Literary Aspiration and the Papers of William Gosse Hay


This article sets out to explore the literary aspirations and career of the early post-federation Australian writer William Gosse Hay through the extensive collection of personal papers he left behind him. Hay was born into an affluent Adelaide family in 1875, and attended Melbourne Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, before marrying and settling down to a reclusive life in the Adelaide foothills to begin writing full time. He eventually published six novels and a collection of short stories. Many of these were favourably reviewed, but they failed to attract significant commercial success. After a brief revival of critical interest in his writing after his death in 1945, Hay once again faded from prominence – remembered only in passing as an enigmatic figure who fell outside of the mainstream of Australian literary production. In tracing Hay’s pursuit of literary success and popular notoriety through his personal papers, the article draws on recent archival studies research to explore Hay’s career from the ‘inside’ and considers the role of the archive itself as a factor in his quest for recognition.

The early post-federation Australian writer William Gosse Hay, like many of his colonial predecessors, has largely been forgotten today. Born into a prominent Adelaide family in 1875, he was educated at Melbourne Grammar School before attending Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1895.1 He published his first novel, Stifled Laughter: A Melodrama (1901), in England, before returning to South Australia to marry Mary Williams, the daughter of a local Anglican minister. The couple settled in the grand ‘Tower House’ in the Adelaide foothills where they raised three sons, and later moved to ‘Nangawooka’ in the rural township of Victor Harbour, spending their summers at coastal Seacliff in an impressive ‘cottage’ that Hay designed and had built. ‘Mount Breckan’, the imposing summer residence he had inherited, was destroyed by fire in 1908. Independently wealthy and increasingly reclusive, Hay devoted his life to writing full time, eventually publishing six novels and a collection of stories. A second volume of stories was in progress when Hay collapsed and died after fighting to protect his home from a bushfire in 1945.

All of Hay’s novels are set in Australia, exploring convict experience in New South Wales and Tasmania within a very precise timeframe – the decade between 1834 and 1844. He researched the period intensively, interweaving the lives of historical personages with invented characters and fact with fiction to produce complex, satirical and often dreamy accounts of early colonial life. Like many nineteenth-century Australian writers, Hay wrote under the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances, turning to what he called Australia’s ‘ballad-like and tragic history and its proper costume’ (qtd. in Hooper 136). Despite their Australian focus, however, Hay’s novels were perceived as somehow ‘out of touch with national feeling’ – at least according to Fayette Gosse, a distant relative and the author of a brief 1965 biography about Hay. ‘He sought privacy to the point of eccentricity’, she added, referring to his lack of popular notoriety, ‘and, as his novels all dealt with the past, he was also assumed to be dead’ (5). Published exclusively in England, Hay’s books were often positively reviewed but, for the most part, this failed to translate into book sales or wider literary acclaim.

The discussion that follows examines Hay’s archive, housed in the University of Melbourne Archives, as a way of tracing and analysing his failure to gain a lasting reputation from the ‘inside’. It recognises – as Maryanne Dever, Sally Newman and Ann Vickery have done in their helpful introduction to The Intimate Archive: Journeys Through Private Papers – that ‘there is no single archive. Readers will construct their own “archive” from the documents they variously choose to highlight, ignore or pass over’ (20). Nevertheless, the critical ambivalence with which Hay’s writings were met, and his failure to achieve notice beyond the outer fringes of any kind of acknowledged or enduring canon of Australian writers, highlights his literary status as a particularly pressing (and poignant) concern even before delving into the archive itself – where it insistently recurs. First, however, it is worth outlining the history of Hay’s critical reception, in order to offer a wider framework for the idiosyncratic biographical perspectives that his papers have to offer.

After a lifetime of often-disappointed literary hopes and aspirations, Hay’s death in 1945 saw a re-evaluation of his career. In 1946 he was celebrated in a special ‘William Hay Number’ of Southerly, with the journal’s editor, R. G. Howarth, comparing him to writers such as Patrick White and Eleanor Dark. ‘Hay anticipates and touches the moderns’, he commented, and went on to describe him as ‘the outstanding craftsman in Australian fiction’ (157). The volume reproduced some stories by Hay, and biographical and critical pieces including a reprinted review by Katherine Mansfield of Hay’s best-known novel, The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans (1919), which praised its brooding atmospherics. Another reprinted review, ‘An Australian Classic’ by Melbourne writer Uther Baker suggested:

one would like to see this book re-published, especially at this time of national and historical renascence. Active interest in it should be revived, not only to do honour to William Hay, but for the benefit of a public unaware of its potential claim to be acknowledged as an Australian classic, and of William Hay to be regarded as a true progenitor. (165)

