Jessica White, whose Hearing Maud about Rosa Praed’s deaf and abandoned daughter Maud will be published by UWAP in July (I may get to go to my second book launch party) has chosen a late Rosa Praed novel for AWW Gen 2 Week. A few paras down she refers to Praed’s “bestselling feminist novel” The Bond Of Wedlock, which I reviewed (here). Thank you Jess.
Praed’s oeuvre stretches from 1880 to 1931, so she slots easily into Gen2. In the late 80s and early 90s she was at the height of her fame, but I’ve chosen her penultimate novel to review, because I need to revisit her works ahead of the edits for my book. This has turned into a minor essay full of spoilers, so if you plan to read the novel, you might want to shelve this until afterwards. Read on …
Sue (Whispering Gums) has posted a review of Louise Mack’s follow up to Teens which I reviewed yesterday (here). Between them they provide a fascinating insight into 1880s and 1890s Sydney, when university was a real possibility for the first time, at least for those young women whose parents could afford it.
Well, that was, surprisingly, genuinely enjoyable. Louise Mack’s Girls together is a sequel to her novel Teens , and features protagonist Lennie (Elinor) Leighton. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given I know something about Mack, through my Monday Musings on her and my review of her debut novel The world is round, but it was, because … Read on …
Louise Mack (1870-1935) was the oldest of thirteen children of a Wesleyan minister who, after various positions around South Australia and NSW settled in Sydney in 1882. Louise, who had up to then had been schooled by her mother and a governess, began attending Sydney Girls’ High School, probably from the following year when she would have turned 13.
Ethel Turner, author of Seven Little Australians, was the same age and attended the same school. Ethel and her 3 years older sister Lillian were well known for starting a school newspaper, as did Louise Mack. I mistakenly wrote in an earlier post – which I will now have to go off and find – that it was unlikely the two newspapers were in competition as Mack was 9 years younger. I was wrong. Sorry. I’d recorded Mack’s year of birth as 1879 when it was actually 1870 (ADB).
Teens begins with 13 year old Lennie sitting and passing the entrance exam to the School
A large, brown, two-storey building, with a wide, wooden staircase, a verandah all round, and an asphalted playground, shaded with two huge Moreton Bay fig trees. This was the School.
After a lonely first few days she makes friend with 15 year old Mabel and this is the story of their year in ‘B’. The big girls studying to matriculate and get into university – only possible since 1881 (More Educating Women) – were in ‘A’.
To get things out of order a little, one of the things the two girls do is start a school newspaper. There is great demand for the initial hand-written version so they scrimp and save to get it printed, and the poor old printer will only get paid from the sales the girls make at 6d a copy, only for the girls in ‘A’ to trump them with a much more impressive newspaper printed by one of their fathers. As Lillian Turner was most likely in ‘A’ when Mack was in ‘B’ this is no doubt a little bit of setting-the-record-straight.
As a guy, old, and without sisters, I have no experience to fall back to evaluate this book. It’s a long time since I last read Seven Little Australians and I’ve never read Little Women for instance or the equivalent books that girls read when I was reading ‘Boys Own’ books. Jane Austen’s young women are mostly older and definitely more mature. Picnic at Hanging Rock also has a more mature feel, despite the setting and period being similar, and probably reflects that it was written in the 1960’s (though Ethel Anderson’s At Paramatta (here) written in the 1950s does not). Another that should be similar but is not is The Getting of Wisdom. TGoW is an adult novel about schoolgirls whereas Teens is a novel for schoolgirls, and not very mature ones at that. The writing it most resembles is that of Enid Blyton.
For all that, it was a fun read. The girls, who at 13 and 15 still play with dolls (not that some of my own stuffed animals haven’t survived these past 60-something years) get into the usual school day scrapes, fall in love with their (lady) teacher, sleep over, play tricks on Lennie’s older brother, and contrary to Melanie’s opinion of recent YA fiction (at Grab the Lapels) – and yes this is only middle school in American terms – agonize over their school-work, fail to pay attention in Mathematics and ‘Euclid’, but finally come top in English, French and History.
