Monthly Archives: January 2014

Reading Old Letters

Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice there’s an odd phrase. Lydia has gone with the militia to Brighton, as a guest of the Colonel’s wife, and the Bennet family are waiting for her letters,

but her letters were always long expected, and always very short.  Those to her mother, contained little else, than …the library …officers … a new gown… a new parasol …was obliged to leave off in a violent hurry.

Her letters to her sister Kitty are rather longer but ‘were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.’ (vol. 2, ch 19)

The phrase is usually taken to mean underlining as a form of emphasis – if Lydia was emailing today, I just know she would use Comic Sans and too many exclamation marks!!! – but it always puzzled me, and I think I discovered exactly what Jane Austen meant one day back in the 1990s when I was reading some family letters outside Braidwood. Continue reading

A Matter of Business: Stuart Donaldson and the Fallen Woman

New South Wales became a self-governing colony and elected its first Parliament in 1856. At that time, there was as yet no party structure.  There were some clear factional chiefs, some with a defined political agenda, others with only a good idea of whom they hated (Irish Catholics, mostly) but it was all a little vague and chaotic by current standards, which are still often chaotic, but seldom vague.

There were some famous names amongst that first Legislative Assembly, including the conservative James Macarthur and the radical Henry Parkes, but the man who emerged to become the first Premier of New South Wales was a comparative nonentity, Stuart Alexander Donaldson, who is today almost completely unheard of.

489px-Stuart_A._Donaldson

Despite the slight kudos that attaches to being first NSW Premier, Donaldson was really much more important as a merchant than as a politician, and his early life is much more interesting – well, I think so, anyway! – than his later respectable years. Continue reading

Dead Darlings

Kill your darlings!

There seems to be an Anglo-American dispute over this quote, with some attributing it to the American novelist William Faulkner:

In writing, you must kill your darlings!

while others go for the older English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Either way, it’s good advice. We all overwrite at times, and for writers of non-fiction, there’s an additional menace: the fascinating sidetrack. Continue reading

The Ambitions of Jane Franklin

I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. As it was a private school, we were sorted into ‘Houses’, a sort of artificial way of engendering competition between us, and a team spirit amongst us.  As it was a girls’ school, the Houses were named after famous women, and as it was a relatively innovative school, they were Australian women – or at least, women who spent some time in Australia.  In chronological order they were Elizabeth Macarthur, Jane Franklin, Caroline Chisholm and Lucy Osburn. I suspect that if our teachers had known then what I know now about Jane Franklin, there wouldn’t have been a Franklin House. Continue reading

Historians and Philatelists

There’s a story about a stamp collector whose particular interest was letters posted at sea.  For philatelists who know about these things – and I don’t – there is a wealth of variety in the covers, franks and stamps on letters sent by passengers or crew from naval or merchant shipping, even in the present day.

In pursuit of his hobby, this man sent a polite letter to a naval vessel asking the captain if he would please frank the enclosed stamped addressed envelope and send it back.  Outraged, the captain wrote an angry reply telling him not to waste precious naval time, put it in an envelope, hand addressed it, and sent it off with the ship’s mail – and thereby gave the collector a much more valuable item for his collection than he was expecting. Continue reading

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

I was in England on study leave when my first book came out in 1988.  Thrilled to see all that hard work finally between hard covers, I showed it to one of my English cousins. With his customary chutzpah, he decided that it should be reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, and with his customary networking skills, he immediately rang a friend with some sort of connection to the TLS.

I only heard one side of the phone call, but it was clear that his friend didn’t want a review of my book.  I’m not at all surprised.  I was an unknown first time author with a book on an Australian subject, published by an Australian press with limited distribution facilities in England. He could have put off my cousin in a variety of ways: they had enough books for the next year, they weren’t publishing reviews on Australian topics, they weren’t reviewing authors whose birthdays had an R in the month.

Instead, he explained apparently seriously that the TLS didn’t review non-fiction by women authors.  Fiction yes, but not non-fiction. I have no idea if this was true or just an excuse.  In a way it doesn’t matter. It was the specificity of the explanation that got to me. I felt staggered and belittled as an academic and a writer of serious history, even though I had initially begged my cousin not to make what I thought was a presumptuous request. Continue reading

2013 in review

This morning WordPress has sent me a summary of my year in blogging – complete with fireworks. I think I’ve done okay, if I say so myself – especially since I couldn’t write anything for the first 5 months of the year.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 51,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 19 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Now I have to say in all honesty, that statistic is dodgy – because 10 percent of my viewers arrived on a single day, 12 December 2013, when somebody posted a link to The Habsburg Inheritance on Reddit.  Not just any Reddit thread, either, but a salacious and gossipy one about incestuous families. As a result 7000+ social media tragics descended on my blog to gawk at the admittedly amazing breeding habits of one of Europe’s most important families.

It made for an exciting 24 hours – but I’m really much more grateful for my small, loyal band of followers, who encourage and stimulate me with their comments and suggestions, and make writing this blog worthwhile. Happy New Year to you all!

Click here to see the complete report.