Reprint: We Really Like Common-Place People by Jean Campbell


Favourite Characters Are Those Most Easily Recognised; Are There Any in Australian Stories?

When Mr. H. G. Wells was in Melbourne one of his admirers was the Prime Minister (then Attorney-General), Mr. R. G. Menzies. In the course of his speech at the Melbourne P.E.N. Club dinner he said in effect:-

"However great Mr. Wells's later works may be; however fascinating his excursions into the future, in my opinion it is by such immortal characters as Kipps and Mr. Polly that his name will live. I consider that the essence of the novelist's art is in the creation of recognisable characters, and I feel convinced that in, say, 200 years' time Kipps and Mr. Polly will still be recognised on the streets."

Mr. Menzies might have added the names of little Bealby, of lovable Uncle Ponderevo, of young Mr. Lewisham. They, too, are living flesh and blood wrought by Wellsian magic, yet reborn every day everywhere and walking the streets by the thousand in this very city -recognisable by you and me. Quite likely, you are Kipps or possibly Mr. Britling; quite likely I am Bealby.

That, too, was the secret of Dickens's enormous popularity, the popularity which, despite the flippant superiority of certain so-called "bright young people" and the eyebrow raising of that somewhat unreal tribe known as "high- brows" still exists. Mr. Micawber, Pickwick, Aunt Betsy, Peggotty, Mrs. Gummidge, Mr. Jingle -- all of them owed their appeal not to their oddities that made them different from other people but to those many qualities which made them just ordinary men and women. They possessed -- no, let us speak in the present -- they possess "the common touch."

But what about Australian fiction? Have any of our novelists so far created characters whom, once you have closed the book, you are likely to meet at any time strolling down the street, behind a grocer's counter, driving a lorry, hitting the keys of a typewriter in some small office? Of course our novelists have created grocers' assistants, lorry drivers, typists, and representatives of many other callings, noble and ignoble. The point is: has their delineation been sufficiently masterly to enable their men and women to stand alone without the support of the covers of a book? Have they "the common touch"?

There is only one test, and that is the acid one: whether or not the bulk of the reading public -- and by "reading public" I do not mean your scholar who reads Xenophon for pleasure, nor yet that inverted literary snob who boasts that he never looks at anything but an Edgar Wallace, but, again to use an Americanism, "just folks" -- whether or not the latter is familiar with the character, could say in the course of everyday conversation: "Isn't Jim just like dear old So-and-so in So-and-so's book!" And the person spoken to will immediately know dear old So-and-so and see the likeness instantly. Unless this has come to pass Australia has not yet given birth to the novelist who is endowed with the Wellsian -- or Dickensian-magic of character making.

Do not cite "Dad and Dave"; do not cite "The Sentimental Bloke." The former have escaped beyond the orbit of this discussion -- they have become national institutions like the koala, the Sydney Harbour bridge, and Captain Cook's cottage; while "The Bloke" forfeited the right to inclusion by being fashioned in a "pome" instead, of in a novel in the orthodox way.

Someone might possibly cite Richard Mahony, and with certain justification, because Henry Handel Richardson, beyond all argument our greatest novelist, has given us such an amazingly complete picture and penetrating analysis of the tragic Richard. Here, surely, you might say, is a character that can walk alone.

Exactly. And that is why Richard Mahony will never be recognisable by the people among the people -- he walks alone. In Mahony the author drew an individual whose tragedy lay in the very fact that he lacked what all those others , whom we mentioned earlier abundantly possessed: "the common touch"; and Henry Handel Richardson's art, soul searing though it is, is not, and possibly never will be, for any but the comparative few. She is not the novelist "of the people."

And what of our Katharine Pritchards, our Xavier Herberts, our M. Barnard Eldershaws, our Brian Pentons?

They have without doubt done literature in this country tremendous service. They have by their books made it known at home and abroad. But -- has one of their characters escaped from the printed page into the hearts of readers, into the crowds that travel to and from business every day, so that at any time you might pause and think: "I know that chap, don't I?" and then laugh to yourself, remembering that of course you were thinking of an Australian-born Kipps or Mr. Polly?

Or is it that an Australian Wells -- or Dickens -- has himself yet to be born?

First published in The Argus, 1 July 1939

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Note: it's always "he" isn't it?


Lots of Henry Handel Richardson's characters are very real. Like Laura Rambotham and her friends, as well as Richard Mahoney (what about the daughter, Cuffy?) and Maurice Guest.

Also Paul Jennings' characters are recognisable.

And the people from the Slap.

Pre-1939, Judy from Seven Little Australians. I see the habit of ignoring children's books in such discussions is as old as gender bias!

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on October 23, 2009 8:50 AM.

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