Would I give Teens to a granddaughter? Maybe, at around age 11 or 12. For an adult, the only real reason to read it would be for its lively account of middle-class life in 1880s Sydney, and on holidays in the Blue Mountains, by someone who was there.
It was on the third storey that Lennie had her new bedroom. There was a little, irregular-shaped room up there, very narrow, but as long as the house was deep, that looked over other people’s yards at one end, and at the other, opened upon a stretch of suburb, ending in the sands of Botany Bay. From that window Lennie had one golden glimpse of the lazy, fair Pacific, and the calm blue waters of Botany Bay and its white sands; and nearer, the fresh, bright green of Chinamen’s gardens…
The younger girls had wonderful games of hookey .. The game was played in this way:—One girl was on one side, and any number on the other. The one girl chased the opposite side about the ground until she had caught one; then she and the caught one joined hands and chased again until they had caught another. Then these three joined hands and rushed to catch a fourth: and so on. And the fun was very high when there were forty girls all holding hands and chasing one about the playground…
“I’ve got the whole History of England to learn in three weeks, Mother, from William the Conqueror to Victoria; and the whole of the French Grammar, and the whole of the English Grammar; and two books of Euclid, and half of Peter the Great, and all the Physical Geography, and all the Arithmetic, and all the Geography of the whole world, to learn in three weeks.”
“But you’ve had six months to learn them in.”
“I know, Mother; but you see——”
I was going to post this at the end of the week, but I’ve returned to work earlier than I originally planned, and am as you read en route to Melbourne and Sydney. So I’m putting it up tonight and will do another end-of-week summary on Tues or Weds.
Louise Mack, Teens: A Story of Australian School Girls, first pub. 1897. Angus & Robertson (paperback) 2016. I used pdf version (here) from University of Sydney Library.
Thankyou to everyone who participated in Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week. There are links to all your reviews from the AWW Gen 2 page, as of course will be any reviews that you do in the future.
Posts/Reviews for Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week
It is not clear even at the distance of more than a century whether Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) is one of our greatest writers, though he certainly wrote one of our greatest novels, Such is Life (1903) purportedly the memoir of time spent by Tom Collins, a minor NSW government official, with bullock drivers in the Riverina (southern NSW), “a classic which few were to read and no one was ever to establish clearly what it was all about.” (Manning Clark in Furphy’s ADB entry)
I have a first (and only, probably) edition of Miles Franklin’s Joseph Furphy, from now long-gone antiquarian book seller, Magpie’s, in Fremantle, originally belonging to a Paul Le Comte, “member W.A.H.S.” (WA Historical Society?) and including newspaper cuttings and – Emma and Lisa will like this – an information card for Furphy’s burial site in Perth’s Karrakatta Cemetery.
Franklin’s ‘Prefatory Note’ begins –
The time is not yet ripe for a definitive biography of Joseph Furphy. The Australian attitude toward biography opens the case for Mateship versus Modernity, and so far Mateship holds the pass. No frankly searching study of the lives of our prominent personages would be tolerated … because of the still lingering conventions of modesty and reticence by which British middle-class behavior was regulated until inhibition was loosened in the preliminary war of 1914-18.
Jill Roe (2008, p.388) thinks that Franklin is averting to the possibility of an affair between Furphy and Kate Baker (1861-1953), Franklin’s ‘collaborator’ in this work. The married Furphy and Baker, 18 years his junior, met in 1886 when Baker was teaching near Rushworth (in central Victoria). They became lifelong friends. Baker was important in encouraging Furphy to write, and after his death and her early retirement at 52 she did all she could to publicize and safeguard his work (ADB). By 1939, when she spent 5 months in Sydney with Franklin getting this biography underway, Baker was elderly and stone deaf and Franklin largely took over, so that the collaboration consisted of Franklin writing from the material Baker had collected over a lifetime.
Franklin was herself a Furphy fan and she and Furphy had exchanged complimentary letters and subsequently met, in 1904 (see also Such is Life, Abridged!).
