Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary dynasties

Some years ago I wrote a Monday Musings post on Australia’s literary couples. However, it recently occurred to me that we also have some literary dynasties, which could be fun to explore. This post, like many of its ilk, is a bit of a fishing exercise. I will share a few that came to me, and would love you to share ones that come to you.

By dynasty, I mean two or more generations of one family (that is, in the same line of descent.) My focus is fiction but I’m allowing some deviations from this where writing reputations are strong. So, here’s my list – in chronological order by birthyear of the oldest family member.

Charlotte Barton (1796-1867) and Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872)

Charlotte Barton and daughter Louisa Atkinson are probably the least well-known of the writers I list here, even though Charlotte is credited as having written Australia’s earliest known children’s book, A mother’s offering to her children, and Louisa as the first Australian-born woman to publish a novel in Australia, Gertrude the emigrant.

However, Atkinson had a bigger bow to her name, botany. As I wrote in Wikipedia and here, she was well-known for her fiction during her life-time, but her long-term significance rests on her botanical work. She’s regarded as a ground-breaker for Australian women in journalism and natural science, and is significant in her time for her sympathetic references to Australian Aborigines in her writings and for her encouragement of conservation.

Louisa (1848-1920) and Henry Lawson (1867-1922)

Book coverBy all accounts, Louisa Lawson was quite a force. A poet, writer and publisher, as well as a suffragist and feminist, she was fully engaged in the country’s literary and political life, but is most remembered now for the latter, particularly her feminist causes.

Louisa’s relationship with her poet-short story writer son, Henry, was fraught. However, together they edited the radical pro-federation newspaper The Republican, and, later she published his poems and stories in her own newspaper, The Dawn. She used this press to publish his first book, Short stories in prose and verse. It is Henry, then, who is most remembered for his writing. His most famous story is “The drover’s wife”, which many Aussies do (or did) at school, and his best-known collection is While the billy boils. Lawson is probably still Australia’s best known short story writer.

Bill (The Australian Legend) quotes Bertha, Henry Lawson’s wife, as saying

“If there is anything in heredity, Harry’s literary talents undoubtedly came from his mother …”

Ruth Park (1917-2010), D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967), and Deborah (b. 1950) and Kilmeny Niland (1950-2009)

Novelists (and writers of all forms) Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland created quite a literary family, with two of their five children, twin daughters Deborah and Kilmeny, becoming successful children’s book writers and (primarily) illustrators. I have written about Ruth Park before, and need to review Niland on my blog, but when I was the mother of young children, I became very aware of Deborah and Kilmeny who collaborated on thirteen children’s books. Their best known book is an illustrated version of Banjo Paterson’s poem, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. First published in 1973, it has never been out of print. Unfortunately, Kilmeny died in 2009.

Olga (1919-1986) and Chris  (b. 1948) Masters

Book coverBoth Olga and her son Chris Masters were journralists. Chris still is. Olga commenced work as a journalist when she was only 15 years old, but through her relatively short career, she also wrote novels, short stories and drama. Her career as a published writer of fiction was very brief, with The home girls short story collection being published in 1982 and Loving daughters, her wonderful first novel, published in 1984. It is Australian literature’s loss that she died just as her fiction career was taking off.

Son Chris is, primarily, a journalist, but he is at the top of his profession with multiple Walkley Awards to his name, and his controversial biography of a controversial radio personality, Jonestown: The power and the myth of Alan Jones, won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. I wonder if he’s ever thought of writing a novel?

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002), Merv Lilley (1919-2016), Kate (b. 1960) and Rozanna Lilley (b. 1960)

Multi-awarded poet, novelist and playwright Hewett led a colourful and controversial life – some of which has come out posthumously in poet daughter Kate’s collection Tilt and daughter Rozanna’s memoir, Do oysters get bored? I don’t really want to explore that here because it’s a whole other subject, but you can read a little about it on the ABC and in my post on a Canberra Writers Festival conversation with Rozanna.

Meanwhile, and regardless, they do comprise another dynasty of writers, with, between them, a significant oeuvre.

