Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Bill on Melbourne and Sydney, 1880-1939

Over the years, I’ve invited people to write guest posts on my blog, including Bill a couple of years ago. However, when Bill (The Australian Legend) became aware of my current family care situation and its impact on my reading and posting, he offered to organise some guest Monday Musings posts for me. It lifted my heart immensely to know that Bill, Lisa and others – as you will see – are willing to help keep this little series of mine going. Thanks so much Bill for taking this in hand. I love that Bill’s post is on a topic dear to my heart (and his). Read on … and do let us know what you think …

Bill’s post

Book coverIn the 1870s and 1880s Melbourne was both Australia’s largest and wealthiest city and its literary centre – around figures like Marcus Clarke, George McCrae (son of Georgianna), Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall, Ada Cambridge, Tasma.

What I want to discuss here is the movement of the literary centre to Sydney and how that worked out, during the first half of the twentieth century. This is an opinion piece rather than the result of any great research so feel free to add to what I say and to correct my mistakes.

Sue has always been interested in the women of this period of Australian writing, and over the past few years we, the Australian Lit.Blogging community, have done a lot to establish in our own minds at least, who the women writers were and to review their work. On my blog, I broke Australian writing into ‘Generations’ more or less in line with HM Green’s ‘Periods’ in his History of Australian Literature, so: Gen 1 1788-1890, Gen 2 1890-1918, Gen 3 1919-1960.

Gen 2 and the first years of Gen 3 were characterized by being both Sydney-centred and seriously misogynist. Gen 2 covered the years of the Sydney Bulletin magazine’s greatest influence, Federation, rising nationalism, WWI.  The Bulletin‘s stable of writers: Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Steele Rudd, Joseph Furphy and a host of bush poets, and the drawings of Lindsay Norman (who moved up from Melbourne after leaving art school) followed by the War reporting of Keith Murdoch and CEW Bean left us with an indelible image of ourselves as resourceful bushmen, and larrikin fighting men. An image which both excluded women and around which they had to work.

The Bulletin openly scorned home life and dismissed the popular women writers of the previous generation as ‘Melbourne-based romance writers’.

“The Sydney Bulletin liked to believe that in ‘virile cultures’ where ‘home-life [had] not become so all absorbing: ‘men live and struggle and fight out in the open most of the time. When they go to their homes they go to beat their wives…’{3 Nov. 1888} According to the Bulletin, home life trammelled a man’s spirit and sapped his masculinity. And it robbed him of his independence.” (Marilyn Lake, 1986

This bled into Gen 3 and the Lindsay-led Sydney Push of the 1920s, an antipodean Bohemia where women were only of use as models and for sex.

For those of us over, say, 50 our history, including such literary history as got past the anglophile gatekeepers, was written and taught by returned servicemen, and they very much bought into the myths of the lone bushman, mateship etc. So it is important to realise that there is another history, that of strong, independent women, which is not taught. In the 1890s both Melbourne and Sydney had vibrant women’s movements focussed on (white) female suffrage, yes, but also on domestic violence, temperance, and women’s welfare. The Melbourne movement coalesced around Annette Bear and Vida Goldstein, and Sydney around Rosa Scott and Louisa Lawson, and Lawson’s newspaper, Dawn.

Miles Franklin is the prime example of a woman writer who was influenced by the nationalism of the Bulletin but wrote with a definite pro-woman and anti-marriage slant. After the publication and instant success of My Brilliant Career in 1901, Franklin was taken up by Rosa Scott, and then subsequently fell in with Goldstein’s lot when she moved to Melbourne and became life-long friends with Melbourne suffragists Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton. Her fictionalised biographies My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos describe her year in the Sydney literary set, living with Scott, flirting with AB Paterson, and meeting Lindsay and (Bulletin editor) Archibald.

Franklin lived overseas for many years, from 1906 to the 1930s and when she came back for good, to her mother’s house in Sydney, it was to a changed literary scene, one dominated by women. During the 20s women had been excluded from the Sydney Push’s literary magazine, Vision, and maybe only Zora Cross with her erotic poems fitted in with the times. Anne Brennan, daughter of drunken poet Christopher Brennan, who hung around the Lindsay push for grog and sex, and tried to write, tried to fit in and failed. Christina Stead was tempted to join the Push, but her compulsion to earn enough to flee overseas saved her.

