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General Introduction

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.

Swan's Life

Nathaniel Walter Swan was born in 1834 in the city of Monaghan, in the Irish county of the same name.note His birthplace, with a history stretching back to the sixth century A.D.,note had, during Swan's boyhood, a population of a little over 4,000. Set in the midst of an agricultural district, Monaghan also supported a brewery and a linen manufacturing industry.note With this latter Swan's family seems to have had some association. Certainly, Nathaniel's father appears in some of the official records of the colony of Victoria as both ‘Gentleman’ and ‘Linen Manufacturer’.note The family was also connected by marriage with the printing and newspaper industries. Indeed, in 1872 William Swan, a relative of Nathaniel (probably his brother) became proprietor of the Northern Standard, founded in 1839 by Arthur Wellington Holmes, and Monaghan's only newspaper.note

Nathaniel's first steps in formal education were taken in Monaghan, at a classical academy conducted by a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John Bleckley,note the same academy which a generation earlier had been attended by Charles Gavan Duffy. Duffy, according to his autobiography, was at that time the only Catholic boy among the fifty or so sons of ‘the small gentry and professional men of two or three neighbouring counties, and . . . of the principal townspeople’.note 'Mr. Bleckley', Duffy recalled, ‘was a careful and assiduous teacher’.note Swan left no such direct testimonial to his mentor, but he did name his only son Walter Blakely Swan. With no Blakely anywhere to be found among his antecedents, it may be that this was the writer-journalist's oblique tribute to his earliest guide to literary appreciation and composition.

After Dr Bleckley's academy, the course of Swan's education is lost in obscurity. On his death in 1884, an obituarist confidently asserted that he had attended the University of Glasgow.note The University's archives, however, yield no N. W. Swan among its matriculants between 1850 and 1854. Equally, it is impossible to verify an alternative suggestion that Swan was enrolled at Belfast's Royal Academical Institution,note because there is a substantial gap in the Institution's records in the very years when such an enrolment would have been registered.note The next stage in Swan's life that can be established with any confidence is his migration to the colony of Victoria in 1854,note the year he turned twenty. He was, it would appear, among the thousands of Britons who responded in the 1850s to the lure of gold:

On landing on these shores the gold fever burned strongly in his veins, and he at once turned his face and bent his steps towards the diggings . . . . he looked on his University training as useless, and regarded the days spent there as so much time wasted and gone for ever, unlikely ever to pay him interest.note

Whether the young Swan left home and family out of sheer lust for adventure or exasperation with book learning, through financial stringency or as a result of that general impoverishment of the nation which drove so many thousands of the Irish from their native land in the mid-nineteenth century, must remain a matter of conjecture. All that can be said is that he seems never to have shown any desire to return to Ireland, leaving only one public expression of nostalgia for the scenes of his childhood and youth. Responding to a toast at a dinner offered him by his friends and colleagues at Ararat on 20 April 1869, on the occasion of his departure for Stawell, he said in passing, ‘when, years ago, he left his home, the tokens of affection given him by his brothers and sisters were highly valued by him’.note

Ararat had not been his immediate goal upon his arrival in the colony. One source indicates that he had travelled straight to the Buckland rush in north-east Victoria, which had been attracting large numbers of diggers since 1852.note Other sources (including his own journalism) suggest that he tried his luck at a number of other fields, including Ballarat, Sandhurst (now Bendigo) and the Jim Crow rush, near what is now the town of Daylesford, and probably others.note He also appears to have turned his hand to several other occupations — working on a pastoral station, running, for a short time, his own flock, and speculating in fruit and salt-fish in partnership with a compatriot, Joseph Henry Dunne.note

If there was any direction to the drift of Swan's life during his first years in Victoria it was from the north-east of the colony to the south-west. In pursuing such a path, he was, partly at least, following the general flow of the great Victorian gold rushes of the l850s. There may, however, have been a more personal reason that, driving him from the Buckland to Bendigo to Daylesford, brought him by 1861 to Ararat. On 28 December 1858 the Reverend Samuel Kelso, with his wife, child, and servant, landed in Melbourne, and on Sunday, 6 March of the following year was inducted into the Presbyterian pulpit at Portland, on Victoria's western coast.note

Kelso, the son of a farmer, was born in 1828, at Ballybaynote — only a few miles from Monaghan. After an early education at an infant school near his home and at an adjoining National School, he learnt Latin, Greek and Mathematics at small private academies in Stewartstown and Sandhole.note He began his College course in 1845 in a building next to the Belfast Academical Institution. In May 1854 he was licensed to preach in the Presbytery of Tyrone within the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. In 1858 he married Jane Elizabeth Swan, sister of Nathaniel, was chosen by the Board of Mission Directors for work in Victoria, and set sail in the ‘Royal Charter’ for his new life in the colonies .

Gold fever and missionary zeal may seem widely disparate reasons for migrating. Yet the brothers-in-law Nathaniel Swan and Samuel Kelso are probably links in that ‘process of chain migration’note by which one member of an Irish family would follow another to Australia as the firstcomer sent news of his colonial experience back home. Kelso also played a significant role in a more specialised pattern of Irish migration to Victoria in the l850s. In 1843 the Presbyterian Church in Scotland had been rent by schism, with the direct consequence that the flow of Scottish Presbyterian ministers to the Australian colonies dwindled alarmingly, at exactly the moment when the Presbyterian congregrations in those colonies were beginning a period of rapid growth. Their need for trained and licensed Presbyterian ministers was met, especially in Victoria, largely from Northern Ireland, so that by 1859 ‘The Synod of Victoria had as many men of Irish Presbyterian extraction as those from Scotland’.note

It was not to a united Presbyterian community that Kelso was introduced when he landed in Port Melbourne in late 1858. The colonial church was experiencing the same kind of fragmentation as the parent body in Scotland, being split into three contending groups. Kelso was to play his part in the unification of Victoria's Presbyterians (which was accomplished in 1859), and remained a prominent member of their clergy until his death in 1902.note In 1859, however, newly established in Portland with his wife and family, he may well have acted as a lodestone to his brother-in-law, still aimlessly and unsuccessfully wandering from one rush to the next, from one occupation to another. While some of the settings of Luke Mivers' Harvest point to Swan's acquaintance with Portland, it is not known when he first saw the seaside town. If he was drawn to the south-west of his adopted colony by the arrival of his brother-in-law, it was at the inland town of Ararat that he came to rest. On 23 December 1861note he was appointed editor of the Ararat Advertiser.

