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Fiction and the Australian Reading Public, 1888-1914

By Tim Dolin • September 1st, 2008

© Tim Dolin, Curtin University of Technology 2008

For a brief moment in the history of the modern West, between about 1880 and 1920, narrative fiction in books, newspapers, and magazines dominated the rapidly growing markets for transnational mass-produced popular entertainment in English, before being challenged successively by cinema, radio, and television.[1] During that same period, bounded, let’s say, by the centenary of British colonization in 1888 and the Great War in 1914, Australia came of age as a nation. This was a time when Australians were proud to identify themselves as “independent Australian Britons”, in Alfred Deakin’s rousing phrase, bound to the old country by race, culture, and history. At the same time, in the 1880s and 90s Australians began writing and reading stories about themselves which cast off the ignominy of their convict past and proclaimed a society of the future: a new-world social experiment — democratic, progressive, and fair (and racially exclusive). An upwelling of chauvinistic cultural nationalism, captured in the populist bushman aesthetics of the Sydney Bulletin, accompanied the long and sometimes precarious process of political nation-making that culminated in the self-governing colonies being formally constituted as a federation of states in 1901. Ironically, though, the Bulletin‘s success depended on three factors Ernest Gellner identified as being essential to modern nations: “homogeneity, literacy, and anonymity” (138). Although it exalted a folk culture of white male settlers and rural labourers battling heroically against a harsh interior, the magazine’s predominant readership was the “anonymous mass society” (124) of other modern nations, living in the world cities strung out along the temperate coastlines of southern Australia.

The effacement of locality is one of the most salient characteristics of modernity — at bottom, all modern places are alike — and even a place as physically and biologically different as Australia was rapidly delocalized by the spread of European settlement. As early as 1846, when Godfrey Charles Mundy arrived in Sydney as Deputy Adjutant-General for the Colonies, he found a place that looked much like any other large commercial town: “It might be Waterford, or Wapping, with a dash of Nova Scotian Halifax”, he remarked (Mundy 3).The novel played an important and under-recognised role in this subordination of colonial locality (or localities) to metropolitan uniformity: a process which might be called the Europeanization of Australian space.[2] This did not happen, however, as it might have been expected to happen, through the flourishing of a European Australian fiction, the kind of fiction Frederick Sinnett looked forward to when he argued in 1856 that “we want to see [in Australian novels] a picture of universal human life and passion, but represented as modified by Australian externals”, not “stories [that] are too Australian”, where, “instead of human life, we have only ‘local manners and customs’ portrayed in them” (Sinnett). It happened, rather, through reading. Australians have always proudly declared themselves to be a nation of readers, but theirs is not the experience of other “reading nations” (St Clair). Until more than halfway through the twentieth century, both the production of a national literature and the establishment of a self-supporting market for local popular fiction were systematically, and equitably, stymied by the powerful interests of a globalized colonial book trade controlled from London, Sydney and Melbourne, for whom it was more profitable to import books into Australia than to publish them there. The economics of the imperial book trade created conditions under which Australian cultural identity was formed through the consumption of culture largely from elsewhere.

They were the economics of the cartel. British publishers “commanded English-language rights throughout much of Europe until the second world war, and in all colonial and former colonial possessions” (Nile 37), and Australia was “the largest market for British book exports continuously from at least 1889 until 1953” (Johanson 5). By the 1870s, in fact, the value of British books exported to Australia already far exceeded other dominions and colonies (Nowell-Smith 92). The “systematic practice of dumping cheap books” (Nile 37) on the Australian market was supported by the major local bookseller-publishers (they were booksellers first and foremost) who set up offices in the heart of the imperial trade in Paternoster Row in London;[3] and aggressively promoted by the establishment of British publishing house branch offices in Sydney and Melbourne. Inside the British cartel, Australia was still referred to as the “colonial” trade as late as the 1960s, and its absolute belief in imperial entitlement — “’Australia is ours’”, the publishing houses believed (Nile 38) — maintained the impression that “the colonial market was largely an Australian market” (Nowell-Smith 100n.). And the Australian market was largely a fiction market.[4] Writing in 1906, Frederick Macmillan remarked that “practically speaking the only real demand in Australasia is for works of fiction” (Johanson 41).[5] Novels and stories were imported into Australia in volume form (in cheap colonial editions, and British editions of American novels, destined for sale or, more usually, loan or hire); in the enormous numbers of British newspapers and magazines that flooded in each week; or, via syndication, in the hundreds of metropolitan, regional and rural Australian newspapers and magazines (Johnson-Woods).

