Gwen Harwood, Ruth Park, Dorothy Hewitt and Christina Stead – all went on to become notable Australian writers. They were very different women from very different backgrounds, but they shared a sense of urgency around their vocation – their “need” to be a writer – that would not let them rest. These precocious girls in Australian cities weighed their chances and made their plans. Dr Ann-Marie Priest teaches English literature at Central Queensland University and is the author of A Free Flame – Australian Women Writers and Vocation. On Tuesday 10 April 2018, Ann-Marie Priest addressed The Sydney Institute to discuss these four Australian women writers who challenged the “man’s world” they survived.

AUSTRALIA’S WOMEN WRITERS IN A MAN’S WORLD

ANN-MARIE PRIEST

In 1953, the Sydney Morning Herald reviewed Ruth Park’s most recent novel – her fourth, entitled A Power of Roses – under the heading “A Power of Women”. The review begins like this:

The visitor from abroad, venturing into these barbarian lands for the first time, might be pardoned for concluding that women have an almost unbreakable grip on fiction in Australia.[1]

The reviewer, the Herald’s books editor at the time, Sid Baker,[2] goes on to list nine women whose novels have “come to hand” in recent months, novels “varying in quality from the excellent to the ordinary”. The “flourishing femininity” of the Australian literary scene, he continues, goes some way “towards explaining why our fiction is somewhat distinguished for its garrulity, its repetitiveness, its attention to inessentials, its false humour, and its gracelessness” – women, as we know, being hopeless chatter-boxes who rabbit on endlessly without ever saying anything important, and have no sense of humour into the bargain. He does concede that, “of course”, “there are exceptions”. But the thrust of his argument is that a little masculinity in the mix would go a long way towards correcting these faults of our national literature.

But the thrust of his argument is that a little masculinity in the mix would go a long way towards correcting these faults of our national literature.

This review suggests that Australian literature was not in fact a man’s world in the sense that it was not one in which women writers could not get into print. There were a number of women publishing in Australia in the first half of the century, particularly novelists, some to critical acclaim.[3] But the fact that this could be lamented in a major Australian newspaper without raising an eyebrow suggests the opposite: that it was very much a man’s world, and women were still considered to be interlopers within it. When Baker does finally get on to the subject of Park’s novel, at the very end of his review, he is dismissive. He notes that the book is “in the tradition of squalor, sentiment and grotesquerie that Miss Park has made distinctively her own” and declares it to be old hat: “Miss Park’s grime, bug-infested rooms and poverty-stricken ratbags have lost much of their novelty as subjects for fiction. We have had it all before – and better – in [Park’s first two novels] The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange.”

Ruth Park always said that she didn’t read reviews, so with any luck, she didn’t read this one, which is particularly graceless. It is also intriguing that Park’s early novels were attacked by contemporary reviewers for being too unpleasant – the tone of many reviews is that she should really try to find something nicer to write about – but years later these same novels were dismissed by critics as too sentimental. There is certainly a gendered element to both of these critiques.

Ruth Park always said that she didn’t read reviews, so with any luck, she didn’t read this one, which is particularly graceless. It is also intriguing that Park’s early novels were attacked by contemporary reviewers for being too unpleasant

Generally, Park was pretty good at negotiating the “man’s world” she found herself in when she first arrived in Sydney from New Zealand in 1942. Although she was only 25, she had already had years of experience as a freelancer working out how to please editors, experience she happily shared with her husband-to-be, and fellow aspiring writer, D’Arcy Niland, as she describes in her autobiography:

Use your brains, I shouted. Think first whether the story is appropriate for that journal or paper, whether it’s timely, whether the style is right…  Who’s going to like you when you’re pig-headed, obnoxious, and apparently think your head is there to grow hair on?[4]

Park was determined to make a living as a writer, and to do this, she was prepared to write anything and everything, and to “shape it to fit” – as she described the freelancer’s creed.[5] But she also found that she had to shape herself to fit – to some degree, at least. In a lovely article from 1949, she describes herself as a writer who does not quite fit. It begins:

Park was determined to make a living as a writer, and to do this, she was prepared to write anything and everything, and to “shape it to fit” – as she described the freelancer’s creed.