The Melbourne scene gathered around Nettie and Vance Palmer. Vance, originally a Queenslander, tried hard to be a writer in the Bulletin tradition but hasn’t stood the test of time. They were friends with Louis and Hilda Esson and with the poet Maurice Furnley. But more importantly Nettie and Hilda had been at school together at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College, and subsequently at university. Hilda had been neighbours with Katherine Susannah Prichard’s family and introduced KSP to Nettie. Earlier alumni of PLC included Vida Goldstein and Henry Handel Richardson who, of course, wrote about the school in The Getting of Wisdom.

Nettie, a poet and scholar, maintained an enormous correspondence with a great many Australian writers and was important in maintaining links with expatriates like Richardson.

Sydney women wrote from their homes, isolated from each other until the formation of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1928 by Mary Gilmore, Steele Rudd and John le Gay Brereton. Later in the 30s the FAW’s most prominent members were Miles Franklin, Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson.

So what can I say about that fixture of Australian life: Melbourne-Sydney rivalry. Melbourne ‘had’ Katherine Susannah Prichard, but she was living in Perth; Henry Handel Richardson, acknowledged for years as Australia’s best writer, but long since based in England; (the late) Joseph Furphy, writer of the Great Australian Novel, Such is Life; and Nettie Palmer.

Sydney, by the outbreak of WWII, had a blossoming of writers: Kylie Tennant, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Dymphna Cusack, Eleanor Dark, Ernestine Hill, and Patrick White just setting out. You be the judge.

For a compilation of posts on Australian (mostly) women’s writing up to 1960 see:

  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 1, 1788-1890 (here)
  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 2, 1890-1918 (here)
  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 3, 1919-1960 (here)

Bill Holloway, 25 May 2020

Monday musings on Australian literature: the Australian Common Reader

The Australian Common Reader is, says its website, “a world-leading database of digitised reading records” which “contains thousands of records of library borrowers between 1860 and 1918.” Initiated by Western Australia’s Curtin University professor Tim Dolin in 2008*, it was acquired by ANU in 2013, and is managed by its Centre for Digital Humanities Research. It was officially launched two weeks ago on June 18 – a fact which was brought to my attention by Bill (The Australian Legend.) Thanks Bill.

The libraries whose circulation records are in the database include:

  • Collie Mechanics’ Institute (WA)
  • Lambton Mechanics’ and Miners’ Institute (Newcastle, NSW)
  • Maitland Institute (Yorke Peninsula, SA)
  • Port Germein Institute (regional SA)
  • Rosedale Mechanics’ Institute (Gippsland, Vic)
  • South Australian Institute (Adelaide, SA)

These are all, I understand, mechanics’ institutes (about which I’ve written before), and are mostly located in mining towns and farming communities. Although these institutes were set up to support worker education and recreation, members of the public could also join.

The database is publicly accessible, making it a rich resource, surely, for all sorts of researchers. Certainly, Dr Julieanne Lamond, who manages the project, argues that we are lucky to have it.

The database has been designed, she says, to facilitate researchers sifting through pages of records to create a picture of Australia’s borrowing and literary history. You can search the database on:

  • Borrower occupation
  • Borrower gender
  • Book title
  • Book author
  • Borrower name

This means, Lamond said, that “you can see what the local doctor or politicians were reading, what books and authors were popular, and a library’s most prolific borrowers”. As a result “we can see that doctors were borrowing more books than solicitors and butchers were reading more than engineers.” (Hmm … I’m feeling quite glad that I’m not a big library user right now! Seriously though, this is pretty fascinating.)

Charles Dicken, c1860

Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Stephanie Convery, writing for The Guardian Weekly, reported on the launch and says that the records tell us, for example, that:

Australian butchers in the 19th century preferred to read thrillers, miners loved novels about horse racing, while the most popular author among doctors – and the Adelaide working class in 1861 – was Charles Dickens.

Lamond points out that the records include Mathew Charlton, one of the earliest leaders of the Australian Labor Party. He was, she says, “quite an avid reader, making a total of 264 loans over a 10-year period” and “his favourite author appears to have been Edward Phillips Oppenheim, an English novelist known for writing thrillers.” Oppenheim is, in fact, the second most borrowed author in the database.

