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The Enduring Allure of Colonial Australian Popular Fiction

One of the reasons I enrolled as a student in Grattan Street Press was curiosity about GSP’s mission to ‘republish culturally valuable works that are out of print.’ GSP has already re-published four out-of-print works of Australian colonial popular fiction. I was keen to understand the motives behind republishing such material.

Modernity vs History

When compared with the vast array of literature available today, wouldn’t colonial fiction seem out-of-date? How could it be interesting to contemporary readers? On digging deeper, MUP, Text Publishing and Corella Press have all republished out-of-print colonial Australian texts. This suggests there is clearly interest in and a market for republishing colonial Australian popular fiction.

Printing Press Letters. Used with Permission from Pexels.com

So when I started at GSP, I was intrigued by the idea of ‘finding an out-of-print, out-of-copyright text, and assessing whether it would be worth bringing it back into print’. Aside from the (unlikely) possibility I might successfully discover a fantastic piece that GSP would be ‘thrilled’ to publish, maybe researching this could help me understand why today’s readers might be interested in this kind of writing.

Copyright Confusion

To begin, it was important to understand what ‘out-of-copyright’ meant. I didn’t want to waste time researching texts which didn’t fit the parameters. The Copyright Agency and the Department of Communications and the Arts publish guides to copyright in Australia.

For literary works published before the author’s death, copyright expired as of 1 January 2019 if the author died before 1 January 1955; otherwise copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. As some colonial Australian fiction was first published in the United Kingdom, UK copyright law may also need to be considered.

Creative Commons Infographic. Used with Permission from Hallam Internet

Because an author died before 1955 doesn’t mean copyright no longer exists. An author’s estate may have inherited copyright for a work. Where colonial fiction has been republished, copyright may exist on the republication.

Archives and Treasure Troves

When I googled ‘colonial Australian fiction’, almost the first link I found was to Colonial Australian Popular Fiction: A Digital Archive. The CAPF archive is part of an ARC-funded project based at the University of Melbourne and curated by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver. Incidentally, Ken and Rachael are also the academic consultants for GSP’s colonial fiction series!

This online bibliography and digital archive ‘gathers together for the first time a wide range of vibrant colonial writing that has previously been difficult to access.’ This archive makes it easy to discover authors and their works. Consisting of 444 authors and over 2,000 published texts, you can browse or search by authors, titles and genres, and access and read a gallery of digitised texts.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of my GSP work, I learnt it wasn’t acceptable for me to select a text from the CAPF archive. Ken and Rachael’s ongoing project already encompasses the assessment of these titles for possible future republication. Still, this archive was useful in helping identify specific authors I could follow up, to see if I could find unknown work by those authors anywhere else.

Women Rule

Through my adventure delving into the CAPF archive, I had been surprised by how many of the writers of early Australian fiction were women and intrigued by the variety of stories they told. I became interested in colonial women writers and spent considerable time cross-referencing the list of women writers in the CAPF archive with authors whose biographies appear in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, to identify any texts that don’t appear in CAPF.

While this helped me identify a couple of potentially promising texts, further investigation indicated these were unavailable. One had been recently republished, while the other was still subject to copyright as the author hadn’t died until 1974.

Not Meant To Be

With my investigations so far less than successful, it was time to try a different tack. I learnt that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers were the main source of fiction for Australian readers and the main publishers of fiction by local authors. The National Library of Australia’s Trove database contains the largest mass-digitised collection of historical newspapers in the world. As researcher Katherine Bode notes:


COVER PAGE (1883, February 17).Illustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1881 – 1894) . Used with Permission from To Be Continued

‘Literary historians have long been aware of the importance of newspapers to the history of reading and publishing in Australia. But the size of the newspaper archive meant we’ve previously had little idea of the types of stories published – where they came from, how they were sourced and what they contained. Trove changes this situation dramatically, allowing us––for the first time––to discover fiction in Australian newspapers in a systematic and large-scale way.’ (Katherine Bode and Carol Hetherington, eds. “To be continued . . .”: The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database.)

Between 2013 and 2016, with ARC grant funding, Bode and colleagues searched Trove and identified more than 21,000 works of fiction, many by Australian writers, including previously unknown authors, and unknown works by well-known writers, which are now publicly available in the ‘To be continued…’ database.

Wright, Dexter, and Lacie

Reading Bode’s blogpost about some of the writers identified through this project sparked my interest in James J Wright, who also wrote under the pseudonyms Ivan Dexter and Captain Lacie. With 145 publications, over 20 novels and novellas, and a number of short stories to his credit, Bode observes that Wright ‘emerges as one of Australia’s most prolific authors’.

CAPTAIN LACIE. (1897, January 8). Bunyip (Gawler, SA : 1863 – 1954), p. 4. Used with Permission from To Be Continued

So, I decided to investigate two of Wright’s (writing as Dexter) serialised novellas The Mount Macedon Mystery and From Prison to Parliament, and one of his short stories The Lucky Mimosa: A Christmas Story to read from the database.

The first, a murder mystery, recounts the efforts of an assiduous detective, the best friend and the fiancé of the victim to find the killer. The second tells the story of a young man wrongly transported to the colonies: he escapes prison, makes a fortune, and rises through society to become a respected member of the Victorian parliament, but an unscrupulous employee threatens to unmask him. In The Lucky Mimosa, an almost-destitute farmer serendipitously finds a huge gold nugget under his late wife’s favourite mimosa tree.

Old-fashioned Still Fashionable

By the time I finished reading these stories and others in the CAPF and ‘To be continued…” databases, I had no doubt about colonial Australian fiction’s enduring popularity.

It is true that some of the language in these stories can appear old-fashioned and the plots clichéd. However, it is impossible not to be impressed by the sheer volume of writing to choose from; the rich diversity of genres—adventure, convict, crime, romance, gothic, bush melodrama and more; the amazing variety of stories and plots; the vividness in descriptions of the Australian landscape; and the insights into colonial life this writing offers.

Beyond its inherent literary value, I also realised the extent to which colonial Australian fiction can teach us about our history—about how colonial Australians lived, and thought, and what was important to them—and in so doing help us understand how we have developed as a nation and a people.

Rediscover and Republish

I never did manage to successfully find an out-of-print text that might merit republication by Grattan Street Press. Given its volume and variety, its evocative descriptions of landscape and insightful social and political commentary, the body of fiction produced by Wright (Dexter/Lacie) may well prove a fruitful source for future researchers and publishers.

Within the vast stores of material now opened to easy public access through the CAPF and ‘To be continued…’ databases, there are many lost gems of colonial Australian writing just waiting to be rediscovered and republished.

By Robyn Stern

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