtakers, Vance Palmer’s Passage, Kylie Tennant’s Tiburon, Barnard Eldershaw’s The Glass House, and Miles Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot.

However …

Of course there was going to be a “however”! Howarth questions the definition of the selected works as “standard”, notwithstanding the CLF confronted issues concerning “copyright and competition”. He recognises that the Commonwealth Literary Fund is “at once serving the reading public, helping the Australian author, and reviving books undeservedly neglected”, then asks how far the list meets these purposes.

He questions, to take Prichard as an example, why Haxby’s Circus “and not her Pioneers or Working bullocks – much more Australian in spirit and setting?” Re Bernard Eldershaw, he asks, why “The glass house – a study of shipboard life during a voyage from Europe to Australia – rather than their prize winning A house is built?” Well, I don’t know, but Eldershaw was on the selection committee so …

Of Penton’s Landtakers and Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot he says that “much as one admires the authors in other ways one is compelled by honesty to say that their inclusion is at least questionable”. Old Blastus, he feels, ‘appears as a failure that might well have been a success; in it a true “character” is imperfectly realised’.

And of course, as all commentators do on lists, he identifies works not included, such as For the term of his natural life. He recognises that ‘opinions are now divided about this …but surely it presents a stage in our history and in the development of the human conscience that must be retained in mind. It is “standard”, too in the same sense as Robbery under arms‘. He names other gaps, such as novels by Eleanor Dark, Ernestine Hill, Norman Lindsay and Christina Stead.

But, he concludes:

Whatever one’s opinions of its selection, the Commonwealth Literary Fund must be congratulated on the vision and courage of the enterprise. It has here decisively shown its importance to Australian authors, hitherto largely unprotected and uncertain of the future; and its wish and power to foster the growth, and distribute the products of Australian literature.

Then, on 4 May 1944, he writes a letter to the editor passing on a playwright’s surprise at the omission of “the Australian playwright” from the list. Two days later, on 6 May, playwright Leslie Rees, who signs as “Hon. Chairman, Playwrights’ Advisory Board” responds in his own letter, saying that Howarth was “surely unfair in implying that the Commonwealth Literary Fund has done nothing for the Australian dramatist”. He defends the work of the Fund and says that “When the time comes for a second list of Pocket Library books”, plays “might well be included”. You gotta laugh really. Howarth merely passed on someone else’s comment – albeit in passing it on he must have agreed somewhat – while Rees defends the Fund suggesting that they “might” include plays in a later list! Sounds like some undercurrent there that we don’t know about.

Meanwhile, on 17 May, P.I.O’L. also took up the issue of “standard”, but I’ll leave that for next week … and simply say, here, that little of the discussion I read focused much on the poor POWs!

Sources

Bernard Cronin, The last train (#Review, #1954Club )

Bernard Cronin (1884-1968) has featured in this blog a couple of times, but most significantly in a Monday Musings which specifically featured him. He was a British-born Australian writer who, in his heyday in the 1920s to 40s, was among Australia’s top 10 most popular novelists. And yet, along with many others of his ilk, he has slipped from view. However, I did find a short story of his published in 1954 so decided this was my opportunity to check him out.

The reason I wrote my Monday Musings on Cronin was because in 1920 he founded (with Gertrude Hart) the Old Derelicts’ Club, which later became the Society of Australian Authors, but I have mentioned him in other posts too. For example, in one post, I noted that in 1927, Tasmania’s Advocate newspaper had named Cronin as being “amongst the leaders of Australian fiction”. And, in my post on Capel Boake I shared that he had written collaboratively with Doris Boake Kerr (aka Capel Boake) under the pseudonym of Stephen Grey. In fact, he used a few pseudonyms, another being Eric North, which he used for his science fiction. Cronin wrote across multiple forms (publishing over twenty novels as well as short stories, plays, poems and children’s stories) and genres (including historical fiction, adventure stories, metropolitan crime fiction, romances, and science fiction and fantasy).

