Reprint: Classic Authors: Mrs Aeneas Gunn


Manuscripts For National Library

The standing of Mrs. Aeneas Gunn as one of the classic authors of Australian literature gives a special interest to her recent presentation to the National Library at Canberra of the original manuscripts of her two books, "The Little Black Princess'" and ''We of the Never Never."

In addition, Mrs. Gunn has presented some short notes on the history of these books, which will be of great interest to students of Australian literature. "The Little Black Princess," her first book, had many vicissitudes, so that at one time its author feared it had become "a little white elephant."          

Written as an experiment preliminary to the larger work on her outback experiences, the story was submitted to a Melbourne publisher and shown by him to Professor Baldwin Spencer. Through him, it was sent to a firm in London, who agreed to publish it at "half profits to the author." Though 4,000 copies were printed and sold, there were still "no profits."

Finally, with the aid of the Incorporated Society of Authors, Mrs. Gunn recovered "all rights" in her book, together with the stereotype plates, negatives and manuscript, and a bill for £15 for her share of "losses incurred."

In the following year, the book was re-pubiished by Hodder and Stoughton, but by 1921, having issued some 6,000 copies, they considered that the market had reached saturation point. So once again the, author found herself with "all rights" and a huge case, of stereotype plates, etc., with £32 customs duties to pay!

Finally the publication was taken over by Messrs. Robertson and Mullens, of Melbourne, and to-day it has sold 114,000, and is still in steady demand.

The early history of "We of the Never Never" was hardly less eventful, though by then Mrs. Gunn was able to some extent to profit by her previous experience. London publishers found it "too local for general interest," and it was rejected in quick succession by five publishers (including the Religions Tract Society) before being "placed" with Hutchinson and Co.

Once published, with a short interruption when the type was commandeered to be melted down for use as ammunition during the war, the book has sold well, and the English editions now total 150,000 copies. In 1927, Robertson and Mullens brought out an abridged edition for schools, and this has now passed its 50th thousand.

Such is the story of the manuscripts, heavy with the dust of publishers' offices, which have now found a permanent home in the National Library.

Mrs.Gunn has added to this gift a biographical record of the characters of "We of the Never Never," bringing their lives down to the present time, and a very interesting collection of original letters by and relating to them.

In view of the close association of Messrs. Robertson and Mullens with the publication of Mrs. Gunn's books, it is interesting and appropriate that the idea to preserve these historical manuscripts in the National Library originated with Captain C. H. Peters, the manager of that firm. He has also given invaluable help in selecting and gathering the material and having it despatched to Canberra.    

First published in The Canberra Times, 28 July 1937

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

Notes: The Little Black Princess was first published in 1905, We of the Never Never was first published in 1908.

I especially like the note here that the printing plates had "to be melted down for use as ammunition during the war".


I loved those books to bits when I was a kid, though I think they would be critically torn apart these days. The stuff about the publishers is really interesting -- Brit publishers of this era seemed to specialise in cheating Australian women writers out of every penny they owed them. There is a very lively set of letters somewhere (the Mitchell Library?) from Ethel Turner of Seven Little Australians fame to her publishers Ward Lock in London, written around the turn of the century, demanding that she be fairly treated and properly paid. I can't remember who won.

I've just done a quick search through the newspapers in the NLA digitisation program and can't find any mention of this correspondence - which probably only means that the papers didn't know about it or weren't interested. I find little in the papers about women writers at all.

I have something else about Ms Gunn next week.

Re Kerryn's comments: yes, interesting point to bring up now, when Australian writers are once again fighting to hold onto their hard-won rights to be paid as Australian writers, with the privilege of being able to sell their work, separately, to Australian publishers, to British publishers, to US publishers etc.

If the Parallel Import Restrictions are lifted, we will be back to the days of English colonial ca change...sigh...

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 6, 2009 9:02 AM.

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