Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 3, ALS Women’s Night

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, I was intrigued that, in 1922, the Australian Literature Society held a Women’s Night. This Society was formed in Melbourne in 1899, with the aim of encouraging both the study of Australian literature and Australian authors.

According to the National Library the Society:

  • held regular meetings which included talks, recitations, readings of unpublished works, musical items and reviews
  • established a general library of first editions and important Australian works which it maintained for nearly eighty years.
  • published a journal Corroboree from 1921 to 23

In 1928, it established the ALS Gold Medal to be awarded to the author of the best novel published in the previous year. The first winner was Martin Boyd’s The Montforts, but that, obviously, came after 1922! What also came later was that this society merged in 1982 with the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which continues to award the ALS Gold Medal.

Now, back to 1922, and the Society’s Women’s Night. I’ve had a little look at Trove for 1920 and 1921, and while there are references to women’s topics being discussed at ALS meetings, it seems that 1922 may have been the first time they devoted a night to Women’s writing.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there were just two papers presented: Australian Women Prose Writers, by Mrs Vernon Williams, and Australian Women Poets, by Elsie Cole. Before I share the idea that inspired this post, I did find mentions of Women’s Nights in 1927 and 1929. In 1927, The Age (July 12) reports that there was a paper on Stella Miles Franklin, followed by some readings and recitations of works by women, while in 1929, The Age (July 15), again, reported that the night would ‘take the form of a debate, the subject, being “Australia is Lacking in a Back Ground to Inspire Romantic Writing”‘.

And now, back to 1922 again. The report in Table Talk (August 3) reported that Elsie Cole’s paper on the poets said that “We had reason to be proud, if critical, of our present output of women’s work” and that “the prospect for the immediate future was encouraging”. Unfortunately, none of the reports I read gave any details about the content of the papers, so what, for example, were the criticisms?

As for Mrs. Vernon Williams’* paper on the prose writers, they reported her saying that “one outstanding feature of the Australian novel is its purity” but they didn’t elaborate. Williams also apparently said that the Australian novel was full of sincerity and the glamour of romance.

The report shared one other idea from the talk, which was that:

In the early days of Australian literature the output of women writers was more prolific than that of men writers, because the opening of a new continent did not give men opportunity to concentrate their activities in that direction.

I haven’t seen this specifically articulated before, and would love to know exactly what she was talking about. The first “Australian-made novel” novel, Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (my post), was published in 1830, with the first novel by a woman published in Australia, Anna Maria Bunn’s The guardian, appearing in 1838. But, “the output of women writers” did start before this. Dale Spender writes, in Writing a New World: Two centuries of Australian women writers (see Bill’s post), that from very early on women wrote letters and

women’s ‘world of letters’ provides an alternative and rich resource of information. Women’s thoughts and feelings find expression in a literature which stands as a repository for women’s consciousness and a record of their endurance in the strange land. So the letters of Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning, for example, tell a story of settlement, create heroines of stature who experience a series of adventures which could readily and reassuringly be recounted ‘back home’; but at the same time these letters plot personal struggles with independence and identity. Miles Franklin begins My Brilliant Career at the point at which Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning leave off …

Women’s letters and journals, as Spender shows, provided a rich and important literature, but novels by women did start appearing by the middle of the century with Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison in 1854, and Louisa Atkinson’s Gertrude the Emigrant in 1857. Ellen Davitt followed with a crime novel in 1864, and then, in the 1880s, novels by Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, Tasma, and others were published.

Presumably it’s to these novelists that Williams refers, but, to suggest that, somehow, men had less opportunity to write in the colony’s first century feels like a backhanded compliment – as if women’s lives were easy, and men’s not. However, her recognition of the depth of women’s writing tradition is notable. It’s a recognition that got lost by the middle of the 20th century and that we are still trying to recover now. I must try to access Williams’ paper.