By the early 1860s the first hectic rushes had passed Ararat by, and the town was acquiring the trappings and institutions of permanent settlement: a Mechanics' Institute had been established in September 1859, a fire brigade in February 1860.note Most significantly for Swan, the first issue of the Ararat Advertiser had appeared on 1 August 1857. In the heyday of the rushes of the 1850s, newspapers sprang up, grew, and died like mushrooms as editors, printers and journalists moved themselves and their presses from one centre to the next. One among the itinerant printers was Jabez Banfield, born in Chatham, Kent, on 16 August 1820. Banfield had migrated to Victoria with a friend and fellow printer, James Gearing, in 1852. Failing in their search for gold, the two men went to work at their old trade, on the Melbourne Argus. In 1855 Gearing travelled to Maryborough with a printing press to produce an advertising sheet. He was soon joined by Banfield, who in September 1856 took charge of the Dunnolly Advertiser. Moving on again, Banfield produced the first issue of the Mount Ararat Advertiser on 1 August of the following year in a tent set up between the police tents and the Bank of New South Wales. By March 1861 he was in a position to buy, for one thousand pounds, the paper, its presses, type, and other machinery from the estate of the recently deceased owner. At the end of the same year he offered the editorship of his paper to Nathaniel Swan.note

Swan would have brought to the position memories (perhaps even experience) of both printing and the production of a regional newspaper. Whatever the extent of his initial acquaintance with newspaper editing, he seems to have made a success of the task. He stayed at the Ararat Advertiser for over seven years, leaving only to go to a better position. During his time with the Advertiser, his life as well as his career blossomed. Taking his cue from his employer, he absorbed himself in the activities of his community. Jabez Banfield had a highly developed sense of civic pride and responsibility, and used his proprietorship of the Advertiser to advance the town's physical amenities and cultural welfare in every way he could. Through his paper, for instance, he gave useful support to local institutions such as the hospital; in 1862 he became president of the Mechanics' Institute, which he had helped to found in 1859; in 1873 he became a lay preacher, preaching regularly thereafter in the Anglican church.note

Swan sought to emulate Banfield's altruism. Like Banfield, he constantly strove to translate what seems to have been genuine religious piety into acts of practical goodwill. In 1867, thus, he was elected to the Ararat School Committeenote (State School 800 had been established in the town two years earlier). In 1865, too, and seemingly at Swan's urging, the Advertiser had begun its sponsorship of the annual Ararat Easter Festival,note the profits of the carnival being donated to the local asylum (another institution supported by the paper since 1863).note The Advertiser's issue for 4 April l866 provides a long and detailed account of that year's fair, a curious attempt to reproduce quasi-mediaeval English customs in nineteenth century colonial Australia. Among the varied and day-long activities are chronicled the activities of four young men, ‘Messrs Murray, Campbell, Grano, and Swan’, who plainly devoted themselves heart and soul to their task of raising funds for charity.note

Under the guise of ‘the three beggars’, Swan and two friendsnote were frequent performers for charitable causes in both the town and outlying districts. Semi-theatrical as the efforts of the ‘three beggars’ must have been, it is not surprising that Swan was an enthusiastic participant in the more formal entertainments of the local amateur dramatic society, usually providing the low-comedy relief. Perhaps acting helped him to overcome an innate shyness, for one obituary recorded that he suffered throughout his life from a stammer:

It is a singular fact that both Mr. Swan and the late Mr. J. W. Gutierrez, both Stawell pressmen, were afflicted with the infirmity of stammering in ordinary conversation; yet in amateur theatricals, in which both excelled, not a trace of that distressing drawback could be discovered.note

If shyness were indeed a pervasive feature of Swan's constitution, it must have been largely alleviated by the most important event in his personal life during his Ararat years. On 24 November 1863 he married Mary Ellen O'Brien at Ararat, in the Roman Catholic church.note Born in 1845, Swan's bride was some years his junior.note

The O'Briens came from the south of Ireland, both Mary Ellen and her elder sister Bridget having been born in County Tipperary. The family migrated to Victoria some time in the middle 1850s and a decade later were well established in Ararat, the father, Daniel, being the owner and landlord of the Freemasons Hotel.note The marriage between Protestant Nathaniel Swan and Catholic Mary Ellen O'Brien was a happy one, producing five children, a son and four daughters, all of whom were brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. Swan himself was buried in the O'Brien family plot in the Catholic section of the Ararat Cemetery; his funeral service, however, was conducted by his brother-in-law Samuel Kelso, according to the Presbyterian rite.note

At the same time as Swan was discovering personal happiness in marriage, he was also developing his skills as a writer. One contemporary source suggests that the idea of writing fiction was put into his head by a chance meeting with Henry Kingsley as the future author of The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn travelled down from the country on his way back to England. The anonymous editor of Swan's A Couple of Cups Ago (see below, p. xliii) records the encounter:

They journeyed together, and to these few days, to those spent in Melbourne, and to Kingsley's subsequent sailing, is attached another of Swan's reminiscences . . . So it was about this time, influenced doubtless by the meeting and subsequent conversations with Kingsley, as well as by his own innate teachings that such life and such scenes did not suit him, that he turned his attention to the pen.note

If it ever did occur, this episode would have taken place in 1858, as Kingsley took the coach from ‘Langi Willi’, the station where he had been staying, to Melbourne.note Where exactly Swan was in 1858, and what he was doing, is not known.

In any case, Swan's acquaintance with the world of colonial letters extended well beyond a putative encounter with Henry Kingsley. During the 1860s, for instance, Marcus Clarke worked at ‘Swinton’ and ‘Ledcourt’, pastoral properties near Glenorchy in the Ararat district. He is said, also, to have worked as a reporter on the Ararat Advertiser and to have visited his uncle, Judge Clarke, in whose home he wrote some of His Natural Life. The proximity of the two writers resulted in a genuine and lasting friendship,note attested by the inscribed copy of Up the Country Clarke sent Swan on its publication in 1871.note The real warmth of affection between the two men is most tellingly witnessed by a letter that Swan wrote to J. J. Shillinglaw in 1881, on the occasion of Clarke's death:

My dear Shillinglaw,

I would have written to you before this about the death of Marcus but what was the use? From the time I learned it until now he has occupied all my thoughts. I can not tell you how keen my regret is. I do feel some feeling akin to desolation. I am only beginning to find out how much I loved him "liked" is not the word. His brilliance & [promise are gone from us] & with the exception of yourself who is there to talk to when a fellow goes to Melbourne.

My reporter was away for his holidays when I learned the news else nothing could have kept me from being at the funeral. I am scarcely sufficiently known to Mrs Clarke to write to her but you will tell her from me how sincere is my grief. Nothing has occurred in my life during the last 15 years that I so anguish sorrow over. I knew/know how you will feel it. We have one comfort:— In the great majority will be Marcus. For I believe in a life hereafter. I was so glad to see you were one of the pall bearers. He had [h]is faults. I never could see them. I preferred to admire him.note

Swan's words not only convey genuine grief at the loss of an old friend, but also demonstrate his absorption in the life of a provincial newspaper editor. Through friends like Marcus Clarke and Shillinglaw, and through at least occasional attendance at the Yorick Clubnote he must have had wide acquaintance with the literary life of Melbourne, and, as his letter clearly implies, a visit to the capital cannot have been too rare an occurrence. Yet he never felt the pull of metropolitan culture strongly enough to desert the Western Districts. The role of provincial editor evidently fitted him like a glove; he discovered the closeness of the fit in the years between 1861 and 1869 when he first worked for Jabez Banfield and his Ararat Advertiser.

As well as a deeply ingrained sense of civic pride and a genuine religious piety, Banfield also had a markedly histrionic side to his personality. As early as 1860 ‘he was reported as having been the speaker at a dinner, of giving a Dickens reading at the Mechanics' Institute and of acting in scenes from Shakespeare's Hamlet’.note As Swan's stories clearly show, the novelist shared his employer's love for both Shakespeare and Dickens, the latter in particular being a powerful influence on his own fiction. The admiration of both men for England's greatest living novelist must have been reinforced by the presence on the Advertiser staff, for a brief time, of Henry Jerrold, brother of Douglas Jerrold, the English dramatist, humorist, and contributor to the London Punch. Henry (probably with some exaggeration) claimed friendship with Dickens; he certainly instilled a fervent admiration for him among his press colleagues in Ararat.note

With his childhood background of printer's ink and journalism, his serious approach to public life, and his temperamental compatibility with his employer, by the middle 1860s Swan was thoroughly established as the successful editor of a regional newspaper. He had arrived at that stage in his career when he could begin to pass on his skills, experience, and wisdom to a younger generation. Among the trainee journalists of Ararat who benefited from Swan's tutelage were Jabez Banfield's sons, Harry and Edward. Harry, the elder, went on to assume increasing responsibility for the running of the Advertiser.note Ted, an introspective youth, severely injured his right eye in a bicycle accident, and partly as the result of this misfortune, in his early twenties became increasingly withdrawn in personality. By 1882 he was ready to turn his back on Ararat and family, to journey northwards to Townsville, Dunk Island, and fame as the author of such works as Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908) and My Tropic Isle (1911). There is no evidence that Swan's early wanderings ever took him out of Victoria. Nevertheless, a significant strand of the plot of Luke Mivers' Harvest, together with episodes from other tales, is set in Far North Queensland. It is tempting to speculate that Swan's interest in the regional colour of North Queensland may have influenced ‘the Beachcomber’ to go in search of more direct experience of its pleasures.

By the end of his first decade in Ararat, Swan was established as a leading citizen, respected newsman, husband, father of a young family, and the owner (it seems possible) of some financial interest in the town's leading industry — deep-shaft gold mining.note It was with real regret, then, that early in 1869 his wide circle of acquaintance learned of his imminent move to nearby Stawell, whose prosperity was now beginning to surpass that of a declining Ararat. The reasons for Swan's decision must have included those which commonly weigh heavily in such situations: larger financial rewards, brighter prospects for the future, greater security for one's dependents.

In Swan's case, to these considerations was almost certainly added the chance of closer contact with his Irish relatives than at any time since he had left Monaghan fifteen years earlier. Since taking up his duties in Portland, Samuel Kelso had been making his mark in the Presbyterian Church in Victoria. Indefatigable in his pastoral duties, he soon established a reputation for eloquence in preaching and for support of robust church music. In November of 1863 he was elected Moderator of Victoria.note So well regarded a figure could hardly be expected to remain in Portland throughout his career. Late in 1868 Kelso accepted a call from the Presbyterian congregation at Stawell, taking up his new position in January 1869.

Swan must have been warmed by the prospect of a reunion with his sister and brother-in-law. Yet hopeful anticipation was mixed with regret in the speech he made at the farewell dinner organised for him at the Court House Hotel, Ararat, on Tuesday evening, 20 April 1869. After many toasts and songs, Swan's speech in reply ‘was greeted with immense cheering’. He spoke of his great affection for Ararat and its citizens, vowed that he would value the presentation watch and chain ‘as his dearest treasure’ and concluded by declaring that ‘On leaving for another sphere of usefulness, he need scarcely say that all knew he would endeavour to do his very best for Pleasant Creek’.note

Pleasant Creek, the settlement which would develop into Stawell, had a history very similar to that of Ararat. The earliest European expansion into Victoria's western plains had taken the form of large pastoral holdings as sheep owners spread their flocks out over newly opened land. By 1850 the Wimmera District, though still only sparsely populated by white settlers, included some large, rich, and well stocked runs. Among the wealthiest and most influential of the Wimmera pastoralists were the Wilson brothers, whose origins were in Ulster — not far from Swan's native city of Monaghan.note The youngest of them, Samuel, arrived in the colony in 1852 at the age of twenty. In time his career, along with that of his brother Alexander, would intersect with Swan's.

In the middle 1850s the pastoral development of the region surrounding Stawell and Ararat was interrupted by the discovery of gold. Many rushes followed in both districts through the latter years of the decade.note At one stage there were reported to be 20,000 men on the Pleasant Creek diggings, but by 1869, when Swan moved to Stawell, that number had dwindled to a handful, and the area had become largely dependent on deep-shaft mining for its survival.

As so often happened on the Victorian goldfields, in the wake of the rushes came a local press. Stawell's first newspaper, the Pleasant Creek Times, enjoyed a brief existence in 1858 under the editorship of a printer called Stott. The Times was followed by the Pleasant Creek Chronicle. In direct opposition to the Chronicle, the Pleasant Creek News was established on 21 July 1868, under the proprietorship of Maynard Ord, previously the Pleasant Creek correspondent for Banfield's Ararat Advertiser. It was as Ord's editor that Swan moved to Stawell in the following year.note Taking up residence in Main Street, he soon found ways of assimilating himself into the Stawell community, just as he had in Ararat. Before long, thus, the News carried a story under the heading, ‘The Amateurs’, which gave a critique of an entertainment offered by ‘our newly-organized amateur corps’. ‘Gallery Boy’ was able to report a full house and takings of some forty pounds. Among the roles in the farce which supported the main offering, ‘The Tittims of Mr Swan was one of the best bits of low comedy I have seen for many years’.note Another important way in which Swan was able to contribute to the communal life of his new home was in the organisation of the Pleasant Creek Annual Fair, first held on 27 and 28 December 1869. A prime mover in this event (as he had been at Ararat), Swan was also the first secretary of the Fair Society.

