An exhibition of material from the Monash University Library

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Ann Vickery and Maryanne Dever

Large Upright Case

The Modern Woman

Particular women writers in this period directly challenged the prevailing social and sexual mores, exploring topics that were close to scandalous in their departure from the dominant feminine norms. In their novels they explored sexuality and maternal relations, women’s sexual inequality, birth control, rape, exploitative marriage, abortion, death in childbirth and the possibilities for free love. As Kay Ferres notes, they were endeavouring to write for women about the possibilities that might lie beyond “the bridebed — childbed — deathbed plot”.28 But in a world where reproductive sexuality was still viewed as the only socially sanctioned form of sexual expression, such ideas were not only radical, they seemed in questionable taste. As Dympha Cusack recalled in relation to her first novel, Jungfrau, a novel concerning pregnancy and abortion: “I overheard one of the senior teachers at Sydney Girls’ High saying how, after reading it, she put in the bottom of her wardrobe lest any visitors coming the house should see it on her bookshelf!”29 Taken together, these works demonstrated the fierce contest over the meanings of femininity that was taking place across these decades.

1. Henry Handel Richardson’s typewriter (by courtesy of Prof. Clive Probyn)

The Varityper is no ordinary typewriter. It is far more complex (and difficult to master) than a standard typewriter and is now considered the "word processor" of the pre-digital age. These machines had the advantage of offering a huge variety of type styles and could write in 55 languages. It was also possible to adjust the space between characters and even produce right-justified copy. They were, however, incredibly difficult to set up and use and it was also extremely hard to correct mistakes on this style of machine.

2. Franklin, Miles, 1879-1954.

My brilliant career / by Miles Franklin; with a preface by Henry Lawson. (Edinburgh : William Blackwood and Sons, 1901)

In My Brilliant Career, Franklin sought to resolve the contradictions between the values of 1890s bush nationalism and an emergent feminism. In Sybylla Melvyn she created possibly one of the best known heroines in Australian fiction of this period. Sybylla’s refusal of Harold Beecham’s proposal of marriage sets her outside the dominant romantic tradition and introduces the prospect of women imagining a future for themselves that was not defined by marriage and motherhood. Franklin was only twenty-two years old when the novel appeared but her literary career was then marked by a lengthy silence in the years following publication of My Brilliant Career. She left Australia in 1906 to pursue work first as a feminist activist in the United States alongside Alice Henry and later as a nurse in Serbia during World War 1. She re-emerged on the literary scene with the publication of the Brent of Bin Bin novels (see Item 68 below) and the celebrated novel, All That Swagger (1936). My Brilliant Career was adapted for the screen by Gillian Armstrong in 1979 with a young Judy Davis playing Sybylla to Sam Neill’s Harry Beecham. My Brilliant Career was followed by a sequel My Career Goes Bung (1946).

3. Richardson, Henry Handel, 1870-1946.

The getting of wisdom / Henry Handel Richardson. 1st Australian ed. (1910, London ; Toronto : Heinemann ; Melbourne : Oxford University Press, 1946) Australian Pocket Library.

Often considered a work of children’s fiction because of its boarding school setting, The Getting of Wisdom is perhaps better thought of as adult novel in the tradition of the bildungsroman. Laura Tweedle-Ramsbotham is an awkward country girl with a vivid imagination who is sent to an exclusive and very strict boarding school in Melbourne (loosely based on PLC) in 1910. Laura initially finds it difficult to conform to the desired standards of decorum and her odd and often rebellious nature brings conflict among both her peers and teachers. Early reviewers of the novel reacted negatively to Laura’s less than innocent outlook on the world, decrying Richardson’s violation of the ‘purity of girlhood’.30 The image of schoolgirls smoking in the novel might also have raised eyebrows! But the novel is really concerned with the making of a writer and the growth of artistic talent in the course of a difficult adolescence. Again we are offered here the possibility of imagining a feminine type whose life ambitions might include creativity and independence.

4. Richardson, Henry Handel, 1870-1946.

Maurice Guest / by Henry Handel Richardson. Cheap ed. (London : Heinemann, 1935)

Kay Ferres notes that Richardson’s singular contribution to the development of the ‘new woman’ in fiction was the variety and particularity of her portraits of women. “Her women bend and break the rules, as do her men. The difference is that her women survive”.31 Readers initially did not suspect that the author of Maurice Guest was a woman and, indeed, given the frank portrait of sexual freedom and homosexuality offered in the novel, they may well have imagined no (decent) woman could possibly have produced such a text. In the character of Louise — heavily influenced by Wedekind’s Lulu — Richardson gives to us one of the most strikingly independent and sensual woman in Australian fiction.

5. Boake, Capel [Doris Kerr Boake], 1889-1944.

Painted clay / by Capel Boake. (Melbourne : Australasian Authors' Agency, 1917)

Boake’s first novel, Painted Clay, explores working life for women in an era when marriage and domesticity were thought to delimit their proper realm. Indeed, Boake explicitly advocated the freedom and independence for women to work outside the home and to earn their own money. The story of a shop assistant’s campaign for independence, the novel makes a case for wider choices for young women. But it also advocates the right of women to engage in sexual relations before choosing a marriage partner and the rights of daughters to leave their family home before they marry. Capel Boake was active in P.E.N. International and a foundation member of the Society of Australian Authors. Her friend Myra Morris (see Items 18 and 19 below) wrote of Boake after her death: 'There'll never be anyone else like Doris — so generous, so full of understanding, with so rare a mind'.32

6. Devanny, Jean, 1894-1962.

The butcher shop / by Jean Devanny. (New York : Macaulay, 1926)

Published while Devanny was still living in New Zealand, this novel achieved the singular honour of being banned in New Zealand, Australia, Boston and Nazi Germany. The trouble sprang from its frank depiction of sexuality and its emphasis on the violence and brutality of New Zealand rural life. Devanny’s strong feminist politics are clearly evident in this early work as she challenges women’s role with the family.

7. Cusack, Dymphna, 1902-1981.

Jungfrau / by Dymphna Cusack. (Sydney: The Bulletin, 1936)

Dymphna Cusack dedicated Jungfrau, her first novel, to her mother only to find her mother was horrified by its subject matter: “all about sex”. In Jungfrau Cusack exposed the fact that nice girls — even university educated ones — sometimes did ‘do it’ and she tackled head-on the sexual double standard that left such women to handle the unwanted consequences of sex outside marriage. When Thea finds herself pregnant following a brief fling with a university professor, she seeks the assistance of her friends to secure an abortion. But when she finds herself unable to go through with it, in desperation she commits suicide. The novel was runner up in the 1935 Bulletin novel competition. Cusack exclaimed after Jungfrau appeared that “I was a writer at last!”33

8. Langley, Eve, 1908-1974.

The pea-pickers / by Eve Langley. 2nd ed. (1942, Sydney : Angus and Robertson, 1958)

Anyone who has read The Pea Pickers never forgets Steve and Blue — two girls dressed as men who are taken on as seasonal farm workers in the Gippsland region. While their quest is love more than work, the novel ends in a conventional marriage for Blue only; with Steve’s desires represented as more complex and confusing as she strives to retain the independence her masquerade delivers to her. Evoking the tradition of the picaresque novel, The Pea Pickers also celebrates the Australian landscape and a passionate patriotism, even if by today’s standards many of Steve’s florid outbursts on the subject appear obscure and often racist.

Commentators have been fascinated by the novel’s representation of the transvestic and by the sensational and troubled life of Langley whose biography was marked by eccentricity, mental illness, incarceration, a transgender wardrobe and the decision to change her name by deed poll to “Oscar Wilde”.

Mary Gilmore was evidently moved by The Pea Pickers, writing to Miles Franklin that she had found much in it reminiscent of Franklin’s own work:

Yesterday I finished ‘The Pea Pickers’ and…felt Stella Miles Franklin’s mind all through it…But the feeling did not die, so this is written because of the beauty of the book as a response to life and to the living things that are Australia. I found all my own responses in it but for which I have never found words. I lived in it as I read….

I have praised many books in my time, but none like this. This is a vine on its own. The teller emerges through it and takes all the other characters swirling after her like debris in a stream. She is so vital that the others are shadowy by comparison….

As a matter of fact I sometimes wondered was the writer Stella Miles Franklin plus the unknown poet [referring to ‘E’ or Mary Fullerton] S.M.F. found.34

9. Devanny, Jean, 1894-1962.

Out of such fires / by Jean Devanny. (New York : Macaulay, 1934)

10. Dark, Eleanor, 1901-1985.

Prelude to Christopher / Eleanor Dark. (1934, London: Collins, 1936)

This was Eleanor Dark’s second novel and established her as a significant new voice, especially after the novel was awarded the Australian Literary Society’s medal for the best novel published in that year. Not everyone was enamoured of it, however. Marjorie Barnard wrote to Nettie Palmer of how she had:

…just read “Prelude to Christopher” and wiped my brow with the feeling of having had a miraculous escape from writing it. Pretty bad, don’t you think? A showing-off book, simply loaded with techniques — some positively inspired carpentry and joinery. Is it a youthful indiscretion? There are some good spots too.35

Barnard may well have been reacting to Dark’s ambitious attempt to achieve a different form for her fiction, one that entertained multiple temporalities. It is the first of her novels in which she endeavoured to record life ‘as an endless present moment, moving snail-wise through time, carrying the past and future on its back’.36 The ‘Christopher’ of the title is the as yet unborn child of two characters, Kay, a nurse and Nigel, a doctor who is a patient under her care. The plot revolves around Linda, Nigel’s wife who is convinced she suffered from a form of hereditary madness which dictates she should not have a child with the man she loves. In its exploration of sexual morality, sexual competition, biology and eugenics, Dark blended romance and realism at the same time as reaching towards a more complex novel of ideas in the modernist tradition.

11. Laker, Jane. [Alice Jane Muskett], 1869-1936

Among the reeds / by Jane Laker. (London; Melbourne : Cassell, 1933)

Alice Muskett is far better known as a painter than as a writer and Among the Reeds is her only published novel. Muskett was a pupil of Julian Ashton who provided Sydney's first life-class for women artists. She exhibited annually from 1890 with the Art Society of New South Wales and with the professional breakaway Society of Artists, Sydney, from its first exhibition in 1895. Between 1895-98 she studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and in 1896 she exhibited at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français. Muskett moved back and forth between Australia and Europe over the following decades. During World War I she worked at a soldiers' canteen in London, returning again to Sydney in 1921.

Having previously published verse and short stories, in 1933 Muskett published Among the Reeds under the name 'Jane Laker' (her maternal grandmother's name). Among the Reeds draws on Muskett’s own life experience as a painter and the challenges that faced women of her class who sought to train and work as professional artists and who inevitably found themselves choosing between marriage and a career. The novel is remarkable for its strongly feminist point of view and for the explicit way in which it dealt with conflict between Bohemian or artistic values and middle-class social mores.

12. Stead, Christina, 1902-1983.

The beauties and furies / by Christina Stead. (New York : Appleton-Century, 1936)

13. Stead, Christina, 1902-1983.

For love alone / Christina Stead. (New York : Harcourt, Brace, 1944)

Critic Dorothy Green, writing of Stead’s early fiction groups For Love Alone with The Man Who Loved Children and Seven Poor of Sydney (see Item 82 below) and finds in them “one of the most remarkable accounts of what it feels like to be a creative artist who is also a woman, a woman of intellect and passion, to whom both are equally necessary, growing from adolescence through to the threshold of full womanhood”.37

14. Dark, Eleanor, 1901-1985.

Return to Coolami : a novel / by Eleanor Dark. (London: Collins, 1936)

15. “Other woman”, by Charmian Clift, in Australia Week-End Book 4, edited by Sydney Ure Smith and Gwen Morton Spencer. (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1945)

One of Charmian Clift’s earliest published works, this short story tells of a woman who displaces a wife only to realise later that she herself is to face the same fate.


The expansion in local magazine production in the early twentieth century provided new and potentially lucrative publishing opportunities for women. Nettie Palmer described how her work produced for the Australian Women’s Mirror was “just to buy family shoe-leather”.38 Marjorie Barnard was not always so fortunate in gaining a foothold in this market, however. She commented to Palmer at one stage that “I am having a perfect orgy of unsaleableness [sic] and the postal revenue being benefited by the passage to and fro of my MS. I might as well start breeding homing pigeons”. 39

16. “Kiss on the lips”, by Katharine Susannah Prichard, in The Home, 1 Feb. 1938, p. 24.

17. Prichard, Katharine Susannah, 1883-1969.

Coonardoo : the well in the shadow / by Katharine Susannah Prichard. (London : Jonathan Cape, 1929)

Prichard’s Coonardoo might be said to explore not only issues of gender—the tension between masculine and feminine spheres in the Australian landscape but also the question of race. The novel was quite controversial in taking as its subject the experiences of an Aboriginal woman when it was first published in serial form in The Bulletin in 1928. The journal’s editors received hundreds of letters written in protest so that by the time the novel came to be published in book form a year later, Prichard added a preface which justified the novel both as a work of fiction but also as having historical and social accuracy—as falling within the genre of documentary. “Life in the north-west of Western Australia,” she wrote, “is almost as little known in Australia as in England or America. It seems necessary to say, therefore, that the story was written in the country through which it moves. Facts, characters, incidents,

have been collected, related and interwoven. That is all.” Prichard’s son, Ric Throssell, remembers his mother researching the novel at Turee, a station in the Kimberlys in 1926. He notes that he himself had played with the model for Coonardoo’s son, Winnie. Prichard, by her own admission, arrived at Turee with little knowledge of life in the outback and even less of Aboriginal culture. She would write to her friend Nettie Palmer:

I’ve been riding nearly every day and am that colour of red mulga and hennaed with dust…Sometimes one of the gins rides with me, sometimes mine host, who is really a bit of the country, and sometimes Mick, a stockman who has lived here all his life…And the blacks are most interesting—fair haired—and I find them poetic and naïve. Quite unlike all I’ve ever been told, or asked to believe about them. I’m doing some character studies.

She notes that she became inspired by the “beauty and tragedy” of the stories of the outback. When she came to write Coonardoo, she gives a picture of station life with a good deal of naturalistic detail both inside the homestead and out. And it is in this respect that the novel might be described as realist.

When Coonardoo was published in the late 1920s, there had been two widely-publicised incidents involving inter-racial conflict in the north-west. The first had been in 1926 when a group of Aborigines was massacred by police at Onmalmeri in the Kimberleys as retaliation for the murder of a single white man. An outcry from the cities resulted in a Royal Commission. Two years later, there was another reprisal massacre, this time north-west of Alice Springs. So when Coonardoo appeared, white Australia was just beginning to debate the responsibilities of government towards the Aborigines. Those in the cities were indignant at the brutalities still occurring on what they saw as the backwards periphery of society.

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