Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

First Steps toward a History of the Mid-Victorian Novel in Colonial Australia

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

First Steps toward a History of the Mid-Victorian Novel in Colonial Australia

Article excerpt

CERTAIN stories in the history of Australian reading, some of them apocryphal, reflect ironically on one of the governing narratives of print culture studies and postcolonial studies: the narrative of print's 'mastery over the whole world' (Febvre and Martin 11). One such story goes that an iron box full of books sank to the bottom of the Port River near Adelaide in 1836--a victim of the notorious 'Port Misery', which had no proper wharf in the early days of South Australian settlement. (1) Another story, much better known, concerns the library at Borroloola, a remote settlement forty-five miles down the Macarthur River at the bottom end of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory. The story was apparently started by Ernestine Hill, who arrived there in the middle of the Wet some time in the early 1930s, and found four white men and 'a library of 3000 books':

   the finest and most comprehensive library in the North. I peered
   through the dusty windows of the old court-house, at myriads of
   canvas-covered volumes, and could scarcely believe them true. The
   library became a kindly light of sanity to men half mad with
   loneliness. (Hill 214)

Volumes from the Macarthur River Institute were loaned to itinerant bushmen, read by inmates of the lock-up, and passionately debated by the old-timers who sat around on the banks of the river, but all the time the contents of the old courthouse were being slowly eaten away by termites. All that remains of the library, apart from the legend, are some of the old catalogues. They reveal it to have been, in fact, a fairly typical government-subsidised and subscription-supported library of the late 1890s and early 1900s, in which a selection of classics and contemporary literature was included along with a much larger number of mass-market popular novels (see Jose 116-19).

At the limit of the known world the very materiality of books, far from guaranteeing the dissemination of social and cultural values, appears to put writing at risk. In Borroloola, Bill Harney recalled, '"A splendid edition of Shakespeare had been used to light some camp-fire, and my first introduction to Plutarch was in the lavatory of the local pub'" (Jose 108). This is hardly a typical example of the 'differentiated uses and meanings' (Chartier 3) to which sacralised cultural objects are liable, but it is a reminder that they are also perishable goods. How did they manage to do the invisible work of culture formation before the hostile colonial interior got the better of them, leaving almost no trace of their onetime circulation?

So little is known about that invisible work that it is impossible to form any certain idea of the effects of imaginative, discursive, or narrative texts on the minds of settler colonial readers, and ultimately on ways of thinking or being in settler colonial societies. Borroloola is therefore a valuable cautionary tale for historians of reading. It encourages us to celebrate the energy of a bush cognoscenti--it declares the existence of an intellectual life among colonial working people--and at the same time to remember that historical records almost never yield any direct evidence of how their ideas might have flowed into active life. Unlike working-class Britons, nineteenth-century Australian readers were not, for the most part, given to autobiographical reflection (cf. Vincent; Rose). Without surviving copies of the books they read (and might have inscribed with comments or marginal notes) we must rely on a small number of scattered and sometimes cryptic or oblique secondary records: library loan registers and minute books, publishers' and booksellers' sales figures and other circulation statistics, book reviews, and an occasional letter or diary entry. On the basis of this kind of evidence we must conclude, with Robert Darnton, that 'the experience of the great mass of readers lies beyond the range of historical research' (177). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.