Yes, I know. I know the average writer doesn’t work on a kitchen table with a Kosciusko of pea-pods at one elbow, and a chook’s ghastly cold claws sticking out front under his notes. I know he doesn’t sweat through a crucial chapter with a small child busy under his chair putting his feet to sleep in a doll’s bed.

Neither does he burn saucepans between sentences, or leave his heroine with her eyes closed, waiting for that protracted and crucial kiss, while he tears off to poke the clothes down in the copper. He does the job sensibly. In the same way, I humbly suppose, he builds his characters with dignity, contemplation, and in solitude. 

But not me. Not the housewife.[6]

The pronouns here are telling. Park uses the masculine “he” as the generic, meant to encompass both men and women, but to today’s reader, the use of the masculine term vividly underscores her point. The “average writer” she is talking about here is not only not a housewife, he is not a woman. He does not rush off to poke the clothes down in the copper because he has a wife to take care of that – not to mention to shell his peas, roast his chickens and take care of his children. He has silence and solitude in which to conceive of his great works and bring them to fruition – like Stravinsky, whose insistence on silence at the luncheon table is recounted by Drusilla Modjeska in her wonderful book about Australian women artists.[7]

The pronouns here are telling. Park uses the masculine “he” as the generic, meant to encompass both men and women, but to today’s reader, the use of the masculine term vividly underscores her point.

Park knows she does not fit this traditional model of the writer, but with her typical resourcefulness, she makes copy out of the clash between the opposing identities of the housewife and the artist. She even makes a virtue of it, explaining that unlike the traditional privileged artist, alone in his ivory tower, the busy housewife is able to draw her characters from real life. And yet, some 50 years later, when a fan writes to ask her advice about becoming a writer, she insists that the most important thing she can do is make time for her writing – even at the expense of the housework. “[L]et something go, such as the ironing,” she urges, “and [get] that essential woman that you are, that precious individual with her own idiom of thoughts, reactions and passions down on paper. That’s what is important. It’s the ironing that is the luxury.”[8]

“[L]et something go, such as the ironing,” she urges, “and [get] that essential woman that you are, that precious individual with her own idiom of thoughts, reactions and passions down on paper. That’s what is important. It’s the ironing that is the luxury.”

These are small examples, perhaps, but they show how uneasily the identity of “woman” (which included housewife and mother, on the one hand, and sex kitten, on the other) sat with the identity of “writer” in the middle of the twentieth century. They also give some idea of just how much mental and psychological manoeuvring women had to do even to begin to conceive of themselves in this role. In fact, when you read about how women were viewed in the early twentieth century, you do start to wonder how any women ever became writers – how they ever formed such an ambition in the first place.

This seeming contradiction is where my book A Free Flame really began. I knew that there was a strong belief in Western culture that women couldn’t be writers: by temperament, by biology or just by convention. Women are carers, not loners; they’re good at details but can’t see the big picture; they can produce trashy, popular books, but are not capable of the true work of the artist. And yet there were all of these women determined to become writers. At 25, Ruth Park told her future husband that she had to be a writer: “That’s what I want from life.” At 16, Dorothy Hewett confided to her diary that all she wanted was “to be a great actress and a famous writer”. At 23, Gwen Harwood concluded a lament about her lack of direction in life with the cheery observation that she “can always write”. At 40, Christina Stead told her lover with uncharacteristic earnestness that she was “sent here to be a writer”.[9] Where did this desire come from?

What did it mean?At 40, Christina Stead told her lover with uncharacteristic earnestness that she was “sent here to be a writer”.[9] Where did this desire come from? What did it mean?

