In lieu of a monthly wrap-up, my offering is a belated write-up of an event held at the State Library of New South Wales last December. My co-blogger, Sue Terry, will post a wrap-up of literary fiction and classics next week.
Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s forgotten women writers featured author/academic Jane Gleeson-White and author/Chief Literary Critic of the Australian Geordie Williamson in discussion. The chair was journalist and ABC broadcaster/producer Cassie McCullough.
Australian women writers were operating as subversives within the field of Australian literature as it is determined by a small and narrow clique and they are interesting and more interesting to us today, precisely because they did. Geordie Williamson
The focus of this discussion was the familiar, recurring story of Australian women writers who, for various reasons, struggled to find a path to publication. Many had their work heavily edited by male editors, and several only found their way to publication overseas. We heard about their frustrations, their difficult lives, their determination, their successes and failures. Many of their stories can be found in books written by the presenters: Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library and Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics: 50 Great writers and their celebrated works.
The conversation opened with a reference to Jane Gleeson-White’s declaration in an Overland blog post that 2012 was the year of women writers. Explaining that with the establishment of the Stella prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge, Jennifer Mills’s article on Classics and the domination of the fiction awards by Anna Funder and Gillian Mears, she felt that we were experiencing a “sea change”.
In response to a question from McCullough about whether outsiders have a keener eye for cultural products than residents, Williamson, who was born in Australia, went on to give us quite a personal insight into his background and how he came to write The Burning Library.
Speaking about his experience as “an outsider”, he described the period of his life where he spent five years doing postgraduate research in English literature in England. “I’m a really shocking academic,” he said. Having discovered that, he went to work for a bookseller and dealt with manuscript materials and rare books. Says Williamson: “I found myself living in the West Country, pretending to write a thesis, walking the dog along this shingly beach and thinking ‘what am I doing?’ I feel so homesick. I found a copy of Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown in a little shop and took it up to the The Undercliff.” Set in Australia and England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, The Cardboard Crown is about an upper middle-class family who love both countries but are not quite at home in either. This revelatory read inspired Williamson to focus on Australian literature when he returned to Australia to become a full-time literary reviewer. “A presiding spirit of my book is Drusilla Modjeska,” he said and described her book Exiles at Home: Australian women writers 1925-1945 as “a crucial work of cultural history.”
“Australian Literature and Australian Women’s literature is constantly under threat and exists in a state of crisis and I’ve come to the conclusion that that is its natural state. My book emerged out of a sense that it is embattled; that there are great problems in the way it is taught, published and disseminated and that there are problems generally in the reading community in terms of getting the information out there and raising enthusiasm levels,” he said.
An important thread of the evening’s discussion was one of the main obstacles faced by Australian women writers of a certain period: the masculine, bush tradition in Australian literature which was championed by the editor of the Bulletin, AG Stephens. Gleeson-White briefed the audience on this. “Masculine culture came about in the 1890s with the Bulletin and the first coherent promotion of a national literary culture even though we weren’t a nation yet. AG Stephens promoted this ‘bush writing’ to distinguish it from English and American literature. He published Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and so on. Although he didn’t publish My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, he did declare her book to be ‘the first Australian novel’ and it was published in the year of Federation in 1901.”
Gleeson-White says that she was not motivated to write her book on Australian Classics by a desire to promote women or men. “I wanted to give an accessible overview of Australian Literature and to make available to anyone who hadn’t studied it at university, some way in to literary culture which wasn’t a dense textbook,” she said. “I found it fascinating how many early women writers couldn’t find publication here. That includes Miles Franklin. The part of their work which was considered ‘too feminine’ was excised.”
As Gleeson-White went on to explain, a prime example of this is The Chosen Vessel by Barbara Baynton—a story about a woman living alone on her selection. “AG Stephens, Editor of the Bulletin published the story but omitted the second part. He left the first part, the realist bush part in but ‘excised’ the supernatural, religious overtones of the second part of the story, leaving in the bush realism to fit his vision for the Bulletin.”
It was very heartening to hear that after some hardship, Barbara Baynton’s story ended well. She and her squatter husband lived on a selection in the bush. When he left her for the maid, she moved to Sydney with her children. She then met her second husband, a wealthy doctor, who was well connected to the literary world and she began to write. No one in Australia would publish her short story collection. When her husband died, leaving her well-off, she went to London and happened to meet the critic/editor Edward Garnett, who had published Henry Lawson and others and was connected to the Bloomsbury circle. He loved all her stories and published them as they were as Bush Studies. I loved Gleeson-White’s description of Baynton as “a grand literary dame” living the high life, dressed to the nines and driving around in flash cars.
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!