Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian women writers, 1930s

In July I wrote two posts based on Nettie Palmer’s 1920s assessment of great Australian novels. In 1935, another Australian novelist, Zora Cross, wrote an article about Australian women novelists and poets. I enjoy reading these contemporary perspectives, and I think some of you are interested too … do let me know if you aren’t.

I’ve said it before I think, and that is that there were two flowerings of Australian women’s writing in the twentieth century, one in the 1920s-40s and the other in the 1970s-80s. It’s a bit early to tell but I’m wondering whether we are experiencing another one now. Let’s hope so – not at the expense of our male writers, but recognised and read, alongside the men.

I don’t know Zora Cross (1890-1964) as well as I know Nettie (and Vance) Palmer, but she was a recognised novelist, poet and journalist in her day. Her aim in her article, published the Sydney Morning Herald in 1935, was to demonstrate the strength of women’s writing. She starts by naming writers who, at that time, had been writing for twenty years or more – writers still known to us (Miles Franklin and Mary Gilmore), and those far less known, if not pretty much forgotten (Louise Mack, Ada Holman and Dora Wilcox). The only one I know of these last three is Louise Mack – as she is in my TBR pile. Cross then mentions younger writers, of whom only one, Katherine Susannah Prichard, is well-known to me. The others are Dulcie Deamer, Vera Dwyer, Ella McFadyen and Nina Murdoch. When I read these lists, I wonder which of today’s writers readers a century from now will know. Sometimes I wish I did believe in eternal life – or, reincarnation!

Like Palmer, Cross uses headings in her article, so I will again follow.

Success abroad

Nettie Palmer, ten years earlier, also talked about writers succeeding abroad, but Cross writes of two different sorts of successes. One is that achieved by writers who started writing “at home” and then move abroad. She names several, again mostly not well-known now – Helen Simpson, Alice Grant Rosman, Dorothy Cottrell – and one completely unknown to me, and about whom some quick Google searching has revealed nothing, Daniel Hamlyn. Hamlyn, she says, won The Bulletin’s second novel competition, the first one having been jointly won by Katherine Susannah Prichard and M. Barnard Eldershaw. I think I’ll need to actually go to a Library and research The Bulletin to discover more about her! Cross doesn’t mention Christina Stead, but as Stead only published her first book in 1934, that’s not surprising.

The other “success abroad” Cross mentions is that achieved by those who hadn’t left home. One of the most interesting of these is, she says, Eleanor Dark. She does, however, name several others, all unknown to me, so I’ll just mention a couple which stand out because of her comments. One is Georgia Rivers whose novel, The difficult art about a young girl growing up, “is a most unusual book”. She doesn’t elaborate, but this has piqued my interest. Another is Jessie Urquhart who, she says, “will not, I think, do her best work until, like Alice Grant Rosman, she  relinquishes journalism for fiction”. An intriguing comment from a novelist-poet-journalist! It would be interesting to know whether Urquhart needed her journalistic work to survive. The last one I want to mention is Mary Mitchell who achieved London success with the wonderfully titled Warning to wantons. Cross tells us that this book is not Australian so “of little importance to us here. She could write, I’m sure, a good Australian society novel, for which there is a waiting public.” I hadn’t realised until this point that her article is not just about Australian women writers, but about Australian women writers writing about Australia.

Literary competitions

Here Cross mentions Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw (aka M. Barnard Eldershaw), and another writer I don’t know, Velia Ercole, as writers brought to notice through winning competitions. But, as Palmer did (though under her “abroad” category), Cross focuses her attention here to Henry Handel Richardson who, she says, was introduced to Australia by Nettie Palmer.

Cross, like Palmer, praises Richardson, saying that few “have equalled her in style and form of production”. She says that fame finally came with the last book in her Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy, Ultima Thule, which she describes as “lucid and sincere”. Nonetheless, she does suggest that “there are faults to be found from an Australian point of view” with the novel, “but few with the presentation of it”. She’s not clear about what these faults are, though suggests that many may “question the worth” of such a detailed look at “a failure’s life”.

Ethel Turner

Cross’s last heading is devoted to Ethel Turner, whose juvenilia I plan to review later this year and who is famous for her novel Seven little Australians. Cross again shows that her interest here is writing about Australia when she says:

Too much stress cannot be laid on the fact that Ethel Turner, from the moment she opened the door of an Australian house and showed the world what we were really like, has been a guiding star for the best. She has not been able to give us adults as real as children but the germ is there.

But, the cultural cringe is strong, Cross implies, when she says that Australians do not recognise that Turner’s children are as immortal as Alice [in Wonderland] and much more real than Anne of Green Gables. Fighting words, eh! She names writers who have followed Turner, including Mary Grant Bruce whose juvenilia I reviewed earlier this year.


