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Monday musings on Australian literature: Women writers and politics in the 1930s

March 19, 2012

I have written before about the fact that there’s been two periods in Australian literature when women writers seem to have flourished. One was around the 1920s to 1930s and the other around the 1970s to 1980s. Today I want to write a little about this first period because, from the perspective of 80 plus years later, it was an exciting period for women writers – that wasn’t sustained.

Australian academic Maryanne Dever says that “women represented a significant section of the writing community” in the interwar years and that this concentration “could be said to be one of the major distinguishing features of the then Australian literary landscape”.* Women were significant in the reviewing community, held office in major literary societies, judged literary competitions and edited anthologies. Many were also active politically. So, who were these women? I’m going to list just a few here.

Flora Eldershaw

Flora Eldershaw, c. 1915 (Presumed Public Domain, from National Library of Australia, via Wikipedia)

Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) and Flora Eldershaw (1897-1956)

Barnard and Eldershaw were major players in the Australian literary scene. They met at university and in 1929 won the Bulletin literary prize with their collaborative novel A house is built. Like all their collaborative works, they tackled in this book social issues, including gender stereotyping. Both held strong viewpoints regarding social justice and both were active in the Fellowship of Australian Writers, with Eldershaw becoming its first woman president in 1935. In their late thirties they shared a flat together and held what can best be described as “salons” at which a range of literary and political issues were explored with many of the intellectual luminaries of the time. Eldershaw was, not unusually for writers of the period, pro-Soviet. And she negotiated hard for writers to be supported, particularly in their old age.

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969)

Prichard, whose book The pioneers I’ve reviewed here, shared the 1929 Bulletin prize with M. Barnard Eldershaw, for her book Coonardoo (which I have also read, but many years ago). Coonardoo is one of the first Australian books to deal with a relationship between a white and an indigenous Australian. Prichard was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia. Her novels documented people’s struggles, in work and relationships with each other. Her son, Ric Throssell, became an Australian diplomat and writer.

Miles Franklin (1879-1954)

Franklin’s career started long before the period I’m writing about here – My brilliant career was published in 1901 – but she was still active during this period and in fact won a prize in 1936 for her novel All that swagger**. I can’t resist sharing this excerpt which describes the hero, Danny, chopping down gum trees:

Guarding the illusive land were throngs of giants–the stateliest trees on the globe. Delacy was like an ant in the aisles of box trees and towering river gums, but he attacked them as an army, grunting with effort, sweat dripping from him. His slight form grew as wiry as steel; his hands were corneous and scarred with the work of felling and grubbing. (All that swagger, Ch. 3)

A contemporary reviewer described it as “probably the finest Australian novel ever written”. It deals with an Irish immigrant and his family’s history in Australia over 100 years, up to 1933. The Bulletin ‘s reviewer suggests that the hero, Danny, “seems certain to take a lasting place in Australian literary tradition.” The reviewer, I think, got that wrong, but Miles Franklin herself has achieved this through the eponymous prize she bequested. What is less well-known is that Franklin was politically active much of her life, and in fact spent around 9 years working for the National Women’s Trade Union League in Chicago from 1906 to 1915. On her return to Australia she worked hard to promote Australian literature, supporting, for example, the creation of fellowships for writers.

Other writers

Other politically active writers at the time included Jean Devanny, who was a Communist and who used her writing to promote her ideology; Eleanor Dark, who was active in the Labor left; and Nettie Palmer, who actively mentored younger writers like Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw and who, with her husband Vance, was anti-Fascist and a proponent of egalitarianism.

Literary histories about the period rarely mention any of these writers in isolation, which tells us something about the richness of the literary life of the time and of their collaborative approach to promoting not only Australian literature but also the values they thought should underpin Australian life. I never tire of reading about them, but I still have a way to go before I can feel well-read in their writings.

*From my research for Wikipedia. The citation is: Dever, Maryanne (1994) “Conventional women of ability: M. Barnard Eldershaw and the question of women’s cultural authority” in Dever, Maryanne (ed) Wildflowers and Witches: Women and Culture in Australia 1910-1945, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, pp. 133–146

** Accessible online at Project Gutenberg Australia

DISCLAIMER: I have read works by most of these writers, but mostly long ago. I hope, in future months and years, to (re)read their works, and review them here.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2012 1:57 am

    Poring over the names even as I type….
    Well I’m going to work my way through Jessica Anderson first (that sounds indecent). An Ordinary Lunacy will be the next target.

    • March 20, 2012 8:53 am

      Great Guy. I’ve only read two … Tirra Lirra and The commandant, which was her only historical fiction but I liked it. I have another of hers by my bed but haven’t got to it …

      • March 23, 2012 1:02 am

        The Commandant is coming to the kindle later this year.

        • March 23, 2012 1:15 am

          Oh good, Guy … I wonder if it is part of a deal the Sydney University Press has been doing with Amazon. Probably is, as those Australian Classics Library books I reviewed were produced from electronic versions created by them and I know they were negotiating with Amazon re selling their books. I wonder how much they’ll be sold on Kindle for?

  2. March 20, 2012 2:04 am

    I liked My Brilliant Career so much I will have to give All That swagger a go. The public library has several of her books. I will have to look into the other authors too!

    • March 20, 2012 8:55 am

      I think her writing was pretty uneven, Stefanie, so you may not like others as much but All that swagger would be a good one, and perhaps, partly because it continues her story, My career goes bung.

  3. March 20, 2012 8:08 pm

    Finest Australia novel ever written? Golly! I wish more people would give that accolade to a woman :D

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  1. Bookish News and Publishing Tidbits 20 March 2012 | Read in a Single Sitting - Book reviews and new books

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