As I set about reading what these women had said about their own lives, it soon became clear to me that their sense of vocation – of being called to the writer’s life – outweighed all the cultural prohibitions on women artists. They were all, in their own ways, enchanted by the story-teller’s role, by the sheer joy of putting words together, and perhaps also by the romance of the artist’s life. And this enchantment overrode their sense that it was unspeakably bold and foolhardy for them even to make the attempt. The sense of vocation contained its own authorisation, even in the absence of any religious belief. Their position was that they would not have been given this gift – the gift of a desire to write – if they were not to use it, if they were disqualified by their sex, or by any other factor, from pursuing it. The very existence of a sense of vocation was the justification for seeking to live it out. And so, for these women, and for many others, vocation became the antidote to the social interdiction on women’s pursuit of art. It also brought with it an extraordinary determination in the face of all kinds of barriers: material, social and psychological.

This is not to say that a sense of vocation enabled them to overcome all such barriers. On the contrary, for each of these women, their sense of vocation put them on a collision course with society. The resulting smashes were sometimes devastating – even life-threatening, in the cases of Dorothy Hewett and Christina Stead; but they could also be energising, catalysing. Certainly, all of these women needed huge amounts of energy and resilience as they set about discovering for themselves whether it really was possible for a woman to be not only a mother, a wife, a lover, a friend, a Byronic hero, and/or a working professional but also a writer of the highest rank. Their journeys – thwarted and incomplete though they were – became evidence for the next generation that it was.

This is not to say that a sense of vocation enabled them to overcome all such barriers. On the contrary, for each of these women, their sense of vocation put them on a collision course with society. 

The rest of this paper will expand a little on some of the cultural views of women writers that were dominant for much of the twentieth century, and then give some brief examples of ways in which these views affected the lives and careers of some Australian women writers.

*

In making his complaint about the ‘flourishing femininity’ of the Australian literary scene, Ruth Park’s reviewer, Sid Baker, is drawing on wider cultural attitudes and assumptions about women’s purpose and capacities. There was a general sense that even though women had proven themselves to be prolific and popular novelists, their work fell into the category of commerce (low-status) rather than art (high-status). They were not contributing anything to the sum of human knowledge, and they were taking readers (and thus income) away from those who could be expected to make such contributions – i.e. men.[10] The 1920 book Our Women, a purportedly feminist work by Arnold Bennett, renowned Edwardian novelist and man-of-letters, is the perfect example of this mindset. He writes:

[T]he truth is that intellectually and creatively man is the superior of woman . . . . The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet. Indeed, the women poets who have reached even second rank are exceedingly few – perhaps not more than half a dozen. With the possible exception of Emily Bronte no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men. … No woman at all has achieved either painting or sculpture that is better than second-rate, or music that is better than second-rate.[11]

[T]he truth is that intellectually and creatively man is the superior of woman . . . . The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet.

There were some powerful ripostes to such views, such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. But they didn’t gain much traction until the 1970s. In the meantime, the idea that male superiority is something we all – men and women alike – just know in our hearts to be true[12] died hard.

One writer, Joanna Russ, tells a story from her undergraduate days in the US in the 1950s which illustrates this. She says that as an aspiring novelist and first-year student, she was asked “cheerfully” by her date, a post-graduate student, how she could reconcile her ambition to write “with the ‘fact’ that no woman had ever produced ‘great literature’”. How could she hope to do what no woman before her had ever done? Her response (showing an impressive cheerfulness of her own) was: “I’ll be the first.”[13]

She says that as an aspiring novelist and first-year student, she was asked “cheerfully” by her date, a post-graduate student, how she could reconcile her ambition to write “with the ‘fact’ that no woman had ever produced ‘great literature’”

But even if, like Russ, women rejected such views, they were always a factor for those with artistic aspirations. A woman could accept them or she could refuse them, but she could not be ignorant of them. She could not choose to live in a world in which such views were entirely unknown. Woolf dramatises the effect of such views on women beautifully in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, where her aspiring artist, Lily Briscoe, stands at her easel with a chorus of “women can’t write, women can’t paint” playing in her head. Unable to vanquish the words, with their odious nullification of her deep desire, Lily strips them of any meaning through sheer dogged repetition, converting them into a rhythm she can paint to.

