Exiles at Home, Drusilla Modjeska

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020


The 1930s were remarkable years in Australian cultural history. Women were producing the best fiction of the period and they were, for the first and indeed only time, a dominant influence in Australian literature. (Modjeska, opening lines)

My own opinion is that women dominated Australian literature from the end of WWI till the rise of the baby boomers, ie. throughout Gen 3. Though I guess from 1939 on we should factor Patrick White in there somewhere.

Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945 (1981) is probably the single most important work on this period, certainly as an overview, though Nettie Palmer’s contemporaneous writings are also enormously valuable. HM Green devotes 550pp to ‘Fourth period 1923-1950’ but he is so discursive that it is difficult to use him for anything but referencing (History of Australian Literature, Vol.II).

Modjeska regards the 1920s as a bit of a desert for Aust.Lit, a hiatus between the glory days of Bulletin nationalism and the blossoming of women’s writing in the 1930s. I don’t totally agree with her though it is certainly true that the best women writers of the 1920s were overseas. Miles Franklin was in London and began her Brent of Bin Bin series in 1928; Henry Handel Richardson, also in London, was at the height of her career and had published five novels, including all of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, by 1929; Christina Stead, the best writer of this generation left Sydney for London in 1928, with A&R refusing to publish the stories that became The Salzburg Tales. But by March 1930 Miles Franklin was able to write to Alice Henry, “Australia seems to be throwing up writers like mushrooms.”

For the women of the thirties writing and publishing were in some respects easier, if only because there were enough of them to offer each other a network of intellectual and emotional support …

mostly through letter writing, most famously to and from Nettie and Vance Palmer, but also through organisations such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers around Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin (back in Sydney in 1935) and Frank Dalby Davidson.

Until the FAW, women had been deliberately excluded from writers’ societies and salons.

The major literary group of the twenties was clustered around Norman Lindsay and the magazine Vision which was edited by Frank Johnson, Kenneth Slessor, and Norman’s son Jack. These writers were part of Sydney’s bohemian group and their lifestyle left very little room for women.

The saddest case was Anne Brennan, daughter of the (alcoholic) poet Christopher Brennan. She apparently had an unnatural relationship with her father, fell into prostitution, hung around the Lindsay push for grog and sex, was derided by Jack Lindsay when she told him she wished to write, though one or two published pieces showed great promise, and was dead at 32 of consumption (TB).

Zora Cross was another. Her sensual poems published in 1917 and 1919 created a sensation. The push were all excited that a woman might write about sex but otherwise treated her as a joke, and she retreated into timidity (The Resident Judge has a promised posted a review of her life, which I’ll repost tomorrow).

Christina Stead as a young women was drawn by Vision and the idea of bohemian life, but luckily was too driven by the idea of getting to London to attempt to join in. In For Love Alone (1945) she calls the magazine ‘the Quarterly’ with “drawings of voluptuous, fat-faced naked women …”. But by then she is able to recognise its misogyny for what it was.

A woman writer involved with the Sydney Bohemians who appears to have been relatively unscathed, is Dora Birtles, not mentioned by Modjeska, who with her boyfriend was suspended from Sydney Uni in 1923 for the love poetry they wrote about each other. Her father forced them to marry, she went adventuring, they met up again in Greece and lived happily as writers/journalists ever after (ADB)

Modjeska says middle class women writers stayed home. But especially outside Sydney – and this seems a very Sydney-focussed book – they mixed in more serious circles, with workers and socialists. One who did though (stay home), was Marjorie Barnard, who took a history degree with honours in 1919, but was not permitted by her father to take up a scholarship to Oxford. She became a librarian, writing with her friend, teacher Flora Eldershaw. As M.Barnard Eldershaw they won the inaugural 1928 Bulletin Prize with A House is Built, jointly with Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo.

At the centre of this generation of women is Nettie Palmer, who gave up her own career as a poet to support her husband, novelist Vance Palmer (or not to overshadow him, he already had feelings of inadequacy about Nettie’s monied and influential family). She was seemingly friend and correspondent with them all, and over the course of the 20s and 30s she became one of Australia’s principal literary critics. Her prize-winning essay Modern Australian Literature (1924) was “the first critical essay and survey of twentieth century Australian literature.” Both she and Vance worked to express a specifically Australian aesthetic.

