The Sydney Writers Festival is on again, running from 19 – 25 May, with events at Walsh Bay and around the city. Since 1997 the festival has presented some of Sydney’s, Australia’s and the world’s best and most exciting writers and quite a few historians were amongst them.
This year is no exception. On Friday 23rd, the History Council of NSW presents a panel of historians, all winners of the NSW Premiers History Awards in 2013 to discuss their work. There are others amongst the program you should check out.
Plenty of history has been written about Sydney over the past 220 years. But Sydney has also been a muse to fiction writers, acting as the backdrop and sometimes the main character for numerous novels, crime dramas and period pieces.
The first novel written and published in Sydney was The Guardian by Anna Maria Burns in 1838, although it only makes passing reference to Sydney. In 1842 John Lang published Legends of Australia. Lang was the first Sydney born writer to publish on the city with this work. He also published at least two more novels about Sydney in the 1850s.
Many of these early works can be used as a form of historical document. The novels were based on the city that the writers knew, as it is still. Novels like DH Deniehy’s Legends of Newtown, describe the inner city suburb as a rural outpost, a place Sydneysiders go to escape the crowded city. It is hard to image that now. James Tucker, an ex-convict, wrote of the Rocks and the convict station at Emu Plains in his novel Ralph Rashleigh from the 1840s.
Louisa Atkinson, who started publishing in the late 1850s, was our first Australian born female novelist. She wrote at least two novels based in Sydney, most notably Gertrude the Emigrant, but was also a naturalist and contributed journal articles on Sydney flora and fauna.
Louis Stone’s 1911 novel Jonah is considered to be one of the best early novels about inner city suburbs. Set in Waterloo, Redfern and around Paddy’s Markets, Jonah captures the bustle, grime, heat and character of pre-war Sydney. Stone was joined in this genre after World War II by Ruth Park. Park arrived in Sydney from New Zealand as a journalist in 1942. Her first novel, Harp in the South (1948) and the follow up Poor Man’s Orange (1949) were set in the slum neighbourhoods of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst, an area she had lived in herself. If you add Kylie Tennant’s 1939 book Foveaux and Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’ Come in Spinner (1951) to the mix, you get a vivid picture of pre-war and war time Sydney.
There are some many novels about Sydney and they keep coming. The Peter Corris series of crime novels set in Kings Cross, Glebe, Bondi and Palm Beach with his character Cliff Hardy, Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Patrick White’s works set around the city and Eastern Suburbs. New novelist PM Newtown’s crime mystery set around Cabramatta adds more flavour to the scene.
There are so many. Any favourites of your own?