Truly there are no nightingales to enchant the night, but the mellow carillon of the magpies enlarges the spacious sunlit days and the mocking laughter of the kookaburras is not for a cage. Miles Franklin, 1956.
In 1950 Miles Franklin, approaching her 72nd birthday and not in good health, travelled across Australia – by plane from Sydney to Adelaide and train across the Nularbor – to give a series of lectures at UWA, Perth, which were subsequently expanded into the book Laughter, not for a cage: Notes on Australian writing, with biographical emphasis on the struggles, function and achievements of the novel in three half-centuries, and which came out in 1956.
In the background was the introduction by the Menzies Liberal government in April of that year of a bill to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia. Miles wrote to Katharine Susannah Prichard that “People seemed unaware of the danger of ceding freedom of association and expression to a conservative government. No doubt it would take the restriction of beer, tobacco or cheap women to arouse them.” Miles was not a member of the CPA, though Prichard was, but was generally of the left.
Miles arrived in Perth on 1 July, breakfasted with Henrietta Drake-Brockman and was taken to the Highway Hotel, Claremont (which would be near UWA but it’s not a hotel I know) where she had a room “next to the bathroom”. “The following day, Sunday 2 July, Henrietta and her mother, the pioneer feminist Dr Roberta Jull, took Miles to see a frail-looking Katharine Susannah at [her home in the outer suburb] Greenmount.” KSP, four years Miles junior, had had a heart attack, though as it happens she carried on for another couple of decades.
Miles gave four lectures over two weeks before her voice gave out and she went to stay with Sylvia Pallot, the daughter of Joseph Furphy (1843-1912). After a week she gave the remainder of the eight lectures she had planned, the last on 2 August (all of the above is from Roe, 2008).
D.S. in the West Australian of 5 Aug 1950 (here) wrote:
MILES FRANKLIN, probably the most controversial figure in the Australian literary field today, has been in Perth lecturing to members of the public and university students … She is a controversial figure because she has written and published in Australia one of its most brilliant novels, “All That Swagger”; one of its cleverest satires (with D. Cusack) “Pioneers on Parade”; two enchanting autobiographical books, “My Brilliant Career” and “My Career Goes Bung,” and a slender pioneering novel, “Old Blastus of Bandicoot.” Yet between each of these books are years of silence, a silence which is not consistent with her genius for story-telling, her ready and edgy wit, her passionate enthusiasm and support for giving tongue to the Australian story. Her long silences are only accounted for by crediting her with being Brent of Bin Bin …
Her lectures at the University were probably some of the most brilliant delivered there and this brilliance lay not so much in the subject as in the manner of Miles Franklin’s delivery and of the subtle exercise of her own judgment. Her wit kept the audience in a constant simmer… Challenging from the start those who say there is no such thing as Australian literature and that there are no Australian writers, she began her lectures with: “I stand before you, an illiterate, to lecture to you on a subject that doesn’t exist.”
I’m not sure what the (8) lecture titles were but her chapter headings are:
1. Invasion of Aboriginal Australia. The convict brand.
2. The forerunners: Henry Savery, Major William Christie, Charles Rowcroft, Mrs Francis Vidal, Alexander Harris, W.C. Wentworth.
3. First Novel by a Native-born: Gertrude the Emigrant. First four novels of adequate tonnage.
5. The Nineties and the Bulletin. Vigorous self-assertion in politics and writings. Short stories and ballads run ahead of the novel. Minor novels. Steele Rudd.
6. The new century. The established trend. My Brilliant Career. Such is Life. Human Toll. Jonah. Mr Moffat. Norman Lindsay. Other novels.
7. Relapse into old ruts. Anzac – the Australian’s Baptism of Blood – writings by Anzacs. The Australian novel goes into recess. The interim with The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney,The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans. A Miscellany: Paul Wenz writing in French, DH Lawrence, Havelock Ellis.
8. Reappearance of the Australian Novel in force. The Bulletin’s first literary competition. Flesh in Armour and Her Privates We, Seven Poor Men of Sydney. Work in progress by Brent of Bin Bin, Brian Penton, John K Ewers, Jean Devanny and Others. Some expatriates – The Montforts and Lucinda Brayford, Pageant.
10. Novels by younger writers. Avoidance of the present tense. Kylie Tennant, Margaret Trist, H. Drake-Brockman.
11. Where does the Australian Novel stand today? Not yet regional. Criticism. Old Australia: New Australians. Whither now? Swan song or advance the Commonwealth?
Well! There are a lot of names of books and authors there which I haven’t heard before, or about which I know nothing. I will have to follow these up. Where I have already written I have put links. Franklin’s ‘first four novels of adequate tonnage’ are: Geoffry Hamlyn, Henry Kingsley; For the Term of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke; Robbery Under Arms, Rolf Boldrewood; and Clara Morrison, Catherine Helen Spence.
Despite that promising title for Chapter 1 she writes very little about ‘Aboriginal Australia’, regretting only the squandered opportunity to record languages and stories, particularly in the “area around Port Jackson, where the tribes, being the first to meet the Europeans, were the first to become extinct.” Later, in Chapter 9 she writes more fully while discussing those novels with Aboriginal protagonists. Desert Saga (1933) by William Hatfield is one of those which I haven’t previously heard of. It is the story of a tribe of ‘Arunta’ in the NT, who are displaced by fossickers, the Overland Telegraph and cattle herders but who finally make a place for themselves under the leadership of Grungunja and an anthropologist who knows their language.
Desert Saga came early in a rising flood of books which contradict an embedded theory that the first Australians were among the most backward of primitives … Today it is conceded that the aborigines had high codes of artistic sensibility and skill.
Other novels discussed in this chapter include The Timeless Land (1941) and Storm of Time (1948) by Eleanor Dark, ‘one of our most brilliant writers’, which stand apart ‘in the attempt to capture what might have been the emotions of the aborigines when the first sail flecked the Pacific.’; Katharine Sussanah Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties (1946): ‘Only a poet could have concentrated so much of their distress under invasion as this writer does in the first chapter’, and Coonardo (1929); and Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1938) of which Franklin writes:
On walkabout with [Herbert] the reader can be lost in gilgais, lagoons, anabranches, billabongs and estuaries, each equally lush, and all leading back to the main river or theme, which is the arraignment of the author’s own race or nation for their relations with the aborigines.
Overall, what is her conclusion? We are a new, little nation without the population or the traditions yet to produce truly great writing: “Being so few in a wide clean land we have not had time to develop those fetid jungles and ancient sinks of poverty and vice which writers in other lands have grown notable by exposing.”
Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life (1903) she discusses in terms of its Australianness but not what I regard as the revolutionary nature of its discursiveness, so that is something I will have to return to later.
Of Christina Stead she writes, “[Brian] Penton and Miss Stead brought here some belated latest cries in regurgitations of psychoanalysis and James Joyce, since widely diffused in fiction… Christina Stead has since been lost to Australian novels… Abroad she has written fiction as impressive as any of the top shelf… Will she, one day, like Henry Handel Richardson return to her birth soil to reach full stature?”.
Patrick White, who by 1950 had written Happy Valley, The Living and the Dead and The Aunt’s Story, she mentions not at all.
Miles Franklin, Laughter, Not for a Cage, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1956
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to Miles Franklin Central (here)