Jennifer Mills on classics

Jennifer Mills on classics

Used with great caution and suspicion, a literary canon, a list of significance, may have some use in guiding and informing inexperienced readers, but I think probably it’s far more useful as a target of intelligent argument and dissent.” – Ursula le Guin

All canons are lists and all lists restrictive. “Classics” are a product of their time. What a list of important books does is hammer a marker into the landscape, to be walked around, kicked at, tripped over and fought with.

The word canon, with its suggestion of religious worthiness, is a flawed term, and such a list often sees female writers under-represented. Women who write are still faced with a battle for our place in literature. It is not just critics and academics, but also publishers who decide what is a classic. Sometimes these lists are explicit, but often the “canon” referred to is not something a critic would be comfortable articulating, but an ideal, a notion of centrality and longevity. Publishers’ decisions are more concrete, but made in the context of sales and available rights.

What does it mean to be marginal? Isn’t history a constant process of reclamation of story? Given the already peripheral status of Australian fiction in a global context, this implied centre can seem absurd. I think of all the Indigenous writers now who are working to reposition literature in a post-colonial context, and the voices of migrants and the children of migrants who are claiming their place among Australian stories. If there is a centre in Australian writing it is constantly shifting. I think that’s a sign of a healthy literature.

For the AWW challenge, I decided to read five works by Australian women that I would consider classics. Not all of them would figure in every Australian canon, but each book has stood the test of time in some way. The AWW challenge therefore gave me the opportunity to reposition some women writers in my own literary list of significance, and rethink what makes a classic work.

The first was Eve Langley’s delightful book The Pea Pickers. Like Kylie Tennant’s The Battlers, The Pea Pickers is set among itinerant workers in the early 20th century. Her pickers are two young women traveling Australia dressed as men for kicks and money. They are poor and brave, fierce and vulnerable and funny. This is Australia’s Cannery Row, a collection of slapstick yarns infused with nostalgia and sorrow. As well as being hilarious, The Pea Pickers has a wonderful soul to it, capturing the drama of youth, the languid heat of the bush and the marvellous characters, some of whom will stay with me for a long time. I’m grateful to my wonderful reading community on Twitter for this recommendation.

Barbara Baynton is a writer I am ashamed to say I only heard of when someone compared my own work to hers in a review of The Rest is Weight. After looking her up I realised I had read some of her stories before in anthologies. Baynton’s name crops up now and again in lists of great Australian short story writers, but not often enough. Reading Bush Studies was an absolute pleasure. Her work is distinguished by her rural character studies and a poignancy which verges on despair, and her stories are prototypes for the proliferation of outback gothic in our literature now. Baynton is part Henry Lawson, part Eudora Welty, and a master of the tension and texture of the short story form.

Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahony has been called the Great Australian Novel. Its classic status is least disputed among these five, and with good reason. This book was a revelation. Richardson’s insight into the minds and lives of people buffeted by changing social fortunes is both historically fascinating and intensely contemporary.

The interplay between Polly/Mary’s loyalty and Richard’s mercurial decay is ripe dramatic material, and the expatriate wanderings and constant uprooting of home lend this story an epic quality which its 900 pages only reinforce. I read it quickly, thrilled by Richardson’s capacity for tension and her ability to embed an analysis of class and colonial anxieties into the lives of her characters. Reading Ultima Thule, the last book of the three and the most modern in its intimate portrayal of the inner life, I had to bite down on a finger; the last book that did this to me was Stead’s Man Who Loved Children, and the similarities do not end there.

When I talked about this book with my mother, who is one of my great reading accomplices, she mentioned that she studied it for her Leaving Certificate in the 1960s. I can’t imagine anyone putting this on a high school syllabus now, and yet I would have loved to have had the opportunity to argue over it at that age (my 1939 edition is inscribed by a woman at teacher’s college). I’m glad I read it in my mid-thirties, with a bit of life behind me, for Mary’s battles are the battles of a mature woman. Although Fortunes was written almost a hundred years ago, it feels radical now, in a culture that tends to infantilise women.

The next book on my list is meant for the young: Miles Franklin’s coming of age classic, My Brilliant Career, a proto-feminist romance novel. I got the least out of this book among the five, perhaps because it was a re-read, and perhaps because it’s already so iconic. I found that the emotional weight of the book is very light compared to its status in our culture. But it was worth re-reading Stella Miles Franklin’s story to rediscover the sharp wit and fresh-voiced cleverness in her language – particularly impressive given that she was barely an adult herself when she wrote it. I feel an affection for Sybilla and her brave choices which I am sure many readers share.

Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower is another book to read with your thumb between your teeth. An intense study of domestic tyranny, this short novel depicts suburban Sydney with a simmering menace equal to anything in Patrick White. A bloody bluebeard tale so poisonously real I find I am still worrying about the women in it now, Harrower’s work is regaining prominence (this has been “rescued” as a Text Classic). I had not heard of her until this year, though the edition I picked up was a second-hand copy, and the impetus to read it came from Twitter (again!). I have found Harrower’s short stories amazing too and I wish that she had not stopped writing, though given the emotional intensity of her work I can hardly blame her.

These five books each have a distinct Australian flavour – the pioneering spirit we see in Richardson, Baynton and Franklin are balanced by the comedy of Langley and the tragedy of Harrower. But then, my idea of what is Australian is coloured by the whiteness of our canon and the bush narratives to which I am geographically and sentimentally attached.

These books aren’t valuable to me because they insert women into our stories. The women were always there, in Tree of Man and The Drover’s Wife and every other story worth its salt, and I can’t say the women in these books are very different from the colonial wives and good-time bush girls you will find in stories by men. We get more of a sense of the inner lives of women from women, perhaps. Or perhaps there is something that women see of life, something they witness in the Australian narrative, that a male writer would be less likely to notice.

In these books by women, the stoicism and infinite patience of colonial wives is heroic, but it is also shown to be ultimately self-destructive; the pioneer story is a story of error as much as of sacrifice; the bush girls are landscape romantics, with a humour so bleak it borders on nihilism. If, as I have long suspected, Australia’s national stories are narratives of failure and trauma, then these books by women are strong representations of our literary culture.

Reading them, I thought often of the women who had read and discussed these books before me. Knowing these readers and writers have gone before makes me feel that I am part of an active culture, a living thing. And perhaps the revisionist urge to ‘rediscover’ these women is not so much about representation, or women writing differently to men, but about belonging. Finding our place as readers and writers, tending and extending the paths that others have trodden for us, as we learn to care for a changing landscape.

Each of these books is a product of its time, but each writer also brings a universal quality to her fiction, and each has power and immediacy. That ability to speak from a certain time and place and yet speak directly to the heart of life is what makes a classic. It is something that we discover about a work over time, and only if that time is filled with reading, writing, and most importantly, robust argument.


Jennifer Mills is the author of two novels, Gone and The Diamond Anchor, and a collection of short stories, The Rest is Weight. She is the fiction editor at Overland and has read 24 books this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


  1. Loved this article. Yes: ‘…not so much about representation, or women writing differently to men, but about belonging.’

  2. What a fantastic, sensitive essay on canon! And the Pea Pickers sounds fascinating, I’ve added that to my to-read list. If you found My Brilliant Career a little light on re-reading, I suggest trying its ‘sequel’, My Career Goes Bung, which is in some ways a ‘postmodern’ refraction of the earlier book.

  3. Thanks! I’ll give Bung a go.

  4. Thank you for a discussion of an australian women cannon that is both delightfully and insightful. I liked your thoughts of gender differences in writing and you have convinced me that I want to read some of the books. As well as trying again to find yours in the US.

    Glad to find the Kindle edition of Gone.

  5. Thanks Jennifer (and sorry I haven’t read Gone yet — it is in my pile though waiting its turn). I love your discussion of the canon … and I like Le Guin’s quote as I think she’s right, it’s great as a discussion starter. I have read three of the books you discuss here – and have reviewed two on my blog (The pea pickers, and The watch tower).

    The latter is harrowing (couldn’t resist that!) but what writing, eh. The pea pickers is a trickier one … I’m not sure it’s meant to be quite as funny as you suggest though I agree there is humour in it. I read my mother’s 1950s hardbound copy with its somewhat damaged dust jacket. It had been on our shelves all my growing up and I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to read it! I’m very glad I did though because it’s fascinating – for its subject matter and its style. I visited the Dandenongs for the first time only a year or so after I read it and I kept thinking about the two sisters!

    This year was going to be my Stead year but I don’t think its going to happen. I really do want to read her … I didn’t do her at school though it sounds like I’m only a few years younger than your mum. We did do Voss though … and I don’t think something like that would be done much in schools these days either. I like your reference to White in your discussion of Harrower btw!

    Anyhow, thanks for the great post.



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