Recently in A Classic Year Category

A Classic Year: 17.0 Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd

lbrayf_small.jpg Lucinda Brayford
Martin Boyd

I have to admit from the outset I'm struggling with this book. It didn't help that at the time I was due to start it - a month or so back - I was deep in the throes of preparing, and then travelling, to the US and back. I kept finding excuses to read something else, the D.M. Cornish novel was just so damn good, and I was more than a bit knackered by the whole travel experience. But I did start the book a while back, and if starting was hard enough, then continuing to plough my way through its 546 pages is going to be a real trial.

Take the first part of the novel as an example: in the first chapter we are introduced to William Vane in Clare College, Cambridge, in the middle of the nineteenth century. He and some mates are getting a skinful in his rooms when someone decides it would be a great idea to drag Audrey Chapman, an undergraduate aiming to take Holy Orders, out of his rooms below Vane's and to toss him into the river. The upshot of all this is Chapman's near-death from pneumonia, Vane having to pay for his medical expenses which nearly bankrupts him, Vane being caught cheating at cards in an attempt to obtain some money to pay his bills, and Vane being sent down. His father doesn't want to know about him so he is packed off to Australia to make his fortune. Chapman's illness doesn't improve so he is also sent out to Victoria. Both men marry and have children. One son and one daughter from each family meet up and finally marry. Immediately after the marriage Vane decides to return to England, but falls overboard on the voyage and is lost at sea. Some thirty years has elapsed from first scene to last, and we have only moved on six (6!!) pages. The first character we meet on page one is now dead and this isn't a murder mystery. And we're still a generation away from the eponymous character, Lucinda, being born.

Needless to say, the prose is rather declamatory. Trying to squeeze all that into such a short space leaves little room for any style. It's purely scene-setting for later in the novel, and it's real hard going. A lot of writing courses will tell you that knowing when to start a novel will get you a fair way towards engaging the reader in a story they want to read. Boyd, and this novel, would have been better served in scrapping the first chapter entirely. At least Lucinda is born at the end of the second chapter. Which is its saving grace.

Martin Boyd Wikipedia page

The next four works:
18. A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey (1981)
19. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)
20. "Five Bells" by Kenneth Slessor (1939)
21. Capricornia by Xavier Herbert (1938)

A Classic Year: 16.0 10 for 66 And All That by Arthur Mailey

10_for_66.jpg 10 for 66 And All That
Arthur Mailey

This would have to be the hardest book to find in this list of Australian classics. My local library didn't have a copy; none of five or six second-hand bookshops had it in stock; and according to Austlit the book hasn't been reprinted since its initial publication in 1958. I was left with having to read it over a series of lunchtimes in the Victorian State Library. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, it's just that I have this hoarder's mentality which pushes me towards possessing my own copy whenever possible. In any event, it was an entertaining read, though you would need to be a cricket fan to get a lot out of it.

Arthur Mailey was born on January 3 1886 and played Test cricket for Australia between the years 1920 to 1926. He was a legbreak googly bowler who took 99 wickets at an average of 33.91, in 21 Tests. The title of his autobiography is explained by the Cricinfo website: "His most noteworthy achievement outside Tests was the taking of all ten wickets for 66 runs in the Gloucestershire second innings at Cheltenham in 1921, a performance which inspired the title of his autobiography in 1958: Ten for 66 And All That." A rather fortuitous statistic, it allowed Mailey to riff on the title of the comic English history book by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. Those with some knowledge of the game will understand that taking all ten wickets in a cricket innings is a rather rare event: it has only happened about 80 times in all first-class cricket played anywhere in the world in 150 or so years, and only twice in 1879 Test matches since 1876/77. But Mailey was more than just a cricketer. At a time when Test cricketers were expected to be professional in just about everything they did, they only received an amateur's remuneration, and hence were generally required to find part-time employment along the way. Mailey took to journalism and cartooning and this book provides ample proof that he was adept at both.

There is a lot of comment on cricket and cricketers in the book, some of it now rather dated but a lot is still relevant to the cricket culture of today. And I think Mailey might have well got himself into all sorts of trouble with the media and authorities if he'd been alive during the 1990s and 2000s. Maybe not as much as Shane Warne, but Mailey would have had his moments. As to why this book is included in this list of Australian classics rather than, for example, Don Bradman's My Cricketing Life or Goodbye to Cricket, or any of the other vast numbers of Australian cricket books, I can't say. Gleeson-White notes that the book "is now recognised as one of the classics of world cricket writing, celebrated for its story of Mailey's extraordinary life...for his sharp insights into the game of cricket and for the thoughtful warmth and humour of his writing." That will do.

The full text of this book is not available as it it is still under copyright.
Arthur Mailey Wikipedia page.
Arthur Mailey Cricinfo page.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
17. Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd (1946)
18. A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey (1981)
19. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)
20. "Five Bells" by Kenneth Slessor (1939)

A Classic Year: 15.2 Order of the Works

Back at the beginning of this year, when I started working my way through the entries in Jane Gleeson-White's Australian Classics I mentioned that I was unsure of how she had arranged them in order. They didn't seem to have been listed by publication date, nor was there any alternation of form - novel then poem then story then... and so on. So I was a bit stumped until I saw that Gleeson-White had included, on her contents list, the dates of birth and death of the first third of the entries. And there it was. The works are listed in order of the author's birth. Which is a strange way to do things. Publication order I can understand, but birthdate seems a little odd. I can see that publication date might cause a few problems, especially when a work has been revised a number of times over an extended period - do you chose the first or most recent date? - but I think it would provide a view of the development of Australian literature over the 135 years or so since the first publication of For the Term of His Natural Life. I'm quibbling again. Lists of this sort always seem to bring it out in me.

A Classic Year: 15.1 List of Contents

There have been a couple of comments posted about this series requesting details of the full set of works in Australian
. At first I resisted including the list on the basis that it wasn't mine to reproduce. Then I found that the book's publisher, Allen and Unwin, or the author, Jane Gleeson-White, had created a webpage showing the full contents. I think the contents are out there in the public domain now, so I've reproduced it below.

Don't, however, consider that this is all you need to get from the book. Gleeson-White introduces each of these works, putting them into context, both in terms of the author's other work and Australian literature as a whole. She uses these points to justify their inclusion, and having these introductory essays gives you with a lot more information and expertise than I can possibly provide.

1. Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood
2. Such is Life by Joseph Furphy
3. 'The Sick Stockrider' by Adam Lindsay Gordon
4. His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke
5. 'The Chosen Vessel' by Barbara Baynton
6. 'The Man From Snowy River' by Banjo Paterson
7. 'Nationality' by Mary Gilmore
8. 'The Drover's Wife' by Henry Lawson
9. 'Lilith' by Christopher Brennan
10. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
11. The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
12. 'The Gentle Water Bird' by John Shaw Neilson
13. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
14. The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay
15. Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard
16. 10 for 66 and all that by Arthur Mailey
17. Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd
18. A Fortunate Life by AB Facey
19. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
20. 'Five Bells' by Kenneth Slessor
21. Capricornia by Xavier Herbert
22. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
23. The Pea-pickers by Eve Langley
24. 'A Letter from Rome' by AD Hope
25. Voss by Patrick White
26. My Brother Jack by George Johnston
27. 'Woman to Child' by Judith Wright
28. Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
29. Power Without Glory by Frank Hardy
30. 'No More Boomerang' by Oodgeroo Noonuccal
31. Storm Boy by Colin Thiele
32. The Lucky Country by Donald Horne
33. Milk and Honey by Elizabeth Jolley
34. The Acolyte by Thea Astley
35. The Glass Canoe by David Ireland
36. The Tyranny of Distance by Geoffrey Blainey
37. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
38. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf
39. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally
40. Visitants by Randolph Stow
41. Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse
42. 'The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle' by Les Murray
43. The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes
44. The Plains by Gerald Murnane
45. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
46. Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe
47. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
48. Lilian's Story by Kate Grenville
49. My Place by Sally Morgan
50. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

A Classic Year: 15.0 Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard

Katharine Susannah Prichard

This novel was co-winner of the 1928 "Bulletin" novel writing competition, and, interestingly, was submitted under the pen-name "Jim Ashburton"; which is hardly surpising given the book's subject matter. Also, oddly, the prize was shared with A House is Built, by M. Barnard Eldershaw - the pseudonym of Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw: two novels written by women winning a major literary prize in 1928, and both submitted under pseudonyms.

Coonardoo, the title character, is a young Aboriginal girl living on a cattle station, Wytaliba, in the north-west of Western Australia, in the early part of the twentieth century. Hugh, the young son of the station's owner, is sent away to school and while the early part of the novel sets the scenery, and foreshadows some of the personal conflicts that will arise later in the story, it is only when Hugh returns from school that the novel really gets going. Hugh's mother dies and he is left, in his early twenties, single and with a station to manage and run. The first of these problems is dealt with when Hugh returns from a holiday in Geraldton with a wife. The second will prove harder as drought and the tough countryside combine over the years to wear him down. But these are just a backdrop to the real story of this novel: the relationship between a native woman and a white man.

Much play is made early in the piece about Hugh's commitment to leave the Aboriginal women alone and find a white wife, a commitment that is at odds with the bulk of the European men in the district. He sticks to his promise in the main, except during a moment of disease and weakness when he seeks physical comfort in the arms of Coonardoo. As seems to always be the case with fiction, a child is born of this single liaison, and while Hugh doesn't openly claim Winni as his own, the affection he shows towards the boy is plain for all to see. Coonardoo stays mainly in the background of Hugh's life, managing his household and helping when and where she can. A succession of female children are born and Hugh's wife becomes more and more disenchanted with the hard, lonely station life until the two agree to a mutual separation. At this time, Coonardoo rightly believes she will become a more important part of Hugh's life, but, remembering his earlier promise, he avoids her physically and emotionally.

The great thing about this novel is that, apart from its convincing portrait of station life, it puts an Aboriginal character into a prominent position in an Australian novel. There is no sense of judgment from the author at any time: Coonardoo is shown as being both weak and strong, confused and emotional, but with a dignity that sustains her through a life of hardship and heartache. It must have come as something of a shock to most Australians who read this book when it was first published in 1929. It is an important book in the development of Australian literature and rightly deserves its place in this list.


The full text of this book is not available as it it is still under copyright.
Katharine Susannah Prichard
Wikipedia page
Photo of the author

The next four works in this Classic Year:
16. 10 for 66 and All That by Arthur Mailey (1958)
17. Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd (1946)
18. A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey (1981)
19. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)

A Classic Year: 14.0 The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

magic_pudding.jpg The Magic Pudding
Norman Lindsay

The Magic Pudding is a classic of world children's literature, not merely Australian. The novel follows the exploits of Bill Barnacle the sailor, Bunyp Bluegum the koala, and Sam Sawnoff the penguin, as they try to keep their magical pudding out of the reach of the notorious Pudding Thieves. The pudding of the title has the ability to change from savoury to sweet - depending on the requirements of its owners - and to never run out. Definitely a case of "having your cake" and being able to eat it as well.

Liberally illustrated by the author and peppered with poems and songs, the book pokes gentle fun at all parts of society: justice and the law, bureacracy and the avaricious nature of the great unawashed. In his introduction to the New York Review Children's Collection 2004 reprint edition, Philip Pullman described the book as "the funniest book ever written."


The full text of this book is not available as it it is still under copyright.
Norman Lindsay Wikipedia page
The Magic Pudding Wikipedia page
Photo of the author.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
15. Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard (1929)
16. 10 for 66 and All That by Arthur Mailey (1958)
17. Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd (1946)
18. A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey (1981)

A Classic Year: 13.0 My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

bcareer_small.jpg My Brilliant Career
Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin's first novel is quite an amazing achievement. Written when she was only in her early 20s it is probably the most famous thing she wrote, and is rightly considered an Australian classic.

The book tells the story of Sybylla, a young Australian woman living in the 1890s, whose family falls on hard times when the father gets on the grog. Their circumstances gradually get worse, and Sybylla is "rescued" by well-to-do relatives who invite her to stay and where she grows from a teenage girl into a young woman. Of course, she catches the eye of the best male prospect in the area - rich, intelligent, and fairly down-to-earth - and the bulk of the book concerns her trying to decide if she will, or will not, accept his proposal of marriage. On the face of it, not the most original plot-line you'll come across, but certainly one that could benefit from an Australian setting.

The over-riding impression I got from this novel was of the sound of the author's voice. It's been a while since I read something written in the first person which was so strong and so indicative of the main character's personality. As a reader you are left in no doubt as to the identity of the narrator. It flags from time to time, usually when the fortunes of Sybylla take a downturn, but her fiesty, assertive, and self-confident nature generally shines through. If I had a choice I would have liked to have given Sybylla a good clip under the ear for the way she acts, and for the way she treats her suitor. But that aside, it's hard to dislike a novel which is just so full of life.


Full text of the novel.
Author Wikipedia page
Photo of the author.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
14. The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (1918)
15. Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard (1929)
16. 10 for 66 and All That by Arthur Mailey (1958)
17. Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd (1946)

A Classic Year: 12.0 "The Gentle Water-Bird" by John Shaw Neilson

John Shaw Neilson was born in 1872 in Penola, South Australia, the eldest son of the poet John Neilson. The country life was hard at that time and Neilson only spent two and a half years at school before leaving to help his family. The Neilson family moved around a lot over the next few years until they settled near Nhill in western Victoria.

