The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

KSP writes in the preface to the 1963 edition: “Notes for The Pioneers were made in 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland. But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story …”. The novel, her first, was published in 1915 and was a success. Nathan Hobby, whose Prichard biography is at this moment at the printers, has more to say about the book’s origins here.

She goes on: “It grew from the yarns and gossip I heard at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville, and my wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. The Wirree river referred to may be recognised as the Tara, which was an escape route for convicts from Van Dieman’s Land [Tasmania] in the early days.” And hence we may infer that Wirreeford stands in for Yarram.

For the benefit of foreigners, Gippsland is that part of Victoria to the east of Melbourne and south of the Victorian Alps (map, Yarram out to the east, near the coast). It is hilly, damp, fertile and green, home once to enormous eucalypts, their range now greatly restricted by clear felling for farming and timber milling. Though, as I remember from my childhood there, the sandy coastal regions feature mostly scrubby paper barks. South Gippsland is Gunai country, though Prichard doesn’t pay the original inhabitants much attention. The Gunai were dispersed by a series of massacres of which you may read more here.

The Pioneers is historical fiction covering the early days of white settlement, which began, in this area, in the 1840s. Miles Franklin claimed in the 1930s (I can’t locate a source for this statement) that she and Steele Rudd were the progenitors of a uniquely Australian school of fiction dealing with the lives of ordinary families in the Bush, which she distinguishes from the ‘mateship’/Lone Hand/ Bulletin school (Gen 2); from the urban modernism and social realism of the years between the Wars (Gen 3); and from earlier ‘upper class’ novels of bush life, such as those by Henry Kingsley and Ada Cambridge (Gen 1).

I have written before that in the 1970s, John Hirst and Judith Godden posited that the myth of the Independent Bushman/Lone Hand (“the Australian Legend”) had been ameliorated in the 1930s by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth. Miles Franklin was a big part of that, but it is clear that The Pioneers, which predates MF’s re-flowering as a writer of pioneer fiction by a couple of decades, must earn KSP at least co-progenitor status.

That said, The Pioneers is more Robbery Under Arms than All That Swagger, but with an admirable dash of Independent Woman thrown in, and some lovely descriptive prose.

The novel begins with Donald and Mary Cameron making their way inland from ‘Port Southern’ into hilly, forested country. Donald is a Scot and Mary is Welsh. Sticking closely to ethnic stereotypes, Donald is as well known for being tight-fisted and Mary tells stories about fairies. I’m not sure that without the notes we’d know where or when we are. It is clear that the couple are pioneers, squatting on uncleared land in the bush but the nearest we get to locating ourselves is the arrival of escaped convicts from Port Arthur/Hobart Town over the water (though that’s hardly specific as Mary Bryant for instance escaped by boat as far as Jakarta).

A few months later .. A one-roomed hut, built of long, rough-barked saplings, ranged one above the other, and thatched with coarse reddish-brown bark, laid on in slabs, stood on the brow of the hill not far from the dray’s first resting place.

A light under the door indicates a restless night and in the morning Donald emerges with a bundle wrapped in a shawl, his son Davey. Unlike most pioneer families, that’s it for issue and Davey remains an only child.

The convicts above are important because they arrive when Donald is away, but Mary, apparently unafraid, helps them, making of one a friend for life, who when he returns a few years later with his daughter Deidre, becomes the local schoolmaster.

Donald prospers. Davey and Deidre grow up side by side. A little township forms. A bushfire sweeps through while Donald is away (again) and Mary is saved by the Schoolmaster. The pioneer side of the story declines in importance and instead, as we concentrate on the second generation we get into Walter Scott territory with villainous publicans, rival lovers and cattle rustling.

Deidre watched Davey going out of Narrow Valley in dim starlight of the early spring morning, the mob, hustled by Teddy and the dogs, a stream of red and brown and dappled hides before him.

I’ve read a few KSP’s – Working Bullocks, Coonardoo, Haxby’s Circus that I can think of – and I’ve generally found her prose awkward, stilted. That is not the case here. Perhaps as is so often the case, her first book was her best book. The descriptions flow. The action flows. It’s a good story, well told.

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Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, first pub. 1915. Revised edition (pictured) Rigby, 1963. Kindly loaned to me by Lisa/ANZLL.

For other KSP reviews see AWW Gen 2 page (here)

Turning the Century, Christopher Lee ed.

