Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020
Twenty years ago this week, Gee had finished year 12, done a very good IB as it turned out and was with me in the truck. We went up to Moree and Brisbane then back to Sydney. My next load was to Moomba in northern South Australia and she had to finalize her university preferences, so I dropped her off to catch the bus to Melbourne from outside Central Station, and went off to load.
My diary for 12 Jan 2000 says that we booked her on Greyhound for $48; I dropped my front trailer at a transport yard in Strathfield; and most concerningly, that when I fuelled up I topped up my radiator which was “leaking from tap – lower RH side”. The following morning a 20 ft container was craned on and I was on my way, over the Blue Mountains – I stopped at Lawson PO to pay some bills – and out through Dubbo.
Slept at Emmadale, got fuel at Little Topar, roadhouses in the desert either side of Wilcannia, topped up my radiator again, found the alternator belt was broken. Got one in Broken Hill.
The customer, Keith Thompson, a famous trucking operator from Castlemaine, Vic, told me I was running late, which was true, and that I would have to go “the short way” on dirt roads via Tibooburra, instead of the long way round on bitumen to Port Augusta and up the Strezlecki Track (map).
The road to Tibooburra was mostly gravel, just the tops of the hills bitumenized. There I turned west onto a dirt road out to Cameron’s Corner – where the borders of NSW, Qld and SA meet, “walked around corner marker to all 3 states. Much evidence of Millenium celebrations”. Slept.
The only map I had was a map of Australia. I was following a faint dotted line which should take me past Merty Merty Station. The ‘road’ itself on the SA side was just wheel tracks in the sand through the scrub. Up I would go, veering left up each sandhill, turn back to the right at the top, and down onto a claypan baked hard in summer, look for the opening on the other side, occasional mobs of cattle to keep me on my toes. For three hours. You can only imagine my relief when I came on a very old sign post pointing to Merty Merty, a few miles on my left and Innaminka 110 on the right. I pressed on, guessed that I should turn right onto the Strezlecki, towards the columns of thick black smoke, was soon at Moomba – where I waited 8 hours due to the crane being broken down. Then, back south, towards the distant Flinders Ranges and civilization, “9.00 pm. Tea, Elsewhere Pub, Lyndhurst. 2 stubbies!”
This is the country of No Roads Go By (1932), the fictionalised memoir of a young woman whose husband took her and their young child from Adelaide to manage a cattle property in remotest outback South Australia in the years leading up to WWI. Myrtle White’s “Mrs Brown” is a city girl like the more famous Mrs Aeneas Gunn of We of the Never Never (1908) though White’s ADB entry says she was born in a tent near Broken Hill and brought up in rural Barossa Valley. White quotes Boake’s famous poem to push the connection: Out on the wastes of the Never Never/That’s where the dead men lie!
I have written elsewhere that Gen 3 had two new streams – (urban) Social Realism and Modernism – and also that many authors, particularly men, continued with the Gen 2 themes of nationalism and bush realism verging on romanticism. But during the Gen 3 period women writers, and indeed rural women generally, made a concerted effort to carve out for themselves a place in men’s bush myths. And they did this by promoting a new myth (in the original sense of archetype rather than falsehood) of the equal partnership of women with men as settler/farmers.
In the 1970s [historians such as] John Hirst [and] Judith Godden recognized that the myth of the independent bushman had been ameliorated by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth, where men tame a hostile environment to carve productive farmland out of unwelcoming bush; a myth which incidentally validates their right to be seen as the creators, and therefore the valid owners, of this land. Although it is sometimes argued that women are absent here also, Jemima Mowbray shows that during the Centenary and Sesqui-centenary celebrations of the 1930s women actively asserted their place in the opening up of the Australian bush to settlement. While Mowbray agrees with Godden that ‘the middle-class virtue of domesticity is the primary virtue celebrated within the Pioneer Woman myth’ (2006, p.4 of 20) she also emphasizes that popular representations of pioneer women show that they, as much as the men, were forced to overcome the loneliness and hardships of pioneering. (That’s me quoting from my thesis The Independent Woman in Australian Literature, 2011)
One (literary) outcome of this movement was the satirical Pioneers on Parade (1939), by Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack (Miles believed she, as Brent of Bin Bin, and Steele Rudd had invented the genre of Pioneering Lit.). But I’m afraid I’m yet to read it.
This Australian myth, or story, of women sharing the hardships and responsibilities of farming equally with men continues to need to be asserted right up to today – and was for instance, part of Michelle Scott Tucker’s stated motivation for reevaluating the role of Elizabeth Macarthur in the opening up the Australian wool industry.
So No Roads Go By plays, or played, an important part not just in selling the romance of the outback, in which all Australians like to believe, but in asserting women’s role in what is often pictured as an almost totally male domain. Although, like Gunn, she mostly plays the frail little wifey.
There is not much to the story, but it’s competently written, and White had a few other books published on the back of it. Interestingly no people or places are named, so her husband is The Boss and her daughter, Little’un. If the station itself is not Merty Merty, then it’s pretty close. One ‘lost’ stockman is clearly drinking at the Tibooburra pub.
She endures shocking heat in primitive houses, with dust storms, rolling sand dunes, a rabbit plague, and seven years of nothing to eat but beef and dried vegetables. Is pregnant two times, more than a days travel from the next house let alone the next doctor, and so must must spend months in ‘the city’ (Adelaide).
Little’un is quickly at home in the bush, but the two sons born during the course of the book are sickly. The author herself never seems comfortable, not surprisingly, with the help unreliable and The Boss away mustering for weeks at a time. The stockmen seem to be mostly white, and the local Indigenous people* are barely mentioned. Late in the book White says that there is very little evidence there ever were any.
Myrtle Rose White, No Roads Go By, first pub. 1932, illustrated by Elizabeth Durack 1954, this edition (pictured above) Angus & Robertson, reprinted 1956
Jemima Mowbray, Examining the Myth of the Pioneer Woman (pdf here)
I was motivated to find this among my father’s books after Sue/Whispering Gum’s recent post, Random thoughts from the mid-1930s (here). Sue is also contributing two Monday Musings on Christina Stead to AWW Gen 3 Week. The first is (here).
*The people of this area are probably Wadikali (or Evelyn Creek mob) of the wider Yarli language group, but I can’t find websites for them under these names.