From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence.
As editor, Gregory Kratzmann has had an enviable but not an easy task in choosing no more than four hundred letters when ten times as many were made available to him. The quality is extraordinary. There’s nothing forced or formal: none in which Harwood’s voice seems muffled by the conventional phrasing of a duty letter. Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet as well as many stories of friendship; and it gains from being read in sequence.
Many readers will remember the letters of the young Gwen Harwood (then Gwen Foster) from the collection Blessed City (1990). Written from Brisbane before her marriage, these letters all have the same recipient, Thomas (Tony) Riddell, the friend of a lifetime to whom she dedicated all but one of her published volumes of poetry. They were written in quick succession (sometimes two or three in the same week) during a single year, 1943, when Harwood was twenty-two, working as a secretary in the War Damage Commission and as organist at All Saints’ Church of England. Kratzmann reprints only three from Blessed City: enough to place the new reader, but with minimal repetition for those who know the earlier volume.
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- Contents Category Letter collection
- Custom Highlight Text From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence ...
- Book Title A Steady Storm of Correspondence
- Book Subtitle Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943–1995
- Author Type Editor
- Biblio UQP, $40 pb, 528 pp, 9780702232572
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W.H. Auden, following Samuel Butler, thought that ‘the true test of imagination is the ability to name a cat’, and plenty of people, poets, and others have believed this: to recast a dictum of Christ’s, if you can’t be trusted with the cats, why should we trust you with the tigers? Gwen Harwood could be trusted with the cats, and with yet more domestic things; here, for example, is her fairly late poem ‘Cups’:
They know us by our lips. They know the proverb
about the space between us. Many slip.
They are older than their flashy friends, the glasses.
They held cold water first, are named in scripture.
Most are gregarious. You’ll often see them
nestled in snowy flocks on trestle tables
or perched on trolleys. Quite a few stay married
for life in their own home to the same saucer
and some are virgin brides of quietness
in a parlour cupboard, wearing gold and roses.
Handleless, chipped, some live on in the flour bin,
some with the poisons in the potting shed.
Shattered, they lie in flowerpot, flowerbed, fowlyard.
Fine earth in earth, they wait for resurrection.
Restored, unbreakable, they’ll meet our lips
on some bright morning filled with lovingkindness.
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- Custom Article Title Peter Steele reviews 'Collected Poems 1943–1995' by Gwen Harwood
- Contents Category Poetry
- Book Title Collected Poems 1943–1995
- Author Type Author
- Biblio UQP, $30 pb, 619 pp, 0702233528
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Five poems have been shortlisted in the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. The poets are Dan Disney, Anne Elvey, Amanda Joy, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, and Campbell Thomson; their poems can be read here. The judges on this occasion were Luke Davies, Lisa Gorton, and Kate Middleton.
Join us at our studio in Boyd Community Hub on Wednesday, 9 March (6 pm), when the poets will introduce and read their works, followed by the announcement of the overall winner, who will receive $5,000 and an Arthur Boyd print. This is a free event, but reservations are essential.
These ceremonies always commence with a series of readings of poems written by Peter Porter (1929–2010). This year our readers – Judith Bishop (winner in 2006 and 2011), Morag Fraser, Lisa Gorton, and Peter Rose among them – may choose to dip into the new collection of late Porter poems: Chorale at the Crossing (Picador, $24.99 pb).
States of Poetry
ABR's poetry content continues to expand. To complement the Porter Prize, monthly poems and reviews, and our Poem of the Week podcast, we are delighted to introduce States of Poetry, the first federally arranged poetry anthology project to be published in this country. With handsome support from Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund, each year we will publish individual state and territory anthologies intended to highlight the quality and diversity of contemporary Australian poetry. The full States of Poetry anthologies will appear free of charge on our website, with poems, biographies, recordings, and introductions from our state editors. Each month we will publish a selection in the print edition. South Australia is the mini-anthology to be printed in the print edition while the first full anthology to be published online is ACT, which you can find here.
Renting a guillotine
Harper's Magazine carried, in its January issue, a list of queries submitted to the New York Public Library's Reference and Research Services between 1940 and 1989. Here are some examples: 'Where can I rent a guillotine?'; 'Who built the English Channel?'; 'Is it proper to go alone to Reno to get a divorce?'; 'Is this where I ask questions I can't get answers to?'
