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Australian novels

Photograph of Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin. Courtesy of Pegasus Book Orphanage.

Australian novels are an impressive collection of written works, and represent a dynamic body of excellent writers, some with significant international awards to their credit.

Like other literary forms, especially poetry and songs, early and many later Australian novels were often concerned with qualities that have become part of Australian folklore: convicts, the bush, bushrangers, tales of pioneering, family sagas, floods, droughts, bushfires, battlers, Aboriginal people, Irishmen and lost children.

The Australian poet Alec Hope said that, 'The Bunyip of Australian literature is the mythical Great Australian Novel' - for which we are still waiting to appear - because we focus on the Australian quality of the novels rather than their lucidity. Nevertheless, the continued search for those elusive bunyips of Australian literature produces a range of world class novels addressing the complex qualities inherent in Australian life.

Tales and trends - strange but true

The development of the novel in Australia was a slow and gradual process. Publishing in Australia was slow to take hold. Most books were imported from England. By 1945 a mere 15 per cent of books sold in Australia were published here. The London publishing houses grew wealthy on the proceeds from the strange, almost unbelievable tales from the Antipodes. Of these stories, Mark Twain wrote:

the most beautiful lies ... the incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

Since the 1980s there appears to have been a decline in Australian readers interested in their own fiction. It might be part of a worldwide trend towards a less literate culture. However, since the 1990s, it has been the verse novel which has made a dramatic comeback in the sales figures for novels - perhaps offering some of the lucidity to which A D Hope was referring.

Early days - convict tales

Quintus Servinton (1830), an autobiographical novel written by the convict Henry Savery, was the first locally published novel. It was printed in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1830.

The first Australian-born novelist was John Lang, who published Botany Bay in 1859. This was a collection of popular legends and stories of the convict days. The classic novel of convict life remains Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life (1874). Clarke, a British-born journalist working in Melbourne, used his study of historical records in Tasmania to provide the background for this book.

Writings from the Bush

Photograph of Banjo Paterson at Jindabyne

Colonel J M Arnott, chauffeur, and Banjo Paterson at Jindabyne, 191-?, photograph: gelatin silver. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Novels, like the other literary forms in this period, especially early Australian poetry, were often concerned with life in the bush. The romantic figure of the bushranger is the focus of Robbery Under Arms (1888), published by Thomas Browne under the pen name of Rolf Boldrewood. Browne, a former gold commissioner and magistrate in the goldfields of New South Wales, wrote factually about the life he knew but romanticised his bushranger hero, Captain Starlight.

The weekly magazine The Bulletin, founded in Sydney in 1880, encouraged the development of a national literature, especially, in the form of the bush ballad. The characteristic subjects developed from the early ballads about convict life, gold mining, bushranging, and campfire themes. Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, the duelling banjos of late 19th century Australian writing, explored the Australian landscape in verse, ballads and stories.

Joseph Furphy's Such Is Life (1903), has as its lead character a bullock driver, who is both philosopher and also satirist. Later works, Rigby's Romance (1921), and The Buln-Buln and the Brolga (1948), are full of local colour about the Riverina.

Early women novelists - from the bush

The first Australian woman novelist was Mary Vidal, whose Tales for the Bush appeared in 1845. Catherine Helen Spence's Clara Morrison (1854) offers a realistic description of domestic life in South Australia. In My Brilliant Career (1901), Miles Franklin wrote about adolescent frustrations in bush society. Mrs Aeneas Gunn used her own experience of bush life as the basis of her novel We of the Never Never (1908). Katherine Susannah Pritchard sought to capture the colour and variety of Australian life in Black Opal (1921), Working Bullocks (1926), and Haxby's Circus (1930).

20th century novels and social realism

There was a new breed of writers in the 20th century. They redefined what could be expected from writing even if they used the same backdrop of the bush as early writers had done. Published in 1901, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin is often said to be the first authentic Australian novel. However, it was Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson - writing under the pseudonym of Henry Handel Richardson - who is often regarded as the most important Australian writer of the early 20th century.

In the Miles Franklin tradition, other novelists, particularly the women, relied upon both social realism and also a surreal or imaginary life linked to the everyday lives of their characters. Christina Stead was one of early writers to fully explore this.

Dorothy Hewett and three of her children.

Unknown photographer, Dorothy Hewett and three of her children, l. to r., Kate, Rose and Tom, (eldest children Mike and Joe, cropped), South Perth, c. 1965. Image courtesy of Kate Lilley.