Australia was undoubtedly a “reading nation” in 1901, therefore, but a nation formed paradoxically by “not reading the nation” (Webby). Its reliance on the importation of print products from Britain artificially prolonged the influence of the culture of empire far beyond the period of colonial dependency. In the social sphere, a “growing sense of local agency and capacity over time” quickly empowered “Australian migrants — overwhelmingly but by no means exclusively ‘British’ — to make their own versions of modernity far distant from Old Europe” (Schreuder and Ward 9), by adapting British institutions and practices to the new conditions. Unlike the British colonies of occupation — the densely populated tropical regions controlled by monopolistic trading arrangements (Denoon 4) — the British “empire of free trade” prospered from the flow of capital investment and the rise of steam shipping and railways, which “greatly increased demand for cheap food and industrial and precious minerals, and even the labour to produce these commodities” (4) This empire flourished, however, because Britain could confidently rely “on the bonds of sentiment, where elsewhere the … magistrate and the military sustained Empire” (Schreuder, et al. 8). In other words, monopolistic trading arrangements were encouraged in the cultural sphere in order to sustain the empire of sentiment. Australia simultaneously gained its social autonomy and retained its cultural dependency: it became the nation of independent Australian-Britons.

This is not a clear-cut example of the operation of culture and imperialism, however. Certainly the dominant ideologies and social practices of British culture were internalised and reproduced in settler-colonial institutions, social practices, and identities. But was British written culture, and especially the novel, as important a vehicle for their internalisation and reproduction as in colonies of occupation? Indeed, to what extent can we legitimately describe the British novels and stories being consumed by the Australian reading public in the last decades on the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth as even “British”? They were, rather, the characteristic products of the new economic, political, social, and cultural order that was being shaped over those years by the most powerful nations of the West. It was a transnational order, characterised by global monopoly capitalism and aggressive imperial expansion, the rapid development of new communications technologies and industries (electricity, transcontinental telegraphy, and telephony), the rise of an influential professional-managerial class and a vast new class of information workers (clerks and stenographers), new labour movements and feminist movements, and mass consumerism and advertising. The works of fiction that Australians read around the turn of the century, although they were largely (though not exclusively[6]) written and produced in Britain for a worldwide English-language market, were manufactured as commodities for global Anglophone markets. They were “standardized merchandise sold in large volume” (Williams 3) for mass consumption by a readership indifferent to the boundaries of nation-states or the bonds of empire. This new generation of readers was, it has been noted, “little different from their counterparts in Birmingham, Boston, or the Cape” (Lyons, “Practices” 336). They belonged to an entirely new sort of reading community, one catered for by the division of the entire English-speaking world into two global trade blocs, Britain and the USA, who sold the same global products into many vastly different markets. This was a readership created by universal literacy and increased disposable income (Ohmann). It was Australian, but at the same time ‘the masses’, that large, widely dispersed, anonymous, demographically heterogeneous but behaviourally homogeneous group of people who, it is said, lack self-awareness as masses or binding social ties with one another. Even those cultural theorists attentive to the problems with the term (e.g. Ohmann) understand mass culture to signal “the homogenization, the overriding of local and subcultural divisions” that accompanied the expansion of print media in the late nineteenth century, and understand it to imply “the power of the culture industries to shape audiences and groups of consumers” (Ohmann 14) by producing, for profit, cultural commodities “for millions … to share, in similar or identical form, either simultaneously or nearly so [and] with dependable frequency” (14). Mass culture creates and then caters to an audience that is both habitual (“sharing common needs and interests” (14)) and passive; and in the process, the argument goes, it erodes local cultural identities and national traditions and values.

In 1932 Q.D. Leavis likened the passive habits of the mass reading public to an “addiction”, a dependency on cheap fiction which spread cultural decay as surely as a dependency on narcotics.[7] Indeed, the reading habit, Leavis provocatively argued in Fiction and the Reading Public, “is now often a form of the drug habit”:

In suburban side-streets and even village shops it is common to find a stock of worn and greasy novels let out at 2d. or 3d. a volume; and it is surprising that a clientèle drawn from the poorest class can afford to change books several times a week, or even daily; but so strong is the reading habit that they do (Leavis 7).

The association of cheap books with the improvidence of the “poorest class” reaches back to a nineteenth-century rhetoric of intemperance (Leavis 50), and forward to the fear that mass communication technologies — cinema and, even more notably, television, of course — generate huge profits by encouraging forms of inertia and physical dependency. The “production of cheap editions” by powerful commercial interests “drove a wedge between the educated and the general public” (Leavis 159), Leavis bluntly asserted, making readers of cheap fiction powerless to stop themselves from reading and powerless to improve themselves. The informing opposition in this argument is that between consciousness and unconsciousness. The unconscious tendencies of the mass reading public were exploited by a “commercial and economic machinery” that runs on its own (Leavis 270), without conscious control. The “sudden opening of the fiction market to the general public was a blow to serious reading” (Leavis 161). Leavis’s book was a polemical plea to the “conscious minority” to make a “conscious and directed effort” to resist what Edmund Gosse had called “the tyranny of the novel” (Leavis 270): to revive the vigorous Englishness of English culture, before the arrival of Woolworth’s and the Hollywood talkies (Leavis 14-18, 49-53) and the corruption of the national cultural spirit by transnational “Big Business” (Leavis 17).

