Reprint: A Literary Pioneer

"The first Australian-born novelist of any importance" is the description by Mr. H. M. Green in his "Outline of Australian Literature" of Mrs. Rosa Caroline Mackworth Praed, whose death, at the age of 84 years, has just been announced from London. So passes one of our literary pioneers, and it is fitting that tribute be paid to her memory. Last week his Excellency the Governor, in opening the Australian Authors' Week, declared that the story of Australia's early days and the endeavours of her stout-hearted pioneers afforded a wonderful theme for romance, and it was the life of the seventies and eighties of last century that Mrs. Campbell Praed, as she was generally known, pictured so convincingly. In the same speech the Gover- nor also stated that "a nation, through its literature, becomes self-conscious, realises itself, and finds its soul. The achievements of its authors help to establish it in civilisation, to give it a status, and to command the respect of other nations." Should we therefore not be zealous in remembrance of those literary pioneers who helped to express the spirit of the country through their works, who have built up our literature just as the other pioneers have built up our material civilisation? The authoress who writes a good novel is doing as much for Australia as the settler who raises sheep. In the end, a first-class sonnet is more valuable than the finest merino fleece. In Europe, of course, these truths are recognised, and in France, for instance, the highest honours are paid to writers. The standing of an author is higher than that of the professional or business man. In Australia our scale of values has not yet reached that point of sophistication. Our literary pioneers are neglected. How many to-day, for example, have read "Such is Life" or even know the name of Joseph Furphy? Louis Stone's "Jonah" remained out of print for years until recently republished.

So, too, the name of Mrs. Campbell Praed is probably unfamiliar to this generation. Yet in 1892 Phillip Mennel, in his "Dictionary of National Biography," wrote: "Mrs. Campbell Praed is generally recognised as the most brilliant and successful of Australian novelists. Her descriptions of the scenery of her native land are unsurpassed." Some forty years later, that judgment must be revised; but the work of the Queensland authoress still stands high in our literature. She was not the first woman novelist here. Catherine Spence had written her novels in the fifties, and Ada Cambridge's "Up the Murray" was published in 1877, three years before Chapman and Hall, through the good offices of their reader, one George Meredith, published Mrs. Praed's "An Australian Heroine," which went into edition after edition and made the youthful Australian authoress famous in London. But the first two women novelists were Scotch and English respectively, and their work was not as Australian in spirit as hers. Rosa Caroline Murray Prior was bom in Queensland, and put into her work her experience of social and political life in Brisbane and of the life on the station on Curtis Island, off the Queensland coast, where she lived with her husband, a nephew of the same poet, W. M. Praed, who won the Chancellor's Medal at Cambridge against William Charles Wentworth, who wrote his well-known "Australasia, An Ode" for the occasion.

In London Mrs. Praed wrote some thirty novels, on both Australian and English themes, but it is interesting to note that the Australian ones are the best. Her pictures of the Queensland scene are drawn with truth and spirit, whilst she depicts with touches of humour as well as feeling and understanding the characters of the girls and women of the time, especially those on the stations who in their leisure read romances and dreamed of a wider world beyond the boundary fence. It is interesting to note here that in Australia, as overseas, women writers have excelled in fiction right from our early days. "The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney" is our best Australian novel, and our two finest novelists are "Henry Handel Richardson" and Katherine Susannah Prichard, whilst other women novelists include Brent of Bin Bin, Miles Franklin, M. Barnard Eldershaw, Ethel Turner, and Winifred Birkett. Although not of the same rank as Mrs. Campbell Praed, another Queensland authoress has recently passed in Mrs. Mabel Forrest, who wrote romances and short stories as well as the verse for which she is best known in this State. It is a prophetic coincidence that the last verse of Mrs. Forrest, which was published in the "Herald" only last September, was entitled "Life," and closed with the lines:

Fulness of life I ask, and then

A long, long sleep at last when I am dead,

Yet to the dead writers the living pay their tribute of remembrance, as they look back and watch Australian literature growing in richness and strength.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 1935

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

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 9, 2010 6:32 AM.

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