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On Saturday 22 June 1878 the Sydney Mail announced a literary competition: a prize of one hundred pounds would be awarded to ‘the best original tale’ written for publication in its pages, with entries closing on 31 December 1878.noteThe altruistic desire to foster local literature may well have been a genuine element in this journalistic sponsorship of such a competition, but it was almost certainly not the only one. Founded in 1860 by John Fairfax, the Sydney Mail started life as an eight-page weekly publication aimed primarily at a country readership, offering, in effect, a summary of the news which appeared from Monday to Friday in the Sydney Morning Herald. Gavin Souter, in his history of the Herald, records that the Mail ‘was issued on Friday, in time for the weekly country mail coaches. It carried no illustrations, and made no attempt at typographical display, but by the end of the year its circulation was 5000’.note Within four years, that figure had risen to 10,000.note In January 1870, however, the Mail was directly challenged by the Fairfaxes' principal rival, Samuel Bennett, with the inauguration of his very successful weekly, the Town and Country Journal, whose thirty-two pages sold for sixpence.noteThe Journal soon became well known for its serial fiction. As RobinWalker reports, early in 1871 it serialised Henry Kingsley's The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn and later in the same year Dickens' Edwin Drood. note From its inception it provided a regular outlet for local writers and writing. On 4 March 1871 John Fairfax and Sons sought to counter the popularity of the Journal by increasing the price and size of the Sydney Mail to match those of the Journal, and by introducing woodcut illustrations.note

As late as 1878, the Mail's search for original Australian fiction may still have represented an attempt to match one of the chief successes of its main rival. It may also have been undertaken in anticipation of the great International Exhibition to be staged in Sydney in 1879, an event calculated to focus attention on every aspect of colonial cultural achievement. In sum, the motives underlying the Mail's gesture of literary patronage were probably as mixed as in most such gestures. In any event, the winner of the competition was announced on 8 March 1879 as N. Walter Swan, of Stawell in Victoria. In the same issue of the Mail there appeared the first of the twenty instalments of his winning tale — ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’, which was thereafter printed serially every Saturday until 19 July.

Swan carried off the first prize against some sixty to seventy other entrants.note After a preliminary assessment by an unidentified judge,note the final selection among three short-listed manuscripts was made by William Bede Dalley.noteThen at the zenith of his reputation and influence in the literary community, Dalley placed the seal of contemporary approval on Swan by his choice of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’ as the winner of a competition organised by the influential Fairfax press. In the light of this success, Swan's novel must be seen as speaking for and to the prevailing literary taste of the Australian colonies in the late 1870s. Such a view is confirmed by the stature of the writer Dalley placed second to Swan — Ada Cambridge. The author of a book of verse, The Manor House and Other Poems (1875), Cambridge was, by 1879, already well embarked on her career as a writer of serial novels. Most of her early newspaper fiction had appeared in the Melbourne weekly, the Australasian. note For the Sydney Mail she submitted, under her married name of Ada Cross, ‘The Captain's Charge’, which appeared in the columns of that paper immediately after the conclusion of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’.note

Only three other entries in the Mail competition have so far been positively identified. On 8 March 1879 the Mail's announcement named Clara Cheeseman's ‘Estranged for Life’ along with ‘The Captain's Charge’ as joint runners-up. In correspondence with Henry Kendall, G. G. McCrae resentfully revealed that he had submitted ‘Afloat and Ashore’,note while in her Autobiography (1910) Catherine Helen Spence records the following information:

I tried for a prize of £100 offered by The Sydney Mail with a novel called "Handfasted," but was not successful, for the judge feared that it was calculated to loosen the marriage tie — it was too socialistic, and consequently dangerous.note

Handfasted remained unpublished until 1984. The novel's editor, Helen Thomson, then noted in her Preface: ‘Its rejection . . . tells us something about Spence's radicalism relative to the prevailing mores governing fiction’.noteConversely, Luke Mivers' Harvest may be seen, in part, as illuminating the conventional attitudes which Handfasted had so offended in the persons of the Mail's judges. At the same time, it exhibits both a professionalism and an imaginative force which provide a much stronger warrant for its success.

In spite of the Mail's strict requirements for the anonymity of entrants, it is hardly to be expected that the winner of a literary competition sponsored by a major newspaper organization and judged by a leading figure of the literary establishment would be a complete tyro in the craft of writing. In fact, by 1879 Swan was a well-established journalist, the editor, indeed, of the Pleasant Creek News; for over a decade he had been submitting topical articles and works of fiction to a wide range of newspapers and journals not only in the Australian colonies but also overseas.note His success in the Sydney Mail competition was the capstone of a career as a wordsmith which, extending over something like a quarter of a century, has until this edition of Luke Mivers' Harvest, been largely undocumented and unappraised.

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