Judith Wright—one of Australia’s greatest poets had a similar experience, said Gleeson-White. Clem Christesen , founder of Meanjin, published her first book of poetry, The Moving Image. It was very successful critically, and in terms of sales. Wright sent him her second book of poems (Woman to Man), which she had written after having met and fallen in love with a man for the first time. “They were very intimate poems about her body, about pregnancy, about being a woman,” she said. “And she wrote to him saying ‘not sure if you’ll like this lot’. Well he didn’t like ‘this lot’ and he didn’t publish it because it was ‘so female-centered’. It was published eventually but didn’t do as well and one critic said it was ‘alienating for men’. It was AG Stephens who called Barbara Baynton ‘too obstetric’.”
M Barnard Eldershaw was next on the list but as Williamson explained, this was actually a formidable, two-woman writing team consisting of Marjorie Barnard (who, along with Christina Stead, was one of Patrick White’s favourite writers) and Flora Eldershaw. They wrote together because there was no literary community.
“This pair emerge out of the conditions Jane has described,” Williamson said. “We had a limited literary network at the beginning of Federation. It permitted women inside its ring- fenced circle but they had to be ‘sympatico’. Miles [Franklin] is fascinating in this regard because she takes on a lot of the rhetoric of the Bulletin school but we now have to recuperate her as something else. We read only one half of her experience,” he said.
Both writers went to the University of Sydney and Barnard graduated with First-class Honours and the university medal in History. She was offered a scholarship at Oxford but her father, a strict Presbyterian, prevented her from going. She stayed at home to care for her parents and became a librarian (topping library examinations in 1921). “A noble undertaking but it was for her a crippling time,” says Williamson. “Life is banked up in me for miles and miles,” she once wrote in a letter.
Barnard and Eldershaw wrote historical novels together. Williamson says that despite their writing seeming to be “very obedient to the norms of realism laid down by the Bulletin school”, the concerns of their novels are not with the “masculine realm of outward endeavour” but with the “feminine”. Williamson says an example of this is the mercantile, rags to riches story about the rise of a British merchant, A House is Built (which won the pair the Bulletin Prize in 1928). “The men are lost, outside the novel’s frame,” he says.
And as the years go on, it is increasingly the social and domestic worlds which are at the heart of their novels. “And this seems radical and wonderfully sneaky. This is what inspired Patrick White’s vision of early Sydney and this is what White writes about—the feminine interior, the world of women as a place of wonder and bizarre, majestic otherness.” In this regard, Williamson asked us to think about the opening chapters of The Vivisector.
Williamson says when he was trying to do a 50/50 gender split of men and women writers for his book, it was easier to find women who “undermined the traditional, gendered version of Australian Literature laid down because the men were very much stuck in the realist, masculinist, rural mode.” He is not saying that he doesn’t like the men’s books or that they are not worthy of “recuperation”. Rather that: “Because they were moving in the direction of more national and political ideological currents, they were more obedient to them, they were more like propagandists than writers of literature in the way we think of it today.” He gave the example of Frank Dalby Davison (Man Shy, Dusty).
Williamson explained that as M Barnard Eldershaw went on to write more sophisticated books incorporating philosophy and modernism, and they became increasingly unpopular and more negatively reviewed.
As time went on, Barnard tended to write fiction (eventually writing her book of stories The Persimmon Tree), whereas Eldershaw wrote non-fiction Together, they produced a landmark volume of Australian criticism, Essays in Australian Fiction and wrote the first essays on Christina Stead and Henry Handel Richardson.
Williamson says that their vision was extraordinary for their times, the 1930s. “That there might in fact be a national literature, it might include women and that women might in fact be the preeminent practitioners.”
When introducing Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, Barnard’s last book published in 1947, Williamson said it was written mostly on her own and it was heavily censored by the government because of its left-wing, anti-war stance. Barnard had joined the ALP and was an avowed pacifist. Many cuts were made to the book and this seriously affected its flow. It was republished uncensored in 1983, again fell out of print and Patrick White said it was one of the great Australian novels.
Gleeson-White then sang the praises of one of her favourite novels (along with Voss and Carpentaria): Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson. A gifted pianist, scholar, and translator, Henry Handel Richardson went to Leipzig to study as a music student and married a philologist she met there; he adored and promoted her. She was the first translator of Ibsen into English and James Joyce, an admirer of Ibsen, bought a copy of the book.
Says Gleeson-White: “She was this freaky, brilliant woman who read Freud in the original, before he was known to be a genius. She was obsessed with Wagner, steeped in European literature and music. All of that feeds into Maurice Guest. It is the most fantastic, overblown passionate novel, a devastating Wagnerian love story. There is poor hapless Maurice, the piano student, vying for the love of an Australian girl with the genius violinist, Nietzschean superman.”
