A novel take on Canberra

This year is the 75th anniversary of the publication in 1937 of Plaque with Laurel by M. Barnard Eldershaw, a novel that marks Canberra's first appearance as a setting for a work of fiction. Plaque with Laurel is an invaluable historical record of Canberra in the 1930s. It includes many descriptions of the small, isolated city of 75 years ago with its population of about 9000, its scattered major buildings and its few suburbs separated by large areas of bare landscape. This embryonic Canberra forms the background for a satirical novel on the Australian literary world of the 1930s.

Before they began the novel, the authors, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, two renowned Australian writers of the first half of the 20th century, who wrote as M. Barnard Eldershaw, visited Canberra to absorb local colour. They found it very placid ''no one to be seen, no buses to speak of and everything miles away from everywhere else'' but the background was beautiful and ''naturally decorative''.

The action in the novel takes place at a writers' conference over three days of an October long weekend. Two large coaches and a few private cars bring members of the Australian Writers' Guild from Sydney for the conference, at which the major event is to be the unveiling of a plaque to honour the guild's former president. Although he died five years before, the president is a presence in the novel through the memories of his widow, his lover and his closest friend, all gathered together in the capital.

Canberra, described as ''silent, dignified, and embowered'', receives the delegates ''without a flicker''. They stay at the Hotel Australasia, indistinguishable from the old Hotel Canberra (now the Hyatt), and conference sessions are held at the nearby hall, never given a name but obviously the Albert Hall, ''an austere, oblong building with a columned facade, cream-washed walls, a dais with a massive cedar table, and a very calm wooden ceiling''. Delegates express views of the ''bush'' capital so commonly heard until fairly recent years. A character in the novel with a cousin living in Canberra, relays the opinion that living in the capital is ''just awful'':

''Everyone looks you up in the Blue Book [list of public servants] and knows how old you are and what salary you get and everything, and then they know you or don't know you accordingly. You're not allowed to do what you like with your garden, or put up a front fence or anything, and you've got to live with all the other people in your grade because of the rents.''

Between conference sessions tours are arranged to such cliches of Canberra sightseeing as the view from Red Hill, a trip to the Cotter and an inspection of St John's churchyard. From Red Hill the delegates look down on the planned city ''laid out beneath them in its geometrical design, in oblongs, ellipses, and circles, as if the architect had taken his set-square and compasses and worked directly upon the plain''. Canberra was very different from the normal ''happy-go-lucky Australian town''.

As the delegates drive around on a conducted tour they see the newly-built St Andrews looking like ''an unreal cardboard church'' and the Manuka picture theatre with ''its guarded mute air of a prison''. As they travel one delegate remarks, ''The really beautiful thing about Canberra is the absence of slums'' and another replies ''and the absence of hoardings''. When the bus reaches the old Parliament House, ''not unlike a wedding cake'', they note the National Rose Garden and comment ''even a rose cannot bloom in Canberra without becoming national''. Later they are entertained at high tea at Yarralumla, the women being assured that elaborate dressing is not required as ''all the Government House women are terrible frumps''.

The climax occurs on the third day with the ceremony at the National Library then located on Kings Avenue. The ceremony is performed by the Minister for Customs, ironically chosen as the member of the ministry with the most connection with literature as he is responsible for censorship. ''Culture is the nation's crown,'' he assures the delegates, ''and in that crown literature is the brightest jewel.''

After the ceremony, the participants go to the wedding of two delegates who have chosen the historic church of St John's for the ceremony. Simultaneously they hear that a deeply troubled delegate who had wandered off into the bush at the Cotter, is missing. Many of the guests leave to join the search for the missing man as the wedding ceremony proceeds at St John's. As the bridal party travels back to the hotel over Commonwealth Bridge they see police dragging the Molonglo River and later the delegate's body is found in three feet of water.

In Plaque with Laurel, Barnard and Eldershaw chose a subject that was particularly close to their own experiences. They had been part of the Sydney literary scene since the great success of their first novel, A House is Built, published in 1929. Following the rise of fascism and nazism in the early 1930s with their threat to freedom, they became prominent in shaping an activist political agenda for writers and intellectuals in the Fellowship of Australian Writers.

The literary group M. Barnard Eldershaw portrayed in Plaque with Laurel was closer to the staid and conservative fellowship of the early 1930s than to the organisation it became under the influence of ''the triumvirate''.

The authors' close involvement in the Australian literary scene led the London publisher of Plaque with Laurel, George G. Harrap, to fear libel action. Although they disclaimed basing their characters on actual persons, Harrap sought a legal opinion and insisted that the name of the literary society be changed from Australian Literary Society because of its resemblance to an existing organisation. Eldershaw protested at the authors being charged for changing the name to Australian Writers' Guild in the proof stage but her protest was unsuccessful.

Now at a distance of 75 years it would be difficult to fit literary figures to the fictional characters. Even at the time it was apparently difficult.

Perhaps if it had attracted sensational attention it would have had more commercial success. Six months after publication Marjorie Barnard told Vance Palmer that the book had ''fallen quite flat''. Safely protected against libel, its lack of controversy detracted from any publicity the subject of a writers' conference, with the possibility of spotting public figures, might have given it. Also, being published in England, it does not appear to have been distributed widely in Australia.

Eldershaw became a prominent advocate for writers. In 1938, she was successful in persuading the conservative Lyons government to triple the budget of the Commonwealth Literary Fund, which had previously provided pensions for indigent writers. This enabled the Fund to make grants to writers and to initiate a series of lectures by prominent writers. In 1939 she was appointed to the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund.

Although living in separate cities and both involved in demanding work - Barnard was a senior CSIR librarian - the two authors worked on their last collaborative novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, a futuristic book about ''the death of civilisation''. The novel was not released until 1947, in an edition that had been subjected to wartime censorship. In the post-war era the issues it confronted were seen as dated.

In the Cold War atmosphere rampant in the 1950s, Tomorrow and Tomorrow was attacked in Federal Parliament as ''a trashy, tripey novel with a Marxist slant'' by the Liberal member for Mackellar, William C. Wentworth, in a debate on the Commonwealth Literary Fund. He branded the authors ''fellow travellers'' and attacked Eldershaw's membership of the fund's advisory board, describing her as a person who ''has had associations with various Communist-sponsored organisations''.

Plaque with Laurel was not published in Australia until 1995, nearly 60 years after its original London publication. By then both writers had died, Eldershaw in 1956 and Barnard in 1987.

Patricia Clarke is a Canberra writer and historian. She reviewed the 1995 edition of Plaque with Laurel in The Canberra Times. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Canberra Historical Journal in May 2012.

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