An Outback Marriage, AB Paterson

An Outback Marriage

This is a really odd cover image as the marriage in question definitely didn’t involve a blushing maiden in a long white dress, but was conducted by a dying missionary in an outback pub between a couple of rough nuts who probably weren’t very sober at the time. Which two rough nuts is the mystery this piece of light fiction by Australia’s most famous Bush poet sets out to solve.

I’m not a student of, or even very often a reader of, poetry and part of the reason for that is the Bush Doggerel forced on us as ‘poetry’ at school. Still, some of the Bush Ballads, in the tradition of the Scottish Borders form revived by Walter Scott, were ok, and the best of them were penned by Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson (1864-1941).

Paterson grew up on properties near Yass (300 km southwest of Sydney), in the foothills of the high country, Miles Franklin country. He went away to school at Sydney Grammar, failed to get a scholarship to uni and settled for doing his articles as a solicitor. His career as a writer began with the submission of stories and poetry to the Bulletin. He was a war correspondent during part of the Boer War and later served in the First World War. Interestingly, his entry in Wikipedia says “In 1908 after a trip to the United Kingdom he decided to abandon journalism and writing and moved with his family to a 16,000-hectare (40,000-acre) property near Yass.” An Outback Marriage was published in 1906.

Paterson was immensely popular for his ballads and no doubt hoped that An Outback Marriage, his first novel, would build on that.  HM Green writes in his seminal History of Australian Literature: “Banjo Paterson and Steele Rudd each published a couple of novels of which one is worth a mention. Paterson’s The Shearer’s Colt (1936) is a slight but entertaining story …”. So no luck there!

Franklin, 15 years his junior, idolized Paterson. She writes of young bushmen taking turns to recite excerpts of his work, and in My Career Goes Bung, has Sybylla go back to the flat of Australia’s “one great literary man”. Much of An Outback Marriage is set in ‘Franklin country’, and so I wondered how Franklin felt on reading Paterson’s first novel, which is clearly inferior to her own (published in 1901). I turned to Franklin’s diaries. On 6 and 7 October 1943 she was re-reading An Outback Marriage “in connection with an ABC talk”.

It turns out that in 1903 George Robertson (of Angus & Robertson) told Paterson to take his ms “to little Miles Franklin & get her to put the blood and tears into it.” MF made some suggestions which were not well received. But, she writes, “The association then proceeded with my interested investigation of the most sophisticated man who had so far attempted to woo me sexually. It was an exciting experience – but that is another story.”

MF’s opinion, now, of the book is scathing –

It was as if he gathered up all his knowledge of bush life and carpentered it up into a longer tale than those in his bush verses. Reading it now I see its resemblance in design to Mrs Campbell [Rosa] Praed’s successes. He has an heiress who is sent home to be educated. There is a bright new chum, Jim Carew. There are love affairs but the brightness seems forced & the fun mechanical. Jim Carew and a Gordon, of the family who are managing the heiress’s station, go north to look for the next of kin to Carew’s ancestral estate. This is done creakingly to drag in buffalo hunting in the north. That sort of thing queers the whole story. The novel is cynical and shallow.

The story turns on whether the heiress’s father had earlier married up north the sister of one of his Irish neighbours, an excuse for lots of lawyering, Paterson’s other profession, or whether the blushing bride had married some other bushman, and initially at least, whether there was a bride at all. I don’t need to say any more except that Paterson deals entirely in racial stereotypes, and no it’s not just the times. The Irish settlers are thieves, liars and drunkards. The Chinese smoke opium. The Blacks, including the women, are great horsemen; they are kept working long after the (white) men have settled down for a smoke; away from white influence they are dirty and lazy; and when they get in the way they are shot.

I looked in Trove for reviews contemporaneous with the novel’s publication. Mostly they were glowing – “we do not know a better Australian novel” (Sydney Sunday Times, 25 Nov 1906), “He can tell a story in prose as well as in verse” (Albury Banner, 30 Nov 1906);  interestingly, their first point of comparison was often with cowboy stories from the US. There is one suggestion that the novel grew out of an earlier serialised story, ‘In No Man’s Land’ (Orange Leader, 27 Sep 1906) – which might coincide with the section, pages 120-180. But the Bulletin Red Page says it best: “… one suspects that the author does not imagine his book a masterpiece. Yet it has its niche – a cheerful Australian yarn, lightly told.” (6 Dec 1906).

The Red Page story also criticises the book’s plain blue cover in comparison with much better presented English and American works. So it’s likely the plain blue hardback from Viking/Penguin which I read was intended as a facsimile.