Ann Deveson (1930-2016) and Georgia Blain (1964-2016)

Ann Deveson was well-known to Australians of my generation, because of her high profile as a social commentator and filmmaker, not to mention her role as the “Omo” lady in a famous serious of television commercials for Omo laundry detergent! She was, you’d have to say, versatile, also having been chair of the South Australian Film Corporation and Executive Director of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Her most famous book is, probably, her memoir-biography about her son’s schizophrenia, Tell me I’m here.

Deveson’s daughter, Georgia Blain, was also a writer, but, unlike her mother she had a substantial body of fiction to her name, as well as non-fiction. Blain won or was short or longlisted for many of Australia’s literary awards, with her most successful novel being her 8th and last, Between a wolf and a dog. Deveson and Blain tragically died within days of each other, which I wrote about at the time.

Thomas (b. 1935) and Meg Keneally (b. ca 1967)

Book coverMulti-award-winning author Thomas (Tom) Keneally has published over 40 novels, from his 1964 debut novel, The place at Whitton, to his most recent 2020 novel, The Dickens boy. He is best known for his Booker prize-winning novel, Schindler’s ark, which was adapted to the Academy Award winning film, Schindler’s list.

Amongst his 40 or so novels are four in The Monsarrat Series, which he co-wrote with his daughter Meg. Meg has gone on to publish a novel on her own, Fled, with another due out this year. Both Tom and Meg write primarily historical fiction.

In a “Two of us” article in 2016 in The Sydney Morning Herald, Tom writes

Temperamentally I could see she was very like me. I think that’s why we’re able to work together now. I find it hard to batter out 1500 words of a new draft of a novel in a day, and I was always impressed by the speed and fluency with which she could write. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be good to get her out of the maw of the corporate world and turn her into something really self-destructive, like a novelist?”

Haha, love it!

There are other dynasties, most notably families of historians, but I’ll finish here and wait for your suggestions. 

Postscript: No, I haven’t forgotten those 10th anniversary literary requests. They will be done, but they require more time than I have now, hence this post that was already in the offing!

Louisa Atkinson, A voice from the country: January (Review)

Louisa Atkinson, as I wrote in a post a few years ago, was a pioneer Australian writer. She was a significant botanist, our first Australian-born woman novelist, and the first Australian woman to have a long-running column in a major newspaper. It was a natural history series titled A Voice from the Country which ran in The Sydney Morning Herald for 10 years from 1860. I’ve shared here a few natural history articles/essays written by Americans, such as John Muir, but never an Aussie one. That’s going to change here, now – for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I can, given the articles are findable through Trove, and secondly because the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge plans to focus this year, among other things, on classic Australian women writers. You can’t be a more classic Aussie writer than our Louisa!

But, which of Louisa Atkinson’s many columns should I do? I read a few and decided on one from her first year. In fact, I think it might have been the very first in the series. It’s titled “January”, which makes it particularly appropriate this month. Atkinson was living in Kurrajong, on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains, in “Fernhurst”, the house built by her mother.

Monaro region, in January

January in the Monaro, 2010s not 1860s

So, the piece is about what it says, January. She describes the birds and plants in particular that you see in January in her region. Here is the opening sentence:

A WARM drowsy month, without the opening promise of Spring or maturing riches of Autumn.

Beautiful don’t you think, and it perfectly catches the middle of the Australian summer, particularly when you read the next couple of sentences:

In dry seasons the grass is scorched and white, the dust flies along the road before the least puff of wind, much to the annoyance of the traveller. The observer of nature finds his field of observation limited, yet not altogether barren.

In other words, it is dry, more yellow I’d say than white, and there’s nothing much happening, nature-wise. “Much” though is the operative word, because it’s “not altogether barren”, as she goes on to show by describing, for example, the activity of various birds such as the “waterwagtail or dishwasher”, laughing jackasses, lowries. Now, here’s another reason I chose this piece – her language. There’s the obvious fact that Atkinson has an engaging way of writing about nature, but what I want to explore here is its unfamiliarity.