As if coincident with Swan's arrival, 1869 saw the formal separation of the borough of Stawell from the shire — the division was gazetted on November 10.note Apart from one five-year period (1872-77) when he returned to Ararat, for the rest of his life Swan devoted himself wholeheartedly to the advancement and well-being of the community his newspaper served. During 1869, for instance, the Wimmera District Pastoral and Agricultural Society was formed, with Samuel Wilson as its first president and Nathaniel Swan its first secretary.note By this time Wilson was an immensely wealthy and influential figure in the colony of Victoria. L. J. Blake records that ‘Governor Sir George Bowen, in recommending him for a baronetcy in 1874, estimated Wilson's average annual income as almost £100,000, stated that he owned 600,000 sheep, possibly more than anyone else in the world, and described his position and style of living as similar to an "opulent country gentleman" in England’.note

In allying himself with so affluent an individual as well as with the Pastoral and Agricultural Society, Swan was quite plainly declaring his own social and political conservatism, a personal commitment he was prepared on several occasions to defend in the local press. On 19 August 1871 he wrote as a private citizen to the Pleasant Creek News about what he averred was the misreporting by the Chronicle of a speech he had made in connection with the disappointing range of entries for the Agricultural Society's Annual Show. Putting this phenomenon down to animosity between squatters and small selectors, Swan commented:

Class differences do exist, and will, I am inclined to think, exist for all time; but, granting that there is a direct antagonism between the squatter and the farmer, an assumption which I do not think is correct, honorable opponents could surely meet in friendly rivalry at a truce such as the show proclaims. The soldiers of opposing armies have shaken hands, and made merry together in the pauses of warfare before now; why not the class strugglers representing the two industries?note

Swan's somewhat naive hope that the two groups might be persuaded to come together for the common good cannot hide his own alignment with the pastoralists, an alignment clearly expressed in the dedication of his Tales of Australian Life (for which, see below) to the wife of Alexander Wilson, Samuel's older brother: ‘In Memory of The Sunny Days Spent at VECTIS [one of Alexander's properties] by THE AUTHOR’.note Whether Swan's dedication reveals real intimacy with the land-owning classes so much as a desire for it remains open to question. Yet there can be no mistaking the general temper of Swan's social and cultural values. He endorsed the idea of an established ruling class not for its wealth and power but for its capacity to rule the populace with enlightened altruism. His dislike of the nouveaux riches is unmistakeable in the surviving (but undated) fragment of a letter he wrote to Henry Kendall. His contempt for the type is distilled into a single emphasised word in his description of an unidentified acquaintance: ‘I was out driving with him in his bloated carriage & pair’.note

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.

Luke Mivers' Harvest

Luke Mivers' Harvest is a tightly constructed work of fiction — its symmetry and design so elaborately calculated, indeed, as to risk the appearance of artifice. Swan certainly knew how to take full advantage of the story's original publication in twenty weekly instalments: the episodes regularly conclude at moments of high suspense or powerful emotion, the chief settings provide variety and regional interest, the interplay of characters moves steadily towards a grand climactic dénouement. Yet the work also displays structural elements not to be accounted for by the circumstances in which it originally appeared.

Basically, Swan's novel is one of revenge veering towards a tragic ending, from which it is saved by the redeeming power of romantic love. The revenge motif (deeply important to Swan) is here worked out in the intersecting fortunes of three families and two generations. The mutual but covert hatred of two strong-willed men is projected down the years onto the lives of their children, who finally, but not without their share of tragedy, break free of the control of their fathers. While the reciprocal love of a young man and a young woman ultimately steers the action towards a buoyant conclusion, along the way the plot is forced into many complications by the active intervention of Swan's version of the doppelgänger theme. The warped, vengeful Shorter is arguably the dark alter ego of Luke Mivers snr, against whom all his hatred is directed. Margaret Shorter and Helen Mivers may be read as the obverse and reverse sides of the same nineteenth century (male) notion of female sexuality — the one a destroyer of masculine pride and integrity, the other an idealised figure to be won only after being tested in the fires of self-control and self-sacrifice. Most explicitly of all, Luke Mivers jnr and Bryan Fitzgerald, their physical similarities stressed at several key points in the action,note are shown in the plot's resolution to be indeed half-brothers.

The presence of this doppelgänger imagery facilitates Swan's demonstration of one of the chief moral themes of Luke Mivers' Harvest — that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. The revenge motif is driven towards its culmination by two further ideas, both personally dear to Swan and endemic in late nineteenth century English culture. In that age of rampant money grubbing, the morality so clearly voiced in the novel's implicit motto — ‘Money is the root of all evil’ — had a specially pointed appeal and application. It was a morality which Swan plainly endeavoured to follow in his own life and to adduce in his judgment of others. He applied it directly to the characters of his most important work of fiction. At the same time, among the deepest of its motivating emotions was (again a psychological phenomenon dear to the nineteenth century) an idealised mother love. That Swan was born of Irish parents and, through his marriage, acquired a particular need to win the approval of a Catholic family may well be germane here. In any case, Luke Mivers' Harvest, in its portrayal of Mrs Fitzgerald and her son Bryan, is unequivocal in its endorsement of the absolute love and loyalty to be commanded by an Irish mother of her son. In the case of the ex-convict Wolf Brown, that endorsement is extended even to fidelity to a surrogate mother.

The primal source, however, of Swan's fascination with feelings of love and hate too strong to bend before compassion or circumstance was probably rooted in the popular traditions of the Northern Ireland where he grew up. A recollection of those traditions by Charles Gavan Duffy in his My Life in Two Hemispheres delineates the cultural environment that the young Swan would have experienced:

The Presbyterian planters from whom my schoolfellows were descended preserved to an amazing degree the characteristics of their Scottish ancestors. They were thrifty, industrious, and parsimonious, and sometimes spoke a language worthy of Dumfriesshire . . . The few books which circulated among them were steeped in the bitterness of hereditary feuds. I remember being horror-struck by a copy of "Fox's Book of Martyrs," with illustrations fit to poison the spirit of a community for a century. Men reared for the liberal professions might in time outlive these prejudices, but with the poor and ignorant time only deepens them.note

Whatever the psychological origins of Luke Mivers' Harvest, there can be no doubt that its principal settings represent versions of some of the scenes and places with which Swan had become familiar in his nearly twenty years of colonial experience. The township of Narrgummie, for instance, bears some resemblance to Chiltern in that north-eastern area of Victoria which had been his goal after first reaching Melbourne.note The combination of pastoral savannah and rugged mountains in the vicinity of Narrgummie could have been suggested by the landscapes of the Ararat-Stawell district and westward to the Grampians; the rolling hills and valleys surrounding Dead Man's Gully may have been derived from memories of the region around Beechworth and the Buckland where Swan had panned for gold. The health-giving springs of Mindorf recall Daylesford and Hepburn Spa (close to the site of the Jim Crow rush in which Swan probably took part), while the maritime terraces and ocean frontages of that imaginary health resort conjure up images of the Portland where his brother-in-law served from 1859 to 1868.

The travelling times and distances from Melbourne that Swan's text postulates clearly indicate that the map of Luke Mivers' Harvest is a product of Swan's geographic imagination in which those aspects of Victoria which the novelist knew well were re-arranged in accordance with the needs of his narrative. For the sections of the novel set near the Palmer River rush, in Brisbane, and at other locations in Queensland, Swan probably had to rely on second-hand accounts which reached him either in conversation, by letter, or in print.

Against a background of representative colonial milieux — town and country, hamlet and metropolis, squatter's homestead and miner's hut — Swan wove a plot which incorporates an almost full quota of those episodes, characters, and sentiments now normally thought of as the stock-in-trade of the colonial literary imagination: a horse race, a cattle stampede, a bushfire; an arrogant squatter, a sinister Chinese, an ex-convict with a mysterious past; a child lost in the bush, a discovery of gold, a fight with Aborigines, a secret valley; young love, disguise and mistaken identity, hate and high morality, faithful service and a corrupting lust for wealth and power. Friend, associate, and competitor of many who helped to create that stock-in-trade — Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon, G. G. McCrae, Henry Kingsley, Kendall — Swan must be allowed some claim to be an initiator as much as an imitator, to be among the founders of a tradition central to the development of Australian literary culture.

It would be foolish to claim for Swan a paramount role in establishing that tradition. He did, nevertheless, strive to give serious expression to ideas, subjects, attitudes which were fresh and important to him and his contemporaries. His striving may not have produced the unrepeatable style of the great novelist, yet he did achieve a recognisably personal manner, blending his own sensibility with the larger visions of the artists and master works he most admired.

Among these, not surprisingly, was the Bible. The range of scriptural allusion in Luke Mivers' Harvest is comparable with that of any reasonably well-educated Briton of his generation, especially one who chose journalism as his trade.note In the same way, the novel reveals an acquaintance with a number of the well known authors and texts of the English literary tradition. Swan appealed to their authority, again like so many Britons of his time, to authenticate his own feelings, responses, judgments. Inevitably, a central figure in Swan's cultural pantheon was Shakespeare, who is the source of many of the quotations and allusions in Luke Mivers' Harvest. Yet the dominant influence, providing not only specific reference points but a whole array of techniques and attitudes, was Charles Dickens — the writer whose hypnotic force had been so closely brought home to him by Henry Jerrold during his days on the Ararat Advertiser.

In particular, there are tricks of characterisation and effects of scene and décor which Swan patently took over from the English master. At the centre of his own novel is an idealised young couple, of great physical beauty and moral probity, who are kept apart through most of its action by a mixture of chance and the complicity of an older generation. The chief figures of that older generation are given a more robust characterisation than that afforded the impossibly virtuous, somewhat pallid young lovers. Shorter, for instance, and Luke Mivers snr are both very much villains cast in the Dickensian mould. Their moral qualities and obsessive lives are presented with the same grotesquerie as their physical appearance.

Swan's debt to Dickens is no less in his treatment of landscape than in his representation of character. In particular, he regularly employs the Dickensian habit of inventing backgrounds of weather and topo-graphy whose features mirror and intensify the human emotions generated by the narrative. The climactic scenes of Luke Mivers' Harvest undeviatingly take place to the accompaniment of thunder, lightning, rain, or whatever natural phenomena Swan deemed appropriate to the action. They rely heavily, furthermore, on some rather melodramatic chiaroscuro effects. Flickering candles, faces catching the light and shade of a log fire, figures silhouetted against lurid sheets of lightning: such effects, frequent in Luke Mivers' Harvest, plainly satisfied something in Swan's imagination far more personal than technical admiration for another writer.

The novel is saved from too great a tendency towards melodrama by at least two other features of Swan's prose, both of which he had gone some way towards mastering in his work prior to 1878. In the first place, he had developed quite an acute ear for the Australian vernacular, which is incorporated convincingly into the dialogue of Luke Mivers' Harvest and, to a lesser extent, in its reported narrative. At the same time Swan also had a sharp eye for many of the small physical details which defined the quality of colonial life throughout its social and economic strata. The pattern of a wallpaper, the cut of a coat, the choice of a drink, the ingredients of a meal — the extent and accuracy of Swan's observation of such matters constitute one of the impressive features of Luke Mivers' Harvest.

That kind of observation and understanding, allied with Swan's distaste for a vulgar consumption ethic, produces the most consistent and effective satire he ever created. While the pretensions of Mindorf offer Swan his greatest opportunities in this respect, virtually no social setting in Luke Mivers' Harvest is outside his satiric register. His talent for sharp social comedy is here integrated, as nowhere else in his canon, with the tragic potentialities of the revenge motif and the rosier hues of romantic love.

Luke Mivers' Harvest, that is to say, combines the best of Swan's native talent with the fruits of a twenty-year informal education begun when, turning his back on institutional study, he set out for a new life on the other side of the world. The lessons that Swan had learned from his colonial experience — at the gold rushes, on the land, in the community life of pioneering settlements, and in the exigencies of a provincial press — do not always coincide with those that characterise the fiction of other contemporary writers of comparable background. From his adventures on the diggings he distilled a fastidiousness of taste and behaviour closer to Richard Mahony's sensitive spirit than the robust and sometimes crude mateship so often the literary outcome of life on the goldfields. Yet Luke Mivers' Harvest does not reject the democratic possibilities of nineteenth century Australia out of hand. As the editor of a small town newspaper Swan had better opportunities than most for penetrating the intricate and subtle relationships on which such societies were founded; if he deplored anything that might threaten their cohesion, he celebrated in his prose all which might make for their integrity and advancement. Underneath its melodrama the novel steadily endorses the value of human community just as it rejects those forces which make for social disintegration.

