There is a GAN, revisited


I mentioned recently that I had seen Jonathan Franzen named as the Great American Author, on a 2011 Time cover I think, and that has led me to revisit the subject of the Great Australian Novel. There is a GAN was one of my earliest posts, and on re-reading I find there is not much I wish to change, at least not in what I say, but two books I have read since then (April 2015) cry out to be included. So my top 10 Great Australian Novels are now –

Voss (1957), Patrick White

Such is Life (1903), Joseph Furphy

The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright (review)

Benang (1999), Kim Scott (review)

The Pea Pickers (1943), Eve Langley (review)

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead

The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland (review)

An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin (review)

The books I had to make room for were The Swan Book and Benang. Everything Alexis Wright writes is soaringly original, invested with poetry, love of language and Indigenous culture. That is true too of Benang though some of Scott’s other works are more prosaic.

And I’ve included too Eve Langley who in 2015 languished in the long list, not so much for The Pea Pickers, which I love, but for her whole body of work, 4,200 pages, largely unpublished, but samples of which Lucy Frost (ed.) used to produce Wilde Eve.

Dropped out were My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, who when young was an original, inventive, exuberant but still thoughtful writer; Loaded by Chris Tsialkos who I think is only a middle ranking author in middle age when I thought he might be much more; and The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler, a work which I still rank very highly but which perhaps is insufficiently mainstream to be one of the ‘greats’.

Voss clings to top spot. White, I get the feeling, is being treated as less and less relevant, but he was a giant of Modernism, in Australia and in the world. Each of his works on its own has substance and his body of work more so. He teaches us how to write and how to write about Australia. Coincidentally, the Voss cover comes from a SMH article Australia Day 2015: Jason Steger picks his top 10 (here).

Furphy is White’s opposite, a working man, a man of the bush, an autodidact, the author of a single work. And yet what a work! Its fiery, mad prose anticipates James Joyce by a quarter of a century.

Stead, like White has a significant body of substantial work. I’ve named The Man Who Loved Children, though my favourite is the thoroughly American Letty Fox: Her Luck (and I still have a couple of big ones left to read). Looking back at the list I see that I have largely avoided romances – just An Australian Girl at no. 10 – is that prejudice do you think? Perhaps I should have named For Love Alone.

That question applies too to Henry Handel Richardson. The Fortunes trilogy is certainly a fine work and made Richardson’s reputation but Maurice Guest is probably more thoughtful and better written.

The question for Dark is, Is The Timeless Land trilogy a great work or ‘merely’ an important one? It is such a landmark in our acknowledgement of the prior rights of Indigenous people in Australia that it is hard to judge its qualities as literature. But Dark’s qualities as a writer and early modernist were made apparent (to me) when I reviewed Waterway last year.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is another work important for being a landmark. Urban, industrial, postmodern, it marked a step up from pre-War social realism.

Which brings us to one of my favourites, An Australian Girl, a very C19th romance with lots of German and moral philosophy in an Australian setting.

And still I haven’t found room for Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, or as Steger reminds me, Elizabeth Harrower, nor for Peter Carey whose Oscar and Lucinda at least, deserved consideration, nor for another Steger choice Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

I look around my shelves, as I often do, and realise that just as I left out Langley last time, this time I have left out (again!) Gerald Murnane. The post can stay as it is but if I were to pick one of his works it would be Border Districts, an intensely thoughtful work about memory, but again, I haven’t read them all.

The question I have in my mind though, is who among our young, and even not so young writers might challenge for inclusion on this list. Or a different/related question, after The Swan Book what is the best novel so far of the C21st? I’m inclined to say Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. Or is it, like The River Ophelia, too narrowly focussed to be a ‘great’. And do I even read enough new releases to be able to offer an opinion. Probably not!

Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin

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

Illustration: Chris Grosz, The Monthly, Sept. 2009

It is not clear even at the distance of more than a century whether Joseph Furphy (1843-1912)  is one of our greatest writers, though he certainly wrote one of our greatest novels, Such is Life (1903) purportedly the memoir of time spent by Tom Collins, a minor NSW government official, with bullock drivers in the Riverina (southern NSW), “a classic which few were to read and no one was ever to establish clearly what it was all about.” (Manning Clark in Furphy’s ADB entry)

I have a first (and only, probably) edition of Miles Franklin’s Joseph Furphy, from now long-gone antiquarian book seller, Magpie’s, in Fremantle, originally belonging to a Paul Le Comte, “member W.A.H.S.” (WA Historical Society?) and including newspaper cuttings and – Emma and Lisa will like this – an information card for Furphy’s burial site in Perth’s Karrakatta Cemetery.