It’s a brilliant move, but one that many of us would probably find tricky to implement. Views such as these have a way of getting beneath the skin, worming their way through chinks of self-doubt to make a home for themselves just below the level of our conscious rejection of them. They are all too easy to internalise, leading a young woman like New Zealand writer Janet Frame to shift imperceptibly from “I want to be a writer” to “Who did I think I was, to imagine I’d be a poet?”[14]

It wasn’t just the internal doubts that could poison a girl’s aspirations. Cultural views that women either could not or should not be writers translated into a lack of practical, material support for the writing ambitions of girls and women – from their families as much as from literary gatekeepers such as editors, publishers and critics. And in addition to the idea that women simply didn’t have what it took to produce “first-rate” creative work, there were other beliefs that militated against women seeing themselves as writers.

For example, there was the idea that it was unnatural for a woman to be an artist, that such an ambition was evidence of an unseemly and undesirable masculinity of mind. There was the idea that a woman would never be happy or fulfilled if she devoted herself to anything other than marriage and children. There was the idea that a woman’s creative energies were needed for child-bearing, and that if she sought to divert them to other forms of creativity, she risked bearing deformed children.[15]

there was the idea that it was unnatural for a woman to be an artist, that such an ambition was evidence of an unseemly and undesirable masculinity of mind

For Tasmanian poet Gwen Harwood, such views certainly troubled her sense of her possible achievements as an artist. When she first began to write seriously in the 1940s and 1950s, she had no models to point to as evidence that women could aspire to greatness – and she was the kind of person who felt that there was no point in writing if you were not going to produce a masterpiece.[16]

It was Woolf (again) who wrote that “We think back through our mothers if we are women.” In her own quest for foremothers, Woolf lights upon Sappho, the ancient Greek poet whose work, known only through fragments and the reports of contemporaries, was considered to be at least equal to the work of the legendary male Greek poets so venerated by Woolf’s Cambridge-educated (male) contemporaries. To her, Sappho’s existence was the best riposte to those who argued that women had never produced “first-rate” poetry.[17]

Some 20 years later, Gwen Harwood also seized upon Sappho as her foremother and patron saint. Gwendoline Foster was born in Brisbane in 1920 and moved to Hobart in 1945 when she married the newly demobbed Bill Harwood, who had been appointed as a Lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania. Over the next seven years, they had four children, and Gwen found herself immured in housework and child-care as she struggled to develop a career for herself as a poet. Inspired by a line from Byron’s Don Juan, she named herself “Burning Sappho” – burning with the light of the immortal flame of literature, and burning with fury at the constraints of her life as a 1950s housewife. It was an identity far preferable to that of “lady poet”, or, worse, “poetess”.

Inspired by a line from Byron’s Don Juan, she named herself “Burning Sappho” – burning with the light of the immortal flame of literature, and burning with fury at the constraints of her life as a 1950s housewife.

Harwood never wanted to be shunted off to the side with the ladies in an inferior and secondary group known as “women poets”. She wanted to be with the men, in the main game. But her everyday identity as a housewife seemed to make this impossible. Somehow, she had to find a way to reconcile what she called the “morning housewife in the broom cupboard” with “the afternoon genius in romantic golden light”.[18]

The problem was that these two identities were incompatible not only psychologically but in sheer material terms. How could she be a poet – O Burning Sappho! – if she spent all her time cooking and washing, “cleaning up infants and the floors they muddied”?[19] But how could she be a woman – one who was loving and lovable – if she did not? “I am fighting for time at present, never seem to have an hour or two to compose myself,” she wrote to a friend in 1961. “I need to have silence. But it’s too unpleasant for the family if I take what I need.”[20]

In other letters, she makes the same complaint – and uses words like “selfish” and “nasty” to describe the kind of behaviour that would give her the time she needs to write. If she could only be content to be a “lovely woman”, she muses, she would be simply happy. But she is driven to become a poet, and not just any old poet but a first-rate poet. The result is perpetual frustration, her immured spirit condemned to beat “in vain like a winged stone” (“Lip Service”). This tension plays out in some terrific poems from this period, written under the pseudonyms Miriam Stone and Walter Lehmann.