This is not one of Cross’s headings, but after her discussion of Turner she writes a few paragraphs about other writers and writing. She refers to “imaginative women writers [who] are immersed in journalism”, playwrights, and women who write humorously, such as Miss Lloyd and her book Susan’s little sins. Couldn’t resist mentioning that one!

She then writes, curiously, that:

All of our women writers are well read, none very keen about sport, though golf and tennis and sometimes dancing play a part in their leisure moments. All are earnest, sincere workers.

I wonder why she felt the need to say all this? Anyhow, she follows this by saying she has left one writer to last, Mary Gilmore “whose hobby may well be ‘the finding of new writers'”. Dame Mary Gilmore wrote poetry and prose, though Cross, rightly, believed that it’s for her poetry that she’ll most be remembered.

And here, I’ll conclude with her conclusion because – well, see what you think:

Our women aim at truth in writing just as the men do: and this is characteristically Australian. We do not need to read Russian literature to inspire us to realism. Our country, born of suffering and hardship, has shaped our character, and out of it is coming a literature entirely different from any other. Women are doing their share in the building up of this national literature just as they did their share towards the making and shaping of the nation itself.

So there!

27 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian women writers, 1930s

  1. Enjoyed your musing on Australian women writers of 1930s and especially your concluding quote – I’m President of the Society of Women Writers (NSW) which was established by the women you discuss ninety years ago in 1925- next year we aim to honour them.

    • Oh, lovely to hear from you Maria. How wonderful that such a society was created back then. Our women writers back then were an active bunch from what I’ve read over the years.

  2. I must admit I hadn’t heard of all those women Australian writers and just recently I was introduced to another one, Mary Gaunt 1861-1942. She was one of the first two women students to enrol at Melbourne University. She wrote many novels and six were set in Australia. I just read a good short story by her Sweebriar in the Desert, truly Australian content.

  3. Another terrific and thought-provoking post – thanks. I think Cross’s final statement is spot on. But thanks to Lawson and his tribe, women seem to have been written out of the narrative. When I think of the ‘American West’ I visualise images (admittedly inspired by Hollywood) of men, women and families in covered wagons and farming together. But the similar Australian narrative loves to focus only the (white) man. Of course I’m generalising, but we still seem to have SO far to go before the contributions of Australian women are fully recognised. Keep up the good work!

    • Why thanks MST … I agree it’s a slow process. I’d be interested though to hear whether Americans think the women have been recognised in a wY commensurate with their contribution.

  4. All these fascinatingly obscure novels (at least to me). Is there an Australian series of classics that keeps at least some titles in print? There is a sadness as well as fascination.

    • Hi Ian, I love that you, a non-Australian, have asked this. There are several publishers (besides Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg Australia) which are publishing classics. They include Text Publishing University of Sydney Press, Allen & Unwin. Penguin keeps some of its stable in print too. But many of the authors I’ve mentioned in these posts are only available digitally via Project Gutenberg which is a great resource.

  5. What fun reading old stuff like this and discovering forgotten names of writers considered important during their time. You need an Australian version of Virago. It would be fun to have a working crystal ball to see into the future and discover what writers today will still be read. I imagine we would be very surprised and a bit nonplussed at why a favorite author or two is no longer read.

  6. Thank you for this post. I’m currently working on the next Ethel Turner juvenilia volume with a group of students and was delighted to see your connection to Zora Cross’s article via Trove. I do remember reading Cross’s poetry in primary school, so there’s another connection delightfully revived.

    • Oh, there’s going to be another Ethel Turner one, Pam! Excellent. These are delightful little volumes and I agree, the connections are lovely, and they start to build up knowledge too of our heritage.

  7. Modern Australian writing, be it from women or men, must be a lot more diverse these days, now that we are so multicultural, but I hope that honesty is still at the core of it overall because it is an Ausralian trait.

    • I think you’re right, Tahlia, re more diversity now. Honesty is an interesting one … I’d like to think it was a wider trait than just Australians but I’m guessing the reference here is that willingness to call a spade a spade?

  8. Thankyou for this delightful post. I do like Cross’s conclusion. Given that she wrote it in 1935, her trust in and encouragement to Australian women writers then would have been pioneering. (Thank goodness for those who encourage as well as for those who create!) One of Ethel Turner’s coming of age titles that I enjoyed as a teen is ‘Nicola Silver’.

    • Oh thanks Mary – and I agree re praising those who encourage as well as those who create.

      I hadn’t heard of Nicola Silver. In fact I think I only read the Seven little Australians books (as I recollect now, anyhow).

  9. Did you end up reading the Georgia Rivers. I’m hoping I can borrow at least one of hers on an ILL. It’s funny but I really think Ethel Turner’s daughter Jean Curlewis is a better writer. Hoping to buy another title by Jean when money allows.

  10. Pingback: Australian Women Writers, 1930s | theaustralianlegend

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s