By Gabbie Lynch
A Communist, an Aboriginal Rights Activist and an Environmentalist walked into the field of literature. They paved the way for both the Australian literary landscape and for the direction of Australia as a nation in the 20th century and beyond. But here’s the catch – they were all women.
The Australian literary landscape has long been dominated by predominately male or masculine voices. Names like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson echo loudly in our nation’s consciousness. What if I asked you about the works of Christina Stead or Miles Franklin? You wouldn’t be alone if you said you had never heard of them.
Whilst we have witnessed a powerful and exciting explosion of Aussie female writers on the literary scene in recent decades (Yep, that’s right – its not all Tim Winton), the history books and high school curriculums lack the presence of Australian female writers. That’s not to say they didn’t exist. In fact, it was quite the opposite. During the 20th century, Australia glistened with talented female writers who were well recognised on the international scene. American and British critics held great praise for some our female writers, even likening their works to the quality of Dickens and Joyce.
So why have these women been left in the shadows? I hit the local library to shake the dust and webs of the books written by Australia’s female writers. I was blown away by the talent and complexity of their works and even more shocked that most of these names I had never come across before.
I’ve collaborated a small list which albeit, doesn’t even begin to cover the scope of Australia’s female writers, in the hope that these women find themselves back on the bookshelves, school curriculums and in the pages of Australian history books. Or perhaps just in your hands.
Miles Franklin: Nationalist. Feminist. Novelist. Born in 1879 at Talbingo in New South Wales, Stella Miles Franklin is a national treasure, most notably known for her novel My Brilliant Career. Franklin had a passionate attachment with the outback and wrote ardently of her love for the bareness of the Australian bush. Many of her books were controversial in Australia because of the dissident voices of her female protagonists. Franklin subverted traditional gendered stereotypes in her novels, creating females who rejected traditional women’s roles. The protagonist of My Brilliant Career, was a Bronte-ish style young woman hungering for life and love on the outback plains of New South Wales. Franklin begins her novel with a warning for her readers,
“This is not a romance – I have too often faced the music of life to the tune of hardship to waste time in snivelling and gushing over fancies and dreams; neither is it a novel, but simply a yarn – a real yarn. Oh! as real, as really real – provided life itself is anything beyond a heatless little chimera – it is as real in its weariness and bitter heartache as the tall gum-trees, among which I first saw the light, are real in their stateliness and substantiality.”
The matter of fact tone was idiosyncratic of Franklin, who has been remembered as a hard worker and go-getter. Today, Franklin’s legacy continues to be evoked in the nation’s consciousness with the prestigious annual Miles Franklin award. It is presented to an Australian writer who produces a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.
Christina Stead: Stead was a brilliant Australian modernist writer whose novels were complex and daring. M. Barnard Eldershaw, one of Stead’s contemporaries, described her writing as “rich and strange”. Perhaps the same words could be used to describe Stead. Her novels were intensely complex with multi-layered structures and dense language charged with meaning that seemed to reflect the complexity of Stead herself. She was madly political, highly opinionated and lived an incredibly cantankerous life. Few would call her easy in life or in fiction. Born in 1902 in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale, Stead grew up in Watsons Bay and sailed for England when she was twenty-six, not to return home until she was seventy-two. Her most famous novels include The Man Who Loved Children (1940), The Salzburg Tales (1936) and Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1936). I’ve only grappled with Seven Poor Men of Sydney which begins with the lyrical line, “The hideous low scarred yellow horny and barren headland lies curled like a scorpion in a blinding sea and sky” setting the tone for the following 400 odd pages of the book. It was one of the most challenging novels I have ever read and yet the words soak the pages with such intense meaning and beauty that I once I began reading, I could not stop. Stead lived a life that was stormy, eccentric and brave. She has been likened to Joyce and Tolstoy and rivalled Patrick White as Australia’s greatest modernist writer. There is no doubt however, Stead’s writing was distinctly her own.
Mary Gilmore: Pull out a $10 note. On one side there’s Banjo Paterson, the great Australian bush poet. Turn the note over and you’ll meet Mary Gilmore, one of Australia’s leading writers and journalists. Born in 1865 at Cotta Walla in New South Wales (just outside of Goulburn), Gilmore eventually became a teacher, starting at Wagga Wagga public school. She then later taught at Broken Hill where she started to sympathise with communist ideologies and began writing poetry. She continued her writing, later becoming a journalist and worked tirelessly to ensure Indigenous Australians had better living conditions. She also foregrounded the horrors of both WWI and WWII, privileging a humanist perspective in her poetry to offer confronting images of the consequences of war for young Australian men. In her poem, “War” she wrote,
He died a hero’s death,
When they came to tell me
My boy was dead;
Laced with repressed grief, Gilmore shone light on the horrors of war for both the Australian men fighting and also for the home front. Not only did her writing contribute to significant social change in Australia but Gilmore’s artistry with language allowed her to produce war poems that were both powerful and poignant. A true Aussie heroine.
Katharine Susannah Prichard: “I think that I know thoroughly every phase of life in Australia I write of; that I absorb the life of our people and country with love and an intense and intimate sympathy; I strive to express myself from those sources … My defect as a writer is probably that I am too much of the soil. But I’d rather be that and fall from universal standards than be less the medium for expression of this place and people.” These were the words Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote to Australian journalist and literary historian Henry Mackenzine Green in a letter. As a woman who was heavily invested in the culture and politics of her country, Prichard wrote prophetic novels about the everyday Australian. Born in Fiji in 1883, Prichard grew up in Melbourne where her anxieties and resentment of poverty for working-class Australians largely defined her political ideologies. After a period of travelling and developing skills as a writer and journalist, Prichard settled in Perth in 1916. This era was a time of enduring literary and personal friendships for Prichard who began discovering socialism, syndicalism and communism. With a malaise for capitalism influenced by her family’s early experiences of poverty, Prichard co-founded the Australian Communist Party. Prichard wrote an array of novels and short stories that captured the zeitgeist of Australia’s working class culture in the midst of WWI and WWII. Miles Franklin said that Prichard’s 1926 novel Working Bullocks represented “the breaking of a drought” for the Australian novel. Prichard’s novels were defined by passionate and lyrical imagery that explicitly captured and even idealized the Australian working-class life. As Prichard herself confessed, she was the soil of the Australian literary landscape in the 20th century.
Judith Wright: If there’s one female Australian writer you’ve heard of, its probably Judith Wright. She was not only a brilliant poet but was also one of Australia’s leading environmental advocates and Aboriginal land rights activist. In many of her poems, Wright explores a deep love for the Australian landscape. This is however, constantly shadowed by an unsettling awareness of the history of white colonisation and its detrimental impacts for Australia’s first people. In her poem “Communion” Wright poignantly wrote;
What is the space between,
enclosing us in one
united person, yet
dividing each alone
This perspective was ground-breaking in Australian literature. Wright, with her perceptiveness and lucidity, foregrounded the guilt she felt for loving a land that was not rightly her own. Wright opposed having her work read through the paradigm of Australian nationalism. She demanded her work to be taken off the high school syllabus for fear that it was studied as a nationalist text when in fact, Wright strived to underline the issues in Australia’s national identity. Her works appear back on the high school syllabus but are now interpreted as poems that were pioneering in exposing environmental issues and indigenous inequalities in Australia.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal: A dear friend of Judith Wright, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (known as Kath Walker until 1988) was Australia’s first aboriginal poet to publish a book of verse. She was prolific in her ability to express aboriginal stories and the traditional oral form of story telling through a distinctly European form of literature. Combining her history and racial identity with a White – Australian form of writing, Oodgeroo Noonuccal made the experience of Indigenous Australians accessible for a broad and predominantly white Australian audience. In 1970, she published My People: A Kath Walker Collection which contained some her most notable poems like “We Are Going” and “The Dawn is at Hand”. In 1988 Oodgeroo Noonuccal returned the MBE she had been awarded 18 years earlier to Queen Elizabeth II, protesting the two-century anniversary of European settlement. Her obituary in the New York Times quoted her opinion that the revelry applauded “200 years of humiliation and brutality to the aboriginal people,” and she was recorded in Stradbroke Dreamtime as insisting on returning the honor until “all Aboriginal tribes in Australia were given unconditional land rights in their country.” She explained that she had accepted it initially because she and other Aboriginals hoped it would open doors, but she explained in the Australian Women’s Archives Project , “Since 1970 I have lived in the hope that the parliaments of England and Australia would confer and attempt to rectify the terrible damage done to the Australian Aborigines. The forbidding us our tribal language, the murders, the poisoning, the scalping, the denial of land custodianship, especially our spiritual sacred sites, the destruction of our sacred places especially our Bora Grounds … all these terrible things that the Aboriginal tribes of Australia have suffered without any recognition even of admitted guilt from the parliaments of England … From the Aboriginal point of view, what is there to celebrate?.” Not only did Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s work shine light on the experience of life for Indigenous Australians but she was instrumental in creating a voice for Aboriginals in the Australian literary tradition.
These are some of my personal favourite female Australian writers. Not only are their works literary masterpieces that imaginatively captured a distinctly Australian landscape but they lived admirable lives, always attempting to push the boundaries of the National Identity. For that, we cannot thank them enough.