By this I mean unfamiliar expressions and names. Regarding the former, I often find in articles I locate through Trove, language that is more erudite than we see in today’s newspapers. It suggests a higher level of literacy in readers. Take, for example, Atkinson’s use of “ferruginous” to describe the colour of a fungus. We might find that word in a novel these days, but not, I expect, in a general interest newspaper column. Of course, it may also suggest that newspapers were geared more to the elite than to the general populace? I don’t know enough about newspaper history to say any more on this. Sometimes, it’s more that word usage has changed. For example, Atkinson writes that some young birds “essay flight”. We rarely see “essay” used in that sense these days. I love that reading these older articles can give us insight into other times beyond the subject matter of the writing.

The other unfamiliarity relates to her naming of things. I know what laughing jackasses and lowries are – kookaburras and crimson rosellas*, respectively – but these names aren’t commonly used now. However, I have no idea what a “waterwagtail or dishwasher” is. Is it the willie wagtail and nicknamed dishwasher because its tail swishing back and forth reminded people of a dish mop? So, I did a Google search, and found an article titled “21 Facts about Pied Wagtails” from UK’s Living with Birds website. Facts 6 and 7 are:

6. Few birds have as many country names as the pied wagtail. They range from Polly washdish and dishwasher to the more familiar Penny wagtail, Willy wagtail and water wagtail.

7. The origin of the washer names is a mystery, but it may be because women once washed clothes, as well as pot and pans, by a stream or village pump, the sort of place that pied wagtails also frequent.

So, not the action of their tail perhaps but the places they frequent? I’m not a bird expert, but my understanding is that this White or Pied Wagtail is a “vagrant” in Australia, and that what we call the willie wagtail is from a different family. Which one – if either of these – is Atkinson talking about? Regardless, my point is that reading past writing can trip us up when the writers described plants, animals or objects using terms or names we don’t use now. We have to be careful – particularly those of us not expert in subjects – about drawing wrong conclusions from our reading.

POSTSCRIPT, 31 Jan 2017: Pam (Travellin’ Penguin) checked out “dishwasher” through her bird contacts, and was pointed to the book Austral English, which says that it’s “an old English bird-name for the Water-wagtail; applied in Australia to the Seisura inquieta … the Restless Flycatcher”. It quotes from the 1827 Transactions of the Linnæan Society, that the bird “is very curious in its actions. In alighting on the stump of a tree, it makes several semi-circular motions, spreading out its tail …”.

Crimson Rosellas

Crimson Rosellas by Kevin Tostado, using CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enough of that, though. Let’s get back to Atkinson and her description of the lowries (i.e. crimson rosellas).  They are common to my garden – and her writing captures them perfectly:

A flock of lowries, young and old, frequent the fields, whence the oaten hay was gathered, nor confine their depredations there, assisting themselves liberally to the ripening peas and beans, which the gardener intended for seed, and even pursuing these favourite morsels into a verandah where they are spread to dry. The flock presents a brilliant appearance ; the full plumaged birds are vivid crimson, blue, partially pied with black, whilst the nestlings are variegated with green.

And now to conclude I’m going to jump five years to a report in the The Sydney Morning Herald in January 1865 of a meeting of the Horticultural Society of Sydney. It reports on various attendees bringing all sorts of plant specimens to the meeting, most of them exotic, and then, towards the end, there’s this:

Miss Atkinson, of the Kurrajong, sent a jar of jam, of the Lisanthe sapida, with the following remarks –

“LISANTHE SAPIDA – A small shrub of the Epacris family, bearing a crimson fruit, enveloping a single stone; good bearer, crop lasts about two months or more, coming in in November. To make jelly—boil the drupes, adding a few spoonfuls of water; when soft strain the juice off, add one pound white sugar to a pint, and boil to jelly. The fruit makes a pleasant tart—the Lisanthe Sapida grows in poor sandstone ranges. If any member of the societv would like to cultivate the shrub, and cannot procure the fruits in their locality, it is to be met with in the Kurrajong.”

