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date: 30 April 2017

Print Culture in Colonial Australia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

It was a Victorian commonplace that the settler populations of British colonies like Australia and New Zealand were brash, uncultured, and barely literate. If they were materialistic and mercenary, literacy, and the consumption of books, was central to their acquisitive culture, not excluded from it. The colonial book and print trade was vital in colonial economies and Imperial exchange, and Melbourne, Australia, was the thriving heart of this trade for the second half of the 19th century.

Colonial reading markets echoed, but also magnified the transformations in the reading market brought about by distance, modernity, and mechanization. One example of this is in the configurations of “railway reading” and in some cases “tramway reading” in the colonies, which suggests that the slightly belated and somewhat more chaotic configurations of Australian colonial transport systems and movement, as seen in Australia, reflect—as well as facilitate—a slightly different pattern of reading.

Many prior studies have concentrated on segments of the colonial reading/writing population, and so the emergent picture has identified segmentation and sedimentation in the colonial readership. In a recent examination of British Victorian railway guides, Tina Young Choi suggests that railway guides were influential on a traveler’s experience of space and the ability to assemble a coherent narrative of their journey and travel through space. Tramway and travel maps in Australia, alongside fiction and diaries, suggest that colonial mapping and guides may offer a somewhat less clear narrative manual. Looking at the travels, reading accounts, and mapping localized fictions and readers further emphasizes some of the flaws in the previously neat pictures that have already been uncovered—that class divisions amongst readers, as on forms of transport, were fluid; that readerships intersected and overlapped in complex ways, particularly in terms of high, middle, and low culture; that gendered reading was not as segregated as had been mapped (or not mapped), subsequently. Finally, there were productive and disruptive divisions that may have been overlooked in a country made up of colonies, where even the gauge of the railway was not standardized between borders, well beyond the period of the British gauge wars.