In Conversation with Rachael Weaver and Ken Gelder

Olivia Camilleri had the amazing opportunity to sit down with Rachael Weaver to discuss the digitisation of GSP’s entire Colonial Popular Fiction series. Here they discuss how the books continue to have a lasting impact on the modern literary scene and how releasing the eBooks allows for accessibility and a special opportunity to open colonialist fiction to those who previously found it hard to source.

Can you briefly describe the colonial literary scene, and more specifically could you tell us about colonial genres?

The first colonialist Australian novel was Quintus Servinton, by the transported forger Henry Savery. It was published in Hobart in 1831 and drew heavily on the real-life experience of its author. From this early beginning, crime was one of the key colonial Australian genres, together with adventure, romance, and the Gothic. These genres formed the nucleus of what, by the middle of the nineteenth century, had become a thriving popular literary scene.

Most often, colonial Australian literary texts mixed genres together. An adventure novel like J. D. Hennessey’s An Australian Bush Track, for example, could often have elements of crime and romance—and even take on Gothic tropes with the discovery of a lost civilisation. Novels exploring lost civilisations are known as Lemurian novels: they represent another important colonial Australian literary genre, along with emigration novels, squatter novels, science fiction/fantasy, and more. Through our research we have even identified a genre that is unique to colonial Australian fiction: the colonial kangaroo hunt novel, a fascinating example of which is The Kangaroo Hunters (1858) by Anne Bowman.

Where you surprised by what some of the texts revealed? Which aspects?

Colonial Australian novels can be surprising in many ways—both good and bad. On the one hand, works like Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud can bring a surprisingly fresh and lively satirical edge to descriptions of life in a small-town rural setting, of the cosmopolitan culture of spectacles, and exhibitions in the city. This book is also interesting for how it anticipates the structure of modern detective fiction, beginning with a major crime, the circumstances of which then need to be unravelled.

On the other hand, it is often shocking how directly colonial Australian popular fiction exposes the profound racism of the period, and how graphically and remorselessly it depicts the violence of First Nations dispossession from Country. This is one of the biggest challenges we all face when reading and talking about these novels, but it also an important reason for continuing to do so. Interrogating these texts means gaining a better understanding of the colonial past in all its ugliness and complexity—and a new awareness of colonialism’s continuing legacies in Australia today.

Which title excited you the most and for what reasons?

John Lang’s The Forger’s Wife, which was first published in 1855, is one of the most exciting novels we have worked on so far. There is something so vivid in the characterisation of the powerful and charismatic detective, George Flower, which the text calls ‘a great character in the colony of New South Wales.’ Lang was Australia’s first locally born novelist, and his creation was the first Australian detective novel.

In our introduction of The Forger’s Wife, we take things even further than that and make the claim that the novel became the first true detective novel—where the detective-protagonist seizes control of the narrative and drives along the main action—anywhere in the English-speaking world.

What difference do you think it will make having the CAPF series out as eBooks?

We are really hoping that the eBooks will help take the Colonial Australian Popular Fiction Series to a much wider audience—including general readers who may not have heard of the titles before, students who are reading for school and university, and those already researching colonial Australian literature who can sometimes find such texts difficult (or at least time-consuming) to get hold of. We’d love to see them becoming set texts on more literature courses, and we consider the eBooks to be a cost-effective and efficient way for people to access them.

Why publish an Australian colonial fiction series today?

Putting these books into a series really brings into relief the strange and eclectic world of colonial Australia—in all its complexity, violence, beauty, ugliness, tragedy, and humour. Understanding the past is really important to understanding how the nation thinks about itself today, and to find new ways for shaping itself heading into the future.

Producing a series is also an opportunity to curate a range of often wildly divergent narratives and to see what kinds of dialogues they produce in relation to each other. There is a long history of republishing colonial Australian fiction in series (e.g., Macmillan’s Colonial Library) which helps us think about what colonial Australia has valued about its literary production over time. Like all colonial gestures, the question becomes: what fits in and what does not? We try to be inclusive in this respect and see researching colonial Australian fiction as its own kind of adventure, which we hope to see others engaging with. Providing easily accessible and attractive editions seems like a good step on that journey.

The entire Colonial Australian Popular Fiction Series are all now available as eBooks on GSP’s shop, Amazon Kindle and Kobo. Paperback versions are also available in our shop and select bookstores.

Cover photo: “Seed capsules of Strelitzia nicolai” by Tatters ✾ is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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