The difference between Leavis’s moral panic and Richard Altick’s expansive celebration of “the democracy of print” in The English Common Reader (1957) is a fundamental difference of perspectives. Altick’s study closes safely in 1900, and he is able to look back from the distance of more than half a century (when the long disparaged Victorians were beginning their mid-twentieth-century revival) to a time when the “disintegration of the reading public” (Leavis 151-202) was yet to have its fullest effects. Leavis, on the other hand, writes in the unsteady inter-war years, and laments what she sees happening to English minority culture there and then. Altick, moreover, is an American engaging with the English past in a reopened post-war Europe; Leavis an Englishwoman trying to respond to an increasingly Americanized present. Most importantly, Altick’s study articulates a utopian (and perhaps Cold-War) conviction that:

genuine democracy resides not alone in the possession of certain social, political, and economic advantages but in the unqualified freedom of all men and women to enjoy the fruits of a country’s culture, among which books have a place of high, if not supreme, importance (Altick 7).

Something of this spirit is recaptured in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001), which examines working-class autobiographies to show how working men and women incorporated the most elite and difficult works of Western literature and thought into their daily lives, demonstrating that “high culture” was not the exclusive domain of educated elites, and that literary works did not have the effect of internalizing ruling-class ideology or controlling political dissent, as many historicist literary critics and cultural theorists had assumed. On the contrary, these works were appropriated by the lower classes (as Richard Hoggart’s seminal The Uses of Literacy [1957] had also concluded), and spoke to their own political and social interests, helping to transform the society in which they lived. Rose’s is a landmark study, but it has serious shortcomings. It is as distorted, in its own way, as Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public, by the selectiveness of its “anthropological” sample (to borrow Leavis’s description of her method of investigation (Leavis xv)). Leavis structured her study on the mere twenty-five responses (45) she received to a questionnaire she sent to 60 authors of best-sellers (40). Rose’s documentary evidence is vast by comparison, but similarly narrow in that its thesis grows out of an analysis of the experiences of a small community of articulate self-educated readers. By using surviving personal narratives of reading, Intellectual Life can offer very specific and compelling evidence not only of what readers read, where they read it, and where their books came from, but how they interpreted what they read, what connections they made between their reading and their everyday lives, what intellectual, social, and political effects their reading had, and how their reading changed over time. These autobiographical sources privilege a particular kind of reading and a particular kind of reader, however: the self-conscious or conscientious reader, articulate and attuned to the symbolic value of works and the cultural value of reading as an act. The pre-eminent reading subjects of reading history, these readers also unbalance and falsify the histories they help to make.

Despite the extensive and compelling documentary materials his study brings to light, too, Rose offers no coherent argument about class identity (who are “the British working classes” of the book’s title?) or class formation (how do we gauge the effects of reading on the totality of a social group?). Worst of all he generalizes from the evidence (as though the recovery of that evidence, long buried, were itself sufficient to overturn prevailing orthodoxies), representing the experience of a tiny working-class elite as the experience of the entire “working classes”, and reproducing in the process the great nineteenth-century liberal vision of a superior mass culture. In this respect Rose’s is an unashamedly Arnoldian project, which brings it unexpectedly into alignment with Leavis’s plea for minority culture.

Of course reading history must work with the methodological limitations imposed by the scantiness and patchiness of its surviving evidence. Forgotten authors and titles are not the real victims of Franco Moretti’s “slaughterhouse of literature”: in theory they can mostly be recovered, after all (Moretti). For each of those authors or titles, tens or hundreds of thousands of readers disappear from history utterly without trace. To draw conclusions about the reception of a work or works, historians of reading must either extrapolate from the more readily available production and circulation data (as Altick and Leavis both do), or attempt to check and balance information from different sources, as Rose does from “memoirs and diaries, school records, social surveys, oral interviews, library registers, letters to newspaper editors, fan mail, and even the proceedings of the Inquisition” (1). Alternatively, where feasible, dispersed quantitative data of reading such as circulation records from public libraries are invaluable for guiding the interpretation of holdings records (library catalogues and registers) in neighbouring libraries, and for drawing tentative conclusions about reading patterns in the culture at large.

My point is that methodological decisions are important because they help to produce the cultural past that histories of reading purport to record: is it a history of democratic freedom, self-actualisation and political agency, or social and cultural degeneration? This is particularly germane to the Australian situation in the 1890s and afterwards, when the democratisation of culture was so fundamental to the nationalist rhetoric of social progress, when the imperial control of the fiction industry was so complete, and when cheap books were “dumped” on the Australian market (Nile 37) with no regard for its interests or needs. Mass-market fiction imported from Britain, but written in Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries, was pervasive in Australia at this time. It dominated the colonial editions of the major publishers: the mainstays of Macmillans’ lists in the period, for example, were the Americans Winston Churchill and F. Marion Crawford, the Scot S. R. Crockett, and the English novelists Rosa Carey and Agnes and Egerton Castle (Johanson 290-306). It dominated local periodicals: in the 1890s the 6d Australasian (the weekly paper of the Melbourne Argus, read across Australia) published four new serial novels by Australians, and twenty by non-Australians (including Crawford, Hall Caine, Crockett, and Stanley Weyman). And it dominated the publicly subsidized subscription libraries which were established in Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Arts in most towns and cities in the colonies in the second half of the century. Eighty-three percent of books borrowed from the Melbourne Athenaeum in 1895, for instance, were novels (Wilson 53): figures which were repeated across the country (see www.australiancommonreader.com and Tables 1-5 below).

