A social history of books and reading: Ivanhoe Reading Circle at 90 years old.

In the beginning

The minutes of the preliminary meeting of the Ivanhoe Reading Circle held on 13 April 1920 record:

“It was agreed to start a reading circle.”

“It was decided that the book for the first month should be [George Eliot’s] The Mill on the Floss.”

The meeting was duly held on 18 May. “Thirty-three present. We had a glorious night … A very high standard was set … The quality of the papers was very high” noted the founder, Rev R W Rock, in his diary.

The process of choosing the reading list for each year has been well documented in the various histories of the Reading Circle (see Stephanie Berry, “Walking with the gods” (2000) p39 et seq). Although there have been marked variations in the selections throughout the history, which mirror publishing trends, especially the growth of independent Australian houses, some themes have remained constant – a love of Dickens, read 29 times over the ninety years, Jane Austen, read 10 times, and Shakespeare 7 plays and a selection of sonnets.

The first decade

In the early decades, the books were simply chosen by majority ballot. Thus the books from the 1920s demonstrate a strong preference for the then best sellers – Anglo Saxon, 19th century mostly male authors: Dickens (9 selections in the decade), Walter Scott (4 selections), J.M. Barrie (3 selections), as well as R.L.Stevenson, Nigel Hawthorne, and Elizabeth Gaskell.

A few American authors appeared (Mark Twain, R.W. Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes) and only one Australian author, Mrs. Aeneas Gunn, We of the Never Never.

It is interesting to note that in 1923 the group only met once. The minutes recall: “a discussion took place as to whether the Reading Circle should go into recess during the absence of the President (Rev. Rock) on his tour & on the motion of Mr. Lang seconded by Mrs. Stack; it was decided not to meet again until March of the following year.”!

By the 1930s a degree of structure had been introduced into the selection system requiring members to vote for the year’s syllabus from within given categories: Drama, Classics, Poetry, and Non-fiction. Although the preference for the old faithful 19th century classics continued (Dickens was again read 6 times, Scott 3 times) and also Galsworthy, Thackeray, Hugh Walpole and R.D. Blackmore Lorna Doone, some more modern selections were made – J.B. Priestley, The Good Companions (published in 1929) and H.G.Wells Kipps (1905) a novel of the rags to riches category which was later adapted to film and to the stage as the musical “Half a Sixpence”. Poems of Longfellow, Whittier (twice) and Oliver Goldsmith were read.

Some European authors were added, mainly 19th classics as well, readily available in translation, such as Balzac and Victor Hugo. A few Australian authors were chosen, including an early work of Ion Idriess -his account of the foundation of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Flynn of the Inland (1933), and the expatriate Australian author Martin Boyd whose book “The Montforts”, the story of his A’Beckett ancestors, published in 1928 was on the list in 1935.

Some lighter reading selections as always were included such as V.C Buckley With a Passport and Two Eyes (1939) published in 1933, an account of a voyage around the world, and Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1935), a collection of essays by English humorist Jerome K. Jerome, published in 1886.



The group began to take a broader attitude to its reading in this decade. The first non European author appeared on the list in 1941, Letters of an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman, (published anonymously in 1934, but subsequently attributed to Arvind Nehra), a genteel and non-confrontational examination of manners and Imperial relations.

This theme was also evident in the selection of Yutang Lin, The Importance of Living (publ. 1937, read in 1949). Lin, a Chinese writer and translator of Chinese texts into English became a bestselling author for this book and his publication My Country and My People.

Interestingly the US monthly magazine, The Reader’s Digest was selected for reading in 1940. The Digest contained articles on a wide range of topics and maintained a conservative social and political stance (particularly on communism). The magazine had then been recently been published for the first time in an international edition in 1938 in the United Kingdom, and was available, even though it was not published directly in Australia until 1946.

