by Frances Gill
Another in our series of lost or forgotten authors.
Last month I attended a talk at the State Library of New South Wales entitled, “Tracing the life of a writer”. A panel hosted by Kate Evans, co-host of ABC’s weekly literary review program, consisted of Sarah Morley, a curator at the library, writer Sheila Ngọc Phạm and acquisitions librarian Maria Savvidis. Discussed were three Australian women authors who feature in the library’s collections and whose work spans the last century: Ethel Turner, communist and playwright Mona Brand and Antigone Kefala. Among exhibits available for inspection after the talk was an item Savvidis had highlighted, a letter Kefala wrote to an editor (“Mr Murry-Smith [sic]”) on receiving a rejection. In the letter Kefala states:
Your letter sounded like a Public Service Memo. How did you ever enter the literary field I wonder… I don’t consider any of your practical considerations of any importance – the only thing I apologise for is the missing page… Coming to the NEEDS of a magazine, I thought that good writing or at least an attempt to good writing was the basic need of any magazine – even yours… Please thank your wife for her kind words. Thank God there are still wives in this world willing to put in a good word here and there for unhappy creatures that meet with the wrath of editors. Yours sincerely…
Kefala, a linguist and emigrant to Australia for whom English was her fourth language, had submitted work to various magazines in the 1960s, only to be met with rejection. Later she received encouragement from both Judith Wright and Patrick White, and ultimately, before her death in December 2022, received awards established in those writers’ names. What struck me was how dedicated she was to her art and her craft, despite a decade of rejection, and the inference from Savvidis’ discussion was that her European sensibility might have mitigated against her work being understood or accepted in those early years.
Nearly a hundred years earlier, another Australian writer who encountered a cultural hurdle was Frances Tyrell Gill. Poet, lyricist, short story writer, pamphleteer and lecturer, she too apparently took aim at editors for rejecting her work. But first, some context.
Little is known about Frances Tyrell Gill’s personal life or family background. Because of her distinctive family names, however, there is a case for her having belonged to a Tasmania family, although later she resided in Victoria. Her father was most likely James Gill, her mother Frances Elizabeth (nee Worley). Their sons Walter Tyrell Gill and Henry Tyrell Gill, both solicitors, were most likely her brothers, and there was another Tyrell Gill brother, Charles, who died in a hurricane in Exmouth Bay, WA, in 1875. It is certain Frances had at least one sister, an invalid, for whom it appears she was at least partly financially responsible, and with whom she travelled in the early 1900s to England.
Gill’s earliest published work, as far as I can discern, was “Cora”, a short story published in The Australian Journal in 1870, and over the next few decades, a handful of short stories followed. By the late 1880s, her focus had turned to poetry and, from then until to the early 1910s, she published at least twenty poems. Several of her early poems were picked up and featured in the 1890 New York publication by Cassell Press, Australian Poets 1788-1888, along with the following reference:
Victorian. Has never published a volume, but has been a constant contributor to the press, and has written some of the most beautiful poems which have appeared in Australian periodicals.
Apart from writing short stories and poetry, Gill was also a lyricist, composing words to music by Henry John King in 1889, and something of a linguist: in 1893 she translated a composition from the German of F Leu. Throughout the 1890s, Gill also published prose pieces, including a number on Melbourne, its markets, the cemetery, St Kilda, and the opening of the Anglican cathedral; and also on more lofty topics, including “Fine Arts in Melbourne”, Cleopatra, Francis Adams and the “Interpretation of Art”. In the 1900s, by which time it appears she was living in England, she published pamphlets on Turner and “The Wit and Wisdom of Modern Women Writers”.
Throughout the 1890s, Gill was also an active lecturer and her appearances were evidently an important source of income. She featured at venues including the Melbourne Jewish Literary Society, the Austral Salon and the Athanaeum Club. Her topics were both literary and artistic, including “The spirit of poetry”, Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti and Matthew Arnold; as well as “The Interpretation of Art” and “Women and Art”.
In 1895 she helped to establish a cultural group called the “Illuminati” which aimed “to bring together and to afford opportunities of artistic and intellectual cultivation and entertainment to all connoisseurs of music, painting, the drama and the belles lettres.” This group attracted the derision of an editor at the Bulletin who reviewed one evening session as follows:
A new High Art Society, constructed by the indomitable Miss Frances Tyrrell Gill in place of a similar society which lately died of Philistinic neglect, gave an inaugural ‘At Home’ at Melbourne Masonic Hall the other night. The function took the form of a musical evening, relieved by light refreshment, and an ancient German botanist threw in a few remarks gratis. The remarks were unintelligible, but soothing. A string quartette party, of the first water, achieved an artistic success with a classic thingummy in F major. On the other hand, the vocalism proved to be of a kind which no society can hold up to acute admiration for long. Nevertheless this society, known as the Illuminated (in plain Australian language) has The Bulletin’s best wishes. Melbourne requires all the artistic light it can get. If the Illuminators really take an interest in the things they chatter about, and are anxious to do something definite, this journal craves permission to say ‘Amen.’ (The Bulletin, 21 Dec 1895)
The Illuminati struggled, and for whatever reason appears to have been rebranded or reformed as “The Leighton Society” in 1896.