Southerly continued to publish articles on Hay during the 1950s and 1960s by authors and critics including J. H. M. Abbott, Nancy Cato, L. T. Hergenhan, Clive Hamer, and Brian Elliott. In 1955 Melbourne University Press reprinted The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans with an introduction by R. G. Howarth, describing it as ‘the most successful period novel that it has yet been our good hap to produce’ (xix). This reissue generated further commentary. In her book of Australian literary criticism, Laughter, Not for a Cage (1956), Miles Franklin noted that ‘William Gosse Hay is now being retrieved from obscurity by academic attention’ and went on to compare his works to those of Henry James and George Meredith – sniping at Nettie Palmer for omitting him from her 1924 survey, Modern Australian Literature (150). Franklin was, in turn, criticised for embracing Hay’s novels by John Barnes in his essay ‘Australian Fiction to 1920’ in which he lampooned stylistic elements of The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans and argued that ‘the novel suffers from the fatal defect of hollowness’ (177). ‘Although he has had something of a revival recently’, he insisted, ‘Hay has not been a factor in the development of Australian fiction, and is unlikely to be’ (179). Frederick T. Macartney likewise singled out passages from Hay’s books as examples of writing that was ‘oddly and even comically defective’ (56) and wondered how such ‘bad writing is acceptable as good literature’ (57). H. M. Green, meanwhile, wrote that Hay ‘has been undeservedly neglected, with the result that when attention is drawn to his work by an enthusiast it is apt to be over-praised; his talent, though marked and individual, is not of the first order, even by Australian standards’ (659).

Although opinion about his work was divided, for a few decades Hay remained a subject of critical attention. By 1992, however, Laurie Clancy would introduce him in A Reader’s Guide to Australian Fiction as ‘a somewhat enigmatic figure about whom not much seems to be known’ (89) and conclude his short entry on Hay by saying he ‘remains a puzzling figure, full of unfulfilled possibilities’ (91). Thinking about such possibilities might well offer up new perspectives on the processes of literary canon-formation in the first half of the twentieth century in Australia – something most often written about in terms of inclusion (those who belong to it) rather than exclusion (those who miss out). This is magnified in Hay’s case because his career unfolded at a time of heightened investment in the notion of a canon of Australian literature. This was brought about by the creation (at least nominally) of a modern nation-state with federation in 1901, the year his first novel was published. It was fuelled by the increasing professionalisation of literary criticism during the mid-twentieth century that saw a gradual transition of ‘cultural authority’ from a ‘non-institutionalised, non-academic network of writers and critics’ to a more institutional scholarly context (James 297; see also Buckridge and Lee). It is easy to see why his ‘strange effects’ (Herring 88) and the ‘queerness, even abnormality’ (Green 659) of his characters were seen as ‘out of step’ with the valorisation of vernacular forms of bush realism generated by the mid-century rise of a cultural nationalism that collapsed together ideological and aesthetic priorities. This culminated in the publication of works like Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties (1954), Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) and A. A. Phillips’s The Australian Tradition (1958) and coincided precisely with the critical re-evaluation of Hay’s oeuvre.

Hay’s positioning in relation to such institutional contexts and aesthetic categories is important to any consideration of his literary career, and relatedly, to the significance of the extensive collection of papers he left behind him. Ian Hamilton has explored in detail the question of literary estates in The Keepers of The Flame, focusing on the many forces (and personalities) that can determine a writer’s legacy. ‘The history of literary estates is filled with . . . what-might-have-beens’, he writes, ‘what might have been destroyed, what might have been preserved, what might have been distorted or inked over’ (1). Hamilton’s case studies are all of celebrated authors, however, and a lasting sense of cultural investment in their literary effects is taken for granted. Lisa Stead, meanwhile, has considered the impact of literary papers on the perception of those writers who, like Hay, are lesser known. In her introduction to The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, she ponders how ‘archives help us reclaim and reframe work and reputations of literary figures both living and dead’ – or how they allow us to ‘re-evaluate conventional conceptions of a writer, or to reclaim an author from critical or cultural obscurity’ (15, 16). Nevertheless, an unspoken question remains: if the archival subject is considered obscure, unimportant or trivial, does that run the risk of making the research obscure, unimportant or trivial as well? The project to ‘reclaim’ an author seems to gain added momentum from this underlying anxiety. Perhaps that was why R. G. Howarth praised Hay, quite literally, as if his own career depended on it. In any case, what his attempted Hay revival makes clear is that ‘reclaiming’ a previously neglected author hardly ever works. It is only a matter of time before he or she sinks back into obscurity.

But there is also a flipside to this rather negative account. The fact of the archive – and its constitution as a formal collection – makes even an obscure author much harder to forget about. An archive is like a last-ditch cry for recognition from beyond the grave. In the case of William Hay, that cry is prolonged, loud and quite melancholy. It resounds through twenty-six boxes and two volumes containing carefully saved juvenilia, notes, poetry, drafts, manuscripts, source material, personal and literary correspondence, news clippings, diaries, photographs, postcards, trinkets and artefacts, notebooks, bank books, telegrams, sketches and watercolours, household budgets, medical prescriptions, builder’s invoices, legal correspondence and real estate documents, royalty statements, reader’s reports, rejection slips and acceptance letters, fan letters, book reviews, and much more. But describing any archive involves more than registering the sum of its parts, as acknowledged by an increasing range of scholars from across the disciplines. In ‘Provocations on the Pleasures of Archived Paper’, for example, feminist archival studies scholar Maryanne Dever argues for bringing a sense of ‘heightened materiality’ to the archive, in which the physical qualities of a document or artefact become as central to researchers analytical (and aesthetic, even sensory) priorities as its textual content (175). Martin F. Manalansan has taken this idea further, using ethnographic research to expand the notion of what constitutes an archive and to locate the ‘quotidian within the messy physical, symbolic, and emotional arrangement of objects, bodies, and spaces in queer immigrant lives’ (94). Historian Ann Laura Stoler, meanwhile, has influentially expressed this growing emphasis on archival materiality as a ‘move from archive-as-source to archive as subject’, in her book Along the Archival Grain (44).