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week

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Among the books sitting unread on the shelves behind me, most of them second-hand acquisitions lost in the mists of time, I have discovered patiently waiting its turn, and months too late for AWW Gen 2 Week, this anthology of Australian 1890s writing edited by Christopher Lee (author of the Henry Lawson biography City Bushman, another on my shelves I’m yet to review).

I see, for the first time ever in my life, a short story/piece by Miles Franklin, plus many, many others. For this review I’ll stick to the women. But first some words from the Introduction.

This new collection of 1890s writing represents the ways in which Australian literature responded to a set of social, cultural, and political problems that were typical of empire and yet richly inflected by local experience.

The predominately British Settler culture was inevitably preoccupied with domesticating the exotic spaces of the ancient continent and writers were imaginative about rethinking their new home and its relation to the Old World.

The emergence of a self-consciously Australian sentiment in the decade preceding Federation [1901] soon became the stuff of legend …

[The Bulletin] was racist, misogynist, socialist and republican … In art and letters it displayed its editor’s preference for forms of Realism compatible with the new journalism … The controversial French realist, Emile Zola, was a significant role model.

Lee also cites William Lane’s The Worker and of course Louisa Lawson’s Dawn as journals which took the workers’ side but were opposed to the Bulletin’s misogyny. Interestingly, Lee claims that chapters espousing socialism were edited out of both Such is Life and Catherine Martin’s An Australian Girl.

The rights of Aborigines were barely considered: “The original inhabitants of the continent were represented throughout the nineteenth century by a set of recurring tropes that justified exploration, invasion and then settlement.”

Miles Franklin: A Governess in the Bush

I droop with disappointment. It’s just an extract from My Brilliant Career. The Mitchell has reams of Franklin’s shorter pieces, won’t someone resurrect them?

Ada Cambridge: Leaving “The Nest”

Cited as “from The Perversity of Human Nature” which is not a novel listed under Ada Cambridge in Wikipedia (here) but which is available from Project Gutenberg (here).

Lexie Brown and her husband have argued and she is sure that he no longer wants her. Over a couple of days she gets her money from the bank, purchases a second class ticket ‘home’, smuggles a suitcase past her servants, packs and leaves. This is very unexpected of Ada Cambridge, and with poor Lexie sobbing in her bunk as the ship pulls away from Williamstown (Melbourne) we can only imagine Robert following post-haste to England, all misunderstandings forgiven. (Now I’ll have to read the whole book).

Louisa Lawson: Marriage Not a Failure

Lawson argues that women must be protected from “free unions” because they will be abandoned by their husbands when they become unattractive in their forties, while men remain vigorous for one or two more decades:

For centuries woman has sighed under the inequalities which beset her in every relation of life as compared with men, but it is only now she is rousing herself to remove them… In a hundred years her economic dependence, which is one of the chief causes of trouble in our present marriage law will have given place to a recognition and accordance of her proper place in the monetary and social relations of the community.

Stirring stuff! Lawson was poorly educated and in her forties herself before she left her husband and the little bush block at Eurunderee to come to the city.

 Mrs EA Chads: Woman’s Opportunities and Home-Influence

I don’t know from whence this nonsense was taken, here’s a sample –

It is useless to deny that there are cruel and neglectful husbands in the world, but it is equally true that there would be far more happy homes if women only used their God-given power of influence in the right direction.

Tasma: Monsieur Caloche

A story of 15 or so pages which may also be found in her collection, A Sydney Sovereign (my review).

This is a difficult story to discuss without entirely giving away the ending, which in any case is foreshadowed almost from the beginning. Tasma only lived in Victoria – in Melbourne and on her first husband’s property at Malmsbury – for 10 or 12 years but her descriptions of country and people are detailed and accurate.

The sparse gum leaves hung as motionless on their branches as if they were waiting to be photographed. Their shadows on the yellowing grass seemed painted into the soil. The sky was as tranquil as the plain below. The smoke from the homestead reared itself aloft in a long thinly drawn column of grey. A morning of heat and repose, when even the sunlight does not frolic, and all nature toasts itself, quietly content.

A slight boy, his delicate features scarred by smallpox, applies at the offices of Bogg & Co. with references from France:

Homme de lettres! It was a stigma that Bogg, of Bogg & Co., could not overlook. As a practical man, a self-made man who had opened up new blocks of country … what could be expected of him in the way of holding out a helping hand to a scribbler … He was probably a ruffianly Communist. The French could not get hold of all the rebels*, and here was one in the outer office of Bogg & Co. coolly waiting for a situation.

