If women’s writing may be characterized as writing about relationships, then, at least before the revolutions of the 1960s (which might be said to include universal tertiary education, safe abortions, female contraception and the general acceptance of premarital promiscuity and de facto marriages), the principal relationship to be considered was that between an unmarried woman and a potential husband. In An Australian Girl (1890) Catherine Martin says of marriage:
We sometimes forget that the freedom of choice in marriage which is permitted to women of the Anglo-Saxon race has the effect of making some of them regard the institution on cool business principles. It is an ‘arrangement’ made by themselves instead of by the mothers, as in France. Indeed no French mother could go to work in a more disenchanted way in this respect than a certain type of Australian girl.
The most popular Australian writers in the late nineteenth century were women, their novels, particularly An Australian Girl, Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1889) and the many novels of Ada Cambridge and Rosa Praed remain eminently readable, and yet they were all out of print for eighty years and still do not appear to be available in any series of popular classics, while ‘For the Term of His Natural Life’, Marcus Clarke (1874), ‘Robbery Under Arms’, Rolf Boldrewood (1888) and, to a lesser extent, ‘The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn’, Henry Kingsley (1859) are held to be the sole representatives of early Australian literature.
I checked my (well Dad’s really, but I talked him out of it) Annals of Australian Literature, Hooton & Heseltine Ed.s (2nd Ed., 1992). In 1889 there were five novels published, Tasma’s Uncle Piper, a Praed (one of her 40) and 3 by men – I really want to read Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets. And in 1890 nine, three by Rolf Boldrewood, another Tasma, another Praed, an Ada Cambridge, An Australian Girl and a couple more by men.
The one writer who has begun the task of placing women properly in the historical canon is Dale Spender, who in Writing a New World – Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers (1988) documents the many, often ‘unknown’, letter writers and novelists who provided much of the foundation of Australian literature. She begins, “Not even I suspected that my search for women’s literary history would reveal so many Australian women writers, and so many of note … approximately 200 women are listed here as contributors to the cultural heritage of the country during the 200 years of white settlement.” The neglect of women’s contributions arose because
their concerns, their views and values are not those of men. It was men who early took charge of the Australian world of letters; it was they who became the gatekeepers in universities and publishing houses and on literary pages; it was (and is) mainly men who have controlled the entry of contributions to the cultural heritage. And they have elected to praise, preserve and transmit to the next generation, the achievements of men.
In fact, I came to Australian women’s fiction via Spender. Around 1990 I found in my then local library (Nunawading) a couple of shelves devoted to books by women which I understand was the result of efforts by Spender to get them back into print. This does not come up in Spender’s Wikipedia entry but I found this wonderful quote about men’s control of language which I am sure will appeal to MST, “Language helps form the limits of our reality. It is our means of ordering, classifying and manipulating the world”. Man Made Language, D. Spender (1980).
In An Australian Girl the main character, Stella Courtland, is a young woman, a lapsed Catholic, educated and thoughtful, living with her well-off widowed mother in Adelaide in the 1880’s, mixing socially with both the squattocracy and her late father’s cultured German friends (there was a large German community in Adelaide and south-eastern South Australia). She is wooed constantly by Ted Ritchie, a rich young squatter, who is “good looking in a not uncommon and distinctly unintellectual way” (p.9) and, in fact, they had been engaged, briefly, some years before the book begins, when they were 18 and 19. Stella is distinctly ambivalent about marriage; in the following passage Ted is pursuing her once again:
‘Look here, Stella, you said “yes” once before; you’ll have to say it again and stick to it … You’re close on twenty-three. A girl should be married by that time.’
‘Or not at all. You seem to forget that some women never marry.’
‘But you’re not one of them. Now, Stella, look me in the face and tell me, do you intend to be an old maid?”
‘Oh, one doesn’t intend it; but sometimes circumstances are more merciful than one’s intentions.’”(p.7)
Eventually she meets the man of her dreams, Anselm Langdale, a handsome doctor of mixed German and British ancestry who shares her interests in good works and philosophy. At first, she finds his friendship too important to be confused with love – “Langdale was a man capable of being an intimate friend without degenerating into a lover” (p.175) – but eventually it becomes accepted between them that they will marry.
Langdale returns to Europe to put his affairs in order but almost as soon as he departs Stella is tricked by Ted’s sister into believing that Langdale is deceiving her, and in despair, and more than a little bad temper, quickly marries Ted. On honeymoon in Berlin she meets Anselm again, discovers the deceit, and for some time seriously considers abandoning Ted to live with Anselm as man and wife. Eventually, however, she accepts the conventional view that she has made her bed and must now lie in it.
This might sound like a standard ‘Mills & Boon’ plot, but the novel is actually a long dissertation on marriage, independence (and the beauty of the Australian bush – particularly the Mallee country of eastern South Australia!) and well worth reading.
Catherine Martin (1847-1937) was born on the Isle of Skye and migrated to South Australia with her parents in 1855. According to The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (2nd Ed., 1994), “Little is known of [her] education” but by the 1870s she was running a school in Mt Gambier, SA with her sister and she later worked for the Education Dept. An Australian Girl appears to be the third of five novels written by Martin and “presents a perceptive, intellectually alive and idealistic heroine, whose sceptical view of marriage proves tragically well founded.”
Catherine Martin, An Australian Girl, 1890