Educated at Scotch College, University of Melbourne, and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Oxford University (DPhil, 1950), Serle was appointed to the School of History, Monash University, in 1961, after teaching at the University of Melbourne from 1950. He was Reader in the School from 1963 to 1983. In a multi-faceted career, Serle established a reputation as a historian, biographer and editor.
John Rickard has observed that Serle had ‘the good fortune’ to enter the academy ‘at a time when the demand for social change was matched by a new appetite for national history’ (1998: 375). Serle’s writings produced at Monash University fall into three clear categories: localised general histories (The Golden Age, 1963 and The Rush to be Rich, 1971), cultural history (From the Deserts the Prophets Come, 1973) and biography (John Monash: A Biography, 1982).
The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria 1851–1861 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1963), 455 p.
Serle wrote his two detailed and panoramic pioneering studies of colonial Victoria, one covering the decade from 1851 to 1861 and the second the years between 1883 and 1889, as part of a projected three-volume history which was never completed.
The particularities of the Victoria story mattered to Serle on two levels. Victoria itself was of special interest to him as a local patriot: the book is dedicated to four of his great-grandparents and his four grandparents who migrated from England to Victoria between 1853 and 1860. He also believed that it was only through a detailed study of the separate colonies that ‘their great degree of difference one from another and the difficulties of generalization about them in nineteenth-century Australia become fully apparent’ (Preface). Serle argued that the gold-rush migrations to Victoria in the 1850s had been of transforming importance to the colony and to the state which eventually grew from it (Thompson 2006, 215). Never parochial, wrote Rickard, Serle ‘was always engaged in the larger debates that were preoccupying the profession—in this case, an insistence on colonial difference which … was to become the starting point for much subsequent research in regional history’ (1998: 375, 376).
In his preface to The Golden Age, Serle acknowledged his good fortune that the Victorian gold rushes had been singularly neglected, despite the colour and richness of the subject-matter and its importance. He signalled the book’s central questions in two epitaphs at the start: whether gold in Victoria might be seen as ‘a burst of sunshine falling across a dark and troubled stream’ or whether it was not even worth ‘a mealy potato to mankind’ (Carlisle). ‘In looking for answers Serle went beyond the wider political, social and economic history of the period and showed himself to be sensitive to questions of the mind and spirit as he looked at aspects of the emerging culture of the colony and the place of religion in the lives of its citizens’ (Thompson 2006, 218). Thompson concedes, however, that ‘Serle’s predominantly masculinist values and his lack of interest in dealing with matters of indigenous history clearly mark his first major book as a work of its time’ (2006: 224, 229).
The Golden Age took out the Moomba Book Award for Australian Literature (1964) and was co-winner of the Ernest Scott Prize for History (1962–3).
Reviews (selected): Labour History 5 (November 1963), 63–5 (E.Y.Allum); Australian Quarterly 36/1 (March 1964), 114–6 (Frank Gardiner); The Historian 26/3 (May 1964), 449 (Albert A. Hayden); The Geographical Journal 130/2 (June 1964), 295–6 (Colin Newbury); American Historical Review 70/1 (October 1964), 179–80 (K.A. MacKirdy); Journal of Modern History 36/4 (December 1964), 464–5 (Donald C. Gordon); English Historical Review, 80/317 (October 1965), 867–8 (Trevor R. Reese).
The Rush to be Rich: A History of the Colony of Victoria, 1883-1889 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1971), 392 p.
The second book in his planned Victorian trilogy, The Rush to be Rich, covers the boom and bust years of the 1880s and 1890s. As in the previous volume, Serle offered a detailed narrative of an evolving society observed within a narrow span of years, blending social and political history. ‘The book was conceived conventionally as a study of politics, economic development (including class relations and the rise of organised labour), religion and nationality (Thompson 2006, 235). Thompson characterises the final four chapters of Serle’s book as ‘some of his best and most vivid writing’. ‘As Serle saw it,’ Thompson observes (pp. 235–6), ‘the late 1880s stood as the last dying days of Australia Felix. In the looming disaster, Victoria and Victorians would be separated from their innocence; the fall into ruin would mark an end to the aspirations which the gold generation had carried with them into their Australian maturity.’
Several of the themes in this new Victorian history had been examined in the company of his students in a special honours seminar held at Monash at the end of the 1960s. Striking to the modern reader is the magisterial quality of the writing and Serle’s encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian history. According to Serle’s biographer, John Thompson, Serle’s early books showed him to be a leading exponent of ‘a new nationalistic approach to the teaching and writing of Australian history’ (Thompson 2006: xxiii). Thompson comments that, ‘Until Serle made it his own, Victoria’s later colonial period had barely been touched by professional historians’. Stuart McIntyre commented further on these two Victorian volumes, ‘Liberal and egalitarian in sympathy, they eschewed class analysis for civic meliorism, in keeping with Serle’s own social democratic values’ (2001: 580). John Ritchie (2000) eulogised, ‘Through his understanding of our past, he has helped us to understand ourselves.’
