State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 28 October 1981

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‘De Rougemont and us and Some Digressions’

The subject of this article was a famous hoax played on the British public in 1898. In August of that year Wide world magazine, a magazine that specialised in publishing ‘true’ stories to highlight its motto, that fact is stranger than fiction, began serialising the adventures of Louis de Rougemont. These were later published as The adventures of Louis de Rougemont as told by himself (London: Heinemann, 1899). The adventures supposedly took place in the north-west of Australia, in the tropics and among wild and cannabalistic aborigines. De Rougemont shot into instant fame and lectured on his alleged explorations before as prestigious a body as the British Association for the Advancement of Science. For a period he was accepted totally until some Australians, resident in London, began to voice their scepticism of the truth of his stories in the light of such flights of the imagination as flocks of wombats. The hoax was completely revealed in a special publication by the Daily chronicle entitled Grin or Rougemont; or the story of a modern Robinson Crusoe, as told by himself in the pages of the Daily chronicle (London: Edward Lloyd, 1898). It was a brilliantly satirical piece of investigative journalism, aptly illustrated by Phil May, which revealed that Louis de Rougemont was one Henry Grien (or Grin), a native of Switzerland who had travelled to Australia in the 1870’s as a valet to the governor of Western Australia. He had left this employment and had knocked about the country, variously employed as a photographer, pearl trader, cook and waiter. In Sydney he met Harry Stockdale, a bushman who had explored the inland regions of the Cambridge Gulf in the 1880’s. It was from Stockdale's diary, the reports of the explorers Giles and Forrest, and his own fertile imagination that Grien spun the story of Louis de Rougemont.
Once the hoax was revealed Grien abandoned his claims to factual reportage. He became an itinerant lecturer, even advertising himself in South Africa as “the greatest liar on earth.” He died in poverty in the workhouse at Kensington, London, in 1921.
Lawson's article, undated but probably written in 1899, takes this hoax and uses it to propound his own theories about the relevant places of fact and fiction, and Australian fiction in particular. It is notable for its defence of de Rougemont in the wake of a violent reaction from a previously all too credulous public.
The manuscript, a six page typescript with authorial corrections, is printed in full with only minor adjustments to spelling.
Now, that it is all over and forgotten, I cannot, for the life of me, see where was the sense or need in the howl that was raised against De Rougemont whose descriptions or pen pictures of savage life and scene in remote and unknown territory of remote and hitherto unknown Australia are the most romantic, interesting and perhaps the most reliable of any writing, in connection with Australia, published by an English magazine up to date. What, in this connection, had Australia to get mad about? I must admit that I felt just as wild as any of De Rougemont's critics — at the first go off; but that was mainly because he got there with his scenery and savages before I did with mine. He crowded low and roosted high until the glorious opportunity came; then he seized it. And he made a bigger splash in three months than any other Australian writer has begun to make in a hundred years. Seeing that, as Australian booksellers and publishers know well, English and Scottish editors and publishers are constantly writing and enquiring after Australian copy, and Australian writers, what excuse would we have for bucking if the most conceited and least literary globe-trotter on the seven seas were to write us upside down and back to front from one end of Australia to the other — from the Gulf to the Bight, from Sydney to Perth, and publish it in the biggest magazine in the world?1 If we won't send ‘em facts — and the fiction too — if we are too easy going and careless, or tired, or haven't got sufficient confidence in ourselves to do that — what are they to do? You don't suppose a British journalist is going to hump swag, dig, shear, go droving, knock down his cheques in the city, fence, grub, cut
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scrub and dig tanks and get lambed down at bush shanties, and “run in” at bush towns, and have the Out-Backs horrors and perish of thirst on the great awful blazing plains for the best part of a life time, in order to get at the local colour of the Australian Bush? Or tramp the cities with the unemployed and doss in the Domain — to be knocked up and moved on by a policeman every hour or so — so as to obtain concrete facts concerning Australian city life? — and the pessimism necessary to the life of Australian literature?
Looking at it from a commercial point of view: How have we benefitted ourselves or our own country by bursting De Rougemont? If we'd let him alone we'd have scooped several British Shindikits, sure! — after they had opened up a lot more pastoral country, and, maybe, found a new goldfield or two, by accident. Then look at it from the sentimental side. According to De Rougemont (and the British Public believed in him as blindly and implicitly2 as Young Australia believes in cricket) according to De Rougemont Australia was a wild romantic and picturesque region: a region of Sinbaddish whales and crocodiles — and flying wild pigs that burrow underground daytime, and rise in clouds against the stars of the tropical night. Australia was a land of black warriors and dusky brides: — the latter to be had for asking by genuine ship-wrecked sailors and sold or exchanged to the outside public; a land where cups of gold were as common amongst the tribes as are pint-pots in the “Out-Back” known to us. A land from which all the Mayne Reid and Deadwood Dick literature was to come now that the old fields had petered out! What have we done? we Australian writers? We have given Australia away to the Britisher and cut our own throats!
Supposing we all went home, and took Jim and Bill from Out-Back, and King Billy (whom I met just now cadging in King Street, dressed in a very dirty cast off coat, a filthy and otherwise shocking pair of pants — and wearing a battered tall hat and swinging a walking stick — and by whom I was promptly recognised as a “countryman o’ mine” — to the tune of sixpence) —. Supposing we all went “home”, what sort of an Australia could we take to England as an improvement on De Rougemont's? How many syndicates could we capture and ship out? even if our country laid low? What sort of cheques would we make? But — fortunately for romance and Australia — and such is the cussedness of things — we would, in all human probability, be promptly looked upon as bigger liars than De Rougemont, and so fall into the trap we were so eager to dig for him.
