Slipstream is both a memoir and an essay on migration. It hangs upon the story of one family, who migrated from Yorkshire (where this book was published) to Sydney in 1949. The narrator was their first-born in the new land and, as she tells it, her life has been one of constant oscillation, both emotional and physical, between England and Australia. It is a tale of her parents’ ‘exile’ and her ‘returns’ – to the country she only ever knew in stories, as she was growing up, but which became ingrained in her imagination.
Deborah Fitzgerald’s biography, Her Sunburnt Country: The extraordinary literary life of Dorothea Mackellar, struggles to convince readers of the validity of both those adjectives. Mackellar’s life was not especially literary: she did not mix in literary circles, and had no need to write for a living, although as a young woman she published many poems in journals. Nor was it an extraordinary life, except in the sense that it was extremely privileged by her family’s wealth and social standing. It was an unusual life for a woman of her time and place, in that she did not marry; but nor did she live independently of her family until after her parents’ deaths. By then she was in her forties and had effectively stopped publishing verse.
She and Her Pretty Friend is a collation of stories about lesbians in Australian history, ranging from the convict women of the ‘flash mob’ in Hobart’s Cascades prison to the lesbian separatists of the 1983 Pine Gap Peace Camp. Along the way, the reader meets a couple who farmed together in the 1840s, another couple who taught swimming and started the first women-only gym in Melbourne in 1879, as well as one of the first women doctors and her lifelong companion, who both served at the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Serbia in 1916. There are other figures, like poet Lesbia Harford and her muse, Katie Lush, or suffragist Cecilia John, who rode on horseback, dressed in suffrage colours, at the head of a march of more than 4,000 women and children (Danielle Scrimshsaw credits her with ‘queering the suffrage movement’). A chapter on Eve Langley and other ‘passing women’ prompts questions about whether they would have seen themselves as transgender, in today’s parlance.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Eleanor Dark (1901–85), which singles her out from the group of women who dominated the Australian literary scene in the 1930s and 1940s, and attends to the literary significance as well as the political and historical contexts of her work. While Miles Franklin and Katharine Susannah Prichard have been the subject of massive biographies, there have been no major critical studies of their writing. Their contemporaries such as Nettie Palmer, Jean Devanny, M. Barnard Eldershaw, and Dymphna Cusack have fallen out of sight. But since the publication of Eleanor Dark: A writer’s life by Barbara Brooks in 1998, there has been a steady stream of essays and book chapters, a special issue of the journal Hecate, a second biography, and now a critical monograph on the work of this novelist.
When Susan Varga made the momentous, long-delayed decision to commit herself to writing, her first task was to write her mother’s story – that of a Holocaust survivor who migrated from Hungary to Australia with her second husband and two daughters in 1948, when Susan was five. That story, which is also one of a complex and difficult relationship between mother and daughter, became the award-winning Heddy and Me (1994).
Dominique Wilson’s new novel is another foray into the field of historical fiction. Her two previous novels deal with the pain of living through periods of civil strife and migration, and cover long periods of time and several cultures: The Yellow Papers (2014) is set in China and Australia from the 1870s to the 1970s, while That Devil’s Madness (2016) moves from Paris to Algiers to Australia and back from the 1890s to 1970s.
Another book about a mother by a daughter, I thought when I saw this one, summoning to mind Biff Ward’s In My Mother’s Hands (2014), Kate Grenville’s One Life (2015), and Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter (2018). But while each of those books presents an impressive woman cramped – sometimes tragically so – by her postwar circumstances, in this case we have a subject who was nothing short of a national treasure.
In 1942, The Pea Pickers was published by Angus & Robertson in Sydney, garnering high praise for its freshness and poetic invention. A picaresque tale of two sisters who, dressed as boys, earn their living picking seasonal crops in Gippsland in the late 1920s, it impressed Douglas Stewart, literary editor of the Bulletin, with its ‘love of Australian earth and Australian people and skill in painting them’. The author, Eve Langley, was at that time incarcerated in the Auckland Mental Hospital, where she would remain for the next seven years, isolated from her estranged husband and three young children, and from her mother and sister, who were also in New Zealand.
‘Ern Malley’ – a great literary creation and the occasion of a famous literary hoax – has continued to attract fascinated attention ever since he burst upon the Australian poetry scene more than seventy years ago. But his sister Ethel has attracted little notice, she who set off the whole saga by writing to Max Harris, the young editor of Angry Penguins, asking whether the poems left by her late brother were any good, and signing herself ‘sincerely, Ethel Malley’.
Craig Munro’s latest book shines a spotlight on the work of some very different Australian book editors. It begins in the 1890s, when A.G. Stephens came into prominence as literary editor of The Bulletin’s famous Red Page. It continues through the trials and tribulations of P.R. (‘Inky’) Stephensen in publishing and radical politics in the interwar period and his internment during the war for his association with the Australia First Movement. Literary Lion Tamers then moves on to Beatrice Davis’s long career as a professional book editor with Angus & Robertson after World War II. It concludes with Rosanne Fitzgibbon, with whom Munro developed fiction and poetry lists at the University of Queensland Press.