To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. Joseph Furphy wrote one of Australia’s first literary works, Such Is Life, under the pseudonym Tom Collins. In the early 1940s, many Meanjin readers submitted literary critique in the guise of letters addressed to Tom Collins. Inspired by this tradition, Miles Franklin submitted these excerpts of letters between her and Joeseph Furphy for the enjoyment of Meanjin readers.
Letters to Tom Collins is a Meanjin idea which has appealed strongly to me, though to date, I have not been one of these special correspondents. I should like however, in honor of Joseph Furphy’s centenary, to release some extracts from his letters to me. Joseph Furphy was a diligent correspondent and had numerous pen friends of all ages among men and women. He was, as he said, prone to give advice, and with his wealth of knowledge and wisdom, could not avoid being informative. He exhorted me on marriage, politics, morals and the art of writing. His generous encouragement of a young writer as well as his own patient struggle in the “Inky Way” are apparent in the following extracts—
April 12 (‘04.)
Dear Miles, If I fill up this page—as I intend to do—it will be with the most dogmatic and offensive counsel. I am a whale at giving unsolicited advice, as many of my friends know to their cost. Very well. You will be sought, and courted, and fawned upon, as no other woman has been since the time of “M. B. Jarsey.” Be not cajoled into exclusiveness, dear Miles. Think of the ten thousand sunburnt and profane brothers out back, any one of whom would walk fifty miles to hear your voice or touch your hand. Knowing well the men I speak of, I aver that the tenderest thought in many a bushman’s heart is for his gifted, sympathetic, fearless, and clean-minded sister. Another thing: There are Bohemians and Bohemians. “McG.,” in Bulletin of Ap. 7, is one of the latter sub-class. Every Australian woman should resent the picture drawn in his “Children of the Sun.” Moral squalor is a poor foundation on which to build romance. Apart from all puritanism or sanctimoniousness, there is such a thing as self-reverence. Between this and McG.-ness the issue is clearly defined; and neutrality is treason here … . Could fill 50 pages on this subject; but there—there—
Shepparton , Vic. Sunday, July 17 (‘04,)
Dear Miles, (Which in view of your unsubstantial, Mahatma-like nature, must be taken as an apostrophe or invocation, rather than as a conventional address)—
Don’t go to America or Europe, Miles. There is variety enough here; between the seething Pandemonium of the cities and the hallowed solitudes of the Outback; between the serrated profile of the Great Divide and the long, long levels of Riverina. And Literature has hardly yet touched the fringe of Australian life-conditions. Practically nothing has been exploited but the amenities of the Home-station, the hardships of the Selection, and the most unlikely nugget found by the reduced gentleman. Stay among the eucalypti, MIles, and earn the adoration of your country-men by translating the hosannas and elegies of the bush into vernacular phrase. For myself, I am doing a Iittle revision on “Rigby’s Romance” in a semi-despondent frame of mind, whilst waiting on that immoral red-covered Journal for ungracious acceptance or gleeful rejection, A.G.S. still waves me off with characteristic dignity: “Take that ye divvie!” was the postscript to his last letter.
July 31, (‘04.)
You are not to go to America, Miles—do you hear? I won’t allow it. If you did, we should presently hear of you as Mrs. Colonel Petroleum Z. Something; and that would be our share. There is plenty of room for you between the Barrier and the Leeuwin … .
Sun., Aug. 21
This should have been the end, but I long to give you a bit more advice before I close. First you must take as absolutely genuine all that I say in appreciation of your unrivalled literary endowments. In cases like this, flattery is not only cruel, it is mean. I have often been deeply pained when asked to pass a critical opinion on some pathetic trash, laboriously written by an aspirant who mistook his own intention for ability. I think of one case: a young articled solicitor of 27 … . spent twelve solid months in writing a play; then borrowed my typewriter, and made a beautiful copy, with stage-directions, etc. It was his ewe lamb, and he loved it with a 50 h.p. love. He submitted the copy to me, not for criticism but for approval; and I nearly wept. His most venial error was the supplying of the comic element per medium of a mother-in-law. What could I say? … . Another man (as old as myself), who had evidently been reading Kipling, sent me about 60 pages of heart-breaking platitudes, which he supposed to be a sketch of military life. I wasn’t myself for a week after. Who wants to hear anything about “the well-known courage of the British soldier?” Dash the well-known courage of the British soldier (pardon my warmth) … . But the literary faculty is a special endowment, like the musical, or the mechanical , or the artistic; and I know of no one outside the “B” staff who possesses it in equal degree to you… . Mind, I myself beat you in craftmanship; but that is not the question. I am very glad to see that you appreciate the homage of your countrymen; but there are Australians and Australians; and no man, not even though he be called Miles Franklin, can serve two masters. My own choice was made long ago, and will be made very plain when “R’s R ” sees the light of the shop windows. I will write again in a month or so, meantime, Philosophically,
Oct . 5 (‘04’) I wish I could look over your shoulder and see that you are writing to my satisfaction. Mind you, not too much homicide (as with Montgomery ), nor too much lawless love (as with Dorrington). For, artistically viewed, red paint is cheap and vulgar; while giddiness is frankly squalid in itself, whether the characters be Lancelot and Guinever or Bottle-oh Bill and Squinty-eyed Poll. Now mind I’ve told you.
