Australian Classics and the Price of Books: The Puzzle of the 1890s

Paul Eggert


Feminist accounts of literary canon formation in which male authors typically predominated tend to stress the ideological pressures that marginalised female aspirants for critical attention, both at first publication and then again in ongoing critical debates within influential literary coteries. So it was in the 1980s as feminists sought to account for the overlooking of Australian women novelists (Ada Cambridge, Catherine Martin, Rosa Praed and Tasma), who achieved publication in London in the 1890s but who failed to gain a foothold as ‘classics’ when a proto-canon of the colonial literary achievement began to be formulated in and after the 1890s. Textual and book-historical research carried out for various scholarly editing projects since the 1980s, once brought together, has opened up the possibility of an empirical, book-historical approach that is very different. The first candidates put forward for elevated status – Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life (1874) and Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1888) – share a remarkable condition. In the year after the 1888 centenary the three novels were available, cheaply, in the bookshops and therefore in the libraries and mechanics institutes, and all at the same time, despite their varying, original dates of publication. The essay explores the implications of this fact, together with the shift in international tastes towards realism, as reflected and adapted in the Australian colonies.


colonial classics; empirical approach; feminism and the canon; Henry Kingsley; Marcus Clarke; Rolf Boldrewood; Ada Cambridge; Catherine Martin; Rosa Praed; Macmillan; Bentley

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