* AustLit explains that Mrs Vernon Williams is the writing name for Elvie Williams, the wife of Vernon Williams, who was “a member of the Australian Literature Society, Melbourne”. She had two articles, “Australian Women Novelists, Parts 1 and 2”, published in two consecutive issues of Corroboree : The Journal of the Australian Literature Society, vol. 1 nos. 10-11, July-August 1922, but they aren’t available online.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 3, ALS Women’s Night

  1. I had settled down for the evening with a book, but the tones of the phone invited me to check my emails, and hence your MM, and now I’ve had to reopen my laptop.

    Thanks for the mention. I know you know that I think we owe Dale Spender more than we can say for her revival of early Australian women’s writing.

    I checked Elsie Cole, whose name I thought I knew. She’s a poet, which I’m sure you knew, though I didn’t.

    I am especially intrigued by the lecture on MF in July 1927.MF had been overseas since 1906 and only returned to Australia the previous month having, long since withdrawn My Brilliant Career from publication and published nothing since ‘Dawn’ in 1909. I wonder what the speaker had to say about her.

    • Hi Bill, I thought you’d like this post. Yes, I knew Elsie Cole was a poet but I didn’t go there as my focus was more the novels and exploring what Mrs. Vernon Williams had to say.

      I agree with you about Dale Spender.

      As for the content of all these papers, I’ll keep looking. I didn’t include it, because I was focusing on 1922, but the 1927 lecture report did say that “Miss Franklin was to have visited Australia this June, but was too ill to leave London.”

      • Sorry, I know this a 1922 post! I see the 1927 lecture was given by Kate Baker with whom MF was a decade later to write the biography of Joseph Furphy. I think they met in 1904, with Furphy, but perhaps they corresponded.

        • Ah thanks …. I did refer to the 1922 lecture especially for you so I only have myself to blame! Seriously, any additional info is all good. I’m enjoying the discussion.

  2. “Australia is Lacking in a Back Ground to Inspire Romantic Writing”‘. That’s hilarious…
    Debaters could have had a lot of fun pointing out that Oz lacked the requisite mansions, estates, aristocratic bachelors, Napoleonic wars and so on…

    • Fair question Brona – except I wonder how she would know that if it weren’t published? I really must try to find the paper!

      Oh how exciting. I hope you write it up! But, I’ll understand if you just want to enjoy.

      • I hope you don’t make me look this up, but writers like Tasma and Rosa Praed were enormously popular and far outsold any men. By the 1920s things were a bit quiet, for men as well as women, and then from 1935 say women dominated again, up to the War.

        • Haha Bill I won’t. Yes, I realise that … but because the 1920s, until the end of the decade when things started to pick up again, were quiet, and because I didn’t know exactly what she was referring to, I was tossing around ideas. I guessed, like you, that it was Praed, Tasma, Cambridge to whom she was probably referring. But then there’s that suggestion of opportunity … there’s a lot that could be “unpacked” there?

  3. I wonder if women produced more writing because they were at the homestead and had supplies? If men were travelling a great deal, perhaps they couldn’t transport so much “unnecessary weight” with them? I’m not sure. I will say that typically when I hear about a woman in the U.S. who is prolific, she’s a do-it-all person. Stacey Abrams, for example, is running for governor, leading a grassroots voting movement, wrote a best-selling novel, and even started writing and publishing while she was in her final year at Yale Law. I hear about women like her all the time. Famous singer (and now actor!) Janelle Monáe just published a science fiction novel. I’m wondering if women are used to doing more with their time because it’s expected of us.

    • I like your second idea, Melanie. I’m always hearing of women authors talking about how time management is essential to writing, working, bringing up kids etc etc.

      And your first idea is probably true for at least some of the women she was writing about. They often were more housebound, as you suggest. I hadn’t really thought about the weight of writing materials, but that’s a fair point that if the men were moving around more they really couldn’t carry the amount of paper needed to write novels. Good thinking!

      • The only reason I thought about how much writing materials weigh is because I read that memoir about the woman on the Pacific Coast Trail hike, Cheryl Strayed, (the book is called Wild) and how everything has a weight, and it matters. At one point, a guide is removing 4-5 condoms from her pack because of weight issues.

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