A vote of thanks was given to the exhibitors, and more especially to Miss Atkinson, who it was remarked had made herself most remarkable for her endeavours to bring colonial productions into notice.

The lisanthe (or lissanthe) sapida, aka native cranberry, is, as you might have guessed, a plant native to Australia. Lovely to see recognition, by her peers, of a woman, and one who clearly loved and promoted the natural environment in which she lived.

* Mountain lowry is an alternative name for the Crimson rosella but is not, I believe, the most common one, particularly in New South Wales, but readers can correct me if I’m wrong.

aww2017-badgeLouisa Atkinson
“A voice in the country: January”
in: The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1860
Available: Online

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s pioneer novelists

David Unaipon

David Unaipon (1924) (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

One of the reasons I started this Monday Musings series was to encourage me to read, think and/or learn about my country’s literature, but in doing so I mostly write about books and authors I know and have read. Occasionally though I explore authors and works that are not so familiar to me. Today’s post is one of these.

A few months ago I wrote posts on two books on Australian literature written by Colin Roderick in the late 1940s. As I researched these posts, I came across a reviewer who wondered how many Australians knew about “the first Australian-made novel”. The unidentified reviewer was writing in The West Australian in 1950. I suspect the same question could be asked now … and so today’s post will name some of our novelistic firsts (as best I’ve been able to identify them) in case there are others like me whose knowledge of our history is a little vague.

  • First Australian-made novel: Quintus Servinton, by convict (forger) Henry Savery (1791-1842). It was published in Hobart in 1830. The West Australian reviewer writes that “apart from being the first novel written, printed and published in Australia, [it] has several other noteworthy features. It was the first novel to give a participator’s impressions of life on a prisoner’s transport”. In fact it is a fictionalisation of Savery’s life.  (An etext is available from the University of Sydney’s SETIS project).
  • First Australian-born novelist: John Lang (1816-64), who was apparently born at Parramatta. He went to Cambridge in 1838 where he become a barrister, and returned to Sydney in 1841, before leaving again a few years later to live in India and England. According to The Oxford companion to Australian literature, “the enigma surrounding the life and personality of John Lang has not, even a century later and in spite of considerable literary research, been completely solved”. It is, however, believed he wrote the fiction work, Legends of Australia, which was anonymously published in 1842. The Oxford companion suggests that authorship of this “would entitle Lang to the distinction of being the first Australian-born novelist”. There is a biography of Lang by Victor Crittenden. Its title says a lot: John Lang: Australia’s larrikin writer: barrister, novelist, journalist and gentleman. I was interested to read that he was also a contributor to Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words.
  • First Australian-born woman novelist to publish a novel in Australia: Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872), who was the subject of a previous Monday Musings. Her novel Gertrude, the emigrant girl: A tale of colonial life was published in 1857. (An etext is available from the University of Sydney’s SETIS project.) I should say that The Oxford companion (mentioned above) is a little less categorical about her place in Australia’s literary history, stating instead that she is “one of the earliest Australian novelists and the first native-born woman to fictionalise Australian domestic, pastoral and bush life”. Did, I wonder, another Australian-born woman fictionalise something else before Atkinson’s work?
  • First indigenous Australian writer to have a book published in Australia: David Unaipon (1872-1967), who was born at a mission in the Tailem Bend area of the Murray River. (His father was our first Aboriginal preacher.) Unaipon’s best-known work, Native Legends, was published in 1929. He wrote, apparently, in a classical style, much like Milton. I should say that Unaipon was not, technically, a novelist, but his pioneering role in Australian literature warrants his inclusion here, I think, particularly since the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writers is often awarded to a fiction writer.

I wonder if there are Australian (or other) readers of this blog who have read any of these authors or their works? And if you’re not Australian, what do you know about your country’s pioneer novelists?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Louisa Atkinson, and indigenous Australians

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872)

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) (Courtesy: Artist unknown, via Wikipedia)

Time for another Monday Musings highlighting an Australian literary pioneer, this time Louisa Atkinson. I came across Atkinson a few years ago when I was researching Australian women writers for Wikipedia. She’s one of those women who achieved much in her field but who, I believe, is little known. She was a journalist, novelist and naturalist. She was born in 1834, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, just a couple of hours’ drive from where I live.

