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Lang, John (1816–1864)

by John Earnshaw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John Lang (1816-1864), barrister and novelist, was born on 19 December 1816 in Sydney, the second and posthumous son of Walter Lang, merchant adventurer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Harris, colonial-born 'niece' of James Larra. Elizabeth's second marriage was to Joseph Underwood of Ashfield Park, where Lang spent his boyhood and was guided in his early education by a family friend Dr William Bland. He later went to Sydney College under William Timothy Cape and became one of its most outstanding scholars, publishing in 1835 a translation of Horace's First Satire, dedicated to Cape. In March 1837 Lang went to England and next year matriculated to Trinity College, Cambridge, but was soon sent down for composing a 'quaint litany' considered blasphemous. He then read law at the Middle Temple and was called to the Bar in May 1841. Accompanied by his wife Lucy, née Peterson, of Wakefield, Yorkshire, whom he had married in February 1839, he returned to New South Wales in the Lady Kennaway in October 1841 and was admitted a barrister to the Supreme Court. His second child and only son was born at Ashfield Park in November.

Lang briskly entered the social and political life of the colony, but his emancipist family connexions prevented his full acceptance in certain circles. From London James Sheen Dowling wrote to his father, the chief justice in Sydney, 'Young Lang proceeds to the colony … you will find him a clever fellow but somewhat troublesome. His family connexions will somewhat mar his fortune, they will be stumbling blocks in his path; he has married a lady of very good connexions and she may help him out of the mess'. Lang ineptly opposed representative government in a public speech in February 1842 and on 19 April with his wife and children he left Sydney in the Nabob for Calcutta. His departure may also be linked with strong evidence that Lang wrote the rare work of fiction, Legends of Australia, issued between January and March in Sydney anonymously in parts and incomplete.

Until 1845 Lang practised at the Calcutta Bar but next year went to Meerut where he founded the Mofussilite, becoming sole proprietor and editor in 1849. Under his guidance it became one of the most important newspapers in India. Two of his novels Too Clever by Half and Too Much Alike; or, the Three Calendars appeared serially in its columns in 1853-54. He also continued his legal practice and appeared for the army contractor Ajoodia Pershad and the Ranee of Jhansi, in both cases receiving large fees and rich presents. Lang visited England in 1852-53 and 1854-59. He devoted his time to literary work, travelled widely in Europe and enjoyed many friends in London theatrical and literary circles. His contributions to periodicals included Charles Dickens's Household Words and All the Year Round, and to Fraser's Magazine and The Times and Globe newspapers. He published nine novels, a volume of short stories and a travel book, Wanderings in India (London, 1859). Only two of the works have an Australian background: The Forger's Wife (1855) which is almost identical in plot to his 'Charles Frederick Howard' in Legends of Australia, while Botany Bay; or, True Tales of Early Australia (London, 1859) is thinly disguised fiction of events and people in the convict period and will always remain Lang's main contribution to Australian literature. Although his wife survived him and no record of a divorce has been found, Lang married Margaret Wetter at Mussoorie in May 1861. He died there on 20 August 1864 and his headstone is in the English cemetery.

Lang's talent as a novelist was melodramatic and indifferent, except when he wrote of the scenes of his youth. To his later contemporaries he had, despite some human failings, a wide intellect, remarkable memory and sparkling wit. Through narrow social sanction Australia lost one of its most brilliant sons and its first native-born novelist.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Forbes-Mitchell, Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny, 1857-59 (Lond, 1893)
  • Surendra Nath Sen, Eighteen Fifty Seven (Delhi, 1957)
  • J. W. Earnshaw, ‘Legends of Australia & John Lang’, Biblionews, Apr 1859
  • C. Roderick, ‘John Lang (1816-1864): First Australian-Born Novelist’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 49, part 2, July 1963, pp 100-35
  • S. J. Routh, ‘The Australian Career of John Lang, Novelist’, Australian Literary Studies, vol 1, no 3, June 1964, pp 206-07
  • Mofussilite, 26 Aug 1864
  • Lang papers (privately held).

Citation details

John Earnshaw, 'Lang, John (1816–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lang-john-3985/text6301, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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