Francis Adams: Realism and Sensation in the 1880s

Abstract

The English-born traveller and writer Francis Adams, who was in Australia from 1884 to 1890, was a cultural activist and a conduit in both directions for the late-Victorian migration of ideas. His book The Australians (1893) was an important source for the ‘Legend of the Nineties’, but there was a good deal more than the celebration of the Bush in his Australian writing. He was a keen critic of Britain’s management of its empire, and a sensitive observer and analyst of social and cultural life in the colonies. Stephen Murray-Smith described Adams’ impact on his contemporaries as that of an ‘active intellectual […] who brought something of “modernity,” of sophisticated European modes, to the discussion of Australian problems’ (14). He expressed progressive views on sex, marriage, and the rights of women; Marxist theories on class war, property and power; a huge amount of sympathy for the working class (whose poverty he sometimes shared, but to which he did not belong); and ‘advanced’ notions about art, literature and science. His respect for science came in part from his father, Andrew Leith-Adams, an army surgeon and natural historian who corresponded with and greatly admired Charles Darwin.

The focus of this essay is on how Adams’ first two novels can be read in relation to late nineteenth-century categories of literary and popular fiction, via two terms ubiquitous in reviews and publishing of the day: ‘realistic’ and ‘sensational’. The phrase may seem tautological to twentieth- or twenty-first century readers, whose ideas about realism may align it with representation of the everyday. However this was not the case in the late nineteenth century: British newspaper reviews and advertising feature the phrase frequently in relation to novels, plays, and other forms of entertainment, the emphasis being on spectacle as well as verisimilitude. Such generic flexibility as Adams demonstrates in his fictional output between 1886 and 1889 calls for a nuanced understanding of literary culture in Australia in the 1880s. This is particularly true with regard to definitions of ‘realism’, but it applies also to ideological and gender-based assumptions about popular genres such as ‘sensation’ and ‘romance’. Adams’ 1888 essay on ‘Realism’, and contemporary debates about realism within which it was published, remind us that colonial press and literary establishments were both responsive and hostile to ideas and trends from the northern hemisphere – not simply British, French, and American, but filtered versions, such as British accounts of French naturalism.

The English-born traveller and writer Francis Adams, who was in Australia from 1884 to 1890, was a cultural activist and a conduit in both directions for the late-Victorian migration of ideas. His book The Australians (1893) was an important source for the ‘Legend of the Nineties’, 1 but there was a good deal more than the celebration of the Bush in his Australian writing. He was a keen critic of Britain’s management of its empire, and a sensitive observer and analyst of social and cultural life in the colonies. Stephen Murray-Smith described Adams’ impact on his contemporaries as that of an ‘active intellectual […] who brought something of “modernity,” of sophisticated European modes, to the discussion of Australian problems’ (14). He expressed progressive views on sex, marriage, and the rights of women; 2 Marxist theories on class war, property and power; 3 a huge amount of sympathy for the working…

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Published 31 October 2015 in Volume 30 No. 3. Subjects: Crime fiction, Realism, Sensation Fiction.

Cite as: Tasker, Meg. ‘Francis Adams: Realism and Sensation in the 1880s.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, 2015. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.5d0fae613b.