Paul & Hettie Wenz Project

Portrait of Paul Wenz by Paul Laurens now in the Wenz Collection, Forbes & District Historical Society Museum, NSW.

Portrait of Paul Wenz by French artist Paul Laurens. This painting is now in the Wenz Collection, Forbes & District Historical Society Museum, NSW.

An initiative by Merrill Findlay to conserve the Wenz Collection of books at the Forbes public library; to build upon the Wenzes’ cultural legacy; and to establish cultural links between Paul Wenz’s birthplace, the French city of Reims, and the Shire of Forbes, where Paul & Hettie spent most of their married lives.

Seven hundred historic books stacked in a back room of the public library in Forbes, New South Wales, some of them dating from the 1830s, are in desperate need of conservation and a permanent new home.

The books are from the personal library of local pastoralists and world travellers, Paul Wenz and Hettie Dunne, who settled on Nanima Station on the Lachlan River between Forbes and Cowra after their marriage in 1898. The books map the minds of this couple who, despite the isolation of their property, included amongst their friends and acquaintances writers such as Miles Franklin, Dorothea Mackellar, André Gide, Jack London and Joseph Conrad, and Joe Krug II, one of Paul’s old mates from Reims, for example.  Their library is a record of their rich intellectual lives, their engagement with the issues of their day, and their enthusiasm for experiencing cultures beyond the frontiers of what were then the French, British and Dutch empires.

Paul Wenz himself is remembered as a writer who published in both his native French and in English. Some of his stories, such as Fifty-five Minutes Late, evoke rural life on the plains of inland Australia before and after Federation (1901), while others draw on his overseas travels.

Wenz is best known in Australia for his Diary of a New Chum, first published in Melbourne in 1908, and republished in 1990, in Diary of a New chum and Other Lost Stories (Angus & Robertson), edited by Maurice Blackman, with translations by Patricia Brulant, Margaret Whitlam and Maurice Blackman. This new edition includes a preface by Frank Moorhouse and notes by Jean-Paul Delamotte. A translation by Maurice Blackman of another Wenz novel, The Thorn In The Flesh, was published in 2004 (Imprint, Sydney), with an introduction by Australian writer, Helen Garner.

It seems that Thorn in the Flesh was strongly inspired by Wenz’s visits to Netley Station, the million acre Darling River pastoral station associated with the Dunne family, where Hettie spent at least some of her childhood and youth. [She is also known to have lived at Linden, the family mansion at the corner of Williams Road and what is now Dandenong Highway, Prahran, Melbourne.) Part of Old Netley Station, is now part of Bindara Station, owned by Barb and Bill Arnold. Barb commented that reading Thorn in the Flesh was ‘like history coming alive’. She felt certain that the novel was set on Netley.

Wenz’s publications in French, some of them written under the pseudonym Paul Warrego, include A l’autre bout du monde : aventures et moeurs Australiennes (1905); Un Australien tout neu (Diary of a New Chum) republished in French by Petite Maison for Association culturelle franco-australienne, Boulogne, 1989; Contes Australiens : sous la croix du sud (Paris, 1911); Bonnes gens de la Grande Guerre (Paris, 1918); Choses d’hier (Paris, 1919); L’echarde (Paris, 1931), and Le Pays de leurs peres (Their Fathers’ land) about Australian ‘Diggers’ on the Western Front in WWI. [See The Delamotte Phenomenon: cultural reciprocity, by CB Thornton-Smith, in Explorations No. 24, 2010,  pp.6 -16. >>]

Meeting the Wenzes at Forbes Library

I was introduced to the Wenzes and their personal library in 2002 by Wenz-scholar and enthusiast Dr Jean-Paul Delamotte during one of his regular pilgrimages to Wenz country, and was soon captivated, not only by the aging books, but also by their former owners and their potential to inspire a new generation of writers along the Lachlan. I dreamed that one day the Wenz Collection would be more appropriately housed, conserved and displayed in a modern cultural complex of some kind, rather than in the inaccessible and dusty back room of the local library … and I still hope that one day this will happen. A shorter-term option may be a climate-controlled glass case in the library’s reading room, or in the Forbes Museum, however.

In 2004 I catalogued the Wenz Collection as a first step towards conserving it and, after Forbes Shire Councillors resolved to adopt a Heritage Committee recommendation “That Council apply for a National Library of Australia Community Heritage Grant for the conservation and valuation of the Paul Wenz book collection held at the Forbes Library” (17 June 2004), did what was necessary to get the submission in the mail. Our application was partially successful: the sum we received from the National Library Community Heritage Fund enabled the Shire Council to commission a Heritage Significance Assessment of the books in the back room of the library and the associated memorabilia in the Forbes Museum, as a necessary first step towards their conservation. But much more still needs to be done, and many intriguing questions about the provenance of books in the Wenz Collection remain to be answered.