By this time Gill had caught the attention of at least some academic admirers, including Sir Frederick McCoy who, on the formation of the new society, “took the opportunity to express, in exceedingly felicitous language, not only his own admiration of Miss Tyrell Gill’s writing but the estimation in which her lectures upon Poetry, delivered during the past three or four years were held by his colleagues at the University.” (“Miss Frances Tyrell Gill”, Table talk, 24 Jul 1896: 18.)
The poet herself was struggling financially, and her need for funds was mentioned by one Bulletin editor (possibly Florence Blair, going by the timing): “A benefit for Miss Frances Tyrrell Gill is being worked up by the Melbourne friends of that estimable and very unpractical-minded penwoman and art-culturist.” (The bulletin, 1 Aug 1896: 13)
Others gave a more sympathetic response to the author’s straightened circumstances:
Miss Frances Tyrrell-Gill will be tendered a complimentary benefit on the 14th of December in the St. Kilda Town Hall The movement initiated by Canon Tucker is supported by a large and influential committee, embracing most of the leading members of the Fine Arts Association, which was organised by Miss Gill. This lady is much in need of monetary assistance in consequence of severe domestic affliction and the claims of an invalid sister. (“The Ladies’ Column”, The Prahan Telegraph 12 Dec 1896: 5.)
I suspect some negative attitude towards Gill’s lofty aspirations was in part a reaction to an article she had written in 1893, in which she claims Australians are less interested in ideas that don’t make money. In the article, Worship of the second rate (1893), Gill complains:
And what indeed can the few appealing voices raised in our midst for the higher things of life, of literature, of art, effect against the collective deliberate acceptance of the lower in all these directions? True that, commercially, the lower may be found the more profitable of the two.
This was read, at least by one journalist, as the poet complaining that editors were rejecting her work:
Miss Frances Tyrell-Gill, an Australian, has just published an article entitled ‘Worship of the Second-rate,’ in which she declares that editors are in the habit of rejecting verses which have ‘a rich lyrical strain, dramatic conception, vivid colour, or original thoughts,’ and preferring poems, distinctly second-rate. The present writer confesses that when her contributions were rejected by an editor, she never took Miss Gill’s view of the matter, but thought instead that the reason of the refusal was not so flattering to her genius. Originality is very rare, and original thought clothed in language less puzzling than Browningese is seldom rejected by any editor. Gentle readers! when your verses are declined with thanks, it is not because they are too good, but too bad. (Gossip, The Sydney Mail, 15 Jul 1893: 122)
Were Gill’s poems “bad”, or were the outpourings of this “learned spinster” – as she was later referred to (A woman’s letter, The bulletin, 10 Dec 1898: 12), simply a misfit for the culture of Australian literary tastes in the 1890s? I’d be interested to know what an expert on women Victorian poets might make of her work.
By 1900 Gill had left for England, her last poem appears to have been published in 1911, and by 1925 her work had sunk into obscurity, along with a number of other forgotten poets:
Many an old treasured scrap-book contains charming things from the long-relinquished pens of Francis Lewin, Lindsay Duncan (Mrs T C Cloud), Agnes Neal and Frances Tyrell Gill – fugitive verse, perhaps, but of a quality not often attained by modern Australian women poets. (“Our First Women Poets”, Australian Woman’s Mirror, 4 August 1925: 23.)
The work we’ll feature for our Friday selection is “Cora”, which appeared in The Australian Journal in 1870. In it, the eponymous character is a girl of high ambition who sacrifices her dream of going to England and furthering her cultural education to go instead into exile in the bush to look after her orphaned siblings. Given Gill’s later experiences, one can’t help wondering if the young Frances felt equally culturally out of place:
She had not actually to resign England, because her father’s sister lived there, and she was desirous for her to come; but she saw clearly to-night, as she stood looking lingeringly at these familiar objects, that her work lay at home. She knew she had talents, not of the order to make a name for herself in the world, but of the kind that succeeds to perfection in society – a brilliant musician, a fairly accomplished linguist, well up in all the questions and light literature of the day, intellectual tastes, highly educated, a graceful manner, characterised by a sort of sweet suavity, youth, and good looks. And knowing this, ambition and love of life had made it a hard struggle to resign it all for a hard-working existence in the bush – a style of life, in which these talents would be thrown away.
Antigone Kefala (personal correspondence held at the SLNSW, transcribed from exhibit June 2023)
Frances Gill, Cora, The Australian Journal , May vol. 6 no. 72 1871; (p. 488-492)
— Worship of the second rate (1893, prose)
Ed. Douglas B W Sladen, Australian Poets 1788-1888 (Cassell Press, New York: 1890)
Elizabeth Lhuede first published in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing a PhD in Australian poetry, she taught English and Creative Writing, firstly at Macquarie and later at TAFE (NSW). In 2011-12, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, and has continued supporting the project in some capacity ever since. Under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, Lhuede has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.