Early Australian Literature
[ Issue 41 ]

Early Australian Literature is a particular interest of Emily Bronto

Bikwil salutes Early Australian Literature

Early Australian Literature

Col Choat waxes enthusiastically on some obscure pieces of early Aussie literature.
 

Jonah is a novel set in Sydney in the early 1900s. Many of the places described — Chinatown and Paddy's markets, Botany Road, Sydney Harbour and its foreshores — are icons of Sydney. The characters — members of the "Push", rags-to-riches businessmen like Jonah, and battlers like Chook and Pinky — are just as recognisable today. This novel has been described as the first great novel about Sydney. It has been the subject of a television series and has been adapted for the stage. Yet it is certainly not well-known by the reading public in Australia.

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Sleeping Giants — Col Choat

Copyright


A television series was shown recently on Australian television about Ernest Shackleton’s Expedition to the South Pole in the early years of the twentieth century. Shackleton wrote the account soon after the expedition ended and the book, whilst popular at the time, has remained in relative obscurity for over half a century. It, no doubt, became popular reading again following the television series as viewers, intrigued by the story, went back to the original source.

As with Shackleton’s book, much of the early literature of Australia has remained in relative obscurity. It might seem to be as “dry as old bones” and there are certainly few people singing its praises in order to convince people otherwise. There is, after all, no profit in promoting books which are out of copyright, and there is such a mountain of modern work which is promoted by publishers and reviewed in newspapers and literary journals. With such a bewildering number of books to choose from we, as consumers, are often more than willing to be guided by a trusted reviewer towards the novels which we read. Or we might choose the latest novel of a favourite author in the firm knowledge that we won’t be disappointed with it. Such an author, of course, already has “runs on the board.”

However, not everybody adopts the “recommendation” method of choosing books. Recently a newspaper carried a story of a reader who maintained that she simply walked down the aisles of her local library once a week and chose four books at random, from the shelves. She walked through a different section each week — fiction, biography, history, it mattered not to her. She reported that she could only read one book each week, but chose four so that she could discard the “fizzers” and move on to the next one. What courage! Oh, but what buried treasure she must unearth.

Many years ago I purchased a “psycho-analytical” book titled Dibs, in Search of Self by Virginia Axline. It was then, or has become, a classic in the field of “play therapy”. However, I didn’t know that at the time. I don’t know what attracted me to it and enticed me to pluck it from the shelf in the bookstore, but it has remained one of my all-time favourite non-fiction books. Over the years, I have given away three or four copies to friends but have always managed to buy another. I won’t be giving anything away here, in stating that the book its about a small child who seems to be intellectually retarded. Ms Axline interacts with him and it soon emerges that he is a genius with an IQ of 168. Of course that is not so important. More important is the sympathy displayed by the therapist and the incredible courage shown by the little boy in overcoming all of the problems unwittingly heaped upon him by his parents. It has always haunted me that I may never have known this beautiful book if I hadn’t stumbled upon it.

Only a small number of “modern” works survive the test of time to become part of the treasure-trove of literature; and those that do survive may not have been best-sellers in their time. Geoffrey Dutton, in Australia’s Greatest Books, set out to review approximately one hundred books, only one per author, which form part of Australia’s literary heritage. Not all were written by great stylists, but they were all instrumental in helping form Australia’s literary heritage and all are worthwhile in one way or another.

One of Dutton’s selections is Jonah. This is a novel set in Sydney in the early 1900s. Many of the places described — Chinatown and Paddy's markets, Botany Road, Sydney Harbour and its foreshores — are icons of Sydney. The characters — members of the “Push”, rags-to-riches businessmen like Jonah, and battlers like Chook and Pinky — are just as recognisable today. This novel has been described as the first great novel about Sydney. It has been the subject of a television series and has been adapted for the stage. Yet it is certainly not well-known by the reading public in Australia.

Another Dutton selection is The Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson. This was republished as 1788 to coincide with Australia’s bi-centenary. Watkin Tench, who served as a marine on one of the vessels of the First Fleet to arrive in Australia in 1788, provides a first hand account of the voyage and then goes on to describe the subsequent settlement in Sydney. He details the natural environment of Port Jackson and its environs; the efforts to establish food production; the exploratory trips into the hinterland; and, most interestingly, the first interaction between Europeans and the Australian Aborigines. This is a remarkable eye-witness account by a thoughtful, humane man who was also a talented writer. Tench was interested in everyone and everything around him. This work may be considered the first work of Australian literature.

There is a large body of early Australian writing which covers the journals written by early explorers including Sturt, Giles, Leichhardt and Carnegie. Dutton includes a number of these in his list, including Sturt, who had this to say as he and his crew were swept down the Murray River in a whaleboat: “I still retained a strong impression on my mind that some change was at hand, and on this occasion, I was not disappointed; but the view was one for which I was not altogether prepared. We had, at length, arrived at the termination of the Murray. Immediately below me was a beautiful lake, which appeared to be a fitting reservoir for the noble stream that had led us to it; and which was now ruffled by the breeze that swept over it.”

One of my favourite books about Australia by an early writer is The Adventures of Louis de Rougement. To quote a short passage: “Just picture the scene for yourself. The weird, unexplored land stretches away on every side, though one could not see much of it on account of the grassy hillocks. I, a white man, was alone among the blacks in the terrible land of “Never Never,” — as the Australians call their terra incognita; and I was wrestling with a gigantic cannibal chief for the possession of two delicately-reared English girls, who were in his power.”

It never happened. Louis de Rougemont was the assumed name of Swiss-born Louis Grin. The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes him as “an adventurer who decided at the age of sixteen to see the world. He began as a footman to Fanny Kemble, touring through Europe and America, and eventually became butler to the governor of Australia. After spending many years there he contributed to Wilde World Magazine in 1898 sensational articles relating to his extraordinary, mostly bogus, voyages and adventures in search of pearls and gold, where he encountered an octopus with tentacles 75 feet long and rode turtles in the water.” It seems that, after great public excitement in the UK over the stories, he was eventually rumbled when, in a passage of poetic beauty, he described the wonderful “flight of the wombat.” This is a very entertaining book of shipwreck, isolation and adventures with the Australian aborigines, which I found, for the most part, quite unputdownable. You just have to admire an author who can achieve that!

My dictionary defines treasure-trove as “treasure found hidden without evidence of ownership.” There really is a treasure-trove of early Australian literature in libraries throughout Australia. Why not skip down the aisles and grab a few titles. Taste them and discard the ones that don’t appeal. Who knows what treasures you might unearth. What is more, it won’t cost you a cent.

[ Col Choat runs the Project Gutenberg of Australia site, where many of the books mentioned above may be accessed as etexts. ]

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