Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 2, The Platypus Series

My first post in my Monday Musings 1923 series featured an update on the 1880-established NSW Bookstall Company, which, you may remember, focused on supporting Australia’s writers and readers by publishing Australian books and selling them for just one shilling each. In 1923, another publishing initiative appeared on the scene, Angus and Robertson’s Platypus Series.

This series, though, is a little more complicated. In 1923, as far as I can gather, the books were published by Angus and Robertson under their own imprint. Then, from 1924 to 1929, some, though maybe not all, were published under a different Angus and Robertson imprint, Cornstalk Publishing, before returning to Angus and Robertson in 1930. Through all this, however, it remained the Platypus Series.

So now, let’s get to 1923, to November in fact, when newspapers started reporting on receiving the first 8 books in a new series of books from Angus and Robertson. They all reported that seven of the books were classics, with the eighth, J.H.M. Abbott’s historical novel, Sydney Cove, being new fiction. The books, at half-a-crown (2/6), were more expensive than Bookstall’s 1 shilling.

The articles made some other interesting points, prime of which concerned the economics and profitability of publishing. Western Australia’s The Beverley Times, put it particularly clearly:

The publishers suggest that they [the books] could not have been turned out in Australia had not Henry Ford’s methods been applied to their manufacture by a Sydney firm of printers and binders. “More power to the elbow” for the venture has kept thousands of pounds worth of work in “this country,” and good Australian books which have perforce gone out of print have been made available with more to follow. 

Most articles reported on the “mass production” used to produce the books, though only some referenced Henry Ford. Some quantified the amount as £10,000.

Many of the articles, like those writing about the NSW Bookstall Company, commended Angus and Robertson for, as Sydney’s The Sun wrote, “catering for the local market by encouraging the local author”. Some added their own flavour to their description of the series. Victoria’s The Ballarat Star, which described Angus and Robertson as “one of the firms that believes in Australian literature for Australians”, provided its own perspective on the state of Australian literature:

We are, as a nation, rearing our own literary atmosphere. It is not a hasty progress, but it is in sound lines, and when a firm of the standing of Angus and Robertson, of Sydney, can find that it pays to keep Australia to the front in the matter of the “making of books,” well, there is encouragement for the authors also.

And I did love The Sydney Stock and Station Journal‘s little admonition to readers, that there are “other volumes in preparation — sixteen promised by next February, so you can’t growl about the high cost of good reading any more”. But, it’s The Sydney Morning Herald which provided the most information about the Series’ overall plans. It advised that “at least 84 volumes are contemplated”, across several categories – “For Boys and Girls,” “Fiction,” Poetry,” and “Miscellaneous” – and concluded that from what they knew “it is clear that anyone who purchases the series will acquire much of the most characteristic literature that Australia has produced”.

Platypus Series books, 1923

The first eight books in the series were published in 1923:

  • J. H. M. Abbott, Sydney Cove
  • Henry Lawson, Joe Wilson 
  • Henry Lawson, Joe Wilson’s mates
  • Amy Eleanor Mack, Bushland stories, stories for children
  • Amy Eleanor Mack, Scribbling bus
  • Louise Mack, Teens: a story of Australian school girls  
  • Louis Mack, Girls together (a sequel to Teens
  • Ethel C. Pedley, Dot and the kangaroo

Most of the articles discussed the books, but tended to say the same things – whether due to syndication or publisher’s press release, I’m not sure. One of the repeated comments was that the set included “five of the best School Library and Prize books ever written”. That’s a big call. “Ever written” in the world? In Australia? And which were the five? None make it clear. But it sounds good.

While many of the articles gave a little extra information about the new book, Abbott’s Sydney Cove, The Ballarat Star, cited above, wrote more than most on the other books, saying that the two Henry Lawson’s were ‘fine specimens of what the London “Academy” well termed the “artless art” of Henry Lawson’. It also praises Louise Mack’s two books – both for their writing and for being Australian:

She makes the Australian school girl really live, and in her two books — Teens and Girls together which is a sequel— any Australian children will revel because it is their own atmosphere free from artificiality, and redolent of the Australian school life, which is so different from that of England or America. One of these days outsiders who try to write school stories of Australia will have to go to Miss Mack and Ethel Turner, and Ethel Pedley and Amy Mack, and many others of our Australian girl writers for Australian atmosphere.

I love the idea that “outsiders” might want to write Australian school stories, but, regardless, this is lovely praise. It then describes Louise’s sister Amy’s books as “two daintily written kiddie stories, written evidently from the sheer joy of writing”, and says that ‘one of the brightest little things in the Bushland stories is the “Bird’s Alphabet.” It is a lesson inside a story for the author had to drag in the scientific name for the familiar silvereye (“Zosterops”), to complete the Alphabet”. And, it commends Pedley’s Dot and the kangaroo as having a “flavor” of Lewis Carroll, and being “a delicious story of the Australian bush inhabitants and their quaint and wonderful ways”.

Finally, while several articles commented on the value of publishing Australian authors for Australians, Sydney’s The World News made this very clear when it praised the initiative “for everyone knows it is far less risky to sell British and American books, and much more profitable, than publishing works by Australian authors”. That said, it was apparently in the Platypus Series (in 1924) that Anne Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables made her first appearance in Australia! Just saying.

Photo credit: From Rolf Boldrewood’s A Sydney-Side Saxon 1925 (via Abe Books)

Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update)