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 Australia. I 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?