Monday musings on Australian literature: Late bloomers

Bloomers (Flowers in vases and pots)

Bloomin' bloomers

I guess every country has them, the writers who aren’t recognised until their middle age. Australia certainly does, and many of them seem to be women. I’m not sure whether this apparent gender imbalance is a fact or simply reflects my biased interest in the lives of women writers. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a fact, though, given that women often need to balance motherhood and wifehood with the rest of their lives. Anyhow, I thought I’d share five of my favourite late Australian bloomers. They are mostly my usual suspects and, like many people who seem to appear overnight, they  worked for a long time at their craft before they gained their much deserved recognition. I’m listing them in the order of their age when their first major writing was published.

Jessica Anderson (47, An ordinary lunacy in 1963)

Jessica Anderson wrote stories and plays, and adapted other works for radio before hitting big time with her novel An ordinary lunacy. I’ve only read two of hers – Tirra lirra by the river and her one piece of historical fiction, The commandant, which I reviewed last year. I have her last novel, One of the wattle birds, in my burgeoning TBR pile. Like many women writers, I suppose, her subject matter tends to be families. Even The commandant, which is ostensibly about the male head of the Norfolk Island penal colony, is really about the family relationships, and the reaction of the women (his wife and sister-in-law) to their circumstances in particular. According to Wikipedia, Tirra Lirra by the river, was reviewed well in the USA.

Marion Halligan (47, Self possession in 1987)

Marion Halligan was a member of the now legendary Canberra Seven or Seven Writers, a group of Canberra-based women writers who met regularly to read and discuss each other’s work. The group comprised: Dorothy Johnston, Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge, Dorothy Horsfield and Marion Halligan . In 1988, Australia’s Bicentennial Year, they published an anthology titled Canberra Tales. It made quite a splash on the literary scene at the time. Halligan had just published her first novel then, but the first of hers that I read was Lovers’ knots which won several awards. I have gone on to read several of her novels, including the gorgeous Valley of Grace which I reviewed last year. Halligan wrote one of my favourite quotes about reading: “Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul”. Really, how beautiful is that!

Elizabeth Jolley (53, Five acre virgin and other stories in 1976)

Jolley was the subject of my second favourite writers post. She began writing in her twenties, and did have individual short stories published in the 1960s, but she also suffered rejection after rejection after rejection. However, she kept on and became a much lauded novelist, and a successful creative writing teacher. After all, Tim Winton was one of her students! She is recorded as saying that her eventual success was partly due to “the 1980s awareness of ‘women’s writing'”, an awareness that I fear we have lost again! Anyhow, she made up for lost time, and published 15 novels in about 20 years, as well as short story collections. I’ve read half of the novels and love the way she gets into the dark parts of our souls, into those areas where we feel alone or alienated, while being funny (albeit in a black way) at the same time.

Amy Witting (59, The visit in 1977)

Amy Witting is probably the least well-known of the five I’ve listed here. Her real name was Joan Austral Fraser. According to Wikipedia she met Thea Astley when they both taught at the same school and Astley encouraged her to submit a story for publication. It was published in The New Yorker in 1965, but it would be 12 more years before her first novel was published. I’ve read two of her novels, I for Isobel and A change in the lighting, and would happily read more. Again she deals with families, and often with the challenges middle-aged and older women face in navigating a society which is not necessarily friendly to them. She also published several collections of short stories.

Olga Masters (63, Home girls short stories in 1982)

Olga Masters was a journalist for a long time before she finally had a novel published. She was also mother to seven children, many of whom are well-known in their various fields (but you can read about all that at Wikipedia). She died in 1986, just four years after her book was published, and so her output was small, just a few novels and a couple of short story collections. Her first novel Loving daughters is still vivid in my mind, though I read it over twenty years ago. It’s set in a small coastal town in New South Wales in the 1920s and is about two sisters of marriageable age, Enid the pragmatic home-maker, and Una, the romantic, restless one. Which one will catch the eligible clergyman who comes into town, and does he make the right choice? It’s a wonderful book about character and choice. As you’ve probably assumed, she too focused primarily on the domestic. I can’t help thinking that this focus is another reason why women writers found (find, in fact) it hard to be published.