Whenever we advertise one of our literary prizes, we feel for those librarians. Entrants pose the curliest questions. A few instances will serve. 'Does a short story have to be fiction?' 'What is fiction?' 'Do the spaces in my poem count as lines?' 'Can I enter online but send my story by post?' 'If I published my essay online but no one read it, does that count as publication?'
With the Jolley Prize open until 11 April, we look forward to fielding lots of metaphysically elevated if possibly unanswerable questions.
A footnote to our December lament about the paucity of Australian literary biographies. Brandl & Schlesinger, that enterprising Sydney publisher, has issued Gwen Harwood's Idle Talk: Letters 1960–1964, edited by Alison Hoddinott, the recipient, with her husband, of these brilliant missives. No one wrote like Harwood. Her account in 1961 of the furore that followed the Bulletin's unwitting publication of her two famous acrostic sonnets (SO LONG BULLETIN; and FUCK ALL EDITORS) contains some ferocious comic writing quite worthy of Evelyn Waugh, none better than Harwood's transcript of a conversation with the Bulletin's embattled Desmond O'Grady.
Only three letters survive from 1960. Alison Hoddinott records a late conversation with Harwood in 1995 who became annoyed when her friend confessed that she had burned the other letters, at Harwood's request. 'You shouldn't have taken any notice of me,' Harwood replied. 'Writers always say that. They don't mean it.'
Quite right: if authors really want to destroy their private papers, they stoke the incinerator, like Henry James.
Her majesty's pleasure
Prime ministerial post-mortems can be absorbing, and Aaron Patrick's Credlin & Co.: How the Abbott Government Destroyed Itself (Black Inc., $29.99 pb) is entertaining. The author repeats one claim that, to our surprise, didn't gain much traction in the weeks after Abbott's defeat. Greg Sheridan, reliably close to Abbott, suggested in The Australian that Abbott gave Philip his knighthood 'because he learned the Queen wanted her husband to have one'.
The British monarchy can be accused of many things, but in this case Aaron Patrick's reading seems plausible: 'Sheridan's article could not be verified: Buckingham Palace would never answer a question about the Queen's wishes for her husband. The article sounded like after-the-fact justification.' Of which we can expect to hear much more this year, especially from the Malcontents.
Aaron Patrick, like many scribblers, chooses to dedicate the book to the 'love of his life'; but in an Author's Note he also remembers Roger East, the journalist who was murdered by Indonesian troops in Dili in 1975. Royalties from Credlin & Co. will be donated to a fund honouring the Balibo Five, who perished shortly before East did. Impressively, this fund will help train East Timorese journalists in Australia.
ABR RAFT Fellowship
Interest was high in the inaugural ABR RAFT Fellowship, which examines the role and significance of religion in society and culture. Alan Atkinson was chosen from a large and impressive field. He is Emeritus Professor of History, University of New England, and Senior Tutor and Fellow at St Paul's College, and Honorary Professor, University of Sydney. Professor Atkinson, an occasional contributor to ABR, is the author of several award-winning books, including his three-volume magnum opus, The Europeans in Australia.
Alan Atkinson's proposal began, timelily, 'Can a nation, Australia especially, make an effort, just to be good?' We can't wait to publish his Fellowship article, whose working title is 'How Do We Live with Ourselves? The Australian National Conscience'.
We thank everyone who applied for the ABR RAFT Fellowship, and hope to present a second one in 2017.
ABR Laureate's Fellow
ABR Laureate David Malouf has chosen Sydney poet Michael Aiken as the inaugural ABR Laureate's Fellow. These Fellowships are intended to advance the work of a younger writer admired by the Laureate. Michael Aiken, who lives and works in Sydney, receives $5,000. He was born in western Sydney and raised on the New South Wales central coast. Michael Aiken spent thirteen years working in the security industry. His book A Vicious Example (Grand Parade, 2014) was shortlisted for the 2015 Kenneth Slessor Prize. His poetry and prose have appeared in various journals in Australia and overseas. Michael is working on a narrative poem, part of which ABR will publish in due course.