Unlike her husband, unlike many of her writer friends, and of course most particularly communists like Stead and Prichard, Nettie Palmer rejected socialism in favour of a liberal humanism. She was blind, as many well-meaning upper middle class people are, to the constraints of class, “she avoided the avant-garde; beneath her rhetoric of a national culture, she was advocating the acceptance of a bourgeois cultural form.”

Nettie’s list of correspondents was extensive and many, particularly writers remote from the centres of Australian literature, like Richardson in London and Prichard in Perth, gave her credit for holding the Australian writing community together. But it is also telling whom she left out. She did not correspond with HM Green who had his own circle of correspondents, nor with Dulcie Deamer, “Queen of Bohemia”, nor with any of the Lindsay set. She wrote to writers, and particularly younger writers, she thought she could bring round to her own way of thinking.

In her letters Nettie Palmer made it clear that she expected progressive writers to present a public front that was united. It is in this respect that her bossiness is most evident.

One of Nettie’s ‘friends’ (it took them from 1930 to 1935 to get to first names) was Marjorie Barnard who was shy and for a long time had no other contact with writers outside her M.Barnard Eldershaw collaboration . It was Nettie who persuaded her to take up writing full time, Nettie who introduced her to politics, but also Nettie who came over all head prefect when Barnard turned to Pacifism at the beginning of WWII.

MBE’s third novel, The Glasshouse (1936) is their first set in the present, and it discusses both feminism and class, as well as the difficulties of being female and a writer. The later Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1941 ) goes on to discuss the duty of the writer to society.

Eleanor Dark, more confident than Barnard and with intellectual, supportive husband and parents, was another Palmer correspondent who “reveals a similar pattern of moving towards a self-conscious exploration of the social situation of the writer and of the social function of literature.”

Although she has earlier discussed Stead’s move to Europe as motivated by her desire to be at the heart of Modernism, which in Paris in the 30s she was, Modjeska fails to mention Dark’s importance in the introduction of Modernism into Australia.

By this time I am at p.100, out of 257, and you are worn out. Because of its importance to this week’s theme, I have attempted to summarize rather than review. Exiles at Home is a very dense work, full of information and analysis. If you are at all interested in this period, find a copy and read it.


Drusilla Modjeska, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925 – 1945, Sirius, Sydney, 1981

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week

I hope you are all well into your Gen 3 reads. Let me know when you’ve done a review, particularly if you think I might not otherwise see it, and I’ll share it or at least make sure it’s included in the end of week wrap and that it’s linked from the AWW Gen 3 page.

Reviews to date –
Eleanor Dark, The Little Company, ANZLitLovers
Ruth Park, A Fence Around the Cuckoo, Travellin Penguin
Dora Birtles, The Overlanders, Luvvie’s Musings
Monday Musings on Dymphna Cusak, Whispering Gums
Monday Musings on Christina Stead, Whispering Gums
Mary Durack Poem, Whispering Gums
Brenda Niall, True North: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack, Whispering Gums
M Barnard Eldershaw, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, ANZLitLovers
Kylie Tennant, The Battlers, ANZLitLovers


38 thoughts on “Exiles at Home, Drusilla Modjeska

  1. Thanks Bill. Good post of which I’ve only read part… Can’t digest it all properly in one read. I do have the boom myself which I dip into every now and then.

    BTW those posts I gave you are all pretty old… Just so people know they can send in old relevant posts.


  2. Wow, so much information. I didn’t move to Australia until almost age 40 and have been here now 30 years and I still am amazed at how much literature history there is to learn. It is all so interesting but hard to keep up with. Thanms for such an informative post. I have a Stead book waiting to be picked up at library. Hope I get through it.


