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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hornung, Ernest William (1866–1921)

by Stephen Knight

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

Ernest William Hornung (1866-1921), writer, was born on 7 June 1866 at Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, youngest of eight children of Hungarian-born John Peter Hornung, iron and coal merchant, and his wife Harriet, née Armstrong. Throughout his life he was known to family and friends as 'Willie'; he was an asthmatic. In December 1883, before he had reached the upper sixth, Hornung left Uppingham School and arrived in Sydney next year. He became tutor to the large family of Cecil Joseph Parsons, owner of Mossgiel station in the Riverina and brother-in-law of Thomas Russell. Opportunity to travel in Victoria probably followed.

Hornung returned to England in February 1886 when his father's business and health were both in jeopardy. He worked as a journalist and began writing stories and novels, several with Australian settings. On 27 September 1893 in London, with Catholic rites, he married Constance Aimée Monica, sister of his friend (Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle.

Like Doyle, Hornung is best known as a crime writer, the creator of Raffles 'the amateur cracksman'. But by no means all of his many stories have criminal plots. His short period in Australia apparently had a crucial influence on his work not only by supplying him with raw material but by developing the attitudes which direct his most incisive writing. His earliest novels employ the Australian experience as a lens to examine British society for flaws. In A Bride from the Bush (1890) and Tiny Luttrell (1893) Australian women travel to England and their direct vigour soon exposes the hypocrisy of British society. The Unbidden Guest (1894) shows that a lower-class immigrant actress who impersonates an English lady visiting Australia has more 'civility' and 'kindness' than the real article. Hornung's other Australian-based novels lack this sharp treatment of British social life. They are usually bush melodramas with thoughtful moments, such as The Boss of Taroomba (1894) or The Belle of Toorak (1900). The Rogue's March (1896) is a historical romance about convict days with a clear view of cruelty and corruption.

Hornung apparently moved towards the social satire of Raffles through an Australian character Stingaree, who appears in Irralie's Bushranger (1896) and in short stories (Stingaree, 1905). A gentleman as well as a thief, Stingaree casts doubt on conventional responses to both figures. Raffles, who began his criminal career when visiting Victoria with a touring English cricket team, is himself well bred—Eton, Oxford and the Marylebone Cricket Club. Being penniless he turns to crime, made easy by his athletic daring and his social connexions. He and Bunny (his former fag, now a hack writer and not unlike Hornung the journalist) are a deliberate reversal of Holmes and Watson, but the lasting success of the stories shows they are more than a family joke. Raffles ironically demonstrates that gentlemanliness may have nothing at all to do with moral or even economic substance.

In spite of his cool treatment of English society, Hornung remained a respectable literary and sporting gentleman. Raffles too fell into line and did the decent thing by being killed for Queen and country in the South African War. Hornung arranged ambulance services in World War I; after the death of his son at Ypres he took up work in France with the Young Men's Christian Association and wrote some grief-stricken prose and poetry. Ill health, which had originally led to his Australian visit, returned after the war and he died at St Jean de Luz, France, on 22 March 1921. His obituarists emphasized his kindness and generosity; Doyle later recalled him as 'a Dr Johnson without the learning but with finer wit'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. C. Doyle, Memories and Adventures (Lond, 1924)
  • S. J. Kunitz and H. Haycraft, Twentieth Century Authors (NY, 1942)
  • J. D. Carr, Life of Arthur Conan Doyle (Lond, 1949)
  • P. W. Friedrich, Australia in Western Imaginative Prose Writings, 1600-1960 (Chapel Hill, US, 1976)
  • B. M. Collin, J. P. Hornung
  • a Family Portrait (Orpington, Eng, 1971)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 2 July 1921
  • Times (London), 24 Mar 1921.

Citation details

Stephen Knight, 'Hornung, Ernest William (1866–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 9

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