Review of Locating Australian Literary Memory, by Brigid Magner

Abstract

Locating Australian Literary Memory begins with a typically pithy quotation from Miles Franklin about its subject matter: ‘Such monuments, alas, too often are a saving of face by the living in regard to the neglected dead’. Many of the eleven Australian writers focused on by Brigid Magner were indeed neglected during their lifetimes, and most, even if achieving popularity at one time, are little read today. They include a number whose work would still be regarded as canonical, such as Joseph Furphy, Henry Handel Richardson, Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Katharine Susannah Prichard and Eleanor Dark, along with two best-known for their books for children, Nan Chauncy and P. L. Travers. Novelist Kylie Tennant, Indigenous author David Unaipon and poet Adam Lindsay Gordon make up the rest of the group, all of whom were writing mainly in the nineteenth through to the mid-twentieth centuries.

Locating Australian Literary Memory, by Brigid Magner. Anthem Press, 2019.

Locating Australian Literary Memory begins with a typically pithy quotation from Miles Franklin about its subject matter: ‘Such monuments, alas, too often are a saving of face by the living in regard to the neglected dead’. Many of the eleven Australian writers focused on by Brigid Magner were indeed neglected during their lifetimes, and most, even if achieving popularity at one time, are little read today. They include a number whose work would still be regarded as canonical, such as Joseph Furphy, Henry Handel Richardson, Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Katharine Susannah Prichard and Eleanor Dark, along with two best-known for their books for children, Nan Chauncy and P. L. Travers. Novelist Kylie Tennant, Indigenous author David Unaipon and poet Adam Lindsay Gordon make up the rest of the group, all of whom were writing mainly in the nineteenth through to the mid-twentieth centuries.

The emphasis on writers from earlier periods is not surprising since, as Magner indicates, many of the memorials to them date from the 1920s, 1940s and 1970s, ‘periods of resurgent literary nationalism’. And many were the work of literary groups and societies that no longer exist or are now in decline. Of the more recent ones, some have resulted from bequests by the authors themselves, as with Chauncy and Tennant, while a number of others are found in regional areas eager to attract tourists. This is particularly the case with Travers, with three statues not of her, but of her creation, the English nanny Mary Poppins, in different places in Queensland and New South Wales – where she lived before moving to Britain as a young woman.

Over the one hundred and fifty years since Gordon committed suicide in 1870, the reading and recitation of poetry has also been in a steep decline. But of the four writers who have so far been featured on Australian banknotes, three were primarily known during their lives as poets. While Gordon was not one of them, being largely forgotten by the time decimal currency was introduced, he was the first to achieve widespread popularity and remains the only Australian author to be commemorated in Poet’s Corner at London’s Westminster Abbey. From the 1910s to the 1930s, he remained widely read, and thousands of people took part in an annual pilgrimage to his grave in Brighton. In addition, as Magner notes, he is remembered by statues, plaques and house museums in both Victoria and South Australia.

Although similar pilgrimages no longer take place to Henry Lawson’s grave in Waverley Cemetery or to his statue in Sydney’s Domain, he remains the most widely celebrated Australian author. So much so that Magner was restricted to discussing only the major memorials to him, while including much fascinating information. As recorded by Chris Lee in his City Bushman: Henry Lawson and the Australian Imagination, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph proposed that a statue of Lawson, the same size as New York’s Statue of Liberty, be built on Fort Denison. A smaller one was eventually erected in the Domain, close to the earlier memorial to Scots poet Robbie Burns. There was a public fundraising campaign to help pay for it, though A. G. Stephens argued, in a letter to that paper, that the money would be better spent supporting living poets like John Shaw Neilson: ‘Shall we give them their own bread – or Lawson’s stone?’1 I wonder if Stephens knew an earlier poem on Burns by Charles Harpur that concluded:

The thankless Country that denied him bread

Now gives this stone – for he is safely dead!2

While the annual pilgrimages have ceased, Lawson Festivals still take place around Lawson’s birthday in mid-June, at both his place of birth, Grenfell, and Gulgong where his family moved shortly after. There is also a pilgrimage drive between the two towns, which changes direction each year, featuring riders and horse-drawn vehicles, with participants dressed in period costumes.

As Magner outlines, while a number of regional places in New South Wales claim to be the birthplace of ‘Banjo’ Paterson, like P. L. Travers, he tends to be remembered more in relation to two of his best-known poems, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘The Man from Snowy River’, which notably featured in the opening and closing ceremonies of Sydney’s Olympic Games in 2000. The most visited Paterson site is now probably the Waltzing Matilda Centre at Winton in Queensland, while Corryong in southern New South Wales celebrates a local rider, Jack Riley, as the original of ‘The Man’.

