Monday musings on Australian literature: Nancy Cato

Book cover

Last year I posted on a book called Trailblazers: 100 inspiring South Australian women. I decided then that it could inspire some Monday Musings posts, because it includes writers among its inspiring women. The first writer to appear in this alphabetically-arranged book is Nancy Cato. She is described as “Writer and activist”, which enhances her interest.

Nancy Cato (1917-2000), who saw most of the 20th century, is best known to Australians for All the rivers run (which I have posted on) but there is much more to her than that.

Brief bio

Cato was born and raised in Glen Osmond, Adelaide. She started writing when she was 8 years old, but got her first writing job at 18, when she won a competition run by the Adelaide newspaper, News. The prize included a cadetship. However, says Trailblazers, she “bristled at sexism in the workplace”. She’d been told that when she became a journalist, she’d be treated and paid as a man, so was horrified when they assigned her to the social pages! She threatened to resign if they didn’t give her a “proper reporter” job.

The job they gave her was “the North Terrace round” which covered the art gallery, public library, museum, university and hospital. She learnt a love of art from gallery director, Louis Frederick McCubbin (son of artist Frederick McCubbin), while the public librarian introduced her to Australian writers writing about Australia. This, says Trailblazers, was “a revelation after being told by her ‘pomified’ university professor that there was no such thing as Australian literature”.

She became involved in the Jindyworobak Movement (1938-1953) which aimed to “express the Australian outback environment in terms that respected the Aboriginal resonances of the land”, though, unsurprising for the time, it was a white movement. Cato edited the 1950 Jindyworobak anthology.

Book cover

Cato married racing-car driver and inventor, Eldred Norman. Early in her marriage, before they established a home on a vineyard on Adelaide’s northern fringes, she spent time grape-picking on the Murray River, thus gaining her river knowledge. Her first book was a poetry collection published in 1950, with her first novel, All the rivers run, appearing in 1958. She went on to publish another book of poetry, many novels, and a few works of non-fiction.

Cato and her husband moved to Noosa, Queensland, for health reasons, in the 1960s. That was where she died in 2000.

Writing and activism

Her activist nature is hinted in the biography above, in her willingness to resign over the paper’s treatment of her as a woman journalist. She was clearly no pushover from a young age. Trailblazers mentions her later activism in Noosa, where she became the bane of “the white shoe brigade” by opposing high-rise coastal development. The authors say that:

In her groundbreaking 1979 environmental study on the region, she described the seaside resort town as ‘a place of ancient unspoilt beauty and instant, man-made ugliness’.

According to Wikipedia, it went into two more editions (in 1982 and 1989).

Of course, I also went to Trove to see what I could find about Cato. I wasn’t surprised to find more than I could possibly read, both writing by, as well as about, her. I’ll share just some of what I found. I didn’t find a lot more about her activist activity. However, The Canberra Times, for whom, Trailblazers tell us, Cato wrote while living in Noosa, did have some articles by her about Indigenous Australians.

She commences one article from 1971 with

QUEENSLAND’S Aboriginal and Island Affairs Department has been dragged screaming into the 20th century by the Commonwealth Government’s threat to force changes in the existing Aboriginal and Island Affairs Act, if the State Government fails to amend its “discriminatory” clauses.

She goes on to describe how the Government responded, but that “the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders’ [ATSI] monthly bulletin” was “hostile and critical” with the bill’s provisions. You can read the article yourself, but my sense is that the way the article is written suggests that Cato was sympathetic to the ATSI cause. Her description of her attempt to research first-hand conditions at Palm Island is telling. Her sympathy is borne out by another article (this one from 1972) in which she talks about Indigenous Australian poet, Kath Walker’s (later Oodgeroo Noonuccal) “new Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Museum on Stradbroke Island”. Cato went across on one occasion “to give a hand”. She writes:

Far from having difficulty in attracting artists, writers and others to stay at her Aboriginal cultural “retreat”, Kath Walker will probably have a waiting list as long as your arm, and the tourist industry will be gnashing its collective teeth at having overlooked the potential of the bay side of the island.

Interestingly, one of Cato’s few non-fiction books tells the story of a missionary, Mister Maloga: Daniel Matthews and his mission, Murray River, 1864–1902, published in 1976. The mission failed, for various reasons, and I’m not sure exactly what Cato’s take was, but reviewer Leonard Ward praises the detail it contains, and says that “As an historical document Mister Maloga earns a place on the bookshelves of those who have at heart the welfare of the Aboriginal people”.

In her novels, her passion for ideas she believed in was more subtle, but definitely there. There is a brief review of her 1960 novel Green grows the vine in the Communist Party’s newspaper, Tribune. The review calls it “a slight piece about the love life of three girls who go grape picking”. However, it continues, the novel “is lifted from the mundane by the author’s … careful descriptions of the labor process. The humor, the pain, the comradeship and the joy of labor, garnished with a democratic contempt for chauvinism, snobbery and such like”.  