In the Hay archive, the physical traces of the quotidian – all the minutiae of a privileged, well-insulated and reclusive daily life – are interleaved with the documentary evidence of an anxious and tireless pursuit of literary fame and success. One of the reasons the collection is so interesting is that it allows us to trace the material processes through which Hay sought this success, as well as the pitfalls, misfortunes and obstacles (including personal quirks and failings) that stood in his way. This striving and straining after success and recognition is animated through the collection whichever way it is approached – horizontally, following the order in which it has been arranged by others, vertically, by tracing particular themes or threads of experience, or chronologically, by attempting to pursue the details of Hay’s life from start to finish.

Michelle Caswell has recently called for humanities scholarship to more actively engage with archival studies questions including those of record and provenance, arguing that the significance and impact of (often female) archival labour has been habitually overlooked (3). Precise institutional records relating to the processing of Hay’s papers are currently missing – although L. T. Hergenhan notes in his 1967 article, ‘The Strange World of Sir William Heans (and the Mystery of William Hay)’ that they were originally deposited in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne by ‘Mrs W. B. Hay’ (n 8, 130). From the Baillieu Library they were transferred to the University of Melbourne Archives in 2004 and each item accessioned in 2005. The collection is at once carefully and indiscriminately organised. Within each individual unit drafts and manuscripts for a particular book or correspondence from a particular individual are grouped together, but certainly not without fail. At some moments the researcher is confronted with a daunting stack of unsorted manuscripts – an untidy and monumental sheaf of discoloured pages overrun with Hay’s peculiar, ant-like script – while at others, he or she encounters a no-less dispiriting mass of love letters, fanatically arranged and separated by multi-coloured paperclips.

The overriding sense on encountering Hay’s archive is one of household files extracted directly from a writer’s home study to be ‘housed’ in a new institutional and archival setting, recalling Jacques Derrida’s comments in Archive Fever about the transformation of Freud’s last place of residence into the Freud Museum. ‘It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest’, he writes, ‘that archives take place. The dwelling, this place where they dwell permanently, marks this institutional passage from the private to the public, which does not always mean the secret to the non-secret’ (2–3). The feverishness of this transition from a private into a public domain is magnified in the case of the Hay archive as a result of the intense privacy of Hay’s reclusive lifestyle and habits. ‘I lived with my family in the same house certainly but I sometimes did not meet them for weeks together’, he wrote to Mary Williams during their strange courtship by correspondence in August 1900,

because meeting them meant meeting their friends, meant ‘going out’ and ‘going out’ with the load then worrying me and the other work I had set myself was what I could not do . . . You see none of my people knew of my struggle, and indeed hardly know of it now. That was one of the hardest things, don’t you see, when I met them at dinner as I did for an hour at most nights, to keep a calm face sometimes . . . But you would understand this ‘queer’ part of my life . . . much better when I get up to town again and can look out a book for you called ‘Hawthorne and His Wife’ . . . I mention this because he has been such a great influence on my life because his case so singularly resembles mine. He lived almost as a kind of hermit . . . in the same house as his mother and two sisters whom he seldom saw, his mother being singularly akin to mine in temperament. (Hay, Unit 16, 5/2/13)

Literary endeavour, as Hay expresses it in the year before the publication of his first novel, is something that can only happen in deepest isolation – and yet his feelings of queerness (‘this queer part of my life’) and estrangement are immediately re-formulated in terms of literary celebrity through an affiliation with the nineteenth-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Part of his purpose is prescriptive. Hawthorne’s wife, he tells Mary, ‘helped him to the fame’, and Mary would soon join Hay’s own quest for literary success, typing his manuscripts, taking notes and dictation, and mediating his social world. In return, Hay was devoted to his wife, sparking P. D. Edwards’ amusing allegation of ‘Hay’s intense uxoriousness’ (220). After they married, Fayette Gosse tells us, Hay, ‘who could abide no distraction . . . built a room in the garden, to which he could retire each morning to write and think. It was almost a fort’ (11). Later, at isolated Victor Harbour, he kept a studio a few miles from the family homestead to which he would retreat for days at a time, spreading a white towel on the roof as a signal when he was ready to be collected (Gosse 30).

If privacy and isolation were essential to Hay’s literary productivity, however, this solitude also heightened the anxiety of his literary project and distorted his social interactions. ‘The tragedy of the literary life’, he wrote in his private journal in June 1911, ‘is that a man may never go and face his worries, but (magnifying them through his imagination) must sit practically at work among his books, till they have burned out’ (Hay, Unit 19, 6/3/1). He saw the inability of the local Adelaide community to match or embrace his literary aspirations as a factor in his solitude: ‘how sick I am of these cantless colonial mediocrities’, he insisted on 13 July 1906, ‘who because they have happened on an old book at some passing bookstall, paid a shilling for it and read it, imagine they are ripe for a talk with me on literature’ (Hay, Unit 19, 6/3/1).

