Australia’s newspapers are treasure troves of forgotten literature. A new ANU podcast is bringing lost stories back to life for the first time.

Long before streaming services, Australians turned to newspapers for entertainment.

Gothic ghost stories, bushranger thrillers and adventures written by kids for kids unfolded in regular installments over months or years — a bit like how we consume TV shows today, according to literary historian Professor Katherine Bode.

“Newspaper serials in the 19th and 20th centuries were similar to slow drip shows like Succession,” she says. “People were having to wait for the next chapter, and everyone was talking about it. It was something the whole community engaged with.”

Academic Katherine Bode has uncovered lost local fiction in archival newspapers. Photo: Vintage Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Bode, a researcher from the School of Literature, Language and Linguistics at The Australian National University (ANU), has spent the last decade immersed in Trove, the National Library of Australia’s database.

Her original plan was to explore the international serial fiction that was circulating in Australian newspapers. Popular authors such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain all had novels published in serial format.

But as Bode delved into papers from the past with the help of bibliographer Carol Hetherington, she was surprised by the wealth of Australian writing, some of which had never been documented by academics before.

“Most of the work that had been done previously to understand Australian literature had been with books. But we found that much of it was published in periodicals,” she says. “And not just in the metropolitan broadsheets. Trove included hundreds of provincial newspapers that served really small towns, and it was in them that we found a lot of local fiction.”

Weekly shows like Succession are the modern day equivalent of newspaper serials. Photo: LANDMARK MEDIA/Alamy Stock Photo

At a time where Australia’s book publishing industry was essentially non-existent, writers could submit to syndication agencies that would edit and layout their stories before sending them to newspapers around Australia and New Zealand.

“If authors wanted their book published, they had to try and get the attention of a British publisher,” Bode explains. “One of the ways they could do this was to getting their fiction into the newspapers, and then send the clippings off with evidence that people loved it.”

While some authors achieved success this way, they were the exception rather than the rule. Most stories were ephemeral – lost to time until Bode began her research.

Through data harvesting methods, Bode and her team of researchers have unearthed more than 45,000 publications of novels, novellas and short stories, all of which originally appeared in Aussie newspapers.

These works can now be searched and enjoyed through the To be continued database. It’s open access, which means academics, librarians and community members can curate, edit and contribute to its records.

For anyone who might not be so research-inclined, the To be continued podcast is an easy and entertaining way to learn more about the popular stories of yesteryear.

Hosted by ANU science communicator Dr Rod Lamberts, and featuring interviews with a range of experts, the seven-episode series includes snippets from different stories, acted out by professional performers.

Bode professes a fondness for the adventures of Ubique, the Scientific Bushranger, an analytically-minded outlaw on the run from a bumbling detective.

“I’m mildly obsessed with this story because it’s a really interesting mashup of genres that arose at around the same time as Sherlock Holmes. It’s fascinating that one of the ways the detective genre crossed borders was with bushranger fiction, giving it a distinctly Australian twist.”

After so many decades buried in the past, Bode says it’s been great to hear the stories revived.

“A lot of these stories would have been read aloud within family groups,” Bode says.

“There are reports from the time of station hands about sitting around at the end of the day and having stories from the newspaper being read out to them by the station manager. The podcast is today’s version of that.”

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