The Australian Literature Society (ALS) was formed in Melbourne in 1899. Its aim was to encourage the study of Australian literature and of Australian authors. It did this, according to the National Library, by holding regular meetings which included talks, recitations, readings of unpublished works, musical items and reviews; establishing a general library of first editions and important Australian works which it maintained for nearly eighty years; and publishing a journal Corroboree from 1921 to 1923.

Today, though, it is best known for the ALS Gold Medal which it established in 1928. and which is now managed by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, with which the ALS merged in 1982.

Now, to the Society’s Women’s Night. I found the existence of this night last year while researching Australian literature in 1922. Not being sure whether it was the first Women’s Night run by the ALS, I searched Trove for similar nights in the preceding couple of years. I found some references to women’s topics being discussed at ALS meetings, but it seems that 1922 may have been the first time they devoted a night to women’s writing. I also found mentions of Women’s Nights in 1927, 1929 and 1931.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, two papers were presented at the 1922 night: Australian Women Prose Writers, by Mrs Vernon Williams, and Australian Women Poets, by Elsie Cole. 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, again, 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. Arguably, because these things are always a bit tricky to pin down, the first “Australian-made novel” was Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton, which 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 Holloway’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.

As for the next nights, the reports are minimal. 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) 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”‘.

The 1931 report in The Age (June 16) starts by announcing some prizes, including the 1930 ALS Gold Medal. It then describes the meeting as having taken “the form of A Women’s Night”, and says that “An interesting programme had been arranged”. This included “a review by Miss Nettie Palmer of some recent books by Australian women; a paper entitled Is Play Writing Easy? by Mrs. E. Coulson Davidson (winner of the drama competition organised by the Society of Australian Authors); a recital by Miss Charlote Malmgren of the poems of Dorothea Mackellar, Capel Boake, Myra Morris, Alice Lapthorne and Mary Gilmore; and a paper on The Feminine Monopoly of Literary Prizes, by Miss Doris Hayball.” Nettie Palmer was, of course, a leading Australian literary critic. Her paper would have been interesting, but I am most fascinated by Miss Doris Hayball’s paper. The feminine monopoly of literary prizes? Given the ALS Gold Medal had just been won by Vance Palmer, this sounds a little strange, but, in fact, the other awards announced at the meeting were for one-act plays, and all four were won by women. I need to do more research, but I also suspect that women often did well in short story competitions. Regardless, wouldn’t it be good to know what Doris Hayball** had to say?

While the ALS may have run more “women’s nights” I have not, so far, found more reported on in the newspapers. My searches have revealed women’s nights for netball, cricket, and CWA dinners, but not the ALS. I will, however, continue to keep my eye out.

* 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.

** AustLit describes Doris Hayball as “a Melbourne writer [who] wrote several plays as well as recollections of her extensive travels”. She was born in 1909, but, AustLit says, “Ada Doris Hayball is recorded in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature with a death date of 1948. However, subsequent research has shown that she died in 1973″.