Unlike those to Gordon, Lawson and Paterson, the memorials to Joseph Furphy, Henry Handel Richardson, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Eleanor Dark, Nan Chauncy and Kylie Tennant have been driven more by dedicated individuals and family members than by the need to encourage tourism to specific areas. Furphy, as Magner notes, has never enjoyed the same popularity as the poets, with the push to remember him initially led by his friend Kate Baker and taken up more recently by members of the Furphy family who remain in Shepparton. The house he built after moving later to Western Australia was given to the local Fellowship of Australian Writers by his son in 1939, though like a number of other writers’ homes has since been relocated.

Interestingly, the women writers’ houses remain on their original sites, some donated by the writer herself or her descendants, some acquired by the state government as in the case of Prichard’s, or by the National Trust, as with Lake View near Chiltern, the house featured in the final volume of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Prichard’s and Dark’s houses now function as writers’ centres so are, as Magner says, ‘Living Memorials’, busy with writers in residence and other visitors. Having visited both of them myself, I remember being struck by the difference between their kitchens: a very poky affair at Prichard’s Greenmount, as compared to the spacious one at Varuna. And while visiting writers sleep in cabins at Greenmount, at Varuna it is possible to sleep in Dark’s own bed. Having also visited Kylie Tennant’s hut at Diamond Head on the New South Wales North Coast, I wondered how Tennant, her two children, and sometimes her friend Elizabeth Harrower managed to all fit in there. It and some surrounding land was given to the state government by Tennant as part of her fight to establish the Crowdy Bay National Park. Now managed by National Parks and Wildlife, it is open for day use only and was repaired in the early 1980s as Magner records.3 In contrast, the hut in the Blue Mountains where Eve Langley died in 1974 is now in ruins.

As Magner notes in her chapter on David Unaipon, there is not only a lack of memorials to Indigenous writers but to Indigenous Australians as a whole. Although he is now featured on our $50 note, for many years his Legendary Tales of Australian Aborigines was published under the name of a non-Indigenous man. At Raukkan in South Australia, where Unaipon lived for much of his life, a memorial cairn for explorer Charles Sturt was erected in 1930, but a monument to Unaipon did not appear until 1999, prompted by his appearance on the banknote. Members of the Unaipon family apparently are planning to erect a sculpture at his birthplace at Tallum Bend. But as Magner rightly argues, the literary awards that have been established to honour both Unaipon and poet Oodgerroo Noonuccal are much more effective than physical monuments in commemorating their work.

Locating Australian Literary Memory clearly involved a great deal of research in archival sources, works by the featured writers and biographies of them. Brigid Magner also travelled around Australia to visit various sites and to photograph many of them. She even risked her neck climbing down to Dark’s cave in the Blue Mountains. So it is a pity that, as well as some typographical errors, there are also some factual errors in her book. Kylie’s Hut, for example, is on the North rather than the South Coast of New South Wales, while Lawson’s While the Billy Boils first appeared in 1896 not 1908. Christopher Brennan inspired a character in Dark’s Sun across the Sky rather than Prelude to Christopher. Henry Handel Richardson went to Europe aged eighteen rather than in her early twenties, and there is some inconsistency in the dates provided of the number of months she and her family lived at Chiltern. However, given the amount of material Magner covers, no doubt some errors were inevitable, especially in these days of camera-ready copy. Her book is an innovative addition to Australian literary studies, and will hopefully inspire further efforts to memorialise more recent Australian authors.

Footnotes

  1. ‘Lawson’s Memorial’. Daily Telegraph, 22 Sept. 1922, p. 4, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/245780014.

  2. Charles Harpur, ‘Burns’. The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems, W. R. Piddington, 1853, pp. 116–20.

  3. In a more recent essay for The Conversation, Magner noted that Kylie’s Hut had been destroyed in last year’s bushfires so will need to be rebuilt again. See https://theconversation.com/kylies-hut-bushfires-destroyed-the-writing-retreat-of-an-aussie-literary-icon-136386

Published 29 October 2020 in Volume 35 No. 2. Subjects: Henry Handel Richardson , Miles Franklin, Henry Lawson, Eleanor Dark, Joseph Furphy, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Adam Lindsay Gordon, A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson, Brigid Magner, Nan Chauncy, P.L. Travers, David Unaipon.

Cite as: Webby, Elizabeth. ‘Review of Locating Australian Literary Memory, by Brigid Magner.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2020, doi: 10.20314/als.d589b6304c.