AB Paterson, An Outback Marriage, first pub. 1906. Republished Viking/Penguin, Melbourne, 2009

Paul Brunton ed., The Diaries of Miles Franklin, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004

19 thoughts on “An Outback Marriage, AB Paterson

  1. I had to laugh at the ‘how times have changed’ element of your description of Paterson’s early adulthood – no scholarship to university and had to ‘settle’ for doing articles 😀 These days, kids who want to pursue law (and I suspect there’s a few at Sydney Grammar, although perhaps I’m making unfair assumptions), are in stiff competition to get articles and, even if they get them, it doesn’t translate to employment. As my own kids approach the age where they are being required to make career choices, I have to constantly remind myself that employment looks very different now than it did when I was entering the workforce (and how it was for my parents etc) – short-term contracts and part-time work with multiple employers seems to be the way things are going.


    • Articles in those days of course were a form of apprenticeship and an alternative to university study, right up to the 1960s. I don’t have much experience of the modern labour market but I think free internships take us back 50 or 100 years when only rich kids could afford to get good jobs.


      • Absolutely. I have friends who are academics and having been a mature-age student myself (and comparing my undergrad experience to more recent study), I have LOTS of thoughts on this trend to ‘internships’. Given that our tertiary system is going the same way as the US (ie. massive debt accrued to get a qualification that doesn’t guarantee you employment anyway), many kids in the US are ditching uni and instead investing their money in self-funding unpaid internships – they finish two years with less debt than their peers and crucial experience. I did a similar thing when I made my career change – my university was pressuring me to do the Masters but instead I volunteered at a place that I could count as ‘experience’ – I’m under no illusion that I was lucky to be able to do that. When it came to job interviews, no one was asking about a Masters, they were only asking about experience.

        My eldest son is interested in a career that doesn’t require a tertiary qualification (but he could easily do one in the field). I’ve told him to apply for uni as a ‘safety net’ but to spend a year doing it, giving it a go, making contacts, getting experience – and to see what happens from there.


      • I definitely think uni is worth doing for its own sake, I was enrolled for more than 15 years all up, but that was mostly before you had to pay. One day we will have a labor government with the gumption to enforce labour laws, and internships will be made illegal. One day.


  2. I’m thinking of Ion Idress here. It was all very well for MF and George Robertson to want a different kind of novel, but ABP knew what his jokers wanted and it wasn’t a literary novel…


  3. I almost enrolled for a Western (as in cowboys) Lit class when I was in college. I wanted to very badly, but that last semester I crammed in so many classes so I could GTFO, and if I took Western Lit, I’d have to get rid of another class and come back for another semester just to take that one class. Anyway, the idea of this look at a bride in rough circumstances and mixing with the cowboy genre sounds interesting.


    • I read cowboy books when they came as cheap paperbacks (wrap around paper covers), in fact I would read anything I saw lying around, in lunchrooms and so on. And I’ve read some Zane Grey more recently to see what he was like. I need to go back properly and do some early “noble frontiersman” reading which is the common root of Aust, US and no doubt Canadian outback/cowboy myths. I even have some on my shelves, from my father and grandfathers


      • I haven’t read it, or seen the movie. I’m sure it will be interesting, but it will also reflect 1970s attitudes. Would be interesting to compare it with a Zane Grey, or even better, a novel written by someone who lived in the west in the C19th.


  4. How did I miss this? I’m guessing it was the Christmas rush. I can’t recollect even being aware that Paterson wrote novels, so I greatly enjoyed your post Bill, including the Franklin research. Interesting that the reviews were generally positive. I can’t help thinking that most of my reading in Trove has been about women writers and that, there, reviewers aren’t scared to criticise even where they like a book or the writing overall. That would be interesting to research. Are reviewers more comfortable picking holes in women’s writing than in men’s?


    • What I don’t understand is how you got back to it. But I’m glad you did.

      You are Troving a few reviews now, and have given me the bug. I think that for the first 60 or so years of the C20th men reviewers treated men writers with more respect than they deserved – to follow in the footsteps of Lawson (and Murdoch and Bean) was right and everything else was questionable, hence the critical success of Vance Palmer. As I’ve said before, Miles Franklin wasn’t accepted until she wrote a guy book, All That Swagger, and even there the reviewers noticed that a lot of the action was centred on the kitchen. Between (first wave) feminism, modernism and social realism, women writers didn’t do a lot to endear themselves to conservative male reviewers.


      • Haha Bill. I subscribe by email, and all the emails go into a special folder. I only delete them when I’ve read them (or so much time has past that I just have to let them go). Every now and then, I do a clean up and sort the folder by blogger. That’s when I find yours that I’ve missed because I don’t want to miss them.

        I think I’ve been Troving reviews for quite a long time, though I guess I’ve also been Troving more general articles too. Anyhow, clearly I think you are right about the male reviewers treating male with special respect.

        Liked by 1 person

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