Hazel Rowley Fellowship
Shannon Burns's ABR Fellowship profile of Gerald Murnane ('The Scientist of His Own Experience', ABR, August 2015) was admired by many, including Text Publishing, which has commissioned him to write Murnane's biography. Shannon Burns has also been shortlisted for the 2016 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship. He is one of nine biographers on the shortlist, and the competition is keen. Others include Jacqueline Kent (for a biography of Robert Helpmann), Jeff Sparrow (Paul Robeson), and Philip Dwyer (Napoleon Bonaparte).
The Rowley Fellowship, now in its fifth year and worth $10,000, commemorates the life and work of one of Australia's finest biographers, Hazel Rowley (1951–2011). The intention is to encourage travel and risk-taking – of which Hazel would have emphatically approved. The winner will be announced on 9 March.
Marathons and Prepositions
Few editors write books (they're not meant to have time for such frivolities). Even fewer run marathons (or break into a jog, in our experience). Catriona Menzies-Pike – editor of the Sydney Review of Books – is an exception. Her first book, The Long Run, is described as 'a personal and cultural memoir about why women run' (Affirm Press, $29.99 pb). One of Menzies-Pike's reasons for doing so was the death of her parents in a light plane crash when she was twenty. Those early losses are described in dignified, telling prose, with a moving description of revisiting the family home in Albury soon after the accident, only to find it barred.
The editor in Catriona Menzies-Pike is never sedentary for long: 'To map the meaning of any kind of run, we need to pay attention to the prepositions.'
Vale John Hirst
Distinguished historian and author John Hirst has died, aged seventy-three. For almost four decades he taught history at La Trobe University, always eschewing a Chair and preferring to remain Reader in History. His prose was impeccable, his scholarship highly influential. ACU Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven has described him as 'one of the greatest historians this country has had'.
John Hirst's frequent contributions to ABR began with the current Editor's first issue in 2001. The pair had worked on several books for Oxford University Press in the 1990s, including A Republican Manifesto in 1994 (Hirst was a founding convenor of the ARM in Victoria). With Graeme Davison and Stuart Macintyre, Dr Hirst co-edited The Oxford Companion to Australian History (1998). After retiring from La Trobe University in 2006, he continued to publish books aimed at an enquiring general audience. These included The Shortest History of Europe (2009) and Australian History in 7 Questions (2014).
The new Children's Laureate
Bestselling author and illustrator Leigh Hobbs – creator of the inimitable characters Horrible Harriet, Mr Chicken, and Old Tom – has been named as the new Australian Children's Laureate for 2016–17, succeeding writer Jackie French. Hobbs intends to use his term 'to champion creative opportunities for children, and to highlight the essential role libraries play in nurturing our creative lives'.
The Australian Children's Laureate initiative was developed by the Australian Children's Literature Alliance with the aim of promoting the importance of reading, creativity, and story in the lives of young Australians.
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Dust without dimension
The November 13 attacks on ordinary citizens in Paris have outraged and galvanised the world community. We share this sense of revulsion. Australia has a large French population and a rich tradition of Francophilia. Our sympathies go to our French readers and to the families of all the victims.
Words, at such times, are de trop. Not La Marseillaise, though. Advances was struck by the guttural fervour with which it was sung by thousands of Melburnians at a memorial in Federation Square two days after the massacres. Poetry, too, is solacing. We looked for a poem that spoke to the universal despair that follows atrocities of this kind. Gwen Harwood's poem 'Memento Homo Quia Pulvis Es', first published in 1961, seemed apt. We reprint it here, with kind permission from her estate.
Those who are truly great
Gwen Harwood died in 1995, aged seventy-five. Australia lost another major poet that year: Philip Hodgins (at thirty-six). Their work endures, of course (how could it not?). British poet Michael Hofmann – a contributor to 'Books of the Year' – welcomes the new George Braziller selection from Hodgins's poems: First Light. Earlier this year, speaking on a panel celebrating the poetry of Gwen Harwood at the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts, philosopher A.C. Grayling likened her achievement in poetry to that of Thomas Hardy and lamented the widespread unawareness of her work in his own country.
