Monday musings on Australian literature: AusLit Women Academics on Colonial Women Writers

Over January, some of us Australian litbloggers – as the result of Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 1 Week – have been talking about early Australian women writers. It’s a topic of great interest to me, ever since the 1980s when I became interested in these writers. There seemed to be a flurry, at that time, of academics and researchers writing in this area – and this work has continued. For my benefit – and hopefully for others – I thought I’d document some of those who pioneered this research (in my time anyhow.)

Debra Adelaide

Adelaide (1958-) is probably best known now as a novelist, and I’ve reviewed her most recent novel, The women’s pages, here.  But I first knew of her as a researcher and writer about our older Aussie women writers. I bought both of her books on this topic back when they came out. One is A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988), which is a collection of essays she edited, covering writers like Louisa Atkinson, Catherine Helen Spence, Ada Cambridge and Tasma. (Adelaide acknowledges two woman in my list below, Dale Spender and Elizabeth Webby.) The other, which was published the same year, is Australian women writers: a bibliographic guide (1988). It is a comprehensive list (to the best of her research by the late 1980s) of all Aussie women writers. It includes a brief description of and a list of works by each writer. A wonderful resource.

Patricia Clarke

Clarke (1926-) is a historian focusing on women in nineteenth century Australia, including writers of all forms/genres. her books include Pen portraits: women writers and journalists in nineteenth century Australia (1988), The governesses: Letters from the colonies, 1862-1882 (1989), Pioneer writer: the life of Louisa Atkinson, novelist, journalist, naturalist (1990), Tasma: The life of Jessie Couvreur (1994), and Rosa! Rosa!: a life of Rosa Praed, novelist and spiritualist (1999). With Dale Spender (see below), she also published Life lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840 (1992). I love that these books look at writing beyond fiction – as important as that is – to letters, diaries, and journalism.

Joy Hooton

Hooton (1935-), an academic, is perhaps a bit of a ring-in to this group. She co-authored both The Oxford companion to Australian literature (1986) and the Annals of Australia literature (both of which I have). She is also an authority on autobiographic writing, and has published an anthology of autobiographical writing from the convict era to the present day, Australian lives: an Oxford anthology (1998). Most of the early writers, here, though, are male. However, I’ve included her because her works, particularly the Oxford companion and the Annals, are useful sources for researchers. And because just to be a woman academic, particularly one born pre-WW2, would not have been easy.

Elizabeth Morrison

Morrison (1936-) is another historian of colonial times, but her speciality is the role of the Australian newspaper press as publisher of serial fiction, particularly in the colonial era. She edited two of Ada Cambridge ‘newspaper novels’,  A Woman’s Friendship and A Black Sheep, which were published by UNSW Press, but she has also written many academic articles and given lectures on the subject. I have her edition of A woman’s friendship (republished 1995, orig, 1889), which was published in the Colonial Texts Series series, by UNSW Press (through, surprisingly, the Australian Defence Force Academy where Morrison was based).

Dale Spender

Spender (1943-) is an academic and feminist who has spread her wings wider than “just” Australian women, but her Australian credentials include being founding editor of Pandora Press (which published several of the older Aussie women authors I read in the 1980s, including Rosa Praed’s The bond of wedlock) and a commissioning editor of the Penguin Australian Women’s Library (whose books I also read, including Ada Cambridge’s Sisters). She also wrote Writing a new world: Two centuries of Australian women writers (1988). (Thanks Bill, for the reminder!)

Spender’s wider interests include early British women writers, and in this area her books include Mothers of the novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen (1986)You can see why I’m interested in her! I have this book on my Kindle!

You might like to check out her website. I do like her definition of “himitator”.

Elizabeth Webby

You may remember Webby (1942-), because my last two Monday Musings drew from a lecture of hers – but I didn’t say much about her except that she’s a retired academic. She was Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney for nearly 20 years, and has been editor of the literary journal Southerly. She researched both colonial and modern Australian (women’s and men’s) literature, and perhaps her main legacy, publication-wise, is as editor of the Cambridge companion to English literature (2000), which I have. She has written numerous articles and given lectures on colonial literature, including an article on colonial women poets in Adelaide’s A bright and fiery troop. She has also published a bibliography about our early Australian poets, Early Australian poetry: an annotated bibliography of original poems published in Australian newspapers, magazines and almanacs before 1850. Bibliographies make for pretty dry reading, but how important they are!

I thank these, and all the other academics, who thought researching Aussie women writers was an important thing to do. I’m sure it wasn’t always easy.

I’ve only selected a few, of course – those that have been particularly relevant and useful to me – but if you have some favourites in this sphere that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them.

19 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: AusLit Women Academics on Colonial Women Writers

  1. A great list! I’ll add a link to this post from the AWW Gen 1 page as soon as I get the chance. Of these women Dale Spender has been by far the most influential for me, both for the books she caused to be republished and for her Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers (1988) which I reviewed late last year. I also have Mothers of the Novel, but it has never made it all the way to the top of the TBR.

  2. Great summary of these writers. They all sound interesting and worthwhile. It is very neat that you are interested and knoladgeable about this specific category of literature.

  3. Hi Sue, you probably know this site, and I sometimes look at it: “Australian Women Writers 1900-1950 – Monash University” - It is very interesting. It was here I read Nettie Palmer’s poem “In the Concert Hall”, which is still very much relevant today!

  4. I’m not sure if you’d include Anita Heiss in this list… she co-edited the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Writing which includes some very early writing (letters and petitions) by indigenous people, including some women.

    • Thanks, Lisa, but yes I did look the Pen Anthology which I have, of course, but my plan was to focus on those older researchers who got things going in the 1980s and 90s, and I decided to stick to that, otherwise I would have had to open myself up to other more recent researchers. I should, though, do something on people getting knowledge of indigenous writing going, though, shouldn’t I? Will see what I can find.

        • But I’m glad you raised it, because it’s made me think about looking at pioneering work in the area of bringing older indigenous writers to light. It would be a different approach I think – perhaps more about indigenous writers’ work in encouraging others like Oodgeroo Noonuccal and I think Sam Watson (as well of course as Anita Heiss).

        • For me, it made me realise that those missionaries did teach some of them to read and write, so the fact that their voices weren’t heard in the colonial era is not because they were all illiterate.

  5. Good to see you profiling two of my friends here – Patricia Clarke and Joy Hooton. Pat Clarke is still writing books and articles and working for women’s archives as a member of the ACT Committee of the Australian Women’s Archive Project. I have not seen Joy for many years, but she was an enormous help to me back in the 1980s when I was struggling to finish my Masters Honours degree – she taught me how to use her Mac, and I wrote the final draft in her house. A wonderful supporter!

  6. Pingback: Australian Book Review | theaustralianlegend

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