Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Bill on Melbourne and Sydney, 1880-1939

Over the years, I’ve invited people to write guest posts on my blog, including Bill a couple of years ago. However, when Bill (The Australian Legend) became aware of my current family care situation and its impact on my reading and posting, he offered to organise some guest Monday Musings posts for me. It lifted my heart immensely to know that Bill, Lisa and others – as you will see – are willing to help keep this little series of mine going. Thanks so much Bill for taking this in hand. I love that Bill’s post is on a topic dear to my heart (and his). Read on … and do let us know what you think …

Bill’s post

Book coverIn the 1870s and 1880s Melbourne was both Australia’s largest and wealthiest city and its literary centre – around figures like Marcus Clarke, George McCrae (son of Georgianna), Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall, Ada Cambridge, Tasma.

What I want to discuss here is the movement of the literary centre to Sydney and how that worked out, during the first half of the twentieth century. This is an opinion piece rather than the result of any great research so feel free to add to what I say and to correct my mistakes.

Sue has always been interested in the women of this period of Australian writing, and over the past few years we, the Australian Lit.Blogging community, have done a lot to establish in our own minds at least, who the women writers were and to review their work. On my blog, I broke Australian writing into ‘Generations’ more or less in line with HM Green’s ‘Periods’ in his History of Australian Literature, so: Gen 1 1788-1890, Gen 2 1890-1918, Gen 3 1919-1960.

Gen 2 and the first years of Gen 3 were characterized by being both Sydney-centred and seriously misogynist. Gen 2 covered the years of the Sydney Bulletin magazine’s greatest influence, Federation, rising nationalism, WWI.  The Bulletin‘s stable of writers: Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Steele Rudd, Joseph Furphy and a host of bush poets, and the drawings of Lindsay Norman (who moved up from Melbourne after leaving art school) followed by the War reporting of Keith Murdoch and CEW Bean left us with an indelible image of ourselves as resourceful bushmen, and larrikin fighting men. An image which both excluded women and around which they had to work.

The Bulletin openly scorned home life and dismissed the popular women writers of the previous generation as ‘Melbourne-based romance writers’.

“The Sydney Bulletin liked to believe that in ‘virile cultures’ where ‘home-life [had] not become so all absorbing: ‘men live and struggle and fight out in the open most of the time. When they go to their homes they go to beat their wives…’{3 Nov. 1888} According to the Bulletin, home life trammelled a man’s spirit and sapped his masculinity. And it robbed him of his independence.” (Marilyn Lake, 1986

This bled into Gen 3 and the Lindsay-led Sydney Push of the 1920s, an antipodean Bohemia where women were only of use as models and for sex.

For those of us over, say, 50 our history, including such literary history as got past the anglophile gatekeepers, was written and taught by returned servicemen, and they very much bought into the myths of the lone bushman, mateship etc. So it is important to realise that there is another history, that of strong, independent women, which is not taught. In the 1890s both Melbourne and Sydney had vibrant women’s movements focussed on (white) female suffrage, yes, but also on domestic violence, temperance, and women’s welfare. The Melbourne movement coalesced around Annette Bear and Vida Goldstein, and Sydney around Rosa Scott and Louisa Lawson, and Lawson’s newspaper, Dawn.

Miles Franklin is the prime example of a woman writer who was influenced by the nationalism of the Bulletin but wrote with a definite pro-woman and anti-marriage slant. After the publication and instant success of My Brilliant Career in 1901, Franklin was taken up by Rosa Scott, and then subsequently fell in with Goldstein’s lot when she moved to Melbourne and became life-long friends with Melbourne suffragists Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton. Her fictionalised biographies My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos describe her year in the Sydney literary set, living with Scott, flirting with AB Paterson, and meeting Lindsay and (Bulletin editor) Archibald.