Wikipedia’s article on him includes a “partial” list of his works, with the earliest being The flame from 1916, and the latest novel being Nobody stops me from 1960. What the list tells us is that his most active period occurred between 1920 and 1950, so the story from 1954 that I read comes late in his career.

I had initially chosen a different story, “Carmody’s lark”, which was published in late 1954 in several newspapers, but belatedly discovered that one paper had printed it in 1951! Wah! Fortunately, I found another, “The last train”, that, as far as I can tell, was first published in newspapers in 1954. They are very different stories, the former being a character piece about a lonely suburban railway worker whose friends notice a change in behaviour and think he’s finally found a woman, while the latter is a more traditional suspense story set, coincidentally, on a surburban train. Both convey subtle wordplays in the their titles.

“The last train” picks up that conversation-with-a-stranger-on-a-train motif, a conversation that will change the life of the protagonist. It’s midnight, and a “nondescript little man in sports coat and baggy slacks” rushes onto the train at Ringwood in the outer suburbs of Melbourne heading for the Dandenongs. There’s a broken light in the carriage so it’s (appropriately) dim. He thinks he’s alone until he notices “a man in a rather comical misfit of hat and light raincoat”. He’s “slumped forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at him”.

Now, our “little man” has had a rather dramatic night. The story continues …

there was nothing in the least sinister in the indolent down-at-heel looks of his solitary companion. He seemed, indeed, exactly the type preyed on by the garrulous; and the newcomer, who was shuddering deliciously with a sense of rare importance, instinctively shifted over to the corner immediately opposite him.

You have probably worked out already that all is not as our “little man”, as he is repeatedly described, thinks. The story builds slowly, starting with a bit of general chat that, if you are looking for it, already contains little hints of menace. But, our “little man” blunders on, ostensibly uncertain at first but in fact keen to tell of his experience that night, while the “other man” listens, gently encouraging him on. Too late does our “little man” realise the truth of the matter, but the story ends there, leaving it to the reader to imagine the rest from the clues given.

Lest you be thinking, it is not the same story as Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, Strangers on a train (adapted by Hitchcock into a film of the same name). And it is not like Christie’s earlier 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express. However, it is a well-told, if traditional, suspense story, that is typical, I’d say, of 1950s popular crime fiction and perfect for a newspaper readership. (Whatever happened to the inclusion of short stories in newspapers?)

And that, I think, is the best I can do for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club.

Bernard Cronin
“The last train”
in Maryborough Chronicle (Maryborough, Qld)
22 November 1954
Available online

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1954 in fiction

Some of you know that Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they choose, somewhat randomly, a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The next one is 1954, and is happening this week, 18-24 April.

I’ve taken part a couple of times, the first time being the 1936 Club for which I also wrote a Monday Musings. I’ve decided to do this again for 1954.

By 1954, World War 2 was over, and the now infamous baby-boom was well underway. Australia was welcoming migrants from war-torn Europe and life was, generally, looking good. However, the war was still close, and the Cold War was being well felt. The war featured heavily in popular literature, but writers were also looking at who we were as Australians, and at our near neighbours.

My research located a variety of books published that year across all forms, but to keep this simple, I am going to focus on fiction. Here is a selection:

  • Jon Cleary, The climate of courage
  • Dale Collins, Storm over Samoa
  • L.H. Evers, Pattern of conquest
  • Miles Franklin (as “Brent of Bin Bin”), Cockatoos (Bill’s review)
  • Catherine Gaskin, Sara Dane
  • Nourma Handford, Coward’s kiss
  • T.A.G. Hungerford, Sowers of the wind: A novel of the occupation of Japan
  • Barbara Jefferis, Contango Day
  • Eric Lambert, The veterans and The five bright stars
  • Henry George Lamond, The manx star
  • Eve Langley, White topee (Bill on The pea pickers and White topee)
  • Kenneth Mackenzie (as “Seaforth” Mackenzie), The refuge
  • Alan Moorehead, A summer night
  • Tom Ronan, Vision splendid
  • Arthur Upfield, Death of a lake
  • Judah Waten, The unbending
  • Don Whitington, Treasure upon the earth

Many of these authors have been forgotten, while others, like Alan Moorehead, are more remembered for their non-fiction work. Some, like Jon Cleary and Arthur Upfield, were successful writers of popular fiction, and are still remembered, albeit probably little read. Women are less evident here, than they were in 1936.