Franklin’s ‘Prefatory Note’ begins –

The time is not yet ripe for a definitive biography of Joseph Furphy. The Australian attitude toward biography opens the case for Mateship versus Modernity, and so far Mateship holds the pass. No frankly searching study of the lives of our prominent personages would be tolerated … because of the still lingering conventions of modesty and reticence by which British middle-class behavior was regulated until inhibition was loosened in the preliminary war of 1914-18.

Jill Roe (2008, p.388) thinks that Franklin is averting to the possibility of an affair between Furphy and Kate Baker (1861-1953), Franklin’s ‘collaborator’ in this work. The married Furphy and Baker, 18 years his junior, met in 1886 when Baker was teaching near Rushworth (in central Victoria). They became lifelong friends. Baker was important in encouraging Furphy to write, and after his death and her early retirement at 52 she did all she could to publicize and safeguard his work (ADB). By 1939, when she spent 5 months in Sydney with Franklin getting this biography underway, Baker was elderly and stone deaf and Franklin largely took over, so that the collaboration consisted of Franklin writing from the material Baker had collected over a lifetime.

Franklin was herself a Furphy fan and she and Furphy had exchanged complimentary letters and subsequently met, in 1904 (see also Such is Life, Abridged!).

It is sometimes stated that this biography won the 1944 Prior Prize, the year the book was published, but in fact Franklin won the 1939 Prior Prize for the essay Who was Joseph Furphy? which she dashed off after Baker had returned to Melbourne, though she shared the £100 with her (Franklin initially came second but the ms which beat her, MH Ellis’ biography of Governor Macquarie*, was belatedly judged to be insufficiently foot-noted).

Franklin begins at interesting point. After a brief ‘Furphian’ digression – one of the features of Such is Life is its flights down side alleys – on the development or otherwise of a distinctly Australian literature, she gives us Kate Baker, newly hatched school teacher, rushing to catch the train, and subsequently a coach and then a spring cart to the home of Isaac Furphy – brother of Joseph – and his family where she is to board for a year, before moving six miles to board another year at the home of Samuel and Mrs Furphy, Joseph’s parents, constantly inundated, by Joseph’s brothers and sisters and their children, by Joseph’s wife Leonie and their children, by everyone around except Joseph whom Kate finally meets only on the day of her departure.

When Joe began to talk he justified himself as the literary prodigy of the family. He was then forty-four, Kate Baker in her twenties.

Joe talked till 1.00 am, and again the following night. Then it was time to leave, and she asked him to visit her and her parents some time in Melbourne.

We then return conventionally to the beginning and Furphy’s surprisingly, almost Austenesque, literary home environment. Of his juvenilia Franklin writes:

A copy of “Childe Booth’s Pilgrimage” has been preserved. It bears traces of easy acquaintance with Scott, Longfellow, Homer, Byron, Burns, Moore and others. Written when the boy was between fourteen and fifteen years of age, it shows him in embryo the Furphy who in 1897 delivered of Such is Life.

Joseph was one of five brothers, and journals were kept by their mother of their writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. The Furphys had come out from Ireland in 1841, were employed and sometimes self-employed in various locations outside of Melbourne, including Kyneton where Joseph went to school. In 1868 they took up land, “Sand Hills”**, around Lake Cooper (map) in the names of Samuel (senior), Joseph and Isaac, building themselves homes which survived into the 1950s, and it is there that Kate Baker came to teach.

Today it is an inspiring sight to gaze from Mount Burramboot over the glowing plains which reach away to the blue distance for leagues on every side. In the foreground Lake Cooper and its satellites glisten like sapphires in a shield.

Joe’s selection lived up to it’s name and after five years he gave up, rented nearby while he tried a bit of gold prospecting, then with a wagon and bullocks, he uprooted his tiny, French wife and their children to follow him as a bullocky through the backblocks of NSW. His oldest son Felix, not a budding writer, who had command of Furphy’s second wagon wrote to his grandfather in 1883 –

I have no books hear but the third book and the story of the too dogs and father reads nothing but shakspere everybody carries books but they are yellow novels …

Older brother John, a blacksmith, had in the meanwhile set up the famous Furphy Foundry in Shepparton. When Joseph’s enterprise failed, due to drought and disease in the cattle, Leonie wrote home for help and a position was made for Joseph at the foundry. At last he had a settled home and could begin to write.