Colonel Birdofredom L. Peanut. with $1,000,000.000 is one thing, and the Minstrel Boy of feminine day-dreams is another thing entirely. You can’t get a chemical combination of the two. Don’t touch the first, unless you covet death-in-life. Please yourself about the second. But I don’t see why you should hankel after the job of keeping an Old Man, in addition to yourself. Miles, the subject is becoming painful.
Nov. 21 (‘04.).
I am sorry to go to the West without seeing you again. Blame It on the dear old “Bulletin”. If that disloyal rag had taken on my book, I would have seen you. with your foot on your native kangaroo-grass. I like the idea of meeting you at Fremantle, though I don’t like the idea of your going to that foggy atoll in the German Ocean. More of this anon. But be sure we shall yet, in some way have opportunity to compare conclusions. Philosophically, Tom Collins.
Grey St, Fremantle,
Feb. 28 (1905)
… . . Personally my view of the baby is expressed in a par, which I shall copy verbatim from “The Lyre Bird.” (Walt till I put this paper in the machine)— I heard them but I heeded not, for, drifting to a Hamlet-mood, I was contemplating the boneless mollusc which Mrs. F-P had left in my charge; and though, as a rule, I don’t care about children till they are old enough to stagger about, this one supplied as good fodder for my thinking faculties as it would have done for the digestive organs of my not very remote ancestors. Aeons of memory seemed to roll back in dreamy retrospect, till I fancied myself older than the satrapies of Victoria or Queensland; and I recalled the ancient time when I used to incur the displeasure of mothers and nurse-girls by stoutly and conscientiously repudiating their allegation that I was once a baby myself. As I viewed the cheap angel-gift, blinking and slobbering on my knees, I renewed—and will again and again renew—my protest against the impeachment. I admit that I was once a boy, even a very small boy—but a contentedly incapable, bald-headed baby, without a vestige of manners or self-respect; with creases round my wrists, and only two rodent-like teeth in the centre of my mouth— No, no-pardon me-no, no. Your sincere friend, Joe Furphy.
April 28 (‘05 )
This won’t do, no road. Not only am I kept in midnight ignorance of your welfare, but I am debarred from pouring my own literary sorrows into your shell-like ear … . For my own insignificant part, I cannot get rid of “Rigby’s Romance” no how … . Stephens, of course, won’t look at “R’s R.,” owing to the lamentable outlook of “S’L.” Present month’s half-yearly “statement” shows an aggregate sale of (lean against something, dear Miles) two copies… .
June 28 (‘05).
Vulgarly speaking, I think it is about up to me to tender you three words more of advice… .
Already you are entitled to be the most complacent woman in Australia; but I should be most sorry to see you avail yourself of this privilege. Cultivate discontent, dear girl. Put your foot on the best work you have hitherto done, in order to use it as a stepping stone to something better. But there is another consideration of greater moment still. Better you were not gifted with literary utterance at all than that you should turn this endowment to any other use than the bettering of our race. This may read like claptrap, but it contains the gravest truth within our horizon. I am not referring to morality in its narrower sense, but to moral elevation all along the line; a movement which has its roots in Social Economics. You cannot evade the magnificent responsibility. Just take your head in your hands for a moment, and consider what you are here for. “For the Glory of God, I suppose,” says you. A fine loose phrase; but how in the Fiend’s name can you glorify God except by championship of the lowly—an attitude In which the Redeemer of the world, irrespective of all other considerations, was always found. This subject, by the way, constitutes the kernel of “Rigby’s Romance” which is the main cause of my anxiety to see the book in print. And this happy turn of the subject brings me to the question of that belated and derelict work.
Meanjin Volume 2 Issue 3 1943
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles