Henry Savery memorial stone, Isle of the Dead, Tasmania
Henry Savery memorial stone, Isle of the Dead, Tasmania

Our Tasmanian editor, Rachel Edwards investigates the origin of the first published Australian novel, its distant legacy and the state of literacy today.

In 1825 a chap called Henry Savery, who had been sentenced for forgery was transported to Van Diemen’s land. He went on to become, via a stint writing a column using the pseudonym Hermit of Van Diemen’s Land and slandering various public figures, saved only by diaphanous nicknames – and via an unmatched moment in the history of the world where one small town had two newspapers with the same names and the same serial numbers, but I digress, Henry Savery went on to write what has become known as the first Australian novel. It is called Quintus Servinton and by all accounts it is an overwritten, dense, not very enjoyable read – and a thinly veiled autobiography and attempt to win back his wife, who had begun an affair with Sir Algernon Sidney Montagu, who was to join the Supreme Court in Hobart town, and who Montagu Bay was named after – and was brought up his by family friends, The Wordsworths.

Henry called himself ‘The Hermit of Van Diemen’s Land,’ an attempt at anonymity for writing a newspaper column (as indentured convict labour, it wasn’t all brickmaking and fending off bushrangers), in which he wrote assiduous and cutting summations of what was going on under Governor Arthur’s increasingly neurotic rule.

Quintus Servinton was published in 1830 and it varied most significantly from Savery’s life in its happy ending. It preceded Woman’s Love by another Van Diemonian, Mary Grimstone by 2 years and For the Term of His Natural Life, generally presumed to be the first Australian novel, by 44 years. For more academic detail about both Savery and Grimstone here is a PDF of E. Morris Miller’s 1958 paper ‘Australia’s First Two Novels, origins and background’

While it is a proud fact that these shores gave rise to the first Australian novel and it is often quoted that Tasmania has more readers per capita than other states – and more writers, we currently have only 50% functional literacy. 50% of people are ONLY functionally literate in Tasmania. It is a gobsmacking figure in Australia today and a heartbreaking one for Tasmania. In this, the International year of Communication, even more a call to action.

Readers and writers in Tasmania have a duty of care to others who struggle with these crucial life skills. While reading fiction makes the reader more empathetic and compassionate,  awards and recognition for writing are crucially important for Tasmania. To recognise and value the writing that is being done in Tasmania right now is to show that literacy is valued – and while spelling out a word in the supermarket may seem a long way from the books that have won the Tasmanian Literary Prizes, they are part of the same continuum. As a friend said “you can’t encourage kids to play footy and then take the AFL away.” The Tasmanian Literary Prize is a valuable institution that the State government must return to celebrate the strength and beauty of writing in this state and to show a society with decreasing literacy that reading and communication are valued, from the top down.

Here is an interview with Rod Howard, author of A Forger’s Tale, a biography of Henry, in 2011

Adapted from a filmed piece for the Tasmanian Leaders’ Program, July 2014.