John Lang Australia’s Larrikin Writer. Barrister, Novelist, Journalist and Gentleman. Victor Crittenden.
Canberra, Mulini Press, 2005. 247pp. ISBN 978-0-9757232-3-5.
Available from Mulini Press, PO Box 82, Jamison Centre ACT 2614. $50.00
Victor Crittenden has long been engaged in the study of aspects of early European settlement in this country. He has written extensively on the First Fleet, the Teggs, nineteenth century periodicals and nineteenth century writers, as well as compiling and contributing to reference works.
This latest work, on John Lang, Australia’s larrikin writer, barrister, novelist, journalist and gentleman, is a sizeable contribution to nineteenth century studies. Lang, a not well known figure, could be this country’s first native-born novelist. Lang was born in Parramatta in 1816 and educated in Sydney. In 1837 he was sent to Cambridge, was rusticated for reasons that are unclear and after that read law at the Middle Temple and was admitted to the bar in 1841. Later in that same year he returned to Sydney with a wife and young child, intending to work at the Sydney bar. Because of depressed economic conditions he failed to find work and in 1842 he moved to India where his wife had connections. He practised law in Calcutta until moving to Meerut, a British military garrison town near Delhi, where he started to write and publish a periodical, The Mofussilite, from subscriptions to which he derived his main income. Between 1853 and 1859 Lang paid two extended visits to England. He finally returned to India in 1859 and died there in 1864, aged 47, having never returned to Australia, although in his later years he expressed an intention to do so.
Throughout his life, from the time he was a schoolboy, Lang wrote short stories, novels and poems. A great deal of this output was published anonymously or under a pseudonym. His work appeared, often in serialised form, in such periodicals as Household Words, Frazer’s Magazine and, of course, The Mofussilite. The Mofussilite was a well known and well regarded journal containing local Indian, British Indian and overseas news and advertisements. It had a strong literary content much of which wascontributed by Lang either anonymously, under a pseudonym, or using his own name. From these various periodical sources his writing was later republished in book form in London, India and Australia.
Lang’s fiction was set variously in Australia, in India and in England. His three works with Australian settings are Legends of Australia, in two of four projected parts, published in 1842 anonymously but thought to be by Lang, The Forger’s Wife, (1855) and Botany Bay or True Tales of Early Australia (1859), which is a fictionalised portrait of the Sydney in which Lang grew up. Legends of Australia and The Forger’s Wife would qualify Lang as having written the first novel and the first detective fiction by a native born writer. One of Lang’s short stories, “The ghost upon the rail,”
tells the familiar story of Fisher’s ghost. Lang’s fiction, particularly perhaps the Indian fiction, is a critical portrayal of the social mores of the time and reveals a good ear for dialogue especially the nuances expressed within the class system. His writing for the most part is light romance with comedic touches and is meant to entertain.
From minimal documented evidence Crittenden has been able to flesh out from Lang’s writing and other sources the story of much of his life including his time in England where he made the acquaintance of publishers and mixed in London literary circles and tried his hand at writing for the stage. He also gives a portrait of a self exiled Australian, living the life of a colonial gentleman in an Indian military town of exiled colonial Britons. The reasons for this quasi exile from home and country and family, his apparent comfortable settling in to the artificial life of a remote Indian
town, with forays to England, are a fruitful area for speculation in the absence of many facts. Crittenden draws the conclusion from Lang’s part-Jewish and part-convict forebears that the position of a gentleman that he desired would have been hard to achieve and sustain in the small, class conscious society of early Sydney. Making a successful life for himself in colonial India, where his Sydney background would have been largely irrelevant, might have been an easier option. Although Lang was intelligent, educated and industrious certain hints of rash and impetuous acts he had committed might have put him offside with eminent people in Sydney. Because much of the information to do with his activities and motivations is unknown,Lang’s life appears to be mysterious—for instance the apparent shedding of his wife and children who lived for many years in Italy while he lived a bachelor, man-about-town existence in India and London.
There is an entry for Lang in the Australian Dictionary of Biography but he is barely mentioned in the literary histories until the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, first published in 1985. None of his books is listed in the printed catalogue of the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney (1892) or in Foxcroft’s Australian Catalogue (1911). Eleven titles by Lang are listed in Morris Miller and Macartney (1911). Crittenden lists in his book 24 novels and serials by Lang, one or two of undecided attribution, and four books of poetry. Six of the titles were published by
Crittenden himself in recent years. This book is therefore a major filling in of a bibliograhical gap. Crittenden has done a great deal of detective work and performed a great service in untangling the threads of the complicated publication histories of Lang’s writings. The book contains a quite detailed tracing of these but the author also promises a fuller bibliography and we can look forward to the appearance of this in due course.