Yet we still don't have a biography of Harwood or Hodgins. Auden might have approved, but not the mass of Harwood and Hodgins lovers. So many outstanding writers go unexamined, or under-examined, in this country. That two such important writers – and intense personalities – should go unbiographised is a matter of regret. Luminous, informed biography is an important way of renewing (even retaining) interest in a poet's work. As Marina Benjamin said in her review of Matthew Spender's new memoir of his father, Stephen Spender, 'In getting to know Stephen the man, I am far more inclined to return to his poems' (New Statesman, 25 September 2015).
Apropos of Gwen Harwood, it is known that opposition from within the family, after her death, circumvented the biography that Greg Kratzmann – ideally placed – was commissioned to write for Oxford (a project that Harwood supported). Keepers of the flame have entitlements, but they also have responsibilities. Let us hope that Ann-Marie Priest fares better with her proposed biography of Gwen Harwood.
Meanwhile, we can enjoy a slender volume from Ginninderra Press: Behind the Masks: Gwen Harwood Remembered by Her Friends ($20 pb), edited by Robyn Mathison and Robert Cox. Anecdotists include Alison Hoddinott and Stephen Edgar.
Harwood was perhaps the truest wit in Australian poetry. Her letters and postcards were famous too. Our Editor recalls one in which she described a Hobart jewellery store. A sign in the window had caught her sharp eye – 'Eternities reduced'.
Two new Fellowships
ABR has within a few years published more than a dozen long articles arising from the ABR Writers' Fellowships. Past Fellows have included Felicity Plunkett, Danielle Clode, and James McNamara. Fellowship articles are among the best-read features ever published in ABR. We hope to collect them in book form in coming years.
The Fellowship program continues to diversify, in more lucrative ways. Last month we announced the latest of our themed Fellowships – the Australian Book Review RAFT Fellowship for an article of 6,000 to 8,000 words on any aspect of the role and significance of religion in society and culture. Applications close on 31 January 2016.
We are now seeking applications for the third of our Australian Book Review Dahl Trust Fellowships. Once again we welcome applications for a substantial article on eucalypts. Applications close on 20 February 2016. The finished article will appear in our 2016 Environment issue.
Because of the generosity of the Religious Advancement Foundation Trust and the Bjarne K. Dahl Trust (with supplementary funds from ABR Patrons in the case of the latter Fellowship), these Fellowships are now worth $7,500. ABR Fellows, too, will benefit from the magazine's commitment to increasing payments to its writers.
Poem of the Week
Don't miss this new weekly online feature. Each Thursday an Australian poet introduces and reads a poem (some, but not all, of which have appeared in the magazine). Kent MacCarter began the series with a virtuosic performance (the only word for it). Coming up we have Eileen Chong, Kate Middleton, Stephen Edgar, and Judith Beveridge (who will read the winning poem in the 2015 Peter Porter Poetry Prize).
Look out for these and other features on the podcast. These recordings are available from our website, SoundCloud, and iTunes.
Support from Arts NSW
ABR is delighted to announce that it has received an Annual Program grant from Arts NSW to support payments to New South Wales writers in 2016. This will enable us to continue expanding New South Wales content in ABR. We will publish more features from and about the state. Look out for New South Wales contributions to our podcasts and Arts Update. And we will continue to increase our rates.
The November 2015 issue of Flinders University's e-journal Transnational Literature is out now. It includes new poetry from Stuart Barnes, Mark O'Flynn, and Billy Marshall Stone-king, among others, and seven pieces of prose creative writing, ranging from 'a Kafka-infused story set in Japan to a passionate defence of freedom of choice in modes of dress'. It also features tributes to poet and academic Syd Harrex, and the text of Brian Matthews's 2014 Brian Medlin Memorial Lecture 'The Preciousness of Everything'.
Letters from the Master
Confirmed Jacobites, of whom there is at least one lurking in Studio 2 at Boyd, can't get enough of the Master, so they will pounce on The Complete Letters of Henry James 1878–1880, Volume I (in fact the eighth volume to date in the Nebraska series). Pierre A. Walker and Greg W. Zacharias, the editors, inform us there will be 132 more volumes in the series.
Henry James was thirty-five in 1878. Famously and prodigiously, he accepted 107 dinner-party invitations during the winter of 1878–79. Contemporary novelists should get out more.
The Suburban Review
This newish Melbourne periodical, based in Melbourne and edited by T.J. Robinson, has reached its sixth volume (as each issue is called), so it is surely guaranteed a long life. Highlights include fiction by writers such as Harriet McKnight (shortlisted for the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize) and poetry by Toby Fitch (new Poetry Editor of Overland, and shortlisted for the 2015 Peter Porter Poetry Prize). Each issue costs $14.95.
In late September the University of South Australia announced the creation of a biennial $100,000 Terry Pratchett Memorial Scholarship, funded by a $1 million endowment made to the University by the best-selling UK author. 'Terry was someone who was never shy of contributing to the things he believed in and as recipients of this wonderful bequest we are reminded of his commitment to inquiry and to learning,' said Vice Chancellor, Professor David Lloyd.
Pratchett, who died earlier this year, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University in 2014. He was best-known as the author of the Discworld series which began in 1983 and ended forty-two books later with The Shepherd's Crown, which was published posthumously in August.
Arts Update e-bulletin
Have you signed up yet for our free fortnightly e-bulletin devoted to Arts Update? It comprises all our arts reviews published online during the previous fortnight, plus news items and some juicy giveaways, including double passes to film, plays, operas, and concerts.
Give a free gift subscription
There is still time to introduce a friend or relation to Australian Book Review. Until 31 December, new and renewing subscribers can direct a free six-month subscription to ABR. You can qualify for this special offer by renewing your current subscription even before it is due to lapse. Fill in the back of the flysheet that accompanies the print issue, or ring us on (03) 9699 8822. Terms and conditions apply.
Farewell to 2015
This has been a watershed year for the magazine. Never before have its programs been more diverse or ambitious. New features were added to the magazine, and we consolidated our arts coverage through Arts Update. We published a total of 303 writers in our ten issues and Arts Update – a record number. Of them, fifty-nine per cent had not appeared in 2014; and almost 100 of them were entirely new to the magazine – two clear measures of ABR's commitment to inclusiveness and new talent.
In May we launched a campaign to increase our payments to contributors. The result from donors and readers has been truly heartening. Large numbers of readers share our belief that critics deserve support and reasonable payment – not just a byline. Support from our growing cohort of Patrons has been extraordinary. Cultural philanthropy has transformed this magazine, and the 2015 result exceeded previous years. Happily, our base rate for reviewers has doubled in the past two years.
Now we look forward to another year of great publishing and innovative programs. These will include States of Poetry, podcasts, a series of professional workshops, and our first cultural tour (to the United States, in September).
As always, we thank our writers, subscribers, Patrons, donors, advertisers, and partners for their continuing support. Flinders University has sponsored the magazine since 2005, and we thank all our colleagues and contributors there.
Have a great summer! Ed.
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- Contents Category Advances
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- Custom Article Title 'Memento Homo Quia Pulvis Es' a new poem by Gwen Harwood
- Contents Category Poem
In ‘Late Works’, the last poem in Black Inc.’s new selection of Gwen Harwood’s poetry, a dying poet, determined to pen her ‘late great’ poems, calls from her hospital bed for paper. The nurse, misunderstanding, brings toilet paper, much to the poet’s chagrin. It is a typical Harwood inversion – the pretensions of the ‘great artist’ are mocked to the last. But though Harwood eschews the opportunity, in this poem, to be ‘calmly transcendental / and abstract’, going for satire instead, she did not fail to write her own ‘late great works’, many of which are showcased here.
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- Custom Article Title Ann-Marie Priest reviews 'The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood' by Gwen Harwood, edited by John Harwood
- Contents Category Poetry
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In ‘Late Works’, the last poem in Black Inc.’s new selection of Gwen Harwood’s poetry, a dying poet, determined to pen her ‘late great’ poems, calls from her hospital bed for paper. The nurse, misunderstanding, brings toilet paper, much to the poet’s chagrin. It is a typical Harwood inversion ...
