Remembrance of things lost
A research team is helping rewrite Australian literary history, as Evana Ho reports.
We live in an age where losing things has become more difficult to do – a time when memory is cheap, when we can backup to the cloud.
Hundreds are actually lost altogether – there is no remaining copy at all.
Today, everything we put online lives forever and we have to fight for the right to be forgotten. The same era of technology that is making it more difficult to lose things is being used to recover what was once lost – a significant chapter of Australian literary history.
In Australia in the 19th century, books were expensive and rare. Fiction was mainly published in newspapers, of which there were hundreds – from large metropolitan dailies and weeklies to small provincial papers.
Some of this fiction was republished in book form, but a lot of it remained only in newspapers and was gradually forgotten.
When Associate Professor Katherine Bode from the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics heard the National Library of Australia was digitising historical newspapers, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could think of a way to find the fiction they contained?”
Scrolling through the digitised newspapers, she realised we could – by searching for words that were used to introduce and surround fiction such as ‘our novelist’, ‘serial story’ and ‘chapter’.
Supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, Bode set to work. The result is stunning: her team’s findings will help rewrite Australian literary history.
For starters, the team uncovered a wealth of novels, novellas and short stories: more than 21,000 publications, including individual publications and republications, in Australian newspapers from 1865 to 1914.
“If you’d ask any literary scholar, they would have said, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s probably more fiction in the newspapers that we don’t know about’,” Bode says.
“But I don’t think there was a sense of the large scale of the fiction that was published.”
The findings revealed a very international publishing context. Historians had assumed that 80 percent of this fiction was British, with the rest a mix of local and American titles. The remainder actually includes fiction from around the world.
“We found stories from Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, and much more besides,” Bode enthuses.
The team also found more local fiction than they had expected – 25 percent of the titles by known authors, with many hundreds more assumed also to be Australian.
“In the last three decades, there’s been this strong view that Australian readers were mainly interested in British fiction, that they had ‘derivative reading habits’,” Bode says.
“What you see instead is that editors went out of their way to highlight the local origins of fiction – Australians wanted to read about this place where they were living, like they do now.”
Bode also found the majority of fiction in Australia – and Australian fiction – was in provincial newspapers.
This goes to a major finding of the project: the companies – or syndicates – that supplied this fiction to provincial newspapers were the colonies’ major publishers.
“Previous histories concentrated on metropolitan book publishers and newspapers, but these turn out to be far less significant to the availability of fiction than the provincial newspaper syndicates,” she says.
With such insights into how fiction circulated amongst the provinces, Bode has challenged a longstanding understanding of how literary culture in Australia worked.
“There’s been this view in Australian history that the movement of culture goes from the city to the provinces,” Bode says. “But here we have provinces producing their own culture that is then taken up in the cities – they’re not waiting for metro to dictate to them.”
The research team’s discoveries speak to what happens when things are lost, and the implications of things being able to be forgotten.
According to Bode, literary scholars have argued that just as we had terra nullius in legal history, Aborigines were excluded from early Australian fiction as a way of justifying the colonial mission.
“A number of postcolonial scholars have argued that what happens is, instead of Aboriginal people being represented in fiction, they became the sort of shadowy presence that gets manifested as the dangers of the bush – called Australian Gothic,” Bode explains.
“But Australian bush stories consistently depicted Aboriginal characters, often to justify colonisation, but sometimes to question it.”
On the question of why earlier scholars came to that conclusion, Bode suggests it could be because the fiction that made it from the newspapers into books didn’t show Aboriginal people.
“Maybe there was this sense from the publishers, who were often in London or in Sydney, that this isn’t the type of story we want to tell,” she says.
“With the fiction that filtered through and got made into books, there could have been that sort of gatekeeping.”
Bode’s research has used the 28 per cent of the 19th century newspapers that the National Library of Australia’s Trove program had digitised by July 2015. No doubt many more lost works are still to be discovered – a job for members of the public through the team’s website To Be Continued and other scholars.
However, many 19th century newspapers are gone forever. “Hundreds are actually lost altogether – there is no remaining copy at all,” she says.
It’s a sobering thought, but it casts some of our present problems in a new light. Maybe it’s not so bad that we live in a time when it’s difficult to lose things and be forgotten.
Bode, for one, is optimistic: “Look at all we’ve still got to discover!”