However, this list also includes some significant “literary” writers, like Miles Franklin, Eve Langley and Judah Waten, and others who are remembered today for awards established in their names, T.A.G. Hungerford and Barbara Jefferis. I like the sound of Jefferis’ debut novel. It was set during a single day in Sydney about Miss Doxy, a confidential filing and records clerk. The Barbara Jefferis Award was endowed by her husband in 2007 to commemorate her. 

There were very few literary awards at the time. One that did exist, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, was awarded in 1954 to poet Mary Gilmore for her collection Fourteen men.

Writers born this year included two poets, Kevin Hart and Dorothy Porter, and the novelist Kerry Greenwood. Deaths included, significantly, Miles Franklin.

Overland magazine, to which I often refer, was established in 1954 by Stephen Murray-Smith and Eric Lambert, who had also co-founded, with Frank Hardy, Melbourne’s Realist Writers’ Association.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers of the time were saying about Australian literature, and the fiction in particular.

Some specific issues

A recurring issue was the cost of books in Australia. A brief article in Adelaide’s Advertiser (January 25) reports on a visit to Australia by Desmond Flower of the large British publisher Cassell & Co. Flower said that English publishing costs had dropped slightly because of reductions in the price of cloth and paper, and the cost of printing was also likely to fall which should bring book prices down in England, “and consequently Australia”. (As an aside, he also noted that book business in Australia had trebled since 1939, which represented a greater increase than anywhere else in the Empire.)

Another discussion concerned the Little Golden Books, and Americanisation of Australian culture. (Nothing new, eh?) Jill Hellyer writing in the Tribune (July 21) argues not only that these cheap books had “pushed Australian authors even further from their precarious position”, when there are excellent Australian books available, but that the books were “full of loose phrases, bad grammar and cheap American slang”. She admits some in the series are good, but is particularly scathing about the Disney versions of classic children’s stories. There was a riposte, in the Tribune (August 11) from a “West Australian mother” who argued that “it is possible to select, from among these books, ones that can be good and useful for our children”. She didn’t mind ‘reading the words “sidewalk” or “cookies” because it provided her the “opportunity to explain this is how people talk in America”. From her point of view, these understandings help us get to know other people and cultures. However, while she disagreed with Hellyer’s specific cultural concerns, she agreed that “some [Golden Books] are very unpleasing, notably the ones based on Walt Disney’s films that were mentioned by the author of the article”.

Censorship was also discussed. The highly-respected Australian librarian John Metcalfe was quoted in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (August 10) as arguing against proposals (from both the right and the left) to extend censorship. The particular target was comic strips and books believed undesirable for children. Censorship, he said, is against the “liberal tradition” and was a “negative approach to the problem”. The Children’s Book Council, he said, “shows that a positive approach can be made in encouraging children to tackle a better type of literature.”

Similarly, a commentator in Wagga Waga’s Daily Advertiser (September 2) expressed concern about plans to extend censorship. Accepting that there there was a “a plethora of cheap and sexy trash on the market” and “an emphasis in some publications on crime and violence”, and agreeing that these can present “a danger to the younger generation and the lesser intellects [defined how?] among the adults”, this commentator believed that “a ban on ‘obscene’ literature is too dangerous to be countenanced”, and goes on to argue the case. There must be other ways, our commentator says, because

Once books are banned or burned, freedom is on the way out.

Some specific books

I could write screeds on reviews of particular books – even though I only read a tiny percentage of the articles I retrieved in Trove – but that’s not practicable, so, I’ll just share a few.

