I’ve mentioned Marjorie Barnard in a couple of posts recently, but I suspect few Australians and even fewer readers from overseas (except of course Tony of Tony’s Bookworld) have ever heard of her. Rather than write specifically about her, though, I thought I’d talk a little about the Australian literary scene of the 1920s to 1940s, and about three writers in particular – Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison.
I’m probably cheating here a little because, while I have read quite a bit about them over the last few years, I have read only a smidgin of their actual works. I’ve read (and re-read) Barnard’s The persimmon tree and other stories (1943) and Davison’s Man-shy (1931). I’ve dipped into Barnard and Eldershaw’s collaborative work A house is built (1929) and some of their other writings.
These three writers were part of a pretty active literary scene in Australia at the time. It included writers such as Vance and Nettie Palmer, Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard (whom I reviewed recently), Eleanor Dark, Xavier Herbert and, yes, even, towards the end of the period, Patrick White. (Another contemporary, Christina Stead left Australia in 1928.) The reason I decided to start with these three is because of their friendship and “political activism”, mainly through the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW), which resulted in their being known for a time as “the triumvirate”. They were liberals who were concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe – and the potential ramifications at “home”. Through them, in the late 1930s, the FAW engaged in political debate, particularly in relation to the protection of freedoms, such as that of speech. A topic, of course, dear to the heart of writers.
Barnard and Eldershaw wrote three novels, as M. Barnard Eldershaw, but they also wrote literary criticism and history. These days though, they are probably most read (when they are read at all) as early feminists. Neither Barnard nor Eldershaw married, though Barnard had an affair with Davison, and both lived independent lives supporting themselves through whatever work they could find. They were active in professional societies, judged literary competitions and edited anthologies. Eldershaw was a particularly skilled negotiator and worked hard to secure support for writers (via grants, pensions and other mechanisms). Vance Palmer admired Eldershaw for her ability to “neutralise conventional masculine expectations of the threat posed by women in ‘public life'”. At one stage they shared a flat, and held what could only be called a “salon”. It was attended by the literati of the day, including of course Davison.
That’s enough, though, of information you can pretty easily find in Wikipedia and other online sources. My aim here is to whet your appetite (I hope). I’ll finish with a quote from A house is built, which is set in mid-nineteenth century Sydney:
Her life was as full of ‘ifs’ as any woman’s. If she had not been so restricted, if her really considerable powers of mind and character had been given scope, Fanny would not have fallen victim to the first colourful stranger she met.
Barnard, it is reported, once said “Australia is still a man’s world”. I’d love to know what younger Australian readers of this blog think about Australia now – and whether anyone (besides Tony!) has read works by these three authors.
[Note: Some of the information for this post came from writings by Maryanne Dever whose PhD was on M. Barnard Eldershaw.]