It is sometimes stated that this biography won the 1944 Prior Prize, the year the book was published, but in fact Franklin won the 1939 Prior Prize for the essay Who was Joseph Furphy? which she dashed off after Baker had returned to Melbourne, though she shared the £100 with her (Franklin initially came second but the ms which beat her, MH Ellis’ biography of Governor Macquarie*, was belatedly judged to be insufficiently foot-noted).
Franklin begins at interesting point. After a brief ‘Furphian’ digression – one of the features of Such is Life is its flights down side alleys – on the development or otherwise of a distinctly Australian literature, she gives us Kate Baker, newly hatched school teacher, rushing to catch the train, and subsequently a coach and then a spring cart to the home of Isaac Furphy – brother of Joseph – and his family where she is to board for a year, before moving six miles to board another year at the home of Samuel and Mrs Furphy, Joseph’s parents, constantly inundated, by Joseph’s brothers and sisters and their children, by Joseph’s wife Leonie and their children, by everyone around except Joseph whom Kate finally meets only on the day of her departure.
When Joe began to talk he justified himself as the literary prodigy of the family. He was then forty-four, Kate Baker in her twenties.
Joe talked till 1.00 am, and again the following night. Then it was time to leave, and she asked him to visit her and her parents some time in Melbourne.
We then return conventionally to the beginning and Furphy’s surprisingly, almost Austenesque, literary home environment. Of his juvenilia Franklin writes:
A copy of “Childe Booth’s Pilgrimage” has been preserved. It bears traces of easy acquaintance with Scott, Longfellow, Homer, Byron, Burns, Moore and others. Written when the boy was between fourteen and fifteen years of age, it shows him in embryo the Furphy who in 1897 delivered of Such is Life.
Joseph was one of five brothers, and journals were kept by their mother of their writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. The Furphys had come out from Ireland in 1841, were employed and sometimes self-employed in various locations outside of Melbourne, including Kyneton where Joseph went to school. In 1868 they took up land, “Sand Hills”**, around Lake Cooper (map) in the names of Samuel (senior), Joseph and Isaac, building themselves homes which survived into the 1950s, and it is there that Kate Baker came to teach.
Today it is an inspiring sight to gaze from Mount Burramboot over the glowing plains which reach away to the blue distance for leagues on every side. In the foreground Lake Cooper and its satellites glisten like sapphires in a shield.
Joe’s selection lived up to it’s name and after five years he gave up, rented nearby while he tried a bit of gold prospecting, then with a wagon and bullocks, he uprooted his tiny, French wife and their children to follow him as a bullocky through the backblocks of NSW. His oldest son Felix, not a budding writer, who had command of Furphy’s second wagon wrote to his grandfather in 1883 –
I have no books hear but the third book and the story of the too dogs and father reads nothing but shakspere everybody carries books but they are yellow novels …
Older brother John, a blacksmith, had in the meanwhile set up the famous Furphy Foundry in Shepparton. When Joseph’s enterprise failed, due to drought and disease in the cattle, Leonie wrote home for help and a position was made for Joseph at the foundry. At last he had a settled home and could begin to write.
His first piece, “The Mythical Sundowner”, appeared in the Bulletin 5 Oct 1889, signed Warrigal Jack, though he later used Tom Collins, a “synonym for idle rumour” (as ‘Furphy’ was to become during WWI).
Over the next decade or so, he was engaged constantly, when he wasn’t working, in reading, writing, and researching, setting tasks for Kate Baker, and corresponding with fellow pedant and polymath William Cathels.
By 1897 he had an ms in want of a publisher. He wrote to the Bulletin seeking advice, and AG Stephens asked him to submit it to them – 1125 hand written pages. Furphy advised Stephens –
The plan of the book is not like any other that I know of – at least, I trust not. Also you will notice that a certain by-play in plot and éclaircissment is hidden from the philosophic narrator, however apparent to the matter of fact reader.
Stephens wrote at length to Furphy setting out in detail the economics of publication. First requirement was a typed copy and Furphy, fearful that a typist would bowdlerize his often profane masterpiece, purchased Shepparton’s third typewriter, taught himself to type, and knocked out a copy in … 12 months!
At his point in the book Franklin reproduces a great deal of (fascinating) correspondence. I find it interesting that both Stephens and Cathels, the first people to read and admire Such is Life, saw it as an idiosyncratic but essentially true-to-life account of Bush life, whereas I see it as one of the great works of Modernism, essentially about writing and language as Picasso’s work is about painting, not funny-looking women.
For three years the Bulletin prevaricated about publishing. It was a fine book, but much too long. They would bear a loss out of the goodness of their hearts. And so on. Furphy finally conceived the idea of excising two strands of the original, which would go on to be books in their own right, the novel Rigby’s Romance and the collection of stories which eventually became The Buln-Buln and the Brolga. Even so, correction, re-typing, illustration, proof reading dragged on through all of 1901 (when Miles Franklin’s own My Brilliant Career stole some of his thunder) and 1902.
Finally, in June 1903 Stephens wrote to Furphy that 2,000 copies had been printed and 500 bound, –
“… the book market is dead, have no hope of selling them for some time… Your whole affair is the curious instance of that dead and gone thing conscience. The book’s so good that it has got itself printed against foreknowledge and predestination absolute that it’ll have a darned slow sale. I mention this as a faint excuse for the shocking delays.”
Such is Life was finally released in August 1903 with an inappropriately floral cover, to mostly good reviews in Australia and adverse in Britain. Sales were poor, around 25 a month, making it impossible for the Bulletin to consider Rigby’s Romance. Furphy wrote a review of his own, concluding –
… the studied inconsecutiveness of the “memoirs” is made to mask coincidence and cross-purposes, sometimes too intricate.
In 1905 Furphy and his wife moved to Perth WA where their children were already established. They lived between the rail line and the sea, Cottesloe or Swanbourne. Between making their homes habitable, and surf bathing, he was fully occupied and after only little more than a decade, his writing career was at an end.
Rigby’s Romance was published in the Barrier Truth (Broken Hill) in 1905-6 and it was 15 years before Kate Baker could arrange to have it published as a book. Furphy died in 1912 without ever returning to see his friends in Melbourne, but maintained an active correspondence.
The last quarter of the biography is an analysis of Furphy’s work, including Miles’ frustration at Furphy’s inadequate depiction of women, ending with a discussion on the relative merits, and fame, of Ulysses, Such is Life and Remembrance of Times Past.
Miles Franklin, in association with Kate Barker, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1944.
Shane Maloney, Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy, The Monthly, Sept 2009 (here)
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
Such is Life is available from Text Classics in print (2013) and e-book.
*M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times – “after a fortnight’s examination, Ida [Leeson, Mitchell Library] declared the work undocumented and full of inaccuracies.” Franklin’s work was “elevated from ‘highly commended’ to first place, with a rider that entry No. 62 would have won had it been fully documented and the references checked.” From the NLA database it appears that Ellis’ work was published in stages from 1942 to 1952, and has since been reprinted.
**Googling ‘Sand Hills Furphy’ brings up directory entries which indicate that the family still farms there; a family reunion on May 25; and a death notice for Joseph’s mother.
This cutting fortuitously references not just Furphy but Mollie Skinner (see Writing the Boy in the Bush) who might come up again later in AWW Gen 2 Week
Brona of Brona’s Books has reviewed and enjoyed this little known novel by Ethel Turner, the author of the much loved classic, Seven Little Australians. Brona mentions that Turner is the same age as and was at school, Sydney Girls High, with Louise Mack and that Ethel and her older sister Lillian produced a school newspaper in competition with one produced by Mack. I will post a review of Mack’s fictionalised account of that school year, Teens, later this week.
Thanks to Bill @The Australian Legend’s Australian Women Writer’s Gen II Week I have read my very first ebook from start to finish.
As with almost everything in my life at the last moment, I left it to the minute to prepare for Bill’s Gen II week, even though I’ve known about it for months. I really enjoyed reading my first Ada Cambridge story, Sisters, for last year’s Gen I event, so I didn’t want to miss out. But with only days to spare, I realised that I had no unread AWW Gen II books on my shelf. Anything I did select would have to be easily sourced and a short story if I was going to have any chance of reading & reviewing it in time. Read on …
The author of this guest post is Michelle Scott Tucker (MST of Adventures in Biography) whose Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World came out in April (2018). Lisa (ANZLL) and I were at the launch party to wet the baby’s head, and within weeks the book was into a second print run. During 2018 Michelle became Executive Director of The Stella Prize, Australia’s pre-eminent literary prize for women writers.
Michelle’s essay on her childhood love of the Billabong books leads AWW Gen 2 Week. Thank you Michelle.
The books, old and musty, were stashed at the back of a cupboard for want of shelf space. They’d been there for quite a while. A friend of my mother had owned them once, but had passed them on, suggesting vaguely that “Michelle might like them.” I was in primary school, probably, an avid reader but not much tempted by the heavy, old-fashioned tomes, with no dust jacket or blurb to hint at what lay within.
Not tempted until boredom drove me, one weekend, to dig out those books. Reader, I was transported.
My newest favourite character, Norah Linton, lived with her widowed father and beloved older brother on a huge and prosperous farming property, called Billabong, in country Victoria in the early 1900s. And oh what jolly adventures they had. I would eventually discover that there were 15 books in the series (the cupboard held maybe only 5 or 6), but even within the first, A Little Bush Maid (1910), heroine Norah at the age of 12 manages to save, quite separately, the lives of two men and a valuable flock of sheep. One of the men was a deeply grateful lion tamer (!) but her family seemed more impressed by the saving of the sheep. It’s all very Enid Blyton meets the Australian bush, with effectively parentless children going on picnics and having improbable adventures. In one of the later books, they discover enough gold to start their own mine… Norah, however, was always appropriately modest about her efforts, and rightly so, because far more important to her – and to me, marooned in deepest darkest suburbia – was the ordinary, day to day life of the farm.
On Bobs, her perfect pony, Norah raced her brother Jim and his two best chums across the paddocks. Accustomed to working beside her father, Norah mustered cattle, thought nothing of driving a cart seventeen miles to the nearest town to collect the mail, looked after a menagerie of pets, and fished in a nearby river. Norah is, in short, a paragon but she is painted with such love and good humour that her character fairly lifts off the page. And, in a very Australian way, the books are genuinely funny. The children are realistically prone to pranks and teasing. They fall in the water, they fall off horses, and the boys fall asleep in the drawing-room after dinner – only to be gently awakened by Norah pouring a “trickle of water on their peaceful faces. Peace fled at that, and so did Norah!”
First published between 1910 and 1942, Mary Grant Bruce’s hugely popular Billabong books influenced, alongside Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, our concepts of The Bush and Australian identity. Her work “was characterised by fierce patriotism, vivid descriptions of the beauties and dangers of the Australian landscape, and humorous, colloquial dialogue celebrating the art of yarning.”
The Billabong books, and Bruce’s two dozen or so other books for children, championed the values of independence, mateship, hard work (for women and children, as well as men), and bush hospitality. The children age as the series progresses, and several of books of the series follow Norah’s brother Jim, and his best mate Wally, as they serve in WW1 – so even the ANZAC spirit gets an airing (even though they served in the British Army, rather than the Australian one – it all makes sense at the time).
But, and sadly there always seems to be a but, my beloved Billabong books belong very much to the era in which they were written.
Almost every writer I know cites Enid Blyton as one of their favourite childhood authors. She transported them in a way few other writers could. But almost every writer I know is also sorrowfully aware that once you’ve grown up there is no going back to Blyton’s magical worlds. The racism, the class barriers, the gender stereotypes are just too distressingly obvious to make Blyton an enjoyable adult read. And so it is for Billabong.
A footnote to later editions, published in the early 1990s, noted that “Some of Bruce’s earlier works are considered to have had offensive and dated content, particularly in regards to racial stereotypes of Australian Aborigines and Chinese and Irish immigrants, and her earlier belief in the theory of Social Darwinism. More recent reprints of the Billabong series have been edited to remove controversial material.” I haven’t looked into those later editions, and frankly I’m not sure how all the ‘controversial material’ could possibly be removed without materially altering the story, because there certainly is a lot of it.