Nelson's first poems were published in the local Nhill newspaper and his had his first poem in "The Bulletin" in 1896. The poetry in Australia of that time was dominated by Paterson and Lawson and tended towards the well-known bush poetry genre. Shaw Neilson was different. His poetry was of a lyrical form, viewing nature and the surrounding countryside with a new eye, resulting in a body of work that has continued to grow in esteem.

"The Gentle Water-Bird" is a case in point. Consisting of 16 verses of 3 lines each, the poem is Shaw Neilson's evocation of God in nature. There is no quasi-mysticism here, just a gentle sense of God in the world.

Full text of the poem. [PDF file]
A John Shaw Neilson webpage.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
13. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)
14. The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (1918)
15. Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard (1929)
16. 10 for 66 and All That by Arthur Mailey (1958)

A Classic Year: 11.0 The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

gettingwisdom_small.jpg The Getting of Wisdom
Henry Handel Richardson

It's been a few weeks since I posted my previous entry in this category. I haven't forgotten it, just been swamped by travel, family, work and real life. You know, all that stuff that gets in the way of reading.

Henry Handel Richardson was the pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, a writer who was born in 1870 to a reasonably well-off family which later fell on hard times. The author's family lived in various Victorian towns and from the age of 13 to 17 Richardson attended boarding school in Melbourne. It's this experience that feeds directly into The Getting of Wisdom.

Laura, the main character, is the eldest child of a country family. The father is dead before the book starts and the mother lives, presumably, off some investment income and earnings from dress-making. This is rather vague in the book but is really of little importance. The novel concentrates solely on Laura and information is passed to the reader via her experiences and her understanding of the world. The girls at the school she attends are generally from rather wealthy families and those, like Laura, who come from less fortunate backgrounds learn very early not to divulge their circumstances for fear of ridicule. From time to time Laura lets little snippets of information about her family slip out, and she suffers for it.

In fact, these seem to be the main forces controlling the action of this book: fear of one's peers, embarrassment about one's family, and the desire to "better" onself by belittling others. None of the girls in the school, nor the teachers for that matter, come across as anything but self-serving and boorish. Even Laura, who starts out so young and strong, surrenders to the role expected of her. It's not a very pretty picture of teenage schoolgirls at the end of the nineteenth century. Laura undergoes a form of redemption at the end of the book, convincing herself that cheating in an exam is actually God's will, and then later deciding that while she was wrong to do so, she got away with it and therefore God had no actual hand in the matter or else he would have punished her for the sin. A neat case of self-delusion. At the end, when Laura is walking away from the school for the last time, she is overcome with a desire to run, and the last we see of her is a rapidly diminishing form disappearing through a park. She is free at last: free of the overwhelming constrictions of the school, the teachers' expectations and the other schoolgirls' callous disregard.

As a reader you hope that times have changed, and that schools and school children aren't like this anymore. But at the back of your mind, as you remember your own school-years, you know full well that they haven't.

Full text of the novel
Photo of the author
Australian Dictionary of Biography page
Wikipedia author page
Film version of the novel from 1977.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
12. "The Gentle Water-Bird" by John Shaw Neilson (1927)
13. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)
14. The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (1918)
15. Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard (1929)

A Classic Year: 10.0 Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner

seven_little_oz_small.jpg Seven Little Australians
Ethel Turner

Ethel Turner's novel Seven Little Australians is the first children's novel, and the third piece by a woman writer in the first 10 entries in this Australian Classic Year. Both points are rather notable: that a children's novel might be considered a classic at all, and that there were three women writers in the early days of Australian literature who
were capable of writing such works (Baynton, Gilmore and Turner). Neither should be unexpected, but I suspect a lot of readers would think the opposite.

In many people's minds children's books get lumped in with comics and television as literary artforms of little worth, that might serve a purpose for the young, but which should be discarded as soon as the reader reaches their teenage years. Which is a nonsense. All three genres have much to offer to both adults and younger readers and should be judged on their merits rather than pre-conceived ideas about the effects such fiction has on later reading habits.

Seven Little Australians tells the story of the Woolcot family: the father Captain Woolcot, his second wife Esther, and the children, Meg, Pip, Judy, Nell, Bunty, Baby and the General. The first six of these are from the Captain's first marriage, with the General from his second. The family lives in a house named Misrule; which provides the first hint about the children's behaviour. The second comes directly from the author herself.

If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps; a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately and betake yourself to 'Sandford and Merton' or similar standard juvenile works. Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are. In England, and America, and Africa, and Asia, the little folks may be paragons of virtue, I know little about them. But in Australia a model child is--I say it not without thankfulness--an unknown quantity.
And so it goes, a story of the highs and lows of family life, at the end of which no-one is the same as when they started - with the possible exception of Bunty who is a greedy little beggar from start to finish. Seven Little Australians was written in the 1890s and, to many, it would seem to be stuck firmly in that era. It certainly seems to start that way. But, as it progresses, it becomes clear that Turner has produced a novel of family life that holds true even today.

Notes: Full text of the novel
Australian Dictionary of Biography page
Ethel Turner Wikipedia page
Photo of the author

The next four works in this Classic Year:
11. The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (1910)
12. "The Gentle Water-Bird" by John Shaw Neilson (1927)
13. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)
14. The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (1918)

A Classic Year: 9.0 "Lilith" by Christopher Brennan

poems1913_small.jpg Poems 1913
Christopher Brennan

All previous entries in this Classic Year (bar, I suppose, the Mary Gilmore poem) have been distinctly "Australian" in their subject matter: tales of bushrangers, convicts, horsemen, and outback men and women. "Lilith" by Christopher Brennan takes a completely different path.

Christopher Brennan was born in 1870, only three years after Henry Lawson, and yet the two poets could not be more dissimilar in their work, and yet so similiar in their lives. Brennan's major sphere of influence was Europe and his work links more to that romantic, classical tradition than to the existing Australian style of his time. His poem "Lilith" is a perfect example of that. Heavy with symbolism, references to religion, mythology, and folk tales, it could only have been written by someone steeped in the European tradition.

The Wikipedia entry on Lilith describes her as: "Lilith is a mythological female Mesopotamian storm demon associated with wind and was thought to be a bearer of disease, illness, and death. The figure of Lilith first appeared in a class of wind and storm demons or spirits as Lilitu, in Sumer, circa 3000 BC. Many scholars place the origin of the phonetic name 'Lilith' at somewhere around 700 BC. Lilith appears as a night demon in Jewish lore and as a screech owl in the King James version of the Bible. She is also apocryphally the first wife of Adam." Lilith is the succubus, the seducer and captor of men, and Brennan's poem can be read from any number of angles: he is writing of all women as Lilith, or only one. Either of these will fit and that leads you to conclude that the poem is either sublime
because it allows for multiple interpretions, or incomprehensible for the very same reason.

