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- held regular meetings which included talks, recitations, readings of unpublished works, musical items and reviews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.