Like a hole in the head

Even though I need more things to write about like I need an aperture in my cranial equipment, for the past several months I’ve found myself becoming increasingly fixated upon the idea of taking a look at the development of the Australian novel. This area of study, like its American counterpart, offers one significant advantage over the Chronobibliography that comprises the main thrust of this blog—namely, that it is possible to identify a finite starting point.

More or less.

Truthfully, when it comes to identify “the first”, there are probably few areas of literary study that offer more ground for argument than the Australian novel of the 19th century—where we have novels written in Australia but published in Britain, and novels written in Britain but published in Australia; novels about Australia written in Britain, and novels about Britain written in Australia; authors born in Britain but publishing in Australia, and authors born in Australia but publishing in Britain; authors who lived all their lives in Australia, authors who emigrated to Australia, authors who emigrated from Australia, authors who wandered through for a space of months or years, and authors who never in fact set foot in Australia but wrote about it anyway. We even have a few – just a few – of those rarae aves, authors who were born, lived and published in Australia.

There are, consequently, as many “firsts” in the history of Australian fiction as even a complete obsessive like me could possibly desire.

The dogma (of which, by now, I have learned always to be deeply suspicious) is that “the first Australian novel” is Quintus Servinton: A Tale Founded Upon Incidents Of Real Occurrence by Henry Savery, which appeared in Tasmania in the early months of 1831. It was certainly “the first novel” written and published in Australia; its author, however, was born in England. Henry Savery was convicted of forgery in 1825 and sentenced to transportation after having his initial death sentence commuted. He wrote his novel – a semi-autobiographical and rather self-serving tale of convict life – while working as an assigned labourer in the New Norfolk district west of Hobart.

There appear to be three challengers for Quintus Servinton‘s crown. One of them is another, earlier work by Henry Savery: The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, which was published in 1830. This is not, however, a novel, but a series of sketches about Hobart life and its prominent citizens, which appeared first as separate stories in the local newspaper, The Colonial Times. It is also, in a sense, a roman à clef since, although without any political motive, its characters are based on real people, with a key to their identities being appended to the single-volume publication.

The other works highlight the difficulties in this area of study. Mary Leman Grimstone was already established as a poet and novelist when she accompanied her sister and brother-in-law to Australia in 1825. It seems that her second and third novels, Louisa Egerton and Women’s Love, were written during her stay in Tasmania, thus pre-dating all of the other contenders—but they were published in England, appearing in 1830 and 1832, respectively. Furthermore, as far as I am aware (I guess we’ll be finding out!), both are set in England as well.

We should also make mention of another 1830 publication, Arthur Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers. Although originally believed to be the work of the English writer, William Howitt (and is still listed in some sources as such), this children’s fiction has been attributed to a Mrs G. Porter, another English writer who never visited Australia, but drew upon Robert Dawson’s non-fiction work, The Present State of Australia : A Description of the Country, Its Advantages and Prospects, with References to Emigration: and a Particular Account of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of its Aboriginal Inhabitants for her story—which is, in any event, the first work for children to be set in Australia.

Taking all this into consideration, Quintus Servinton still seems a sensible place to start—although knowing myself, I suspect that the other works mentioned (and perhaps Mary Grimstone’s first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps) will also be putting in an appearance.

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6 Comments to “Like a hole in the head”

  1. Well, since Australia is obviously more interesting than England is, I’ll certainly appreciate reading such, though I don’t want to in any way increase the possibly crushing weight of obligation that this task might incur.

    • I don’t want to in any way increase the possibly crushing weight of obligation

      It’s okay – I don’t need your help for that! 🙂

  2. I got myself into similar murky waters trying to find the answer to the question what was the first novel. I wrote this based on my inquiries. You’ll notice I called it part 1.I got so confused I didn’t have the energy to do a part 2. hope you have better luck http://bookertalk.com/2013/01/19/the-life-and-times-of-the-novel-part-1/

    • And of course there is no one answer, only answers that you give after defining your parameters to suit yourself. Does “a novel” have to be a certain length? Does it have to deal (or not) with certain material?

      By that line of argument you can see how Ian Watts & co. “defined” Aphra Behn out of the English canon.

      Of course, by the time people were writing novels in Australia and America, everyone was certain in their own monds what a novel “was”, so it’s much easier to isolate “the first” in those younger countries.

  3. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read here, so from my perspective anything you feel like writing about is good – as long as it never becomes a chore.

    • That’s great to hear, Roger – thank you!

      Inflicting chores on myself is what I do, so don’t worry yourself about that. 🙂

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