Professor claims book fails to be novel

November 10, 1995

A British-based academic is at the centre of an Australian literary scandal. Brian Matthews, head of London University's Menzies centre for Australian studies, found himself sharing Australian front pages with French nuclear tests following his accusation of plagiarism against author Helen Darville, who writes as Helen Demidenko.

The affair has a number of ironies. The first is that Professor Matthews was alerted by Ms Darville herself: "She sent me a fax in August saying that she might unintentionally have plagiarised me. My initial response was unaccusing, not because I accept that anyone might have unintentional total recall of a text - I don't, but because I didn't have a copy of my own text to hand."

On rereading his own text - a story called Pioneering about his experiences as a schoolteacher in Melbourne in the 1960s - all doubts were dispelled.

One passage in her story Other Places, published in the literary magazine RePublica, read: "It's summer 1985 and I'm a year nine student at Karawatha High, a raw, new outer-urban school - one of those 1970s bulldozer-blitzed sites criss-crossed with duckboards over the yellow mud in winter and ballooning with dust like a nuclear cloud in summer. The principal of this paradiseI" His own story read: "During the day I taught Leaving English and History and Form Two French at a raw, new, outer-suburban high school - one of those 1960s bulldozer-blitzed sites criss-crossed with duckboards over the yellow mud in winter and ballooning with dust like a nuclear cloud in summer. The headmaster of this pedagogical paradiseI" Professor Matthews said: "I accept that you might unconsciously pick up the odd turn of phrase, but not whole passages." He will not be taking Ms Darville or RePublica to court, but has written asking her to drop this passage and two other longer extracts from Other Places. She has not replied.

It is not the first time Ms Darville has been accused of plagiarism. The award of this year's Miles Franklin award and the Australian Literature Society Gold Award - a prize won by Professor Matthews in 1988 - were clouded by claims that she had borrowed passages from other authors. She was also accused of taking on an invented Ukrainian identity.

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