Colonial governments aimed to provide education and intellectual stimulus to Australians from all walks of life by underwriting the building of institutes and contributing to the annual running costs of the libraries. But the financial survival of the libraries depended upon the subscriptions of their members. Table 6 shows that the WA State Government contributed only £75 to the Mechanics’ Institute in Collie, a small coalmining and logging town in the south-west of the state, in 1908. Income from members’ fees for the same year amounted to £94, and only income from other sources, including letting fees for the use of the premises, ensured that the Institute came close to (but just failed in) balancing its books. Institutes like Collie gave their subscribers what they wanted, therefore — the latest fiction — to ensure that they would not defect to the commercial circulating libraries springing up in newsagents and shops in every suburb and town across the country (Lyons, “Demand”).

A more detailed examination of the social backgrounds and fiction reading patterns of Australian library subscribers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveals the complexity of this national/transnational readership. Collie was declared a municipality in 1901, the year the Mechanics’ Institute was built. The area had been mined since the 1880s, but the town had only been proclaimed in 1897, when the mining operations, underwritten by the state government, began in earnest and the railway line linked the town to the coast. That year there was an influx of migrant labour to work in the new shafts, and by 1901, the town’s population had reached more than 1000. In 1908 Collie was one of 118 Mechanics’ and Miners’ Institutes active in W.A. At that time it held 1165 books (out of a total of nearly 100,000 across all the Institutes in the state); of those, 1067 were novels (an unusually high percentage). There were 10,268 recorded loan issues in 1908-09, of which 8562 were books (the remainder were periodical loans); of those books, 8433 were novels (only 129 non-fiction books were borrowed). The fiction issues encompassed 804 titles. About 75 percent of the total fiction collection was borrowed; a quarter of all books, in other words, were not borrowed at all during the eighteen months from July 1908 and December 1909, for which complete circulation data survives.

The Collie Institute had 392 members on its books in 1908-09 (346 men and 46 women), out of a population of about 1200. (It should be remembered that Worsley, a couple of miles away, was included in the Collie Municipal Council area, and had a larger institute and library.[8]) Of the 392 members of the Collie library, 328 actually borrowed books during this period (84 percent of the membership): 7280 loan issues were made to men, and 1282 to women. Women were on average bigger readers than men, however: they borrowed an average of 28 books each; men 21 books each.

Because of the high itinerant population in mining communities it has only been possible to identify the occupations of about 60 percent of borrowers from electoral rolls. But even given this limited data, occupational information has proven extremely useful for analysing reading habits against occupational profiles. We know, for example, that, by far the largest group of borrowers were miners: a category that takes in a wide range of skilled trades and unskilled labouring jobs. This may seem unremarkable for a mining town, or indeed for a Mechanics’ Institute, governed and administered by the local town elite and “purported to serve the educational and recreational needs of the working class” and lower middle class (Rose, Birman and White 128). By 1900, however, the original ideals of the institutes movement — “the mental and moral improvement and rational recreation of its members” (Candy 8 ) — had been eroded and “in town after town, the ‘respectable’ members of society, with their own [middle-class] prejudices … and standards, committed many institutes to a tone and reputation which alienated the mechanics” (Whiting 178). This was not the case in Collie, however, as Table 7 shows. We can tell from this data what the clergymen borrowed, and the policeman; what the local member of parliament read, and the hotelkeepers, grocers and engine drivers; the law clerk, doctors, and the postmaster. We can tell what the members of the local union executive read, and mine management. Most importantly, we can tell whether the mine manager read the same books as the miners or not; whether women read different books from men; and whether the clergymen and the publicans shared a favourite author.