If the melodramatic action of Luke Mivers' Harvest rests on the foundation of an independent, decent, yet discerning appreciation of colonial society, that action in itself is the vehicle for two of the strongest motifs of Swan's imagination. The long sustained recital of coincidence, hate, revenge, retribution, and love becomes, in the first place, a singularly apt medium for Swan's perception of the implacable power of the human will when set on a course of either self-realisation or self-destruction. In a sense supported by the very title of the work, Luke Mivers snr and old Shorter dominate and control most of the narrative; their obsessive determination to destroy is met and matched only by the tenacity of the ex-convict Wolf Brown, is defeated only by the indestructible love of Bryan Fitzgerald and Helen Mivers. The opposing impulses of destruction and creation are exactly balanced in the tragic careers of Luke Mivers jnr and Margaret Shorter. Swan may have parted company with his contemporaries in wringing from his Australian experience the need for a certain refinement of behaviour rather than a total commitment to camaraderie; nevertheless, he found, as had his friend Marcus Clarke, that the impetuous careers fostered by colonial circumstance had in them rich possibilities for allegory.

The overwrought plotting which grew out of Swan's sense of human behaviour also served a religious sense more personal than conventional piety. Though bound by ties of kin and marriage to both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Swan's deeper reverence seems to have been for the divinity that he perceived in the natural world. He saw not only the unique elements of Australian flora, the unrepeatable combinations of antipodean land and sky; he also saw, or believed he saw, the manifestations of a divine power working ultimately for the good of mankind. Within all the sentimentality, all the clearcut representations of virtue and vice which spoke so readily to the popular taste of the day, there resides at the heart of the novel a small uncorrupted core of creative vision and integrity. Luke Mivers' Harvest matters because, in the welter of chance and opportunity offered by nineteenth century Victoria, Swan would not be seduced into the dogmas of either conservatism or reform, but travelled the narrow path of independence laid out for him by native talent, by hard won literary skills, by insights and values slowly distilled from experience.

Contemporary and Later Reception

Probably the most eminent of Swan's contemporaries to sing the praises of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’ was the poet, Henry Kendall. By 1879, Kendall, his ‘Shadow of 1872’ now well behind him, was seeking rehabilitation by working in the timber business of the Fagin brothers at Camden Haven on the central coast of New South Wales. On 15 July 1879 he commented in the course of a letter to Thomas Butler, the editor of the Freeman's Journal, ‘Give me Mr Dalley before the whole crowd: his verdict on Luke Miver's Harvest shows a magnificent critical faculty’.noteSome time towards the end of the same year he apparently sent Swan an unsolicited letter in praise of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’, thus initiating a correspondence which lasted until the poet's death. Swan, already an ardent admirer of Kendall and his verse, was in some haste to reply. What seems to have been his first letter in the correspondence is simply dated ‘Stawell/ Sunday Night’:

My dear Mr Kendall

It would be very absurd of me not to say at once that I was pleased and flattered and glad when I read your letter. I have had a good many on the same subject but only one from Henry Kendall which is worth bushels from all other sources. I don't think I could say more because it exactly expresses what I mean. I have known you now for many years and I have delighted not a few with that grand verse of yours

"If the way had been shorter and greener
And brighter it might have been brave
But the goal was too far & he fainted
Like Peter with Christ on the wave

You are perhaps not aware (as indeed how could you?) that any stray pieces of yours which I have come across I have had republished as witness the enclosed — these for private circulation among my friends. You will find ideas which with shame and confusion of face I admit I have prigged from you in the Christmas story in the Queenslander and which I forward you by this post.

I wish I was a younger man. I am over forty being I fear, the old young man or the young old man that Carlyle writes of. I was at the Yorick Club (Melbourne) a short time since and took part in discussing you . . . .

I rather fancy that Clarke has given over writing novels. It is true he has been at me for a long time but as I told him he is getting lazy. That is a state I cannot afford and I work hard.note

In his reply to Swan in a long letter dated from Camden Haven on 16 January 1880, Kendal wrote:

Many thanks for the Queenslander. I agree with Ward the editor of the Mail as to your tale therein. In a private letter to me, he says that it is "incomparably the most powerful of the group" Its beauty makes the heart ache. How can you say that you have "prigged from me!" It is impossible for you to imitate anybody. But I will tell you one thing. You are the author of my verses on Mary Rivers. Turn to your chapter describing the death of Pelan, and you will see that I am right. "And shall Australia framed and set in sea August with glory" is another jewel from you. I cannot help it. Such things will linger in the memory.

The charm of your Queenslander story is the charm of beauty — the leading characteristic of Two Wives is — so far — power. I have seen your "Australasian" work. George McCrae speaks highly of it . . . His Natural Life is a work showing great industry and more than ordinary power; but it is not for the same shelf as Luke Miver. There are faults in the latter; but they are the faults of a strength that is rarely in repose. The Pegasus so to speak cannot be pulled up against his will . . .

As you will see, my hand is fagged. It has been at the pen all day — so I must pull up. Your letter is highly, deeply prized. It is not often that one has an audience with a creative genius.

Dead beat for sleep.note

The fulsome generosity of Kendall's praise in this letter was, it must be said, somewhat modified in his correspondence with McCrae. There, the quality in Swan's writing that he repeatedly praises is the power of its descriptions of the Australian landscape. In a long letter dated 2l January 1880 (only five days after he had written to Swan) Kendall sought to soothe the anger of his Melbourne friend, who was plainly put out not only that his own entry for the Sydney Mail competition, ‘Afloat and Ashore’, had been unplaced but that the prize had gone to ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’:

Swan is a man of unquestionable genius — so are you, my dear boy; but you, being weaponed with rare scholarship, have an immense advantage over your fellow-writer . . . Dalley like myself has a bias towards the descriptive — hence the failure with him of your noble work.

I really cannot understand the conduct of the other judges. Why your story should not have been placed at least side by side with Swan's, is a marvel to me. You can put a plot together, Swan cannot; you can paint character, Swan cannot; your situations are full of power, Swan's are not; but in this Luke Miver's Harvest he has floored you completely at the word painting business.note

Kendall's epistolary tact must have been effective, for McCrae's side of the correspondence registers a shift from anger and rejection of any merit in Swan's work to a grudging acceptance of Kendall's verdict. Earlier in the exchange of letters, McCrae had written, on 8 January 1880, in these terms:

I never yet either met or saw Mr Swann to my knowledge but I do not go to the length of crediting him with genius — in fact if I may say so without appearing ungenerous (and this I would of all things avoid seeing he beat me in the competition for the Sydney Mail £100 prize for a story ) he appears to me to act as a sort of literary galvanist to the shaky nerves of sensation-palled readers — he deals in fact too much in blood, brandy, & the uglier side of bush-life to please my fancy — yet with all this he is undeniably clever and smart.