Forbes, 29 June 2004

Phew! The Community Heritage Grant application is now on its way to Canberra after a last minute panic to catch the 4 pm courier. My thanks to Paul Bennett and all the staff at Forbes Shire Council office who helped in the rush to meet the deadline.

Many other people contributed to the funding application with their letters of support and professional quotes, and I thank them too.

The support letters confirmed that the Wenz Collection is highly valued by many people, and for many different reasons. Paris-based writer, translator, publisher and Wenz scholar Jean-Paul Delamotte wrote about the Wenzes rural Australian links, for example, as well as their associations with American writer, Jack London, whose work Paul Wenz translated, and their friendship with Joseph Krug, founder of the Krug champagne empire.

Delamotte also drew attention to the Wenzes’ global travels, and to Paul Wenz’s work as a Red Cross volunteer during WWI, when he crossed the channel between France and Britain 55 times with wounded Australian soldiers. Wenz later wrote a book about the Diggers he helped to save.

Nicholas Pounder, an antiquarian bookseller in Double Bay, enthusiastically supported the Paul & Hettie Wenz Project as “not only an appropriate memorial but as a resource to scholarship – the best of many ways in which this writer’s life and works may be promoted.”

Forbes Shire Council’s Heritage Consultant, architect David Scobie, gave a brief professional assessment of the Collection’s heritage significance and its links with local institutions, such as the Forbes Library, the Family History Group and the Forbes Museum, as well as its associations with local heritage sites, including Nanima Station. He believes the Collection “should provide an important Cultural and Economic asset in promoting Forbes.”

Jan Richards, manager of library services, Central West Libraries Cooperative, likewise emphasized the Wenz Collection’s potential as a “catalyst for further cultural development in Forbes.”

Dulcie Lavers, President of Forbes and District Historical Society Inc, reminded Council that the Wenz Collection of books now stored at the Forbes Library complemented the Museum’s own Wenz Collection of ‘irreplaceable items, such as photos, books, art, documents and numerous other exhibits’ which the Forbes Morning Rotary Club is now documenting as part of their volunteer project to build a web site for the Museum. ‘It is through these displays that our future generations can enjoy the history of this wonderful town of Forbes,’ Dulcie Lavers wrote.

Hannah Semler, executive officer of Arts Out West, said her organization was ‘excited’ about the Wenz Collection and would ‘endeavor to assist Council in all possible ways’ with the project because ‘[b]y maintaining this collection within the region and bringing professional expertise in to properly archive, document and manage [it], not only will we in the Central West, but all Australians have the opportunity to learn from, be inspired and to recognize aspects of our common heritage, hereto little acknowledged.’

Rob Willis, a folklore collector for the National Library of Australia, social historian and long-time resident of Forbes, echoed claims that the Collection was ‘an important link with the cultural past of the Forbes area’. But to him the Wenz Collection ‘also reinforces the multicultural traditions of this region, particularly with the French.’

Dominic Williams, a member of the executive committee of the Australian French Association of Science (AFAS) and a director of the Chateau Champsaur Wine Society, expanded upon the theme of multiculturalism and French connections. He commented that the French Ambassador and French Trade Commissioner had both visited Forbes in 2003 to meet ‘descendants of the early French settlers’, and added that he and his fellow wine society directors, Pierre Dalle and Peter Deprez, were attempting to ‘preserve the historic Chateau Champsaur Winery established by the Reymond and Nicholas families who came from France and settled in Forbes in the 1860s.’ Both AFAS and the Wine Society were ‘keen to see the Wenz Collection preserved.’

My thanks to all these supporters

Omissions and silences

But there were some very conspicuous omissions in the support letters and other documentation associated with this grant application – and I regret that I didn’t have time to attend to these gaps myself.

The first blank I noticed was the absence of references to Hettie Dunne as an independent woman, a ‘merino princess ’ who spent part of  her childhood and youth on Netley Station and in her uncle’s palatial house, Linden, in Prahran, Melbourne, in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Many books in the Wenz Collection belonged to Hettie and date from before her marriage to Paul. As a woman I found these volumes particularly interesting, because they gave me a glimpse into the mind of a very modern female whose literary tastes, even though she grew into adulthood at the end of the nineteenth century and in circumstances I can only dream about, were not so different from my own in some respects. Hettie Wenz died in her nineties in the decade I was born — and yet, as young women, we both read many of the same authors, it seems, and shared the same passion for world travel.