- Book Title The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Black Inc.,$24.99 hb, 112 pp, 9781863956987
Susan Sheridan’s Nine Lives, a ‘group biography’, analyses the life stories and literary achievements of nine Australian women writers. The purpose, according to Sheridan, is not only to rediscover the life story of each, but also, by exploring their publishing and aesthetic context, to create a ‘fresh configuration’ of our literary history.
Nine Lives reminds us of an earlier generation of women writers too often overlooked in the flurry of the contemporary literary scene. Now there appears to be unlimited encouragement for writers, with a proliferation of writers’ groups, mentoring programs and residential seminars, with encouraging publishers in attendance. Academic degrees in Creative Writing exist alongside traditional university courses in Australian Literature. This is certainly a good time to be a serious and ambitious writer.
For Sheridan’s nine, it was quite different. Most of them wrote in isolation, without the encouragement of their peers or an established literary context for women. To write at all required tenacity, dedication, and an amazing self-belief. To be published required patience to deal with the many setbacks and a thick skin to cope with patronising male publishers. These nine women were all different in their social and financial circumstances, but all were obsessed with their craft and determined to pursue it at all costs. Each is chosen, according to Sheridan, ‘because she did, finally, make her mark as a serious writer, however long it took’.
On first sight, the choice of authors – Judith Wright, Thea Astley, Dorothy Hewett, Rosemary Dobson, Dorothy Auchterlonie Green, Gwen Harwood, Jessica Anderson, Amy Witting (Joan Levick), and Elizabeth Jolley – seems odd. Wright and Dobson, because they began publishing in the early 1940s, seem to belong to a completely different era from Witting and Jolley, who came into their own in the 1970s or 1980s. Sheridan chose them, however, as members of the one generation, those born between 1915 and 1930. They lived through the Depression and the war and either profited from the postwar literary renaissance or had to wait for conditions that better suited their literary style, or for a time when they were more viable financially.
The individual life stories are enthralling. Wright, Hewett, and Auchterlonie Green followed their hearts with the same enthusiasm that they invested in their literary careers. Wright offended the squattocracy from whence she came by living outside marriage (‘in sin’, according to contemporary mores) with Jack McKinney. Hewett was the ‘wild card’, pursuing her communist ideology to the outrage of her family and to the detriment, for quite some time, of her writing career. Both came from wealthy backgrounds and their families – Wright’s father, in particular – stepped in to help in times of financial or emotional distress. Others – Astley, Dobson, Harwood, and Witting – appear to have lived contented lives with supportive spouses. Anderson lived alone after two divorces, and Jolley looked after her husband in old age.
All had children, and Wright and Green were the sole support of their families. Wright and Hewett were both committed activists – Wright for conservation and Aboriginal rights, Hewett for communism – and both considered their social commitment to be as important as their writing. Anderson, Harwood, Wright, and Auchterlonie Green were feisty negotiators. I well recall a stinging rebuke from Green when I attempted to edit her contribution to a volume of essays I was compiling. One always thought twice about crossing Wright; and Harwood certainly knew how to chasten arrogant editors.
All nine were versatile and few confined themselves to the one genre. Hewett was a poet, playwright, novelist, and her Wild Card (1990) is a superb autobiography. Wright valued her historical writing almost as highly as her poetry, and was an eminent literary critic and editor. As well as poetry, Auchterlonie Green published major literary criticism. She completely revised her husband H.M. Green’s History of Australian Literature (1962), wrote the definitive study of Henry Handel Richardson, and valued her position as an academic teacher. Jessica Anderson and Elizabeth Jolley wrote scripts and short stories for radio, simply to survive. The title, Nine Lives, based on the legendary ability of a cat to always land on its feet, reflects their tenacity and determination.
Given that all nine were highly talented and ambitious writers, why did some flourish and others languish for decades? There are two obvious determinants: contemporary literary taste and the availability of publishing outlets. It was not, for instance, just the brilliance of Wright’s early poetry – this was obvious – but the fact that an enthusiastic postwar readership demanded sophisticated as well as moving poetry. The proliferation of small literary magazines in the period 1945–65, beginning with Clem Christesen’s Meanjin Papers (later Meanjin)provided an outlet for quality poetry, for articles about poetry, and for literary patronage. In the 1940s and 1950s Christesen published poems by Wright, Dobson, Harwood, and Hewett, as well as Wright’s first collection, The Moving Image,in 1946. His patronage, however, was always problematic, as Wright soon discovered.
