From The Diaries of Beatrice Webb (1898) – 1

Fabian Society members Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited Australia in 1898. By and large, they were not impressed:

October 5

A long conversation with the intelligent principal shopman in the largest bookstore in Sydney (the proprietor, by the way, a man of 35 or so, was standing at the door at 5 p.m. considerably “in liquor”). The shopman was a refined and rather depressed man of literary tastes. He said there was no sale for anything but cheap novels, supplied from England in Colonial editions at from sixpence to half a crown. The rich people bought little or nothing else, and many purchased nothing more literary than the weekly editions of the newspapers (the Australasian and the Sydney Mail chiefly). A newly enriched man had lately given them an order for £100 of books, all light literature, principally cheap novels. There had been something of a boom in cheap sociology eight years ago, but that had quite died out. But the young Australian writers – Lawson, Paterson, Daley – were now selling well and he still sold about a thousand copies a year of Gordon’s poems, which were known to every bushman. He attributed this popularity to Gordon’s reputation as the best and most fearless rider ever known in Australia, and to his poems dealing with horseracing. There had been a little set of bookbuyers in Melbourne, but this had died out. Australia had one great and wealthy collector – Mr Mitchell of Sydney – who collected every scrap relating to Australia – old newspapers, pamphlets etc. He complained that English newspapers or publishers would not accept Australian MSS – his wife wrote, and he had tried to place both her and others’ MSS in England in vain. The Australian public would not buy Australian productions until these had the English approval; Rolf Boldrewood himself could not sell his works until Bentley had brought out Robbery Under Arms.

The Bulletin, he said, had really been “made” by a dissolute but very clever Frenchman named Argles, who wrote the dramatic criticism, and originated the present characteristic style of the whole paper. But Argles worked through Archibald the principal editor, on whom he had a great influence until his (Argles) death from consumption. Now Archibald had gathered round him a brilliant staff of young Bohemians.

Beatrice Webb, c.1875 (London School of Economics)

Beatrice Webb, c.1875 (London School of Economics)

October 7

Dined at the Women’s College. A refined and intelligent Scotch woman (a graduate of London University) Miss Macdonell [sic] is the Principal, and has gathered from all parts of New South Wales and Queensland, 14 students. Like the rest of the University the Women’s College is depressed; is, in fact, struggling into life in spite of the steady indifference, if not hostility, of Australian Society. “Let the women keep to the kitchen” said a wealthy man who was asked for a subscription; and he fairly represented Australian opinion. And yet the cooking is so bad! As far as one can make out, the Australian girls spend their time in making their own clothes, except when they are wearing them in the company of young men. The clothes are fresh and flashy: powder and paint ruin complexions and the women age rapidly. The women of Australia are not her finest product.

–Beatrice Webb, English, 1858-1943


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