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

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

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

The list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

    Capel Boake, Painted clay

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

    Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 3, Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (1)

    For my third post in my Monday Musings 1923 series, I’m moving away from publisher initiatives, like the NSW Bookstall Co and the Platypus Series, to something a bit different. It’s an intriguing story about what one paper called “inter-Imperial amity”. It goes like this …

    Mr. George H. Locke (1870-1937) – as the newspapers of the day referred to him – was, at the time, the Chief Librarian of the Public Library of Toronto. He was significant enough to have a Wikipedia page, which tells us that he had that role from 1908 to his death. Wikipedia also says that he was the second Canadian to be president of the American Library Association (ALA). The Toronto Public Library website tells us a little more. He was their second chief librarian, and his memorial plaque credits him with having “transformed a small institution into one of the most respected library systems on the continent.” They say he was the first Canadian to be president of the ALA – but who’s counting! The important point is that he was an active librarian who not only “promoted library training and professionalism” but was intellectually engaged in the world of letters.

    All very well, I hear you saying, but what’s that got to do with us? Well, in 1923, he commissioned Mr. A.G. Stephens (1865-1933) to “choose the best 100 imaginative Australian and New Zealand books for exhibition in the Toronto library” (as reported by many newspapers of the day, like Brisbane’s The Queenslander, 3 March 1923). His aim, the newspapers say, was “to inform Canadian readers of the literary aspirations and performances of Australian and New Zealand authors”. This is an inspired and inspiring librarian!

    Now, A.G. Stephens, who also has a Wikipedia page, is well known to those steeped in the history of Australian literary criticism and publishing. He was famous for his “Red Page” literary column in The Bulletin, which he ran for over a decade until 1906. Stuart Lee, who wrote Stephens’ ADB article, says of this column:

    Stephens’ common practice was to spark controversy by attacking an established writer, such as Burns, Thackeray, Kipling, or Tennyson, thereby enticing correspondents as varied as Chris Brennan or George Burns to attack and counter-attack, sometimes over weeks. It was heady stuff.

    After leaving The Bulletin, Stephens worked as a freelance writer and editor. Some of the newspaper articles reporting on Mr. Locke’s initiative, also reference Stephens’ being the editor of the literary magazine, The Bookfellow. He had edited 5 issues of it in 1899, and then revived it as a weekly for a few months in 1907. After that more issues were published, at intervals, until 1925. Overall, Stephens was recognised for his criticism, literary journalism and literary biography. After he died, critic Nettie Palmer, writes Stuart Lee, complained about ‘the appalling lack of public response’ to the news of his death, while Mary Gilmore wrote in an obituary, that “only those who were intellectually shaped by his hand, only those who stood on the strong steps of his work, know with what a sense of loss the words were uttered, ‘A. G. Stephens is gone’.” All this suggests that he was a person well-placed to fulfil Locke’s commission.

    So, back to the commission. I found very little detail about it. Most of the papers announcing it merely explained what it was – which is what I’ve told you already. A few made the point – as did The Queenslander above – that ‘The “hundred best books” task has not been attempted in Australia before. An initial difficulty is that many of our best books are out of print, and have to be painstakingly sought for.’

    But, here’s the thing, on 3 August 1923, a few months after the commission was announced, The Sydney Morning Herald reminded readers of the commission, and then wrote

    The collection has now been made, and the books have been despatched to Canada.

    Nothing more! Back to the drawing board for me. After trying various search strategies – which produced a few comments on the list – I finally found the full annotated list. It’s way too long to share in this post – and it needs a lot of editing in Trove for it to be shareable. In the meantime, I’ll whet your appetite with this response to the list by critic and poet Louis Esson (1878-1943) in Melbourne’s The Herald (1 September 1923):

    Mr Stephens has now published his list of a hundred representative books. As might have been expected, they make a rather arbitrary and unsatisfactory collection. Half of them at least might have been omitted with advantage. Mr Stephens has an exaggerated opinion of the value of the writings and critical opinions of Mr A. G. Stephens. Fifteen of his hundred representative books have been either written or edited by himself. A number of feeble writers have been included while more important writers like Bernard O’Dowd, Frank Wilmot, Vance Palmer, Francis Adams, Walter Murdoch, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Price Warung and others are inadequately represented or not selected at all. Mr Stephens, no doubt, has done his best. He has a perfect right to his own opinion; but readers in Canada and Australia must be on their guard against accepting A.G.S.’s list as being in any way critical or authoritative.

    Esson isn’t the only one who commented on Stephens including himself.

    If you are interested, watch this space … the list is not quite what I expected, based on those early announcements. I’ll try to share it next week.

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

    Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update); 2. Platypus Series