Brent of Bin Bin’s Cockatoos was much approved – and was also recognised by then as the work of Miles Franklin. IM (Ian Mair?) summarising the year’s books in Melbourne’s The Age (December 11) wrote “In the year’s fiction, first must come The Cockatoos … Like all her novels of country life, it has a wonderful feeling for place and period”. Earlier in the year, the writer of the Books Received column in Townsville’s Bulletin (April 18), wrote:

The theme is the universal one of the conflict between the artist and the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously, but the novel is also another Brent of Bin Bin’s memorable recreations of place and period in Australian country life. It is concerned particularly with the problem if the “exodists” — the restless young Australians who fifty years ago sought art of adventure, and in so doing suffered uprooting and exile. 

Oh dear – “the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously”!

There’s superlative praise for popular writers of the time like Jon Cleary and EV Timms. T.A.G. Hungerford‘s Sowers of the wind was also much liked. Interestingly, Wikipedia says that this novel won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson until 1954 “because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces”.

But I’ll save my last discussion for Eve Langley’s White topee. There were many reviews for this book, which continues the story of Steve from The pea pickers, but most seemed to be variations on a theme, which is to say, they praised its creativity but expressed some uncertainty too. Langley remains a challenging author for many, but her contemporary reviewers did value what she offered.

The Newcastle Sun’s (August 5) reviewer perhaps puts it best, opening with

It is impossible to judge White Topee by Eve Langley according to the established standards as the author has embarked upon the adventure of writing in a way that is completely original and individual.

The review uses headings like “poetic passages”, “heady style”, and “impressionistic”, but also gets Langley:

There are so many strands in this study of the country that the author’s impressions come tumbling with enough dazzling rapidity to suggest eccentricity, but the work on closer examination is revealed to be composite and, the result of shrewd observation and searching frankness.

M.P. in Queensland Country Life (August 5) is more measured, writing that it “could have been an outstanding book” but “is full of ego”. M.P. admires much in Langley’s passion and the writing:

Her love of Australia is deep and emotionally strong, and on the too rare occasions when Eve Langley forgets the poets and calls on her own descriptive powers she gives passages that, with their beauty and strength, are pure classics.

M.P. concludes that when Langley “extricates herself from the morass of sentimentality and confusion of mind she will write a book that is truly great”.

R.J.S., reviewing in Cairns Post (August 14) admired the book. S/he starts by saying “it has brilliant descriptive passages and much originality of thought but lacks a plot and is not a novel when judged by the usual standards”. S/he make a strong case for the work’s value:

To date no one has interpreted Australia and its people as Miss Langley has done in “White Topee.”

R.J.S. advises that the novel “cannot be skipped through” and suggests that “the careful reading it deserves will disclose that the writer has opened a new furrow in the field of Australian literature”.

I’ll leave White topee there, and will conclude my introduction to 1954 in Australian fiction with popular non-fiction author, Colin Simpson, who is quoted in Grafton’s Daily Examiner (December 23) as saying:

If one person in three would make one of his or her Christmas gifts a book by an Australian author, that could sufficiently enlarge the market to make authorship economic for more than just a few of us. The effect on our national literature could be very considerable.

Plus ça change?

Additional sources:

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1954 Club?

Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera (#BookReview)

After a run of tough reads in 2021, my reading group wanted something gentler, so I suggested that for our “classic” we do a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, whose works I’ve loved for their pointed wit, delightful humour, and astute commentary on marriage and the relationship between men and women. As is my wont, I nominated one from my TBR shelves, Vera. To my delight, they agreed.

Then, before reading it, I decided to remind myself of von Arnim’s life, so I read Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (my review). Imagine my horror when, two-thirds through, Carey wrote that Vera was her “darkest” novel, “a haunting portrait of psychological tyranny”. What? Too late by then, but I did hope my reading group would, one, forgive me, and, two, not be turned off von Arnim. As it turned out, all those who attended the meeting liked the book and pronounced it “not too dark”. Was I pleased!

Nonetheless, Vera is a dark novel, one that reminded me of a book written four decades later by Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (my review). Both novels are about narcissism and coercive control, about older men who marry and tyrannise vulnerable and inexperienced much younger women.

Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen”

When Vera was published, readers and reviewers were, says Carey, confused. How did “playful, witty Elizabeth von Arnim, author of light social comedies” become “a gothic writer of macabre tragedy”? Von Arnim was distressed but cousin Katherine Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, is reported to have said to her, on the appearance of a negative review in The Times Literary Supplement, “Of course my dear, when the critics are faced with Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen, they don’t know what to say.”

This is an apposite comment for a few reasons – besides its intention to reassure. Firstly, von Arnim pointedly has Lucy, our young wife, read Wuthering Heights even though husband Everard calls it “morbid”. It’s an effective allusion, given the darkness of Brontë’s novel and its focus on obsessive love. However, Murry’s comment also conveys something about the experience of reading this novel, because, while it is dark and distressing, it still bears von Arnim’s Austen-like light touch, and that, I think, is what my reading group appreciated.

By now, if you haven’t read it yourself, you may be wondering why this novel is called Vera when the two protagonists I’ve named are Lucy and Everard? So, let me do a quick plot summary.

The novel begins with 22-year-old Lucy Entwhistle leaning on the front gate of the house in Cornwall that she and her father had taken for the late summer. Her father has just died suddenly and Lucy is in shock. Into view comes another – apparently – grieving person, the mid-forties Everard Wemyss, whose wife Vera had died a week or so ago. Things, though, are not quite as they seem. A shadow hangs over Vera’s death, with a suggestion that it may not have been accidental but a suicide. Lucy, unfortunately, is naive and vulnerable, and despite the best efforts of her wise Aunt Dot, she is swept into marriage, with socially unacceptable haste. After the honeymoon, Everard takes her to his county mansion, “The Willows”, where Vera had died. He makes no attempt to change anything – expecting Lucy to sleep in the same bed Vera did, to occupy Vera’s sitting room, to have breakfast overlooking the flagstones onto which Vera had fallen (or jumped). Kind, head-over-heels-in-love Lucy does her best to justify Everard’s increasingly controlling behaviour but it dawns all too quickly that he expects nothing less than utter servitude . 

And so, Lucy, whose usual state had been one “of affection and confidence”, learns that the “scenes” that she hated could not be avoided “for no care, no caution would for ever be able to watch what she said, or did, or look, or equally important, what she didn’t say, or didn’t do, or didn’t look”. It leaves her “afraid with the most dismal foreboding, that someday after one of them, or in the middle of one of them, her nerve would give out and she would collapse. Collapse deplorably; into just something that howled and whimpered.”

Lucy starts to think kindly of this Vera she’d never met.

“It’s wonderful, wonderful … what love will do” (The doctor)

It’s grim, certainly, but this is Elizabeth von Arnim, so there’s humour – black comedy – here too. There are some truly funny scenes, particularly involving the poor servants for whom Everard has not one ounce of humanity. These servants only stay at “The Willows” because he is in town all week. They can manage his cruelly imperious ways from Friday night to Monday morning, because the wages were higher than any they’d heard of. (They probably had to be!)

So, here is a scene in which Everard confronts the parlourmaid about a missing button on a piano leg cover:

“What do you see?” he asked.
The parlourmaid was reluctant to say. What she saw was piano legs, but she felt that wasn’t the right answer.
“What do you not see?” Wemyss asked, louder.
This was much more difficult, because there were so many things she didn’t see; her parents, for example.
“Are you deaf, woman?” he enquired.
She knew the answer to that, and said it quickly.
“No sir,” she said.

And so it continues, but you get the gist. The scene is indicative of Wemyss’ extreme bullying behaviour, but you can’t help laughing while feeling for the poor parlourmaid.

This black humour is one of the things that kept me reading. Another was von Arnim’s writing. She has wonderful turns of phrase, such as this of Lucy reining in some disturbing thoughts: “Lucy made a violent lunge after her thoughts, and strangled them”.

Von Arnim is also an excellent satirist and ironist. Just look at the doctor’s statement above. He’s surprised and unsure about the marriage to Lucy but, well, look what love can do! Already, however, we are aware that his initial uncertainty is more than valid. One of the points Carey makes in her book is von Arnim’s disappointment in love and marriage. In her experience – including the marriage to Francis Russell which inspired this novel – men change as soon as they are married or, as the heady days of love wane. Vera is at the extreme, but not unbelievable, end of this disappointment.

Finally, there’s Jane Austen. Elizabeth von Arnim – and I’m not the first to say this – owes much to Austen. From my first Von Arnim, Austen’s wit and astute observation of human nature shone through. She nails the way humans think and behave with, sometimes, excruciating accuracy. But von Arnim’s style in Vera is not Austen’s. We don’t have Austen’s omniscient third person voice. Vera is told third person, but von Arnim uses that technique more common to modernists, the interior monologue, with the narrative perspective shifting between the main characters – Lucy, Everard and Lucy’s wonderful Aunt Dot. In fact, a few of the last chapters are with Aunt Dot as she comes head-to-head with Everard and learns just how right she had been to be concerned – but, well, look “what love will do”.

There’s more to discuss in this book. There’s Wemyss’ deeply creepy infantalisation of his 22-year-old wife, calling her “a good little girl” and “my very own baby”. There’s also his insistence that everything can be simplified to one right answer. Initially, the overwhelmed, grieving Lucy finds this comforting but, having grown up in an atmosphere of intellectual enquiry, she starts to not only think that such an attitude might “cut one off from growth” and “shut one in an isolation”, but to doubt “whether it was true that there was only one way looking at a thing” or “that his way was invariably the right way”.

Too soon after her death, Elizabeth von Arnim was relegated to the realms of light romantic comedy, but that denies their value, even when you look at her lighter works. However, when you add Vera to her oeuvre, you have a writer whose work must be seen as relevant now as it ever was.

Elizabeth von Arnim
Vera
London: Virago, 1983 (orig. pub. 1921)
319pp.
ISBN: 9781844082810

Nella Larsen, Passing (#BookReview)

For last year’s Novellas in November, Arti (of Ripple Effects) posted on a book and author I’d never heard of, Nella Larsen’s Passing. She also discussed its 2021 film adaptation. Quite coincidentally, that same month, my Californian friend Carolyn wrote positively about the film in a letter to me. It sounded right up my alley, so how grateful was I when, this month, Carolyn sent me the book. I decided to squeeze it in …

According to Wikipedia, Nella Larsen (nee Walker) was born in a poor part of Chicago to a Danish immigrant mother, and a father “believed to be a mixed-race Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies”. He disappeared early in Nella’s life, and her mother married another Danish immigrant. Because of Nella they were seen as a “mixed” family and were not welcome in the mostly white neighbourhood where they’d moved. Nella grew up in that difficult limbo of being neither white nor black.

Eventually, she married a Black-American* physicist and they moved to Harlem where they became involved with “important figures in the Negro Awakening”, later known as the Harlem Renaissance. I share all this because it is relevant to Passing, which was her second novel.

Passing, set mostly in 1927, tells the story of two Black women, Irene and Clare. Both can pass as white, but Irene lives in Harlem with her darker doctor husband, while Clare lives in white society, as a White, with her Black-hating banker husband. At the start of the novel, Irene receives a letter from Clare, referring to an accidental meeting they’d had in a swish hotel in Chicago where both had been “passing” as white. This meeting had been 12 years after they’d last seen each other as teens in Chicago, at which time Clare had been whisked away by her White aunts after the death of her drunken janitor father.

Two years had passed since that uncomfortable Chicago meeting, two years during which Irene had done her best to forget an occasion “in which even now, after two years, humiliation, resentment, and rage were mingled”. But now, Clare was wanting to see Irene again …

“they always come back” (Brian)

Much has been written about this book, which speaks directly to the challenges and conflicts faced by African Americans at the time. There was a new Black bourgeoisie – a professional middle class – to which Irene belongs, and in which she feels comfortable. She’s committed to the whole “uplifting the brother” project and does good works to that end. Clare, on the other hand, has turned her back on her race. The scene is set, we think, for conflict.