And the other now blindingly obvious omission? The traditional owners of the land on which Nanima Station was first established, of course. The people of the Wiradjuri nation [more >>  ]. Indeed, Nanima, the name of the property the Wenzes bought, is a Wiradjuri word said to mean ‘something that is lost,’ although other informants have suggested it may also mean ‘ a place to sit down’.  A reserve of the same name was established near Wellington in 1910 and Wiradjuri people still live there, but they now own the land and manage the community themselves through their Nanima Progress Association.

So many references have been made to the internationally famous European, American and Anglo-Australian writers the Wenzes knew, but in these post-colonial times we now have the privilege of reading the works of descendants of the people who were dispossessed during the Wenzes’ lifetime: Wiradjuri writers such as Anita Heiss, Kevin Gilbert, John Muk Muk Burke, Iris Clayton, Flo Grant, Rita Keed, Robert James Merritt, and Mary Coe, for example. Mary Coe’s book, Windradyne, a Wiradjuri Koorie (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989), tells the important story of the great Wiradjuri warrior who resisted the British invasion. ‘For few white Australians realise there was a war and fewer still have heard the Aboriginal side,’ Coe says.

Other ‘silences’ I’ve been remembering include the Afghans and Chinese who, like the English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, German, Italian, Greek, Indian and other migrants and their descendants, contributed so much to the development of inland New South Wales. The Wenzes were familiar with these groups, as Paul Wenz’s fiction reveals. And what about the now very degraded Lachlan River and its broad alluvial valley, the very land and water upon which the Wenzes depended and on which we all still depend?

Ah,so many gaps in the Paul & Hettie Wenz story, so many different perspectives to explore, so many ways of interpreting the Wenz Collection to yet consider ….

Forbes, 21 June, 2004: a plot revealed

Today I hid in a garret beneath the tower of the historic Forbes Town Hall reading old letters, newspaper cuttings, last wills and testaments and Council reports relating to the Wenz Collection of books now stacked in a back room of the Forbes Library.

I wanted to know how these books came to be in the Forbes Library and why they had been hidden in the back room. But instead of finding definitive answers I found more questions. And I discovered that we’re very lucky that the books are still in Forbes — because, in 1989, a Shire Clerk invited the French Embassy to find them a more ‘suitable’ home, and Embassy staff were very willing to oblige.

The letters I sifted through were especially revealing. The first, dated 26 July, 1989, was from Forbes Shire Clerk P.E. Huthnance to Jean-Marie Lebon, editor of the French Embassy’s magazine Presence. In this letter Mr P.E. Huthnance invited M. Lebon to find a “more suitable” home for the Wenz Collection. Lebon replied from the Embassy in Yarralumla nearly two months later that he had found an empty room in the new Alliance Francaise building which would be very “suitable” for the Wenz Collection. And that yes, the French Embassy would be very happy to assume the responsibility of shifting them to Canberra (letter dated September 14, 1989).

The Shire Clerk presented the Embassy’s offer to Council at its October 1989 meeting and recommended that it be accepted. This could have been the last we ever heard of the Wenz Collection. But those dear Councillors back in 1989 were intransigent at their October meeting! They refused to accept the Shire Clerk’s recommendation and voted instead to “defer a final decision” until the next meeting “pending a further inspection” of the books!

I found nothing in the Wenz file to suggest that any “further inspection” had taken place, but on 23 March 1990 the poor Shire Clerk was again writing to Jean-Marie Lebon: “I regret to advise that further complications have arisen in this matter”.

These “further complications” arose, it seems, from a visit to Forbes by a Wenz scholar Jean-Paul Delamotte and his wife Monique Delamotte who wanted to launch a new publication of Wenz’s Diary of A New Chum And Other Lost Stories in Forbes and make a documentary film about Wenz’s life. “Therefore it does seem necessary to retain the Paul Wenz collection in Forbes for the time being,” the Shire Clerk wrote to the editor of Presence, Jean-Marie Lebon, and begged him to “bear with Council until this matter can be finally resolved.”

Lebon is not entirely innocent in this story. He knew about the re-release of Diary of a New Chum and had already published an essay by Jean-Paul Delamotte, Paul Wenz: le plus francais des ecrivains australiens et le plus australien des ecrivains francais in his magazine (Presence nos 11 & 12, 1989, pp 33-35). He had also apparently visited Forbes to conduct his own inspection of the books. According to P.E. Huthnance, Lebon had photographed the Wenz Collection in the back room of the library and had interviewed the then-Librarian Helen Bassett well before the request to find a “more suitable” home for the books had been written.

Do you smell a mini-conspiracy here, or am I being paranoid!

Shire Clerk P.E. Huthnance doggedly persevered with Council and put the Wenz Collection onto the agenda for its August 1990 meeting — by which time, he figured, New Chum would be well and truly launched and the Delamottes and their pesky documentary film crew would have left town.