Did you read the story placed second to his "Luke Mivers's Harvest"? The Captain's Charge by A.C.? I like it far better than the Harvest — To my mind it is more natural and exhibits no straining after effect . . .note

By 30 January McCrae was bending to Kendall's opinions:

Now it is just exactly here that you write "but in Luke Mivers's Harvest he [Swan] has completely floored you at the word-painting business . . . ". Well! if it be so — I can only try again . . .note

Three weeks later still, McCrae capitulated. On 20 February he wrote:

I quite acknowledge Mr Swan's superiority in painting Australian scenery — In that matter however I am as yet untried . . .note

Admiration for Swan's ability to capture the quality both of the Australian landscape and of colonial society, indeed, provided a major theme for his contemporary critics. It forms, for instance, the centrepiece of the Preface contributed by the anonymous editor of a posthumous collection of Swan's tales, A Couple of Cups Ago, and Other Stories, published in Melbourne by Cameron, Laing and Co., in 1885:

With a pen much more prolific, while as graphic and powerful as that of Marcus Clarke, he has told us of the early days and doings off and on the "diggings," of the hardships and dangers encountered by our explorers and pioneers, ere they reached the point they strove after — the goal they wished to attain. "The bush," with its terrible tales of suffering, privation, and death, was an open book to him, and from it he has read the stern reality and made us understand its weird mysteries.

Again, many of his descriptions of scenery, and thoughts drawn there from, ought to have been embalmed in the poet's verse. note

Swan's champion went on to quote approvingly from Dalley's report on ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’:

The pictures of Australian scenery, and the sketches of colonial society seem to me very masterly; and the whole composition is, without doubt, far above the average of English periodical literature.

By and large, however, ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’ seems to have received very little immediate attention in the newspapers and reviews. Only when it was reprinted in serial form after his death did it attract much journalistic comment. During the remainder of Swan's life, the principal benefit that he derived from his success in the Sydney Mail competition was readier publication of his work, in particular greater access to colonial newspapers outside Stawell and Melbourne than he had previously enjoyed. The Sydney Mail itself carried a good deal of his fiction through 1879, 1880, and 1881. On nine successive Saturdays — 20 December 1879 to 7 February 1880 — the Mail printed his ‘Two Wives’ as its 1879 Christmas story. It ran another long work of his serial fiction, ‘Lucy Ross's Sacrifice’, from 2 July 1881 to 12 November of the same year. In both 1879 and 1880, the Queenslander also called on Swan for its Christmas stories — ‘A Story of Two Christmases’ in 1879 and ‘Joseph Curran's Christmas Ride; A Story of Black and White’ in 1880.note In 1882 one of his tales was published in the anthology, Australian Stories in Prose and Verse. note

‘A Story of Two Christmases’, relying on many of Swan's usual melodramatic effects (murder, drowning, disguise and trickery), is noteworthy for at least one passage which, in its contrast between Australia and England, is reminiscent of Frederick B. Sinnett's more celebrated ‘The Fiction Fields of Australia’:

Where the nights are long and dark, and the merciless wind bites bitterly, flecked with snow or wild with storm; where the whiteness and the blackness and the power of the air dominate all else from the setting to the rising sun — chilling the prospect, daunting the hope, and lifting the rags of poverty; where the white is piled against the window panes like shrouds, and its silent pall and accumulation has the weirdness in it that is germane to fate and to the inevitable, is the place for ghost stories. Not so Australia. We are too young and too practical. We have no castles with their remnants of toppling walls and decaying staircases, hidden cells and revolving slabs, leading to darkness and indices of tragedy. How, indeed, could this be the habitat of ghosts, where the cocks crow every hour and there is not a cranny fearsome enough where they could hide their impalpable selves? Our notions in this respect are iconoclastic. What else could they be where the days are full of brightness and the nights are full of stars singing their eternal psalm?note

‘Joseph Curran's Christmas Ride’, largely a re-working of the earlier ‘Two Days at Michaelmas’, is set in North Queensland. Mixing Swan's fascination with revenge (the wife of one of the principal characters has been murdered by the blacks some years previously) with local colour and exciting action, the story touches, if only briefly, on the serious ethical issues raised by the white usurpation of Aboriginal land and the massacre of the tribes. One speech in particular, assigned to the protagonist Blakely (the middle name of Swan's only son) recognises the guilt the pioneers too often merited for their dealings with the native people:

We are to them strangers and invaders. They have been taught to look on all such as enemies, and they know only one way to deal with enemies. Even this feeling would have been dispelled but for the cowardly reprisals of white men, and even to-day in the wilderness it is life for life. We, with civilisation to aid us, and the unfortunate savages at the mercy of our bullets, think it a brave thing to shoot down savage men and women; it is, instead, a living disgrace and a blot on our Christianity. We carry our Bibles, and shoot these creatures in their own country, and on their own soil. It is murder.note

The increase in Swan's writing activities brought its costs — in fatigue and failing health. One undated fragment of a letter to Kendall poignantly concludes, ‘Today was such a dreary one to me It was a gray day filled with a sorrowful cadence & I can't tell why’.note He understood his case all too well in writing to the publisher of A Couple of Cups Ago. It was a letter of farewell:

I may get well again. If not — well then I shall go rapidly down the declivity to the bottom. When the curtain is drawn aside, and the great secret is made known . . . . [sic] The world is not so bad a one as we are inclined to think it is, perhaps. I feel this because it may be necessary that I should lose my hold on it before long.note

On 31 July 1884 Swan died of an aneurismnote at his home in Main Street, Stawell. He was in his fiftieth year. His passing brought tributes from throughout the Australian colonies. The Pleasant Creek News published a long obituary on 2 August 1884, which also reprinted part of another which had appeared on the previous day in the Ararat Advertiser. The News summarised the chief episodes of Swan's life and colonial career, acknowledged his tireless support of the district he had made his home, praised his literary achievements, and paid tribute to his personal qualities:

He was essentially a neighbourly man, with a kind ear and a sympathetic heart for those who consulted him. He was thoroughly sincere and therefore always earnest. As a friend, those best know how great was his heart, who were admitted to a share of his deeper as of his lighter thoughts; and there are those who will miss him much in the days to come.note

The Australasian of 2 August 1884 recorded that ‘Australian literature sustains a notable loss by the death of Mr. N. Walter Swan’:

Mr. Swan's work, though sometimes, perhaps, wanting in literary style, showed great literary vigour and great imaginative power. There were certain phases of Australian country life, in its visible out-of-door aspects, which he could depict with a peculiar graphic force all his own, and with his stamp impressed very deeply upon it. The slow, silent, solitary life of the remote bush he had made himself familiar with, had thoroughly felt its wildness, and weariness, and suggestions of mystery, and had, at the same time, seen its aptitude for purposes of romance. He had a very quick feeling for the romantic element in our common Australian life, and familiarity had strengthened his insight into it, without dulling his perceptions of all that it possessed in the way of unique character.note

