Steele Rudd was the pen-name of Arthur Hoey Davis (1868-1935), in his time Australia’s no.1 best-selling author, and probably the only author up to the 1970s to earn enough from his writing to comfortably live on. The collection of stories for which he is best known, On Our Selection!, was published as a book by the Bulletin in 1899, was made into a wildly successful stage play*, into a number of movies, and finally degenerated into the long-running radio serial Dad and Dave.
The publishing rights to On Our Selection! were onsold to the Bookstall Company in 1907, and it is estimated that by 1940 they had sold a quarter of a million copies. Rudd went on to produce a host of similar story collections and a number of novels of mostly indifferent quality, as well as the for a while successful magazine Steele Rudd’s Monthly/Steele Rudd’s Annual which commenced in 1903 with contributors including Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Vance Palmer and Louis Esson.
The title of this biography is something of a misnomer, Steele Rudd needs little searching, even today. The person who has been lost is Arthur Hoey Davis, the writer. The problem with Davis is that quite early in his writing life, ‘Steele Rudd’ the brand took over, and particularly after Davis’ death the association of Steele Rudd with the bush characters ‘Dad and Dave’ took on a life of its own, almost completely dissociated from Davis’ writing.
Davis’ problem began when the stage version of On Our Selection was launched in 1912 and the success of Bert Bailey in the lead as Dad and Fred Macdonald as Dave led directly to the identification of these two with Steele Rudd’s stories; to a host of ever more remotely connected plays, movies and of course, the famous wireless serial; and to a new field of Australian writing, bucolic humour, with numerous Steele Rudd imitators including Sumner Locke with her Mum Dawson, Boss books.
I have a book called Steele Rudd, Dad’n’Dave’s Selection, not a name ever approved by Davis, published by Angus & Robertson in 1953 and containing those chapters of On Our Selection and its sequel, Our New Selection, which Bookstall chose to publish in its cheap paperbacks. In the Foreword , W.E. FitzHenry who as an employee of the Bulletin knew Davis in the 1920s, writes that Steele Rudd was “amazingly tolerant towards his imitators” but if “one thing made him wild, however, it was a Dad-and-Dave wireless programme that ran some years ago.” In fact, Dad and Dave was still running on the wireless when I was at primary school in the 50s, and I would listen to it religiously on 3UL along with the Argonauts on the ABC.
Arthur Hoey Davis was born in Drayton, near Toowoomba on Queensland’s Darling Downs, the eighth of 13 children (only 9 survived beyond infancy) to Thomas Davis, a blacksmith sent out from Wales for stealing in 1847 and Mary (Green) a ‘beneficiary’ of the Orphan Girls’ Emigration scheme from Ireland in 1848.
Thomas and Mary married in 1852, and were mostly based in Drayton until 1870 when, in their forties, they took up a 160 acre selection at Greenmount on the railway line between Toowoomba and Warwick, a section of the line which later connected Brisbane and Sydney. The selection had become available following the break-up of the big squatting runs in 1867, though the squatters found ways of hanging on to the best land. The land was relatively cheap but “the selector had to live on the land, and fence and cultivate [and clear] one tenth of it. For nearly the full five years it took Thomas and Mary to pay for their selection, they apparently did not fulfil any of these conditions”.
But in 1877 they finally moved into a small timber hut – with a galvanised iron roof, not shingles as claimed in the stories. Arthur and his brothers and sisters went to the local school, Emu Creek, until they were 12 and were then engaged in farm work. By the time he was 16 Arthur was a jackaroo on a neighbouring station and an accomplished horseman. At that point his mother, perhaps seeing in him a little more scholastic ability than in his siblings, wrote to a politician she knew and got Arthur into the Qld public service, as a clerk, where he did well, with a little help from the same politician who organised an early promotion.
Davis “for years contributed casually to various local weeklies, and it didn’t cost me anything – nor them either.” His first recorded publication, “The Creeker’s First Sermon”, appeared in Queensland Punch on 4 Sept 1893, ostensibly an account of the first church service at Emu Creek, beginning a lifetime of drawing on material from his childhood, and his parents’ hardships, in the backblocks.
Two years later, he had married a girl he knew from school, Violet Christina ‘Tean’ Brodie, adopted the pen name Steele Rudd, and had his first piece accepted by the Bulletin which over the next few years accepted a series of his sketches of Queensland farm life. In 1899, with text editing by literary editor AG Stephens “at times amounting to co-authorship”, these stories were unified under one family name, the Rudds, and published in book form as On Our Selection!.