As she became more established as a poet, she began to meet other poets, and turned to them for advice. One such poet was Jim McAuley, with whom she became good friends in the early 1960s, when he moved with his young family to Hobart to take up the position of Reader in Poetry at the University of Tasmania. McAuley was not only a poet but a critic and editor, and in these latter capacities he had criticised her early poems and rejected her work. In fact, years later Gwen would say that when she “first appeared in print he chopped off the fingers I’d set on the poetic ladder”.[21] But once she met him in the flesh, she was enchanted by him and forgave him everything. She admired his poetry and was disposed to accept his judgements – at least initially.I

n fact, years later Gwen would say that when she “first appeared in print he chopped off the fingers I’d set on the poetic ladder”.

In his 1959 book The End of Modernity, McAuley had declared that it was “very rare indeed for women poets to rise beyond the upper reaches of mediocrity”. He had also decreed that “it is better that the finest poem should remain unwritten than that it should come into being at the price of a single unkindness”.[22] This last is particularly incongruous coming from McAuley, who had gleefully and viciously attacked Max Harris years earlier as part of the Ern Malley hoax. But Harwood seems to have taken both statements quite seriously. “I agree with Jim McAuley that it’s terribly hard for women to rise above mediocrity,” she wrote to their mutual friend, Vincent Buckley, in 1961, “and better that poems should be unwritten if their cost is the least unkindness.”[23]

Such sentiments sit uneasily on Harwood’s tongue, too, given her high aspirations, and the fact that she had also made an art of the attack poem. Yet they cut to the heart of her difficulty with reconciling femininity and poetry: to write, she needs time for herself, but to take this time makes life “too unpleasant” for her family. McAuley’s words put him on the side of the “morning housewife” rather than of the “afternoon genius” in her internal debate: if writing a poem causes her to be “selfish”, then she should abandon the poem.

McAuley’s words put him on the side of the “morning housewife” rather than of the “afternoon genius” in her internal debate: if writing a poem causes her to be “selfish”, then she should abandon the poem.

McAuley seems to have given her similar advice in person. In the same year, she approached him about another concern of hers that was peculiarly female: her fear that going through menopause would mean the end of her creativity. “I was talking at length with Jim the other day about women’s creative span, saying it seems to coincide with their natural reproductive years,” she tells Buckley. “Jim comforted me by saying it was surely better to bring persons to maturity than poems.”[24] In other words, it seems that far from reassuring her that women’s creativity was not linked to their reproductive capacity, McAuley told her that her poems didn’t matter in any case – or, at least, not as much as her children did.

The fact that Gwen was worrying about this at all shows how very much she – and other women of her generation – were in need of foremothers. There were so few well-respected women writers that she genuinely did not know what effect menopause might have on her ability to write. She felt the physical ebbing of her energy as she aged, and feared it signalled an ebbing of her creative force. “I do feel that most of my force has gone into the persons of this household,” she tells Buckley. “[W]hen the children were young I used to boil over with ideas but sometimes would not have even ten minutes of the day to myself; now I have stretches of time but little of that boiling energy.”

She needn’t have worried: her best work was still before her. But she did not know this at the time, and this is another dimension of being a woman writer in a “man’s world”. There had been so few writers who were also mothers that it was not clear how this was done – or whether it could be done at all. A couple of years later, having grown in standing, and thus in confidence, as a poet, she would challenge the views she had earlier accepted. Writing to a close friend, she again quoted McAuley’s view that it was “very rare for women writers ‘to rise above mediocrity’”, but this time she added a rider of her own: “Someone should tell him it’s rare for men, too, and ask him why he’s so sure he’s in a position to adjudicate.”[25]

She needn’t have worried: her best work was still before her.

*

For Christina Stead, the question of whether a woman could actually rise above mediocrity as a writer was a moot point. She was determined from the very beginning of her career to write something “so good that there will be no denying it on anyone’s part”.[26] But she was tormented by the idea that only an unhappy woman – a failed woman, who had not achieved fulfilment in the “normal” way, through marriage and child-bearing – would even make the attempt. As expressed by the Australian painter Max Meldrum in 1939, the idea was that an artist’s life was “unnatural and impossible for a woman”, and that regardless of her talent, any woman should “certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art”.[27]

She was determined from the very beginning of her career to write something “so good that there will be no denying it on anyone’s part”

Meldrum was speaking in response to the news that a woman, Nora Heysen, had won the Archibald Prize – a prize he was up for himself. So, he does have a particular barrow to push. But what he is invoking here, with his confident references to what is “natural” and “healthy”, is the idea that no normal woman would dream of being an artist. As Elaine Showalter puts it in her classic study of British women writers, “One of the most persistent denigrations of women novelists was the theory that only unhappy and frustrated women wrote books.” She cites Gerald Massey from 1862 claiming that “Women who are happy in all home-ties and who amply fill the sphere of their love and life, must, in the nature of things, very seldom become writers. And also Catherine J. Hamilton from 1892:

She cites Gerald Massey from 1862 claiming that “Women who are happy in all home-ties and who amply fill the sphere of their love and life, must, in the nature of things, very seldom become writers.

Happy women, whose hearts are satisfied and full, have little need of utterance. Their lives are rounded and complete, they require nothing but the calm recurrence of those peaceful home duties in which domestic women rightly feel that their true vocation lies.[28]

Stead herself did not believe this for a moment. She understood that this was a subtle way of making women conform, for the sake of wider social harmony. “Little girls are promised a safe position in the conscript arm of marriage and child-getting,” she writes. “If they are submissive, good and neat, they will be admitted to society on the arm of a man. They will perform their greatest, their only social duty by producing children.” Their value will thus be assured, and they will receive the approval of all. “There isn’t a woman alive who doesn’t understand all this in early childhood,’ she goes on, ‘and is not perfectly aware of the ignominy, detestation, and social death that awaits her if she does not conform.”[29]

But understanding “all of this” did not make her exempt from it. Stead was extraordinarily successful as a writer, managing to escape from her oppressive, working-class family in Sydney and create a life for herself in Europe and America, and publishing a series of brilliant and critically acclaimed novels. Yet throughout her career, she worried that people might think that because she was a writer and not a housewife and mother, she was sexually and emotionally unfulfilled, unable to attract a man or have children, unloved and undesired. The idea that people might think this was unbearable to her.

she worried that people might think that because she was a writer and not a housewife and mother, she was sexually and emotionally unfulfilled, unable to attract a man or have children, unloved and undesired

This becomes clear in a letter she wrote in 1942, when she was 40 years old, with some five books under her belt, and living with Bill Blake in New York. She and Bill had been together for twelve years by this time, but they were not married, as Bill’s first wife, Ruth, was Catholic and refused to divorce him. Bill was at this time in California, hoping to strike it rich in Hollywood, and considering a move to New Mexico, where he could divorce Ruth without her consent.

On her own in New York, trying desperately to finish the book that would become For Love Alone in time to meet her agent’s deadline, and thinking that she might be pregnant, Stead explains to her lover exactly why it is so important to her that they be legally married. It would make no difference to her commitment to him, or to the quality of their relationship, she avers. But it would make a huge difference to how she was regarded by others. If she never marries, she says, she will go down in history as “’Old-maid, Woigin’. Ouch. This is terrible. No, Munx. I do not care to figure in history as a Woigin.” [30] Christina and Bill often used a playful kind of baby-talk with each other, using words and phrases and pronunciations from all over, including from Bill’s German-Jewish heritage, as here.

Her fear is that if she and Bill are not married, there will be no public record of their relationship. She will be referred to in the history books as “Miss Stead”, and the assumption will be that she was unloved and undesired—worse, that she never had sex. This idea is too horrible to contemplate. “If it was a choice between figuring in history as a Virgin and not figuring in history At all, I would at once choose, Not AT All,” she goes on. “Alas, such is my prejudice against purity. You are he who will save me in high school histories from appearing as a Battle-axe.”

“Alas, such is my prejudice against purity. You are he who will save me in high school histories from appearing as a Battle-axe.”

Not even the glory of a brilliant writing career, in other words, could disguise the shame of being judged inadequate as a woman – plain, undesired, unwed. She and Bill did marry eventually, and she was saved from the ignominy of going down in history as a Woigin, but this did not entirely allay her fears. Even when, after she was widowed, she returned to her home country in triumph as a celebrated novelist, her anxiety about how she would be seen, about the scorn that could so easily come her way, is evident in the interviews she gives.

Again and again, she denies her writing aspirations, her career as a professional writer, her lifelong passion for writing, and gives instead a pious account of her dedication to love. Far from wanting to be a writer, she told Robert Drewe, “All I wanted was to find the right man and marry him.” “I’m a believer in love. That’s really my religion,” she declared to the Sydney Morning Herald, which rewarded her piety by using “Love is her religion” as their headline. “I had no [writing] ambition,” she insisted to another interviewer. “My ambition was to love, meet and marry the right man.”[31] In her mind, she is writing the script for the high-school history books – and there is no way she is going to appear as that figure of fun, the old battle-axe of a spinster.

Again and again, she denies her writing aspirations, her career as a professional writer, her lifelong passion for writing, and gives instead a pious account of her dedication to love.

In old age, Stead was a marvelously cantankerous woman – but she did not unleash her cantankerousness at the idea that only love makes a woman’s life worthwhile. She built a writing career in the face of enormous barriers, and in her private life happily jettisoned any idea of being a “lovely woman” instead of the passionate artist she was. Yet even in the early 1980s, she would not take the risk in public of appearing as anything other than a conventional woman. She was strong, but even for her, the public opprobrium would have been too much.

In old age, Stead was a marvelously cantankerous woman – but she did not unleash her cantankerousness at the idea that only love makes a woman’s life worthwhile.

*

Given the sometimes extreme cultural attitudes about women writers last century, it seems incredible that any women ever decided they wanted to become writers. But they did. That mysterious thing, a sense of vocation, enabled them to override their cultural conditioning in unpredictable ways. It also set them the life-long task of finding ways to reconcile their identities as women with their identities as writers.

This was often ridiculously difficult. As well as their own self-doubt, they had to deal with scepticism from others and of course the double shift. But by living their lives, by being mothers and lovers and bread-winners and housewives as well as writers, they showed that it could be done. They showed that a woman could be an artist, that she could produce work that was “first rate”. Their perseverance meant that we in the twenty-first century no longer have to ask these questions. We do not have to fear that menopause might mean the end of creativity, that having children is incompatible with making poems, that writing is unnatural for a woman.

They showed that a woman could be an artist, that she could produce work that was “first rate”.

Women who want to write – or pursue almost any vocation – still have their battles to fight. But at least we do now have some foremothers to look back to, to look up to. For this reason, it is more important than ever that their stories are told.

Notes

[1] SJB [Sydney James Baker], ‘A Power of Women,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1953, p. 8.

[2] The reviewer is identified only as SJB, but it seems reasonable to conclude that this was Sidney John Baker, described by the Australian Dictionary of Biography as a ‘philologist’ and the editor of the SMH’s Saturday book pages from 1953-1963.

[3] See D. Modjeska, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–1945, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2001, p. 5.

[4] R. Park, A Fence around the Cuckoo, Penguin, Ringwood, 1992, p. 246.

