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Bill curates: Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark

January 24, 2021

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. During the latter part of January we will look at some of Sue’s older posts which have relevance to my Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan, 2021

Dymphna Cusack was a central writer of the Gen 3 period. I (Bill) recently reviewed her Say no to death (1951) which with its focus on TB gives us some perspective on the plagues like Covid-19 which regularly sweep around the world. Here, in a post from 2013, Sue reviews Cusack’s memoir of her years as a teacher, written in the 1940s but published posthumously.

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My original post titled: Dymphna Cusack, A window in the dark

Dymphna Cusack‘s A window in the dark has been glaring at me from my TBR pile for many years now. Not being able to stand it any longer, I decided to sneak it in before my next reading group book, Michelle de Kretser‘s Questions of travel. Posthumously published by the National Library of Australia, A window in the dark is Cusack’s chronicle of her teaching years, spanning 1922 to 1943.

For those who haven’t heard of her, Dymphna Cusack (1902-1981) is an Australian writer best known for her collaborative novel (with Florence James), Come in spinner (1951), and Caddie, the story of a barmaid (1953), which was made into a successful feature film in 1976. According to Debra Adelaide‘s comprehensive introduction, Cusack was not interested in writing her autobiography but, in the mid-1970s, three decades after she finished teaching, she decided to write about this part of her life. While much has changed since 1975/6 when she wrote it (let alone 1944 where the story ends), A window in the dark – “my job was opening a window in the dark for the minds entrusted me” – is an interesting read. It is not, though, a typical writer’s memoir; its focus really is teaching and education.

The book is well produced with an excellent introduction and explanation of its genesis by Debra Adelaide (though I would have loved an index). It was prepared from the version included with her papers held by the National Library of Australia. This version is probably the final draft, but Adelaide believes that Cusack would have done more work on it, had it found a publisher. Certainly, it does have some rough edges, but not enough to spoil the content nor to prevent our getting some sense of Cusack as a person, as a writer, and of course as a teacher.

Cusack tells the story of her years as a teacher chronologically, starting with university and her decision to accept a bonded Teachers College Scholarship. However, a number of themes run through the book and I’m going to frame the rest of this post through some of them.

Format: Photograph Notes: Dymphna Cusack (1902...

“The sum total of my years of teaching in Broken Hill and Goulburn was the conviction that the high school curriculum was insane”

Cusack decided very early in her career that the curriculum she was required to teach was unsuitable for all but the minority who planned to go on to university. She rails, in particular, against the teaching of ancient languages (Latin) and against the focus on British history and English (as in from England) literature (both only to the end of the nineteenth century, what’s more). She criticises educational practice which relied heavily on examinations and argues against dependence on IQ assessment for identifying capable students. She is disgusted by corporal punishment. She does become a bit repetitive, as she moves from school to school, but that simply reinforces her passion for relevant education and humane methods. Being personally interested in local and contemporary history, she’s distressed that students weren’t taught about their own places. Students in Broken Hill were taught nothing about that city’s origins, nor its geology and botany. Students in Parkes learnt nothing about William Farrer and his pioneering work with wheat. And so on … Students learnt, well, I’ll let her tell you:

It was the same in every country town I lived in. An essential part of our history was ignored, whether massacres of whites by blacks or blacks by whites, while we got bogged down in the Hundred Years’ War or the Thirty Years’ War or the Seven Years’ War – all taught with no reference whatever to the basic economic causes underlying them.

She was happiest when, for various reasons, she was given non-examination classes to teach. Then she could teach what she thought was useful. A playwright herself, she was renowned for her drama classes, and the school plays she produced.

“I look so middle-class; it’s my nose”

Despite her ongoing frustrations (not to mention chronic health issues), she had, you can see from this quote, a sense of humour. Cusack belonged to that wonderful cohort of left-leaning writers in early to mid-twentieth century Australia, a cohort which included Miles Franklin (with whom she collaborated on books), Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison.  She had a finely honed moral and social conscience, and was acutely aware of injustice. She was not above using her “middle-class” look to get a hearing on issues important to her. She was distressed that Australia, which, by the 1850s was

politically and socially the most advanced country in the world … should by the middle twenties be bogged down into a morass of social and sectarian bigotry and educational conservatism.

Cusack became convinced of the “wickedness of our economic system”, which could not fund milk for children of unemployed parents but could, somehow, find the “money for everything for war”. She abhorred the power those with money had over others. She became unpopular with the Department of Education for her outspokenness on social and economic justice issues, and was particularly critical of the treatment of “that much-maligned creature, the woman teacher”.

“What we want is the warmth, the humanity, the feeling for Newcastle that is inherent in everything you write about …”

So said BHP’s Newcastle manager Keith Butler to Cusack in 1943 as he offered to pay for a novel about Newcastle and the steelworks. Not surprisingly, Cusack would have none of it. She did, however, write her novel, titled Southern steel (1953), and it was, apparently, a positive portrayal. Cusack wrote throughout her teaching career – mostly plays, many of which were performed on the ABC but only some of which have ever been published. She tackled tricky-for-her-times issues such as racism, workers conditions’ and war. Her second novel, Jungfrau (1936), which explored young women, their sexuality and abortion, was runner-up in the Bulletin’s S. H. Prior memorial prize. It was shocking for its time.

