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