The leisure and privilege implied by Hay’s social withdrawal also fuelled a self-justifying paranoia, so that his reclusiveness paradoxically heightened his need for widespread literary recognition. ‘Taking it all round’ he complained in July 1907,

I may be said, without exaggeration, to have suffered a good deal since I have been out here: – From those who, taking it for granted that I was a loafer, visited their disapproval in various waring ways; and from those, who seeing only too plainly that, if I was working, I had nothing to show for it, and having some secret hate for me, either for some fancied slight against them from myself (or in the old days from my parents) or simply because they hated me for my good birth and name, visited their resentment on me by calumny well-spread, or open hints of contempt for my (supposedly) loafing way of life.

Then when all seemed going well . . . and people seemed to be softening towards me, a leading bookseller . . . here shut his bookshop in the face of me and my book because of some ill-will towards me of which I was utterly ignorant . . . There was a time when actually the only friend I had in the Australian world was my wife. (Hay, Unit 19, 6/3/1)

When L. T. Hergenhan trawled through Hay’s papers in the 1960s, he noted his exaggerated sense of the evil around him as inspiration for his novels, which typically follow the travails of an English gentleman-in-distress in the alien and hostile world of the colonial Australian convict system (136). But the passage above also reveals the extent to which the archive was self-consciously cultivated as a register of Hay’s literary standing and legacy. Hay annotated this self-pitying entry at some later date ‘for my biography, if written’, as though his private diary (and personal archive) was already a starting place through which to transmit his innermost anxieties to the world.

This sense is heightened by the physicality of these textual objects. Hay’s love letters to Mary – seducing her into a lifelong position as personal literary secretary as well as wife and mother (and finally, archivist) – were indistinguishable from his professional literary correspondence. Penned in Hay’s characteristically minute, back-sloping handwriting in black ink, they typically covered the four surfaces of a folded, blank white card. Inscrutably businesslike and gentlemanly in appearance, Hay’s romantic missives offer a stark contrast to Mary’s curling cursive, sprawling over flimsy, lined pages and decorated with the occasional pressed violet. At some point Hay’s letters have been chronologically arranged in folders alongside Mary’s replies to construct what is essentially the ‘chapter’ of their developing romance, as if the archive was already, in some sense, a biography. Likewise, Hay’s journal seems materially to anticipate its own future significance: in his choice of a large, durable dark-brown leather edged notebook; in the gravitas of its marbled front and end papers; in the uncharacteristically large and flamboyant inscription of its title, ‘A Heart’s Bible’; and by his having struck out its once neutral motto (‘growing older day by day’) in favour of a more immortalising subtitle: ‘Last words of a thoughtful mind’ (emphasis in the original). A rosette of paper fixed to the front cover carries the title in small, neat lettering, together with ‘Vol.1.’ in large print, and a designation of its date range (1901–1914), adding to a sense that this private diary is one day intended for a public readership.

Mary Hay and the couple’s sons continued this use of the archive to broadcast private qualities and experiences to a wider and presumably sympathetic future public – a yet-to-be-established fan base or readership – after Hay’s death. Young William B. Hay, in particular, toiled among his father’s papers, energetically marking drafts or marginalia as ‘important’ for what they revealed about his character and writing process. He produced copious handwritten notes on lined A4 sheets – many of them transcribing material already contained elsewhere in the archive, possibly while the papers were still part of a ‘private’ collection. Young Hay sent these to potential biographer Iain Muecke, who wrote a masters thesis and a couple of essays on Hay in the 1950s and 60s; but Muecke died before ever completing the project. Instead, the notes found their way back into Hay’s archive, physically shaping, doubling and curating it in their own way, but also becoming subsumed by the collection: as though the archive is the inevitable endpoint (as well as a point of departure) for all these efforts to develop Hay’s broader literary reputation.

Mary Hay, meanwhile, had approached the popular Sydney-based novelist J. H. M. Abbott – one of Hay’s few literary acquaintances – about writing a memoir. ‘No one but myself knew William Hay, the man’, she told him, ‘as he was such a recluse’ (Hay, Unit 14, 4/4/22). And yet, like her son, Mary now felt it was important to offer up details of Hay’s private life, providing commentaries and circulating the contents of what would become his archive as a way of seeking posthumous fame. ‘As for William not receiving the recognition he deserved’, she wrote to Abbott, ‘He said his time would come, he had not written for “today”’. The hope for Hay’s future literary success thus became written into the archive – along with young William Hay’s and Mary Hay’s efforts to secure it. ‘There was so much to sort out, and I feel it a great responsibility’ Mary fretted from solitary ‘Nangawooka’ in February 1946, bringing to mind Hamilton’s comments above about the personal and practical forces that can determine what is finally included in (and excluded from) an archival collection (Hay, Unit 14, 4/4/22).