So what did Collie’s readers borrow? It should be said that virtually all the fiction in the Collie library was also in other Mechanics’ Institute libraries in WA and in other states. This should come as no surprise, given that the library committee had a standing order with a supplier, E.S. Wigg and Son in Perth, for six new titles per month, which would account for the dominance of new fiction in a library that had only been operating for a few years. None of the top fifty novels borrowed in 1908-09 was first published before 1890, and 45 of them were published after 1900. Of those 45, moreover, 32 were published in 1907, 08, and 09 alone.[9] Of course readers could only borrow what was on the shelves, so it is important to know what they chose not to borrow: this included, for example, any of the works of William Shakespeare, Thackeray, Hardy, Kipling, Stevenson, Arnold Bennett, or H.G. Wells. Of the whole of Sir Walter Scott’s fiction, only Ivanhoe was borrowed (five times); of Dickens, only The Old Curiosity Shop (twice) and Pickwick Papers (once). The favourite George Eliot was (perhaps predictably in an industrial town) Felix Holt; and favourite Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer. The most popular Australian novelist (if we don’t count Nat Gould) was Steele Rudd: eighteen readers borrowed Dad in Politics.[10] Seven Little Australians went out only three times; Robbery Under Arms twice; and only the bank manager thought The Bulletin Story Book might be worth a read.

Collie’s borrowers read contemporary bestsellers almost exclusively, therefore, but where did they come from? The loans data show that Collie borrowings (and borrowings from other libraries in this period: Tables 1-5) did not correspond strongly to the circulation patterns inferred from holdings in British public libraries for the same period. Simon Eliot’s study of multiple copies on library shelves in Britain shows the continuing dominance there of Scott, Dickens, Mrs Henry Wood, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose popularity was only rivalled by Walter Besant, Rider Haggard, and Mark Twain (Eliot). In Collie, Wood and Rider Haggard are both top ten authors; but neither Scott nor Dickens make it even into the top fifty. Moreover the biggest selling British authors for 1908 and 1909, Winston Churchill and Marie Corelli, are unplaced in the top 25 loan titles for the period, as Table 8 shows.

Of the top ten bestsellers in the United States for each of 1908 and 1909, only five were on the shelves in Collie: John Fox Jnr’s runaway bestselling Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Harold MacGrath’s The Lure of the Mask and The Goose Girl, and Louis Vance’s The Black Bag (Rex Beach’s The Silver Horde [1909] was added to the collection in 1910).[11] The Fox and the Vance were both in the top 25 loaned titles, but more importantly nine of the 21 authors in that list are Americans: David Graham Phillips, Sara Dean, Frank Hamilton Spearman, Vance, William Nathaniel Harben, Holman Day, Roman Doubleday, Harold Morton Kramer, and Fox. The most popular American title, by David Graham Phillips, is one of that author’s muck-raking exposés of American high society (Kunitz and Haycraft 1100). Significantly, it (and two other titles in the list) were never published by British publishers, and presumably the US edition was not distributed into the Australian market through the British cartel: yet Phillips is on the shelves in nearly all the libraries examined. Interestingly, too, the Collie list includes a Canadian, Ralph Connor — real name Charles William Gordon, a Presbyterian minister who wrote stories combining “exciting adventure and moral purity” (Kunitz, et al. 553) — and an Irishwoman, Katherine Thurston, whose novels of impersonation and mistaken identity were huge bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic.[12] These novels were, however, like most American titles, distributed in Australia in British editions, as the publisher data in the Table shows, a reminder that the dominance of the British imperial book-trade in Australia does not altogether equate with the dominance of British fiction here.[13]

Of the authors of these most heavily borrowed books, probably only Rider Haggard and E. Phillips Oppenheim are immediately recognizable to modern readers as bestselling authors of the period. And, certainly, few readers now would expect to find four novels out of the ten by two members of the same family: Joseph and Silas Hocking, Methodist ministers of Cornish background who, like Connor, wrote adventure romances of faith and doubt — a sort of boys’ own Robert Elsmere. Q.D. Leavis identified this most important and popular category of best-seller in Fiction and the Reading Public, a category which evades, at least on the face of it, simple generic classification. Unlike the crime novel or the love-romance, the fiction of “moral passion”, best exemplified by Marie Corelli, Florence Barclay, or Gene Stratton Porter, is defined by the common “power” its exert on its readers: a “terrific vitality … set to turn the machinery of morality” (Leavis 64). This is a fiction “genuinely preoccupied with ethical problems, whatever side attractions there may be in the way of unconscious pornography and excuses for day-dreaming” (Leavis 64). These novels provoke “vague warm surges of feeling associated with religion and religion substitutes — e.g. life, death, love, good, evil, home, mother, noble, gallant, purity, honour” (Leavis 64). One might be tempted to construe from the popularity of non-conformist novelists in Collie the presence of a stern Methodist minister, but the sheer diversity of other loans to those who borrowed the Hockings’ fiction discounts that possibility — and circulation data from other Australian library collections (see accompanying Tables) corroborates the universal popularity of the Hockings — and indeed clergyman novelists — among turn of the century readers.[14]

A list of the most borrowed authors in the Collie library (Table 9; grouped by total number of loans, not total number of borrowers) takes us back to more familiar territory: Joseph Hocking is far and away the most popular author, but there are few other surprises: Nat Gould, Mrs Henry Wood, Marie Corelli, the Scot S.R. Crockett (another clergyman and one of a number of Scottish romancers who dominated the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century best-seller lists[15]), Horace Vachell (author of country house mysteries), and the spy novelists and invasion-scare novelists Oppenheim and Le Queux. All of these authors were British, although the significance of the different regional origins of popular British novelists should also be noted, especially in relation to migration and settlement patterns in Australia.

