Such is Life, Abridged!


The publishing of an abridged version of Such is Life was one of the mini dramas of the 1930’s Australian literary scene. Such is Life –famously of course Ned Kelly’s last words in 1880 – could properly be said to be a fictitious memoir by Joseph Furphy of Tom Collins, bullock driver and autodidact. It is part of Furphy’s genius that Collins is a very unreliable narrator. On publication in 1903 its use of language and discursive form marked as big a step forward for Australian literature as did James Joyce’s Ulysses for English literature 20 years later.

The genesis of the abridged version lay in the scarcities occasioned by the Great Depression and in a feeling in literary circles that Furphy’s masterpiece was falling into neglect. HM Green gives as an example that “[Furphy] was not mentioned in the Australian Encyclopaedia (1925), either individually or even in AT Strong’s article on Australian Literature…”. (p.609/Ch.10)

Apparently the publishers Jonathon Cape obtained permission from Kate Baker, Furphy’s friend and the executor of his estate – Furphy having died in 1912 – for an abridged version for the English market, for which they contracted well known Australian author Vance Palmer, who it seems had had a hand in an earlier version: “A second ‘edition’ [of Such is Life], made up from surplus Bulletin sheets with a new title page and a preface by Vance Palmer was published in 1917, and an abridgement in 1937 in which Nettie Palmer had a major hand.” (The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, 2nd Ed, p.728)

In her diary for June 6th, 1936 Nettie Palmer writes, from Barcelona where she and Vance have taken a cottage for a year:

V. is engaged in preparing an abridged version of ‘Such is Life’ for Cape, a much more delicate business than anyone could have imagined. We had difficulty in getting a copy to bring here, but Henry Handel Richardson willingly lent us the one I’d sent her years ago. I’m afraid that Edward Garnett didn’t realize all the difficulties when he insisted that ‘Such is Life’ should be cut down by 50,000 words if it were to be introduced successfully to English readers. He admires the book, but thinks that parts of it are so local as to be unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t know the period and the background, other parts so wordy they act as a drag on the book.”

Of course, Palmer wasn’t the first to undertake the task of paring down Such is Life. Furphy himself had to remove two semi-autonomous sections from his original ms, which were subsequently published as a novel and a book of short stories in their own right: Rigby’s Romance (1946) and The Buln Buln and the Brolga (1971).*

Miles Franklin had been a supporter of Joseph Furphy since they exchanged fan letters and subsequently met in the early 1900’s. Now approaching the end of her career as a productive novelist she had contacted Kate Baker about collaborating on a Furphy biography. Jill Roe writes:

The long awaited abridgement of Such is Life, purportedly by Vance Palmer (actually by Nettie and their daughter Aileen, though this was not known till much later), appeared in May [1937]. From her earliest encounter with the English publisher Jonathon Cape, Miles had feared the worst, and here it was – to her mind not so much an abridgement as a humourless mutilation of the noble text … Immediately she embarked on an insistent campaign to counteract its impact, with articles of her own and increased pressure on Joseph Furphy’s ‘gallant standard bearer’, Kate Baker… (2008, p.372)

The episode isn’t mentioned in the Paul Brunton Miles Franklin Diaries so let me conclude with extracts from a letter from Miles and a letter from Nettie. First Miles, to Kate Baker, 11th May 1937

Oh, Katy Baker!

When we thought a (not the) fort was gained, to find that it was merely a betrayal and we must to arms once more. …

This is what I expected of Cape. I had a talk with him twice – once in London and once here. He turned down All That Swagger. Don’t tell anyone yet. They wd think it was my jealousy in not being accepted. But I assure you it wasn’t. It was that with my strange penetration I knew at once that he would accept nothing Australian unless the Australianism was extracted, or of the colonial variety tempered to English idea of what it shd be.

And Nettie, to Frank Dalby Davison, 30th June 1937

… what a dear you are to worry about Vance’s feelings. The attack has been rather distorted but it wasn’t unexpected. Vance says he could make out a perfectly good case himself, better than his attackers’ case, against the abridgement. Only what they assume is that he preferred to see the book published in an abridged form, that he invented the notion, and that there were publishers everywhere longing to publish it again in the complete form… It was only after a succession of Australian publishers had refused it that she [Kate Baker] at last wrote to Cape, and asking Vance herself to go ahead.