In persuading Abbott to write the memoir, Mary appealed to their personal connection. ‘William did not like many people’, she wrote, ‘but you and he had so much in common with your Public School education and literary tastes’ (Hay, Unit 14, 4/4/18). The two authors had met only once, but they shared a lengthy correspondence, which began after Hay sent Abbott an inscribed gold ring to thank him for a glowing review of The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans in the Bulletin’s ‘Red Page’. ‘It is the best work of fiction that has to do with any part of Australia in any period of Australian history’, Abbott had written: ‘If William Hay never does anything else . . . he takes a high place in Australian literature by this effort alone’ (cited in Abbott, 22). He responded to Hay’s gift with characteristic bluntness: ‘I shall keep and value it for the kindly spirit in which you sent it’, he wrote, ‘though I never wear rings’, and later admitted to having lost it (Hay, Unit 14, 4/4/3). His typewritten response to Mary was similarly forthright. ‘The book . . . wouldn’t be a paying proposition in a business sense’, he warned in May 1945,

and I fear you would yourself have to defray the entire costs of printing and publication. I don’t think any Australian publisher would be likely to take it on as a speculation . . . I don’t think there could possibly be a better memorial of your husband than such a book, but it is only fair to point out that its sales couldn’t go far towards . . . the costs of production. (Hay, Unit 14, 4/4/19)

Significantly, he added: ‘being merely a labourer in Grub Street who “lives on the game”, I’d have to stipulate that the work should be done on a business footing, and offer you a price for which I could do it’ (Hay, Unit 14, 4/4/19). At the same time as acknowledging Hay as a writer worth honouring, then, Abbott nevertheless regarded his legacy as something local publishers and local readers remained unlikely to invest in. By invoking his Grub Street credentials, he distinguished his career from Hay’s, framing his own writing as a form of labour embedded in financial imperatives, a literary network of fellow scroungers, and a clear-sighted understanding of local publishing realities. Even Hay’s memorialisation was haunted by the implication of a literary dilettantism that he so dreaded in life.

Undeterred, however, Mary responded, ‘it was stupid of me not to mention that of course we would pay you for it’ (Hay, Unit 14, 4/4/20) and work eventually went ahead on a reduced scale. Abbott collated a series of articles including his original ‘Red Page’ review, reprinted biographical and critical notes and added lengthy quotes from Hay’s novels. ‘William Hay stands in the forefront of Australian writers, though he has never received the credit that is due to him’, he wrote in his introduction (Hay, Unit 20, 7/1/1). R. G. Howarth mentioned the completion of the manuscript in the ‘William Hay Number’ of Southerly (‘William Hay’ 126), but it was never published. ‘William Gosse Hay: A Memoir’ exists only as a single, bound typescript with a navy blue leather cover and a handwritten dedication from its author: ‘To Mrs Hay, with all good wishes.’ Even with the Hays’ substantial funds underwriting it, the book was unable to achieve a wider circulation, instead feeding back into the family circle, and finally, into that strange, sequestered, public/private domain of Hay’s literary archive.

Mary Hay’s comment, ‘of course we would pay you for it’, was a familiar refrain throughout his career, which was substantially bankrolled by his personal fortune, and his archive reveals a material striving after success at almost any price. After Cornhill Magazine rejected his first novel, Stifled Laughter, for serialisation in August 1899, London firm John McQueen agreed to publish it providing his family paid production costs. The family’s social capital and financial backing also assisted the publication of his second novel, Herridge of Reality Swamp in 1907, with well-connected friends Muriel and ‘Hawthorne’ Lee Mathews, offering literary advice (read more Turgenev; study Ruskin), encouraging his aspirations, and liaising with literary agents and publishers from their home in Westminster. They eventually secured an expression of interest from the London publisher T. Fisher Unwin; by the time Unwin approached Hay directly, however, he was requesting extensive revisions and a substantial financial contribution. A four-page reader’s report in crisp blue duplicate type was enclosed, mapping out changes that would essentially transform the novel, eliminating the experimental and ornate aspects of Hay’s style in favour of a much straighter narrative (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/2).

Hay responded by intensively reworking the novel, and the micro-history of its development for publication is thickly evidenced throughout the archive in the form of painstaking drafts (both handwritten and typewritten, and then subsequently worked over with detailed corrections), correspondence from T. Fisher Unwin and his readers and so on. Despite Hay’s efforts, however, Unwin eventually took matters into his own hands, writing to Hay at the end of March 1907: ‘The alterations in accordance with our suggestions are quite good, but we do not think the book is short enough yet and . . . we are making a few further alterations in the direction of improvements that we think will meet with your commendation’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/6). Herridge of Reality Swamp soon went to print without Hay having seen these cuts.

