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.
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.
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”.
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.