Of the poem, Judith Wright, in 1965, wrote: "If some of Brennan's assurance had left him meanwhile, and he had begun to doubt the possibility of human achievement of the goal of complete consciousness, it may have been the encounter and wrestle with his Lilith-figure that had caused the change. She so much dominates the poem, and is so presented, as to leave us with a deep doubt that Adam can ever grow to her stature -- as he must do if he is to find his way beyond her. She represents Brennan's deepest exploration into his own psyche, and into the concepts of death, eternity, and evil; at the same time she must stand for the eternal allure of the unknown, of the feminine, of the maternal, of the abyss of the past and the undiscernible distance of the future. To embody all this, and more, in one figure was task enough to exhaust the vision and invention of any poet, and leave him doubtful of human ability and achievement." And I'll bow to her greater understanding of this work.

Notes: Full text of the poem (PDF file)
Australian Dictionary of Biography entry
Wikipedia entry
Photo of Christopher Brennan
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sonnet "Lilith" (just 'cos I'm a Pre-Raphaelite fan)

The next four works in this Classic Year:
10. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner (1894)
11. The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (1910)
12. "The Gentle Water-Bird" by John Shaw Neilson (1927)
13. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

A Classic Year: 8.0 "The Drover's Wife" by Henry Lawson

"The Drover's Wife" by Henry Lawson neatly fits into this list as a counter-point to Barbara Baynton's "The Chosen Vessel", which I looked at last week. In both stories, a lone woman living in the bush (with babe in arms in Baynton's story, and with four children in Lawson's) is menaced by an external force (Baynton: swagman, Lawson: snake) which threatens her existence, and that of her family. At the start of the story the woman - for she is never named, only "mother", "drover's wife", "she" and "this bushwoman" - is living in a deserted bush shack. Her husband is off working with sheep somewhere and she is alone with her children.

Bush all round--bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilization--a shanty on the main road.
It's a bleak existence, but one she has come to terms with. A snake appears and slithers under the house before the woman, her eldest son or her dog can catch it. The house is of split-slab construction and the woman is afraid that the snake will come into the house at night when they are all asleep and bite one of the children. So she puts the children to sleep on the kitchen table, sets the fire alight to draw out the snake into the warmth and sits waiting all night with the dog.

Lawson's story is told in simple prose and uses a neat framing device to explore the woman's life and circumstances. The lonely vigil allows the woman time to look back on her life - the highs and lows, the loneliness, and her hopes and fears. In six pages Lawson teases out a part of what makes this woman who she is: strong, capable and completely human. He does a wonderful job.

Lawson had his first work published in 1887 and this classic came from his pen only five years later. Previously better known as a poet, this story cemented his reputation as one of Australia's greatest writers. Its power hasn't diminished since it appeared in 1892.

The full text of this story is available, but you'll have to search through this page to find it
Australian Dictionary of Biography Lawson page
Wikipedia Lawson page
"Founders of our Literature" biography notes
Caricature by David Low
Caricature by Will Dyson
Photo of Lawson

The next four works in this Classic Year:
9. "Lilith" by Christopher Brennan (1898-1899)
10. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner (1894)
11. The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (1910)
12. "The Gentle Water-Bird" by John Shaw Neilson (1927)

A Classic Year: 7.0 "Nationality" by Mary Gilmore

"Nationality" by Mary Gilmore is the third poem on the reading list and, at only 8 lines, is by far the shortest. It fully brims with religious overtones which leave me a little cold. Being of the totally opposite persuasion the allusions don't mean a lot to me other than being aware of them from a metaphorical perspective. And, as someone once said of Freud - if it wasn't Freud himself - "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." So I'm not the person to judge this poem. Gleeson-White says of it: "With its compact images and direct rhythmic expression, 'Nationality' has the force of truth." I believe her, even if I don't understand it.

Notes: Be aware that all Mary Gilmore's work is still under copyright and, therefore, not legally available on the web. I suspect, though, that you will be able to find the text of this poem out there somewhere if you go looking for it. Not that I'm inviting or directing you to do so - heaven forbid!

Mary Gilmore wikipedia entry Australian Dictionary of Biography entry
Gilmore on the ten-dollar note Reserve Bank of Australia ten-dollar note page
Portraits of Mary Gilmore

The next four works in this Classic Year:
8. "The Drover's Wife" by Henry Lawson (1892)
9. "Lilith" by Christopher Brennan (1898-1899)
10. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner (1894)
11. The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (1910)

A Classic Year: 6.0 "The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson

I look on "The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson as one of the two iconic Australian poems - the other being "My Country" by Dorothea Mackellar. Lines from the poem appear on the Australian ten-dollar note, and the way of life it describes - that of the mountain cattlemen of the Snowy River - was immortalised in the very first sequence of the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics: a lone horseman rode into the main arena, cracked his whip and the ceremony was underway.

The poem tells the story of an epic ride by a mountain cattleman to round up a runaway horse, a horse of high pedigree, worth a thousand pounds - big money in anyone's terms. The local horsemen and "cracks" have rallied to the call, along with Clancy of the Overflow, old man Harrison, and a young horseman - "a stripling on a small and weedy beast" - who everyone, excepting Clancy, believes should stay behind and leave the ride to the experienced horsemen. But Clancy puts his case and the young man joins the other riders. Needless to say, it is this young rider who saves the day - "the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat" - rounding up the colt and bringing him home to great acclaim and lasting memory. It's a rollicking poem whose rhythms attempt to match the gait of a galloping horse, and in the most part it successeds. There are a couple of places where I think the rhythm falters a little but they are few.

Text of the poem
A.B. "Banjo" Paterson Wikipedia entry
Paterson and the ten-dollar bill
Film adaptation of the poem
Paterson plaque in Sydney's Circular Quay

The next four works in this Classic Year:
7. "Nationality" by Mary Gilmore (1942)
8. "The Drover's Wife" by Henry Lawson (1892)
9. "Lilith" by Christopher Brennan (1898-1899)
10. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner (1894)

A Classic Year: 5.0 "The Chosen Vessel" by Barbara Baynton

"The Chosen Vessel" by Barbara Baynton is the first short story in this list of Australian classics, the first piece by a woman, and a major example of how the length of story is not necessarily a true indication of its long-term effect on a reader.