Long after Herridge had been published and forgotten about, too, traces of its various ‘versions’ lingered, finding their way back into Hay’s memorialisation and into the archive itself. In the afterlife of Hay’s valiant redrafting, and after his death, Mary revealed she had persuaded him to substitute the ending with a happier one, while Southerly reprinted the original ending in 1950. Hay’s son raked over the files of manuscripts and correspondence, highlighting the original ending and preserving evidence of editorial changes down to the smallest fragment. For example, on one slim sheaf of almost transparent folded papers he pencilled ‘Altered Herridge MS scrap’ (Hay, Unit 3, 1/2/6). Hay had also annotated a later letter from T. Fisher Unwin, defending himself against a reader’s report that complained about the original state of the manuscripts for this and his third novel, Captain Quadring (1912) and encouraged Hay to tell a ‘plain straightforward story’. In his comments, Hay underlined his own striving to reimagine and reformulate the manuscripts, ‘against the predictions of the publisher and reader by untold work.’ ‘I write this’, he added, ‘to protect myself against the possibilities of future misstatement’ (emphasis in original) (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/2).

The cumulative effect of these archival interventions adds up to an appeal to reopen the text, as if – inseparable from its own archaeology – the novel can never quite be laid to rest. But this process of reopening also anticipates a reader willing to pore over these manuscripts as a kind of accomplice to Hay’s pre-emptive bid to preserve his future literary reputation. The assumptions of Hay and his family about the purpose of a literary archive, as well as his taken-for-granted belief that his reputation would warrant this kind of archival, textual scrutiny gives added impetus to its claim for attention, as though the archive is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In The Allure of the Archive, Arlette Farge contrasts the intention behind a printed document with the kind of unmediated, raw matter to be found in the (judicial) archive. However, a ‘private’ literary archive such as Hay’s is often already heavily interpolated – by the ‘mediating acts’(Dever, Intimate Archive 10) of gathering and selection by the author, by family members, and so on – even before it is shaped into an institutional/public collection at the hands of an archivist. This both allays and escalates the feverish search to find the archive’s ‘buried secrets’ that critics such as Caroline Steedman and Herman Rapaport elaborated in the wake of Derrida’s Archive Fever. On the one hand it can offer (often painful or even ugly) details up too readily – already framed by the self-consciousness with which the passage from private to public has been undertaken – while on the other hand it heightens the researcher’s desire to see beyond the ‘authorised’ version suggested by, for example, Hay’s annotations or the light grey-lead imprimatur of his son.2

This all suggests a strategy for reading the archive that is driven equally by a thrall of investment and knowing when to evade its dead hand: reframing archival texts analytically to trace their existence in relation each other, to the archive as a whole, to the processes and individuals that have formed it, and, more broadly, in relation to the legacy of the author. In Hay’s case, this could see his bulky, heavily corrected manuscripts sit lightly beside the flimsy telegraphed money orders and receipt slips for £50, £70, £100, and even £200 that litter his archive – as material objects that manifest an identical striving, but also a similar leap of faith that oiling from afar the machinery of a London publishing house would eventually produce the celebrity he craved.

This was not to be the case. ‘As regards the book,’ wrote T. Fisher Unwin to Hay in September 1907, ‘we like it personally and it is interesting to the members of my office but we fear the sale of it is not so brilliant as we should like’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/8). Buoyed by some positive reviews, however, Hay produced his next novel, Captain Quadring, within two years. Unwin once again requested extensive redrafting as well as a large payment. ‘I cannot see that we should make it a financial success’, he wrote; adding in a disheartening postscript that ‘sales [of Herridge] have now practically ceased’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/3). Hay went ahead with the revisions of Captain Quadring through a period of grief after the mysterious disappearance of a ship, the Waratah, on which his mother and sister were travelling to England in July 1909. The accident resulted in a nervous breakdown and hospitalisation for Hay, who wrote to Muriel Lee Mathews about it ten years later. ‘I underwent a somewhat severe illness after my mother and younger sister’s loss, and the burning of our old home’, he said, ‘and fought my way somehow out of hospital. Since then I have been fighting back to health. But the thing hangs over me yet’ (Hay, Unit 14, 3/3/20).

This loss also sealed Hay’s fate as a writer published exclusively in England, who was entirely preoccupied with an unpopular colonial Australian past. Where he had been planning a trip to Scotland to expand his literary and cultural horizons, he now turned to Tasmania, travelling to Hobart with Mary to recuperate, and becoming absorbed in tracing historical relics of the convict system (see Hooper 134). T. Fisher Unwin, meanwhile, had long been counselling Hay to change subject matter to increase his popularity. He repeated his case in 1911. ‘Do you really think you are doing the best for yourself by keeping to this convict line of romance?’ he asked:

I am not quite sure that you would not have a much better chance of winning a place in literature by work which people in general would consider less unsympathetic. Of course, I know it will not seem so to you, but a great many people do not care for reading about convicts and the convict life and period . . . it has occurred to me to wonder whether you could not perhaps devise some story of the 18th century, or for that matter, any period you like, dealing with English life. (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/25)

Hay remained committed to the Australian historical convict romance despite local criticism and the advice of his English publisher, leading some critics, such as Fayette Gosse and Iain Muecke, to conclude that he was not commercially ambitious (see Gosse 5; Muecke 123). But nothing could be further from the case: Hay wanted to be popular without having to stoop to appealing to what he saw as vulgar popular tastes. Instead, he redoubled his efforts to circulate and promote his works, printing notices and distributing them to public libraries and institutes; he contacted librarians and booksellers directly, took out advertisements in local newspapers, and sweated over these productions almost as fervently as he laboured over his literary works.