It’s interesting as Gleeson-White says Henry Handel Richardson’s best known and loved stories are the ones based in Australia like The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, which are part of what she describes as the “nation building canon”. She was very pleased to say that Maurice Guest has just come back into print (published by as part of the Text Classics series).
Discussion moved on to Christina Stead who was only reviewed once, and negatively, in the 2012 AWW Challenge. This was surprising to quite a few Challenge participants so it was interesting to hear Williamson say that he believed that the difficulty of being the expatriate as it applies to Maurice Guest applies to Christina Stead’s entire career and may help to partly explain her lack of appeal.
Many great critics have praised her as one of Australia’s and the 20th century’s greatest writers. She won the inaugural Patrick White prize and White set it up with her in mind. Stead in a letter to a friend says “my credo is intelligent ferocity”. And Williamson says she wrote like that during her entire career.
McCullough quoted from Jonathan Franzen’s piece on The Man Who Loved Children in which he calls it a “masterpiece” but also says: “I suspect that one reason The Man Who Loved Children remains exiled from the canon is that Christina Stead’s ambition was to write not ‘like a woman’ but ‘like a man’: her allegiances are too dubious for the feminists, and she’s not enough like a man for everybody else.”
There was a slight digression here as Williamson apologised “as a man” for Jonathan Franzen saying that the author had “jumped the shark in literary terms” when conversation turned to Franzen’s comments about Edith Wharton in his essay Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy.
Angela Carter said: “To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness.” Williamson asks: why is it then that, according to Nielsen Bookscan, she sold 199 books in 2008, and was taught on only one university course (For Love Alone at the University of Queensland). Williamson identifies two points: “She lived in Europe, America, and the UK. She never had an established relationship with any particular locale, or class or language group. She was an exile in the best 20th century tradition. And since she was married to a Jewish, communist stockbroker, the 20th century was not kind to them on either side of the Atlantic.”
He says that Stead’s reception was very much marred by the fact that she was unwilling to accept certain “boundaries” (she didn’t like being edited or editing her work). “She is our great genius, she wrote like no one else, she is a figure of world literature and her greatness is something which we don’t actually respect. We like our modernism light; we like our Booker novels well-tended, well-edited and we don’t want to be so ‘furiously explained’, with the great terrors of existence. It’s too much and she is too much and that’s why she’s such a splendid writer and it’s probably why it’s so hard to get people to read her,” he said.
Gleeson-White agreed that Christina Stead is not “easy reading” saying that she tried many times to read The Man Who Loved Children before she succeeded and finds Ulysses easier to read. She’s not even sure she likes The Man Who Loved Children although she loves Christina Stead.
It was suggested that Christina Stead “beach reads” would be For Love Alone or The Salzburg Tales described by Williamson as “folktales retold by a brilliant young woman who has just arrived in London who is going to set the literary alight. Everybody says it’s spectacular. The review in the New Yorker said it’s better than The Decameron.”
And what of Amy Witting? She was the first Australian writer to sell two stories to the New Yorker and when they asked for another, she refused because her second one had been edited without her knowledge. Williamson told us that Kenneth Slessor who had published her first story in Southerly said to Thea Astley (who was working as a teacher with Witting at the time): “Tell her I would publish any word she wrote.”
Says Williamson: “Her story is the story of how hard it is to become a writer as a woman in the 20th century. You won’t find her on university courses or in print. She is not in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature.”
Recommending her novella I for Isobel which features the character Isobel, (who also appears in some stories and in a later novel Isobel on the way to the Corner Shop), he says Witting’s first novel wasn’t published until quite late in her life. Despite being called “the Australian Chekov”, her publisher didn’t agree and wouldn’t publish her in paperback. I for Isobel was set to be published when sales staff decided against it.
She was a teacher and may never have been published had it not been for one of her students who became a literary figure in London and shopped her manuscript around. Amy Witting’s work was recognised with the Patrick White Award in 1993 and she was posthumously awarded an AM in 2002.
Williamson concluded by saying: All these people are our Sleeping Beauties but Amy Witting is in “suspended animation”.
List of writers (I’ve no doubt missed some):
M Barnard Eldershaw
Frank Dalby Davison
Henry Handel Richardson
Our Common Ground by Geordie Williamson
What we talk about when talk about Australian literature Kerryn Goldsworthy on Text Classics
Auto da Fé Nicolas Jose on The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson
Write-up of this event by John from Musings of a Literary Dilettante who was also there but unlike me, wrote it up promptly!
I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist, editor and librarian. I blog over at Wordsville and you can find me on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit