Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2016

#Take 2: A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (2016), by Jean-Francois Vernay, translated by Marie Ramsland

A Brief Take on the Australian Novel

23/4/22 Edited to add links to books or authors I’ve reviewed.

Following on from my previous post about A Brief Take on the Australian Novel, by Jean-Francois Vernay – I have now finished reading the book, and I’m ready to chat about other aspects of the book that interest me.

I don’t intend to summarise all of Vernay’s points of view: that wouldn’t be fair to the author.  If you’re interested in Australian literature, then A Brief Take is a good investment.  IMO we ought to encourage academics to share more of their knowledge in jargon-free reader-friendly texts for the general public.  So, yes, buy a copy.

As I said before, the book offers a useful overview of the history and characteristics of the Australian novel, and what I found most interesting were the areas I knew little about.  (This is where a litblogger review will differ from one written by a professional.  The editor of the newspaper or journal will assign the review of this book to an expert in Australian literature who can then weigh the credibility of the book against his/her own expertise in the subject.  The litblogger, on the other hand, is free to confess to knowing not much about it, and can only comment on how useful it is in that context.)  Well, I haven’t read very much from the Colonial period – only four novels reviewed on this blog and the earliest of those was from 1874.   That was For the Term of His Natural Life, the most famous of novels about the convict system.  But His Natural Life was predated by books I’ve never heard of, books written for a fascinated British public keen to know all there was to know about the Antipodes.  All kinds of writing flourished but  Vernay describes the output as prosaic and he notes that it is difficult to speak of ‘literary genius’ at this time.

For curiosity value there’s the first published Australian novel, Quintus Servinton, published in Hobart in 1831 and attributed to Henry Savery.  It pioneered convict literature by depicting the prisoners’ hellish existence.  OTOH Mary Leman Grimstone finished her novel Woman’s Love four years before Quintus Servinton so hers was the first novel written in Australia.   Louisa Anne Meredith gets a mention for her Notes and Sketches of New South Wales in 1844: she was more interested in free colonial society discovering the new environment. In his ‘panoramic’ view of the literature of this period, Vernay discusses the way stories of this era bolstered arguments from opposing voices in the transportation debate: anti-abolitionists (who thought deportation was a too-soft punishment) imagined that the convicts enjoyed an almost enviable existence on their road to a redemption too easily won, while pro-abolitionist novelists depicted violence and deprivation and the evils of the system.  But in the early 20th century Australians wanted to forget the convict origins of the nation and the topic lapsed until the 1960s with novels like Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) by Thomas Keneally and Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976), persisting into the present with works like Kate Grenville’s Thornhill TrilogyVernay gives other examples too before moving on to other colonial novels which exemplify a fear of an alien environment: between discovery and exoticism.  Novelists either emphasised the negative or gave it a seductive, picturesque beauty that was completely artificial.  Novelists also wrote colonial romances where a hero or heroine in search of an ideal encounters a path full of potential pitfalls (with the question of origins a matter of interest of course).

Vernay seems a bit ambivalent about the two most well-known women writers of this period, Ada Cambridge and Catherine Helen Spence.  He seems to admire Cambridge’s descriptions of landscape, but says her weakness lay in her banal plots and syrupy love stories.  He points out that recent feminist interpretations recognise Cambridge’s concerns about the treatment of women, but it looks like faint praise.  And what are we to make of this, about Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison, a narrative of the immigration experience?

While another writer would have chosen to depict exciting adventures and dangers such as bushfires, outlaws, convicts on the run or the gold fever, Catherine Helen Spence emphasises the private realm of colonial domestic life, family-related topics and introspection. (p.21)

Again he provides a feminist interpretation to offset this (the author seeing the possibility for women to free themselves and to break patriarchal chains) and cites a critic called Frederick Sinnett as the first to recognise Clara Morison as a milestone of Australian literature but that list of exciting topics Spence could have written about looks a bit damning to me….

And, maybe I’m nitpicking because A Brief Take is only a short book of 230-odd pages, and it’s not intended to be a comprehensive survey but I would have liked acknowledgement of the absence of indigenous novelists in this period…

Ok, moving on to ‘The Emergence of a National Consciousness’ (1875-1900): things get more interesting.  Vernay says that the dramatic decline of the novel, which started towards the end of the nineteenth century was because writers outnumbered readers; Australians wanted to read British literature not their own; and there was rivalry between poetry and the novel.  Nationalism in literature accompanied the push for Federation, and with the exception of Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894) most books tended to be politically inspired with socialist messages.  There were still a few colonial romances mainly written by women (Rosa Praed, Ada Cambridge and Jessie Couveur) but it was the well-known ‘Bohemians of the Bulletin’ who produced (usually serialised) nationalistic novels in a realist style.  And we’ve heard of most of these: Vance Palmer, Norman Lindsay, Joseph Furphy, Steele Rudd and Miles Franklin; others less well-known were Louis Stone, and Brian Penton.  Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton wrote grim realism (Vernay calls her novel Human Toll ‘pessimistic and sordid’). Banjo Paterson was more upbeat because he conceived the bush in a much more exalted way since he saw it as a symbol of freedom.   Vernay notes the well-known paradox that urban Aussies then as now identified with the Australian spirit of the outback, but also cites the iconoclast Leon Cantrell’s objection to accepted mythological ideas about the bush.  Cantrell says that jaundiced writers of the period depicted disillusionment, solitude, failure and betrayal rather than success and egalitarianism or mateship.  Having read most of these authors I can see that it’s possible to have an academic stoush over that.

Chapter 3 brings ‘The Ebb and Flow of History’ (1901-1950).  This period is marked by the contrast between the detachment of expat authors deploring the cultural cringe (especially in the period of stagnation after WW1) and the engagement of a neo-nationalist or populist trend.  Most of us know authors of this period many of whom wrote successful sequels: Henry Handel Richardson; Eleanor Dark; Vance Palmer; and Miles Franklin; Christina Stead, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Xavier Herbert, and Christopher Koch amongst others.  (Authors of multiple volumes in the second half of the century include Nancy Cato; Martin Boyd and Rodney Hall).  There was a fashion for the nom de plume, of which Miles Franklin had the most in her endless quest to get her writing accepted by publishers.   It was common for women to hide their gender (Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw writing as Barnard Eldershaw, for example) but men hid their identity as well, sometimes for good reason, as when Kenneth Mackenzie wrote as Seaforth Mackenzie for his novel of homosexual desire, The Young Desire It (1937).  Most bestsellers in this era were historical novels and rural realism.  Vernay says that the historicity of these stories enabled a basis for the establishment of national values; allowed readers to exorcise the traumas of the colonial era; and gave scope to imagine a national destiny other than the official one recorded in the history books.  (What he doesn’t address is a question that interests me: do the novels he references offer a ‘history’ that includes women, who are often sidelined in official histories?)

If you read my initial impressions of A Brief Take, you may remember that I argued for the inclusion of Gallipoli as an ‘iconic’ theme in Oz Lit: well, Vernay addresses war at some length in this chapter, citing The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929) by Frederic Manning; Flesh in Armour (1932) by Leonard Mann; My Brother Jack (1964) by George Johnson (not the first instance of Vernay confusing the issue by including books from outside the era of his chapter); Lucinda Brayford (1946) by Martin Boyd; and The Joyful Condemned (1953) by Kylie Tennant.  Vernay also notes the demystification of war heroes later in the century when there were few survivors of the Great War: When Blackbirds Sing (Martin Boyd, 1962); 1915 a novel (Roger McDonald, 1979); and Fly Away Peter (David Malouf, 1982).

The other major international influence on Australian writing was, in the wake of the revolution in Russia, socialist realism.   Socialist realism is characterised by

a form of neutral expression, without flights of lyricism or value judgements, that describes ordinary people.  As an aesthetic theory that regards art as a form of social conscience, socialist realism transcends the writer’s individualism, speaks of the people as a whole and reproduces historical reality. (p.46)

Characteristics common to these works are the profusion of characters that are the playthings of social forces; a plot that tends to be divided into sub-plots; and the presence of utopian ideas in a highly politicised discourse.  (p47)

Vernay cites a number of titles to chase up: The Battlers (1941) by Kylie Tennant (see my review of this one); Upsurge (1034) by John Harcourt; Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) by Christina Stead (see my review); Sugar Heaven (1936) by Jean Devanny (see my review); Intimate Strangers (1937) by Katherine Susannah Prichard (on my TBR); The Little Company (1945) by Eleanor Dark (see my review); How Beautiful Are Thy Feet (1949) by Alan Marshall (on my TBR); and  of course Power Without Glory (1950) by Frank Hardy (on my TBR).

Populism OTOH promoted a return to a valuing of the common man and to the democratic tradition established by Joseph Furphy.  Ruth Park is given as an example with her novels The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949).

Vernay devotes quite a bit of space in this chapter to the depiction of Aboriginal people, neglected in our literature until Coonardoo (1929) by Katherine Susannah Prichard (see my review).  Prior to this novel they were either integrated into the setting, or presented as exotic (‘the noble savage’) or as barbarous or villainous.  Other titles which he says are a long way from the racist ideology of the colonial era include The Timeless Land (1941) by Eleanor Dark; Capricornia (1938) by Xavier Herbert and Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers (1961, see my review).  Since none of these novels were authored by indigenous writers, I suspect that an indigenous reading of the novels might come to a different conclusion.

My favourite chapter was ‘Literature of Minorities in a Cosmopolitan Era’ (1966-1980) because that was the era when OzLit came of age, winning a swag of international prizes  – the Nobel, the Booker, the IMPAC, the Orange Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and a stack of European prizes that I’d never heard of but which show that our authors were getting recognition in translation too.  This was the period when Whitlam introduced Arts Grants (a bit of a sore topic at the moment); it’s when Aboriginal writing really kicked off; and it’s the period when I began my adult reading.  There’s a lot of really interesting commentary on this exciting period in Australian literature, and there’s a particularly enticing ‘low-angle shot’ of Asian and Pacific fiction, but this review is more than long enough, and I think you must go get yourself a copy if you want to know more.

But one last controversy to mull over:

For a few years, the establishment of protocols that were to be scrupulously followed seems to have found approval in the entire Aboriginal literary community.  These protocols let Aboriginal people keep strict control of the representation of their people in literature. While they are instrumental in stopping any form of inexact representation (erroneous, caricatured, biased or partial) of the the Aboriginal community, these protocols can hardly not be associated with a type of tacit censorship that silences non-Aboriginal writers who wish to express their views of Indigenous people.  (p.107)

I think Sue at Whispering Gums may have tackled this topic in a more open-minded way?

Author: Jean-Francois Vernay
Title: A Brief Take on the Australian Novel
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054048
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Available from Fishpond: A Brief Take on the Australian Novel or direct from Wakefield Press or any good bookshop.


  1. I’ll clearly have to get this book, Lisa. I wasn’t sure. He’s done a lot in under 300 pages. That’s impressive. And I guess his main audience was non-Australians, which might affect the emphases he’s given.

    I read and posted on a biography of Henry Savery a few years ago. He was an interesting man. But I haven’t read Quintus Servinton, and hadn’t heard of it until I read that biography.

    As for Ada Cambridge, I’ve read a couple of books by her and, while that was over 20 years ago, I thought they were far more than “syrupy love stories”.


    • I am hoping that some of the books he’s referred to are available at Project Gutenberg Australia. (Nettie Palmer’s book about OzLit isn’t, which is a pity). I’ve read one by Ada Cambridge, but it wasn’t a novel so I can’t comment, but *chuckle* I’m now very tempted to find one to see what I think of it.


      • I think a lot of those early books are on Project Gutenberg,


  2. Lisa, I really appreciate your thoroughly researched post. I’ve read many of the titles mentioned and you remind me of old friends. Yet, at the same time, it reinforces how much I’ve yet to read.
    I went to a Rotary book sale last weekend and arrived home with two more boxes of books but I scored particularly well with Australian poets. I was stoked!
    Miles Franklin was a real role model to me as a teenager. I loved “My Brilliant Career” and read quite a few of her other novels.


    • LOL Those Rotary sales are real treasure troves these days. That’s where you find the books that the second-hand shops can’t make any money out of. And sadly, poets tend to be in that category.
      Yes, when I go to visit my dear old dad, it’s the poetry that he learned at school that he loves best of all. I found a book of his favourites, and he loves to read them out loud (at the top of his voice!) I do wonder if we are not doing our young people a disservice by focussing their reading on what’s ‘relevant’ at the expense of what’s brilliant and unforgettable…


  3. Vernay seems to repeat a common critique of women’s writing – this time in the context of early Australian women writers – that because it doesn’t include boys own adventures it’s ‘only’ romance. In fact the opposite is truer – men’s fiction of the period contains cardboard cutout characters while women’s looks at real three-dimensional people. Perhaps Vernay thinks Jane Austen should have included smugglers or highwaymen.

    As for depictions of Aboriginals, I think Eleanor Dark made the best possible attempt from the material available to imagine white settlement from a black pov. Whereas Nene Gare’s seemingly sympathetic account mostly regurgitates the popular prejudices of the period. What I am sure the Aboriginal literary community is attempting to establish now is the right to speak for themselves, not to have words put in their mouths as in the past.


    • Yes, this has reminded me that I must get Larissa Behrendt’s new book Finding Eliza. As I understand it, it’s not just about how the stories of Eliza Frazer misrepresent Aboriginal people, but also about the representation of Aboriginal people in general. I think Sue has read it…


  4. Reading your blog about other writers first followed by others is what kept me going, Lisa. Many thanks for simply being there for us all to enjoy


    • Thanks, Glenice:)
      I enjoy your blog too!


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