A great deal more could be learned about reading patterns from this circulation data — patterns of women’ reading, for example, or children’s reading. In addition, once comparable data has been analysed from other libraries, reading patterns might usefully be mapped to other coordinates, such as physical landscape, demographic data, pastoral and industrial conditions and work practices (comparing two coalmining towns, Collie and Lambton, for example, or a coalmining town and a small farming community), religious practices, and other salient factors. The level of local detail that becomes available once readers from a neighbourhood can be identified — once we know something about where they lived, whether they were married, what they did for a living, what their status was in the community, when they were born and how they died, and much more, in some cases, from local or parish records and local newspapers — has the potential to transform our understanding of “communities of reading”. Literary studies has long been concerned with “interpretive communities” made up “of those who share interpretive strategies” (Fish 14), but it has had difficulty going beyond “the supposed experience of a generalised reader”: it has no real interest in “the actual reading experiences and responses of specific individuals to specific works” (Suleiman 26). Reading history, on the other hand, has vigorously taken up that pursuit of individual readers and reading communities, but has never quite resolved the tension between the two — the subjective reading experience of the individual reader and the collective social action implied in the activities of a reading community.[16] In part this is because of a tendency to conceive reading communities as local forms of resistance to the strategies of power of hegemonic imperial or commercial cultural interests — an everyday tactics, in Michel de Certeau’s sense.[17] What reading historians typically try to reconstruct is the localized culture as mentalité, in Roger Chartier’s term, with its own specific forms of sociability and modes of thought (Chartier 2-3). While I agree that the history of reading must be something more than the history of what is read, to borrow Chartier’s dictum (one that surely arises out of the very paucity of reading data), we still badly need histories of what was read where in the past, as well as what readers there chose not to read; and those data can tell us a great deal about local cultures and their intersections with national and transnational cultural experiences.

Reading communities, after all, are both social networks (a book club, workplace, or university class) and formations based on genre — readers who have in common only their readership of a certain category of book — communities of crime fiction readers or science-fiction buffs, or whatever (Radway). Quantitative reading data derived from library circulation records (such as that collected in the developing Australian Common Reader archive at www.australiancommonreader.com) reveals in sometimes surprising ways how these two kinds of communities were juxtaposed. We know that the local school teacher in Collie read Sesame and Lilies; that a mining engineer borrowed everything of Carlyle’s he could find (three volumes of The French Revolution, The Life of John Sterling, and Past and Present); that The Origin of Species was read by a miner, a grocer, and a coal hewer; and that both volumes of Macaulay’s History of England were checked out to an engine driver. We know, too, what the four mine managers, W.D. Bedlington, Fred Howie, George Leitch, and John Evans Snr. — all read. Together, they borrowed nearly 300 books over that eighteen month period (although more than half of those were borrowed by Bedlington alone). But more importantly, we can learn that more than half of the 71 books Bedlington borrowed were also borrowed by Mary Hartley, a local housewife, and that these include — apart from the ubiquitous Hockings — novels we now think of as rather boyish. Mrs Hartley was a great fan of Rider Haggard and the sub-Dickensian cockney low-life romances of Tom Gallon; and Bedlington read plenty of novels we now think of as written for women: Mrs Henry Wood, for instance, and Marie Corelli.

Clearly we must question certain assumptions about class, gender, and genre when we begin thinking about the framing experiences and assumptions of a local community of readers in Australia: their material and social environment, local institutional contexts, and habitus, and the ways these might linked to the works themselves through generic codes, narrative conventions, material and institutional conditions, and cultural values passing back and forth between those two worlds. We can only reach some understanding of this process of exchange by analysing in a more comprehensive way — with reference to the known reading habits of thousands of people in different parts of Australia — who read what, when, and where. What may be insignificant at the level of individual readers and individual works becomes highly significant, I would suggest, at the level of reading communities and genres — the place where individual readers enter into a complex network of relations with other readers; and where the “individual work enters into a complex network of relations with other works” (Corti 115).

This kind of quantitative evidence valuably addresses the relationship between genres, places and what John Frow calls “regimes of reading”: the shared competencies, norms, and values that govern how we read and the kinds of value we attach to books (a concept similar to Stanley Fish’s “interpretive communities”). “Just as texts are never one-of-a-kind but are always the partial repetitions of a kind,” Frow argues, “so reading is never simply an individual act, although it is always that” (139). There are regularities in the ways we “read and look and listen … that are shaped by our experience and our education” (139). chief among those “material, representational and symbolic activities which find their hallmark in the way individuals invest in places and thereby empower themselves collectively by virtue of that investment” (Harvey 23-24). Literary and (especially) sub-literary genres are extremely durable, encoding particular norms of temporal existence, material habitation, and spatial orientation. It may even be argued that genres are marked according to their particular symbolic uses of space (think only of the Western, the invasion-scare novel, or the noir thriller). If genres are, in Fredric Jameson’s words, “institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artefact” (Jameson 106), their effect is also to reinforce specific kinds of spatial and temporal experience. In the mass-marketplace, where genre entered the “brand-name system” of the market economy (107) so as to differentiate and target cultural markets, that process of reinforcement was intensified.

