Monday musings on Australian literature: The triumvirate

Flora Eldershaw

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

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.]

14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The triumvirate

  1. I am fascinated by English writers of this period and their awareness of what was happening on the continent, but had never even given a thought to that idea that it might have been echoed on the other side of the world. You’ve succeeded in whetting at least one appetite, although I’m not sure how easy it will be to find their work in the UK.

    • Well then, I can now rest easy! Tony did manage to find The persimmon tree in the US somewhere so it may be possible to find some in the UK. Does that make any sense at all? Virago published The persimmon tree I think, as well as at least one M. Barnard Eldershaw novel, so you never know. Let me know if you’d like any help … though I’m sure your reading schedule is currently packed!

      Oh, and I forgot to say that A house is built won a prize here, as a manuscript, but they could not find a publisher here. It was published first by an English publisher. As was the joint winner of that prize, a novel by Katharine Susannah Prichard.

  2. As I recall, “The Persimmon Tree” was in the Minneapolis Public Library, and the book was really old, could have been an original edition from the 1940s. It really made me wonder how such a spectacular little book could be so forgotten.
    I believe the library also had a copy of ‘A House is Built’.

    • Me too! I’ve never properly read this book but have decided after dipping into my lovely little secondhand hardback yesterday that I really must find time to read it this year.

      On the Title page are annotations by someone who must have been a school student. Next to the author’s name s/he’s pencilled: “Two girls (women)”. And below the title: “History of Australia. Careers for women”. From what I know of these “two girls” I suspect their aims were a little deeper! I’m rather sorry that this is pretty much the extent of the annotations/marginalia.

  3. Fascinating background to the mysterious M Barnard Eldershaw – it might all be on Wikipedia but I hadn’t actually thought of looking there, so pleased to find the information here. I like a House is Built, although rather feebly I wished Fanny, the subject of that quote, had been given a slightly less unhappy fate. I wrote about the book a bit ages ago in a post called A Feast of Reading, if you are interested.

    • Thanks zmkc … I’ll read your post (must remember it’s there – I didn’t do a great job with remembering Freedom did I?) when I’ve read the book. I’m guessing a happy fate did not suit their purposes.

    • C’est la vie … or something! You never know … you might be inspired one day to read, say, Barnard or Jolley or Malouf. Meanwhile, Temple is a fair choice – I hope you get to him soon.

  4. My appetite is definitely whetted! And The Persimmon Tree is in the Minneapolis Public Library. I have it on my list to request when school is done. The catalog lists it as a Virago Modern Classic. Looking forward to it 🙂

  5. I was interested to see that you mentioned Maryanne Dever. I heard a FANTASTIC podcast on Hindsight about the correspondence between Vance and Nettie Palmer- you can download it at
    Maryanne Dever was one of the academics working on the archive of letters between the Palmers- I was hoping that perhaps there had been a publication from it, but it seems that it lingers as an unpublished manuscript.

    • Thanks RJ. That Hindsight program is great isn’t it? I must try to listen to it regularly. There was a great one on Barbara Hanrahan that a friend told me about. Excellent.

      All this is to say, thanks a lot. I will listen to it. Maryanne Dever is clearly very interested in that time period. She gave a talk at the NLA (which I’ve only read) about letters and what you can glean from them.

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