The Linton family are very much lords of their Australian manor, ruling in a benignly patronising way. The house (large enough to have ‘wings’) is staffed by a doting cook and various ‘girls’. The decorative front garden is maintained by a Scotsman, the vegetable garden and orchard at the rear by Chinese Lee Wing (and oh isn’t his silly accent funny!) Numerous unnamed men work the farm itself with one of them, called Billy, seemingly assigned to be the children’s personal slave. Billy is never, ever described without with an adjective like “Sable Billy” or “Dusky Billy” or “Black”. And in case the reader hadn’t quite caught on, he is also variously described as careless, lazy or – just once – as a n—-r. At 18 years of age Billy is older than the children and, according to Norah’s father, the best hand with a horse he’d ever seen, yet the children casually order him about and call him Boy. Billy, like every 18 year old bossed by a 12 year old girl, living without friends or family, and with no girlfriend in sight, seems perfectly content with his lot.
The class barriers are there too, in the patronising colloquial dialogue and simply in the assumptions of the day. Norah, left at home for several days while her brother and her father are away, will inevitably be “desperately lonely with only the servants to talk to.” A stranger who might otherwise be mistaken for a tramp is immediately identified, when he speaks with a cultured accent, as “not your ordinary sort of swagman.”
Crucially, though, gender stereotypes are played with a very light hand. Well, sort of. We are talking about books written a hundred years ago.
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) was herself born and raised in country Victoria, in East Gippsland. At the age of twenty she moved to Melbourne and fairly quickly made a modest living as a freelance journalist. Her first Billabong stories were serialised in the Leader, before being published in London by Ward, Lock & Co. The success of the first led to an ever-increasing demand for more, until Bruce was producing a book each year, in time for Christmas. She didn’t love the Billabong series quite as much as her fans, and she eked them out – one year producing a Billabong book, the next a stand-alone title, and the following year another Billabong book. She married an army officer, lost two of her three children in tragic circumstances, and lived variously in Ireland, Australia and England. She was, in her day, one of Australia’s most successful writers. She has, in this day, very nearly been forgotten.
Bruce was a typical country conservative who, just as many do now, believed that men and women were equal, but necessarily separate. Bruce herself wrote that “the position of women in Australia today is largely what the pioneer women made it. They took their place definitely, equal fellow-workers with men, the more secure because no one had any time to talk of women’s rights.”
In Norah, Bruce epitomises the self-reliant country woman who can hold her own with a man, without becoming (or threatening) one. Norah is, categorically, the star of the Billabong show. She loved music, and was a good cook but “lived out of doors, followed in Jim’s footsteps wherever practicable (and in a good many ways most people would have thought distinctly impracticable) and spent two-thirds of her waking time on horseback…her chosen pursuits brought her under the discipline of the work of the station…she had all the dread of being thought “silly” that marks a girl who imitates boyish ways.”
For Norah, her brother and father are at the heart of all she does and loves. Male activities are valuable and worthy, female ones much less so. Norah “had no little girl friends” partly because none were closer than the town seventeen miles away but mainly because “little girls bored Norah frightfully.” Little girls, apparently, are prone to prattle about dolls, and play dress up and ‘ladies’. “When Norah spoke of the superior joys of cutting out cattle or coursing hares over the Long Plain, they stared at her with blank lack of understanding. With boys she got on much better.”
Reader, c’est moi. Or so I wished. While I lacked a prosperous county estate and a fine, well-bred pony full of life and go (yet without the smallest particle of vice), I spent many happy hours with Norah enjoying hers. Her esteem of male pursuits echoed my own, as did her disdain for most things girlish. I too was a little girl always seeking her brothers’ and father’s approval. I sobbed when Norah’s pony died, and was on tenterhooks until Jim and Wally came home safe from the war (spoiler alert – they come home safe from the war). Norah and the boys grew up and married but they never really changed at all, and I loved being part of their world.
