London calls for novel response
From a Distant Shore: Australian Writers in Britain 1820-2012
By Bruce Bennett and Anne Pender Monash University Publishing, 280pp, $39.95
IN 2003, a decade after his death, Lee Kok Liang’s novel London Does Not Belong to Me was published. This was a bleak account of the Malaysian writer’s experiences in the 1950s in the capital of the British Commonwealth of which his country was part. One of his mournful lines provided the title for an Australian collection of essays about expatriate lives in Britain: London Was Full of Rooms (2006).
The instance of Lee Kok Liang is a reminder of the magnetic force of the metropolis throughout the empire, then commonwealth. Think, for instance, of the New Zealanders who lived and worked there, from Katherine Mansfield to Fleur Adcock and CK Stead.
The focus of the most recent analysis of one aspect of expatriation is indicated in the subtitle of From a Distant Shore, by Anne Pender and the late Bruce Bennett: Australian Writers in Britain 1820-2012.
To the authors’ credit, they find much that is fresh to remark in what is becoming a crowded field, one that includes Peter Morton’s brilliant Lusting for London: Australian Expatriate Writers at the Hub of Empire, 1870-1950 (2011).
Bennett and Pender take issue with Morton for reverting to ‘‘ a well-known economic model of loss: the brain drain model’’. Optimistically, they emphasise Australian expatriate authors’ contribution to world literature, rather than see it as a loss to their own. They see them as literary toilers, some more gifted, prolific and richer than others, but not as ‘‘ melodramatic heroes, villains or martyrs’’.
Nor is this book concentrated on London. A number of the 45 authors who feature in the book lived elsewhere: in Oxford (where Gilbert Murray was Regius professor of Greek), Cambridge (where contemporaries Clive James and Germaine Greer studied), but also in the provinces. Notable examples of the latter were Randolph Stow’s decades-long residence in Suffolk and MJ Hyland, who lives in Manchester.
In what Bennett and Pender at a stretch call ‘‘ this collective biography’’, authors are grouped thematically and chronologically. First are ‘‘ early expatriate writers’’ such as Murray, WC Wentworth, John Lang and Rosa Praed.
Murray translated classical Greek plays and wrote a romance, Gobi (1889), in imitation of Rider Haggard. The highly successful novelist Praed was, like Haggard, a believer in reincarnation, to the extent that she thought her lover, Nancy Harward, to have been a Roman slave girl, Nyria.
Wentworth notoriously won second prize at Cambridge for his since much-plundered poem Australasia, and died with his dream of what adversaries called ‘‘ a bunyip aristocracy’’ in Australia unfulfilled.
Lang had been his legal clerk in Sydney. Rusticated from Cambridge for ‘‘ Botany Bay tricks’’, his journalistic career flourished in India. It is tempting to believe, with Bennett and Pender, that he wrote the first novel by a native-born Australian. Sadly, the palm for Violet; or, the Danseuse (1836) remains with Marian Dora, Lady Malet.
Ten crime writers pack the next chapter. Guy Boothby lived opulently in Bournemouth, wrote 50 novels (a number featuring the occultist and detective Dr Nikola), earned £20,000 a year and died of pneumonia at 37. Robert Coutts Armour (his real name) wrote 56 issues of the AP Robin Hood Library and was one of the main authors of the Sexton Blake detective series. Mary Gaunt made her name with The Mummy Moves (1910). All intelligently exploited the commercial, if not artistic possibilities that Britain afforded them.
More high-minded and much poorer were the founders of the Fanfrolico Press, Jack Lindsay and PR Stephensen. They are grouped with Frederic Manning, author of a masterpiece of World War I, The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929) and Pamela Travers (her stage name), whose first Mary Poppins story was published in New Zealand in the Christchurch Sun in 1926. Travers’s declaration that ‘‘ I’m at home wherever I am’’, might have been an ambiguous epigraph for this book.
A chapter headed Romancers Abroad 1890s-1950s reintroduces us — repetitively — to Praed, as well as revealing how Louise Mack and Alice Rosman seized the chance to sign up with Mills & Boon. Recovered from eclipse is Maysie Greig, ‘‘ Australia’s most prolific fiction writer’’ (there are bound to be other contenders) who wrote 220 novels with the aid of a dictaphone.
As the book nears the present, the authors profit from opportunities to interview some of their subjects, including Barry Humphries, Peter Conrad and Peter Porter, whose definitive biography Bennett wrote and who is described here as ‘‘ Australia’s greatest expatriate poet’’. Porter died in 2010.
There are suggestive comparisons of Patrick White and Humphries as satirists, and of ‘‘ art and the religious impulse’’ in White, Stow and Morris West. The career of poet and editor WJ Turner is brought back to light, as is that of the novelist Madeleine St John, for whom ‘‘ England was where I belonged. Australia was a deviation of one’s essence.’’
If fewer Australian writers now lust for London, Bennett and Pender have ably and entertainingly shown its attractions and the complex fates that it delivered for two centuries for those who did.
Randolph Stow lived in Suffolk