Speaking of liars a great and popular liar can damn his own tribe, root and branch, in print and under a transparent veil of “fiction” and “nothing said”: he is just as big a liar as De Rougemont, because he says his personal facts and experiences are fiction; but De Rougemont, who tells a hugely interesting and well written story which harms no one — quite the reverse — and says it's all true: he's damned at once. And what for? When we read a book of adventure we want to believe it's true, and if it is well written we do believe it's true — whether we know it or not. We couldn't be reading it and believing all the time that it's a pack of lies. The same with plays. And all the time we are seeing and hearing a drama or reading a romance we have a vague, dreamy, comfortable sort of feeling as of going some day to the country where the hero went and doing better than he did there — having before us his experiences and blunders to profit by. And, if the writer tells us it's all true — (in case he incidentally crowded us a little) what do we want to slang him for? Why go to such pains to prove he's an unprincipled liar. If De Rougemont had told the British public, in the first place, that his work was pure (and impure) fiction, from beginning to end, the chances are they would have thought he was a liar sooner than we did. Ain't it marvelous?
And, another thing: A writer can have as many moods and different opinions and be just as inconsistent in print as any one else, yet write exactly as he feels, under the thousand-and-one different conditions of life. so long as he separates his moods, or feelings, and conflicting fancies and opinions (or notions) and heads ‘em — and his inconsistencies with “Bill says” or ends ‘em “Jim rejoins”. He puts the truth on to Jim and Bill because, if he told it himself, critics like those of the Sydney Bulletin “Red Page” and “Aboriginalities Columns”3 would hunt through his data till they found an error somewhere
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and proved him to be a liar; whereas, if he writes well enough, his readers believe in Bill and Jim, no matter how widely their politics differ; their author is never charged with inconsistency nor self-contradiction. But in order to be let alone generally, a writer needs to be about ten times bigger than the next biggest man — as Kipling is at present. De Rougemont didn't know the tricks of the trade so he was only about two, or maybe three times bigger, and that's what was the matter with him. It was a glorious opportunity lost through not knowing the tricks of the trade. He should have followed the good old plan of taking a couple of mates with him to share the expenses and adventures and help carry some of the incidents — also to share the “gins”. It was a woeful and unpardonable waste of “gins” — from a Never Never point of view. He could have finished up nicely with a letter from one of those old, trusty and true companions in adventure and vicissitude (who are now married and settled down and enjoying the gold they risked their lives and slaughtered savages to steal). Such a letter would have clinched the public faith.
We've been told, since Adam's time, that the public want to be humbugged. The public has said to itself, over and over again, and — have provided it millions of times: yet the average young writer — who knows more than the public — or than his self for that matter — will not believe the public and goes on trying to dis-humbug it till he gets kicked out of his lodgings for not paying up nor showing signs of being able to do so in the near future: or until he finds out — or the fact is proved to him by an accident — say the rapid sale of 20,000 copies of a book he wrote, spare times, to humbug himself.
But, about De Rougemont: From a reader's point of view — or rather from my point of view as a reader — for I find it safer to speak for myself (as most authors do, any way it goes) — I've read De Rougemont's yarn, every line of it and I think the story is “delightful in its force and simplicity” (and frankness); as realistic and convincing as a murderer's confession taken down by a man who is intelligent enough to put what the murderer meant to say in plain English, without being sufficiently well educated or cultured to go chasing off the track after “First Germ Cells”. The clouds of wombats and bags made of possum hair (he should have said skins, for possums are furry not hairy) were painful to me (which proves the yarn was good from my point of view) and I wished that De Rougemont had shown his yarn to someone who'd seen possums and wombats, for I'd seen and hunted both and that's what ailed me on this point. I considered wombats less likely birds than pigs even, for pigs keep on the surface, anyway they keep their snouts above the muck, whereas wombats burrow and live a considerable depth underground. But I don't recollect ever having benefitted by having seen possums and wombats, and now I reckon I've lost by it. I hadn't seen whales harpooned, nor turtles ridden, so De Rougemont's whales and turtles were all right as far as I was concerned4 — they didn't jolt me. However, I hope he'll have these little matters set right in a revised edition for I'm going to buy that book, because it's going to be one of the gospels of childhood of the second or third generation from here: the Australian Robinson Crusoe which grave parents will enjoy secretly or under the pretence of reading aloud to the children (expurgated edition) and even after said nippers are able to read for themselves. I want to have a bound copy of the first edition in the family.

1

Wide world magazine, April 1898–1965, absorbed into Geographical magazine. It was edited at this time by William G. Fitz-Gerald who wrote the introduction to the 1899 edition of The adventures of Louis de Rougemont, which described how Grin first approached his magazine to publish his story.

2

The extent to which de Rougemont was accepted is shown in the fact that he was asked to lecture before the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

3

The “Red Page” appeared on the inside wrapper of the Bulletin and contained short essays, criticism and notes on books and writers. “Aboriginalities” was another regular feature of the Bulletin consisting of short notes and queries on almost anything relating to Australia and Australians.

4

It was de Rougemont's tales of riding on the backs of swimming turtles which were apparently the only aspects of his story which was questioned by his readers and lecture audiences, a public which accepted his accounts of “clouds of wombats and bags made of possum hair”.