Hay also actively defended his interest in colonial Australian penal history. In an undated draft letter afterwards headed ‘Convict Apologia’ in zealous capitals by his son, he wrote:

A reviewer in an Australasian critical paper (to make a choice of one) accuses me of perpetuating a disservice to my country by touching on the penal side of its history. It is singular how a certain kind of man sees the past of Australia entirely as a penal settlement. The gentry and the settlers . . . who peopled the ‘many carriages’ seen by Darwin in the streets of Sydney in 1838 are entirely ignored. They have a long nose for a prison . . . The major parts of my books remain unreviewed. They are dismissed with a word. I am to write, says you, a book on Australian modern life. (Hay, Unit 12, 3/4)

This indignation is characteristic of Hay’s response to criticism. In January 1921, for example, he wrote to publisher Stanley Unwin about some negative reviews of his book of miscellany, An Australian Rip Van Winkle (1921), saying they

seem a sort of pathetic effrontery. One shudders (naturally) at this man with his sagacious remarks of how much better Barrie would have done my ‘Butterflies’; he must have the moral interior of a defeated soldier who stabs a child for mischief. But were there ever such horrible men and women among the journalists as there are today – thinking aloud and laying their degraded souls bare before an amazed and reddening public. (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/147)

Hay was an active advocate of Australian literature in the local press, and drafted letters to the editor – and in fact even to his lawyer – if he felt his work, and Australian literature more broadly, had been brought into disrepute. ‘On first reading this paper’s comments, in large print, of my careful and precise book being “indigestible, bewildering and oppressive”’, he wrote to Unwin, ‘it seemed to me it had come into the region of “unfair comment”, likely to interfere with its business circulation’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/147).

In 1931 Hay contacted his lawyers to propose a libel action against the editor of an Adelaide newspaper who published an article disparaging Australian literature and failing to mention Hay’s novels. The solicitor offered to speak to the editor, and discouraged Hay from writing directly in the event that ‘some motive might possibly be ascribed to you’ (Hay, Unit 21, 8/1/108). But Hay drafted a response nonetheless. ‘Dear Sir,’ he wrote,

In a recent attack in the Mail against Adelaide’s literary culture . . . the novels and essays of William Hay are treated as beneath contempt. As we are afraid this may do harm to the sale of Mr Hay’s work, will you allow me to state in defence of its literary value, that it has been favourably compared by the Athenaeum . . . with that of Anton Techov [sic], the late Russian novelist, on whose literary standard we need not enlarge, while the Morning Post sees in Mr Hay’s work a resemblance to that of Joseph Conrad. (Hay, Unit 15, 4/9)

The archive is peppered with other, similar complaints, including one to the Bulletin, about a 14 September 1922 feature on Marcus Clarke by Edward Dyson, which praised Clarke’s novel, For the Term of His Natural Life (1874), without mentioning Hay’s literary works, which had been favourably compared to it. This time Hay included a list of other significant Australian novels published in the Bookman (that featured his Captain Quadring) as a kind of micro-canon of Australian literature, and signed Mary’s name, though the typescript has his corrections all over it. Such pieces were, for the most part, unpublished cries for an unattainable celebrity, expressing Hay’s acute anxiety about occupying what he described in small pencilled script, in an outcast corner of this document, as ‘the great unknown’.

By the time Hay came to T. Fisher Unwin with yet another convict romance, the 200,000-word manuscript for his magnum opusThe Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans – in March 1917, T. Fisher Unwin had bowed out of their publishing relationship. ‘He may not have made good on your previous books as much as he wanted or he may simply have been repelled by the inordinate length of this story’ wrote Hay’s London agent, Robert Sommerville in July that year (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/53). After Hay ignored his pleas to ‘boil the story down to one half its present length’, Sommerville eventually placed the manuscript with Stanley Unwin, T. Fisher’s estranged nephew, who had established George Allen & Unwin in 1914. Stanley had in fact met Hay during a trip to Australia in January 1913, and they formed a personal friendship that mingled with their business dealings over the next thirty years – the complexities of which are vividly played out through the Hay archive, which contains both sides of their correspondence.

Stanley Unwin’s response to The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans turned once again to the financial bottom line; also citing high production costs under war conditions when requesting funds. ‘I should not care for you to embark upon publication on these lines’, he stressed, ‘unless you were prepared to lose part of your outlay’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/57). Sommerville strongly opposed Hay’s large financial contributions both to this book, and to his collection of stories, An Australian Rip Van Winkle, which came out a couple of years later, in 1922. ‘I do not like the agreement’, he wrote in February 1918, ‘and would not have accepted it’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/68). But Hay cabled Unwin directly, agreeing to pay £200 for Heans alone and instructing him to proceed with production.

