Recently I’ve been reading a Lucy Sussex novel built around the attempt to identify the story around the anonymous author of a newspaper serial published in a local paper in goldrush Australia.
Coincident with this, Katherine Bode launched a rediscovered novel, and incidentally publicised her work on ‘lost’ novels of nineteenth century Australia.
This isn’t something new, we’ve always known that in the nineteenth century many short stories and serialised novels were published in newspapers, and that many ‘serious’ authors were published in this way.
And we know that half a world away, in the north east of Scotland, vernacular tales of regional life were frequently published in local newsapers, which as well as giving authors such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon a start in the writing business, also helped preserve north east Scots dialect against a tide of well meaning Englishryness and received pronounciation through the education system.
So it’s not really surprising that we find a lost novels stories and other Australiana in the nineteenth century newspapers of colonial Australia.
Books were expensive, and in the main printed overseas. Doubtless the squatocracy could afford them but the miners in the camps and battlers out on sheep stations almost certainly couldn’t, not that it mattered as most would hardly have seen a bookshop from one year to the next.
But they could afford a weekly newspaper. And as well as news, the newspaper offered entertainment, and a diversion from life’s labours.
So it’s not surprising that these stories existed. Like all writing, some was doubtless better than most, and some was doubtless turgid and completely uninteresting, except that as well as the pleasure or not in rereading it, it tells us how people felt about life stuck on a goldfield or a sheep station somewhere that probably felt like the edge of the known universe.
Just as the Brontes reflected the social concerns of the poor would be middle class, and Wilkie Collins based his complicated and convoluted plots around inheritance and property law, these novels reflected the concerns of their audience, and tell us, by implication how their lives were.
Of course, the information was always there, hiding in plain sight in the old newspaper archives. But, until recently these archives were really only used extensively by historians, family history hobbyists and genealogists. Not for any bad reason, simply that these were the only people motivated enough to trawl through long, and sometimes incomplete archives in dusty vaults in inconvenient places.
What has made it infinitely easier to find and trace these ‘lost’ novels if the wholesale digitisation of Australian newspapers via the NLA’s Trove, which has made the process of reading and searching the nineteenth century corpus one that can be done by anyone from anywhere …
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