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Being an Australian writer like throwing a rock into the mud

9 January 2016 128 views No Comment

Last year my favourite Australian book was Michael Wilding’s ‘Wild Bleak Bohemia’, which shared the Non-Fiction Prize for the 2015 Prime Ministers Literary Awards — of which I was a judge.

Wilding’s finely written and scrupulously researched book deals with the life and work of the three most important writers in colonial Australia — Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall. As it happens, they are my favourite nineteenth century novelists and poets — and in that order.

C.T. Clarke, who worked for the publisher George Robertson, wrote about “The Sorrows of Australian Authors” in the ‘Centennial Magazine’, November 1889: “Perhaps the finest work of any Australian writer is the powerful novel by the late Marcus Clarke, ‘His Natural Life.’ If success could have been anticipated for any Australian book, surely in the case of this one a large sale might have been looked for.”

Yet when it was first published in Melbourne in 1874 ‘His Natural Life’ only boasted a moderate degree of success.

Indeed Clarke’s now famous novel only took off after an English publisher, Richard Bentley, took it over and the British Liberal statesman and soon to be prime minister, Lord Rosebery, boosted it on a visit to Australia in 1883-4. Before that it had languished.

The same early lack of interest in his work also applied to Adam Lindsay Gordon — one of whose verses remains an Australian classic:

“Life is only froth and bubble.

Two things stand like stone.

Kindness in another’s trouble.

Courage in your own.

On 10 June 1867 ‘Ashtaroth, a Dramatic Lyric’ ‘by the Author of ‘Sea Spray and Smoke Drift’ was published by Clarson, Massina & Co., Melbourne. On 19 June it was followed by a second volume, ‘Sea Spray and Smoke Drift’, ‘by the Author of ‘Ashtaroth’, published by George Robertson, Melbourne.

Thus two of Gordon’s books from two different publishers appeared within a fortnight of each other, each declared to be by the author of the other. But Gordon’s name was not given in either of them. Each edition ran to 500 copies. And each edition cost the impecunious poet £50.

In June 1870, Gordon called in at the publisher, A. H. Massina, who recalled: “He expected some money on the day his last book ‘Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes’, was published.

“He owed me about £75, and said to me, ‘I suppose you want some money.’

“And I replied, ‘Printers generally do.’

“Gordon said, ‘Well, I’ll be up in the morning with a cheque.’

The money was not forthcoming and the following morning Gordon shot himself near Brighton Beach — where as a young alcoholic teenager in the early 1960s I often used to drink myself!

It was only ten years later, when a collection of Gordon’s poems was published with a preface by Marcus Clarke that sales took off.

In 1880 Massina reissued Gordon’s ‘Sea-Spray and Smoke Drift’ combined with ‘Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes’ and ‘Ashtaroth’ under the title ‘Poems of the Late Adam Lindsay Gordon.’ With Marcus Clarke’s endorsement, Gordon’s ‘Poems’ then became a bestseller — with 20,000 volumes being sold in a single decade.

Despite contemporary rumours to the contrary, Henry Kendall is the only one of the three authors whose books remained particularly unsold.

In October 1862 Kendall’s first book ‘Poems and Songs’ was published by subscription. The title page announces it was published in Sydney by J.R. Clarke, 356 George Street, and in London by Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, Ludgate Hill.

But a copy discovered by Michael Wilding in the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library has the London imprint crossed out and a note by Kendall stating ‘the book was never sent beyond the colony’.

Of the 500 copies printed, Kendall eventually disposed of 369 copies of ‘Poems and Songs’ — before the publisher went bankrupt. Kendall also lost money on the venture.

In 1869 Kendall’s second book, ‘Leaves from Australian Forests’, a collection of fifty-eight poems, was published in Melbourne by George Robertson at five shillings a copy. The book was released in London in 1870.

As Kendall wrote to an English friend: “I have brought out 1500 copies of ‘Leaves from Australian Forests’ — 1000 for the colonies and 500 for home consumption. In reality, George Robertson the publisher undertook to pay all the expenses upon the condition that the proceeds of the first 700 copies should go into his own pocket.

Unsurprisingly the book was not a commercial success, any more than Gordon’s poems were while he was alive. But at least Kendall did not have to make a financial contribution towards publication, as Gordon had to do.

However a profit-sharing agreement to take place after the 700 copies of ‘Leaves from Australian Forests’ were bought never came into effect. This was because only a few hundred copies were taken up by the public. The net result was a loss to the publisher of £90, and the poet was left with what he described as “the mortification of feeling that the feeble glow of public applause is too easily replaced by a chilling frost.

In the ensuing years there was no shortage of copies of Kendall’s second book. As a critic wrote in the ‘Melbourne Review’ of October 1882: ‘They were published thirteen years ago, and there are still several hundred copies for sale in the city at sixpence apiece!’ G.B. Barton recalled in the ‘Centennial Magazine’ in 1889: ‘Some years ago, while passing down a street in Melbourne, I noticed a parcel of small books in a bookseller’s shop window, conspicuously labelled “Leaves from Australian Forests by Henry Kendall; price one shilling. Not having previously seen, or even heard of, the book, although it had been published some years previously, I went in to buy a copy, and in reply to my inquiry how it was that a volume of Kendall’s poetry could be sold at such a price as a shilling? the shopkeeper told me that there was no sale for the book, that he was glad to get rid of it at any price.’

As I have found, especially in relation to fiction, such is all too often the experience of Australian writers and poets — from the nineteenth century to the present. Indeed as the radical nationalist author Vance Palmer wrote in the mid 1950s: “Most times being a writer in Australia is like throwing a rock into vast soundless mud!

Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent fiction is the co-authored political satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure.’

The Weekend Australian, January 9-10, 2016, p 20.

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