She said that the website shows Australians were diverse in their reading habits. They read Dickens, for example, but they also read the latest magazines. They read Australian fiction, as well as overseas authors. And, probably just like now, some were avid readers, while others would “borrow the same book over and over again.”

The records show that male borrowers far exceeded women, but Lamond argues that this is probably due to the sorts of libraries they were. Interestingly, she says, the data “shows that men and women read very widely across all these kinds of genres that now we think of as being quite gendered.”

Nonetheless, the data does show some different favourites. The most popular book for women was On the wings of the wind by Welsh author Anne Adaliza Puddicombe who used the male pen name of Allen Raine. She was one of the bestselling authors of the time, apparently. Woo hoo, though, women reading women! In fact, their research shows that four of the top five works borrowed by women were written by women!

By contrast, the most popular reading for men was a weekly magazine – Household Words which was edited by Charles Dickens (and about which I have also written before.) It was specifically aimed, as I quoted in my post, at “the masses” and it intended to both entertain and “shape discussion and debate on the important social questions of the time”. I love discovering that it was, indeed, popular among the people it was created for.

Overall, Lamond, quoted by Convery, says that

“People’s reading was very diverse, much more diverse than I think most of our reading is now. These people just read incredibly widely. They were reading sporting novels and political thrillers, they were reading George Eliot and Jane Austen at the same time.”

(Hmm, is she basing this comparison regarding diversity today on any evidence? Anecdotally, and defending my era, I’d say there’s a lot of diversity in today’s reading today!)

Convey makes a few other observations, including that:

  • miners were the most abundant profession represented in the data, making up nearly 13%, with the most prolific borrower being a South Australian miner named John Pellew, who borrowed 877 books from the Port Germein Institute.
  • fiction was, overall, more borrowed than non-fiction.
  • the most popularly borrowed author was Cornish Christian novelist Joseph Hocking, reflecting, perhaps the preponderance of Cornish and Welsh miners in the borrowing communities.

Lamond hopes to obtain funding to digitise more records to broaden our insight into reading habits of the past. She notes that they don’t have good data about metropolitan reading, and that these records are not really in existence:

“The stars have to align for these kinds of records to survive because often they were run by volunteer management committees, and they sat in boxes in people’s attics; they threw them out; they burnt down – a lot of historical library records have gone up in smoke, literally.”

Don’t you hate hearing about the destruction of records?

A little example

Anyhow, of course, I had to have a little play in the database myself, so I looked at the Borrower by Occupation. They are listed in order of quantity, starting with Miners (5,666 borrowings) and ending with six occupations represented by 1 borrowing, including “Authoress” and “Tea merchant”. However, it looks like the occupations were entered “free text” and that the ANU has not tried to concatenate them in any way, so, for example, there are State School Teachers, School Teachers and School Masters (and maybe even more permutations).

Using the “visualisation” option, I found state school teacher, Frances Cairns, who borrowed 326 books, of which 318 were fiction. The author she borrowed most was Scottish author and minister, George MacDonald, but I was delighted to see that she also borrowed a book by the cheeky Australian author Elizabeth von Arnim. One of the eight non-fiction works she borrowed was Daniel Crawford’s Thinking black, which, says Wikipedia, “was recommended reading for those Europeans who wanted to work in partnership with, rather than over, Africans.” I wonder what was behind this? The visualisation option was fun, but probably more useful is the fact that you can also download spreadsheets of your searches to do further analysis.

And here I will close on this fascinating project, but do have a play if you are interested,

* Another report says that the database commenced in 2001! Who knows? Maybe both are right, and it’s a matter of defining “start”?

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund

Australia’s Copyright Agency has been referenced here several times in this blog, mostly regarding the work it does via its Cultural Fund, but I wonder how many of us (besides artists) know just how much it does to support Australian writing and writers?

The Copyright Agency is a non-profit organisation (company) which describes its mission as being:

to provide simple ways for people to reproduce, store and share words, images and other creative content, in return for fair payment to creators. We are committed to encouraging the development of lively and diverse markets for published works…

Its main services to authors are to:

  • collect and distribute copyright fees for educational and government use of works. It manages, on behalf of the government, the education and government copying sections of the Copyright Act which allows educational institutions and governments to use content without permission, provided they make fair payment.
  • license writer’s content to corporations and others (though writers can also license their works themselves.)

