Swan's Writings

In August 1872 Swan returned to Ararat, where he resumed duties as editor of the Advertiser, retaining that post until June 1877, when he went back to Stawell for the second and last time, now as part-proprietor and editor of the Stawell Chronicle, which soon amalgamated with the Pleasant Creek News.note The reason for this Ararat interlude remains conjectural; it may have been caused by some sense of responsibility to his wife's family, the O'Briens, or perhaps by a plea from his first mentor in colonial journalism, Jabez Banfield, or simply the prospect of a higher salary.note In any event, it was during that interlude that he published his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Tales of Australian Life, brought out in 1875 by Chapman and Hall of London. That firm had been founded in 1830, and numbered among its authors Carlyle, Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, and, perhaps most notably of all, Charles Dickens.note At the time when Swan would have submitted his manuscript, the publishing house retained as its literary adviser and reader one of the leading English novelists of the day — George Meredith. Meredith had been appointed to the position in the autumn of 1860 and held it until 1894. ‘During those years’, according to Siegfried Sassoon, ‘he read almost all the manuscripts sent in to the firm’.note There is a distinct possibility, then, that Tales of Australian Life was accepted by Chapman and Hall on Meredith's recommendation.

By 1875, the year he sent his manuscript to London, Swan had placed a good deal of his prose in the colonial press. In addition to the news and editorial columns he wrote for his own papers, he had branched out into social commentary, current affairs, and, of course, short stories. Some of the earliest of what is almost certainly Swan's work in the genre of topical comment was printed in the Pleasant Creek News in a column entitled ‘Rounders’ and over the nom de plume of ‘Bat’.

‘Bat's’ first column appeared on 29 April 1869, almost immediately, that is to say, after Swan was established in his editor's chair. After some self-introduction, ‘Bat’ moved on to his familiar theme of the merit of combining local philanthropy with local theatricals. In later columns ‘Bat’ dealt with a range of local issues, but they were by no means the extent of his interest. On 6 August 1870, for instance, he turned to his own profession, ‘Editing’, as a topic. Adopting the fiction that he had only once had occasion to edit a newspaper, he glanced at the trivial events it fell to him to report, and concluded:

This was the first and last day of my experience in editing a paper. I never could see any pull in it afterwards, except getting to dinners on the cheap, where it invariably happens that the tables do groan, and that there is very ample justice done to the good things provided.note

A little over twelve months later, Swan's friend Marcus Clarke included a not very thinly veiled portrait of the editor of the Pleasant Creek News in his description of Quartzborough (or Grumbler's Gully) in his ‘A Mining Township’, printed in that paper on 5 November 1870:

Daw, the editor . . . is a capital amateur actor, and a smart journalist. His leaders can be good if he likes to put his heart into his work, and every now and then a quaint original sketch or pathetic story gives Grumbler's Gully a fillip. Daw writes about four columns a day, and is paid £250 a year. His friends say he ought to be in Melbourne, but he is afraid to give up a certainty, so he stays, editing his paper and narrowing his mind, yearning for some intellectual intercourse with his fellow-creatures.note

Swan must have had some gift for self-mockery to print this satirical account of himself and his situation. The lack of intellectual stimulation, however, would have been real enough, and Swan tried to meet it not only by topical comment in the guise of ‘Bat’, but increasingly by the composition of those sketches and stories to which Clarke refers. What seems to have been among his first fictional contributions to the Pleasant Creek News was in the issue for 20 September 1870, under the title of ‘The Sticking-Up of Brung Brung: An Incident in the Life of Morgan’.note Signed by ‘Bat’, the piece is an imaginary episode in the career of the notorious bushranger who operated in northern Victoria and southern New South Wales in the early and middle 1860s. Melodramatic in execution, it exploits some stereotyped versions of various colonial characters — the brutal bushranger, the lithely sinister half-caste, the brave settler. Nevertheless, it does evince Swan's interest in an era which, already receding into the past, was beginning to be perceived as providing material for the historical and literary imagination.