Christina Stead (1902 - 1983) began writing novels whilst living abroad during the 1930s. The Salzburg Tales and Seven Poor Men of Sydney were published in 1934, and her highly praised novel The Man Who Loved Children appeared in 1940, based largely on her childhood. Despite critical acclaim, she did not win a more general following in Australia until the mid 1960s. The critics wrote 'It is a novel, a real novel ... There is a tough, unkillable acceptance of life in it ... this book leaves one, as all major writing does, with the sense that, in the end, no human action is trivial'. ( John Wain, Observer). In 1974 she returned to Australia, receiving the inaugural Patrick White Award in the same year.

Ruth Park (b. 1922) grew up in isolated country areas of New Zealand before marrying the writer D'Arcy Nyland and moving to outback NSW and later, Sydney. Deprived of books as a child, Park developed heightened awareness as an observer of social behaviour. Park was well aware of the experiences of 'deprivation, poetry and exile' and became well known for her gritty social realist novels set in the inner slum areas of Sydney. Her most famous books are the trilogy of Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man's Orange, along with Swords and Crowns and Rings which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1977. Park also wrote the famous children's series The Muddle-Headed Wombat.

Dorothy Hewett (1923 - 2002) was a prize-winning playwright and poet by the time she was 20. She published 12 collections of poetry, three novels, an autobiography, 13 plays, and many articles and short stories. Hewett's was spurred to write her first novel Bobbin Up in 1959 for the Mary Gilmore Novel Competition, about women in the Alexandria Spinning Mill where she had worked a decade earlier until getting sacked for being too pregnant. In the novel, the courageous women stage a stay-in strike at the mill, and 'Dorothy's identification with the women workers gave the prose a new impact in literature of the working class' (Joan Williams, 2002). Hewett continued writing until the play Nowhere in 2001.

Arthur W Upfield (1890 - 1964) is best known as the creator of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) of the Queensland Police, who appears in 29 novels. He also wrote another six novels and numerous articles for newspapers and journals. The Bushman Who Came Back was awarded the 1957 Book of the Year by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and was nominated for the 1958 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers Guild of America. Upfield was the first non-American admitted to the Guild.

Xavier Herbert's (1901 - 1984) novel Poor Fellow My Country tells of life in Northern Australia in the late 1930s and early 1940s; 'not so much a tale of this period as 'Herbert's analysis (and indictment) of the steps by which we came to the Australia of today. Capturing the 'Spirit Of The Land', Herbert has paralleled an intimate personal narrative with a tale of approaching war'. The book is seen as Herbert's supreme contribution to Australian literature.

Post-World War II - inner consciousness and social existence

Portrait of Patrick White, Centennial Park, 1983.

Alec T. Bolton, 1926 - 1996, Portrait of Patrick White, Centennial Park, 1983, photograph, gelatin silver. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia : an14600815-1 and Rosemary Bolton.

By the 1950s, Henry Handel Richardson's reputation had been usurped by the celebrated novelist and Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Patrick White. The female social realist writers and their worldly explorations of character in the post-war period and Christina Stead's explorations of the inner consciousness of urban characters were outshone by Patrick White's exploration of the major themes in Australian literature, despite much debate amongst critics and within literary circles. The focus of other later writers, in this period, for their characters, was the depiction of an inner consciousness as well as their social existence as Australians conscious of themselves in a global world.

The most eminent fiction writer after 1945 was Patrick White, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973. In a dozen novels from Happy Valley (1939) to Memoirs of Many in One (1986), White examined, often satirically, the conflict between inner consciousness and social existence. In these novels he re-examined the major themes of Australian literature: the convict era in A Fringe of Leaves (1976); the age of explorers in Voss (1957); the period of settlement in The Tree of Man (1955); and contemporary life in The Eye of the Storm (1973).

The poet A D Hope advocated, however, for a greater lucidity:

The Tree of Man, they say, has many of the qualities of the great novel ... the genuine Bunyip ... all the earmarks which traditionally distinguish The Great Australian Novel. It is a story of pioneering. It is a family saga. It contains a flood, a drought and a bushfire ... As a matter of fact none of these things is of any importance and the book is not about them ... There is in fact no story ... simply ... the random pattern of life itself observed and imagined ... He has what the Australian novel largely lacks, the power to present people ... who impress us by something out of the common order - in this case, integrity ... For all that it is not a successful book. Mr White ... knows too much, he tells too much and he talks too much. '
(AD Hope, Sydney Morning Herald)

Morris West (1916 - 1999) published his first novel Moon in My Pocket in 1945. In 1955 West left Australia to further his career as a writer, and lived in Austria, Italy, England and the USA. He returned to Australia in 1980. His work in the genres of fiction, non-fiction and drama includes The Shoes of the Fisherman and Second Victory.

