by Whispering Gums
A review of Louise Mack’s debut novel, The world is round
Over the last two months we have posted four posts on Louise Mack (1870-1935) – a short biography, followed by an example of her journalistic writing in January, and then a combined review of her two novels, Teens and Girls together, followed by a short story of hers in February. This month, we look at another novel.
The world is round
Louise Mack’s debut novel, The world is round, was published in 1896, when she was 26 years old. It was apparently part of a new series of “high-class sixpenny novels” mostly written by well-known authors and published by “a prominent firm of London publishers” (T. Fisher Unwin). Table Talk (19 June 1896), announcing this initiative, added that “as a compliment to Australians, among the first of the forthcoming volumes will be one by a new Australian writer, Miss Louise Mack”.
The novel was widely reviewed. On 16 July 1896, soon after publication, Melbourne’s Free Lance wrote
Miss Mack has a particularly taking satirical style, but her descriptive writing is hardly up to her ability in the other department. Were she to but slightly improve in that qualification it would enhance the already strong position she has attained in the ranks of popular writers.
Other reviews also questioned her descriptive ability, but for some reviewers there were more pressing issues – to do with her drawing from life. Tasmania’s The Mercury (17 June 1896) was particularly scathing, calling it “a mere skeleton of a story, trivial and disconnected, and making use of that cheap criticism of society foibles, of which shallow natures are so fond, to quite a nauseating extent”. The big issue, however, was what it says next:
the caricatures of people themselves are, it seems likely, reproductions of those whom she has really met in society, and for which she certainly deserves all-round ostracism.
On 20 June, The Daily Telegraph agreed. Calling her “promising”, it added:
she is too personal. Her allusions to the “daughter of a Supreme Court judge.” who was also a secretary to the Women’s Literary Society in Sydney, are not only in bad taste, they are altogether unjust;
Others were kinder. In fact, Melbourne’s Free Lance, cited above, explains the “controversy” like this:
Owing to an apparently malicious criticism in a local paper which blamed the personal element in the book, and then proceeded to give a key to the alleged personalities, the public curiosity was inordinately excited, with the result that “The World is Round” was rushed in Sydney, and was sold out in a few days. None of the characters are drawn absolutely from real life, though some are taken from life and some are more or less imitated and built up by combination of traits.
While most reviewers were a little qualified, there was also general praise for what one described as “strong, wholesome, vigorous work, of which any woman might be proud”. (Let’s forget the “woman” qualification.)
Her niece, the writer Nancy Phelan, who wrote the introduction to my edition, discusses her not living up to her early potential. She notes that a common view is that she was “praised too soon, told she was good and encouraged to rush into print” when she needed time to sit back and think, and “be disappointed”. Phelan writes:
She wrote instinctively … but without proper guidance and criticism her work too often became facile. Facility, with a fertile imagination and love of inventing stories, made her a successful romantic novelist but it eroded her talent, and years of formula writing elbowed aside the poet. She never lost her poetic awareness but had little occasion to use it. Haste, lack of reflection, putting words on paper before they were ready robbed them of their true value; it was quicker and easier to write of trivial events than to try to address deep, difficult thoughts and emotions.
Yet in all Louise’s books there are glimpses of the writer she might have been. Even in her most idiotic novels there are occasional patches of true feeling or sensitive descriptions …
All this might help explain why this particular writer from the past disappeared from view. However, Angus and Robertson saw fit to republish this novel in 1993, so it must have something. I’d argue that it does, starting with the fact that it is a good read. It is easy to see why she received early praise. As many of the reviewers wrote, her dialogue is good and she has a lovely, light, satirical eye. It is also a good example of why “classics” (or older works) are worth reading. This post will expand a little on these two points.
a “brilliant little study”
The world is round is a fairly straightforward tragicomedy about a young well-to-do 21-year-old girl, Jean, who aspires to be a writer, and the two men who love her – the 30-plus-year-old self-confident, successful lawyer-and-writer Musgrave, and the around-25-year-old, shy and financially struggling Harrison. It’s a short work, a novella really, being just 93 pages in my edition. The 1896 Free Lance writer notes that “the reader’s report” for this novel described it as a “brilliant little study of two men and two women, sparkling and witty, and told in a graphic style”. It is still a fun read today. It has a light satirical touch, never wallowing in the issues it raises, and not weighed down with long explication or too many adjectives that can typify debut novels. There are moments of sadness or pathos – obviously at least one of the would-be lovers is going to be disappointed, for a start – but Mack never becomes sentimental.
