Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Fullerton, Susannah. Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia 1836-1939. Sydney: Picador, 2009.

Brief Encounters collects the experiences of eleven literary travellers to Australia, beginning with Charles Darwin’s arrival on the Beagle in 1836 and ending with HG Wells’ departure in 1939. Darwin was a young man of 26, while HG Wells was, in his own view, rather too old for such a long journey—he was 72. Both looked at the place through the lenses of their own, very urgent obsessions: Darwin, it seems, saw only rocks; HG Wells couldn’t stop talking about the Germans.

These two figures of scientific speculation and controversy frame an eclectic gathering, but one united in being well-known and well-regarded. Less talented but perhaps equally interesting travellers are left out, but we are given an intriguing assembly nonetheless: Anthony Trollope, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and DH Lawrence. They are each allocated rooms of their own, so to speak: a chapter per author works very well for this book, producing an integrity of episodes that helps avoid forced comparisons and contrasts.

That said, the reader can look for crossovers easily enough, because the chapters all follow the same pattern: where the authors were in their lives and careers when they arrived; what Australians of the day thought of the authors; a summary of the authors' travels and what they had to say about the country; the appearance of Australia in the authors’ subsequent literary output; and a summing up of the visits’ impact on both the authors and Australians. Thus, when reading of Robert Louis Stevenson and his desire to ‘travel for travel’s sake,’ (p. 103) one remembers that Joseph Conrad was also a natural traveller, a man who only felt at ease with himself when he was on board a ship (p. 83). Likewise, Rudyard Kipling and DH Lawrence meet in their vision of Australia as a place where they could sort themselves out or at least examine themselves more clearly.

Fullerton is an excellent host to the authors she had collected, and one of the great appeals of this work is its diplomatic, welcoming tone. Criticisms are received much more politely than at the time they were delivered, in part because some of the sting has gone out of them over time; but all the same, there is a good will shown throughout this book that others might not have managed. Fullerton seldom indulges in a defence of Australia, generally accepting the authors’ views as legitimate in their historical context. Mark Twain is the only outright hypocrite of the group, with his real feelings about Australia only revealed two months after his departure, when he commented that the native Australian ‘was as vain of his unpretty country as if it were the final masterpiece of God, achieved by Him from designs by that Australian. He is as sensitive about her as men are of sacred things—can’t bear to have critical things said.’ (p. 194) Fullerton does not, even on this occasion, fall into that trap.

Nevertheless, a discernable lift in the writing comes in chapter ten, with DH Lawrence’s arrival in 1922. Lawrence did everything one could want of a literary visitor: he loved the place, stayed for decent length of time, wrote a book based on his experiences, and left happier than he’d arrived. All of this lends the Lawrence chapter a feeling of relief; perhaps this reader’s as much as Fullerton’s.

Fullerton’s simple, eloquent mode of descriptive writing is exemplary, particularly in the summaries that she gives of the journeys and of the comments that the authors made along the way. In fact, Brief Encounters makes you wonder whether argument isn’t sometimes overrated as a mode of discourse—Fullerton’s flowing and well-paced descriptions seem to me just as urgent and engaging, especially in the context of popular academic writing.

Where I might disagree with Fullerton is in the matter of this book’s ultimate impact, which, in the Postscript, she alludes to in this way: ‘If this book encourages you to go and read their [the literary travellers’] works, then I’ve achieved my purpose.’ (p. 369). This, I think, slightly misses the point, which lies less with the promotion of great literary works than with the fascinating nature of the meetings that have occurred between Australians and very good writers who have visited us from England and America.

That, I suppose, is a more precise end result. But it is certainly one that is worthy of the lengthy treatment given here, as it is during these encounters that we are given a rare gift, an intelligent and well-intentioned international perspective of who we are and who we might become. And that, ultimately, is the contribution made by Brief Encounters: this book reminds us of the possible benefits, to both travellers and hosts, of cultural encounters.