Reflecting the wider community interest in world politics and then the post War future, “The Atlantic Charter and the Report of the Princeton Conference” was read in 1944. These documents when formally published were made available in pamphlet from by the British War Office. The Charter’s foundation principles were to become the basis for the important international agreements in 1948 such as the United Nations Charter, and the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). The Charter also contained an acknowledgement by the governments of the USA and Britain, of the right of all peoples to self determination, the principle on which the post War independence of the French and UK colonial possessions was based.

Political interest prevailed in the selection of The “Red Dean of Canterbury”, clergyman Hewlett Johnson’s book, “The Socialist Sixth of the World” (published in 1939, read in 1943). This is an attempt to place a positive spin on the Russian revolution and the new system of government and property ownership, a position the author maintained both pre and post WW2. Other aspects of the Second World War were reflected in the choice, for example, of American journalist Nora Waln’s eye-witness account of the rise of Nazism in Germany, Reaching for the Stars (publ 1939, read 1941) and of novelist Neville Shute’s war-time escape story Pied Piper (publ 1942, read 1943).

A wider variety of Australian authors were present across a number of genres (critic Walter Murdoch’s Selected Essays) (read 1941 and 1944); journalist Ernestine Hill’s travelogue The Great Australian Loneliness ( publ 1937, read 1942) and her historical novel of Ann and Matthew Flinders, My Love Must Wait (publ 1941, read 1945); Eleanor Dark’s far more substantial, path breaking and prescient novel of colonization and cultural interaction in 1788 – 1792, The Timeless Land (publ 1941, read 1946); Bernard O’Reilly’s true life account of civil aviation disaster and rescue, Green Mountain; Frank Dalby Davison’s Man-shy; and Henry Lawson’s short story collection, While the Billy Boils.



Australian authors were now included as a matter of course and the Circle embarked on novels and poems by Tom Collins, C.J. Dennis, Douglas Stewart, Kylie Tennant, Rolf Boldrewood and Patrick White, whose great novel, The Tree of Man (published 1955, read 1957), was the first of the Australian “classics” selections. Later in 1959, the poetry selection was The Penguin Book of Australian Verse.

W.H. Newnham, Melbourne The Biography Of A City (published in 1956, to coincide with the Olympic Games and read in 1957), showed the interest in local issues and in the history of Melbourne, which has been maintained throughout the decades – most recently with the reading of Robyn Annear’s novel of early Melbourne, Bearbrass, in 2003 and her A City Lost and Found (2006), an exploration of the city’s buildings through a history of the Melbourne demolition firm, Whelan the Wrecker.

Dickens was read only three times in this decade. More unusual texts included Arthur Grimble’s A Pattern of Islands (published in 1956 read in 1958), an account of his time as the Administrator of the then Gilbert and Ellice Islands (Kiribati and Tuvalu of today).


1960s & 1970s

From the 1960s book selections explored new writings, with only 11 repeat selections, mainly 19th century favourites, Dickens, Hardy and H.H. Richardson. Interest in things scientific had begun with Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition (1952) and Robert Jungk’s book, Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists (published 1958, read 1967), the first published account of the Manhattan Project and the German atomic bomb project.

D.H. Lawrence, an interesting absence from the earlier decades, was first studied in the Circle in 1967 (Sons and Lovers). The Circle however read Margaret Drabble early in her career; reading The Needle’s Eye (published in 1972), in 1979. Other female authors of note included Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway (1969 and 1999) – her To the Lighthouse was first read in 1952 and A Room of one’s Own in 1996- and Judith Wright’s account of her ancestors The Generations of Men (1971). Her selected poems had been read in 1964 and her personal memoir, Half a Lifetime, in 2001.

This period is notable for the enduring quality of the texts selected, with strong choices of contemporary novels (Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, High Wind in Jamaica), classics (Henry James), plays (Brecht, Ibsen, A Man for All Seasons), Australian writing from The Letters of Rachel Henning to Randolph Stow’s To the Islands and Thomas Kenneally, and, over the two decades, an unrivalled selection of English poetry (Blake, Browning, Burns, Coleridge, Day Lewis, De la Mare, Keats, Milton, Wilfred Owen, Shelley, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Yeats, and Judith Wright). Stephanie Berry points to the influence of Lindsay Newnham, a senior English and Classics teacher, in these selections in this time.


