No Book is an Island
‘Tasmanian-ness’ and the Literary Fortunes of Roy and Hilda Bridges
In ‘Some Modern Australian Novelists’, an article published in Melbourne’s Advocate newspaper, the critic and novelist Bernard Cronin opined that Roy Bridges ‘has made the province of Australian – particularly Tasmanian – history peculiarly his own’. As for Hilda Bridges, she, Cronin wrote, is one of those writers who ‘come readily to mind’ when thinking about ‘stories of crime, mystery and adventure’. The year was 1933. Roy and Hilda Bridges were in their literary prime. And yet within decades they had disappeared from view, neither one rating a mention in Penguin’s The Literature of Australia, for example, or making more than a fleeting appearance (at most) in subsequent surveys and histories of Australian literature (e.g. Kramer, Bennet & Strauss, Webby, Pierce 2009).
As a student of ‘Tasmanian’ literature, I am interested less in the fact of the Bridges’ fall from favour – to be forgotten is, after all, the fate of most writers and their works – than I am in how and why the ‘fall’ happened. Indeed, I find myself wondering if the decline in the literary fortunes of the Bridges (and perhaps of other ‘regional’ writers as well) is in some way related to changes in the perception of Tasmania that seem to have taken place in the twentieth-century. And, if so, how?
Perceptions of Tasmania and of its literature in the twentieth century – my proposed project is concerned with these two subjects and the relationship between them. Specifically, I plan to address two topics. First, I propose to study the ‘Tasmanian’ authors, Roy and Hilda Bridges, their books, and perceptions of them. These perceptions will date from two time periods: the first half of the twentieth century (when the Bridges were active writers) and the second half of the century (when they were not). Second, I propose to study ‘Tasmanian-ness’ itself: perceptions of the Bridges’ ‘home’ state, dating from the same two time periods: the first and second halves of the twentieth century.
Based on my existing knowledge and preliminary research, I expect to find that early perceptions of the Bridges and their books were generally positive and that later perceptions were generally less laudatory. On the second topic, I expect to find that early twentieth-century perceptions of Tasmania tended to emphasise and valorise the island’s apparent affinities with England, whereas perceptions from later in the century tended to do the opposite, identifying and exalting Tasmania’s supposed peculiarities. In other words, I expect to find that over the course of the century ‘Tasmanian-ness’ became a more valued and valuable commodity and quality. Ideally, then, I hope to argue and show that the decline in the literary fortunes of the two authors and their works is directly related to their ‘Tasmanian-ness’.
I am proposing to study the Bridges and their books (and perceptions of them) for several reasons. Firstly, the two authors warrant attention but have received very little of late. Roy and Hilda are notable figures in Tasmania’s literary history and their forebears were amongst the island’s earliest English settlers. Both were prolific writers who were successful in their day. And yet relatively little work has been done or published on them. Roy’s convict fiction has received some attention (Roderick, Pierce 2000, Meyer, Carter & Osborne); Hilda’s novels next to none (a line in Dever & Vickery). Secondly, the Bridges left behind substantial collections of their papers, which are a rich source of information on their lives and literature, and on the world in which they lived and worked. Thirdly, I propose to study the Bridges and their books because I have an opportunity to do so, and to do so with the support of the University of Tasmania and the State Library, which holds a large collection of the Bridges’ papers (in its Crowther Collection). Moreover, my project is worth pursuing because it will, I believe, increase our awareness, knowledge and understanding of the Bridges, their lives and literature, and some lesser-known aspects of Tasmania’s history; and because it will result, I hope, in a published paper and an exhibition at the State Library.
In this project I plan on arriving at my findings by studying a range of sources. I intend to seek contemporaneous and contemporary Australian and international responses to the novels, assessments of the authors and attitudes towards Tasmania in newspapers, magazines and journals, using a range of online research resources, including Trove, the British Newspaper Archive, Gale Primary Sources and ProQuest. I plan to look for the same kind of information in books as well: histories, surveys and studies.
In order to develop and make my argument, I intend to adopt a theoretical approach informed by two closely related methodologies, the assumptions of which I will accept (with a critical eye). The first of these methodologies is ‘new historicism’, which situates and seeks much of the meaning of a text in its his-torical context. As Pugh and Johnson put it, ‘new historicists engage with history as a contingent yet significant source of a text’s construction of meaning’ (231). Thus, my argument will be based upon the premise, firstly, that the culture(s) in which the Bridges’ books existed (and exist) can tell us much about their mean-ing(s). Moreover, I intend to accept other assumptions of new historicism: that historical records themselves are partial and open to interpretation, and that history itself is a construct (Goulimari 295).
The second methodology that will inform my approach is ‘cultural materialism’, which, in the form articulated recently by Katherine Bode, is a variety of new historicism. According to Bode, cultural materialism is concerned, in part, with the ‘position or construction of authors and texts, and to a lesser extent readers, in relation to historical and cultural discourses’ (3). Bode highlights two aspects of the methodology that are pertinent to my theoretical approach: the question of value and transnationalism (see also Lyons xiv-xv and xvi-xix). In my study, I plan to accept the premise that literary ‘merit’ – itself a complex and contested concept – is only one characteristic among many that is worth studying (Bode 2). For its part, transnationalism challenges simplistic assumptions about place and how it is used to categorise and conceptualise books and authors (Carter & Osborne 11). Hence my intended focus on ‘Tasmanian-ness’ rather than on ‘Tasmania’ itself.
Bennett, Bruce, and Jennifer Strauss, editors. The Oxford Literary History of Australia. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Bode, Katherine. Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field. Anthem Press, 2012.
Carter, David, and Roger Osborne. Australian Books and Authors in the American Marketplace 1840s – 1940s. Sydney University Press, 2018.
Cronin, Bernard. ‘Some Modern Australian Novelists.’ The Advocate, 26 Oct. 1933, p. 5. Trove, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article171802992.
Dever, Maryanne, and Ann Vickery. Australian Women Writers 1910-1950. Monash University Library, 2007. Exhibition catalogue.
Dutton, Geoffrey, editor. The Literature of Australia. Penguin, 1964.
Goulimari, Pelagia. Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to Postcolonialism. Taylor and Francis, 2014.
Kramer, Leonie, editor. The Oxford History of Australian Literature. Oxford University Press, 1981.
Lyons, Martyn. ‘Introduction.’ A History of the Book in Australia 1891-1945, edited by Martin Lyons and John Arnold, University of Queensland Press, 2001, xiii-xix.
Meyer, Therese-Marie. ‘Prison without Walls: The Tasmanian Bush in Australian Convict Novels.’ Antipodes, vol. 27, 2013, pp. 143-48.
Pierce, Peter, editor. The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
—. ‘Roy Bridges’s Fictions of Van Diemen’s Land.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, 2000, pp. 425-432.
Pugh, Tison, and Margaret E. Johnson. Literary Studies: A Practical Guide. Taylor and Francis, 2013.
Roderick, Colin. 20 Australian Novelists. Angus and Robertson, 1947.
Webby, Elizabeth, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2000.