The story is told third person, chronologically, in titled chapters – “Musgrave”, “Jean”, “In which a friend is brutal” – and takes place in various interiors, such as James Musgrave’s chambers, Harrison’s classroom, and Jean’s home. Mack draws on the life she knows, presenting a picture of a small group of characters moving around each other in a small environment. This is very reminiscent of Jane Austen, to whom there is a tongue-in-cheek allusion in this conversation between Jean and Musgrave:
“I don’t suppose I will ever be a George Eliot, or a Thackeray, but perhaps I may be a–”
“Miss Austen! oh, surely I’ll be something b–I mean surely I won’t be like her.”
“She did some good work.”
I mean to say! Anyhow, Mack’s descriptions of her small group of people and their interactions ring true, while also drawing on standard literary tropes, like the well-to-do heroine and her poor friend, the experienced confident suitor and the awkward poor one. The plot plays out, perhaps more through little vignettes than a flowing narrative, but is enjoyable to read, largely because these vignettes are well-drawn, and confidently mix a light tone with the occasional darker one. Moreover, appealingly for most readers, it’s about literary ambition.
on reading “classics”
The other point worth considering is why we read forgotten books like this. It’s easy to explain those classics that belong to the canon: they address the big universal themes or ideas, their writing is skilled and timeless, and, often, they have innovated or contributed something to literary culture. But, what about what we might call the second rung, books like Mack’s The world is round? Are they really worth reading over contemporary writers? I think so, and one of the justifications is in the first line of Mack’s novel. It starts:
Sydney was revelling in the clear, cold weather of June, the most delicious month of the Australian seasons.
That is not an attitude most Australians would have today, but is clearly how the colonials, those transplants from mild temperate Britain, felt about Australia’s climate. Books written in a different time so often provide fascinating insights into the attitudes and values of that time. They might be fiction, but they can’t help also betraying their era. For students of colonial Australia, Mack’s novella offers some delightful insights into “the life and times”.
Here’s another example from a supporting character, the poor friend who tells Jean that she “can’t write about Australia, it doesn’t appeal” to her. She admits she’s a “Colonial” but she knows nothing of bush life – “I’ve never taken my country into my soul, and never will until I get away from it”. However, she’s poor, and is offered a job governessing in the bush on a cattle station. She learns to love the Bushies and to prefer them over “the posturing, pseudo-intellectual Sydney set”. She writes several pages to Jean on the subject. This friend plays a role in the plot in terms of providing a counter assessment of Jean’s literary skills and there’s a plot reason for sending her away, but I can’t see much reason for this little outburst, except for Mack to make some point about colonial society and its values.
Louise Mack is one of the interesting characters from our literary past. In 1895, before this novel was published but after some of her verse and short prose pieces started appearing in journals like the Bulletin, she was being noticed, including by Mrs Bright, editor of Cosmos:
In these early days it is not possible to predict the place that Miss Mack is destined to fill in Australian literature. At present she shines chiefly in dialogue and a quaint, satirical style; peculiarly noticeable in sketches like “A study in Invitations.” In time she may develope [sic] a faculty for descriptive writing, which will supply the only quality now lacking to ensure her high rank among the popular novelists of the day.
Louise Mack, The world is round, Pymble: Angus & Robertson, 1993 (orig. pub. 1896)
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.
Thanks, Sue. Another interesting take on this author and her work. Mack must have taken to heart the criticism of her lack of descriptive powers. The “My valley” piece you recommended for Friday’s “Stories from the archives” captures the scene well.
Oh good catch Elizabeth-you are right, it does. She was clearly a bit of a live-wire. SO great to know about these women Isn’t It?
It would be interesting to document just how far back (urban) Australian authors felt pressured to write ‘Bush’ stories. 1890? 1880? We generally blame the Bulletin, Lawson, Paterson & co. but I wonder if it went back further.
One of the Bulletin’s main criticisms of women writers was that they wrote drawing room stories. Do you think Mack was saying ‘up you’ to male critics?
She could very well have. I’ll try to take more notice as I research TROVE at what columnists and critics were saying.