“… I found in my teaching life teachers are sublime optimists – why, I never knew.”

And yet, she must have known, for she stuck to teaching through years of ill-health and poor treatment by those in power. She did it, partly of course to support herself, but partly too because she loved her students. She was still receiving thankyou letters from them in her last years. That surely says something.

Why, though, read a book written in the mid-1970s about education in the 1920s-40s? It is not, after all, a memoir, so there are gaps in the story of her life – particularly in terms of her significant relationships. And while she mentions some of the plays and novels she wrote during the time, she does this mostly in relation to something happening in her teaching life. Moreover, it’s not particularly interesting in terms of form. That is, she doesn’t play, as some writers do when writing non-fiction, with narrative style or voice or perspective. Yet, there are reasons for reading it. It works as social history and a history of education. It provides insight into the development of her political philosophy and social values. It shows off her skills as a writer, particularly her ability to evoke people and place. And, for all its seriousness, it contains many entertaining anecdotes.

I’m so glad I finally read what turned out to be a fascinating book about (and by) a compassionate, funny and feisty woman whose intelligence is displayed on every page. Would that every child had teachers like this.

Dymphna Cusack
A window in the dark
Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1991
175pp.
ISBN: 9780642105141

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Dymphna Cusack was an interesting woman who was passionate about economic fairness and social justice. For that reason, she fits in very well with the wonderful cohort of women writers who were active, particularly in the 1920s to 40s, such as Katharine Susannah Prichard, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, to name a few. I’m glad Bill chose this post to bring up the rear of “my” contributions to his AWW Gen 3 Week.

We’d love to know whether you’ve read any of Cusack’s novels or other writings, and what you think?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2021 00:03

    Totally a teacher after my own heart – honestly. On all the points outlined as Dymphna Cusack’s – d’accord! Lots to say while aguing for her intelligent perspective fron nearly a century ago. Growing up in 1950s/early 1960s Tamworth I knew that DC was a first cousin to a neighbour’s father. I read a couple of her novels in the early/mid 1980s. A friend has the roller-cover desk owned by DC’s Dad (he had the gold mine at Wyalong named – if I recall correctly – the “True Blue”? – and if that counts as trivia worthy of throwing in here? She sand Margaret Olley – both had a lot of time for Newcastle people. Maybe it’s why the rightwing NSW Parliament sells off Newcastle’s assets and block or in other ways return nothing to the city or region. Were DC still alive she’d make mince meat of “Gold Standard” Gladys and her totally corrupt régime – I have no doubt! As Eric Baume used to declare at the end of his regular radio program decades ago: “This I Believe!” (Was he in truth the very first radio shock jock?)

    • January 25, 2021 02:44

      Thanks Jim. Like everything you say here of course. Love her connection with Olley.

      BTW have fixed the typo and removed the other comment. No one will ever know!!

  2. January 25, 2021 01:14

    Thanks Sue for giving me the opportunity to run these three ‘Bill Curates’ posts. I think this week has been a great success, both for the quantity of contributions and for their range and variety.

    • January 25, 2021 02:39

      Thank YOU Bill for suggesting re-airing these pieces. And yes, I think this week has been a great success. You should feel very chuffed! I think it has resulted in some renewed inkiest in our literary culture, which is great.

  3. January 25, 2021 07:51

    When I ‘like’ this post, I really mean that I love it.

  4. January 25, 2021 07:51

    Your post brings to mind a major failure in Australian education – the deliberate collapsing of the technical education system at both secondary and tertiary levels. A failure which I think we ‘liberals’ were a party to in a misguided attempt at providing working class students with an avenue to university. Instead it deprived non-academic students of their own path towards careers in trades. Now we seem to have a ‘system’ of short courses and traineeships that has left the country dangerously short of skilled workers.

    • January 25, 2021 09:43

      Yes, I totally agree. Not everyone wants or is suited to university-style learning. When we lived in the USA in the early 90s I couldn’t see anything like our TAFEs and wondered why – and then gradually ours were dismantled to a shadow of what they were.

      • January 26, 2021 00:21

        Thanks for the editing!!

        And re TAFE Colleges in the US – I think you were searching for the Community Colleges?

        TAFE here sacrificed for private-for-profit-taking and for rorting of overseas students – thanks to political ideology.

        And now Humanities degrees at more expensive fee levels it seems than medicine – whither literature, history, languages…?

        • January 26, 2021 03:17

          Thanks, Jim, yes I came across Community and Junior, as one of my friends taught part-time in one, but they tended to be more about university preparation and low-level tertiary more than technical, though I think some did that too. They certainly didn’t have the profile that TAFEs *had* here for trades etc. That could of course relate to the middle class/professional areas we lived in.

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