Forgotten Australian novelists

J.W. Heming

J.W. Heming – Source: Collecting books and magazines.com

How do books/novelists get forgotten? I’ve been pondering this for a while now and have come up with a formulae. Well, the ingredients for a formulae and someone needs to assign values and calculate. I think it would include, in no particular order (that’s for the formulae writer to decide):

Early death of novelist. An original/exciting/groundbreaking novel is published. Word is getting around the traps and then the author dies before establishing a reputation. A perfect example is Deirdre Cash (1924-1963). Writing as Criena Rohan, the young Australian published two novels The Delinquents and Down by the Dockside and would be almost completely forgotten if her first novel had not been made into a 1989 movie. If she had not died so young, the mysterious third novel The House with the Golden Door would definitely have survived and hopefully been published, helping to establish a less tenuous reputation.

Gender bias, if the novelist is a woman, leading to a lack of reviews and recommendations and later anthologising, as examined at length in Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers by Dale Spender. (Although things are now looking up as the shortlist for the 2015 Short Story Prize for emerging writers is made of 8 women and only 4 men).

The writing style of the author and/or the changing tastes of the reading public Was it avant garde? Too extreme for the masses that were the reading public of, say, 1924. If we could only get a hold of that elusive book written in 1923 we would discover that it’s author should never have been forgotten. See my review of Jean Curlewis’s Beach Beyond.

A reclusive and/or difficult author. As pointed out in the excellent article: Turning Pages: The lost or forgotten classic novels that should be back in print – a difficult author can sabotage their own fame and that of their novels. “Some authors might have been better-known if they were less reclusive (Gregory Day’s pick, the poet George Mackay Brown, spent most of his life in the Orkney Islands); or less independent and bloody-minded (Geordie Williamson’s pick, the eccentric James Hamilton-Paterson, is admired by Michael Ondaatje​ and Barry Humphries).”

Not successful in winning any major prizes or competitions. Once your novel has won a competition such as the Miles Franklin your name is registered for all time and your book guaranteed a place in Australian literary history. Although at Sydney Review of Books Nicolas Jose eloquently states: “There is a difference between literary history and living literature. Winning the Miles Franklin may gain you a place in the historical record. But there’s no reason why today’s reader should be bound by the decisions of yesterday’s judging committee. It is as interesting to ask why a writer or a book may not work for us as to insist that it is a great work because someone once gave it a prize.”

Meeting the needs of the moment only. This generally won’t ensure a book’s long term survival. A very good example of this is the Australian pulp fiction (yes Australian!) of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As Andrew Nette explains at Kill Your Darlings – “It was throwaway fiction in every sense of the word: cheap; printed on rough paper; featuring lurid cover art designed to make the books stand out at news stands and kiosks. It also had a healthy dose of cultural cringe, with the majority of the stories set elsewhere – usually America.”

Of course tastes change and not even quality writing can always be assured of survival. In my research on the 1920s I came across some Forgotten Australian Women Novelists. Of course the 1920s is a long time ago so I moved my research period forward and began to wonder who were the top male and female authors 1940-1950. From publication listings accessed by the very helpful AustLit we have below a list of the top five male Australian authors:

J.W. Heming
Carl Dekker
Bob Mackinnon
Kevin M. Slattery
Philip Richmond.

The top five female authors for the same period are:

Maysie Greig
Jennifer Ames
Marie Ford
Mary Mitchell
Edna Finlay

I’m afraid I’ve never heard of any of them. Their popularity hasn’t saved them for posterity. Luckily over the last ten years or so there has been a concerted push by a number of institutions to save selected worthy books and novelists from being completely forgotten. There is the excellent Text Publishing Classic Series, Sydney University Press’s Classic Australian Works, Allen & Unwin’s recently launched House of Books, and other reprints.

I and my fellow colleagues at Australian Women’s Writers Challenge are also doing our bit to help raise awareness of underrated or forgotten novelists. Sue at Whispering Gums has recently reviewed The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Henshaw wrote one of my all time favourite books by an Australian – Out of the Line of Fire. The novel burst into our consciousness in 1988 and was one of the most acclaimed novels of the 1980s. And then the author disappeared from the literary world. Another forgotten novelist is Fredric Manning who wrote, (for me anyway) the unforgettable WWI novel The Middle Parts of Fortune which thankfully Lisa has reviewed at ANZ Litlovers. Hopefully her review will lead to more readers of Manning’s thought provoking novel and the publication of The Snow Kimono, a host of new readers for Henshaw.

Just in case you are wondering, here are details about our top two novelists from AustLit “John Winton Heming was the author of some 50 pulp novelettes and claimed to have written perhaps two thousand short stories. Heming published in different genres and under a variety of names and pseudonyms.” And our top female. “Maysie Greig was a journalist with the Sydney Sun newspaper from 1919 to 1920. There is some evidence that Greig published the same works, often under different titles, under different names in England and the United States.”

I am currently reading The Drowning Maze by Jean Curlewis published in 1922. Watch this space for the review. The only trouble is, I will have to add the book first. Jean Curlewis, is a forgotten novelist as far as Goodreads is concerned, at least until recently and yours truly.