The widespread availability of books and increase in the size of publishing lists meant a very diverse selection of books was read in the modern period. There were only 17 books repeated: the inaugural text (Mill on the Floss) and other Circle favorites, Dickens (Our Mutual Friend), Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford), Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D’Urbevilles) and Jane Austen (Emma and Northanger Abbey, as well as reading for the first time, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility and her unfinished Sanditon).

Australian authors now comprised more than 50 % of the lists, with not only classics such as A Fortunate Life, My Brother Jack, Christina Stead, Ruth Park, and Patrick White but many contemporary authors, including Murray Bail, Geraldine Brooks, Edmund Campion, Peter Carey, Robert Dessaix, Robert Drewe, Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Gwen Harwood, Shirley Hazzard, Dorothy Hewitt, Thomas Keneally, Christopher Koch, David Malouf, David Marr, Sally Morgan, Alex Miller, Tim Winton, and Amy Witting.

The structure of the syllabus to include classics, poetry, drama and contemporary novels continued although was applied less rigorously as new publications featured more prominently in the selections each succeeding year. The Circle was not however a slave to fashion. The winners and shortlisted books of the now much promoted literary prizes were not automatic inclusions on the syllabus. Nonetheless, of the 41 Booker Prize winners and shortlisted texts (the prize instituted in 1969 for novels written in English by Commonwealth, Irish or Zimbabwean writers, increasingly prominent from the late 1980s), the Reading Circle has read 19, listed here in the year in which they were on the syllabus, winners: -Schindler’s Ark (1985), Staying On (1986), The Bone People (1988), Hotel du Lac (1989), Possession (1993), The Remains of the Day (1995), The English Patient (1998), Last Orders (1998), A God of Small Things (1999), True History of the Kelly Gang (2002), Disgrace (2004), The Sea (2008), The Inheritance of Loss (2009) and Wolf Hall (2010) ; shortlisted works: – Remembering Babylon (1997), Atonement (2003), Unless (2005), The Master (2005), The Secret River (2007). Of the Australian, Miles Franklin Prize winners, awarded since 1957, we have read To the Islands (1960), Voss (1971), Tirra Lira by the River (1984), My Brother Jack (1984), The Great World (1992), Cloudstreet (1994), Highways to a War (1998), Eucalyptus (2000), Journey to the Stone Country (2004) and The Great Fire (2005). Nominees for this prize have also made the list: The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf (1999) and also Remembering Babylon), Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop by Amy Witting (2001), Conditions of Faith by Alex Miller (2002) and Gilgamesh by Joan London (2003). It is interesting to note that of the myriad American literary awards, we have read only three Pulitzer Prize winning books – To Kill a Mockingbird (1967), The Hours by Michael Cunningham (2000) and March by Geraldine Brooks (2006).

The enthusiasm for plays and poetry waned in this time. For example, we see only 9 plays since 1980 – Eugene O’ Neill Long Day’s Journey into Night (1980), David Williamson The Department (1982), G.B. Shaw Arms and the Man (1983), Ben Jonson Volpone (1986), Ray Lawler Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1986), Oscar Wilde An Ideal Husband (1993), Tom Stoppard Arcadia (2000) and Much Ado about Nothing (2002). Poetry suffered the same fate, reflecting declining appreciation for poetry as a literary style; selections of poetry or volumes of poetry were studied only 9 times in the last twenty years.

Instead, histories of scientific discovery feature strongly in the later part of this period. They are typified by journalist Simon Winchester, represented by The Surgeon of Crowthorne (2001), Krakatoa (2006), and Bomb, Book and Compass (2009). Others, among the annual inclusion, included The Lighthouse Stevensons (2002), Galileo’s Daughter (2002), and The Bayeux Tapestry (2008).

