Say No to Death, Dymphna Cusack

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021


My first edition hardback of Say No to Death (1951) doesn’t have a dust jacket but I imagine that is it above. I was going to write first and probably only edition, until I saw some paperbacks in Images – publishers Allen&Unwin, Seven Seas and Great Books, which implies that it’s out of copyright – and a cover, in English, on a Russian site, pictured below along with an intriguing book I hadn’t previously heard of – Dymphna by Norman Freehill with Dymphna Cusack (1902 – 81).

I didn’t have Cusack down as a Communist, of whom there were a number in Gen 3, but from Images I could see she was obviously published in Eastern Europe and so looked further.

Late in 1948 Cusack consolidated a long-term if intermittent relationship with Norman Randolph Freehill, then chief-of-staff of the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper, the Tribune… In 1949 Cusack, and later Freehill, sailed for Europe. When health permitted, she worked on the manuscripts that she had taken to London, including Say No to Death

A committed social reformer, she interpreted history through the lives of ordinary people and used various forms of popular culture to entertain, inform and educate. She regarded herself, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, as an `écrivain engagé’—one for whom the pen was mightier than the sword. Despite constant illness, she was a brave and prominent anti-nuclear activist in the World Peace Movement during the Cold War era.

ADB, Marilla North

If you’re interested in that sort of stuff, ADB also says the play Comets Soon Pass (1943) “was her personal catharsis and artistic reprisal for the defection of her former lover, the novelist Xavier Herbert”.

Before I go on I should clarify what I’m attempting to achieve by looking again next month at Australian Women Writers Gen 3, which covers the period from immediately after the Great War to the end of the fifties. In our first go we looked at the transition away from the blokey Bulletin era of ‘the nineties’, to the new movements of Modernism and Social Realism, and for Communists, Socialist Realism (I won’t question you on the difference, though it’s important), and the rise of a family-based Pioneer legend as a counter to the Bulletin’s misogynist ‘Lone Hand’.

Please, by all means look some more at the pre-War (WWII) period, but I also need to be clear in my own mind about the transition to Gen 4 which occurred after the War. I was born in rural Victoria in 1951 so this is personal. Australia’s eastern seaboard, where 80% of us live, was White. White, white, white. And not just white, but totally, homogeneously Brit. “Home” was England and the only ethnic diversity came from Irish Catholics. Victoria’s remnant Aboriginal population was hidden away at Lake Tyers and it was the same, to a large extent, in the other eastern states until you got into the outback. The writing of the 1940s and 50s represented that and continued on the stories of white middle-class privilege, and of working class hardship and housing shortage ongoing from the Depression years, almost without a break.

Even before the War, migration had commenced with Eastern European Jews, then came assisted migrants in their thousands from the UK, Italy and Greece, so by the 1960s we were a totally different place. Add in the sexual revolution which arose out of/coincided with the Pill, the popular music revolution, the baby boom, the anti-war movement, and you can see why this must be my transition point from Gen 3 to Gen 4.

This, as always, leaves two important writers on the cusp, Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020) and Thea Astley (1925-2004) who published their first novels in respectively 1957 and 1958. I’m going to make a captain’s call and put Harrower in Gen 3 and Astley in Gen 4. My reasoning is that Harrower wrote mostly in the 1950s, she was a modernist, after Eleanor Dark and Patrick White say, and her subject was the monocultural middle class suburbs of Sydney. Astley on the other hand, wrote prolifically throughout the second half of the C20th and her theme was much more the clash of cultures.

So, back to Say No to Death. I have reviewed Cusack’s first, Jungfrau (1936), should have reviewed her second, the spoof Pioneers on Parade (1939) written with Miles Franklin, have reviewed her third, Come in Spinner (1951) co-written with Florence James and also Caddie (1953) for which Cusack wrote the Introduction and which is a memoir written by her and James’ housekeeper when they were living together in the Blue Mountains writing Come in Spinner.

Say No to Death was her fourth, not counting five or six plays which Cusack thought might be her real vocation. It wasn’t one I had planned to read, but was getting – am still – bogged down in Christina Stead’s Little Hotel, and so grabbed the nearest to hand off the shelf of possibles for this Gen3/II introduction. It’s a shame to tell you any of the story at all, as it is much better if the developments come up in their proper place, but yes, I’m going to.