There’s more. Furphy carries on a running joke (apart from working men quoting Latin) about swearing, as in: ‘“Case of vigilante et (adj.) orate, when a man’s in such a (sheol) of a (adj.) st-nk,” interjected Dixon’. The Palmers apparently replaced all the (adj.)’s with ‘bloody’, destroying the joke. Nettie’s letter goes on:

… People now say that Vance has done two things to the book, abridged it and altered it… The alteration doesn’t extend beyond the deletion of that monotonous jest about swear words … There were no other ‘alterations ‘: Vance valued the book more and more as he worked on it, keeping every turn in the complex plot.

Interesting, if Nettie was the abridger, but beyond the bare assertion, in a number of sources, I didn’t see any evidence. As for the harm done, Angus and Robertson published a complete version in 1944 and Such is Life gradually, finally, became accepted for the great novel it is.

Footnotes: I’m a footnotes fan, they’re sometimes strangely discursive and off-topic and so much easier to follow than endnotes (though I suppose there’s not much difference in a blog-post!).

Such is Life was published by the books division of The Bulletin, under the editorship of AG Stephens. Stephens persuaded Furphy to hive off the other two books but was unable to publish them. Rigby’s Romance ,however, did appear in the Barrier Truth (Broken Hill, NSW) in 1905-6, presumably serialized.

Miles Franklin says, “Kate Baker had Rigby’s Romance abridged and typed from columns of The Barrier Truth… [and] published by the DeGaris Publishing House in book form in 1921” with an introduction by AG Stephens. (1944, p.135)

AustLit are currently engaged in a project to digitise all of Furphy’s work, this will include annotations and correction of the mistakes that have built up ever since Furphy was asked by The Bulletin to type his original handwritten ms. “The fifth module [due in 2016] will deliver a digital edition of the abridged English edition of Such is Life, including an essay on Vance and Nettie Palmer’s role in editing the text for the London publisher Jonathan Cape, particularly the ways in which the original work was changed for English readers of the 1930s”.

See also:
Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy (here)
Roger Osborne, This edition howls to heaven to be withdrawn, ALS Vol.35.1, April 2020 (here)

HM Green, A History of Australian Literature, Vol 1, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1961
Vivian Smith ed., Nettie Palmer, UQP, Brisbane, 1988
Vivian Smith ed., Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1977
The Australian Quarterly, vol.34, No.3 (Sep.,1962), pp 62-71, FH Mares, Such is Life (here)
AustLit, The Joseph Furphy Digital Archive (here)
AustLiteraryStudies, Roger Osborne, The Palmer Abridgement, (here)
Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1944
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
Jill Roe ed., My Congenials, Miles Franklin & Friends in Letters, Vol 1, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1993


15 thoughts on “Such is Life, Abridged!

  1. I first ran into the story reading the Palmers’ letters, I’ve since skip-read MF’s bio of Furphy looking for quotes but I must go back and read/review it properly. I don’t remember ever having seen an abridged Such is Life.


  2. Fascinating Bill. If Nettie did the abridgement she’s being very arch indeed! I love behind-the-scenes stories like this. How lucky we are to have letters and diaries. I know librarians/archivists are aware of this issue in our digital world … I wonder how much will be saved.

    PS Sorry I’ve been pretty absent since Christmas. I’ve had three trips away in January and another one this week. I’ve barely kept up with the blogs I like to follow but have been biding my time!


  3. Sue, of course I look forward to your comments, but please just skip-read and go on when you’re busy, we know what pressure you are under (I have thought over the past few months would you like to write about your aunt and her influence on your young life, I am sure it would be interesting. I had a complicated relationship with my late father but he’ll sneak out onto my blog one day!).
    I am looking forward to the essay on SIL Abridged on the AustLit site, hopefully it will tell us more about Nettie Palmer’s role.


    • Thanks Bill.

      Hmmm … yes, it would be interesting. Trouble is I’m not much of a storyteller so what I feel inside tends to come out rather prosaic. But, if one day a hook presents itself then, yes, I would happily do that. I have many memories – many very funny ones (like the time she rang my parents to tell them her car had been stolen only to find it was still in the garage – she’d just peeked under the roller door that was mostly closed and couldn’t see it!), heartfelt ones, and, it has to be admitted, a few frustrating ones but even they tend to be funny.

      And yes, the AustLit essay will be great to see.


  4. Sounds like you have tons of material and of course lots of fans who enjoy your writing. And we’re all waiting with baited breath to find out who discovered the car. Your parents? The police?

    And in response to another comment stream altogether, by coincidence I’ve just read and am preparing a review of Shute’s The Far Country


    • Haha, Bill … in fact it was her, when my Mum said “are you sure”? She discovered her error and had a giggle. She could always giggle!

      I look forward to The far country. He did write a wide variety – when you compare No Highway with A town like Alice, On the beach with The far country and In the wet.


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