The book shared the Ernest Scott Prize in 1970−71.
Reviews (selected): Journal of Pacific History 7 (1972), 245 (Deryck Scarr); Economic History Review 26/1 (1973), 170–1; American Historical Review 78/1 (February 1973), 138–9 (Samuel Clyde McCulloch); English Historical Review 89/351 (April 1974), 462–3 (D.K. Fieldhouse);
From Deserts the Prophets Come: The Creative Spirit in Australia 1788–1972 (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1973), xii, 274 p.
With From the Deserts, Serle claimed a place in what Rickard called the ‘radical nationalist historiographical tradition’ (1998: 376). Serle aimed to ‘bring cultural history into the general discourse of Australian historians’ by tracing the growth of national creativity in literature, music, art, theatre and architecture, and to address what he saw as a deplorable lack of knowledge of Australian-made cultural products among undergraduates. Described as ‘the first extensive history of the creative spirit in Australia’ (Dunlevy 1973, 10), the book was awarded a 1974 National Book Council Award for Australian Literature.
Once again pioneering new territory, the book grew out of a series of lectures Serle gave at Monash University in 1971 in an experimental course on Australian cultural history. In the Preface, Serle acknowledges that the book is ‘frankly elitist’. While admitting that there were great books to be written about popular culture and the sociology of culture, the author emphasises ‘high culture’ in this book, ‘culture in the sense of what the creative spirit has achieved in terms of Art’ (xi). Although its breadth of coverage attracted some criticism, the book’s enduring influence has kept it in circulation for forty years, including a revised edition prepared by Serle himself as The Creative Spirit in 1987 and, most recently, in a new edition under the original title prepared and introduced by John Rickard (Monash University Publishing, 2014). Thompson comments (p. 292), ‘While its limitations are now more obvious than they were before the accumulation of a richer body of writing in the field, the book is valuable for the questions it poses and for the links it makes between the arts in Australia and other kinds of history.’
Reviews (selected): Maurice Dunlevy, ‘Writer’s World: The Creative Spirit in Australia’, Canberra Times, 28 April 1973, 10; Historical Studies 16/62 (October 1974), 286–7 (Bernard Smith); Labour History 26 (May 1974), 94–5 (David Walker).
John Monash: A Biography (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1982), xv, 600 p.
Serle’s biography of John Monash, a civil engineer who became a distinguished World War One general, won four major awards including the Con Weickhardt and Wilke Awards, the National Book Council Banjo Award and the Age Book of the Year. In his foreword to the fifth paperback reprint, John Rickard identified Monash as a landmark, coming as it did at a time when biography was beginning to be taken more seriously by historians. The biography was pioneering in its integration of private and public life; although not Freudian in his approach, Serle did recognise the importance of ‘the formative years’. The book is remembered by colleagues as perhaps Serle’s greatest work, combining as it did both Victorian and national perspectives (1998: 377), and as an act of good citizenship in the Monash University context. It is still unchallenged as the authoritative biography of its subject.
Magisterial in scope as well as writing style, the biography drew on a comprehensive and available collection of personal papers—a rare phenomenon in Australia, according to Serle. Again his purpose seems to have been to reclaim and instruct: ‘Australians are not given to praising famous men’, he writes at the end of the book, ‘or making legendary heroes of many other than bushrangers and sportsmen. But perhaps it was no ordinary nation which allowed Monash [the son of Jewish immigrants] to lead in a time of uncommon stress’.
Reviews: Victorian Historical Journal 54/1 (March 1983), 64–7 (Alan Gregory); Canadian Journal of History 18/2 (August 1983), 306 (Hubert C. Johnson); American Historical Review 88/4 (October 1963), 1054–5 (Manning Clark); Labour History 47 (November 1984), 118–9 (Michael McKernan).
Serle signalled his interest in biography in his Rush to be Rich, in which he noted (p. v) that every person mentioned in the book was or was to be included in volumes three to six of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). From Deserts also included brief biographical sketches of the creative personalities discussed. In retirement he also wrote Robin Boyd—A Life, a biography of ‘another Melbourne patrician with democratic instincts’ (Graeme Davison), in which he ‘crafted more than just a wonderful historical document but an illuminating insight into one of the great Australian cultural lives of this century’ (Madden 1997, 68).