Franklin lived overseas for many years, from 1906 to the 1930s and when she came back for good, to her mother’s house in Sydney, it was to a changed literary scene, one dominated by women. During the 20s women had been excluded from the Sydney Push’s literary magazine, Vision, and maybe only Zora Cross with her erotic poems fitted in with the times. Anne Brennan, daughter of drunken poet Christopher Brennan, who hung around the Lindsay push for grog and sex, and tried to write, tried to fit in and failed. Christina Stead was tempted to join the Push, but her compulsion to earn enough to flee overseas saved her.

The Melbourne scene gathered around Nettie and Vance Palmer. Vance, originally a Queenslander, tried hard to be a writer in the Bulletin tradition but hasn’t stood the test of time. They were friends with Louis and Hilda Esson and with the poet Maurice Furnley. But more importantly Nettie and Hilda had been at school together at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College, and subsequently at university. Hilda had been neighbours with Katherine Susannah Prichard’s family and introduced KSP to Nettie. Earlier alumni of PLC included Vida Goldstein and Henry Handel Richardson who, of course, wrote about the school in The Getting of Wisdom.

Nettie, a poet and scholar, maintained an enormous correspondence with a great many Australian writers and was important in maintaining links with expatriates like Richardson.

Sydney women wrote from their homes, isolated from each other until the formation of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1928 by Mary Gilmore, Steele Rudd and John le Gay Brereton. Later in the 30s the FAW’s most prominent members were Miles Franklin, Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson.

So what can I say about that fixture of Australian life: Melbourne-Sydney rivalry. Melbourne ‘had’ Katherine Susannah Prichard, but she was living in Perth; Henry Handel Richardson, acknowledged for years as Australia’s best writer, but long since based in England; (the late) Joseph Furphy, writer of the Great Australian Novel, Such is Life; and Nettie Palmer.

Sydney, by the outbreak of WWII, had a blossoming of writers: Kylie Tennant, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Dymphna Cusack, Eleanor Dark, Ernestine Hill, and Patrick White just setting out. You be the judge.

For a compilation of posts on Australian (mostly) women’s writing up to 1960 see:

  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 1, 1788-1890 (here)
  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 2, 1890-1918 (here)
  • theaustralianlegend, AWW Gen 3, 1919-1960 (here)

Bill Holloway, 25 May 2020

47 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Bill on Melbourne and Sydney, 1880-1939

  1. Thank you for those kind words Sue. Writing this MM was a pleasure. As I put in my last email to you I am working – out on the Nullarbor tonight – but I figured that if I wrote the first comment then I will see the others as they come through.

    • Good for you Bill, and as I’ve also said personally, thanks so much.

      I will start with the discussion we had about Flora Eldershaw. Re your “Later in the 30s the FAW’s most prominent members were Miles Franklin, Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson”, I would add Flora Eldershaw as she was FAW’s first woman president in 1935 (and was president again in 1943). My recollection is that she, Marjorie and Frank were a bit of a triumvirate, at least from the research I did into them for Wikipedia many years ago. My sense is that Flora was the biggest organiser of the three.

      • I have a very Miles Franklin-centric view of Australian Lit. My recollection was that the three I mentioned were linked by Jill Roe in her biography of Franklin. On receipt of your query I revisited Roe and it seems MF’s best friend in the FAW was in fact fellow committee member Dymphna Cusack who collaborated with Franklin on the novel Pioneers on Parade. I can only imagine Eldershaw and Franklin didn’t interact very much as Eldershaw is only mentioned in passing by Roe.
        I am currently reading Barnard’s biography of Franklin so that will give me another view of that period.

        • Fascinating how the perspectives vary. This is from the ADB, written by Maryanne Dever: “A leading figure in Sydney literary circles, in 1935 Eldershaw had become the first woman president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, an office she was again to hold in 1943. With Barnard and Frank Dalby Davison, she developed policies on political and cultural issues, and helped to transform the F.A.W. into a vocal and sometimes controversial lobby group. Her literary friends included Jean Devanny, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Tom Inglis Moore, Prichard and Judah Waten.”