As with Hay’s earlier works, The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans, and An Australian Rip Van Winkle were positively reviewed but sold poorly. The reviews ‘have been uniformly excellent’, Unwin wrote, ‘but the sales have not been too encouraging’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/152). Both Unwin and Hay blamed problems of transnational publication for this: including failures of communication with Australian distributors, pricing conversion, and supply. ‘I am sorry to report that the reception being accorded your book by the trade is by no means favourable’ Unwin wrote in June 1919, ‘with only one copy sent to Adelaide. Taking it on the whole orders are disappointing’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/103). Meanwhile, Hay complained of the ‘grim and purposeful wickedness’ of a local bookseller, the ineptitude of Unwin’s Australian representative, a Mr Ogle, and the high prices of his books in Australia (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/107). Even at a reduced price, however, Unwin reported, ‘we found it extremely difficult to get any of the Australian buyers to take up the book in any quantities’ (Hay, Unit 13, 4/2/117).

Hay and Unwin’s correspondence continued in this vein throughout the production of Hay’s final two novels, Strabane of the Mulberry Hills (1929) and The Mystery of Alfred Doubt (1937). An anonymous manuscript reader’s response to the latter in late 1936 seems to capture the precise sense of promise and failure that had coloured Hay’s career all along. ‘The man is a genius’, he wrote, ‘I suppose, since one never hears of him, that he hardly ever sells at all in this country? Whatever the reason for that is it is no doubt present also in this volume. It seems to me unlikely to sell either more or less than the others. And it might catch; you never know; this moment might, for some reason be more propitious than the previous ones’ (Hay, Unit 14, 4/2/203).

In October the next year, however, Unwin wrote with the familiar complaint that ‘sales have not, alas! been as good as the reviews. People seem either to be enthusiastic about your work and fully cognisant of its qualities, or to dismiss it as old fashioned and without merit. There is no half way about it, and the difficulty is to get the book into the hands of those who appreciate it’ (Hay, Unit 14, 4/2/215). Sales remained disappointing until February 1944 – the year before Hay’s death – when war conditions in England momentarily reversed his fortunes. ‘There is a great shortage of really first-rate fiction’, wrote Unwin ‘and we have had no difficulty at all in disposing of the entire stock of The Mystery of Alfred Doubt. The greater part of Strabane has been sold in the same way’ (Hay, Unit 14, 4/2/230). Meanwhile, fifty-two copies of The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans were noted as among the 1,400,000 books destroyed by enemy action in George Allen & Unwin’s warehouses (Hay, Unit 14, 4/2/232).

On 20 April 1943, Phillip Unwin, Stanley’s nephew, wrote from George Allen & Unwin’s offices to Hay rejecting his story ‘The Secret of the Rampart’ and discouraging him from completing the manuscript for the collection, which Hay had intended as a companion volume to An Australian Rip Van Winkle. Hay had nonetheless gone on to complete the manuscript, but his efforts to publish it, as well as those made by his family to issue it posthumously, were unsuccessful – at least until R. G. Howarth reproduced some of this material in the ‘William Hay Number’ of Southerly. This seems like a closing chapter in the narrative of unfulfilled literary ambition the archive has made it possible for this article to trace. But it also reinforces the ways in which the archive continued to host and foster that ambition long after the author had died – with documents evidencing the failed afterlife of these unpublished works folded back into it in the unwavering hope that this body of papers may still one day hold the key to Hay’s literary success.

In 1955 the Bulletin’s ‘Red Page’ devoted itself to reviewing Howarth’s reprint of The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans, noting that it was the first time in thirty-five years it had been available in print. It calls the novel that ‘black and secret midnight hag of Australian literature’ before rehearsing the familiar extremes so common to reviews of Hay’s works: lampooning its stylistic affectations at one moment and calling it a masterpiece the next. ‘But there must always be room in literature’, the anonymous author emphasises, ‘on the fringes of the great central stream of prose, for the rare, the exotic, the curious, the original’ (2) – awarding Hay a kind of exceptional status, just outside the canon of Australian literature to which he had laboured so hard to belong. The review has been cut out, and roughly folded, at some point, and left somewhere to fade – so that its iconic red paper is bleached out halfway down the page – before being pressed into position in the archive itself, lodged with a fitting indiscriminateness between a facsimile of the Magna Carta, and an advertising leaflet for Hay’s second novel, Herridge of Reality Swamp.


  1. In 2016 I was awarded a Hugh Williamson Foundation Fellowship through the University of Melbourne Archives to examine the papers of William Gosse Hay: I would like to gratefully acknowledge this support as well as the kind assistance of Katrina Dean, Sophie Garrett and the staff working in Special Collections at the Baillieu Library.

  2. As Maryanne Dever has recently emphasised, ‘we no longer imagine there are voices or stories simply waiting for us in the archive’. Perhaps ‘buried secrets’ are now nothing more or less than the counter-narratives available to an archival collection’s seeming sense of purpose (or promise). See Dever, ‘Archives and New Modes of Feminist Research’, Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 32, nos. 91–92, 2017, p. 1.

Published 9 July 2018 in Volume 33, No. 2. Subjects: Literary career, William Gosse Hay, Literary archive.

Cite as: Weaver, Rachael. ‘Literary Aspiration and the Papers of William Gosse Hay.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2018.