Reprint: The Novel in Australia by Nettie Palmer

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Let it be granted from the outset that the number of good novels written in Australia has been small There are causes for this, mostly discreditable though not all discreditable to the same people; there is no time to discuss these causes now. What I wish to demonstrate is that if we reduce our list of good Australian books to a minimum leaving only the best what we reach is a nugget of surprisingly high quality.

Some Early Nuggets  

The novel in Australia has proceeded not in an even jog, but perhaps more suitably by a series of kangaroo hops. Taking "Geoffrey Hamlyn," Henry Kingsley's book, written with a very colonial outlook, but genuine for the period as the first of our novels, we can take with much more enthusiasm, "Robbery Under Arms," by Rolf Boldrewood, as our second. It is hard to say whether this remarkable book has received more good or harm from its title. Certainly this title has won it very many readers, who will not have felt cheated of what it made them expect for it is a rattling good story. Other possible readers, though, who would be interested and delighted by a genuine pastoral about early days in New South Wales, would never guess what pockets of quiet beauty lay in a book with such a truculent title. It is one of those rare books that can please on several different counts -- as an adventure story, as a sketched historical background, and as a sound psychological novel.  Here and there the moralising becomes a little too heavy for the tale to carry but most of it is caught up naturally in the even flow of the narrative, which is in fine and enexaggerated vernacular, without dropped aitches or other irritating apostrophes to spot its pages. Every one wants to have "Robbery Under Arms" in the house, and the only hindrance to this is that it is always being borrowed by people of all ages. It is a pity that for so long it has been published only in a paper-covered edition, and with small print, and misprints into the bargain. Boldrewood wrote a good many books afterwards but he is chiefly thanked and remembered for that one. When I think of good novels in Australia I like to think that most of them are not far from the line of development that would be suggested by reading "Robbery Under Arms."    

Some Successors

It was a long time before the simplicity and naturalness of that book was again reached. Boldrewood's own later books were affected by his consciousness that they were written for overseas publishers and public. Marcus Clarke's "The Term of His Natural Life," with all its glamorous power, was a "made" book. Then came Mrs. Campbell Praed, in the 'nineties, with her easy-flowing books now almost forgotten. Some of them, like "Longleat of Koralbyn," are set in Queensland, but the locale is only suggested by occasional dust and heat, and the writer shirks the whole problem of making her Queensland live in the readers' sight. The books might be set some Ruritania, a lively enough place, only non-existent.  

Meanwhile, Australia was developing few novelists, but a great many short story writers, of whom it is enough to name Louis Becke, Price Warung, Henry Lawson, and Albert Dorrington. For many years it has seemed that only short stories would ever be published again (and those only in fugitive form): any novels that appear have had every sort of circumstantial opposition to ovecome.

Novels After 1900

Past this opposition pushed Miles Franklin, with her one striking book, written about the age of 20, "My Brilliant Career.'' This bit of ironic autobiography, set in an up-country township of the drearier sort, was expected to lead to more, but Miles Franklin's actual career took her away from fiction to the offices of a Women's Labour Bureau, in Chicago. Perhaps some day she will be able to repeat her early success, looking through the opposite end of life's telescope. Her novel appeared about 1900, and soon after came Randolph Bedford's two novels, "True Eyes and the Whirlwind," and ''The Snare of Strength." The first is a novel of the picaresque type, a useful kind for expressing the nomadic youth spent by many Australians before they find their life work. It includes vivid glimpses of Broken Hill in the early days, a place something like the present Mt. Isa. "The Snare of Strength" passed from Parliament House, Melbourne, to a dairy-farming district, and to mining in North Queensland. Bedford's work is never without a fine gusto. A nearly forgotten novel, yet one that had a strong, if acrid, life of its own, was Barbara Baynton's "Human Toll," full of bush tragedy. As if to show that our life is full of varied aspects, came Louis Stone's "Jonah," a Sydney story of young larrikins, done with sincerity. Out-of-print, out-of-print that is what one has to lament about all these books! Many novels deserve to die in their year of birth, but what of those that have permanent quality? We can only beg for new editions.

A Novelist Abroad

So far the books mentioned have been written in Australia. Perhaps the best known novel written while its author was abroad is "Maurice Guest," by Henry Handel Richardson. Few readers would know that the author of that brilliant story of music-student life in the Leipzig of the 'nineties was Australian, but her subsequent books leave no doubt on the matter. "Maurice Guest," published in 1909, was revised in a fourth edition in 1922. Meanwhile, a great Australian trilogy had begun to appear, "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony," the author having revisited Australia about 1912 to verify impressions. The fortunes, at first very meagre, were laid first in the early mining days on Ballarat; the Eureka episode lightens on the skyline. Melbourne develops into "marvellous Melbourne." The decade of the 'seventies is passed, in the second volume, among the hurried opulence of newly-rich Melbourne. The third volume, not yet published, will carry on the dates and little further. The writer's knowledge of the period-costumes, food, and customs is immense but the "Fortunes" is never a mere costume novel: there is character all through. All Henry Handel Richardson's novels, even those whose setting is wholly Australian, are better known in Europe than here, and are discussed at length in German and Scandinavian literary encyclopaedias and reviews, In America too, they have received deep attention. Victoria is fortunate to have found such a chronicler, more fortunate than it knows as yet. Brisbane of the early days still awaits some such interpretation. Some future novelist will, perhaps, base his story on the splendid material in "Tom Petrie's Reminiscences."  

Contemporary Novels

Meanwhile, the thin but invigorating stream of novels by writers who have lived continuously in the country they describe has gone on. The books of Katherine Susannah Prichard, appearing at pretty wide intervals are the fruit of an intense devotion to her subject matter. Her gifts are mainly two: first, that of brilliant impressionism, then a rare power of writing group-scenes. One thinks of the opal miners in her second book, "Black Opal," standing about chaffing one another and discussing the universe, every man of them alive. Or, in her latest book, "Working Bullocks," there are the groups of timber-getters camped by the road for a smoke-oh, or the unforgettable, hot, timeless Sunday evenings   spent by a big bush family and its visitors on a veranda beside some trees of ripe loquats. Such scenes are too difficult for most novelists, who shirk them: yet they enrich a book immensely, and the reader feels that our everyday life is full of unsuspected charm. So far, Katharine Prichard's novels have been each set in a different spot of Australia -- the tall timber of South-east Victoria, the opal fields in Western New South Wales, and the sawmilling country in the south of Western Australia. It is said that her next locale will be the northern inland of Western Australia, a place very wild, very remote, and yet, seen from within, quite a complex commonwealth. (Reading over this list of regions I can only feel how wretchedly inconvenient our Australian names are: a mere mention of latitude and longitude! Are we too big to think about? It will take many years for many of our names to become easy and vivid.)  

There is little space left for some recent Queensland books. People will at least have a chance to see and hear of these during the next week's exhibition. Zora Cross' "Daughters of the Seven Mile" has lately been followed by a ''Sons of the Seven Mile," which is now available in book form. Such books put on record the changing years of a South Queensland district. The four novels of M. Forrest have that special quality which readers of her verse would expect -- a power of painting in words the rich details of Queensland's unexplored landscapes. A type of West Queensland station life that is rapidly passing away has been given in a simple and devoted picture by the author of "Cronulla," which appeared three years ago.

To me the most satisfactory definition of a good novel seems "the revelation of character through narrative," but the character need not be only human. There is also the character of a country. Every good novel perforce breaks up new ground -- the author is giving part of himself away, revealing his personal vision of "men, coming and going on the earth." As Mr. Randolph Bedford pointed out lately in a brilliant bit of satire, the average publisher likes words written to a formula, to please a public which dislikes anything new. "It loves to read some old friend it recognises, so that it can say, 'How original it must be, because I know it so well.' "

The really creative books I have mentioned have had another and a more genuine kind of originality. In making Australian life and character their theme they have had to overcome so many incidental difficulties that their impetus has had to be genuine and self-sustained all through, or it would have collapsed. Some day, when a novel about life in Indooroopilly seems as natural as one about Piccadilly, we shall thank those who turned the first sods so fruitfully.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927

[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 December 16, 2011 6:49 AM.

Great Australian Authors #56 - Ruth M. Bedford was the previous entry in this blog.

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