John Graham, writing in The Canberra Times about her 1965 novel Northwest by south is more explicit, calling Cato “a curious phenomenon in Australian literature, a feminist without a formed social outlook”.

Her major contemporaries — Eleanor Dark, Kylie Tennant, Eve Langley and Dorothy Hewett — have all expressed definite views on society through their novels. Mostly, they are militant socialist rather than purely feminist ideas, a tradition of political awareness handed down to them by Mary Gilmore and Katherine Susannah Pritchard.Nancy Cato has never been drawn into this dynasty.

She is closer to the individuality of Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson in her poetry, much more aggressively feminist in her novels.

He argues that Delie, the Murray River trilogy’s heroine, has “all the pioneering qualities that come from one side of the feminist tradition” but is not given “a social viewpoint that might have turned her into a memorable figure”. In Northwest by south,

Lady Franklin’s feminism is of the same activist variety, but much more capable of development through her position as a Governor’s wife. She also has the virtue of reality, a considerable advantage for a writer with limited powers of character development.

(Limited character development is a common criticism of Cato’s work). The review is thoughtful, and makes good reading. Graham argues that Cato shows improvement in her “technical development”, but “has still not controlled her tendency to rush from one event to another without pausing for significance”. He notes positives about her portrayal of Jane Franklin, particularly in exploding some myths about her, but feels that Cato became “so enmeshed in the historical details that the book is not satisfactory either as a character study of an unusual woman or as an examination of Franklin’s governorship”. However, “it is an interesting and at times fascinating study of the dilemma of the intelligent woman in early Victorian, and particularly colonial, society”. 

Cato, in her time, was one of Australia’s most popular writers of historical fiction. She was also, I’ve learnt, a woman of strong social values. A worthy trailblazer, I’d say.

Have you read any Nancy Cato? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

17 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Nancy Cato

  1. Wonderful post, Sue.

    I have read a few of her books, prompted of course by the tv series of All the Rivers Run. I was obsessed. I have not re-read any of her books in the last 20 years – would I love them as much as I did as a teen? Hard to say… I did take my kids on a holiday to Echuca, where I made them ride on the Emmylou, and where I also picked up the DVDs of the tv series (although no one was keen on watching the entire thing with me…!).

    • Thanks Kate. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

      The series probably came out at the right time for you! I think I was living overseas at the time, so I saw some in re-runs. I might have reacted the way you did, if I’d seen the series. It’s a good story I think – at least Mr Gums and I enjoyed the audiobook of the first book. I love Echuca and the Murray River!

    • It sounds like it might be worth reading Lisa, particularly given the Lady Jane Franklin subject matter. I haven’t read her either. I’ve only listened to the All the rivers run audiobook, I have to say.

  2. A comprehensive bio, WG, and a good start to AWW Gen 4. I’m not likely to read her but I’m interested to see her liberal leftism compared with the genuine socialism of the women of the previous generation. If there was one area I’d like to know more about it is her reaction to the racism of the Bjelke Petersen government.
    (The Adelaide News was of course Rupert Murdoch’s first newspaper).

    • Oh, I’m pleased Bill about AWW Gen 4. Good question re Bjelke-Petersen. Because most newspapers aren’t releasing their still-in-copyright articles, there’s less stuff out there for that period. (Tribune and the Canberra Times have agreed for the NLA to digitise and release their later editions. I should keep checking the search results pages. I only got about 3 pages in.)

      I didn’t know that about The Adelaide News. BTW, my American friend recently heard an Interview with Turnbull about Murdoch and his disastrous impact on the news, media, etc.

  3. My mum and I were fans of the All The Rivers Run mini-series, and watched it together when I was in my (very early, cough cough) teens. I read the book afterwards, although how much later I can’t remember. Not too much later, I’d guess, because I do remember being struck by Cato’s use of the river as a metaphor for Philadelphia’s life (the main character). She arrives near the headwaters, lives her life along the river and dies at the Murray’s mouth. Use of metaphor wasn’t something that often entered my head, at that age, so the fact it caught my attention means it was possibly a bit too obvious. But it certainly impressed me at the time! Loved your biographical info, Sue – another woman writer who (if she were a man) would, because of her activism, be a lion of Australian literary letters!!

    • Thanks Michelle. Loved you person “journey” with Cato down the river!

      I like doing these little biographical posts, though I wish I could back them up with more reading of my subjects’ books! Still, I tell myself that it’s good to get them out there.

  4. What a great idea for a recurring series, WG! Does your WP site track stat’s that you ever see? This strikes me as something that might be popular with students (like my Alice Munro posts….all the homework I’ve done LOL) as well as readers, of course.

    • Thanks Buried. Yes it does. That will be interesting. Certainly I see figures that seem related to students, bumps in the stats for particular posts, some the same time every year for years! Fascinating isn’t it. I wonder what the teachers think though I know a couple of education sites list specific blog posts …

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