His first piece, “The Mythical Sundowner”, appeared in the Bulletin 5 Oct 1889, signed Warrigal Jack, though he later used Tom Collins, a “synonym for idle rumour” (as ‘Furphy’ was to become during WWI).

Over the next decade or so, he was engaged constantly, when he wasn’t working, in reading, writing, and researching, setting tasks for Kate Baker, and corresponding with fellow pedant and polymath William Cathels.

By 1897 he had an ms in want of a publisher. He wrote to the Bulletin seeking advice, and AG Stephens asked him to submit it to them – 1125 hand written pages. Furphy advised Stephens –

The plan of the book is not like any other that I know of – at least, I trust not. Also you will notice that a certain by-play in plot and éclaircissment is hidden from the philosophic narrator, however apparent to the matter of fact reader.

Stephens wrote at length to Furphy setting out in detail the economics of publication. First requirement was a typed copy and Furphy, fearful that a typist would bowdlerize his often profane masterpiece, purchased Shepparton’s third typewriter, taught himself to type, and knocked out a copy in … 12 months!

At his point in the book Franklin reproduces a great deal of (fascinating) correspondence. I find it interesting that both Stephens and Cathels, the first people to read and admire Such is Life, saw it as an idiosyncratic but essentially true-to-life account of Bush life, whereas I see it as one of the great works of Modernism, essentially about writing and language as Picasso’s work is about painting, not funny-looking women.

For three years the Bulletin prevaricated about publishing. It was a fine book, but much too long. They would bear a loss out of the goodness of their hearts. And so on. Furphy finally conceived the idea of excising two strands of the original, which would go on to be books in their own right, the novel Rigby’s Romance and the collection of stories which eventually became The Buln-Buln and the Brolga. Even so, correction, re-typing, illustration, proof reading dragged on through all of 1901 (when Miles Franklin’s own My Brilliant Career stole some of his thunder) and 1902.

Finally, in June 1903 Stephens wrote to Furphy that 2,000 copies had been printed and 500 bound, –

“… the book market is dead, have no hope of selling them for some time… Your whole affair is the curious instance of that dead and gone thing conscience. The book’s so good that it has got itself printed against foreknowledge and predestination absolute that it’ll have a darned slow sale. I mention this as a faint excuse for the shocking delays.”

Such is Life was finally released in August 1903 with an inappropriately floral cover, to mostly good reviews in Australia and adverse in Britain. Sales were poor, around 25 a month, making it impossible for the Bulletin to consider Rigby’s Romance. Furphy wrote a review of his own, concluding –

… the studied inconsecutiveness of the “memoirs” is made to mask coincidence and cross-purposes, sometimes too intricate.

In 1905 Furphy and his wife moved to Perth WA where their children were already established. They lived between the rail line and the sea, Cottesloe or Swanbourne. Between making their homes habitable, and surf bathing, he was fully occupied and after only little more than a decade, his writing career was at an end.

Rigby’s Romance was published in the Barrier Truth (Broken Hill) in 1905-6 and it was 15 years before Kate Baker could arrange to have it published as a book. Furphy died in 1912 without ever returning to see his friends in Melbourne, but maintained an active correspondence.

The last quarter of the biography is an analysis of Furphy’s work, including Miles’ frustration at Furphy’s inadequate depiction of women, ending with a discussion on the relative merits, and fame, of Ulysses, Such is Life and Remembrance of Times Past.

furphy cutting 1


Miles Franklin, in association with Kate Barker, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1944.

Shane Maloney, Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy, The Monthly, Sept 2009 (here)

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008

Such is Life is available from Text Classics in print (2013) and e-book.

*M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times – “after a fortnight’s examination, Ida [Leeson, Mitchell Library] declared the work undocumented and full of inaccuracies.” Franklin’s work was “elevated from ‘highly commended’ to first place, with a rider that entry No. 62 would have won had it been fully documented and the references checked.” From the NLA database it appears that Ellis’ work was published in stages from 1942 to 1952, and has since been reprinted.

**Googling ‘Sand Hills Furphy’ brings up directory entries which indicate that the family still farms there; a family reunion on May 25; and a death notice for Joseph’s mother.

furphy cuttings 008

This cutting fortuitously references not just Furphy but Mollie Skinner (see Writing the Boy in the Bush) who might come up again later in AWW Gen 2 Week

AWW Gen 2 Week posts you might have missed –

Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Capel Boake, Whispering Gums

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

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)
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