All of which raises the question: would we describe Collie’s borrowers as a readership, a regional culture, members of a new nation, or a market? Undoubtedly, they are the targeted consumers of particular kinds of cultural products, and occupy a space in a transnational cultural field where national and imperial identities are suppressed. What they read is without aesthetic value (it is unoriginal, unliterary), without “national, symbolic value’ (Corse 130), and without imperial meaning: its publishers merely seek maximum investment profitability and need to find the largest, and least differentiated, market possible (Corse 10). But more than this, originality defines a national culture, and can only be associated with writing — with literary production. Nations comes into being as representations, as narratives: ‘the power to narrate’ (Said xiii) is the power to identify oneself. Is it possible, then, to speak meaningfully about a reading culture — an inarticulate reading culture, indifferent to the Australianness or Englishness of the fiction it reads — as a national culture? Or is it only by self-narration, by independent, individual self-expression, that we can assert our separate sovereignty?

Nations gain meaning from the stories they tell; but they also gain meaning from the stories they read. For a long time Australia’s cultural dependency on Britain bred a particularly tenacious form of colonial alienation and inferiority, known popularly after 1950 as the “cultural cringe” (Phillips) and later in art-historical discourse as the “provincialism problem” , which characterized us as stubborn custodians of our localism — antipodeans (see Smith, B., Manifesto) — defending “the possibility and validity of ‘making good, original art right here’” whilst reluctantly recognizing “that the generative innovations in art, and the criteria for standards of ‘quality’, ‘originality’, ‘interest’, ‘forcefulness’, and so on, are determined externally” (Smith, T. 114). More recently, however, Australian cultural cringe has been reinvented as “positive unoriginality” (Morris 108 and ff.): a culture which does not privilege writing over reading, which favours a postmodern aesthetic of appropriation and pastiche, and which leapfrogs over the obstacle of a national culture to the open markets of the global “megaculture”. For some cultural historians, this has freed us up to re-evaluate our past: to recognize that the “precondition” for European Australian culture has always been “its dialogue or negotiation with, its implication in, its appropriation, re-combination, indigenization or hybridization of, international cultures — even at the most mundane and local level, always in a context structured by local and national dynamics” (Carter 149). Those are acts of reading, and reading has a history, as Robert Darnton wrote in The Kiss of Lamourette, and it has historical consequences: “there is indeed a recognisable correspondence”, William St Clair concluded in his magisterial study, The Reading Nation, “between historic reading patterns and consequent mentalities. the correlation is far from exact, but over the whole print era, the links, both general and particular, between texts, books, reading, and wider consequences appear to be secure” (St Clair 433). European Australia formed itself out of reading — out of borrowed materials: the materials of imperial culture and, increasingly after 1880, mass-market culture.


  1. Lambton Mechanics’ Institute, NSW: 20 most popular novelists (by borrowers and loans) 1909 [Source: Australian Common Reader database (www.australiancommonreader.com) ]
  2. Collie Mechanics’ Institute, WA: 20 most popular novelists (by borrowers and loans) 1908-09 [Source: Australian Common Reader database (www.australiancommonreader.com) ]
  3. Maitland Institute, SA: 20 most popular novelists (by borrowers and loans) 1909 [Source: Australian Common Reader database (www.australiancommonreader.com) ]
  4. Rosedale VIC: Most popular novelists (by borrowers and loans) 1905-08; 1911-12 [Source: Australian Common Reader database (www.australiancommonreader.com) ]
  5. Port Germein SA: Most popular novelists (by borrowers and loans) 1892-1908 [Source: Australian Common Reader database (www.australiancommonreader.com) ]
  6. Expenditure and receipts (in £ s. d.), Albany and Collie Mechanics’ Institutes 1908. [Source: Western Australian Official Year Book, 1908. Perth, W.A. : Government Printer, 1909.]
  7. Occupational Profiles of Collie borrowers, 1908-09. [Source: Australian Common Reader database (www.australiancommonreader.com) ]
  8. Collie WA, 1908-09: Top 25 loans showing publisher. Titles in bold = no UK publication. [Source: Australian Common Reader database (www.australiancommonreader.com) ]
  9. Collie WA 1908-09: Top 40 Authors by total loans and country of origin