Memoirs, biographies and autobiographies have also continued to be popular. In this period, see for example, Glen Tomasetti Thoroughly Decent People (1979), Edmund Campion Rockchoppers (1985), Sally Morgan My Place (1988), Amirah Inglis Amirah: An UnAustralian Childhood (1990, Jill Ker Conway The Road From Coorain (1992), David Marr Patrick White (1993), Barbara Blackman Glass After Glass (1999), Peter Doherty A Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize (2007), The Flower Hunter (2009) – the story of the life of botanical illustrator, Ellis Rowan, St. Judes(2008), the story of a school for underprivileged Tanzanian children, and biographies of Dame Enid Lyons (2009), and Dame Nellie Melba (2010).

Overseas examples of these themes included Lawrence Olivier, Confessions of An Actor (1986), Wilfred Thesiger Life of my Choice (1991), Ann Moyal Breakfast with Beaverbrook (1997), Anne Chisholm Rumer Godden (2000), Christopher Hibbert Disraeli – A Personal History (2007) and three outstanding Claire Tomalin biographies, The Invisible Woman (1995), Jane Austen – A Life (2001) and Samuel Pepys – The Unequalled Self (2004).


Miscellaneous themes

The Circle has always allowed itself a lighter side, in moderation… Jerome K Jerome was read in 1935 and his immortal Three Men in a Boat in 1972; O. Henry in 1946; Diary of a Nobody (1967) and Voltaire’s satire, Candide, in 1983. Other lighter reading in recent years included Colette’s Gigi and the Cat – two novellas from the French novelist (read 1982) and Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie (read 1978).

Crime and spy fiction of a literary bent made sporadic appearances, beginning with the early representative of its genre, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1949) and The Moonstone (1953 and 2005), and reaching most recently the prince of the hardboiled stylists, Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep, in 2009. We also read John Buchan’s Greenmantle (1940), G K Chesterton in 1973 and 1996, the unusual Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1996) and Peter Ackroyd’s medieval whodunit Clerkenwell Tales (2007).

At the other end of the spectrum, the Greek and Latin Greats were represented by Aeschylus (1962), Sophocles (1967), Vergil (1969), Plato (1972), Euripides (1978) and Apuleius (1991); Homer awaits. The foundations of English were captured by the Anglo-Saxon saga Beowulf (2003) and by Chaucer (1954). The Russian Masters have always been present – Tolstoy (Anna Karenina in 1935 and 2007 and War and Peace in 1951), Chekhov (two plays, 1957, 1972 – not yet his short stories), Dostoyevsky (1955 and 1959), Gorky (1970), Pasternak (1960), Solzhenitsyn (1974) and Turgenev (1968 and 1993).

Political and topical writing makes its occasional presence: the 1940s texts have already been noted above. Other works of war-time reminiscence include Wilfred Kent Hughes (1951), Ray Parkin (1961) and Peter Ryan (1963); social criticism, political memoirs and Australian historical writing included Robin Boyd’s Australia’s Home (1962), Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1966), Robert Menzies (1970), Geoffrey Blainey -The Tyranny of Distance (1973) and Triumph of the Nomads (1979) (Blainey has also been Guest Speaker twice), John Menadue (2005) and, most recently, Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father (2010).


Democratic in temper; diverse in taste; and committed to fellowship and good reading, the Ivanhoe Reading Circle celebrates 90 years and looks forward to many more years of discussion.


Stephanie Berry, Walking with the gods, A History of the Ivanhoe Reading Circle 1920- 2000 Melbourne (2000).
Lindsay L. Newnham, Talking About Books, The First 50 Years Of The Ivanhoe Reading Circle 1920 – 1969 Melbourne (1970)
Thelma McLachlan The Ivanhoe Reading Circle – Silver Jubilee 1920 -1945, Melbourne (1945).
Heather Low The Ivanhoe Reading Circle (this paper is about people), typescript, 17pp, Melbourne (1985).
Peter Willis for editing suggestions, proof reading and great encouragement!
By Eleneth Woolley