[5] R. Park & D. Niland, The Drums Go Bang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1956, p. 147.

[6] R. Park, ‘An Author in Search of a Character’, Sunday Herald, 19 January 1949, p. 11.

[7] Stravinsky’s Lunch, Picador, Sydney, 1999.

[8] Letter to Anne Allan Maher, 16 April 1996, State Library of NSW (MLMSS 8020, Consignment 9, Box 2).

[9] All quotes cited in A. Priest, A Free Flame: Australian Women Writers and Vocation in the Twentieth Century, UWAP, Crawley, WA.

[10] Norma Clarke traces the emergence of this view in the eighteenth-century in her book The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters, Pimlico, London, 2004.

[11] A. Bennett, Our Women, George H. Doran, New York, 1920, pp. 112-13.

[12] Another gem from Our Women: ‘Every man knows in his heart, and every woman knows in her heart, that the average man has more intellectual power than the average woman. It is a fact immanent in the households of the world’ (ibid., 115).

[13] J. Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, The Women’s Press, London, 1983, pp. 90-91.

[14] J. Frame, To the Is-Land: Autobiography 1, Paladin, London, 1987, p. 44.

[15] For example, Sally Ledger cites Charles Harper’s 1894 argument that ‘nature’ would react to the emergence ‘of a learned or a muscular woman’ with vengeance, giving them ‘stunted and hydrocephalic children’ (The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siecle, Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 18).

[16] Letter to Alan Farrell, 14 March 1994, UQFL340, Box 1.

[17] Woolf identifies Sappho as a ‘great poet’ in a series of Letters to the Editor published in The New Statesman in 1920 in response to Desmond McCarthy’s review of Bennett’s Our Women (see A Woman’s Essays, ed. Rachel Bowlby, Penguin, London, 1992, pp. 34-38).

[18] ‘Lamplit Presences’, Southerly, vol. 40, no. 3, 1980, p. 250.

[19] ‘An Impromptu for Ann Jennings’, in A. Hoddinott & G. Kratzmann (eds.), Gwen Harwood Collected Poems: 1943–1995, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2003, p. 231.

[20] Letter to Edwin Tanner, 20 February 1961, UQFL45, Box 6, Folder 21.

[21] G. Kratzmann (ed.), A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943–1995, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2001, p. 319.

[22] J. McAuley, The End of Modernity, Angus & Robertson, 1959, pp. 129 & 128.

[23] Kratzmann, Steady Storm, p. 136.

[24] 20 November 1961, National Library of Australia (MS7289/1/1).

[25] To Tony Riddell, ?Nov 1963, UQFL45, Box 7, Folder 16.

[26] C. Stead, A Web of Friendship: Selected Letters (1928–1973), R.G. Geering (ed.), Angus & Robertson, Pymble, 1992, pp. 61–2.

[27] Meldrum is cited as saying that ‘A great artist has to tread a lonely road. He needs all the manly qualities, courage, strength, and endurance. He becomes great only by exerting himself to the limit of his strength the whole time. I believe that such a life is unnatural and impossible for a woman.’ ‘Domestic Ties Downfall of Women Art Careerists,’ Sunday Mail, 22 January 1939, p. 5.

[28] E. Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1977, pp. 84 & 85.

[29] H. Stewart, ‘Feminism and Male Chauvinism in the Writings of Christina Stead (1902–1983)’, Hecate, vol. 29, no. 2, 2003, p. 119.

[30] C. Stead & W. J. Blake, Dearest Munx: The Letters of Christina Stead and William J. Blake, Margaret Harris (ed.), The Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2005, p. 201.

[31] R. Drewe, ‘Christina Stead: Interview’, in C. Baker (ed.), Yacker: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work, Picador, Sydney, 1986, p. 22; B. Hill, ‘Christina Stead at 80 Says Love Is Her Religion: Interview’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July 1982, p. 33; G. Giuffré, A Writing Life: Interviews with Australian Women Writers, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1990, p. 74.

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