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2005-12, 348, Australiana, Literature, Victor Crittenden

THIRD TIME PROVES IT! John Lang’s First Novel

JOHN LANG the First Australian born novelist is in many ways a man of mystery. We know about his mother, also Australian born, but practically nothing about his father. We know little about his two wives and about his divorce. The lives of his children are still hidden. Some of his writings in India remain lost in the newspapers of that country. There is even a mystery about his death in India where he has become a legendary figure.

Lang was well known for his Botany Bay Tricks and he managed to obscure his Australian connections and pose as an English gentleman. He also managed to confuse present day Australians about many of his novels and stories. They were often published anonymously. This was just another of his Botany Bay Tricks although there were other reasons for hiding his authorship. He was a joker and no doubt laughed at what posterity would think of his activities.

I have been taken in by the hiding of his identity. In reading his known works and writing about him I became aware of some of his hidden stories. I have attempted to trick him into revealing what he wrote and when. In some cases he did leave clues for us to untangle. After all he was a man full of practical jokes and tricks. I have been tricked into claiming about his first novel as was the writer and researcher John Earnshaw.

In the 1958 issue of Biblionews John Earnshaw wrote an article about The Legends of Australia published in 1842 in Sydney. He claimed it was John Lang’s first novel making him the first Australian born novelist. Further evidence added to Earnshaw’s claim that the book was by John Lang. This book has now generally been accepted as written by John Lang. Some academics still hesitate to agree with the claim. They have their academic reputations to consider and it would be embarrassing if some other author were brought forth.

In the book published by the Book Collector’s Society of Australia to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary called Fellows of the Book published in 2000, I claimed an earlier work had been published in England which I claimed was John Lang’s first novel. It was actually a short novella called Raymond and it appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1840. John Lang later republished it in his Indian newspaper The Mofussilite and acknowledged his authorship. It was not published as a book until the Mulini Press published it in 2004.

I now have to make another claim for John Lang’s first book thus making three tries at determining what was actually Lang’s first novel. John Lang has certainly been up to more Botany Bay Tricks. I hesitate to make another claim in case an even earlier novel turns up. This is unlikely but you can never be certain with John Lang. I will stick my head out put forward a claim that we now know what was his first novel. Perhaps John’s spirit is laughing at me.

Violet the Danseuse. A Portraiture of Life and Human Passion was published in 1836 in England and went through numerous editions in the cities of London, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt Boston and Philadelphia between 1836 and 1856. It appeared anonymously and over the years there was some controversy as to who wrote Violet the Danseuse. It was a popular novel and received considerable critical acclaim in its time.

John Lang published Violet the Danseuse in 1848 in his Indian newspaper The Mofussilite, again anonymously. This was a time when all the serials published in The Mofussilite were written by Lang and published anonymously as was the general custom in the first half of the nineteenth century. When I first read the novel in the newspaper when I was checking through it for John Lang’s works I was immediately struck by its style and story. It was similar to John Lang’s other novels. I went in search of information about Violet. It was the British Library Catalogue that told me it was published in 1836 in London.

I immediately dismissed any thought that the novel was by John Lang. He was still living in Sydney, a nineteen year old boy recently a student at Sydney College under the headmastership of William Cape. How could an unknown boy from New South Wales manage to get a novel published in London? He had the year before published his translation of the first satire of Horace and had a school boy reputation of having some of his poems published in the Sydney press. Then I began to look at Tegg’s Magazine published in Sydney in 1836. One story Sergeant O’Connor had been attributed to Dr (John Dunmore) Lang by David Scott Mitchell in the copy in the Mitchell Library. Could this have been a mistake for the other John Lang?

Other stories in Tegg’s Magazine read like John Lang’s later stories. They were attributed to William Kerr. Further checks revealed that Kerr did not arrive in Sydney until the 1837s. So he could not have written the stories like that early version of ‘Fisher’s Ghost’, later made famous by John Lang’s version ‘The Ghost upon the Rail’ in his book Botany Bay. It was becoming more obvious that John Lang could have been the author of stories in Tegg’s Magazine.

I studied the novel Violet the Danseuse with Lang in mind and came to the conclusion that the hero of the story named D’ Arcy could have been based on William Charles Wentworth whose father was called D’ Arcy Wentworth. The novel had the hero seduce the young dancer and persuaded her to come and live with him. He as a gentleman could not marry her of course. Lang would have known that Wentworth had a young woman live with him at a house in Petersham next door to Lang’s mother’s property at Ashfield.

I gave a paper which I called ‘Chasing Violet’, using internal evidence claiming that the novel Violet the Danseuse was written by John Lang. I said that Lang could not claim the novel for fear of a libel action by Wentworth. He was in fact working as a clerk for Wentworth. This was just another of his Botany Bay Tricks but this one came unstuck. His novel was a runaway success and he could not claim it. He packed up and went off to England in 1837 to study.

I had still not proved that John Lang had written Violet the Danseuse. A controversy published in Notes and Queries in 1868 (four years after John Lang’s death) which listed the claims of a number of possible authors John Lang was included but the chief contender was Maryanne, Lady Mallet, the stepdaughter of Lord Brougham, a well known literary critic. Most writers assumed that she was the author but her descendants had nothing further to add to her claim.

I went on with unveiling other John Lang novels and stories in his newspaper. Then it was revealed to me that Violet the Danseuse was translated into French and published in Paris. This was an exciting find but it was even more exciting when the author wrote an introduction to the book. You can imagine my excitement at such a clue as to the identity of the author.

The introduction was written in French. I knew that Lang was fluent in French as well as a number of other languages. I stumbled through translating the introduction. My French is not very good but eventually by preserving I managed to get a reasonable translation.

John Lang did not say “I wrote Violet the Danseuse”. But the introduction listed a number of clues as to the identity of the author. First the author was male so disposing of Lady Mallet’s claim. Second the introduction indicated that the heroine, Violet, was the ‘lady of the five stars’. Another of Lang’s tricks with using the Southern Cross to indicate she was from Australia. This was followed by the statement that he was an advocate. (a Barrister in French). I hardly needed to go on. There was no doubt the author was John Lang. A further clue was his claim to be a compatriot of Sir Walter Scott. Lang’s father was from Glasgow.

That however wasn’t the end of the story. The introduction went on in typical John Lang joking way to give a description of himself. But this was another of his Botany Bay Tricks, in the description he gave the opposite characteristics to what he really looked like. Blonde hair, when his was black. Long legs when his were short. Shy of ladies, hardly a John Lang characteristic. Even in claiming his authorship to Violet the Danseuse he could not resist in playing one of his tricks again.

I had now proved that John Lang wrote his first novel and had it published in London in 1836. How on earth did he manage to get the manuscript to a London publisher?

My assumption on that matter was simply that it was James Tegg the publisher of Tegg’s Magazine. He probably sent it to his father Thomas Tegg the well known bookseller and publisher of popular works. He would have passed it on to a publisher of popular novels of the time. All hypothetical but possible. Someone else may have taken the novel to England for him, even the unlikely person of Dr John Dunmore Lang who had gone to England at the time. What another Botany Bay Trick that would be to confuse the issue.

So I rest my case, having first agreed that The Legends of Australia was Lang’s first novel. Now for the third time I claim the first novel for the Australian born novelist. In the event it also made John Lang the first Australian to write a best selling novel which he could never claim. All I need now is for John Lang to pull another novel out of his hat that preceded Violet the Danseuse.

I will not be surprised if that happens.

Victor Crittenden



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