Image: 'A direct north general view of Sydney Cove...1794' possibly by Thomas Watling. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Dixon Galleries, State Library of New South Wales.
This case study focuses on literary institutions, sociability, and book culture in colonial New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land from 1800-1870. As these colonies developed from dedicated penal establishments into more expansive political and economic entities through the nineteenth century, competing ideological forces sought to govern the ways in which books were accessed. Unlike later settler-colonies in the Southern Hemisphere, which saw robust and relatively inclusive literary cultures develop from their outset, literary life in the penal colonies was typically characterised by closed coteries, and public anxieties over the nature of the literary culture that would take root there. This research has two strands: the first considers the role of various branches of officialdom in establishing local literary cultures, particularly focusing on how private philanthropy, and associational culture, intersected with public office. The second charts the rise and fall of prominent literary institutions, including the Australian Subscription Library (1826-1869), the Hobart Town Mechanics Institute (1827-1871), and the Tasmanian Public Library (1849-1870), and various commercial libraries established by booksellers and others, assessing their influence in defining the parameters of colonial reading culture. This case study seeks to determine how far a conservative and somewhat fraught reliance on the literature (in William St Clair’s terms) of the ‘Old Canon’, in public and private collections, shaped a self-consciously colonial ‘reading nation.’ I am also interested in establishing how far the legacy of convict transportation itself shaped the character of literary culture in colonial New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, and in examining the points of connection and divergence with corresponding reading communities elsewhere in the British colonial world.