Saturday, 20 November 2010

Researching nineteenth-century Australian utopian literature

While eagerly awaiting the results of my honours thesis (due out on 2 December), I have been continuing my research on early Australian utopian literature. I am currently working on converting the paper I gave at the recent Utopias conference (see here, here and here), entitled "The Victorian Crisis of Faith in Australian Utopian Literature, 1870–1900" (mp3 available for download), into a publishable article. This involves increasing the word length from around 3000 to over 5000, going over my old research (most of which was done two years ago), and confirming bibliographic details. It was the latter of these that has been causing me some grief over the last few days.

The first difficulty came when I noticed that one of the texts I discuss in the article, The Battle of Mordialloc; or, How We Lost Australia (1888), had different authors listed in different catalogue entries. The confusion came about because the text was published anonymously. The short book is most commonly ascribed to Edward Maitland, an English author and spiritualist who served as a commissioner of Crown lands and police magistrate in New South Wales for some years, although several listings instead ascribe authorship to one Herbert Ainslee. After some digging I discovered that Ainslee was a fictional creation of Maitland, first appearing as the protagonist of his novel The Pilgrim and the Shrine; or, Passages from the Life and Correspondence of Herbert Ainslie, B. A., Cantab (1867). The introduction to The Battle of Mordialloc claims the body of the book was based on manuscripts of Ainslee's - this must be why the text has been ascribed to the fictional character, although it is also the reason why authorship can be traced back to Maitland. The book itself is a mildly interesting dystopian novel about the invasion of Australia by Chinese and Russian forces, but in addition to being rather racist (which is depressingly common in nineteenth-century Australian literature), it is also kind of amusing, since the invasion takes place on Cup Day, when all of Victoria's citizens are too busy betting on horses for the Melbourne Cup to pay attention to anything else. The entire text of The Battle of Mordialloc can be read online at Reason in Revolt: Source Documents of Australian Radicalism.

The other bibliographic inconsistency I came across concerned The Future of Victoria by "Acorn". In his bibliography of Australian literature, Lyman Tower Sargent notes that the National Library of Australia card catalogue suggests the author is one James Oakes, although I can find no evidence supporting this (there was a journalist in Boston called James Oakes writing under the pseudonym "Acorn" during the late nineteenth century, but I can find no evidence he ever lived in Australia). But there is a further problem with The Future of Victoria's bibliographical details: Sargent, in his bibliography and a related article, says it was published in the 1880s, while the NLA (and all other libraries) date it in the 1850s. This threatened to be very problematic for me, since I am only writing on texts published between 1870 and 1900 - if it was published in the 1850s it would fall beyond the purview of my article (which focuses, in part, on the impact of Darwin's Origin of Species on Australian utopian literature). I did, however, successfully determine a short window in which the text could have been published: 1872-1873. The first clue: the copy of the text held at the State Library of Victoria has "Presented by the Author April 16th 1873" inscribed on its title page, thereby ruling out publication after that date. I also had a look at the copy held at my library, in the Monash University Library Rare Books collection, which has the previous owner's initials and the date 11/77 on its cover. I then asked one of the staff members in Rare Books, Stephen Herrin, if there was any way I could determine when the book's printer, Wigney and Summerscales, were operating in Ballarat. "Wigney and Sumerscales?" he says, "They're one of mine!" He reaches to the bookshelf next to him to grab his book, The Development of Printing in Nineteenth-Century Ballarat (2000). In one of the appendices at the back of his book was a list of Ballarat printers and the years they operated - Wigney and Summerscales only ran from 1872 to 1875. I could hardly believe my luck! Now I have successfully determined a brief window in which the book could have been published, and I can discuss it in my article. The Future of Victoria has been digitised by the State Library of Victoria and can be read online.

Fortunately, I haven't had this much trouble with all the books I discuss in the article. Another couple of the anonymous ones, A New Pilgrim's Progress, Purporting to be Given By John Bunyan, Through an Impressional Medium (1877) and An Agnostic's Progress from the Known to the Unknown (1884), both pastiches of Bunyan's book, are easy enough to attribute to Alfred Deakin and Catherin Helen Spence respectively, since both have (embarrassingly) confessed authorship. Now I just have to re-read a few more of these old (and, for the most part, incredibly boring) utopian novels so I can finally finish this article, which has been in the works for almost two years.

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