And there is, but if you think it’s going to encompass a simple dichotomy, you would be wrong. From the start, Larson keeps us on our toes, forcing us to see two very different ways of living as a black woman in that place and time. The story is told third person, but through the perspective of Irene. She is the conservative rule-follower who is sure of her path, while Clare, who is probably closer to Larsen herself, is more adventurous, a risk-taker. She’s lively, sensual, a breath of fresh air, but how are we to read her – and, for that matter, Irene?

As the novel progresses, we (and our allegiances) are tossed between the two, just as tensions between the two ebb and flow. Are we to approve Irene’s conscientious approach to life, or should we empathise with the “lonely” Clare who wants to reconnect with the black community? Both are flawed characters. Irene’s choice involves buying into the whole aspirational, consumerist, success-focused values of the bourgeoisie, so much so that she rides rough-shod over the wishes and needs of her husband and sons. Clare, on the other hand, might be lively but she can also be “selfish” and “wilful”, with her risk-taking being potentially dangerous or damaging to others, including her neglected young daughter. It’s clear that if her husband discovered she’d been touched by “the tar brush”, she’d be in deep trouble. It’s to Larsen’s credit that we do not see these characters as black and white (hmm!).

Irene and Clare are not the only characters in this tight novella, but the most interesting of the others is Irene’s husband, Brian, who finds himself caught between the two women after Clare inveigles herself into their lives. At the end of Part 1, just after the meeting in Chicago, Irene is preparing to return home to New York and Brian whose “old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again within him, that craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress.”

“caught between two allegiances” (Irene)

Passing is told in three parts – Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale. In Re-encounter we learn more about these characters through their interactions, and we discover the source of Brian’s restlessness. He is, potentially, another adventurer, though different to Clare.

Early in this final part, Irene and Brian discuss Clare, “passing” and race. Brian has a more nuanced understanding of “race”, it seems. Answering Irene’s question about why those who pass “always come back”, he says, “if I knew that, I’d know what race is”. Much later, we learn that race is at the core of Brian’s restlessness. When Irene upbraids him for honestly answering their son’s question about lynching, he lashes out:

…I’d feel I hadn’t done my duty by them if I didn’t give them some inkling of what’s before them. It’s the least I can do. I wanted to get them out of this hellish place years ago. You wouldn’t let me. I gave up the idea because you objected. Don’t expect me to give up everything.

Passing is about many things, only some of which I’ve discussed. It’s about convention and security versus risk and adventure, about gender and marriage, about class and money, and about self-definition. There is much here that is universal about human nature, but, of course, race is a driving factor. As the novel draws to its conclusion, Irene finds herself

caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race? The thing that bound and suffocated her.

But, there is another layer to this novel, a foreshadowing of something darker. Half-way through the novel, Irene says to Clare that “as we’ve said before, everything must be paid for”, while a little further on, Clare says to Irene

“Can’t you realize that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.”

It’s chilling, but I’ll leave it there. I was engrossed by this novel from its opening sentence to its clever, unsettling ending.

* I’m uncertain about nomenclature, given the language used in this 1920s novel is not what we use now. I hope I’ve made a fair call.

Nella Larsen
Passing
New York: Penguin Books, 2018 (orig. pub. 1929)
128pp.
ISBN: 9780142437278

David Foster Wallace, How Tracy Austin broke my heart (#Review)

Many readers here, I know, are not the slightest bit interested in sports. You know who you are and I’m not going to out you, but you are welcome to do so in the comments. Meanwhile, this is for the rest of you who enjoy watching sports. For me, watching sports aligns well with being a reader, because sport is all story.

What I mean by this is that a sports event has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is full of character and characters. There’s also setting, and there are themes. Some relate to the characters. Are they the underdog, a star on the rise, someone coming back, an oldie having one last go, the bad boy? But, there can be darker themes too to do with politics, social justice, economics, and so on. I don’t need to elaborate them here.

As a lover and supporter of the arts, however, I certainly appreciate that sport can get more than its fair share of attention and money, but that’s not so much the fault of sport, itself. In the best of all possible worlds all forms of human endeavour deserve support and recognition. Enough, though, of my justification … on to David Foster Wallace.

