Australian Classics | Jane Gleeson-White

You may well ask what an Indy bookshop employee was doing trawling through second hand bookshops in Glebe recently (as Mr Books is prone to do with eyebrows raised in askance!)

My only defence as an Indy bookshop employee, is the obvious one – I adore books. I will always love browsing through over-stacked shelves. Shelves that contain an untold number of hidden potentials and serendipitous finds. And as an Indy bookshop employee, I now also know which books are difficult to find, expensive or out of print, so if I spot something good I know to grab it then and there!

Which is why on my day off work as an Indy bookseller, I sometimes come home with an armful of second hand books.

One of the treasures from my recent haul was Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works by Jane Gleeson-White.

Her aim was to “create a book that would give a broad overview of Australia’s writing and bring some its key authors to a wide audience.” Gleeson-White felt that

The history of Australian literature is a story of writers attempting to engage with a land they found alien, then claimed and celebrated; of writers engaging with modern Australia’s criminal origins and their legacy, as well as the impact of European settlement on Indigenous Australians, their land and culture; and of writers dealing with the fact that Australia’s language – English – was imported from elsewhere and that the literary font of this language lies in the green fields, soft light, low skies and delineated social structures of a small island on the other side of the world.

Interspersed amongst her 50 Australian classic stories and poems are lists of favourite Australian novels by well-known contemporary authors and media personalities.

The 50 classics included many of the well-known authors that you would expect to see on this kind of list, but there were several new-to-me discoveries.

I found out where one of my Pop’s favourite quotes came from – the poem, Ye Weary Wayfarer by Adam Lindsay Gordon:

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
KINDNESS in another’s troubles,
COURAGE in your own

I was dismayed to read how many of our early writers died at a young age thanks to alcohol abuse and suicide. And saddened to read that Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Pritchard as recently as 1929 was the “first novel by a white Australian to attempt to see the world from an Aboriginal point of view.

However the predominant feeling as I read this book was one of pure delight. The joy of reading and discovery and shared love oozed from every page.

I have read (in the order Gleeson-White presented them in her book):

  • ‘The Man From Snowy River’ by A B Paterson
  • Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
  • The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
  • My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  • ‘Five Bells‘ by Kenneth Slessor
  • ‘Woman to Child’ by Judith Wright
  • Storm Boy by Colin Thiele
  • The Tyranny of Distance by Geoffrey Blainey
  • Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse
  • Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe
  • True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
  • My Place by Sally Morgan
  • Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

As a classics lover, 14/50 made me blush with embarrassment.

I now have a new reading mission! To read the other 36 books and poems

  • Robbery Under Arms
  • Such Is Life
  • ‘The Sick Stockrider’
  • His Natural Life
  • ‘The Chosen Vessel’
  • ‘Nationality’
  • The Drover’s Wife’
  • ‘Lilith’
  • The Gentle Water Bird’
  • The Magic Pudding
  • Coonardoo
  • 10 for 66 and All That
  • Lucinda Brayford
  • A Fortunate Life
  • Capricornia
  • The Man Who Loved Children
  • The Pea Pickers
  • ‘A Letter From Rome’
  • Voss
  • My Brother Jack
  • Tirra Lirra by the River
  • Power Without Glory
  • ‘No More Boomerang’
  • The Lucky Country
  • Milk and Honey
  • The Acolyte
  • The Glass Canoe
  • The Transit of Venus
  • An Imaginary Life
  • The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
  • Visitants
  • ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’
  • The Fatal Shore
  • The Plains
  • Monkey Grip
  • Lillian’s Story

The lists of writers and personalities included the likes of Helen Garner, Charlotte Wood, Georgia Blain, Louis Nowra, Tim Winton, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Gabrielle Carey, Leonie Kramer, Caroline Baum, Christos Tsiolkas, Delia Falconer, Emily Maguire, Garth Nix, Frank Moorhouse, Les Murray and Gail Jones.

There was sooooo much love from all of them for Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, David Malouf, Patrick White, Les Murray, Tim Winton, Kate Grenville and Randolph Stow in particular. I really must try a Patrick White book soon and read one of Helen Garner’s fictional works.

Naturally this got me thinking about what would my Top 10 Australian classics list look like. Which books or poems have evoked a sense of place and described the Australian experience for me?

In no particular order, I give you Brona’s 10 best Australian classics.

  • The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson
  • A Descant for Gossips by Thea Astley
  • Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
  • Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse
  • ‘The Man From Snowy River’ by Banjo Paterson (although my teenage love for the Tom Burlinson movie of the same name plays a big role in the addition of this poem into my list!)
  • Cloudstreet  by Tim Winton
  • The Great World by David Malouf
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  • Ash Road by Ivan Southall
  • Pastures of the Blue Crane by H F Brinsmead

These are the books and poems that made me love Australia and connected me to country. They opened my eyes to our history, our culture and our environment.

What would your best Australian classics list look like?

12 thoughts on “Australian Classics | Jane Gleeson-White

  1. I didn't know that The Secret River is an Australian book; it's on my wishlist. I loved Seven Little Australians and enjoyed Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career. I don't think I'll be reading The Man Who Loved Children, though. I'd love to read more from your list!


  2. Yes it's set around the Hawkesbury River area. I wanted to kayak the length of the river after reading this book (it's not a kayaking book; I just wanted to experience the river as they must have back then). I'm relevant to tackle the Stead book too. I will probably try one of stories set in Sydney though at some point. Good luck with your Aussie reading


  3. Does Ada Cambridge count as an Australian writer? If so, I would have The Three Miss Kings on my list. And if Nevil Shute counts, A Town Like Alice.I loved the film of The Man From Snowy River but have never read the poem.


  4. Both Shute and Cambridge were born in England but moved to Australia later – Cambridge when she married in 1870 and Shute after WWII with his family. Since both your book choices are set in Australia as well, I think we can happily claim both :-)I really must read Cambridge soon, she keeps popping up on lists everywhere.


  5. This looks like a very interesting list. I have read a few Austalian books, one of which I can't remember the title and nobody could help me so far. It's about a guy who gets sentenced to death first and then to deportation, he then is allowed or has to take his family and they settle somewhere outside of the town where a while later the native inhabitants come who have always come to that place at certain times. If you don't know what the title is, I will go through the whole list. Who knows, I might find it again.Anyway, thanks for this list, I will certainly pick up quite a few of the literature on there.Marianne from Let's Read


  6. Thanks, Brona,I know it does but it's not the one, it starts very different, they have another kind of family, I read \”The Secret River\” much later knowing it was not it. One problem might be that I don't recognize the title since I might have read a German translation. Well, I will go through your list and hopefully find it one day. And if not, there are certainly many other great books on it.Have a great day,Marianne from Let's Read


  7. Hmmmm you've piqued my interest now – I'll keep thinking about it. For the Term of His Natural Life is not quite right but I'm drawing a blank on convict stories right now … leave it with me 🙂


  8. I've read that one, as well. LOL. To be honest, it might not even have been an Australian author who wrote this. It's been so long ago. But I know for sure it's none of those that I have read since I'm noting down all my books.Have a great weekend,Marianne from Let's Read


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