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In early July 1 flew to Perth to a Conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) called 'Spectres, Screens, Shadows and Mirrors'. I presented a paper on 'Fisher's Ghost' and John Lang. There were 115 papers presented over three days. It was a stimulating time and I enjoyed myself. It took me, at least partly, out of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Not yet into the twenty first. There is a report of the Conference in the pages of this edition of Margin giving some details about papers on nineteenth century Australian writers and their books.

Many ideas have arisen in my mind about questions related to John Lang and the early writers not least in relation to pseudonymous works. One of the fascinating aspects of the nineteenth century is trying to uncover the authorship of stories and novels. This is a problem when constructing a bibliography of the earliest of our writers. There were various reasons for publishing a book or story without revealing the names of authors. One most commonly put forward was that a 'gentleman' could not write for money. He or she had to pose as an amateur. Dickens's Household Words was only one of the popular nineteenth century magazines which published in their pages many unattributed stories, articles and serials. The exception was Dickens himself. It seems to me a little unfair to hog the limelight in this way. John Lang sometimes did likewise in his newspaper The Mofussilite.

Another reason for being anonymous was the fear of libel. This was a real fear. James Tegg was threatened with libel for publishing John Lang's story in Tegg's Monthly Magazine in 1836. One of the problems for the early writers was that there were so few people resident in the colony that any story if set in New South Wales or Van Diemen's Land could probably be interpreted as being about someone 'easily identified' and hence ready to take action.

Yet another restriction was Government censorship. We know that any play written in the colonies was not be given permission to be performed if it was about convicts and bushrangers. Convict's stories could not be published or even appear on the stage even if the convict was holding a ticket of leave. The same restriction appears to be enforced against any magazine story. Tegg's Monthly Magazine probably ceased publication because in the last published issue there was a story about bushrangers, and not because there was a lack of writers willing to submit stories. Stories were anonymous and thus the publisher had to take responsibility.

Thus we have very few novels or stories from the very early period of Australian history. The few who braved the difficulties very soon gave up or like John Lang went elsewhere to write and publish. This makes what was written and which has survived all the more precious.
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Author:Crittenden, Victor
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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