American author David Foster Wallace was a person of wide interests, one being tennis. Several years ago I posted on his essay “Federer as religious experience”. That essay was very different to this one, but its approach is similar in that Wallace takes us on a journey, as he thinks through the issue in front of him. For this reason, I’m going to re-use a quote I used in my previous post. It’s from Best American essays editor, Robert Atwan, who defines the best essays as being

deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

Wallace commences his essay by describing his love of tennis and, in particular, of child tennis star Tracy Austin who was born the same year he was. He consequently looked even more forward than usual to reading her sports-memoir. He’s self-deprecating about buying these mass-market books, ‘the sports-star-“with”-somebody autobiography’, saying that he usually hides them “under something more highbrow when I get to the register”.

Unfortunately, Austin’s “breathtakingly insipid autobiography”, being full of cliches and platitudes, might have broken his love of the genre. However, he decides to explore it to see if it might “help us understand both the seduction and the disappointment that seem to be built into the mass-market sports memoir”. He works through the issues, exploring our expectations of them, and why they might compel us. Unlike Wallace, I have never gravitated to these sorts of memoirs, but I can relate to some of the reasons he gives. These athletes are beautiful and inspiring. They make, in fact, “a certain type of genius as carnally discernible as it ever can get”.

So, we want to know them – who they are, how they did it, and how “it feels inside, to be both beautiful and best”. These memoirs, “explicitly or not … make a promise—to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses”. But, the problem is, they “rarely deliver”.

He uses Austin’s trajectory to exemplify all this, and discusses why her ghostwritten book fails. It’s not only because it is poorly written. It forgets it’s for the reader. Rather, its “primary allegiance” seems to be “family and friends”, with “whole pages … given over to numbing Academy Award-style tributes to parents, siblings, coaches, trainers, and agents, plus little burbles of praise for pretty much every athlete and celebrity she’s ever met”. It also wallows in the cliches, stereotypes and myths that we’d actually hoped it would break open for us. It’s not that we are looking for “dirt”, but we want insight. The only insights we get in Austin’s memoir, Wallace shows, are unwitting ones where she naively exhibits her lack of awareness of reality, such as her protestation that her mother “did not force” her to play tennis at 3. What three-year-old has free choice? There are other, scarier, examples of naïveté, stories that an aware memoirist would tease out from the position of wisdom gained from experience.

There is also what Wallace describes as the Greek-like tragedy of Austin’s career, the fact that her “conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success, turned out to be also her flaw and bane”. This too is not grappled with in the memoir. The book could have helped expose “the sports myth’s dark side”.

But then, in a very Wallace-ish way, he starts to turn his analysis around. He notes that this “air of robotic banality suffuses not only the sports-memoir genre but also the media rituals” in which top athletes are asked to explain their “techne” in those post-contest interviews. With the Australian Open just over, and the Winter Olympics on, I’m sure you know what he means. We get no insights, just “I stuck to the plan” or “focused on one point at time”, etc.

From here, Wallace starts to look at the issue from a different angle. He can’t believe, given what they achieve, that these athletes are as vapid as they come across. Maybe they achieve the heights they do because these “one ball at a time” cliches are true, that what goes through the athlete’s mind as they stand ready to serve, make the pass, whatever, is, in fact “nothing at all”.

When Tracy Austin accepts the car crash that ended her come-back attempt with “I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it”, maybe this is true:

Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there’s nothing she can do about something bad and so she’d better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound, enlightened in the childlike way some saints and monks are enlightened?

This is, for me, the real mystery—whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither. The only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir.

Maybe, he continues, it is only spectators who are not divinely gifted athletes who can “truly … see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied” while those with the gift are “dumb and blind about it”. Maybe this blindness and dumbness are not the price of the gift but its essence. I see an element of truth here, but the question is, where does this blindness start and end.

David Foster Wallace
“How Tracy Austin broke my heart” (1994)
in Consider the lobster and other stories
New York: Little, Brown and Company
pp. 164-181
ASIN: B00FORA1TO (Kindle edition)

Scanned version available on-line at psu.edu