Lon­don calls for novel re­sponse

From a Dis­tant Shore: Aus­tralian Writ­ers in Bri­tain 1820-2012

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce Peter Pierce

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

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