Australian National University researchers discover lost literary treasure trove
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Australian National University researchers discover lost literary treasure trove

A literary treasure trove of 21,000 novels, novellas and short stories has been discovered in an archive of Australian historical newspapers.

Associate Professor Katherine Bode at the Australian National University is calling for the public's help to read and edit the forgotten titles collected on a new online database in the hope of finding the next Miles Franklin or Marcus Clarke.

Associate Professor Katherine Bode at Parliament House.

Associate Professor Katherine Bode at Parliament House.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The collection includes seven rediscovered titles from well-known writer Catherine Martin, author of the acclaimed 1890 novel The Australian Girl.

Martin was a feminist writer of her time but her stories were published anonymously or under a pseudonym and had therefore been lost to literary history until now, according to Dr Bode.

Stories from Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and William Makepeace Thackeray appear alongside anonymously authored tales of adventure and murder including The Murdering Banker, A Mysterious Visitation, The Forged Will, The King's Beauty and Her Majesty's Tower.

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Many of the works are uniquely Australian, feature mostly male authors and range in subject from bushrangers, cricket and shipwrecks to the early days of Botany Bay.

"The Australian stories that stand out for me are the ones that represent Aboriginal characters in quite complex ways," Dr Bode said. "Literary historians have long thought that Australian fiction followed the legal lie of 'terra nullius' in obscuring the presence of Australia's original inhabitants.

"But much of the local writing about bush life is characterised by consistent depiction of Aboriginal characters. Sometimes the characters in the stories even question whether white people should be here. For example in The Genii of the Vanguard by F. E. Lockwood, published in the Goulburn Herald in 1899, a shepherd hearing about the spearing of a station manager says, 'I'd never have brought my family here if I'd not known how strict the tribal laws are'."

The Catherine Martin works are quite romantic, witty and funny. "She has a great turn of phrase," Dr Bode said. "A Stray Kitten begins by lamenting the situation for Australian colonials trying to follow the aristocratic practices in Britain of playing cards and going to dances but then having to get up and work in the morning."

Five of the seven lost Martin titles have been combined to form a new book titled How I Pawned My Opals and Other Lost Stories, released on Thursday.

The forgotten fiction had been serialised in newspapers and journals at a time when the cost of producing and purchasing books was prohibitive and lending libraries few.

Most of these works were never catalogued or turned into books and had been lost to posterity. Mass digitisation of Australian historical newspapers by the National Library of Australia's Trove database made it possible for the first time to access the archives.

The resulting online database, To Be Continued: The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database, gave important new insights into the development of Australian literary, publishing and reading culture, including what early Australians read and how it was published and understood, Dr Bode said.

Due to the sheer volume of entries, however, only a fraction had been read and Dr Bode is calling on the public to get involved.

Visit the project at To Be Continued – The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database:

Linda Morris is an arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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