The setting is Sydney, 1947, starting in the crowded suburbs around the Cross, described elsewhere with much more feeling and detail by Ruth Park who had arrived there to live in shambolic rooming houses three or four years earlier with her new husband D’Arcy Niland and his brother. There Jan and her sister Doreen share a one room flat.

The novel begins with Bart Templeton, a soldier who had fought in New Guinea before re-enlisting, returning from a year or so with the Occupation forces in Japan. Jan is at the wharf to meet him, at the back of the welcome-home crowd, ready to walk away if he doesn’t acknowledge her.

He’d behaved pretty lousily to Jan, he was willing to admit. But what else was a cove to do? He’d been her first man – he’d take an oath on that. She was in love with him; there was no doubt about that either, and they’d had a hell of a lot of fun together. And when he’d gone away without saying a word about marrying her she hadn’t reproached him nor even shown what she felt …

He does acknowledge her, taking up where he’d left off and soon they’re on ten days vacation in a shack on a lake somewhere up the Northern Beaches. Towards the end she coughs blood, a bone in her throat maybe, but we know what’s coming and soon it’s clear Jan has TB.

I still find Cusack’s writing style awkward, but the story itself is good. Bart and Jan have their ups and downs. The public system for isolating men and women with TB is a disgrace, crowded ex-WWI army barracks with a 3 – 6 months waiting list, men sleeping on verandahs, working people dying from want of treatment. I can remember my father being terrified of us kids touching stuff in the street or eating with dirty hands and this is why. Maybe every generation has its Covid-19.


Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death, Heinemann, London, 1951. 324pp

see also Sue (Whispering Gums):
Dymphna Cusack, A Window in the Dark, memoir (here)
Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (here)
Delicious Descriptions: Dymphna Cusack’s Sydney (here)

26 thoughts on “Say No to Death, Dymphna Cusack

  1. Thanks for this clarification Bill. I whole-heartedly accept your Captain’s call and will aim to do an Elizabeth Harrower, and a Monday Musings when I think of what to do. If I can do more I will.

    I loved your “I won’t question you on the difference, though it’s important” Social and Socialist Realism, I assume you mean.

    As I recollect, A window in the dark gives a strong sense of Cusack’s socialist leanings. I think it got her into a bit of hot water. I wrote in my post: Cusack became convinced of the “wickedness of our economic system”, which could not fund milk for children of unemployed parents but could, somehow, find the “money for everything for war”. She abhorred the power those with money had over others. She became unpopular with the Department of Education for her outspokenness on social and economic justice issues, and was particularly critical of the treatment of “that much-maligned creature, the woman teacher”.

    I can’t recollect whether Communism was specifically mentioned – it may have been – but she was certainly on the spectrum


    • Whew, I’m glad you agree (about Harrower/Astley), it took me long enough to come up with it.
      I think the ADB would have said if Cusack was a Party member. It would be interesting to know if her move to England was just part of the usual brain drain or if she (like Stead (I wonder if they met)) was escaping ‘McCarthyism’.
      I’m pretty sure that she a number of times contrasts the under-spending on health and housing with the lavish spending on War (and on reflection, it’s possible she was reflecting 1950s rather than immediate post-War sentiment).


      • Haha Bill, that made me laugh … about Harrower/Astley, that is.

        As for reflecting immediate post-war versus 1950s, I’d say two things. One is that they are close together, and the other is that there have always been pacifists and the like?


      • That’s right, there was only six years from the end of the War to publication. My thinking was that the War in the Pacific was pretty popular (I would have volunteered) and that writing this, in England, a few years later, Cusack may have been influenced by CND or its precursors as the Cold War ramped up.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll try to participate but I need a list of writers belonging to Gen 3. Can you give me one.

    And no Elizabeth Harrower for me, The Catherine Wheel was enough.


  3. Emma: Here are some suggestions. As is always the way with a long reply, I got almost to the end and deleted the page I was working on, but here we go again.