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How to get distracted writing historical fiction and/or the girl on the beach

Source: ( Photo by Branger/Roger Viollet/Getty Images )

Girl on the beach 1925

Yes, it’s a serious problem for historical fiction writers when doing research – staying on track. In the 1980s I went through all the photography books (and there was a lot) at Dee Why Library. Of course I didn’t need to look at all the photos – most didn’t have anything to do with the manuscript I was writing but what the heck! Now with the net the problem is magnified 100 times over. The number of photos that are available is staggering. Google images, Instagram, Flickr, Trove – all waiting quietly (Hey, don’t mind me!) to lead you away from words on a screen/page.

In this instance Pinterest was the culprit. I had been googling 1920s clothes and pinning them on my board Research for my next novel. Pinterest, being very helpful, kindly said “You might like this!” and there was a board on the 1920s that I decided to follow. Some boards are small of course and only take a few minutes to glance over but occasionally I would find myself drifting away from my writing. You know how it is! I love that dress of Audrey Hepburn’s! And really, Warren Beatty was pretty good looking when he was young. Wow, I want to go to that French village right now. This sort of thing happens frequently when I’m on the net but no harm here! This board was on topic – the 1920s. I scrolled down through the images and there she was! Simply a girl on a beach, looking sad yet sort of posed at the same time. I was done for! My writing and research lost for the rest of the evening.

I found myself really studying the photo. Gosh, it does look posed. A publicity shot for a now unknown actress? A photographer friend suggested it was actress Edna Purviance, Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady in many of his films. I googled images of her and decided no, it wasn’t her. I then did a Tin Eye reverse image search. The one that was pinned on Pinterest had no name or details. Maybe another image might have more information. Tin Eye came up with 24 results and it appears the original photograph is a Getty image taken by the French photographer Roger Viollet with a title of “Swimmer on the beach of Deauville (Calvados), about 1925”. A location but no name!

I searched her face again. She really was very pretty! Maybe it was a lucky snap that became a bit of a hit and the damsel was pinned up wherever males congregate. I’m guessing she might have been extremely popular with the French Foreign Legion when the state of her chest was noticed! She is actually striking a pose similar to Farrah Fawcett in that that red swimming costume back in the seventies!

None of this helped me identify her of course and why is she sitting by herself? Is she waiting for someone?I believe she wasn’t an actress because I’m sure if she was, she would have been identified by now. I mean, how many photos do we view a day? Even when we aren’t researching, people put up posts asking please identify. Photos are multiplied over and over in vastly different locations. Gradually the dots are joined but not for the moment for my girl at the beach.

Three hours later after originally viewing her picture, my manuscript is pushed to the back of my mind. I have lost valuable time and asked unanswerable questions, such as: Who was she? Was she a model? What did she do with her life? She’s about the same age as my character. I wish I could chart her life through known facts so that I can have a few signposts for my girl; be made aware of what it was like to be young and beautiful in the 1920s.

She has led me on a merry dance but then I stop and look at her once more. Actually she hasn’t. I’ve only just realised why she caught my attention in the first place. She has abundantly thick and wavy hair – auburn, I’m guessing, just like my main character Sarah Montague’s. I haven’t lost time. Here is a real life sister for an imaginary young woman that I need to return to.

Sydney’s Lost Cafes

Ambassadors Cafe

There are quite a few that are hiding from me. Images I’m talking about. After a few weeks of dogged research I have finally unearthed the photo above courtesy of Mike Sutcliffe’s article from This Australia 1986. I know the writing is small but according to the ad “Delightful hot supper from 10 o’clock…dancing until 1am…Order drinks before 6pm.”

Now that last is a vital piece of information – the ridiculous six o’clock closing which, of course, bred the sly grog shops and the illegal sale of liquor at many locations, including The Ambassadors. I have just this week finished writing about a raid on the cafe and have now turned my attention to other cafes in the area.

Jack Lindsay, Norman Lindsay’s son, writes of Mockbells: “I sat over my eked-out coffee and dozed amid the pseuod-moorish decorations almost obliterated by smoke, age, damp and their own insignificance.” I know from my research that there were a few over the years. One in Castlereagh Street (possibly Jack’s). Another in the Imperial Arcade in 1902. In 1897 a Mockbells cafe had a general meeting of the Society of Artists. That’s the earliest mention I have found. The latest is 1948 in an article: “Mockbell’s, Ltd., has agreed to sell six of the company’s seven city restaurants to a new company to be called Mockbell’s Pty. Ltd.” And after that they disappear. As for pictures? I haven’t found one! If anyone has any I would love to see them.

I have also been unable to find several other cafe/restaurants of Sydney in 1921-1926 that Jack writes about. There is the Cambridge, the Hungarian cafe, the Moana, the Roma and Burt’s Milk Bar. I have also not been able to unearth a picture of Amendola’s wine bar in Wilmott Street which later became Cafe La Boheme. Or Pelligrini’s. I’m still hopeful about these last two. And will post again if I find any of the cafes mentioned.

If however you are looking for a Sydney cafe frequented twenty odd years later by bohemians – journalists, writers and artists – well you are in luck! Below is one of many wonderful photos of the Lincoln Coffee House 1948-1951.

Jean Grenet and Mrs Barry at the Lincoln Coffee HouseThis image is courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales on Flickr. If you know of any photos of the above cafes and restaurants of Sydney in the Twenties, I would love to hear from you. Here’s hoping!