Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Not Reading the Nation: Australian Readers of the 1890s

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Not Reading the Nation: Australian Readers of the 1890s

Article excerpt

IN the twelve years when I was editing the literary journal Southerly, I often had occasion to complain that far more people wished to publish their fiction and poetry in the journal than wanted to buy it and read it. Looking back over several decades of research into what Australians have been writing and reading since the beginning of the nineteenth century, I am inclined to believe that it was ever thus: that Australian literature has more readily found writers than readers. The pages of the often short-lived but surprisingly numerous newspapers and magazines published in Australia before 1850 are in most cases dotted over with original poems, and often with stories and serialised novels. But individual volumes of poetry were rarely published at this time, and usually at the author's expense. Was the situation any different in the 1890s, when the majority of non-Indigenous Australians had for the first time been born in Australia rather than travelled there from elsewhere?

In Australian cultural as well as political history, the 1890s have been seen as a key decade in the progress towards a distinctive national identity. The decade was also the heyday of the highly nationalist Sydney magazine, the Bulletin; and it was in the pages of the Bulletin, so it has long been claimed, that the first genuinely Australian, as opposed to colonial, literature was published. The poems and stories of Henry Lawson and the poems of Banjo Paterson, in particular, became so popular with readers that bookseller George Robertson, the leading player in the Sydney firm of Angus & Robertson, was encouraged to bring them out in volume form. Eleven thousand copies of Paterson's The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses (1895) were printed in the first 15 months after publication (Alison 29). (1) It is when one tries to discover who some of these thousands of 1890s readers (or at least purchasers) of Paterson's poetry were, and what they may have thought of his work, that the problems arise.

If histories of literature have, until recently, showed scant regard for anyone but authors, apart from an occasional glance at a publisher or critic, it is largely because authors, or at least those who manage to achieve book publication, have a public profile which readers do not, with the exception of some highly specialist readers such as critics or reviewers. Those interested in the history of what was read, as opposed to what was written, have to look much harder for their evidence, unless they wish to confine themselves to the reading done by people who were also authors, either as recorded in diaries or letters, or in the pages of their books. For example the heroine of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career, published in that iconic year of 1901 (though in Scotland rather than Sydney, having been rejected by Angus & Robertson), dreams of being a published author. She consoles herself with the thought that Lawson and Paterson are her countrymen, though it is significant that when she quotes poetry, the verses are by an earlier writer, Adam Lindsay Gordon. And it is Gordon, as we shall see, though his work is dismissed by nationalist literary historians, who may well have been the first Australian author who was widely read.

When she arrives at her grandmother's house Sybylla is delighted to find some new English novels, including one by Marie Corelli, and George Du Maurier's best-seller Trilby (1894) (Franklin 51). Other authors mentioned as being among her favourites are Byron, Thackeray, Dickens and Longfellow, along with two more contemporary figures, Kipling and the now forgotten English novelist Hall Caine, as well as the other best-known Australian poet of the period, Henry Kendall (Franklin 61). Other than her greater interest in Australian writers of the 1890s, Franklin's heroine, supposedly writing in 1899, reveals tastes in reading matter which strongly echo those of many actual readers of the 1890s. All of the authors mentioned, with the exception of Hall Caine, were discussed frequently by members of the literary societies which became especially common during the 1880s and 1890s. …

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