This republication of Susan Magarey’s 1985 biography of Catherine Helen Spence commemorates the anniversary of her death, aged eighty-five, in April 1910. In an enlarged and attractive new paperback format, with a revised introduction, its cover sketch of Spence, with upraised hand, in mid-speech, emphasises the key subject, both actual and metaphorical, of women’s public speaking. Remarkable as a writer and as a political and social reformer, Spence’s status as one of Australia’s earliest female public intellectuals is best represented in her more immediately transgressive role as public speaker, a graphic unbridling of the female voice.
These two very different novels by women provide a wealth of suggestive information about the women’s history being reclaimed and re-established by Australian feminists. They also happen to be intrinsically good novels, accomplished and charming in contrasting ways. Add Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, reprinted in the Virago Modem Classics series, was first serialised in 1883 in The Australasian, published in novel form in 1891, and soon became one of Cambridge’s most popular novels. It draws upon the familiar form of the romance, but it also, in its translation into an Australian setting, illuminates an idiosyncratic colonial grafting onto that form.
In a paper entitled ‘Anthologies and Orthodoxies’ given recently at the Australian Literature Conference in Townsville, Jennifer Strauss, herself a poet as well as an academic, analysed the contents of six recent poetry anthologies, including this new Penguin collection. She came up with the same revealing statistics as editors Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn had discovered from a larger sample of fifteen collections: the average of female authors represented was only seventeen per cent. Obviously one of the orthodoxies enshrined in anthologies is in need of critical scrutiny if we are. unwilling to accept the implication that there are either fewer or less talented women writing poetry than there are men.