Meanwhile, the gravitas of Wright’s poetry certainly suited the postwar cultural renaissance. Australian landscape, instead of being simply celebrated for its beauty and uniqueness, provided, in poems such as ‘South of my Days’, a symbolic reference for human emotions and, increasingly in Wright’s poetic, material for philosophical speculation. The highly charged feminine passion of the ‘Woman to Man’ series also suited a time of increasing sexual liberation. Wright’s far more sophisticated response, as well as the lyrical intensity of her poetry, ensured her place as one of the foremost poets of the time, internationally as well as in Australia.
Things were not quite as simple for novelists. Thea Astley was the exception, winning the Miles Franklin prize four times, the first for The Well Dressed Explorer in 1962. While most publishing was done in London until the late 1970s, and London editors and agents tended to patronise – on both counts – colonial women writers, Astley was taken up by Angus & Robertson, the only significant Australian publisher of quality fiction. At the same time, Beatrice Davis, Astley’s formidable editor, rejected novels by Jessica Anderson, Elizabeth Jolley, and Amy Witting.
The difference, according to Sheridan, was that Astley, along with Patrick White, Randolph Stow, Hal Porter, and others, was part of a self-consciously postmodernist movement in Australian fiction, their writing ‘loaded with poetic imagery and symbolism’ and, in Astley’s case at least, with a satiric twist which suited the self-scrutiny of Australians at that time.
Anderson, Jolley, and Witting had a much more chequered publishing history. Anderson’s first three books were published – and mishandled – by Macmillan in London: The Last Man’s Head (1970) mistakenly categorised as crime fiction, and The Commandant (1975) packaged as a Regency romance. Publication was consistently delayed and Anderson consistently patronised. It was not until Tirra Lirra by the River, published this time by Macmillan in Melbourne, won the Miles Franklin prize in 1978 that Anderson became well known to Australian readers.
Witting’s erratic publishing progress was, it seems, more the result of her own ‘self-criticism and diffidence’ than of external factors. She published virtually all her life’s work during her seventies, and, while she consistently published poetry and short stories, there were long gaps between her three novels: The Visit was published in 1977; I for Isobel won her widespread recognition in 1989; and the superb Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop did not appear until 2000.
Jolley had the longest ‘apprenticeship’ yet the greatest success, if volume of publication is any indication. She had been writing seriously for over twenty years, continuously submitting her work to publishers without success, until in 1974 she came to the attention of Ian Templeman, founder of Fremantle Arts Centre Press. The Press published Five Acre Virgin, her first volume of short stories, in 1976. Between 1976 and 2001 she published fifteen novels – The Well won the Miles Franklin Award in 1986 – as well as six volumes of short stories and plays and several non-fiction works.
This accords with the major argument of Nine Lives. Jolley’s particular and idiosyncratic fiction – a mixture of postmodernist techniques, humanitarian concern for the outsider, and ‘an interest in unconventional sexual and erotic encounters’ – perfectly suited the temper of that time. Moreover, as Sheridan points out, her successes were enabled by the growth of literary infrastructure: government-funded grants and prizes, literary awards, writers’ festivals, writers’ residencies, and Creative Writing programs in schools and universities. As well this was, and still is, the age of the writer as public figure. Jolley, as migrant outsider, ‘failed salesman’ and ‘flying domestic’ come in from the cold, physically gaunt and austerely clad, excited the public imagination and so ensured even greater success.
Nine Lives is an impressive work of scholarship, based as it is on an intensive study of archival records, personal correspondence, contemporary reviews, and interviews. At the same time, it is easily read and enjoyable. It should be greatly appreciated, not just as a scholarly reference but also as a record of heroic literary endeavour.
I too belong to Sheridan’s chosen generation. As a penniless student, I bought Rosemary Dobson’s In a Convex Mirror for two shillings and sixpence in the Armidale newsagency in 1944, and Judith Wright’s The Moving Image in 1946. I knew seven of these nine women personally, and wrote about their work with enthusiasm in the 1980s and 1990s. Accordingly, this book brings me great joy.
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- Book Title Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making Their Mark