Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2010

Brief Encounters (2009), by Susannah Fullerton

En route to our holiday in the Hunter Valley, The Spouse and I took two books of interest to literary tourists: the Oxford Literary Guide to Australia, (Revised Edition 1993) by Peter Pierce, and Brief Encounters, Literary Travellers in Australia 1836-1939 by Susannah Fullerton.

The Oxford Guide might be a useful reference if you know the geography of the area through which you travel, but it wasn’t much use to me as we drove up the Hume Highway from Melbourne to Sydney. As a good national route should, the Hume bypasses almost everything and unless you’ve plodded through the Guide beforehand and identified which towns warrant taking an exit, chances are you’ll miss any literary sights altogether. (As we did). The Guide is arranged by State, but not by routes, so for New South Wales that means browsing 120 pages to find which towns lie along the route, and then which of those have authors of any interest.

The Editor, Peter Pierce, has spurned all but Australian writers, so you won’t find any mention of Joseph Conrad’s boat in Tassie, or Charles Darwin’s adventures in the Blue Mountains, though there are references to lots of obscure poets and playwrights amongst the better known authors. However, even when you do discover something you might like to see, there are no addresses or directions to tell you how to get there, so we left our overnight stopover in Yass without seeing the Memorial Banjo Paterson Park at Wee Jasper. (Paterson lived at Illalong Station in his childhood, went to a bush school at Binalong, and went into partnership with R.S. Lindeman of Lindeman’s Wines in 1915).

Nevertheless, while here in the Hunter Valley it’s nice to know about some places of interest:

  • In nearby Muswellbrook Donald Horne wrote (rather rudely) about Newcastle, labelling it ‘Australia’s Pittsburgh’ (p81); he went to school at Maitland High.
  • Dymphnia Cusack taught in secondary schools in Newcastle, and so did James McAuley ;
  • Katharine Susannah Pritchard visited Newcastle and Cessnock in 1944 to research mining for her goldfields trilogy;
  • Barbara Baynton was born in Scone in1857 and spent her early years there, and Patrick White’s father had pastoral holdings in the district, and although Patrick White was there very little, he used the property as the setting of Kudjeri in The Eye of the Storm.

We enjoyed Susannah Fullerton’s Brief Encounters much more. As the blurb says, she:

examines a diverse array of writers including Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Agatha Christie and H.G. Wells, uncovering what they did when they got here, what their opinion was of Australia and Australians, how the public and media reacted to them, and how their future works were shaped or influenced by this country.

The Spouse is a scientist, but has long been interested in history and philosophy, so he’s begun Arts part-time at Monash. There’s an essay to write about Charles Darwin, so we listened to Richard Dawkins narrating The Origin of Species for most of the way today, and then just for fun I read aloud the chapter about Charles Darwin from Brief Encounters as we trundled on up the Hume.

What an interesting fellow Darwin was! In 1832, the young naturalist set off around the world on HMS Beagle, only to suffer dreadful seasickness which put him off travel for the rest of his life. Nevertheless he stuck it out, gathering the astonishing collection of specimens which gave rise to his groundbreaking theory of evolution and changed the way scientists thought about the natural world. While here he took advantage of every opportunity to explore the natural environment, hiking over the Blue Mountains, and riding to Bathurst on a day when the temperature reached 48 degrees. Fullerton tells us that he averaged 45 km a day on the expeditions he took with his guide, and he did further trips on his own, ‘no mean feat on bad roads in a hot Australian summer’ (p18). In Tasmania he climbed Mt Wellington, and at King George Sound (now Albany WA) he set off straightaway on another expedition, discovering a new species of rodent, four new fish species and a heap of previously unknown insects.

Despite the wealth of new species he found everywhere he went, Darwin was not particularly enamoured of Australia, and especially not of Sydney. He didn’t like the preoccupation with making money, and he didn’t like the presence of convicts. He pitied us our gum trees with their limp leaves hanging vertically (so that they are less vulnerable to scorching by the sun) because they don’t offer much shade and deny us the joy of foliage changing with the seasons. He was probably a bit liverish because he didn’t ever see a kangaroo or an emu, consoling himself in his journal that they were rare and predicting their likely extinction.

The most extraordinary anecdote that Fullerton shares is that when Darwin captured a snake to add to his collection, he was startled to discover that it was live-bearing rather than egg-laying. ‘He examined it with interest and with absolutely no concern for his own safety, but the creature he held so casually was either a copperhead or a black tiger snake. One bite from either variety would have killed him, so the world came awfully close to never knowing The Origin of Species.’ (p22)

Brief Encounters is a fascinating book, and I’m going to read the chapter on Mark Twain to The Spouse on the return journey!

PS Jan 25th 2010

I did read the chapter about Twain to The Spouse, and snippets from many other chapters.  I would recommend this book to anyone travelling through Australia!  There is always an intriguing introduction, often a vignette about the author’s reception by the public and the media, and especially interesting when the reception was not welcoming!  Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, was in trouble with the Religious Right for peddling spiritualism and quackery on his speaking tour, and HG Wells got ticked off by politicians for making critical remarks about Hitler in 1939.

Then the chapter covers the author’s travels, and explores how the Aussie experience influenced the writer’s work.  DH Lawrence, of course, wrote Kangaroo, while Trollope wrote a sort of Lonely Planet guide, a short story called Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, a Tale of Australian Bush Life and a strange futuristic novel called The Fixed Period which was set in a fictional island half way between Australia and New Zealand.  (Trollope was also fascinated by postal services, and invented the pillar box!)  Conrad didn’t set any of his novels in Australia because he saw not much more than its ports, but you can see the hulk of his beloved ship Otago at Risden in Tasmania and the restored hatchway in the Hobart Museum.

