One of the challengers for Henry Savery’s title of “first Australian novelist” – or at least, “author of the first Australian novel” – is Mary Leman Grimstone. Though over her lifetime she was far better known as a poet and essayist, Grimstone wrote several novels, two of which are of particular interest with respect to an examination of the development of Australian fiction.
Mary Leman Rede was born in Hamburg, where her family had fled to escape their creditors, and was taken to England at the age of ten. In her mid-twenties she married a man called Grimstone, but seems to have been widowed after only a brief marriage. Possibly because of this, her health failed, and in 1825 she travelled to Tasmania (or rather, Van Diemen’s Land) with her sister and brother-in-law, the latter of whom had a government position. While there she continued to write poetry, much of it inspired by the landscape, and gained notoriety for an essay in which she bewailed Hobart as a cultural wasteland – she was right, of course, but that didn’t endear her to the locals – while at the same time expressing sympathy and understanding of the embryo colony. In 1829 Mary returned to England, where she began moving in feminist circles and became a strong advocate for the reform of female education. She also continued to write.
In 1825, just before her departure for Australia, Mary published her first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps. Her second, Louisa Egerton: A Tale Of Real Life, was evidently begun on shipboard and completed after her arrival; while her third novel, Woman’s Love, was written during her time in Hobart—both of them pre-dating Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton. However, Mary published neither of these novels while in Australia, but waited until her return to England, with Louisa Egerton appearing in 1829 and Woman’s Love in 1832.
I’ve talked before about the difficulties of assigning “firsts” with respect to early Australian fiction, and with the work of Mary Leman Grimstone we have a case in point. Perhaps the best approach here is to follow the lead of The Australian Dictionary Of Biography, which calls Woman’s Love “the first novel of Australian provenance”.
Be that as it may, in time I will be taking a look at both Louisa Egerton and Woman’s Love. However, since I never in my life dreamed of simplifying something when I could make it more difficult and time-consuming, I will be starting my examination of the novels of Mary Leman Grimstone with The Beauty Of The British Alps.