Not even I suspected that my search for women’s literary history would reveal so many Australian women writers, and so many of note.
Australia has a distinct and distinguished women’s literary tradition; it is one which deserves to be better appreciated in its country of origin and better known abroad.
Unless and until women’s different view of the world is included in the literary canon, unless and until there is the representation of power from those who are on the receiving end, it is not possible to speak of a balanced, inclusive, fully human heritage. Spender, 1988
Dale Spender (1943- ) is probably best known for Man Made Language (1980), though the books of hers that I have are this one and Mothers of the Novel (1986) about all the ‘unknown’ women authors who predate Jane Austen. I have written elsewhere that Spender, with Writing a New World (1988) and the books that she was responsible for republishing in 1987-8, is almost single-handedly responsible for reviving the study of early Australian women’s literature.
In Writing a New World, she is not attempting to rank the contributions of women authors but rather to show just how many women wrote during the first 200 years of white settlement, and how many of them were ‘lost’ by not being included in male-dominated canons. She begins with that great source of information about the early days, women’s letters home.
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 of independence and identity. Miles Franklin begins at the point at which Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning leave off …
The First Fleet (1787-8) included 28 officers’ wives and 192 convict women, but the first surviving account of the voyage out we have is from Mary Talbot, a convict with the Second Fleet, who had a letter published in The Dublin Chronicle of 1 Nov. 1791. Poor Mary was soon dead, but we have the letters spanning the period 1801-11 of convict Margaret Catchpole who might be my first Independent Woman. “I am not married and almost fifty years old nor do I intend.” she wrote in 1811. She was pardoned in 1814 and went on to acquire her own land.
Spender is (rightly) angry that women’s accounts of the early days are ignored, while the similar writings of Samuel Pepys from a century or so earlier are accorded the status of ‘authoritative British History’ (She does not mention the similar respect afforded in Australia to the much-referenced Watkin Tench (my review)). In particular, the writings of Elizabeth Macarthur constitute a “continuous, colourful and circumspect account of Colony life from 1789 to 1849”. Rachel Henning’s letters, which cover a later period, 1853-82, read like a novel according to Spender, and were published in the Bulletin in 1951-2.
Another early account is Annabella Boswell’s Journal, originally written by the young Annabella in NSW in the 1830s and 40s, collected and polished for limited distribution after the author had moved to Scotland with her husband in the 1860s, and republished in 1981. Spender says this account provides a bridge between the letters of Elizabeth Macarthur (whose daughter was Annabella’s mother’s bridesmaid) and the novels of Louisa Atkinson, our first woman novelist. Though our first novel by a woman is Women’s Love (1832) written by Mary Leman Grimstone in Hobart.
Consider also the lively writing of Georgiana McCrae, a talented artist who followed her husband to Melbourne in 1840 and whose work was published as Georgiana’s Journal in 1934; and the surviving correspondence between Ellen Brown (Swan River) and Ellen Viveash (Hobart) and their various relatives in the 1840s.
From the first letters which left the colony it is clear white women were concerned about the plight of the Aborigines and often identified strongly with black women; they could see them as sisters in subordination – and labour -and they portrayed them with sensitivity and empathy.
Spender says that by concentrating on men’s writing we have been handed a distorted image of our past, that what has been lost is “the extent to which women identified with and explained the Aboriginal plight”. She mentions inter alia poet Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s The Aboriginal Mother (1838); Catherine Parker who had published Australian Legendary Tales (1896); Rosa Praed; Catherine Martin whose The Incredible Journey (1923) has an Aboriginal woman heroine; and goes on to Jeannie Gunn, Daisy Bates, Mary Durack and Eleanor Dark.
We get to our first professional writer, Louisa Meredith. Already published in Birmingham when she accepted a proposal of marriage from a Tasmanian cousin in 1839, she went on to write more than a dozen books including two novels. Her descriptive work is clearly superb, her fiction was said to be less so, and hasn’t survived. (Spender quotes from Vivienne Rae Ellis, Louise Anne Meredith: A Tigress in Exile, Blubber Head Press, Tas., 1979).
Contemporaneously with Meredith, Annie Baxter was writing her 800,000 word memoir of an unhappy marriage. Lucy Frost, who did likewise with the later works of Eve Langley (here), has extracted some of this in her Voices From the Australian Bush (1984). Baxter’s husband struggled with the demon drink, and moral guidance for young women, including temperance, is the theme of Matilda Jane Evans who, writing as Maud Jeanne Franc from 1868, published 14 novels and many short stories.
Ellen Clacy was not an Australian but she wrote an Australian book, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia, 1852-53 (republished Lansdowne Press, Melb., 1963). She offers not just a woman’s point of view of the male-dominated diggings, but also a view of the largely ‘invisible’ women and children, “the dreadful existence of deserted wives and the privations and pains of orphans.” Another Englishwoman, Mary Anne Broome, writes of her time in WA in Letters to Guy (1885).
The first novel by a woman to be published in Australia was The Guardian (1838) by ‘An Australian’ (Anna Maria Bunn) a comedy of manners – including accidental incest – with not much Australian content. Which brings us (back) to Louisa Atkinson, the first Australian-born author and in her time a well-known amateur biologist (short biog. here); followed by chapters on each of the principal Gen 1 writers: Ada Cambridge, Tasma, Rosa Praed, Catherine Helen Spence and Catherine Martin, and a ‘supporting cast’ which begins with Mary Gaunt; all of whom I have/will discuss extensively elsewhere (links via AWW Gen 1 Page), and all of whom had, at the time of writing, been out of print for the best part of century.
In the last third of her account – much of which is taken up with “Nettie’s Network”, referring of course to the remarkable Nettie Palmer, her literary criticism and the huge network of correspondence she maintained with Australian authors between the Wars – Spender discusses the women of what I have termed Gen 3, ending as I did with Elizabeth Harrower.
In being concerned here to cover the earliest Australian women writers, I have not done justice to Spender’s thesis: that if the works of women were not ignored, were not left to lapse without republication, were not considered as unworthy of study, then Australia’s image of itself might be markedly different.
Dale Spender, Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers, Pandora, London, 1988