It does other things too, one of which is to fund “writers’ projects and skills development” through its Cultural Fund, which is my focus for this post.

Cultural Fund

The Cultural Fund is the Agency’s philanthropic arm, and aims to support “cultural projects and creators’ professional development.” Its priority includes “to ensure that artists are better supported and are paid appropriately for their creative endeavours.” It is funded by members agreeing to 1.5% of the licence fees collected on their behalf being retained for the Fund. In the financial year, 2016-2017, they disbursed well over $2m through the Cultural Fund to “114 projects, 23 professional development grants and 5 fellowships.”


The fund offers various annual fellowships, with this year’s including:

  • Author: one offered each year, worth $80K. Open to novelists, playwrights, poets, non-fiction writers, children’s and young adult writers, and journalists to develop and create a new work. (Non-Fiction writers, this year could also apply for the non-fiction writing fellowship.) I noted in a previous post that the inaugural author fellowship went to Canberra-based author Mark Henshaw (who wrote The snow kimono.)
  • Non-fiction writing: worth $80K, and with more specific requirements than the author fellowship above. It’s “to develop and create a new work of creative non-fiction writing which will engage with key issues and topics for a broad readership” which means it’s not for academic or scholarly writing. They list the acceptable genres, which include biography, memoir, autobiography, environment, and history.
  • Publisher: two were offered in 2018, each worth $15K.
  • Reading Australia Fellowship for Teachers of English and Literacy: worth $15K, and self-explanatory from the title I’d say.


This year’s CREATE grants were recently announced, five going to writers and one to a visual artist, from over 135 applications. The writers were Peggy Frew ($20K), Jennifer Mills ($20K), Josephine Rowe ($10K), Jane Rawson ($15K), Lenny Bartulin ($20K).

Josephine Rowe, A loving faithful animalThe works of fiction these authors will be creating cover a variety of topics, “from xenophobia, self-interest and individualism to post-war migrant life in Tasmania during the 1950s, to cross-cultural friendships and ghost stories.”

Two of these authors have appeared here before, Jane Rawson with A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review), and Josephine Rowe with A loving, faithful animal (my review).


These are smaller grants, of up to $5K each. They are “to support individuals working in the writing, publishing and visual arts sectors to develop skills and progress their careers.” They include things like “mentorships, internships, residencies, leadership opportunities, and strategic promotional opportunities” but not academic or tertiary study.

Grants for Organisations

These seem to be more ad hoc grants – at least in the dollar-amounts offered, because they are not always specified. The grants themselves are not ad hoc, however, in the sorts of things that qualify, as the Agency defines on the webpage the sorts of things it will fund. These grants can be for single projects or for up to 3 years. They spread far and wide, from the Djilpin Arts Aboriginal Corporation (in the Katherine region of NT) to the Melbourne Writers Festival, from theatrical companies to libraries, from community groups to education departments, from supporting fiction to history. No wonder they have popped up regularly in my Monday Musings posts!

Some of the grants awarded under this banner, as far as I can tell from their 2017 Annual Report include:

  • Festivals and the like: These range from small symposiums and workshops to the big festivals, and include Australian Authors Week 2017 (by the Australia’s Embassy in Beijing), a craft and design writing symposium (by Craft ACT, in my town), the AALITRA Symposium (Australian Association for Literary Translation), the StoryArts Festival (by the Ipswich District Teacher Librarian network), the Canberra Writers Festival, and the Melbourne Writers Festival. Sometimes the grant is for a specified aspect of the festival, such as the “Getting it Write” workshop in Geelong Regional Library’s Word for Word Festival.
  • Griffith Review 58 Novella Project (2017)

    Griffith Review 58 Novella Project (2017)

    Journals: Several journals are listed as receiving grants – including The Big Issue, Griffith ReviewInside Story, Island magazine (to increase payments to writers), Meanjin, Westerly. Some of these are for specific editions, such as the Big Issue’s fiction edition and Griffith Review’s novella project.