    • There’s always stuff to learn! Modjeska’s book is crammed full of information about this period and if I’d been better prepared I would have turned my review into two posts – maybe I’ll get to the rest of the book next year. Steads are often not easy reads but she rewards concentration. I think she put an enormous amount of thought into how she wrote (I wrote a post once about a course she gave on writing fiction). She was definitely one of our few world class novelists.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been AWOL for the past 48 hours celebrating the Big Birthday of the Spouse en famille, but between not much sleep and too much washing up i have managed to get half way through Jean Devanny’s Sugar Heaven and will gather my thoughts about it in due course.
    In the mean time I think you already have all of mine except Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow https://anzlitlovers.com/2019/11/21/tomorrow-and-tomorrow-and-tomorrow-by-m-barnard-eldershaw/ and The Battlers https://anzlitlovers.com/2012/02/02/the-battlers-by-kylie-tennant-read-by-jacklyn-kelleher/
    Right. Am off to put my feet up…


    • Congrats to the Spouse from me too. Mr Gums will celebrate the same one early next year. Not sure what we’ll do. We usually go to Melbourne around that week as Son Gums’ birthday is the day after (having supposed to have been 8 weeks after!)

      Anyhow, I hope you had great celebrations and have enjoyed your post-celebration feet-up. Sometimes that’s almost the best time, I think – when you can relax and think of a job well done and a time well had. (At least, that’s how I often feel after Christmas.)


      • I know what I’m going to do for my next Big Birthday, well I hope so anyway. I was going to go to Greece for my last Big One but they were busy rioting and threatening to burn down their cultural artifacts, so we went to Russia instead. (Not that I blame them, they suffered terribly with the austerity measures imposed on them, but still, I’d rather avoid trouble if I can). Hopefully this time I can do my bit to help their economy by spending some tourist dollars there:).


      • I admire people who have big plans like this. Greece is a great place – good choice for your big one! I prefer to avoid trouble too, funnily, even if the cause is fair or understandable.


      • I’d like to do a cruise around the Mediterranean Islands, but not in one of those horrible cruise ships that pollute everywhere they go and inundate the destinations with cheapskate tourists who don’t spend any money!


      • Yes, I’m starting to think smaller boat cruising might be on our future agenda… I don’t really like the idea of cruising but as we get older I think cruises may be a good option for keeping on travelling. So far we haven’t taken the plunge though.


      • I’ve only ever been on one, which was a small ship cruise from Townsville to Cairns. It was only four days, and it was expensive, but we enjoyed it. I think there were only about 30 passengers…


      • Mum’s going to do a Melb, Tas, NZ cruise. You guys can do Europe – the rivers and canals of France would be nice. I might do a houseboat on the Murray.


  4. This review reminds me of a book I read in the last couple of years that collects bits of Shirley Jackson’s writing. Her children put it together, and several selections reveal she may was reading and giving her husband all her thoughts on the book she read, which he would then write up as a book review — and he was famous for being a book critic.

    What does “Australia seems to be throwing up writers like mushrooms” mean?


    • You’re a country girl. Don’t mushrooms pop up overnight in the fields of the mid-west? Miles was an idiosyncratic writer and that is what she was meaning to imply.

      When I wrote about Nettie Palmer’s husband Vance a year ago I said that he had written The Bulletin’s great gift was “discovering men of talent” and that despite the fact that his wife had been corresponding with every woman writer of note for decades, he made no mention of women of talent. Nettie was no shrinking violet, but when it came to Vance it seems she was in the same position as Shirley Jackson.


      • Haha, Bill, I live in a city of over 102,000 people. I haven’t lived in a rural area in 14 years. When I was a child, we have morel mushrooms, but I don’t remember those coming up quickly; in fact, they considered a delicacy in most places because they’re uncommon.

        Perhaps Nettie and Shirley should have resorted to the passive aggressive measures my own mother took: “forgetting” to wash my dad’s clothes, so when he went off to work one morning, he was wearing coveralls but nothing under them. There was also the time she made his sandwich for work but “forgot” to take the plastic off the Kraft cheese single.


  5. Good summary. Modjeska’s account of Katharine Prichard is bold and sometimes a bit speculative. Sees Intimate Strangers (1937) as the highpoint, and the way she should have gone.


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