There is of course something reassuring about late bloomers. They remind us it is never too late. It may be too late at 50 years old to represent your country in the sprint at the Olympics or win Wimbledon, but it’s not too late to write a novel if that’s your passion. I’d love to hear of late bloomers you love (yourself maybe?), Australian or otherwise.

27 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Late bloomers

  1. There’s still time for you, ma! Time to write the great Australian novel!

    P.S. I do mean to read Elizabeth Jolley eventually. I just found The Amateur Marriage at Grandma’s house, though. Have you read it?

    • They’re all great aren’t they … so glad I introduced Masters to you. Halligan I guess is an early late bloomer really, like Anderson. Still in their 40s but at the late end of it. Grenville, Garner and Astley were in the mid 30s so it’s quite late I think comparatively speaking.

      I hadn’t realised Halligan was 47 when her first was published until last week — it was that realisation that prompted this post. I knew about the others but somehow the Halligan discovery spurred me into action!

  2. Just did a little research and found out that English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald was 61 when she published her first novel, “The Golden Child”. She was one of the great ones. Her novel ‘Offshore’ won the Booker, and her novel ‘The Bookshop’ was nominated for the Booker.

  3. I love to read about late bloomers… keep my hope alive. 😉 Thanks for this informative post, wg. And btw, I’m in Toronto now, soaking in the frenzy of the TIFF. Yes, they do have “The Eye of the Storm” screening, but because I came into town late, all the tickets to that show is sold out. I’ll be seeing The Lady tomorrow. That’s the film on the Burma’s peace activist Ang San Suu Kyi. Also, I wanted to go hear Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta talk about adapting Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children into film. That’s sold out too. But I’m excited just to be here. The atmosphere is festive, to say the least.

    • Oh, how great that it’s sold out but I’m sorry you won’t get to see it. I’m still sad that I missed the special screening here – it’s only opening to limited release but I’m hopeful of it opening here. Anyhow, I look forward to your reports on the other films/events. (It’s so long since I’ve read Midnight’s children I’d have no hope of assessing how good an adaptation it is.)

  4. We’ve just published a terrific memoir by Dalia Millingen, a woman who’s nearly 90 – ‘The Changing Forms of Clouds’. Helen Elliott describes it as ‘written with the lightest touch but touching upon the most profound subjects … an attempt to wrestle that expert liar, memory, into some thing that is not slewed into self-praise or self-apology’. It just shows that it’s never too late. And last month we published a third poetry collection by Nora Krouk, also 90. These women are truly an inspiration.

    • They truly are Anna – thanks for adding them to the discussion. I hope to be like them (not that I have ambitions to be a creative writer but I do hope to remain mentally active and interested). I’ve started reading Nora Krouk. Some lovely flowing poetry there …

  5. I am drawing a blank on late bloomers to add to the list, but you are right, they are an inspiration and a great reminder that it is never too late to do what you love.

  6. I am a late bloomer! Four kids and two marriages later my first novel is coming out this year, The Divorced Lady’s Companion yo Living in Italy! So I love reading about late bloomers and just hope that my bloom doesn’t fade too fast.

    Ciao Catherine

  7. Pingback: The Changing Forms of Clouds by Dalia Millingen: Book Review | Karen lee Thompson

  8. Thanks for this list, ST. I’ve been trawling through blogs looking for books and authors to put on my “classics” list of Australian women writers for a 2012 National Year of Reading challenge. These names will come in handy. I’ve read a lot of Jolley, some of Stead (7 Poor Men of Sydney, The Man Who Loved Children), one each of Anderson (The Commandant) and Astley. I’m hoping to find others to recommend.

    • Glad to be of help, Elizabeth … so you are a Jolley fan too?

      Others I think worth considering would be Ruth Park (won a Miles Franklin with Swords and crowns and rings, and of course has the Harp in the South trilogy), M. Barnard Eldershaw. And of course Henry Handel Richardson and Miles Franklin, and the much lesser known Ada Cambridge. Are you looking at past and current writers?

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