Thousands of forgotten novels uncovered by Australian National University research into early Aussie newspapers
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Thousands of forgotten novels uncovered by Australian National University research into early Aussie newspapers

It started out as a simple premise: when did Australian fiction become a thing?

When Katherine Bode, an associate professor at the Australian National University, set out to answer this question, she had only a vague sense that some fiction was printed in Australian newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Dr Katherine Bode said there was a time when Australia was one of the most literature-hungry nations in the world.

Dr Katherine Bode said there was a time when Australia was one of the most literature-hungry nations in the world.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

But she had no idea how often it was printed, where it was coming from or who was reading it.

Her Australian Research Council-funded project, using the National Library's vast Trove database of digitised newspapers, has managed to answer these questions quite conclusively.

The more than 21,000 forgotten novels, novellas and short stories she has uncovered indicate that early newspapers published fiction constantly, from Australia and all over the world, and everyone was reading it.

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While it's well-known that the work of literary giants like Charles Dickens was first read as instalments in literary journals, the publishing landscape was quite different in Australia at the time.

"The challenges of colonial production and distribution, because the distances are much further with much smaller populations, meant that even though these local literary journals were started up, about half of them folded just in the first year, so they were very, very hard to maintain," Dr Bode said.

"Yet every small town had a newspaper, and every big city had multiple newspapers. Some of the small towns even had multiple newspapers."

Dr Bode said that while it's almost impossible to imagine now, there was a time when Australia was one of the most literature-hungry nations in the world.

"They estimate that the per capita reading of newspapers in Australia was five times that in Britain, so it was really the main way that Australians at the time got any of their reading matter," she said.

"It was also, we found out in this project, an enormous source of fiction - thousands and thousands of titles were published."

And, surprisingly, while a large amount of it was written in Australia and covered local themes like bushrangers and cricket, much of it came from overseas.

"Rather than just coming from Britain, which is what we thought previously, there's a lot of fiction from America, and there's also fiction from Austria, Canada, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan," she said.

"One of the other interesting things is there was a lot of popular fiction like you would expect to find, but there was also a number of authors we would now think of as literary or canonical, so Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, or George Elliot.

Sometimes it was published over a couple of years - the stories would roll out - but sometimes there would be 65,000-word novels in a single issue of a newspaper."

Dr Bode says the project is now online and available to the public, because there are many more works yet to be discovered via the National Library's Trove, the world's largest collection of historical digitised newspapers.

"The 21,000 is just what there was based on automatic harvest with certain parameters two years ago, and there's been multiple newspapers digitised in that time, there' will be multiple digitised into the future, and also some of them are missing instalments," she said.

You can visit the project and search, read, correct, add or export the works by visiting To Be Continued – The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database at cdhrdatasys.anu.edu.au/tobecontinued/.

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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