But it’s a world long gone now, if it ever was, and that’s for the best.
The Billabong books, in their original unedited form, remain readable, funny and even entertaining. They are also profoundly disturbing. Their value now is more for their insights into a not-so-distant historical period and mindset, rather than as a book that a modern child might thrill to read by torchlight, under the covers.
Sisters in law have their uses. Millie’s youngest sister on a visit from Sydney over the New Year was sorting through the bottom shelf, the junk shelf of the bookcase in Psyche’s old room and came across not just the last extant copy of my dissertation but my long missing First Edition copy of Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties (1954).
This is not just an important book in the history of ideas about what it is to be Australian, but a gorgeous book of nearly A4 (I guess Quarto) size on gloss paper and with one or two illustrations on every page. Palmer begins …
… there has grown up a legend of the Australian nineties as a period of intense artistic and political activity, in which the genius of this young country had a brief and brilliant first flowering. Something new, it is claimed, emerged into the light. A scattered people, with origins in all the corners of the British Islands and in Europe, had a sudden vision of themselves as a nation, with a character of their own and a historic role to play, and this vision set fruitful creative forces in motion.
Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend, arising out of his PhD thesis, was published four years later. So clearly this idea of the 1890s as a period of revolution in Australians’ idea of themselves was ‘in the air’, and of course we achieved federation and (limited) independence from England on 1 Jan 1901. However, Palmer argues that:
The truth seems to be that the various impulses, ideas, and aspirations that made up the Australian dream cannot be limited to a particular decade. They sought expression, in one form or another, during the whole period from Eureka  to the First World War…
If the nineties have seemed to stand out with special prominence it is partly because of the lively journalism that flourished at their beginning: weeklies like the Bulletin, the Boomerang, the Worker gave a suggestion that the national mind was in ferment as never before.
The very first subject Palmer deals with is White Australia, the fears rational or otherwise raised by the influx of Chinese onto the gold fields – “by the end of the fifties, in Victoria, one adult male in every seven was a Chinaman”, and the complete exclusion from consideration of Aborigines –
This culture, this imaginative life, had so little concrete form, was so much a matter of primitive habits and observances, that it had small chance of being taken seriously by people whose minds were preoccupied with a particular kind of progress.
But that is also the last he has to say (about Aborigines – our preoccupation with the “yellow hordes” remained front and centre).
For all its ‘leadership’ in democracy, Australians and their politicians were largely uncaring of the freedoms they had obtained more or less by accident – “the democratic forms that were taken for granted had not, like the Americans, a philosophic base.” But whether or not he could express it, the ordinary working man felt free. “The People in Australia breathes free,” wrote one English observer in the 1880s, “It does not feel the weight of the two great divisions of the middle class that are above it: the well-to-do and the gentle folk. Workmen here do not go slouching down the streets as they do in England, crushed under the sense of their inferiority.”
Palmer believes that the ordinary working Australian, as a type, began to appear as early as the 1820s and 30s. Visitors observed that locally born children were taller and hardier than their parents; the custom of a man ‘taking the track’ always throwing in his lot with a mate was well established; as was the custom – commented on often by Miles Franklin – of feeding passing travellers. “So we find, in less than a couple of generations after the first landing, a national type appearing …”
The Legend began in the Bush because the (white) men there were one people, unified by common experience and by the constant movement throughout the interior of livestock and workers. The cities, although more populous, were stratified by wealth and class, unionism didn’t take as well even in the manufacturing centre, Melbourne; and there was no commonality of purpose between the classes.
That the great bulk of Australia’s arable land, up until the Land Acts of the 1860s, was divided into the enormous runs of the squatters meant that by necessity the bulk of the rural workforce was itinerant, their myth making oral, almost entirely through ballads and tall stories, long lost even before the turn of the century. When Banjo Paterson began collecting ballads the earliest dated back only to the 1860s and the famous bushrangers: Ben Hall, Harry Power, Ned Kelly.