  • Prizes: Some of these grants seem to support the administration of the prize rather than the prize purse itself, such as a three-year grant to the Stella Prize for “promotion of the winners.” Also listed are the David Unaipon Award, the Miles Franklin Award (also three years), and the National Indigenous Story Award. In the past, they’ve supported the CAL Scribe Fiction Prize (which seemed to only run from 2009 to 2012), and the Finch Memoir Prize (which is not being offered in 2019 because of lack of funding)
  • Writing projects: Like many other of their grants, these cover a variety of forms, such as Belvoir Theatre’s “Investing in Australian Stories” commissions.
  • Other: Such as supporting a stipend for the Children’s Literature Laureate, or the Early Career Researcher Scheme (organised by the Australian History Association). Smaller fellowships, in addition to the large ones listed above are also supported through organisations such as Queensland University Library’s Creative Writing Fellowship, the Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellowships, and the Eleanor Dark Foundation’s Fellowships for Indigenous Writers.

Reading Australia

Reading Australia is a service established by the Agency and partly (mostly?) funded through the Cultural Fund. Its focus is the education sector, aiming “to create in depth teaching resources on Australian literature, to encourage homegrown stories to be taught in schools.” Among other activities, they produce book lists, and resources for the primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors.

I first wrote about Reading Australia five years ago, and again last year when I posted on the Reading Australia-Magabala Books partnership. Education is so fundamental to the health of our literature (and our culture) that this seems a good point on which to conclude this post.

If you’re Australian, are you aware of the Copyright Agency and/or its Cultural Fund? I’d love to know how well-known it is.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading aloud in colonial Australia

At the end of last week’s Monday Musings post on literary culture in colonial Australia, I commented that author Elizabeth Webby had also discussed the practice of reading aloud, and that I might do a future post on that. Well, not only might I, but I’ve decided to do it this week because I was fascinated. (Just to recap, last week’s post drew from Webby’s lecture titled “Reading in colonial Australia”, which is available online). And, would you believe, February 1 is World Read Aloud Day!

So, I’ll start briefly with Webby’s discussion and then move on to some of my own research, from Trove of course. She starts by saying that reading aloud remained popular throughout the nineteenth century alongside a rise in silent, individual reading. She writes:

Those worried about the excessive reading of fiction by women and young people were particularly keen to encourage the domestic practice of reading aloud. A father reading aloud to his family in the evening formed an ideal Victorian domestic scene: he could monitor what was being consumed by his wife, sons and daughters; they had the advantage of his company and attention.

(There’s that gender issue again!) She shares information gleaned from diaries. One mother, for example, would not allow Shakespeare while another was very happy to read from Dumas’ 8-volume Celebrated crimes (1839-1841). Webby says this “reminds us that individual readers have always been free to set their own rules about what should be read, ignoring the more restrictive norms of their times.” She also discusses the encouragement of reading aloud for women (“as an alternative to idle gossip as they sewed or carried out other more sedentary household jobs”) and bush-workers (“as a more profitable alternative to gambling and yarning”), and the ongoing concern about what was read (but I discussed some of that last week.)

A modern author reading: Malouf reading from Ransom, NLA, 16/8/2009

Webby then describes the rise of “penny reading” in the second half of the nineteenth century. This is the practice of attending public readings for the cost of a penny. While Dickens never toured Australia, as he had Britain and the USA, readings from his books were popular at these penny readings, which were apparently popular in Victoria. There were also “philanthropic” souls who read, free-of-charge, to hospital patients and prison inmates. Webby suggests that regarding readings for prisoners, the authorities would have seen them as having value as “cheap entertainment combined with a controlled use of fiction as a means of moral reformation”. There was, she says, a strong continuing belief in “the humanising value of literature”.

What I found in Trove*

Having read Webby’s discussion, I was keen to see if the topic was discussed in newspapers of the time – and my, was it! It seemed particularly popular in papers of the later nineteenth century, with much of the commentary I found coming from the 1870s. It was generally earnest, and had two main threads: the importance of reading aloud well; and the value of reading aloud (along with a concern that people weren’t doing enough of it).

A long article by Sarah Ellis in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 January 1870 starts with:

Amongst the accomplishments which belong to education of the highest order, reading aloud ought certainly to hold a prominent place – that is, the art of reading aloud so as to give the full meaning of what is read, and at the same time to charm the ear of those who listen.

She then discusses how reading aloud is so often unsatisfactory, how people adopt a voice that doesn’t change or adapt to the meaning of what they are reading. She suggests that one of the causes is the reduction of reading aloud in the home. Poor education is another cause but an article in the Mount Alexander Mail (25 October 1878) reports on a lecture by Mr T.P. Hill, a well-known elocutionist of the time, who discusses the finding of school inspectors “that this neglected, but important branch of elementary education was moving forward in the right direction”. Unfortunately, though, “in a few districts … complaints were made of the monotonous and sing-song manner in which the voice was allowed to degenerate”.

My final example regarding the issue of reading aloud well, raises again the gender issue. It comes from the Avoca Mail (26 June 1877):

It is much to be regretted that the charming accomplishment of reading aloud is not more cultivated by ladies. … To do this well, a certain amount of study is requisite. First of all, it is necessary to acquire a habit of sustaining the voice; then one must learn to modulate the tones, to attend to the punctuation, and, above all, the reader must have a fair appreciation of the author’s meaning. This involves a study of English literature, which is so sadly needed by most young ladies who are supposed to have a finished education.

Oh dear, those “young ladies”, eh? Gender also comes up in the aforementioned Sarah Ellis’s article, and here I shift into the issue of why people should read aloud. Reading aloud, she says, can “increase the number of our innocent enjoyments”, “make the social hours of life glide pleasantly along”, and “prevent them from becoming vapid or wearisome”. She then separately identifies the value for women and men:

Amongst women, this accomplishment might go far to help them in filling their homes with interest; amongst men, it would help them on all public occasions, when called upon to speak or read.

Oh well, that was then – a woman’s place was in the home. We wouldn’t expect anything different, would we? I should add that Ellis spends some time discussing the best book to read aloud, the Bible, which Webby says would have been the “most-read” book in colonial Australia.

So, reading aloud was seen as good for family togetherness, for entertainment, for education, and for usefulness in the outside world. Indeed, in terms of the latter, the writer in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser (13 October 1877), reporting on another lecture by Mr T.P. Hill, describes it as “an art which at the Bar might save lives, which in the Senate might save nations, and which in the Pulpit might save souls”. Meanwhile, in terms of the former more recreational value, Ellis overlays a moral value, describing it as a “counter charm of a social and intelligent nature to take the place of pleasures which are purely sensational”!

I will end, though, with another reason which you mightn’t have seen coming. It’s from the Queenslander (6 February 1897):

The late Sir Henry Holland says in his ‘”Medical Notes” that persons who have a tendency to pulmonary disease should methodically practice “those actions of the body through which the chest is in part filled or emptied of air.” He advises that those whose chests are weak should read aloud at stated intervals …

World Read Aloud Day 2018See, reading aloud really is good for you!

Do you have any experience of reading aloud as an adult, either reading or listening (besides, that is, reading to children), and if so, I’d love to hear about it? Audiobooks? Live reading?

* Note that when I say Trove, I mean its digitised newspapers subset, because Trove, in fact, currently covers over 560 million “Australian and online resources: books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more”. Note, too, that many of the articles I found appeared in many newspapers around the country.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary culture in colonial Australia

National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia, from the other side of Lake Burley Griffin

Bill of The Australian Legend’s AWW Gen 1 Week, which has just finished, focused on the authors and the books they wrote about colonial Australia. However, what about the readers? I’ve been planning to write a post on literary culture in colonial Australia for some time, and today seems to be just the right time! My post draws heavily on retired academic Elizabeth Webby’s 2011 John Alexander Ferguson Memorial Lecture titled “Reading in colonial Australia” which was published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (vol. 97, pt. 2) in December 2011 (available online). Webby starts by recognising the work done by lawyer-book collector-bibliographer Ferguson whose much-researched collection is at the National Library of Australia and who is commemorated there by the Ferguson Room.

It’s a fascinating lecture, for the content and for the discussion of the information sources Webby used to discover who read what in colonial Australia (1788 to 1901). (I’m always interested in the research process.) There are letters, of course, from colonists back to home, asking for books. Then there are advertisements listing personal libraries for sale. Early explorer George Bass’s library for example contained mostly books on medicine, science, law, theology plus classical authors like Horace, Virgil and Homer. A library typical of “gentlemen’s libraries of the period”. It contained very little fiction.