In 1975 Serle and Bede Nairn were appointed joint general editors of the ADB, ‘generally regarded as Australia’s greatest achievement in the humanities’, according to Barry Jones (2001: 70). Serle, who had previously served as founding chair of the Victorian Working Party and a section editor, wrote 49 individual entries, among them (for example, ‘John Curtin’) some of the best in the Dictionary, ranging in length from 500 to 6000 words, including the entry on his father, Percival Serle. He later expanded the ADB entry on his father into a short memoir, celebrating his father’s achievements as a ‘biographer, bibliographer, anthologist and art curator’. (Percival Serle, 1871–1951 : biographer, bibliographer, anthologist and art curator : a memoir. Deakin, A.C.T.: Paragon ed., 1988). Serle and Nairn produced volumes 7 to 10 together; Serle edited volume 11 (1988), his last, on his own. John Ritchie (2000) noted both the quality of Serle’s entries and the creative strength of the partnership with Bede Nairn. Of Serle’s contributions he wrote, ‘Serle’s :brief lives” reveal the span of his interests and expertise, the humanity of his judgment and the precision of his prose.’ Serle’s historical credo was rooted in his sense of family and place and in the liberal values of his middle-class background. Manning Clark described Serle as a great Victorian patriot, a label Serle rejected, declaring that Australia and Hawthorn were his strongest loyalties. He used to speak, using his artist mother’s painterly language, of ‘blocking in’ the key periods of Victorian history. New South Wales has produced no counterpart to Serle’s narratives, perhaps one reason why Victorian history features so strongly in the national story. And of the partnership, ‘One came from a middle-class, Protestant and Melburnian background; the other, by upbringing, was working-class, Catholic and a Sydney-sider. They made a marvellous team.’
Together with A.G.L. Shaw, Serle founded the Friends of the LaTrobe Library in 1966, for the purpose of developing the library’s research collections (Kirsop 1998). He was foundation editor of the La Trobe Library Journal. He edited the journal Historical Studies of Australia and New Zealand (now Historical Studies, the premier Australian history journal) from 1955 to 1963, was closely associated with the journals Meanjin and Overland and a member of the Buildings (Classification) Committee of the Victorian Branch of the National Trust of Australia. He was influential in the formation of the Australian Historical Association.
He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academies of the Humanities (1970) and of the Social Sciences (1973) and was a member of the Royal Victorian and Royal Australian Historical Societies. He was appointed AO in 1986.
Christopher Cuneen, ‘Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle: A Fine Partnership, 1973–1987’, in Melanie Nolan and Christine Fernon eds, The ADB’s Story. Canberra: ANU Press, 2013. For the Nairn Serle chapter, see http://press.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/ch042.pdf
Historic Environment 13/3−4 (1997), 68 (Review, Robin Boyd—A Life) (Justin Madden).
Stuart McIntyre, ‘Serle, (Alan) Geoffrey’, Oxford Companion to Australian History, ed. Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (Oxford University Press, 2001): 580.
Julie Stokes ed., Geoff Serle in Tribute, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1994 (1998).
John Thompson, The Patrician and the Bloke: Geoff Serle and the Making of Australian History. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2006.
Personal papers, NLA.
Geoffrey Serle interviewed by N. K. Meaney for the Neville Meaney collection, 16 January 1987 (2 cassettes). Corrected draft transcript available (typescript, 49 leaves)
Wallace Kirsop, ‘Library Profile: Geoffrey Serle’, The La Trobe Journal 61 (Autumn 1998): 53–56, http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-61/t1-g-t8.html
Obituary, written by Stuart MacIntyre, The Age, 29 April 1998.
John Rickard, ‘Geoffrey Serle (1922–1998), Australian Historical Studies 29:111 (1998): 375–80. http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/records-archives/archives/cgi-alias/monpix
John Ritchie, ‘Dr Alan Serle’ (Academy of the Social Sciences: Fellows’ Obituaries), first published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, 15 (2000), xiii–xiv; reprinted in History 56 (September 1998): 21–22, reproduced at http://www.assa.edu.au/fellowship/fellow/deceased/100131 and at Obituaries Australia, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/serle-alan-geoffrey-geoff-13512
Peter Ryan, ‘The Patrician and the Bloke: Geoffrey Serle and the Making of Australian History (Review), The Australian, 25 November 2006, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/news/the-patrician-and-the-bloke-geoffrey-serle-and-the-making-of-au/story-e6frg8no-1111112560356
Obituary, written by A.G.L. Shaw, The Australian, 29 April 1998.
F.B. Smith, Academy of the Humanities: Deceased Fellows (Obituary), http://www.humanities.org.au/Portals/0/documents/Fellows/Obituaries/AlanGeoffreySerle.pdf
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