          Eldershaw was also heavily involved in the Commonwealth Literary Fund.

          Dever is an academic, and currently is also joint Editor-in-Chief of Australian Feminist Studies and a member of the editorial board of Archives and Manuscripts.

  2. LOl Bill, I was just going to bed and ponder my response in the morning, but of course it is not so late out there on the Nullarbor…
    I have to concur with what you say about Vance Palmer… I read The Big Fellow which won the MF in 1959, and it was rather dire. So I was cross when I saw the Wikipedia entry which lumped husband and wife together… this has now been rectified and Nettie has her own page.:)

  3. I boarded for a year with Nettie’s sister-in-law in Croydon, Sydney. 1968. Not that I understood any of that import then – aged 18/19 – on the edges of abandonment of a fundamentalist faith – the Great Awakening one might say. Nettie and my widowed landlady’s husband were both given an extraordinary education – (google it) by their paternal uncle Henry Bournes HIGGINS (1851-1929) of Harvester judgement fame… Nettie and Vance’s daughter Helen Palmer was a political activist in the vein of her mother – and uncle – and of their uncle’s brother-in-law “Chinese” Morrison…

  4. The other point I’d like to make is that I hadn’t thought about the centre of Australian literary culture moving like this, but your argument makes sense to me. There are now more writers and publishers all over Australia, but I can’t help thinking that the centre is probably back in Melbourne?

  5. Pingback: Melbourne and Sydney | theaustralianlegend

  6. Thanks Bill, I found the information very interesting. As for Peter Carey, I think he left his best writing in Australia.

      • I think he’s left magical realism now Bill. You may not have seen Dorothy Johnston’s comment on my review of The enlightenment of the greengage tree in which she mentioned how many Aussie writers tried magical realism when it became popular. Most, though, didn’t stick with it. I found that fascinating. The thing I like about Carey is that he does explore and try new things. That’s not necessary for me to like an author – viz. Jane Austen – but it’s not a bad thing either ?

  7. Is Ruth Park too late to qualify – Park in the 1940s.. I think Park’s books have “lasted” better than KyIie Tennant’s although I love Tennant’s writing. I was also thinking of Thea Astley, more a Queenslander she also lived in the Blue Mountains and Sydney but she starts being published about 1858… A friend of mine knew Astley when she lectured at Macquarie University and said she was known for being very feisty and slamming doors a lot!

    • I left Ruth Park out of my survey because she arrived in Sydney to live with Niland during the war. But undoubtedly the comparative strength of the Sydney writing community extended into the War and beyond.

    • Yes Park and Astley are more the next gen Sue I think.

      BTW, it’s one of my lasting sorrows that I didn’t have Astley at Macquarie, though I think she would have terrified me! The thing l remember is her smoking! I didn’t do Aussie Lit there, which mystifies me now as I’ve always loved it. I think we had too many choices.

      • Yes I realized after I’d posted that Park and Astley were a bit later thanks Bob. And yes Sue I am sure I would have found Astley terrifying too – I did anthropology and then philosophy at Macquarie but now wished I’d done literature there too – so many interests, not enough time!

        • I went as a mature age evening student in the 90’s Sue – didn’t get the opportunity to do tertiary study after high school, although I passed top of the state in two subjects (English & German), my parents wouldn’t permit me to study (not a girl, I would have been thrown out of the house, although now I wished I’d stood up for myself more, but it took years to learn to do that).

          Night students were mostly mature age and we had some wonderful tutorials in the pub across from the Uni rather than on campus! I was encouraged to do a PhD in philosophy but there were so few positions for Philosophy grads and I had a mortgage & would have had to move to the ACT to study at ANU …Dr Catriona McKenzie was Head of School (Philosophy) then. Fabulous.

          My brother studied Science at Macquarie and is now at Monash. Did you enjoy your time at Macquarie? I found it an excellent uni.

