Further Tales from Botany Bay.
John Lang. Mulini Press. xvi, 133pp. $25. Copies available from Mulini Press, PO Box 82, Jamison Centre, Canberra ACT 2614.
This collection of thirteen previously uncollected short stories by John Lang, the first Australian-born novelist, appears as part of Victor Crittenden’s John Lang Project, commenced in 2005. By 2016, the bicentenary of Lang’s birth, Crittenden aims to have all of his novels and short stories back in print. Since much of Lang’s work appeared anonymously in newspapers and periodicals rather than in volume form, this is quite an undertaking and one that has not been attempted to my knowledge for any other nineteenth-century Australian author.
The thirteen stories collected here were originally published between 1836 and 1860, mainly in the English periodicals associated with Charles Dickens, Household Words and All the Year Round. A couple appeared in John Lang’s own newspaper, The Mofussilite, established by him in Calcutta in 1845. And the earliest four appeared in Tegg’s Monthly Magazine, a short-lived periodical published by the Sydney bookseller James Tegg between March and July 1836. In the Mitchell Library’s copy these stories are attributed to journalist William Kerr but, as Victor Crittenden notes, Kerr was not actually in Sydney at the time.
One might want to question Crittenden’s attribution of these stories to Lang on the grounds that, in style and subject matter, they seem distinctly ‘old-fashioned’ when compared with his later ones. They are written in a fairly heavy, formal style and mainly take the form of the moral tale. Two deal with women in Sydney who are seduced and abandoned by their lovers, another with the woes of a former convict whose younger wife runs off with all his money. Only ‘A Scene in the Wilds’, describing a battle between Indigenous Australian tribesmen, resembles Lang’s later stories in its focus on colonial adventure.
These differences can be accounted for, however, by the fact that Lang was only nineteen in 1836 and had not yet developed the more lively and vigorous style that was to characterise his later work. In 1837 he sailed to England to attend Cambridge University; after some months there, however, he left to study law in London, before returning briefly to Sydney in 1841. While in England he would certainly have read the early works of Charles Dickens since they were all the rage at the time. The influence of Dickens is clearly seen in Lang’s Legends of Australia published, again anonymously, in parts by James Tegg in 1842. This was recognised in a lengthy review in the New South Wales Examiner, spread over the issues for 6,13 and 20 April 1842, which complained of the ‘general extravagance, vulgarity, and mannerism’ that the writer found ‘among the chief faults of that popular writer’. In Dickens’s many imitators, such as the author of Legends of Australia, however, these faults were not even balanced by Dickens’s ‘touches of acute discrimination, and profound feeling’. While certainly no Dickens, Lang did not deserve the heavy criticism meted out here, as other Sydney papers such as the Herald were quick to point out.
In a number of his later pieces, Lang used the story within a story device, allowing him to get closer to the yarning style that was later to be seen as specially characteristic of Australian writing. ‘Going to the Dogs’ opens in England, where a ‘Bronzed Man’ recounts some of his adventures with bushrangers, leading to a gruesome ending where one of them is killed by the settler’s dogs, so giving the title considerable black humour. There is also a nice variation on the popular theme of ‘Christmas Day in the Bush’. The historical interest of Lang’s work is, as Victor Crittenden notes, especially strong in his character sketch of ‘Bungaree, King of the Blacks’ and his detailed account of the perils of taking ‘A Trip through Torres Straits’ in a sailing ship. But all thirteen pieces are of value for the insights they offer into early colonial life and many still make for highly entertaining reading.