There’s a good general biography of her online at the Australian Dictionary of Biography, but here is the gist:

  • She collected and painted plant specimens for well-known scientists of the time including Ferdinand von Mueller, and she is commemorated in the Atkinsonia genus as well as several plant species.
  • She was a rebel when it came to clothing. While, as is typical of her time, she was highly religious, she shocked the good women of her rural neighbourhood by wearing trousers for her naturalist ramblings and pony-riding.
  • She was a well-regarded botanical artist. Twentieth century Australian artist Margaret Preston described her drawings as having “unexpected elegance and extreme accuracy”.
  • She was the first Australian woman to have a long-running series of articles in a major newspaper. This was her natural history series, A Voice from the Country, which ran for 10 years from 1860.
  • AND she is credited as being the first Australian-born woman to publish a novel in Australia. It was titled Gertrude, the emigrant girl: A tale of colonial life (1857). This and her second novel, Cowanda: A veteran’s grant (1859), are available as etexts from the University of Sydney’s excellent SETIS project (to which I’ve linked the titles). Gertrude tells the story of a young immigrant girl hired to be a housekeeper in a country house by Mrs Doherty who, to give a sense of Atkinson’s style, is described in the first chapter as “a small woman, with a brown careworn countenance; the index of generous emotions, strong passions, and acute griefs, which had worn her straight features into sharp outlines, and given a restless keenness to her small dark eyes”.

I have only dipped into Atkinson’s novel, Gertrude, to get a sense of her writing so I won’t write any further on that. What is interesting to explore a little is her experience of indigenous Australians. Elizabeth Lawson in her book on Atkinson, The natural art of Louisa Atkinson, wrote that her father created a model farm, but

Oldbury’s promise was clouded by its exploitation of the convict system and by its dispossession of the local Gandangara people, a dispossession the family at least recognised. And just above the house on a natural terrace of the mountain rose a great Aboriginal grave-mound with carved funeral trees which Louisa was later to sketch. This mound and its increasing desolation stood in silent rebuke of Oldbury’s enterprise, of its new English place-names and all they signified.

Nonetheless, Lawson writes that Atkinson befriended, and retained life-long friendships with Aboriginal people both at Oldbury and in the Shoalhaven area where she spent some time. That she had sympathy for them is clear from one of her columns for A Voice from the Country (22 Sept 1863) in which she wrote:

These unhappy races have become rather a tradition, than a reality, already in many districts …

She describes their lives, their homes, their hunting with a naturalist’s, and sympathetic, eye:

On one occasion, when the remnants of three different friendly tribes had assembled for a grand corroboree or dance, I made plan of the encampment; each tribe was slightly apart trom the other, divided by a sort of street. Thus, the inviters (?) were clustered in the centre, having, I think, seventeen camps; the Picton tribe on the right hand, five camps, and the Shoalhaven on the left, comprising ten or eleven gunyahs, consecutively forming a village.

She also writes:

The men were severe to their wives, striking and even killing them – when under the influence of anger, but I believe these cases were far less frequent when they had not lost virtues and acquired vices from the so-called Christian people who invaded them.

Interesting, and sensitive, observation. She talks of the problem of drinking:

Intemperance is one of the vices so sadly prevalent among them, they know what its fatal results are, lament them, but have not courage to resist. How frequent is the paragraph in the country paper of an aborigine’s death from this cause, how many have sunk unrecorded. A great sin lies on us as a people, for much has been done to injure, and little to benefit the poor original possessors of our farms and runs.

And thus she confirms that thinking about indigenous Australians with a humane and clear-eye did not pop up suddenly in the mid to late 20th century!

Louisa Atkinson tragically died not long after (but not due to) the birth of her first child, when she was only 38. What a lot she achieved in a rather short life – and what an interesting person she would have been to know.