Reprint: Australian Women Who Write: Many Fine Novelists and Poets by Zora Cross

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The number of Australian women writers is no less remarkable than their virility. With the possible exception of Ethel Turner (Mrs. H. Curlewis), who has not published a book for some time, most of those who were writing well twenty and more than twenty years ago are producing good work still -- Mary Gilmore, Stella Miles Franklin, Louise Mack, Mrs. Ada Holman, Dora Wilcox; and of a younger generation of writers, Dulcie Deamer, Vera Dwyer, Ella McFadyen, Nina Murdoch, and Katherine Susannah Prichard, to mention a mere handful.

Many of them began to write as children. At sixteen, Dulcie Deamer leapt into fame by winning a prize for a short story competition. Her novels, historical (not Australian), have been serialised by the Hurst Syndicate, and she, too, continues to write as well as ever; in the case of her verse, with gradual improvement. Katherine Susannah Prichard was born in Fiji, educated along with Elsie Cole and other women writers when young, at South Melbourne College where poet Bernard O'Hara taught her. She won Hodder and Stoughton's prize for a novel, "The Pioneers," in 1915, and her work his steadily increased in power since "Coonardoo," which won the first "Bulletin" novel competition with "A House is Built," is, possibly, her finest piece of work.

Vera Dwyer, a protegee of Ethel Turner, as are Ruby Doyle and other Australian women writers, was a remarkable child writer. In a recent novel, "In Pursuit of Patrick," despite immature passages in it, she proved that she can write a successful adult story. Hitherto her work was mainly for children.


Many Australian women, who started well at home, have done even better abroad -- Helen Simpson and Alice Grant Rosman, for instance, Dorothy Cottrell, one of Mary Gilmore's several "discoveries" -- (Daniel Hamlyn, a winner in the second "Bulletin" novel competition and a promising woman writer-is another), wrote her successful novels 'Singing Gold" and "Earth Battle" here. Colour is the chief characteristic of them, and her first attempt, "Singing Gold," is distinguished in this respect.

Other Australians have published abroad without leaving home. One of the most interesting of these is the daughter of Dowell O'Reilly, Eleanor Dark, who wrote originally as Patricia O'Rane. She is still very young, and though the wife of a busy doctor, manages to keep the torch of a little literary group burning brightly in Katoomba. Nina Lowe, an excellent short story writer, who during the war edited a cookery book for the Red Cross, which netted £500, is a member of the group. Mrs. Dark's last book, "Prelude to Christopher," was published here. Mary Kelaher, whose novels were first serialised in the "Woman's Mirror," and who almost might be termed a "dlscovery" of the late editor, Mr. Bert Toy, is station bred and has given us people of a life she knows. Another young writer, Georgia Rivers of Melbourne, has produced many novels. "The Difficult Art" (of a young girl growing up) is a most unusual book. Jessie Urquhart brought out her first book here many years ago, and is now publishing in London; but she will not, I think, do her best work until, like Alice Grant Rosman, she relinquishes journalism for fiction. Amongst new names, Mary Mitchell's stands out. She achieved a London success with "Warning to Wantons." But this book is not Australian and is of little importance to us here. She could write, I imagine, a good Australian society novel, for which there is a waiting public.


Recent literary competitions have revealed some new women writers, chief of these being Velia Ercole, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, the latter joint authoresses of "A House is Built."

Henry Handel Richardson was introduced to Australlans by Nettie Palmer, herself an able essayist and critic. Born in Melbourne, the daughter of an English doctor, and educated at the Presbyterian Ladies' College there, Henry Handel Richardson went to London, when she was eighteen, to study music. She took up fiction writing instead and for years worked and published practically unnoticed save by her own contemporaries, few of whom, in the realm of fiction, have equalled her in style and form of production. Fame came with her last book, "Ultima Thule." This is by far her best effort, lucid and sincere. It completes a trilogy of books dealing with the fortunes or rather misfortunes of Richard Mahoney, a doctor who did not like being a doctor. There are faults to be found from an Australian point of view with "Ultima Thule," the whole action of which takes place in Australia; but few in the presentation of it. The writer, unlike Galsworthy, who never rises above blood-heat, allows each of her characters their own temperature. Many may, however, question the worth of such details of a failure's life. But the writer is not at home outside tragedy. "The Getting of Wisdom," a look for girls, fails to awaken interest.


Because of the influence of Ethel Turner, Australians have done well in the portrayal of children. Too much stress cannot be laid on the fact that Ethel Turner, from the moment she opened the door of an Australian house and showed the world what we were really like, has been a guiding star for the best. She has not been able to give us adults as real as her children, but the germ is there. Born in England, Ethel Turner came as a child to Australia and was educated with her sister, Lilian and Louise, and Amy Mack, at the Sydney Girls' High School. She was very young when "Seven Little Australians" first appeared.  The children in this book are, in their way, as immortal as "Alice," and it is only some inferiority   complex of Australians that has not recognised it, nor realised how much more real the children of "The House of Misrule" are than Anne of Green Gables. Many women have followed Ethel Turner -- Mary Grant Bruce, Constance Macanass, Elizabeth Powell, a younger writer, May Gibbs found a little fairy world all her own. Of late years, Dorothy Wall has achieved some recognition.

A number of imaginative women writers are immersed in journalism. Myra Morris, Nora Kelly, Margaret Fane, E. M. England, Lyn Lucas, a relative of E. V. Lucas, D. L. Waraker, being a few. The two latter have produced good one-act plays. Miss Lucas, a Brisbane writer, won Carrie Tennant's play competition. It would be unfair in a survey of women writers not to mention Miss Tennant's name, for, while she conducted her little theatre, she did a good deal to encourage Australian playwrights. Doris Egerton Jones and Dorothy Tobin have done creditable work in longer plays.

Our women writers have no mean sense of humour when they like, though it cannot be termed a strong feature of their work. Winifred Birkett, a younger writer, who has published a couple of books, has developed this side pleasingly; and so, too, has Mary E. Lloyd, whose humorous work was praised by that discerning critic, the late A. G. Stephens. "Three Goats on a Bender" Miss Birkett named her humorous story; Miss Lloyd, "Susan's Little Sins."

All of our women writers are well read, none very keen about sport, though golf and tennis and sometimes dancing play a part in their leisure moments. All are earnest, sincere workers.

I have left Mary Gilmore, whose hobby might well be "the finding of new writers," to the last. She holds a unique place both in our hearts and our literature. For years through helping others, young and old, she delayed publication of her reminiscences, "Old Days Old Ways," an important contribution to our literature now delighting everyone. Her poetry will mean more to posterity than her prose, I think. She has published several volumes, the subjects ranging over a wide field, from charming little lyrics to lovely lullabies.

There are many others, who might well have been noticed, but all of these mentioned have published books either abroad or at home, and not one but will repay the reader's perusal.

Our women aim at truth in writing just as the men do; and this is characteristically Australian. We do not need to read Russian literature to inspire us to realism. Our country, born of suffering and hardship, has shaped our character, and out of it is coming a literature entirely different from any other. Women are doing their share in the building up of this national literature just as they did their share towards the making and shaping of the nation itself.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1935

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on January 20, 2012 8:53 AM.

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