Stephens was later to write that the work of the Bulletin’s earlier and most famous son, Henry Lawson, demanded similar treatment, and it is possible that Lawson was influenced to move in this direction, as his next book Joe Wilson and His Mates (1902) has a “sustained characterisation lacking in his earlier volumes of short stories.”
Comparison between Lawson and Rudd is important for another reason and that is that Rudd’s work was never part of the Bulletin school of writing around bush mateship, the myth of the Lone Hand, to which Lawson was central. Miles Franklin would sometimes claim that she and Rudd were the progenitors of a new school in Australian writing, Bush realism. A claim later supported, in the 1970s, by John Hirst and Judith Godden for instance, who posited that the myth of the Independent Bushman or Lone Hand had been ameliorated by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth, where families carve productive farmland out of unwelcoming bush; a myth which acknowledges the role of women and incidentally validates the pioneers’ right to be seen as the creators, and therefore the valid owners, of the land. (I, of course, claim MF for her central contribution to the literature of first wave feminism). Of the loneliness of pioneering Rudd writes:
I often wonder how the women stood it the first few years, and I can remember how Mother, when she was alone, used to sit on a log where the lane is now and cry for hours.’ (1899, p.5)
As with most writing of the Pioneer school, Rudd’s work is completely whitewashed:
Thomas Davis and Mary Green arrived on the Darling Downs just after the ten-year war between the Murri people and the squatters had ended, and together they witnessed only occasional skirmishes as the Native Police completed their murderous business. [So] the author of On Our Selection! could write as if Aboriginal society had never existed. In one story Dad accidentally digs up the remains of a long-dead Aboriginal man, but when he realises what it is he throws the skull out the door and tips the bones on the dustheap. The incident sounds a rare, unpleasant note from an earlier time, and in another variant of the same story Davis changed it to a sheep’s skull, eliminating the echo altogether.
Tean bore Davis three children in quick succession and then later a fourth, Eric, who was until this book came out, Davis’ only published biographer. After the success of his second book, Our New Selection! (1903) Davis accepted retrenchment from his well paid public service job and moved his family to Sydney to enjoy the ‘Bohemian’ life of the full-time writer. In 1904, with the Bulletin getting out of book publication, Davis signed with The NSW Bookstall Company, for a £500 advance and 25% royalties for his third book, Sandy’s Selection. He was to produce 20 or so more novels and story collections but this was the pinnacle of his career. By 1908 Tean had persuaded her husband not just to return to Queensland, but to return ‘home’, to his and Tean’s home town, Greenmount, where Tean used her savings to buy another 160 acre property, ‘The Firs’. This was his wife’s dream and Davis set up a desk on the vernadah where he continued to write while a manager taught his children to farm.
Davis finally escaped Greenmount in 1917. All the farm equipment was sold off, a share farmer was installed, one son went off to War, and the Davis family moved to Brisbane. Tean’s mental health was failing and eventually she was institutionalised (and later divorced when Davis was thinking of re-marrying). In 1920 Australian film director Raymond Longford ignored a decade of Dad’n’Dave-ism to produce On Our Selection as realist tragi-comedy. With his earlier Sentimental Bloke, it is one of the great Australian silent films. A sequel, Rudd’s New Selection (1921) has been lost. A later Rudd film, The Romance of Runnibede, was apparently “one of the worst Australian feature films ever attempted”.
In 1923 Davis formed a relationship with the 16 years younger Winifred Hamilton. Together they revived Davis’ magazine. “Winifred’s contributions to Steele Rudd’s Monthly were mostly essays that boldly and directly confronted the sexism of her era.” They moved to Sydney, and the relationship straggled on, but a series of unfortunate investments, and the Great Depression, saw Davis, who in the early part of the 1920s had royalty income of £700 a year, destitute and Winifred working in Queensland. Winifred Hamilton later wrote a biography of Davis which remains unpublished.
Davis continued to write. Bert Bailey paid him a little for the rights to turn the On Our Selection play into a sound film, and later for the film rights to the Steele Rudd play Granddad Rudd. In late 1935 Davis was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and shortly after he was dead. Fotheringham labels the last chapter of his biography ‘Grave Robbers’ which expresses pretty clearly his feelings about the plundering of Steele Rudd’s literary legacy which then ensued.
Richard Fotheringham, In Search of Steele Rudd, UQP, Brisbane, 1995
* “in May 1912 actor manager Bert Bailey staged a version of On Our Selection which became the most popular Australian play of its time and probably, per head of population, of all time. Between 1912 and 1916, it was seen by one million people in Australia and New Zealand and was regularly revived until 1929”. Apart from writing the book, Davis was at least a co-writer of the script but the contract for royalties was so poorly written that his financial return was negligible.