Friday, May 6, 2011

Day 25 - Your favourite book by a non-British author

Whoops, I'm a day late! Sorry guys but Night of the Living Dead was being shown at my favourite cinema as a last minute addition and I couldn't say no to seeing that fantastic film on the big screen!

So back to the topic at hand. I have a soft spot for British writers, there is an eccentricity that runs deep in that culture and comes through especially strong in their writing, regardless of the genre or intended audience. But the point of today is to discuss a book by a non-British author so I'll leave my anglophile talk for another day and instead talk about a book by an Australian author.

by Ethel Turner

Now the reason I chose an Australian novel isn't simply because it isn't British, I chose this book because it was decidedly non-British in a time when that wasn't the norm. Let me back up a little and give you all a wee history lesson about children's literature in Australia back in the 1800-1900s.  When this book was written in the mid-1890s the majority of books available for children here were written by British authors and usually set back in the motherland. Even when a children's book was set in Australia the authors were typically British men who'd never stepped foot in Australia and wrote what they imagined our primitive lands to be like, or they were Australians but restricted to write novels for the children back in England and therefore must align with what they'd enjoy/understand. So basically it was filled with a lot of racism towards the local aborigines and unnaturally British children (Ho hum, cherrio chaps etc etc) in an environment that is almost cartoon-ish.

Ethel Turner wanted to change this, she was well aware that while we were still a part of the British commonwealth we had truly become our own people, and unlike British children at the time, Australian kids were mischievious, a little unruly but most importantly, we were at home amongst our environment. She opens the book with the following disclaimer:

"Before you start this story I should like to give you just a word of warning. If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps a naughtily inclined one to point out a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately and betake yourself to Sandford and Merton, or similar standard juvenile works. Not one of the seven is truly good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are. In England, and America, and Africa, and Asia, the little folks may be paragons of virtue, I know little about them. But in Australia a model child is - I say it not without thankfulness - an unknown quantity. It may be that the miasmas of naughtiness develop best in the sunny brilliancy of our atmosphere. It may be that the land and the people are young-hearted together and the children's spirits not crushed and saddened by the shadow of long years' sorrowful history. There is a lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion and mischief in nature here, and therefore in children."

This book was a breath of fresh air amongst the stuffy British writing, wonderfully written by a woman who truly loved her characters, flaws and all. Most importantly though she understood the difference between life in Australia and life overseas, and she wrote what she saw not what was expected of her. This book represented a turning point not just in children's books but in general Australian society. The old British ways were finally eroding and the national identity that would firm up even more post-WW1&2 was becoming evident in everyday life.

Although the children seem almost angelic compared to the children you see in shopping centres today, the central premise, that special twinkle Australian kids have in their eyes, still lingers on.


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