The following is an edited extract from Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia by Susannah Fullerton.
Published by Picador Australia, June 2009.
Mark Twain came to Australia billed as ‘the funniest man in the world’ and Australians loved his dry humour and stories…
Their expectation was by now at fever pitch, their bodies perspiring from excitement and heat, and still the silence continued… And then, finally, Mark Twain began to speak. His voice was a slow quiet drawl, but the people of Horsham could hear every word, right to the back rows. Ambling through a chat with his audience, he narrated a story of a fishing excursion that netted a dead body instead of a fish, the audience began to laugh. In a languid monotone, he moved onto his silver-mining days in Nevada: ‘I could remember everything, whether it happened or not’, he told them, and the audience held their sides, in stitches. As if conversing with old friends in a smoking room, Twain continued, telling of his very own Huck Finn wrestling with his conscience over whether or not to turn the escaped slave Jim over to the authorities; the audience found their throats tightening with sadness. Then, with another quick change of mood, he regaled them with the saga of how he once stole a watermelon but then returned it to its owner, complaining it was green! Buttons popped off garments, straining beyond endurance with fits of laughter. The people of Horsham had just been treated to one of the best lectures Mark Twain had ever given. The Victorian township would never have another night like it.
Mark Twain arrived in Australian aboard the RMS Warrimoo, having followed Robert Louis Stevenson’s directions – cross America to San Francisco, sail west and it’s the first turning on your left. He knew he had quite a reputation to sustain. His travel books were well known, the characters Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were already much loved in Australia, and their creator was said to be ‘the funniest man in America’. No wonder he was welcomed like visiting royalty, besieged by reporters in every town, and faced packed halls at his fifty talks around the country.
During the tour Twain delivered three different lectures, though sometimes he was inspired to mix and match as he went. There were personal reminiscences, there were versions of his own novels and travel stories, there were dry asides, and there were moral lessons. As he delivered each one, his drawl became more pronounced (by the end of the tour he was known as ‘Mark Twang’ speaking ‘Murkan’), his face more deadpan, the pauses judged by ‘the five-millionth of an inch’. Telling a funny story, he had always said, was a ‘high and delicate art’. In Australia he perfected his art. Clara, who had sat through hundreds of his talks, commented of his stagecraft: ‘Father knew the full value of a pause and had the courage to make a long one when required for a big effect. And his inimitable drawling speech, which he often lost in private life, greatly increased the humourous effect on the stage… Cries that resembled the cries of pain could often be heard.’ Australians loved his stock favourites: the ‘Golden Arm’ story about a man who robs his wife’s grave to steal her prosthetic arm of solid gold (a dialect tale he’d been addicted to since boyhood); the story about a lost dime which left audiences rolling in the aisles; the stolen watermelon anecdote; the one about the diary Adam kept in Eden; the jumping frog tale; and episodes from the fictional lives of Huck, Jim and Tom. Passing easily from one story to the next and barely giving his audience breathing space as he did so, he was described by one reporter as ‘mount[ing] a balloon’ and throwing out ‘anecdote, story, incident, scraps of dialogue, short readings from his books, and spontaneous… observation’, before returning to earth.
Twain was just one of many fascinating authors who visited Australia, and in Brief Encounters (Picador Australia), Susannah Fullerton tells the stories of others, such as Darwin, Trollope, Conrad, Stevenson, Kipling, Jack London, Conan Doyle, DH Lawrence, Agatha Christie and HG Wells.
Susannah Fullerton is a well-known speaker and writer, is President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, Patron of the Kipling Society of Australia, and leader of popular literary tours to the UK.