Baynton's story fits neatly into the Outback realism form that was prevalent in Australian letters in the 1890s. Where this story differs, however, is in its viewpoint of the woman on the land, rather than the more common drover/bushranger/miner subject. The young wife of the story lives in a small shack a day's walk from the nearest town. Her husband leaves each week for a nearby station in order to earn his wages and she is left on her own looking after her infant child. Despite her protests to her husband that she is being left in a very vulnerable state, she finds herself alone each week, trying to cope on her own and dreading the arrival of strangers on foot.

The first half of this story - which is short at only 8 pages - relates an incident involving the woman and an encounter with a tramp on the road. In the story's first publication in "The Bulletin" this comprised the full length of the piece, which was published under the title "The Tramp". The second half of the story deals with a Catholic voter riding into town to cast his vote in a local election. For most of the way through this second section it is difficult to see any connection between the two pieces, but that connection is definitely there. And it's this that gives the story its gothic power. Australian to its core, "The Chosen Vessel" is a disturbing story, beautifully written.

The story is available on Project Gutenberg Australia, though the link here is to the full etext of Bush Studies - you'll have to search through the text file for the story itself.
Barbara Baynton Wikipedia entry
Alison Croggon's review of a theatre production of the story - from November 2007.
Another review of the story.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
6. "The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson (1890)
7. "Nationality" by Mary Gilmore (1942)
8. "The Drover's Wife" by Henry Lawson (1892)
9. "Lilith" by Christopher Brennan (1898-1899)

A Classic Year: 4.1 His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

Coincidence, mistaken identity and exclamation marks: Marcus Clarke uses an abundance of all three in For the Term of His Natural Life. Let's admit it, if Clarke was to write this novel now, and submitted it to a publisher, it would be rejected out of hand. There is too much over-writing, too much melodrama and pathos, and far, far too many coincidences. So many that it stretches the bounds of credibility beyond breaking point. But we have to remember that this novel is a product of its times. And we really have to read it in those terms. Melodrama was big in the late 1800s and readers hadn't read so many novels as to be put off by this book's denouement; something modern readers will see as just too pat, too contrived.

In essence this novel is a political and social diatribe against the practices of transportation. The punishment meted out to the convicts by the overseeing officials is, in the main, petty, cruel and dehumanising. Guards, overseers and settlement commandants are all depicted as either humane, and therefore soft, or sadistic - there appears to be little variation between the two extremes.

The plot of the book revolves around Richard Devine, the main character, who is disinherited by his father in the first few pages, is accused of his murder shortly thereafter when he gives the false name of Rufus Dawes, is acquitted of that charge only to be convicted of robbery of his father's body and transported for life to Van Diemen's Land. The books proceeds to detail the incarceration of Dawes at Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur and then, finally, on Norfolk Island, the three worst convict settlements in Australia. On the face of it, it's a dour, relentless study of man's brutality, but the novel has a modern sense of realism to it. It must have been a shock to read in its time. If you disregard the melodrama and over-blown style it's not an easy read even now.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
5. "The Chosen Vessel" by Barbara Baynton (1896)
6. "The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson (1890)
7. "Nationality" by Mary Gilmore (1942)
8. "The Drover's Wife" by Henry Lawson (1892)

A Classic Year: 4.0 His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

term_natural_life.jpgFor the Term of His Natural Life Marcus Clarke 1872

Well, it didn't take long to fall off the treadmill of this reading challenge. By the end of the first month I'm now a week behind, having only just started this novel when I really should be finishing. I put it down to the weather and five days in Tasmania, and now some health problems in the family have distracted me. The one saving grace is that the next few works in the Challenge are either short stories or poems, giving me the chance to catch up.

The first question that arises with this novel is: what's with the title? Gleeson-White refers to it as His Natural Life and yet my copy (cover reproduced above) has it as For the Term of His Natural Life. Frankly, this second title is the one that I've always known the book by, and it's the one that I prefer. A check on Austlit shows the note that this book has appeared in at least 15 different versions. As well as the two titles mentioned, one edition out of the UK was published with the title Men in Chains, which sounds rather risque. With so many variations about it's little wonder that the book's title should differ from time to time.

First serialised in "The Australian Journal" in 27 monthly instalments from March 1870 to June 1872 (except for November 1871), the novel was first published in one volume, by George Robertson, in 1874 in Melbourne. A year later it appeared in London in three volumes with some "stylistic alterations and revisions from in-house editing", according to Austlit. Read into that what you will. From then on, it has been almost continually in print in Australia, and has been published in New York, by Harper and Brothers; in the UK again in 1952 from Oxford University Press; in a Chinese edition in 1985; and serialised in a number of newspapers in Australia.

The novel tells the story of Richard Devine, alias Rufus Dawes, who is falsely accused of robbery and transported as a convict from England to Australia; firstly to Macquarie Harbour, and then to Port Arthur and Norfolk Island. Clarke's work has been described as one of the most significant and most famous nineteenth-century Australian novels.

Photo of Marcus Clarke
Founders of our Literature: Marcus Clarke
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature entry
Australian Dictionary of Bibliography entry
Full-text PDF ebook
Project Gutenberg text

A Classic Year: 3.1 "The Sick Stockrider" by Adam Lindsay Gordon

Just a last few notes on the poem to finish off. The piece was originally published in "Colonial Monthly" in January 1870 with the same basic text as here. The only differences being in punctuation and the spacing of the verses. There is an interesting reference to a bushranger in the poem - "Aye! we had a glorious gallop after "Starlight" and his gang,/When they bolted from Sylvester's on the flat;" - which takes us back to Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood where the main bushranger was also called Starlight. Whether there is a connection is impossible to say. But it is curious just the same.

A film version of this poem was produced in 1913: black and white, silent, and only running 19 minutes.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
4. His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke (1872)
5. "The Chosen Vessel" by Barbara Baynton (1896)
6. "The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson (1890)
7. "Nationality" by Mary Gilmore (1942)

A Classic Year: 3.0 "The Sick Stockrider" by Adam Lindsay Gordon

selectedalg_small.jpg Selected Poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon
Adam Lindsay Gordon

The first poem of this year of Australian Classics raises the question of how we should review poetry. Do we treat it the same way we would a novel? (I'd say no.) Or a short story? (Closer to the mark.) Do we demand more attention to detail: in the plot (no), atmosphere and setting (most certainly), characterisation (probably not)? And, anyway, how much effort should be put into reviewing a single poem that's only 80 lines long? Enough to do it justice, I suspect.