Bogg, a bully, instead of giving M Caloche office work, sends him up the country where he unexpectedly distinguishes himself as a horseman. A year later, Blogg making the rounds of his properties, strikes the young man across the breast with his whip …

 

There’s plenty more, apart from the men (men outnumber women 90:24) – a gruesome piece about a young wife on a Victorian station who does battle with her husband’s cook (Chummy); Rosa Praed; an extract from An Australian Girl; more Cambridge; the usual Bayntons; poetry by Louisa Lawson, Louise Mack, Mary Gilmore and others.

 

Christopher Lee ed., Turning the Century: Writing of the 1890s, UQP, Brisbane, 1999

Reviews of quite a few of the works and authors mentioned here can be found on this site’s AWW Gen 1 and Gen 2 pages.


*The uprising known as the Paris Commune took place in the Spring of 1871. Monsieur Caloche was probably written in the late 1870s.

My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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My masters was built around My Brilliant Career, my truck is named after it, I have done innumerable (well, 23) posts about Franklin, but I have never posted a review of this her first and most famous novel. Luckily however, Emma of Book Around the Corner, last year, and now Karen of Booker Talk – who coincidentally, being respectively French and Welsh, bring an ‘outsider’s’ perspective to the task – have stepped up to the plate for me.


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Every time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image.  That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes.  Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.

Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn. Read on …

On the Road Again

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Do you remember this sentence from Seasons Greetings 2018 – “I’ve pulled my last trailer for Sam and Dragan.” Not! This other sentence – “I’ve already handed the truck over to a mechanic who has promised to set it up for the next million kilometres of its working life” is the clue. As is the way with engine rebuilds, one thing led to another, the price went up and up, and trailer buying has been pushed back a month or two.

Once the mechanic was finished I took the truck around the corner to a signwriter (a decal maker these days) with the results you see. Years ago, when paint jobs were free with new trucks Milly and I spent ages coming up with fancy colour schemes for the new Scania I never bought. These days, particularly in the West, most trucks are white, but one of the joys of ownership is being able to personalize your ride.

Anyway, I sat down last weekend with Sam and Dragan and we decided it made sense to go on a bit longer as we were, build up a bit of a backstop before I splashed all my cash on trailers. (I looked at finance, but the idea of releasing all that info into the wild filled me with horror). So here I am heading off to … Melbourne as it happened and now I’m on the way home.

The other thing I did over the break – apart from my quarterly and annual tax, isn’t that neverending?! – is I made myself a website, using WordPress, billhtrucking.com if you want to have a look. I used a totally new gmail account to set it up, but they still managed somehow to link back to theaustralianlegend. Don’t ask me how. I’ll use the site to issue posts, but only to advise clients, potential clients (and family) where I expect to be next; and really only as a device to maintain a list of trips done.

I also had a shot at using the ‘gallery’ option for photos, but I’m not really happy with it as it adds new pics at the bottom, rather than at the top where you would see them straight away. Still, WordPress were very helpful in getting me started and another chat with their help desk would probably get that fixed too (no they didn’t).

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Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

Thank you everyone for participating in AWW Gen 2 Week – readers, commenters, reviewers. Please note that Brona has done a second Ethel Turner review – The Story of a Baby – which I won’t be able to read for another day or so (sorry Brona).

Interestingly during the week, we didn’t discuss Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson, nor the period’s most popular books, My Brilliant Career and Seven Little Australians. But these have all been reviewed previously and I think that with the authors we did discuss this time we have gained a good idea of how women writers responded to the dominant trends – nationalism and bush realism – of the 90s. 

The updated list of posts for the week is as follows:-

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, ANZLitLovers

Mary Grant Bruce, Billabong series, Michelle Scott Tucker

Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Capel Boake, Whispering Gums

Capel Boake: Three short stories Whispering Gums

Ethel Turner, In the Mist of the Mountains, Brona’s Books

Ethel Turner, The Story of a Baby, Brona’s Books

Louise Mack, A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, Nancy Elin

Louise Mack, Teens, wadh

Louise Mack, Girls Together, Whispering Gums

Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, wadh

Rosa Praed, Sister Sorrow, Jessica White

Background –

Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer, wadh

Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties, wadh

Frank Moorhouse ed., The Drover’s Wife, wadh

There’s plenty more on the AWW Gen 2 page, lots of old reviews, more background posts including two on Louise Mack by Sue and Lisa, and with many of the older books out of copyright, I have put links to downloadable text whenever I come across them.

