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Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading about Australian women writers

August 22, 2011
Books about Australian women writers

Some favourite books about Aussie women writers

In the 1980s my interest in Australian literature, which had been initially kindled by my parents and school, was renewed.  In the 1980s, too, women writers started to flourish again. Consequently, this second wave interest of mine was drawn particularly to these women.

I read their books of course (I’m thinking particularly of Elizabeth Jolley, Olga Masters, Beverley Farmer, Jessica Anderson, Thea Astley, Kate Grenville and Helen Garner), I attended talks where I could, and I read books about them and their predecessors. I loved the books about them! Not all of these books will still be available for purchase but they will be in libraries (in Oz anyhow) and so I thought this week I’d share some of my favourites, listed in their order of publication.

  • Drusilla Modjeska‘s Exiles at home: Australian women writers 1925-1945 (1981) is the one I don’t have, but I have borrowed it a few times from the library. She looks at the challenges confronting the women writing in the earlier part of the twentieth century. I have reviewed and/or mentioned a few of these women in past posts. They include: Miles Franklin,  Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw (who also wrote jointly under the name M. Barnard Eldershaw), Eleanor Dark, Jean Devanny, Dymphna Cusack and Katharine Susannah Prichard. Most of these women were politically engaged, with Prichard (for one) specifically identifying herself as Communist.
  • Jennifer Ellison’s Rooms of their own (1986) which of course takes its title from Virginia Woolf’s wonderful, pleading book on behalf of women creators. This book comprises interviews Ellison conducted with significant writers at the time. I still dip into it every now and then. She interviews: Blanche d’Alpuget, Jessica Anderson, Thea Astley, Jean Bedford, Sara Dowse, Beverley Farmer, Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley, Gabrielle Lord, Olga Masters, and Georgia Savage. Naturally, the gender issue is explored, but other issues relating to writing, publishing and the role of writers in society are also discussed.
  • Debra Adelaide‘s A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988). The great thing about this book is that it shows us the depth of women’s writing in Australia. It comprises essays by literary experts, most dealing with specific writers like Louisa Atkinson, Catherine Helen Spence and Ada Cambridge. It also includes an essay by Elizabeth Webby on nineteenth century women poets.
  • Debra Adelaide’s Australian women writers: a bibliographic guide (1988) was published, appropriately, by Pandora Press. It’s the driest of the books I’m listing as it is a bibliography – but it is lightly annotated with a brief description of each writer. In the mid 2000s, I used this book to help populate Wikipedia’s listing of Australian women writers. I thank Debra Adelaide for making that task so easy!
  • Gillian Whitlock’s Eight voices of the eighties: Stories, journalism and criticism by Australian women writers (1989). This one is, really, an anthology of selected writings by the writers included but there’s a good  introductory essay and a brief introduction to each of the writers. The writers are, well, pretty much the usual suspects: Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley, Barbara Hanrahan, Jessica Anderson, Beverley Farmer, Thea Astley, and Helen Garner. In her introduction, Whitlock quotes Jolley as describing the 1980s as “a moment of glory” for the woman writer, a time when as Whitlock writes, “women writers and readers … entered the mainstream”. What a shame it is that in terms of writers, at least, things seem to have slipped backwards (yet again).

There are more books and bibliographies on the topic – many dealing with individual writers. Just do a Trove (National Library of Australia) search on “Women authors, Australian” or “Australian Literature – Women authors” or similar keywords and you’ll retrieve a goodly list. Meanwhile, the books keep coming. The most recent addition to my little collection is Susan Sheridan’s Nine lives which was published this year and covers post-war writing by women in AustraliaI haven’t read it all yet but you will probably see a review in the future.

Do you like to read about writers and writing, and if so do you have any favourites?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2011 2:05 pm

    I don’t know if I’ve ever really read about writers or writing, other than in short articles. I didn’t even know there was so much out there specificaaly on female Australian writers!

    (Also, Dymphna is a crazy name. 😛 )

  2. August 24, 2011 12:18 am

    Some of the Australian woman writers are travelling, so no longer qualify as Australian writers, such as M.J. Hyland and Geraldine Brooks.

    • August 24, 2011 12:28 pm

      Ah well, Tony, I agree with you on Hyland. She wasn’t born here though spent formative years here – and I think wouldn’t call herself Australian. Brooks though is another matter – she still spends part of her time living here I believe so I think we are allowed to claim her though others can claim her too! I won’t argue with that!

  3. August 25, 2011 3:58 am

    I love to read about writers writing or writers reading. Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin both have books of essays about writing that are wonderful. I generally enjoy women writing about writing more than I do men. There is something about the way women generally approach the subject that is more appealing, perhaps less based in a grand theory of fiction and more on feeling and meaning? Not sure exactly. But it is interesting that there is a difference.

    • August 25, 2011 8:58 am

      Oh yes, is that Negotiating with the dead (Atwood)? I have that and want to get to read it. And, I do agree with you in general about reading women on the subject. I think it does – generalising wildly of course – have something to so with being women often being more meaning than theory based.

      • August 26, 2011 3:46 am

        Yes, Negotiating With the Dead! Very good, but I love Atwood so I’m biased. Will be interested in your thoughts when you get to reading it.

        • August 26, 2011 9:22 am

          Yes. I love Atwood too … and I know it’s a slim book so I should make time for it…

  4. September 4, 2011 10:18 am

    I enjoy bios about writers but at the same time I deliberately avoid some. Tolstoy would be a good example–how can someone be a moral giant in his novels and then a dick at home? Don’t get it. I know if I read a novel about Tolstoy’s life I would be disillusioned. On the other hand, I read an excellent book about Chandler and had no problem with his many flaws. But then he never set himself up on a pedestal as a moral authority.

    • September 4, 2011 5:41 pm

      I don’t get it either … and he’s not the only one. What about Dickens! Honestly! He too was full of social conscience outside the home but … well, let’s say no more.

      • September 6, 2011 1:04 am

        I think that’s why I prefer to read bios of actors and actresses. We expect them to be volatile, selfish ego-maniacs. They’re not writing the GREAT BOOKS of the age–the books that cause us to reexamine our lives and our actions. They’re busy making headlines and going off the rails.

        • September 6, 2011 8:10 am

          Sounds a sensible choice to me! I used to read them once upon a time. I do have Rupert Everett on loan to me right now but haven’t got to it. One of the funniest I read was David Niven’s, the first in particular. Off the rails quite often!

  5. September 6, 2011 3:42 am

    I found Eight Voices of the Eighties in the library here, and it reminded me how bouncy Grenville used to be. “Minions with pins,” she writes, and “lurched toward lunch.” Less of that now. Secret River is a more settled-voiced book, if I’m remembering rightly.

    • September 6, 2011 8:14 am

      Bouncy sounds a kinder way of saying ” try hard” or “overwritten”! But I agree that she has settled well into her voice by now. Btw fancy finding that book there!

      • September 6, 2011 9:53 am

        No, no, I wasn’t making a backhanded insult, I don’t think it’s a bad style at all, although I can see limitations in it. That springiness urges the reader not to take the writer too seriously. “Let’s all have fun,” it says. “Let’s jump around.” It would have changed the climax of Secret River completely.

        They’ve got a surprising selection of Australian books here. Not huge, but interestingly random.

        • September 6, 2011 10:53 am

          Oh, I wasn’t sure … taken out of contextI couldn’t see whether those examples you used worked or not. Certainly The secret river is a sober story requiring a settled voice, compared with, say, The idea of perfection which has its sober aspect but also its light and satirical side too.

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