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.
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.
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.