Lisa (ANZLL) also did two posts on Catherine Helen Spence (here) (here) but as I already had entries for Spence on the AWW Gen 1 page, I took the easy option and linked them there.

Reviews subsequent to AWW Gen 2 Week (Jan 2019) –

Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, Booker Talk

 

One more photo (sorry B.i.L)

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Recent audiobooks

Paullina Simons (F, USA), Red Leaves (2011)
Erica Spindler (F, USA), Triple Six (2016)
Stephanie Laurens (F, Eng), The Murder at Mandeville Hall (2018)
Brenda Niall (F, Aus), True North (2011)
EB North (F, USA), An Unseemly Wife (2014)
Caroll O’Connell (F, USA), Stone Angel (1997)

Currently reading

Louise Mack, Teens
AS Patric, The Butcherbird Stories (2018)
Dave Warner, River of Salt (2019)

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Sister Sorrow, Rosa Praed

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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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.


Jessica White Jessica White

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 …

 

Teens, Louise Mack

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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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

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, ANZLitLovers

Mary Grant Bruce, Billabong series, Michelle Scott Tucker

Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Capel Boake, Whispering Gums

Ethel Turner, In the Mist of the Mountains, Brona’s Books

Louise Mack, A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, Nancy Elin

Louise Mack, Teens, wadh

Louise Mack, Girls Together, Whispering Gums (coming!)

Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, wadh

Background –

Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer, wadh

Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties, wadh

Frank Moorhouse ed., The Drover’s Wife, wadh

In the Mist of the Mountains, Ethel Turner

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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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.


178d3c9b3c81ff378159e63c4ba1500a.jpg  Brona’s Books

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 …

Billabong series, Mary Grant Bruce

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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.


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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.

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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.

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Want to know more?

Yes, the now famous Australian biographer Brenda Niall’s very first book was about Billabong. She and Alison Alexander must have been cross, though, about their books coming out in the same year!

 

The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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Lisa at ANZLitLovers has already put up a review for AWW Gen 2 Week. She makes some important points discussing the different ways this important first novel from KSP can be categorised.


c5b3363f5556b3f32f816ae4abb9da0e.jpg  ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Bill is hosting AWW Gen 2 over at The Australian Legend, and The Pioneers is the book I promised to read for this important literary week in the Australian Literary calendar. Bill defines this second generation of Australian writing as the period between 1890 and 1918.  To my surprise I didn’t have a single book by a woman writer for that period, so I decided to chase up Katharine Susannah Prichard’s output for these years and found her debut novel The Pioneers. Read on …

 

AWW Gen 2 Week Reminder

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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Bertha Lawson by F. Rodway c.1913

Sue (Whispering Gums) asked me to remind her that AWW Gen 2 was coming up, so here you go Sue, you have one week. In one comment I think you said you had a Louise Mack to read, but I can’t find it (the comment) again. Michelle Scott Tucker has already sent me her guest post on Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books and I warn you all, she sets a high standard.

As a sort of introduction I have a post on Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties – sort of, because he barely mentions women at all – which I will put up this Friday, then I think I will put Michelle’s up on Sunday night. After that I will put up/link to posts as they come in. I am working on Miles Franklin’s Joseph Furphy for my main post, though I might try to read/review Louise Mack’s Teens as well.

Apart from these – off the top of my head – there will be posts on works by Rosa Praed, Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson, Katharine Susannah Prichard, so it’s looking good! No Barbara Baynton though I’m open to being surprised, and between us we’ve done a fair bit on her in the past.

I’ve changed the image at the top of the AWW Gen 2 page to the portrait (above) of Henry and Bertha Lawson’s daughter, Bertha by Florence Aline Rodway (1881–1971) after I saw her mentioned by Palmer as being ‘encouraged’ by Archibald of the Bulletin. She was a portraitist of some repute and Art Gallery NSW has quite a few of her paintings. If you know of other women painters from this period I’d be interested to hear about them.

Please let me know when you have done a review, particularly if you think I might not otherwise see it, and I’ll share it or at least make sure it’s included in the end of week wrap and that it’s linked from the AWW Gen 2 page.