One of the few books – or objects of any sort – to come down to me from my great-grandparents is this battered copy of C.J. Dennis’s Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Why did it survive when nothing else did? It’s not a signed copy, it’s not even a first printing, but an eighteenth impression from 1918. Like many Australians, my great-grandparents would have loved this book during the war and perhaps that’s why it survived. As a kid, I remember my bewilderment at the cupid drawings and the impenetrable slang it is written in.
I dug it out from my bookshelf for the first time in many years because I’ve been reading Philip Butterss’s An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis. Published in 2014, it won the 2015 National Biography Award. I’ve just returned from Canberra where I had the chance to hear Butterss speak at a National Centre for Biography seminar.
Butterss’s biography covers the whole of Dennis’s life with a careful briskness and an admirable clarity. It’s a different kind of biography to what I’m attempting, perhaps more concerned with setting his work in the context of life and conveying information than weaving a narrative and creating scenes. That’s partly a consequence of its conciseness and scope; the author also mentioned to me the limited number of personal papers to draw on. The discussion of Dennis’s literary works are well integrated and gave me a good sense of his poetry. Butterss argues convincingly for Dennis’s significance to Australian literature while also demonstrating the limitations of Dennis’s work.
C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was contemporaneous with Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was seven years younger. I was struck by some parallels and points of comparison.
- Both had their first big success in 1915 during World War One, Dennis with the publication of Sentimental Bloke and Katharine with The Pioneers. Both books were popular works a long way removed from the war. Both writers had tribute dinners organised for them at Cafe Francais in Melbourne to celebrate their success a few months apart. It would be fair to say Dennis never developed far beyond what he achieved with that book, returning to the same characters and milieu in subsequent works with diminishing returns. Although Katharine’s breakthrough book sold well, it wasn’t nearly as successful as Sentimental Bloke, and it left her more incentive to develop as a writer.
- While World War One radicalised Katharine, moving her to embrace communism, it shifted Dennis the other way. He’d been a radical and worked for Labor politicians, but he became quite conservative in his later years. In Butterss’ account, it was wealth and success more than the war which affected him. If The Pioneers had made Katharine a fortune, would it have affected her politics?
- Both wrote in the Dandenongs east of Melbourne during the war. Dennis worked on Sentimental Bloke in Kallista in the early part of the war, while in 1918 Katharine wrote Black Opal 10km south of there in Emerald. This is why they appear together on this writers’ monument in Emerald.
- Both were journalists with strong ties to the Herald and Weekly Times – but while Katharine worked for the paper before the war, Dennis worked for it after the war.
I don’t yet know if they ever met, but they probably did. They at least had a number of associates in common, including Louis Esson, Furnley Maurice, and E.J. Brady.
I found particularly interesting the chapters in the biography on Dennis’s posthumous reception – his ‘afterlives’. I hadn’t realised that he is actually marginal in the Australian canon, his popular poetry not generally embraced by critics. His popularity has had its ups and downs over the decades, but more downs in recent years, light verse just not resonating with the reading public. However, the biography itself, the first full-length critical study, has ensured he is now better remembered a century on from his great success.
Sylvia Martin’s new biography of Palmer reveals, unsurprisingly, a woman who lived in the shadow of her parents, Nettie and Vance Palmer, Australia’s literary power-couple of the first half of the twentieth century. Toward the end of the biography, Martin quotes the verdict of David Martin (presumably no relation) on Palmer’s life: ‘Her attempt to write from within the Palmer constellation, her failure to escape. Chain-smoking her life away in Sunbury mental hospital, felled by her sexuality. Aileen was the poet’ (246). Sylvia Martin’s accomplished biography largely confirms this verdict while adding the important dimension of her political activism and war service.
Source: A Review of Sylvia Martin’s ‘Ink in her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer – Westerly
My review of this recent biography has just been published on the Westerly blog. Aileen Palmer is a fascinating subject and Martin is an elegant biographer. She achieves a balance of narrative and research I’m striving for in my own biography. Reviewing it was a fruitful exercise for my own thinking about the art of biography.
Bill also reviewed this book last month – https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/ink-in-her-veins-sylvia-martin/
Katharine Susannah Prichard, the subject of my biography, became famous in March 1915. She was a journalist living in London and she’d been announced as the Australasian winner of the Hodder & Stoughton £1000 Novel Competition for The Pioneers. I’m jumping forward in my research to 1915 for a talk I’m giving later in the year, and today I’ve been “troving” this competition. Continue reading
My impression is that the history of journalists and newspapers in colonial Australia, and particularly Melbourne, is largely untapped. I wish someone had tracked more closely the movements of Frank “Critchley” Parker (1862-1944), as his life intersects in some significant ways with the childhood of Katharine Susannah Prichard. This is Critchley Parker Sr I’m talking about, as in recent times there has been interest in his son and his curious death; I’ll return to that. Continue reading
Katharine Susannah Prichard was seventeen in 1901 when My Brilliant Career was published, the same age as the main character, Sybylla. In a radio broadcast paying tribute to Franklin in 1944, Prichard remembered, “What a sensation it created! Most of the well known writers at that time were old, and here was a girl writing with vigour and realism which amazed everybody.” Continue reading
I’ve just finished reading Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), a novel still fresh and intriguing 114 years later. It covers a few years in the life of Sybylla, a determined young woman trying to break free of the restraints of poverty and the expectations of marriage in rural New South Wales during the drought of the 1890s . Jill Roe writes, “It was undoubtedly the literary event of 1901, the only significant Australian novel in the year of Federation; and by now it is more or less recognised that in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century, feminism and nationalism went together as radical forces.” (Stella Miles Franklin, epub edn, 133) Continue reading
Peter Fitzpatrick, Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Other times, she is a ghost in all the things I read: I know the people I’m reading about knew her. I know that if the “camera” panned just a little to the left or a little to the right, or if it moved back to take in the whole scene, Alice would be there.
Before I started writing a biography, I wrote a novel about biographers. (It’s how I do things – I imagine them, and then I become them.) I’m revising it at the moment, and I added those sentences to it the other day. I’m reminded of them reading Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson. Hilda was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best friend; they lived next door to each other as children. The few surviving letters between them show an intimate friendship. Katharine is not exactly a ghost in this dual biography of Hilda and her first husband, Louis; rather, she is one of the major characters. But, naturally, she is out of focus. She is there to help us understand Louis and Hilda better. And I’m so glad for the existence of this and other works evoking the same world Katharine was moving through. Continue reading
‘Should he continue in the wide field of literature he will assuredly become one of our first writers of romance,’ wrote Launceston’s Daily Telegraph, reviewing journalist Thomas Prichard’s novel, Retaliation: An Early Tale of Melbourne (1891). It was not to be. This is the only novel Prichard was to publish before his death by suicide in 1907; in addition to his journalism, the rest of his oeuvre is filled out with two known short stories in The Bulletin and two serial Christmas stories in newspapers, as well as poems and some works of non-fiction. Retaliation was published in a cheap paperback edition with a green cover and sold for a shilling. Trove, the combined catalogue of libraries across Australia, lists six copies held in Australia; there may be several more in libraries not listed, and a few in private hands, but essentially, Prichard’s novel and his literary career have been forgotten. Retaliation is a popular fiction of its day, and while competent and representative, is not especially memorable. It does, however, read as a fascinating document of its time, especially in relation to the work of Prichard’s famous daughter, Katharine Susannah. Continue reading