Tables Figures 1 – 9


  1. This essay revises the initial findings of this study, originally published in Tim Dolin, “The Secret Reading Life of Us”, Readers, Writers, Publishers: Essays and Poems. Ed. Brian Matthews. Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, 2004. 115-34.
  2. See (Carter, Botany Bay; Carter, Lie)
  3. George Robertson opened
  4. Plainly the Australian book trade was much more complex than this in practice: there is evidence of American imports (new and second-hand), for example. Yet Thomas Farrer, permanent secretary of the British Board of Trade, was clearly out of touch with the basics of the imperial trade when he confessed to the royal commission into imperial copyright in 1877 that he had been “unable to ascertain what is the nature of the book trade in Australia; whether they buy and read our expensive British editions, or whether they get cheap American reprints, or whether they reprint for themselves” (Nowell-Smith 91).
  5. Graeme Johanson argues that Macmillan was mistaken: “from 1843 to 1849, of all books advertised for sale in … New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania … only eighteen percent were literary works. In 1904 the lending branch of the New South Wales Public Library stocked only eighteen percent of fiction, and in 1913 the largest Melbourne bookselling company, E.W. Cole, stocked a twenty-five percent proportion of fiction among all its titles. In 1952 ‘less than’ twenty percent of all book imports to Australia were fiction” (Johanson 41-42). It is not an argument that holds up, however. Fiction never constituted more than twenty percent of book production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yet Macmillan’s implicit point — that fiction was the mainstay of colonial trade in a firm like his — has weight. Titles in advertisements always “tended to be theological, educational or standard English classics” (Nowell-Smith 91). And bookshops and libraries may have carried only twenty percent fiction, but Australian library loan records from 1861 to 1908 consistently show the overwhelming popularity of fiction borrowed (see www.australiancommonreader.com). See also Q.D. Leavis: “The investigation made in 1924 into the stocks and issues of urban libraries revealed that while they had 63 per cent. of non-fiction works on average to 37 per cent. of fiction, only 22 per cent of non-fiction was issued” (Leavis 4).
  6. The trade in second-hand American books into Sydney.
  7. See (Brantlinger; Carey)
  8. 1350 books: Western Australian Official Yearbook, (Perth: Government Statistician’s Office, 1909).
  9. One was published in 1909, eighteen in 1908, and thirteen in 1907.
  10. Sandy’s Selection was borrowed twelve times; On our Selection once; and Back at Our Selection four times.
  11. There are undoubted problems in using bestseller lists as data in book history: see Miller Book History 3, 286; no lists available for Australia for this period: see Walsh’s Literary Intelligencer?
  12. Her biggest seller was her first novel, The Masquerader (1904), published as John Chilcote, M.P. in England.
  13. Whether it arrived here as one of the hundred of thousands of second-hand books imported directly from the USA, or was distributed in its original bindings through a British publishing house, is unclear.
  14. Rosedale MI Collection, MS 9860, Box 4: 3.
  15. The so-called ‘Kailyard’ school, including Ian Maclaren and J.M. Barrie.
  16. For Lyons, for example, personal narratives of reading ‘reveal broad similarities and patterns of behaviour, together with all that is unique about one reader’s experience, and the social, cultural, and professional background which forms its essential context’ Martyn Lyons, “Reading Practices in Australia,” A History of the Book in Australia, 1891-1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market, eds. Martyn Lyons and John Arnold (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2001) 341..
  17. This motive lies behind Priya Joshi, In Another Country : Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

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    Fiction and the Australian Reading Public, 1888-1914

    September 1, 2008
    Tim DolinPapers, Reading

    For a brief moment in the history of the modern West, between about 1880 and 1920, narrative fiction in books, newspapers, and magazines dominated the rapidly growing markets for transnational mass-produced popular entertainment in English, before being challenged successively by cinema, radio, and television.

    Victorian Domestic Fiction and the Settler Reader: Annie Baxter Dawbin, 1834-1868

    June 8, 2008
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    At the forefront of the new empiricism in literary studies has been the call for a “larger idea of literary history” and a counter-intuitive idea of how to approach critical reading.

    The Secret Reading Life of Us

    June 8, 2008
    Tim DolinPapers

    It is no secret that Australia, when it was formally constituted as a nation in 1901, was already a nation of readers; nor that most Australians read, and still read, fiction.


      Random Quote

      “This is essentially the land of newspapers. The colonist is by nature an inquisitive animal, who likes to know what is going on around him. The young colonial has inherited this proclivity. Excepting the Bible, Shakespeare, and Macaulay's 'Essays,' the only literature within the bushman's reach are newspapers. The townsman deems them equally essential to his well-being. Nearly everybody can read, and nearly everybody has leisure to do so. Again, the proportion of the population who can afford to purchase and subscribe to newspapers is ten times as large as in England; hence the number of sheets issued is comparatively much greater. Every country township has its weekly or bi-weekly organ. In Victoria alone there are over 200 different sheets published. Nor is the quality inferior to the quantity. On the contrary, if there is one institution of which Australians have reason to be proud, it is their newspaper press.”

      R.E.N. Twopeny, Town Life in Australia (1883). Ringwood: Penguin [1973: 221]