Compulsory schooling meant that by the 90s literacy was widespread; and newspapers and magazines circulated freely. “A great deal of the importance of myths, it must be insisted, lies in the way they reveal values actually held by their makers.” In the 1890s the myths of the Bush were circulated in written ballads, but still the old ways held. Miles Franklin recounts in the semi-autobiographical Cockatoos that young men into town for the Show would stand around a fire each waiting to recite his scrap of Paterson or Adam Lindsay Gordon.
Of the weeklies mentioned above, the Boomerang and the Worker were founded by William Lane, who with 800 followers, the cream of the recently-quashed union movement according to Palmer, sailed to found the utopian New Australia in Paraguay in 1893. That left the Bulletin under JF Archibald to become the bushman’s bible.
The Bulletin … stood for a republican form of government; payment of members; one person, one vote; state revenue derived directly from the land; complete secularization of education; reform of the criminal code and the prison system; a united Australia and protection against the world. It denounced religious interference with politics, foreign titles, the Chinese, and imperial federation.
Archibald’s greatest gift was “discovering men of talent”. Palmer, despite being married to one of the greatest, makes no mention of women of talent.
For some years Archibald’s Bulletin was to act as the chief instrument for expressing and defining the national being.
This is more a history of the period rather than of the development of the Legend, which is probably why Russell’s work continues to have relevance while Palmer’s does not. He spends a chapter considering the writers and painters of the Bulletin:
… the liveliness and importance of the early balladists and short story writers is not to be judged by the absolute value of their work… Archibald’s Bulletin was planned as a unity: one item gave support to another … The result was something unique in journalism, a paper that rippled with gaiety, democratic feeling, masculine humour …
In 1893 AG Stephens came to the paper, and his ‘Red Page’ became an important showcase for Australian writing. Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson who wrote for the Bulletin from the earliest days, and later Joseph Furphy and Steele Rudd, and all the other now forgotten or anonymous contributors embodied in their ballads and stories all the important elements of the myth of the Lone Hand, the Australian bushman – strength, independence, mateship, laconic humour (and of course the complete absence of women).
The final chapters discuss politics, the rise of organized labour, the even more effective rise of employer organizations (plus ça change etc.), the land bubble, banking failures, Federation.
In the interior there was little talk of federation but the essential unity of Australia as a country with common interests was taken for granted: in the capital cities, federation was discussed as an important issue, but it was regarded as an alliance between countries foreign to one another and having rival economies.
political democracy had not been fully achieved, there was a breach between Government and the mass of the people, particularly the workers. Even among those who had no sympathy with the strikers there was an uneasy feeling that the Government had come to the aid of the employers in a way that could not be justified …
Palmer finally returns to the Legend in his conclusion:
From the sketches of countless occasional writers of the eighties and nineties, as well as from the more permanent work of Lawson and Furphy, a special type emerged – a laconic but sociable fellow with his own idiom and his own way of looking at things. He had humour of a dry sardonic kind, a sensitive spirit with a tough covering, initiative and capacity that were qualified by ‘near enough’ standards of achievement…
A tradition of democratic writing was thus established, and it has not been lost, for it is strongly marked in the Australian novel and short story of today.
Vance Palmer (1885-1959) grew up in rural Queensland and began writing at the end of the period he describes here. He became a respected though now largely neglected novelist and alongside Nettie (his wife), was at the heart of Australian writing for decades. How he then manages to completely overlook women’s writing is beyond me.
Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties, Curry O’Neill Ross, Melbourne, 1954.
Cover: Detail from Princes Bridge (1908) by Frederick McCubbin*
*”Frederick McCubbin painted [the] oil sketch, Triumphal Arch at Princes Bridge, Melbourne in 1901, possibly during the procession. In May the grand ceremony of the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament took place and this temporary arch was created for the triumphal procession of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York.” (NGA)
Bohemians at the Bulletin, Norman Lindsay (here)
Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here)
My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson (here)
In Search of Steele Rudd, Richard Fotheringham (here)
The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorhouse (here)
Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer (here)
Louisa, Brian Matthews (here)
Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin (coming!)