In 1871 Swan published what was, up to that time, his most ambitious fictional narrative. Appearing in the Pleasant Creek News and unsigned, ‘Under the Wattles’ is recognisably his work, incorporating, as it does, most of ‘The Sticking-Up of Brung-Brung’. Printed in eight weekly instalments (each Saturday from 6 May to 24 June), it is Swan's first known attempt at serial fiction. He must have been sufficiently pleased by his success in the form to try his hand at it again, for in 1874-75 the Australasian carried three of his tales — ‘Lost Eddy Hamilton’, ‘Scroofer and Others’, and ‘Marie Denton’ — all in serial form and over his signature.note

By 1875, that is to say, Swan was well enough versed in popular short fiction to send the manuscript of Tales of Australian Life to Chapman and Hall in London. It was accepted and, in book form, ran to 369 pages, its table of contents listing five stories: ‘Marie Denton’, ‘Ikedell Gold’, ‘D.T.’, ‘Lost Eddy Hamilton’, and ‘Two Days at Michaelmas’. Of these, three had appeared in the Australasian between August 1873 and February 1875 (the year of the book's publication in London).note The form of the other two suggests that they also may have been given serial publication before being collected in Tales of Australian Life. note All of them are, of one sort or another, romantic melodramas.

Each of the five tales presents something of individual interest. ‘Two Days at Michaelmas’, for instance, set in the Warrego district of Queensland, takes as its subject hostilities between white settlers and native tribesmen, with casualties being suffered on both sides. Although he does not develop them as he would in later work, Swan at least shows himself aware of the issues of right and wrong, guilt and justice, latent in the action. ‘Lost Eddy Hamilton’ is one of Swan's contributions to what we can now see as an obsessive theme in Australia's colonial culture — that of the lost child. In ‘Lost Eddy Hamilton’ the theme is intertwined with those of young love, a family feud, a gold rush, and all are merged in those of revenge and kidnapping. Eddy, the lost child, is returned safe and well to his home, but only after spending two years in the care of the deserted wife of a man who bears a grudge against the boy's father. The story exhibits Swan's characteristic combination of class awareness, piety, romance, and quite detailed observation of colonial habits and customs.

‘Ikedell Gold’ and ‘D.T.’ both offer adventure and excitement from the gold rush days. ‘D.T.’ takes as its setting Yandoit Gully, which had served as the location of one of Swan's earliest tales — ‘Cooee’, printed in the Hamilton Spectator in October 1861. Like so much of his fiction, it deals in disguises, discoveries, suffering and revenge. For its hero, Fenton the ‘hatter’, patience and virtue are in the end rewarded by translation back to England, and an aristocratic inheritance: 'Fenton-grange and the old green meadows'.note ‘Ikedell Gold’, also revealing Swan's fascination with the corruptive power of the search for gold, focuses on the physical impairment of one of its central figures in a way that prefigures the treatment of Shorter in Luke Mivers' Harvest.

Easily the longest of the narratives in Tales of Australian Life is ‘Marie Denton’, which occupies over two hundred pages of text. Developed through nineteen chapters, the story has all the elements that Swan characteristically employed in his fiction — sentimental romance (long thwarted by deliberate or unconscious intervention), episodes of high excitement, instances of moral apathy or corruption, a ranging of behaviour into two clear camps of virtue and vice. What its length most clearly encourages Swan to accomplish is the satirical observation of the provincial community of 3,000 which is the social centre of the action. The inhabitants of Commerflit are subjected, severally and collectively, to a closely observed and witty critique of a kind which Swan had not previously essayed, but would again in Luke Mivers' Harvest.

Virtually all of Swan's fictional writing up to the publication of Tales of Australian Life can be seen as a rehearsal for Luke Mivers' Harvest. Much of his fiction of the decade leading up to that work, furthermore, had been specifically written for serial publication in newspapers. The man who submitted the winning manuscript to the scrutiny of William Bede Dalley and his fellow judge was thoroughly acquainted with the demands and possibilities of publishing stories in weekly instalments in the popular press.

Swan's success in 1879, in other words, would have been generally regarded as the deserved triumph of a journalist and teller of tales who had worked long and hard to win the recognition that was now his. Just how hard Swan (like so many nineteenth century writers) was prepared to work is attested by the remarkably short space of time within which he completed his winning manuscript. The first announcement of the Mail's competition was made on 22 June 1878; the deadline set for the receipt of entries was 31 December of the same year. On the assumption that he wrote ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’ in direct response to the Mail's announcement, Swan was able to complete a forty-four chapter novel within six months, at the same time as he was editing a provincial newspaper for which, as Marcus Clarke's portrait indicates, he personally wrote at least four columns a day. The pressure of such professional labours, together with responsibility for a young and growing family, contributed, in all likelihood, to Swan's untimely death in his fiftieth year. In 1879, however, he tasted success, and the reputation and respect that success brought in its train.