In noticing his death, the Sydney Echoof 1 August 1884 took the opportunity not only to assert the value of Swan's career but also to lament the lack of support and recognition which was the general lot of the colonial writer:

He made no millions, acquired few acres, lived his little life, but did his great work. He lived by his pen as a journalist; but nature intended him to write fiction, to tell tales; he was sent here as the story-teller of Australia. It was in him to have left an adequate record of the whole breadth of Australian life. He did some little in that way. His novels (the best of which won the "Sydney Mail" prize for the best Australian story five years ago) are very near the head of Australian fiction. It would be difficult, in fact, to name half-a-dozen Australian books to be placed in the same category as "Luke Mivers' Harvest;" but he did not write many books. The Australian world said to him as to many another, "We have no need of your particular work; stultify your proper nature; grind out for us the stuff we desire; get into the mill and away from that fantastic loom." Feeling the call of duty he had to obey, and thus all his best work is undone. But surely enough is done to justify a feeling of sorrow that we can now receive no more, and enough will remain to keep his memory bright in the fuller and fairer days when art no less than industry shall, even in Australia, receive its proper reward.note

At least one of Swan's friends took very practical steps to keep his memory bright. In 1885, less than a year after his death A Couple of Cups Ago, and Other Stories was published. This collection of five of Swan's talesnote was made possible, as recorded in the Publisher's Preface, by the generosity of an anonymous benefactor:

But a large hearted man . . . has, at his own expense, published the following out of the numerous stories written by the deceased author, in the hope that the large circle of friends and admirers of Walter Swan, whose leisure hours have so frequently been cheered and lightened by the outcome of his brain and pen, will accord it a hearty welcome; and will, by their patronage and personal endeavour, make the undertaking a financial success, and by doing so, assist to lighten the load of sorrow which lies so heavily on the bereaved widow and children . . .

In conclusion it may be stated that should this little work meet with the success anticipated, it is intended to supplement it by one or more others, containing further stories by the same author; the proprietors of the various papers in which the present and other stories have appeared, having generously given permission for their republication in book form to the gentleman referred to.note

The proposed further collections of Swan's stories were never produced. Nevertheless, interest in his fiction was maintained up to the end of the century — largely through the efforts of his own family, and centred on the fame of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’. On his death, Swan had left a widow, a son, four daughters, and a sister-in-law in the house on Main Street, Stawell, bequeathing them a controlling interest in the newspaper he had edited. Although Mary Ellen died in 1890,note her children maintained control of the Stawell News (as the paper was now known), and used their position to keep their father's name before the Australian reading public. On Saturday, 23 October 1897, the paper (under his son's editorship) carried an announcement of the forthcoming serialisation of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’. The same announcement was regularly repeated throughout October and November, often supplemented by laudatory notices of the novel lifted from other regional newspapers. A news item of the issue of 26 October 1897 is especially important in regard to the publishing history of Swan's novel:

With regard to the story by the late Mr. N. W. Swan, entitled, "Luke Mivers' Harvest," the republication of which was advertised, for the first time, on Saturday, an impression seems to have got abroad, among our readers, that the proprietary intend the story to appear in book form. Their intention is, however, to publish the story in the columns of this journal in serial form.note

As promised, the first instalment of the novel appeared on Saturday, 20 November 1897, and ran thereafter in a supplement on each Saturday until 2 July 1898. Special subscriptions to the Saturday edition of the News were offered for the duration of the serial, and the paper reported a keen response to the offer. This second serialisation of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’, however, was not the last successful attempt by the Swan family to keep the novel in print. Although Walter Blakely Swan died in 1899,note suddenly and after a short illness, the Stawell News remained in the family, under the control of his sister Florence, later to become Mrs Fleetwood-Smith. On 8 April 1902, the News advertised Luke Mivers' Harvest, ‘the famous story’, as being on sale, in book form, for one shilling.note This is the only monograph version of Swan's tale to have appeared until the present edition.

With Federation and the new century, memory of Swan's novel rapidly faded. In 1903 Clara Eyre Cheeseman (Swan's competitor in 1878) included a reference to Luke Mivers' Harvest in the account of ‘Colonials in Fiction’ that she contributed to the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine. Her comments, like virtually all those which preceded them, placed equal stress on Swan's representation of the Australian landscape and the luridly melodramatic plots enacted against it:

The same story [Luke Mivers' Harvest] abounds in beautiful descriptive passages — the sunrises and sunsets, the starlit nights brooding over the vast plains, the sparse forest on the stony ranges, the desolation of the waterless country are spoken of as by one who knew the landscape by heart. To set against this — and the same can be said far too often of colonial stories — there is hardly a single character who has been able to lead a decent life, while some of them, such as the drunken, brutal squatter and his uncouth uneducated son, are repulsive, and have nothing in common with the class to which they are said to belong.note

After Cheeseman's article, Swan, his life, and work disappeared almost totally from the Australian literary consciousness. For the next forty years his name is nowhere to be found in any of the standard surveys of our literature.note In that time it surfaced only in such comprehensive bibliographies of Australian printed materials as those of Sir John Ferguson and E. Morris Miller. After the Second World War, and even with the rising academic interest in Australian literary history, little was done to rehabilitate his achievement. While Colin Roderick accorded him a paragraph in An Introduction to Australian Fiction (1950),note Cecil Hadgraft could find no place for Swan in his Australian Literature (1960), he received no mention in Barry Argyle's An Introduction to the Australian Novel 1830-1930 (1972), K. L. Goodwin omitted him from his conspectus, A History of Australian Literature (1986). Even H. M. Green failed to include him in his comprehensive A History of Australian Literature of 1961. Only in such recent works as The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (l985) and The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia (1987) is Swan's imprint on Australian cultural history in any significant degree recognised.

Nevertheless, the full canon of Swan's published work (still to be determined) constitutes a contribution to our nineteenth century fiction of real significance. Its themes, attitudes and qualities of style indicate an affinity with, even a penetration into, the life of his times which cannot be dismissed. His experience as a mid-century immigrant from Protestant, middle-class Ulster, his failure as a gold-digger and success as a provincial editor must be allowed their representative importance.

The reprinting in its entirety of Luke Mivers' Harvest, Nathaniel Swan's chef d'oeuvre, for the first time in over ninety years has as its aim, then, simply to make available once more a text which both mirrors, and encourages the finer and fuller interpretation of, the literary culture of colonial Australia. This Introduction and the Explanatory Notes at the end of the volume should, it is hoped, go some way towards providing a context which will permit the wider significance of the text to emerge, its lines of implication into our cultural history to be traced out.

Notes

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