Thomas Keneally published his first novel The Place at Whitton in 1964 and has written some 34 novels and 14 non-fiction books, as well as screenplays. Prominent fiction includes The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Schindler's Ark which have popularised the historical experiences of betrayed people - blending 'history, psychological insight and epic adventure'. Keneally was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize on three occasions, before winning it for Schindler's Ark. Keneally was awarded the Order of Australia in 1983 for his services to Australian Literature.

Photograph of Peter Carey.

Lorrie Graham, Peter Carey, between 1981-1983, photograph: gelatin silver. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an21935858.

Peter Carey began his career by writing advertising copy, then he moved into fiction and science fiction. Illywhacker was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1985 and Oscar and Lucinda won the award in 1988. Bliss, Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs all won the Miles Franklin Award. Peter Carey's novel True History of the Kelly Gang, which evokes the tradition of literary nationalism and the imaginary life of Ned Kelly, was short-listed for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award and won the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and the 2001 Man Booker Prize.

Tim Winton's first novel An Open Swimmer, an evocative portrayal of life in the bush and at sea, utilising an envelope technique of inner consciousness, won the Australian/Vogel Award in 1981. Prominent books include Cloudstreet (which won the 1992 Miles Franklin Prize), In The Winter Dark and That Eye, The Sky. His versatility extends to children's books, non-fiction, film adaptations and dramatisations. In addition, The Riders won the best novel award in the South East Asia and South Pacific section of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1995.

In contrast to the classic Australian qualities described by A D Hope, novels from the late 1990s began to concentrate on what David Malouf called 'An imaginary life'. Evocative stories of the past were interwoven closely with the imaginings of the present. This followed in the early tradition demonstrated in Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children (1940).

In 1996, Remembering Babylon by David Malouf was considered by the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award judges to be the best novel written by anyone, anywhere, in any language, in the last three years.

Malouf conjures half-forgotten memories, inner states, obligation and friendship and interweaves the imagined world with the reality of places and experiences that have inspired him...His novels are driven by emotion rather than storyline and he is particularly interested in the way we relate to each other, friendship and the codes of behaviour between men.

Richard Flanagan's (b. 1961, Tasmania) three novels adopted a similar form with great lucidity. Each of Flanagan's three novels has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, and Gould's Book of Fish won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the South East Asia and South Pacific region. The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997) was critically acclaimed and made into a feature film.

The Newspaper of Claremont Street: a Novel by Elizabeth Jolley (1923 - 2007) relates the story of an old cleaning woman known as' The Newspaper', who dreams of escape from the parasitic demands of both her past and her present. Elizabeth Jolley's novels draw dramatically on the half-forgotten as well as the clear and haunting memories of her older characters, challenging the taboos of entering into the lives of people in old people's homes - present rather than forgotten. Although she started writing early in life it was not until her fifties that she received the recognition her talent deserved. Jolley won The Age Book of the Year Award on three occasions (for Mr Scobie's Riddle , My Father's Moon , and The Georges' Wife ) as well as the Miles Franklin Award for The Well .

Helen Garner's first work Monkey Grip (1977) and other works were founded in the tradition of social realism, first explored by Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Mary Gilmore, Ruth Park and Dorothy Hewett. The gritty social realism of life in the 1970s through to the 1990s was just as shocking to readers when it was published in the 1980s and first decade of the 21st century as the novels of the Australian post-war women novelists.

Decline, change and the comeback of the verse novel

There is a suggestion that there might be a decline in readership worldwide, based on a US survey that has revealed that fewer than half of Americans over 18 now read novels, short stories, plays or poetry, and the decline is accelerating: numbers fell by 5 per cent between 1982 and 1992, and by 14 per cent in the following decade. However, the number of people trying to write has gone up. (Jane Sullivan, The Age , 14 August 2004.) Certainly the publication lists of Australian authors have gone down since the 1990s, especially with poets.

However, in the late 1990s, Dorothy Porter is credited with Australian poetry and novels making a comeback by re-visiting one of the oldest forms of literature - the verse novel.

We keep reading our own fiction because when it's poor it's disappointing, but when it's good, nothing matters more. If people are reading less, they are still alert for what's terrific. We want voices: we want our own stories told.
(David Marr)

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Last updated: 4th March 2008

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