          My uncle was Sir John Crawford, hence the affinity with ANU…he could be terrifying in real life, and he was such a tiny man! I had some scary relatives! (chuckle)

        • I loved Macquarie … such an exciting university. My mother was a mature age student there too in the mid-1970s, and ended up working as a lexicographer on the Macquarie dictionary. My sister and brother went there too. Wow, about your parents and a girl going to uni. None of my friend’s parents as far as I know thought that. That was for our parents’ generation!

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through the post and the comments here, especially the way that others joined in through the night and then posed questions and revisited tangents. It must be such a pleasure to have a small group in which to discuss the intricacies of these writers’ works (and the various generations to which they belonged) even though many of them remain less well known over the waters. If it wasn’t for VMC editions, I might not have heard of many of the Australian classic women writers I’ve read (and, later, enthusiastic readers, like yourselves, have taken up the gauntlet of course)!

    • Sue’s and my reading overlap quite a bit which makes for interesting discussions especially when we can persuade others to join in. We share a belief that some excellent writing by early Australian women writers was overlooked almost as it was written. And I for one am happy to play a part in its revival.

      • Bill I was thinking when reading your post, how many wonderful women writers Australia has produced. They really were an outstanding lot and there was so much prejudice against Australian writers overseas (reading about the reviews Patrick White received in the UK made me realise how difficult it was for an Australian writer to receive international recognition). I’m loving this discussion thank you!

    • It is a great pleasure Buried to share this reading with Bill, not to mention Lisa, Bona, Janine, Jess, Michelle, and others who have joined in to explore these older writers.

  9. If you went to Macq Uni straight after school we must be similar ages – I did the HSC in 1974. Was about 40 when I got my BA then a G.Dip.Phil. I was expected, after school, to earn my keep and get married – ironically I never married & of course was stuck in work which didn’t pay well & wasn’t intellectually satisfying enough, so I studied at night. I absolutely loved it!

      • Yes my parents were way out of date not wanting to waste money on educating a daughter – and I’ve suffered the consequences, which is why I mention it…

        I see you went to Hornsby High, I went to Cheltenham (lived in Epping, it was like living in a country village back then, I used to ride a pony around the streets).

        I still remember both my wonderful German teacher, Mrs Jill Morris, and my English Master, Mr Kirby – both of whom instilled in me a love of language and of literature.

        Being a librarian is something I wished I had done and think it is an enormously interesting and vitally important occupation. I’d love to hear your thoughts about anything to do with libraries sometime.

        I am sorry to read you are having family illness problems at the moment and send my very best wishes.

        • Oh Sue thanks so much. You are lovely. I remember Cheltenham High because didn’t you have that pink/burgundy uniform? Nicer than our beige (or fawn as we called it). I have some favourite teachers too. I’m sorry your parents weren’t up with the times. Sounds liked you’ve done really well and worked hard to make the sort of life you wanted for yourself.

  10. Hi Sue, yes we had those awful burgundy winter uniforms with the ugly box pleats – and a gym uniform that included bloomers for modesty! Gracious. The pink summer dress wasn’t so bad. I do remember us all charging down the stairs at the end of the day once and our delightful vice-principal, Miss Lawson, a most elegant woman – stood ringing her hands and saying to us “Girls, please – ladies walk GRACEFULLY down stairs!” – to no avail I’m afraid!
    I can’t remember the Hornsby uniform but I would have seen Hornsby girls around regularly. I can’t bear the traffic around that area now, and Epping is under high rise.
    Did you work at the National Library? The sister of an old friend of mine was a librarian there but fled Canberra for Darwin.

    • Well, your uniforms were distinctive while ours were neutral – fawn in summer, navy serge box pleat tunics (weren’t they awful) in winter. I did my first year of high school in Mount Isa, where our unicorn was a navy cotton gathered skirt, and a light blue shirt (blouse), with a navy woollen jumper and a school tie for winter.

      Yes, my first professional job was at the NLA, but when sound and films split off in 1984 to form the National Film and Sound Archive I went there, and that’s where I stayed.

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