RL Stevenson threw temper tantrums in his hotel, and even though he promised to write a version of Treasure Island set in Australia, he didn’t and wrote an apparently unreadable story called The Wrecker instead.  Rudyard Kipling wrote a stirring poem, and Mark Twain included Australia in his Following the Equator (published as More Tramps Abroad in the UK).  Jack London wrote a sporty story called A Piece of Steak while Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Wanderings of a Spiritualist  of interest only to nutty psychics.  H.G. Wells came here as an activist, and didn’t write anything Australian afterwards, and neither did Agatha Christie really, though she does include some Aussie characters in her books.

Christie, however, was greatly influenced by the independence and energy of Australian women.  She stayed with a family called the Bells, and the Bell girls inspired the characterisation of feisty females in her books.  She also wrote most movingly about our landscape, and I found myself looking at the trees along the Hume with a different eye…

Trees are always the first things I seem to notice about places, or else the shape of hills.  In England one becomes used  to having dark trunks and light heavy branches.  The reverse in Australia was quite astonishing.  Silvery-white barks everywhere, and the darker leaves made it like seeing the negative of a photograph.  It reversed the whole look of the landscape….All Australian scenery that I have seen has a faintly austere quality, the distances all a soft blue green – sometimes almost grey – and the white trunks of the blue gums give a totally different effect, and here and there great clumps of trees have been ringbarked and have died, and then they are ghost trees, all white, with white waving branches.  It’s all so – virginal – if there were nymphs in the woods, they would never be caught. (p278)

An interesting contrast to Darwin’s view of our trees!  Brief Encounters is a wonderful book and a terrific gift for any booklover.

Author: Susannah Fullerton
Title: Brief Encounters, Literary Travellers in Australia 1836-1939
Publisher: Picador, 2009
ISBN: 9781405039505
Source: Personal Library, purchased at Benn’s Books $34.99


  1. I guess you know WHO Susannah Fullerton is – lecturer at large and President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia.

    BTW we’ve talked about the literary guide before haven’t we…and I talked about the wonderful Roadside Guides I had in the USA. So much easier if it follows the main tracks – with digresssions for side roads – with an alphabetical index, rather than an alphabetical listing.


  2. No! I had no idea – how wonderful that you know her!
    Clearly, you and I must gather a team of foodies who love lit together and write our own literary guide:)


  3. I think so…when you retire!

    Yes, I know her … in that I’ve met her at JA conference and she’s aware of we Canberran Janeites. A group of us expect to have dinner with her next month to talk JASA group things re Canberra, including this year’s conference which is to be held here.


  4. Lucky you, you can tell from her writing style that she’s jolly good fun to know:)
    BTW Did I tell you that Library Thing have sent me a ‘new’ Jane Austen to review? It’s a very slim book, called Sandition. I have never heard of it before and may need to call on your expertise with all things Austen!


  5. Ah, lucky you (Early Reviewers). Is it just the unfinished novel, or the one “finished” by another? BTW it is called SanditON (not ION) but many people make that mistake. I first read it (a “finished” version) back in the 1970s, and have since simple read the 11 chapters she wrote. We love to talk about how similar/different it is to her previous oeuvre.

    Susannah Fullerton is a real extrovert, and with a lot of energy – has to be to do the sorts of things she does!


    • Ah, SanditiON, I don’t have it here with me, so thanks:)
      I don’t think it will take long to read, but if it is one finished by another, I shall be glad of that. I know I mustn’t prejudge a book for review, but in general, I think that an author’s work should be let alone. There was a Beethoven’s 10th that I fell victim to, that made me very cross indeed…


  6. LOL … Lisa … it ends in TON not TION… Yes, I agree re not finishing other people’s works. There’s also, I think, The buccaneers by Edith Wharton that was finished by someone and adapted for TV series. It was an interesting story (wonderful concept of “buccaneers”) but best to read the unfinished version and consider for yourself where it was going eh?


  7. Oh good grief – my only excuse for the spelling is the poor light – the cottage has only those green lightglobes in very low wattages, and even with my glasses on, with the tiny print on my netbook I have no hope. I type very fast and make lots of mistakes, which is ok if I can see them to repair them, but here, well, as you see…
    I am sorely tempted to nip up to Newcastle and buy a reading lamp.


  8. LOL Lisa. But that is the one commonly bad thing about travel – the lighting. So frustrating. Of course you can use those little booklights for reading but they don’t help with everything else do they? Normally I wouldn’t have bothered picking up little editing errors but this is a common mistake for this book so I thought you’d like to know. There was even a member of our JASA group who has read it but always called it Sandition – she clearly didn’t even HEAR what the rest of us are saying OR she thought the rest of us were all odd.

    (It’s rather cool here today – too much for my liking)


    • It’s the little netbook that causes the problem – most of the letters are normal size, but some are not, and the screen is so small I can’t see if I’ve failed to capitalise an I or something like that. There are also words that I routinely type incorrectly e.g. seom and my computer had home has auto correct to fix it but this one doesn’t! Still we are very lucky to have internet connection here at all so I mustn’t complain! Lisa


  9. yes, I know, netbooks are wonderful – so easy to carry around etc – but they have their limitations. You ARE lucky to have internet connection. Not a given in Australia at all!


  10. […] Fullerton’s book is well worth reading if you are interested in the authors she covers and/or in Australia as a literary destination! Lisa at ANZLitLovers agrees. […]


  11. […] Brief Encounters, by Susannah Fullerton « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog We enjoyed Susannah Fullerton's Brief Encounters much more. As the blurb says, she: examines a diverse array of writers including Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, […]


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