The concept behind Gordon's poem is simple enough - a dying stockrider looks back on his life - it's the execution that's the thing. We first encounter the stockrider as he comes to the end of a long ride, during which he has suffered rather badly and been helped by his mate Ned. He is lowered to the ground and it becomes obvious that he isn't going to move again. He doesn't want to go on:

Hold hard, Ned! Lift me down once more, and lay me in the shade.
   Old man, you've had your work cut out to guide
Both horses, and to hold me in the saddle when I sway'd,
   All through the hot, slow, sleepy, silent ride.
And Gordon uses the rhythm and timbre of the last line here to show what the rider has been through: two adjectives would probably have sufficed, four enriches the end result. It's a technique he uses again at the end of the poem as the rider realises his life is drawing to a close: "The deep blue skies wax dusky, and the tall green trees grow dim,/The sward beneath me seems to heave and fall".

"The Sick Stockrider" was probably the best known poem in Australia from its initial publication in the late 1860s until the start of the twentieth century. Paterson's poems probably overtook it at that time, and his works, such as "Clancy of the Overflow" and "The Man from Snowy River", have captured and remained in the Australian imagination longer than Gordon's. But Gordon was the first, and it's hard to see how Paterson and Lawson would have flourished if Gordon hadn't been there before them.

Full text of the poem
Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Adam Lindsay Gordon

A Classic Year: 2.2 Such is Life by Tom Collins

I'll admit I was a bit over the top the other day, comparing Tom Collins in Such is Life with John Fowles and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Put it down to over-exuberance.

There's a lot to admire about the author's framing mechanism here: he originally intends to extract a week's worth of diary entries until the checks the second day and finds it won't fit his purposes, so he changes tack and decides to pick the same day in subsequent months instead. He follows that schema until the last chapter, when it changes it yet again. There's no pretention about it. And he's quite happy for you to see the gears moving and the grease being applied. For what is, surprisingly, a debut novel, this is a most assured technique. It could have fallen flat on its face, it could have ruined the rest of the novel, but it doesn't. It's a pity that Furphy only wrote one further novel, he was certainly a formidable talent.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
"The Sick Stockrider" by Adam Lindsay Gordon (1869)
His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke (1872)
"The Chosen Vessel" by Barbara Baynton (1896)
"The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson (1890)

Two poems, a novel and a short story.

A Classic Year: 2.1 Such is Life by Tom Collins

"Tom Collins" was the pseudonym of Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) who was born near Yarra Glen, Port Phillip District (later the state of Victoria). After the family moved to Kangaroo Ground and then Kyneton, Furphy leased a farm in the Kyneton district until his marriage to Leonie Selina German in 1867. After his marriage Furphy bought a farm in the district of Colbinabbin. By 1873 he had decided the land was not worth farming and had purchased a bullock team and taken up business as a carter in the Riverina district of New South Wales - an experience which directly influenced his later novel, Such is Life. The major drought of 1883 ended his career as a bullock driver and Furphy returned south to work with his brother at his iron foundry in Shepparton. While there he worked on the manuscript which was, finally, to be published as his major work, Such is Life in 1903. A year later Furphy moved with his family to Claremont in Western Australia where he died on 13 September 1912. Apart from the novel under discussion, Furphy also wrote Rigby's Romance: A Made in Australia Novel, and had a collection, The Poems of Joseph Furphy, published in 1916.

Australian Dictionary of Biography entry
Photo of Joseph Furphy statue in Shepparton

A Classic Year: 2.0 Such is Life by Tom Collins

such_is_life_small.jpg Such is Life
Tom Collins

It may seem as if I'm getting fixated with opening novel sequences after quoting extensively from the first page of Robbery Under Arms last week, yet here I am again with this week's selection. I make no apologies.

Unemployed at last!

Scientifically, such a contingency can never have befallen of itself. According to one theory of the Universe, the momentum of Original Impress has been tending toward this far-off, divine event ever since a scrap of fire-mist flew from the solar centre to form our planet. Not this event alone, of course; but every occurrence, past and present, from the fall of captured Troy to the fall of a captured insect. According to another theory, I hold an independent diploma as one of the architects of our Social System, with a commission to use my own judgment, and take my own risks, like any other unit of humanity. This theory, unlike the first, entails frequent hitches and cross-purposes; and to some malign operation of these I should owe my present holiday.

Based on this evidence you might assume we are in for a long-winded, evasive, polly-syllabic mess. Nothing could be further from the truth. But getting to the truth of the novel takes a little while, and we have to understand the book's structure as laid out in the preface.
Submitting, then, to the constitutional interdict already glanced at, and availing myself of the implied license to utilise that homely talent of which I am the bailee, I purpose taking certain entries from my diary, and amplifying these to the minutest detail of occurrence or conversation. This will afford to the observant reader a fair picture of Life, as that engaging problem has presented itself to me.

Twenty-two consecutive editions of Lett's Pocket Diary, with one week in each opening, lie on the table before me; all filled up, and in a decent state of preservation. I think I shall undertake the annotation of a week's record. A man might, if he were of a fearful heart, stagger in this attempt; but I shut my eyes, and take up one of the little volumes. It proves to be the edition of 1883. Again I shut my eyes while I open the book at random. It is the week beginning with Sunday, the 9th of September.

And the author is off on his first story. There will be a total of 7 of these. Originally intended to cover only a week of his diary, Collins soon finds that the task he has given himself is too mountainous to contemplate - "anyone who has listened for four hours to the conversation of a group of sheep drovers, named, respectively, Splodger, Rabbit, Parson, Bottler, Dingo, and Hairy-toothed Ike, will agree with me as to the impossibility of getting the dialogue of such dramatis personae into anything like printable form" - so he changes tack, reverting to documenting the events of the 9th day of each month.

Think on this for a while. If I were to tell you it came from a modern literary novel I doubt you would be at all surprised. The fact that this material was written in the 1890s and published in the early 1900s is quite astounding. There is the sense that the author is in total control of his material, and that he has no problem imposing himself into the structure of the novel - I'm thinking here of author John Fowles sitting in a railway carriage contemplating his own main character in The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Such is Life is a novel about bullock drovers, squatters and itinerant workers in the backblocks of Victoria and New South Wales in the 1880s. At times it can be hard to read, with a lot of dialog written in direct vernacular, but it is worthwhile persisting for the humor and the good-natured banter of men working in sometimes very hostile conditions.

You can read more about the author on Wikipedia.
And you can read the full text of the book on Project Gutenburg.