    Charmian Clift (1923-1969)
    Walk to the Paradise Gardens (1960)
    Honour’s Mimic (1964)*
    Mermaid Singing (1956)* memoir – all these relate to her time living on the Greek Islands
    Peel Me a Lotus (1959)* memoir

    Ruth Park (1917-2010)
    The Harp in the South (1948)
    Poor Man’s Orange (1949); also published as 12 1/2 Plymouth Street, (1951)
    The Witch’s Thorn (1951)
    Pink Flannel (1955); also published as “Dear Hearts and Gentle People”, (1981)
    The Drums Go Bang* (1956)

    Kylie Tennant (1912-1988)
    Tiburon (1935)
    The Battlers (1940)
    Ride on Stranger (1943)
    The Honey Flow* (1956)

    Catherine Edmonds (1900-1960)
    Caddie* (1953)

    Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969)
    Black Opal (1921)
    Working Bullocks (1926)
    Coonardoo (1929)
    Haxby’s Circus* (1930)

    Eleanor Dark (1901-1985)
    Prelude to Christopher (1934)
    Return to Coolami (1936)
    Lantana Lane* (1959)

    I’ve starred some as perhaps being easier to knock off in the time we have left. I have no idea what are available as e-books, let alone overseas. So good hunting.
    There are many more, including for these authors, on my AWW Gen 3 Page


  4. If all goes to plan Bill, I will have 3 books for Gen III week.

    I’m halfway through My Love Must Wait and I’m trawling my way through an online Trove serialised version if The Wild Oats of Han (thanks to Nathan Hobby mentioning it in a recent post). It is utterly delightful, but trying to get my head around modernism, social realism and bush/pioneering so that I can comment thoughtfully!
    The Pea-Pickers will be my NY read.


    • That is a stunning commitment Bron! I feel embarrassed now that I dropped Stead do this one, though it was an interesting book – I think you would have enjoyed the geography, both the inner suburbs (trams!) and the Blue Mountains. I was hoping you or Sue might tell me what the lake was somewhere north of Manly where you might have had a bush shack 70 years ago. Reminds of a friend of Dark’s (I think) who had a beach shack in that area that was only accessible by sea.

      I’m glad you’re going to tackle the theory, I struggle too. Langley’s commitment to a Bush life was intense, but I’d love to understand better where she fits in formal, Australian Modernism. She must have fit somewhere – Patrick White was a fan.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That would probably Lake Narrabeen Bill. Now it’s a popular water sports site & when I was in primary school I had a week school excursion at the Sport & Rec camp there.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember when I was teaching in the correctional facility that a number of my students remembered the HIV/AIDs crisis of the 1980s very well. They recalled not shaking hands with anyone, evidence that we didn’t know how the virus spread.

    I can see why your dad was so afraid of TB; it spreads really easily. I’ve had several TB tests, one for each time I work in a space where several people live in closer quarters: group homes, correctional facility, that sort of thing.


    • This book is set in 1947 and was published in 1951. I seem to remember being vaccinated in early high school, maybe 1963, made a big lump on my arm, I think if I looked closely I’d still see the scar. I was just reading the Wiki page, TB is spread by aerosol, same as Covid-19, and is still around especially in people with HIV.
      AIDS had an aura about it that Covid-19 doesn’t seem to have. Imagine the panic if you could get Aids by gay men and drug addicts breathing on you.


      • Yes, TB is still around, likely because it spreads so easily and does not have a vaccine. The response in the U.S., at least, is to test before someone is introduced to a crowded environment. I believe my mom has to get a TB test yearly because she works in a correctional facility.


  6. This experience we’re living through now, with Covid-19 and variants, certainly makes the references to air-borne and bacterial illnesses in literatures of the past so much more interesting. These were incidences we likely would have dismissed as window-dressing, had we read them two years ago, and now they are clues to how to cope/understand our present-day stresses and strains (and losses and griefs). I’m still planning to take part in this and just started the first volume of Prichard’s pioneering saga, but maybe that’s not the best one to try, and I do have Coonardoo on the shelves as well.


    • I have strong opinions about Coonardoo, which I studied a decade ago (along with Working Bullocks) but haven’t written up for my blog. Lisa Hill is going to post a review of Coonardoo which I am dying to read. You wouldn’t like to do Working Bullocks…?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I suspect I’d enjoy, or least appreciate, reading any of her books, but I don’t have a copy of any others (and it turns out that I don’t have the copy of Coonardoo that I thought I had). Instead, I pulled off an Eleanor Dark novel, The Little Company, which I am wholly enjoying, about the halfway mark. It suits my current mood perfectly. (Quite likely some of these are out of copyright and available online but I try not to read on a screen, thought sometimes–like now–there’s no other way.)


      • I’m looking forward to your review. Dark’s Timeless Land trilogy was the first attempt by any writer to view white settlement from the POV of the original inhabitants, and it tends to overshadow the rest of her work, well-written modernist studies of middle class lives.


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