Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hay, William Gosse (1875–1945)

by I. D. Muecke

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Gosse Hay (1875-1945), by unknown photographer, c1905

William Gosse Hay (1875-1945), by unknown photographer, c1905

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 18066

William Gosse Hay (1875-1945), author and essayist, was born on 17 November 1875 at Linden, Hazelwood Park, Adelaide, son of Alexander Hay and his wife Agnes Grant, née Gosse, cousin of (Sir) Edmund Gosse, literary critic and essayist, and sister of William Christie Gosse. Hay was educated privately in Adelaide and from 1889 at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School before in 1895 entering Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1898). At Cambridge he became interested in Australian history and wrote a novel about convict transportation to New South Wales. His father's death in 1898 released him from an obligation to study law and allowed him to devote himself to writing. Early poems and short stories were unsuccessful but in 1901 his Cambridge novel, Stifled Laughter: a melodrama (time 1834), was published through the agency of London literary friends and with the financial support of his mother, herself a minor biographer and novelist.

Having inherited independent means, Hay returned thankfully to South Australia in 1901, married Mary Violet Williams on 26 October and settled down to become a 'man of letters'. His seriousness was misunderstood by his relatives and acquaintances, and his response to their dismissive attitude was to withdraw into an intensive study of literary and historical accounts of the convict era in New South Wales and Tasmania. Slowly and painstakingly, he also sought to develop a distinctive style, using for models such writers as R. L. Stevenson, Charles Dickens, George Meredith and Henry James. In 1901 he began, but did not finish, a light satire on South Australian society. He then returned to convict history and wrote his three best-known novels: Herridge of Reality Swamp (1907), Captain Quadring (1912) and The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans … (1919). The last most effectively expresses his preoccupation with an individual's struggle to maintain his identity in circumstances hostile to his moral values and social standards. He pursued this theme indirectly in An Australian Rip Van Winkle and Other Pieces (1921), a miscellany of historical studies, literary essays and autobiographical short stories, and again in his last two novels, Strabane of the Mulberry Hills … (1929) and The Mystery of Alfred Doubt … (1937), where the theme becomes subordinate to a more melodramatic affirmation of the triumph of good over evil.

Hay's books were published in London where they attracted favourable reviews. Little critical interest was aroused in Australia where he was barely known in literary circles. His claim to merit as a serious and innovative writer was recognized by very few until the republication of Sir William Heans in 1955 led to a controversial revaluation. Critical commentary has since focused chiefly on his style, his historical interpretation of the convict system and the extent to which he objectified personal conflicts within that context. This body of criticism has given him significant status as an Australian novelist.

From 1925 Hay lived in seclusion near Victor Harbor. Although he held liberal views in religion and politics, describing himself as an Anglican of the Low Church and a 'conservative democrat', his less flexible adherence to the social attitudes of his youth led to exaggerated accounts of eccentricity. Those who knew him, including his publisher Sir Stanley Unwin, allowed that he was obsessed with his objectives as a writer and intensely sensitive to critical and personal affront; but also found him aware of his foibles and not without humour. He died on 21 March 1945 after illness attributed to over-exertion in fighting a bush fire. He was buried at Victor Harbor and was survived by his wife and three sons.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Gosse, The Gosses, an Anglo-Australian Family (Canb, 1981)
  • I. D. Muecke, The Life and Novels of William Hay (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1965)
  • S. J. Way, letterbooks, 1897-1910 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Hay papers (University of Melbourne Library).

Citation details

I. D. Muecke, 'Hay, William Gosse (1875–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hay-william-gosse-6612/text11321, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

William Gosse Hay (1875-1945), by unknown photographer, c1905

William Gosse Hay (1875-1945), by unknown photographer, c1905

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 18066