A Classic Year: 1.3 Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

When we last left my discussion of the plot of Robbery Under Arms, two of the main characters, Dick Marston and Captain Starlight, had been convicted of cattle-stealing and sentenced to 5 and 7 years respectively. Their prospects didn't look exactly rosy at this point, but Boldrewood is not about to allow his main protagonists to linger too long in a state of inactivity and within a couple of months Dick's brother Jim and Starlight's main companion, the half-caste Warrigal, have sprung them from prison and helped them back to the Hollow, their secret hideaway. After this the Marstons and Starlight take to robbing stage-coaches and banks. The gold rush of the 1850s has started and there is money to be had at practically every turn. A large number of city-folk, unschooled in the ways of the bush, have left home to work on the diggings and they prove to be easy pickings for the gang. And yet all through this period, Boldrewood goes out of his way to paint the Marstons and Starlight as conflicted criminals: they are only doing this as they are already well down the road to destruction, and they would go straight if they could. An opportunity presents itself and, for a year, Starlight and the Marstons join the goldfield diggings outside Bathurst in New South Wales until their identity is revealed by a woman that Dick has previously jilted. A narrow escape for Dick Marston and Starlight, but capture for Jim, leads the group to re-evaluate their lot. The result is the rescue of Jim from custody and the execution of a daring plan to escape to Queensland, and from there to America. Needless to say, it all goes wrong.

This is real "Ripping Yarns"/"Boys Own Adventure" stuff here: brazen adventures, falls from grace, and daring escapes all adding up to a plot that keeps moving, which is rarely allowed to settle, and which maintains its level of tension throughout. Boldrewood paints his main characters as complete humans - with their desires and hates, virtues and foibles, their good side and their bad side. Some of the lesser characters in the book tend more towards stereotypes - either fully good or fully evil - but this is a minor problem. The rollicking plot and the depiction of the main players more than makes up for this slight failing. Set at a time of great change in Australia, as the country was slowly moving towards nationhood, the book truly deserves its place in this classic list of Australian literary works.

A Classic Year: 1.2 Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

Publication History

The novel Robbery Under Arms started life as a newspaper serial, appearing in issues of weekly paper, "The Sydney Mail", between 1 July 1882 and 11 August 1883. The first published edition of the work appeared in London in 1888 in 3 volumes from Remington publishers. The second edition, in one volume in 1889 reduced the original text from 269,000 words to approximately 231,000. This is the current, generally accepted, version of the work. It was published in London, New York, and in Leipzig (Germany) as part of a Collection of British and American Authors series from publisher Tauchnitz. Various, and numerous, other editions followed, including the Five Mile Press edition from 2005 that I am reading.

Film/TV and Other Adaptations
According to the Internet Movie DataBase, Robbery Under Arms was first filmed in 1907, which was followed by a version in 1920; both these films were black and white silents.
In 1957, the film was remade with Peter Finch in the role of Captain Starlight, Ronald Lewis as Dick Marston, David McCallum as Jim Marston and Jill Ireland as Jean Morrison. The film was directed by Jack Lee from a script by Alexander Baron. Sam Neill played Starlight in the 1985 television adaptation, at 141 minutes the longest of all versions to date. Michael Jenkins, Graeme Koetsveld and Tony Morphett wrote the script, which was directed by Donald Crombie and Ken Hannam. It also featured Steven Vidler, Christopher Cummins and Liz Newman.
You can see the poster for the film here. I'm not sure why the TV adaptation had a movie poster; maybe there was a theatrical release at a later time.

A Classic Year: 1.1 Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood


"Rolf Boldrewood" was the pseudonym of Thomas Alexander Browne (1826-1915), who was born on 6 August 1826 in London, the eldest child of Sylvester John Brown, a shipmaster who had served with the East India Co., and his wife Elizabeth Angell, née Alexander - he added the "e" to his surname in the 1860s. Browne arrived in Australia at the age of five, after sailing to Sydney with his father who, as captain of the barque Proteus, had delivered a cargo of convicts to Tasmania. Browne was educated in Sydney until 1841 when he moved to Melbourne to join his father who had firstly taken up a run at Mount Macedon, and then started the first ferry runs between Melbourne and Williamstown across Port Philip Bay. After finishing his education in Melbourne, Browne earnt his living as a pastoralist, firstly near Portland, and then Swan Hill in Victoria, and subsequently near Narrandera in New South Wales. A succession of severe droughts finished his career as a squatter in 1869, and he went to live in Sydney. Appointments as a police magistrate in 1871 and as a gold commissioner in 1872 in New South Wales followed, and he continued in this line until he retired to
Melbourne in 1895. He died on 11 March 1915 and was buried in Brighton cemetery.

As a writer he was quite prolific, starting with My Run Home in 1874, he subsequently wrote a total of 16 novels, finishing with The Last Chance: A Tale of the Golden West in 1905. In addition he wrote a volume of autobiography (Old Melbourne Memories 1884), the non-fiction works Shearing in the Riverina in 1870 and An Australian Grazier's Guide in 1879, and a collection titled In Bad Company and Other Stories in 1901.

Browne's pseudonym, "Rolf Boldrewood" is derived from a line in the narrative poem Marmion by Sir Walter Scott whom Browne admired.

Australian Dictionary of Biography entry.

A Classic Year: 1.0 Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

robbery_under_arms(1).jpgRobbery Under Arms
Rolf Boldrewood 1888

Whichever way you look at it, Robbery Under Arms has one of the great Australian novel openings:

My name's Dick Marston, Sydney-side native. I'm twenty-nine years old, six feet in my stocking soles, and thirteen stone weight. Pretty strong and active with it, so they say. I don't want to blow -- not here, any road -- but it takes a good man to put me on my back, or stand up to me with the gloves, or the naked mauleys. I can ride anything -- anything that ever was lapped in horsehide -- swim like a musk-duck, and track like a Myall blackfellow. Most things that a man can do I'm up to, and that's all about it. As I lift myself now I can feel the muscle swell on my arm like a cricket ball, in spite of the -- well, in spite of everything.

The morning sun comes shining through the window bars; and ever since he was up have I been cursing the daylight, cursing myself, and them that brought me into the world. Did I curse mother, and the hour I was born into this miserable life?

Why should I curse the day? Why do I lie here, groaning; yes, crying like a child, and beating my head against the stone floor? I am not mad, though I am shut up in a cell. No. Better for me if I was. But it's all up now; there's no get away this time; and I, Dick Marston, as strong as a bullock, as active as a rock-wallaby, chock-full of life and spirits and health, have been tried for bushranging -- robbery under arms they call it -- and though the blood runs through my veins like the water in the mountain creeks, and every bit of bone and sinew is as sound as the day I was born, I must die on the gallows this day month.

We know right from the start what we are getting into here: a novel of bush-rangers, crime, and, hopefully, high adventure. Our narrator, Dick Marston, is stuck on death-row waiting his execution which is due in a month from the time the book starts. To pass the time, and to keep his mind off his coming fate, he takes to writing his life story. And this is what comprises the bulk of the novel.

