Exiles at Home, Drusilla Modjeska

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

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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

AWW Gen 3 Week

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

Grace Cossington Smith
Artist: Grace Cossington Smith

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wrote to me this week to enquire which writers we would be covering in Gen 3 Week, so she could get started with her reading. I was on my way home from a quick trip to Melbourne (for a change!) – I left Sat lunchtime and got home Fri night – so I thought it might be simplest, and I would have the time, to knock up a post giving the dates and a simple outline.

Gen 3 – and you know these are ‘my’ generations, though HM Green is in broad agreement – covers the period from the end of WWI to the beginning of the sixties.

Gen 1, from the beginnings of white settlement to 1890, began with letter writing and memoirs and graduated to ‘colour’ novels for the home (English) market. Women’s novels, for the best part of a century dismissed as “romances” by the literary establishment, displayed both a marked spirit of independence and a growing love for the Australian landscape (here).

Gen 2, 1890-1918, covers peak Bulletin – Federation, nationalism, and the birth of the Australian Legend, the anti-hero in the Bush and at War (here). For many Australian writers Gen 2 never ended. Women writers responded by making it clear that it wasn’t just men doing it hard, and so a Pioneer Legend was born as well, and it too lives on in popular fiction, coming to the fore from time to time when politicians are not trying to distract us and glorify themselves, with pointless wars.

Gen 3, 1919-1960, is the story of White Australians clustered in a few cities on the arable fringes of a hostile continent. We sent out explorers – Ion Idriess, Frank Clune, Ernestine Hill – to remind us just how hostile, how other, the Dead Centre really was, and their writing was tremendously popular, but the Literary writers of this generation, and the best of them were women, began to write the stories of ordinary men and women in the cities. Aboriginal Australians had their own myth, or rather we had a myth about them, that they were out there in the desert and that they were dying out. This comes up in Idriess and Hill and most particularly of course in Daisy Bates’ The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). But for the first time Aboriginals are pictured sympathetically and at length in fiction, most notably by Eleanor Dark, KS Prichard and Xavier Herbert.

There are two strands to Gen 3, ‘Social Realism’ and ‘Modernism’, though a third strand, Bush/Pioneering from Gen 2 never really goes away.

Realism began in France in the middle of the C19th as a reaction to Romanticism. The idea was to picture life ‘warts and all’, eg. Zola. This led to Social Realism, in the first half of the C20th, which depicts the harshness of working life in order to critique the forces giving rise to it, ” Social Realism aims to reveal tensions between an oppressive, hegemonic force, and its victims” (wiki). By contrast Socialist Realism, which was the mandated style for Communists around the same time, idealizes the (post-Revolution) Worker.

Modernism. Quotes are from The Literature Network (here):

The Modernist Period in English Literature occupied the years from shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century through roughly 1965. In broad terms, the period was marked by sudden and unexpected breaks with traditional ways of viewing and interacting with the world. Experimentation and individualism became virtues, where in the past they were often heartily discouraged. Modernism was set in motion, in one sense, through a series of cultural shocks. The first of these great shocks was the Great War … [A] central preoccupation of Modernism is with the inner self and consciousness. In contrast to the Romantic world view, the Modernist cares rather little for Nature, Being, or the overarching structures of history. Instead of progress and growth, the Modernist intelligentsia sees decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse.

I have left it till this point to consult HM Green A History of Australian Literature (1960, revised 1985). His Fourth Period (and remember he treats my Gen 1 as two Periods), 1923-1950, is titled ‘World Consciousness and Disillusion’. He writes that notwithstanding the Depression and WWII this “current” period – current when he was writing – is marked by the gradual accumulation of individual wealth. Ahhh remember when one working man could by the honest labour of a forty hour week purchase a modest house and support a wife and children.

The bible of this period is Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945 (1981) and I must review it in time for the beginning of the Week. She writes,

Within a decade the novel had broken the orientation towards poetry and short fiction that had dominated Australian literature since the 1890s… The ten years between 1917 and 1927 saw the publication of only 27 novels as against 87 volumes of verse, whereas for the years 1928-1939, there were 106 novels and only 57 volumes of verse.

Modjeska goes on to note the pre-eminence of women writers during Gen 3, and quotes Nettie Palmer (1934):

A few years ago it would have been impossible to open a bookshop in Melbourne devoted to Australian books; this has now been done.

 I’m struggling to place the women whose writing is mostly within this period in their proper strands, but I’ll have a go and hope that incites you all to argue.

Modernism

Henry Handel Richardson (for Maurice Guest)
Christina Stead, see the Christina Stead page on ANZLL (here)
Eleanor Dark, my recent review of Waterway (here)
Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers and White Topee (here)
Elizabeth Harrower and Thea Astley began writing in the 1950s but if we consider them at all in Gen 3 let’s leave them till Gen 3 (part 2)

Social Realism

Katharine Susannah Prichard (Nathan Hobby)
Jean Devanny
Cusack & James, Come in Spinner (here)
Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (Whispering Gums)
Florence James
Catherine Edmonds, Caddie (here)
Kylie Tennant, Ride on Stranger (here)
Ruth Park, The Drums go Bang (here)
Mena Calthorpe, The Dye House (Whispering Gums)(ANZLitLovers)

Bush/Pioneering (and others)

Nettie Palmer, as friend and critic
Hilda Esson
M Barnard Eldershaw
Marjorie Barnard
Flora Eldershaw
Mary Durack
Henrietta Drake Brockman
Ernestine Hill (an unsatisfactory biog. here)
Jean Campbell
Velia Ercole
Helen Simpson
Gwen Harwood (I have her book of letters, Blessed City)
Charmian Clift

Ok. I hope that gives you enough to get on with. Apart from Modjeska, Nettie Palmer wrote a volume of criticism that covers this period, and Dale Spender’s Writing a New World does too.

Let me know who I’ve missed and who I’ve misclassified. I’ll publish reminders closer to the date. Now start reading!