But P.E. Huthnance didn’t reckon on the Lachlan River flooding! Just before New Chum was to be launched water engulfed the town and both the launch and the television documentary were indefinitely postponed.

The damage to the Huthnance and Lebon plan had already been done, however. Jean-Paul and Monique Delamotte’s visit and interest in the Wenz Collection had convinced some of the councillors that those old books had something going for them. The Councillors therefore continued to raise objections to the Shire Clerk’s recommendations and P.E. Huthnance was asked to write another letter to Lebon: “Council resolved to explain to you that because of the resurgence of local interest in Paul Wenz associated with the book launch, and bearing in mind that valuable Wenz books are in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, Council will probably put the remainder of the collection back on display in the Forbes Library.”

It seems Council did, indeed, put the books on display, because Mayor Clive Thomas later reported to Council that he had visited the library to discuss returning them to the back room! By then librarian Jenny Hawke was in command of the library and she had other more visionary ideas! To her the Wenz books were part of “our local heritage” and therefore should never be locked away or “stolen”. And, what’s more, she had a “counter-plan” …

Mayor Thomas was delighted with the new librarian’s rebellious attitude, it seems, and presented her with all the material he’d been sent for the ill-fated book launch, including the set of glossy 5×7 black and white photographs of the Wenz’s Nanima Station. He also recommended “that Council resolve to keep the Paul Wenz collection in its possession for the present and give Miss Hawke assistance when required, to accomplish her project” (Business Paper presented to Forbes Shire Council, 26th September, 1991, p. 171).

Jenny Hawke succeeded in implementing her counter-plan — for a while at least. A small room with big glass windows was constructed in one corner of the library as a permanent home for the Wenz Collection. But, of course, nothing is ever ‘permanent’ — or at least not in Forbes! By the time I discovered the books they had already been re-despatched to the back room, and Jenny Hawkes’ purpose-built display space was filled with school kids and back-packers checking their email at a bank of brand new computers!

So we’re back to where we began in this story. The books are stacked in the back room and we’re still looking for a “more suitable” home for them!

Unresolved mysteries concerning the Wenzes’ last wills and testaments

When French-Australian writer, farmer (or ‘grazier’) and wool-broker Paul Wenz died on 23 August 1939 his entire estate, including Nanima Station and his many books, went to his wife Harriet Adela Annette Wenz (also known as Hettie).

Hettie lived another twenty years following her husband’s death. In her Last Will and Testament she bequeathed to the Trustees of the Mitchell Library, Sydney, “such of my books as they or their representatives may select for the purposes of the Library” and instructed the executors of her estate to send all the French language books not selected for the Mitchell “to the Fathers of the Catholic Mission at Yule Island ” off the coast of Papua New Guinea. (Now there’s a story yet to be told!)

So how come we still have an estimated one hundred French language books in what we now call the Wenz Collection in the store room of the Forbes library?

My amateur survey of the French language books reveals that they date from the 1830s and that some of the oldest were acquired from the Alliance Francaise Biblioteque in Sydney. Others were bought by Paul Wenz either in France or Canada, while some may have been bought in Australia or from France by mail order.

The Wenz Collection also includes at least five hundred books in English, some of them inscribed in either Hettie or Paul Wenz’s hand writing or stamped by them. Many of these books, like the French language volumes, were in public circulation in the Forbes Library until the 1960s.

Are the Forbes volumes the ones the Mitchell Library trustees didn’t want and ones that were also rejected by the Fathers of Yule Island? Or did they find their way into the Forbes Library by some other route?

Paul and Hettie Wenz also donated books from their personal collection to the community school at Peyton Bridge near Nanima Station, along with the land on which the school was built (Jeannette Hildred, Forbes, NSW, Forbes Shire Council 1997, p.532). This school is long gone, but what happened to its books? Are some of these also stacked in the back room of the Forbes Library as the Wenz Collection?

These are questions others will have to answer. For now I’m simply grateful that the books remain in the district and I feel very privileged to have spent time thumbing through them in the cold, dark back room of my local library getting to know the minds of Paul and Hettie Wenz. My hope now is that other locals, as well as visiting scholars and other outsiders, will be able to experience the same thrill, the same deep sensual and intellectual pleasure I have found in these old volumes — and that some day they will truly find a “more suitable” home in Forbes.

See historian Stephen Gapps’ partial answers of some of this questions in his Significance Assessment of the Collection >>

More on Merrill’s project work >>

Page created 13 June 2004, updated 1 March 2007 and significantly revised and renovated 21 January 2008, and revised again 8 September, 2008. Posted on this new site on 23 January 2011.

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