Marston is a country lad with a mainly-absent father, and a mother, sister Aileen, and younger brother Jim, all living and scratching out an adequate, if bare, existence on a country farm in New South Wales. At the start of the book we're not sure of the actual real-time frame of the novel's setting but we can guess it's some time in the mid 1800s - which is later confirmed as starting in the late 1840s. The father has fallen in with a criminal set who make their money from cattle-duffing - altering the brands on cattle and selling them for illegal profit - and horse-stealing. By the time they reach their late teens both Dick and Jim have helped their father with this activity and within the first 80 pages of the book have been completely won over to the criminal life. Chief among their father's associates is Captain Starlight (supposedly based on the real-life bushranger Captain Moonlite), a charismatic, intelligent gentleman who has taken to crime with some relish. Starlight has evaded capture over the years due to his knowledge of a country hideout called the Hollow. This is basically a "hidden valley", probably in the Great Dividing Range, well-watered with good natural pasture and almost impossible to find. It reminded me somewhat of The Hole in the Wall which featured in the Newman/Redford film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", and is used for a similar purpose: a place to rest up and agist any stock they may have happened to steal.

The first major exploit of the book concerns the theft of a large number of cattle from a nearby station - the number is variously described as being between a thousand and eleven hundred. The cattle are rounded up by Starlight's gang, the brands are altered where required and the whole herd transported overland to Adelaide where they are sold at auction for a rather handsome profit. This whole exercise takes a fair degree of planning for the group with the droving alone taking upwards of three months to complete. The auction proceeds without a hitch and the men all depart Adelaide to separate parts, with the Marston boys taking a steamer to Melbourne while Starlight decamps to New Zealand. After a few months Dick and Jim find themselves back home in New South Wales where they receive the news from their father, just before Christmas, that Starlight has been captured returning from Australia from New Zealand. The boys are warned to get clear but remain at home with their mother hoping to see out the festivities. It proves to be a mistake. Dick is captured by the police - Jim escapes fortuitously - and is sentenced to five years in jail; Starlight gets a sentence of seven years at the same trial.

Boldrewood goes to some pains in the first half of the book to show how conflicted Dick Marston is with the life he has now chosen. In almost every chapter he laments his decision to associate himself with his father's life and with Starlight, and the manner in which he corrupted his younger brother; and his sister is always trying to steer him straight and into the arms of a young woman living on a nearby property. This becomes rather over-repetitive and I wonder if this was a product of the initial serialisation of the work, with the readers demanding some sort of moral tone from a character who, while being a criminal, is shown in a rather flattering light. Or maybe I'm reading more into it than was originally intended, using a modern perspective rather than a nineteenth-century one.

The question that is raised here is how do we read classics of this sort? How much are we willing to forgive in terms of prose style and characterisation, sentimentality and pathos? I believe we can only read these works as they are presented. Attempting to approach them as an original reader is impossible. A classic will stand the test of time if it talks to readers across different periods. We in the 21st century may not read Robbery Under Arms for exactly the same things as did its 19th-century readers - though I'm sure some of the book's qualities apply equally to both - but if it supplies a similar sense of enjoyment then it has made its mark.

You can read more about the book on Wikipedia, which includes a link to the full text of the novel.
The novel is also available on Project Gutenberg.

A Classic Year: 0.2 Introduction

I had originally thought that I might provide the full list of entries in Jane Gleeson-White's Australian Classics, but took a minute and decided that was just my geeky penchant for lists coming to the fore. It's a habit I've been trying to break for a while and it seems that the start of a new year is as good a time as any for old habits to be chucked out. Then Margo Lanagan commented on my previous posting here and suggested I not follow a direct linear route through the book's contents but jump around all over the place, following whims as much as any specific pattern. While the contents of the book are not quite in publication order, following the sequence as specified presents a basic Australian literature overview, as well as providing a sense of the development of that literature over time. I'm going to stick with the order as published. I'm not, though, going to tell you which of the contents I've previously read. Firstly, that would be too embarrassing, and secondly, I want to approach these works as if I hadn't seen them before.

So here are the first four entries in Gleeson-White's book (with original publication dates):
Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood (1882/83)
Such is Life by Tom Collins (1903)
"The Sick Stockrider" by Adam Lindsay Gordon (1869)
His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke (1872)

I'll list each month's list as I go. I have started Robbery Under Arms, but a brief technical problem is holding up my first comments about it. That should be fixed later today.

A Classic Year: 0.1 Introduction

When I started this weblog just on three years ago one of my major aims was to increase my knowledge of Australian literature, an area of study in which I felt woefully ill-informed. In some ways the past three years has helped overcome that deficiency but it has been mainly in the area of modern Australian literature: my knowledge of the classics is still well below par. And I needed to do something about that.

So I got to thinking about a few things early in December. I normally set myself a target of 50 books a year - it's about all I can handle - but didn't get anythere near that figure in 2007. If I got to 40 I'd be lucky. I figured it was mainly due to me discovering "The Sopranos" during the year and then proceeding to watch all 7 seasons. That came to about 80 hours of television, about 20 books at a normal reading rate. I needed to get back on track.

Just setting a target of a certain number of books wasn't going to cut it. I needed a specific set of books laid out, organised and annotated, if I was to achieve anything. In late October 2007 I transcribed, for this weblog, a rather florrid biography/profile of the English/Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon, originally published in "The Herald" newspaper in 1934. In response to that entry, Kerryn Goldsworthy noted that she had been reading Jane Gleeson-White's Australian Classics: 50 Great Books, which she subsequently reviewed for "The Australian". Her first comment intrigued me about the book; her subsequent review sealed it. I made a brief comment at the time I noted Kerryn's review that Gleeson-White's book was just the sort of thing I'd ask for at Christmas - the rest of the family never knows what to buy me, especially where books are concerned, so I normally make up a list. Even before I put in the request I checked out the book in the local bookshop. It looked like it had everthing I needed: 50 works, neatly fitting into a reading year; a good range of dates, from the 1880s to the 1990s; not all the entries where massive multi-volume novel sequences; and the range of works looked intriguing. I figured I'd found my reading list.

Jane Gleeson-White has selected a wide range of Australian works for her book. I could quibble with some of her choices, but that's picking nits for little or no purpose. Gleeson-White has chosen twenty-nine novels, two short stories, ten poems, three histories, three memoirs and three children's books in her list of 50. Again you could argue that a poem, or a short story, is hardly a book, so let's not. You can run the line that "The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. Paterson has had as much influence on the Australian literary scene as most novels you could name, and you'd have a lot of support from my quarter: it's the quality of the work that matters here.

It's my aim to read one of these works each week for the next year and to write about that reading experience as I go. I have no idea how well I'll do. I normally fail miserably at these things. Just so long as I stay away from "Deadwood" and the other television series chewing up my time I just might make it.

Jane Gleeson-White
Allen & Unwin 338 pp.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the A Classic Year category.

100 Australian Poems is the previous category.

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