Another explorer, a couple of decades later, was John Oxley. His library was sold in 1828, and, Webby writes, it

displayed a decidedly stronger taste for fiction, indicating the shift towards novels as the main form of recreational reading which began in this period, although still deplored by many. When John Oxley’s library was sold by auction in Sydney in August 1828 about half of the 330 or so lots listed in the catalogue were works of fiction. They included such recent publications as Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of the Crusaders (1825), the American novelist Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (1827), as well as Gothic thrillers like Anne Radcliffe’s Gaston de Blondeville (1826) and Mary Shelley’s early science fiction tale Last Man (1826). Oxley clearly was a regular purchaser of the latest English books.

Later in the article, discussing attitudes to women readers, she refers to the sale of “a lady’s library” in 1833. While she didn’t see a list, it was described as comprising ‘upwards of six hundred volumes, chiefly standard Works, by the most esteemed ancient and modern authors, forming altogether a collection of English Literature rarely to be met with out of Europe'”. She uses this to counter the belief that women only read fiction!

Another fascinating source of information about what people were reading are advertisements for missing books. Fascinating. Besides providing information about what people had in their libraries, they also tell us how precious books were. In some of the ads she found, people threatened legal action or offered rewards. So, of course, I went to Trove to see what I could find. I found some of those Webby describes, but I also found one from June 1830 that seemed to be about recalling books that had been lent out and were now needed back for an estate auction. The list is fairly long, and looks like one of those aforesaid typical “gentlemen’s collections”. It has classics, sermons, theological works, essays, dictionaries and so on, but very little fiction, except for Sir Walter Scott, who’ll appear again later! The list ends with the statement that “The Public are also informed, that this extensive and valuable Library will in a short time be sold by Public Auction, of which due notice will be given. As Mr. HOWE’S Library is well known, it would be useless to make further comments at this time.” Clearly they expected the books to be returned, but I wonder what sort of comments it was useless to make?

Webby also explores lending libraries. They varied greatly. Some were set up by churches, and focused on morality and religion, with “frivolous” or “pernicious” publications being excluded. Some were created for “the colonial elite”, such as the Hobart Town Book Society and Sydney’s Australian Subscription Library. And some were set up to provide reading matter for working people. These were the Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Arts whose buildings are still familiar sights in Australian country towns. The short-lived Hobart Town Mechanics Institute was founded in 1827, and Sydney had established its Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in 1833. By 1834, it had “upwards of five hundred volumes … consisting of works on science, history and general literature, chiefly contributed by the liberal donations and loans of members and friends.” Indeed, Webby makes several references to people being asked to donate books from their own libraries to, for example, make them available to “the enquiring mechanic, who can find time to dive into their contents.” In truth, though, mechanics did not comprise the main memberships of these organisations.

And here is a good point to discuss what Webby calls the fiction debate. Those of you interested in the history of reading will know that novels were disparaged for a long time. I’ve written before about Jane Austen’s famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey, in which she described them as works

in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.

Northanger Abbey was published in 1817 so Austen’s defence is contemporaneous with the period we are discussing. Webby quotes James Ross, editor of the Hobart Town Courier, as supporting novel-reading in 1831. He defended the so-called “frivolous” reading tastes of members, arguing that recreational reading was valid after the “toil of a long day in some official, public or private arduous operation.” He also argued that reading English novels was, as Webby puts it, “almost a patriotic duty”, because these books

keep alive in no small degree that amor patriae, that attachment to our mother country and that familiarity with the manners and relish for the habits of our countrymen which is at all times so desirable.

Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe, first published 1819.

Webby identifies some of the fiction that was being read – including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Bulwer Lytton – but the author who pops up most frequently in her survey of the early to mid-nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott. The first book order from the 1826-established Australian Subscription Library, for example, included only one novelist, Scott.

And the 1836 report of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts defended the inclusion of novels in its library, with the argument, you’ll see, that is still used to defend, for example, the reading of comics. The report says:

… it ought to be remembered, that a taste for reading has to be formed before works of a more philosophical character will be relished or appreciated, and that if any book is likely to accomplish this more speedily than another, it is the works of Scott–containing, as they do, a vast fund of historical information, mixed up, in an agreeable shape, with the manners and customs of different periods.

Webby discusses much more, including the role of periodicals and newspapers in reading culture. She also writes about “reading aloud”, but I might save that for another post.

It’s clear from Webby’s lecture that the information available was scattered and incomplete. She praises Evandale Subscription Library in Tasmania which “stands out for the completeness of its records”. Please note this any of you who are currently involved in organisations, such as reading groups: keep your records! One day, some researcher will want them!