Reprint: Women Writers in the Vanguard of Our Literature: These Names Rank High

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One of the major features of the exhibition of Australian books, which is, perhaps, the most interesting and surprising facet of Australian Authors' Week, is the number and importance of the volumes written by women.

The list of those who have won recognition, both at home and abroad, is long, and, considering our short literary history, and the even shorter time that has elapsed since women entered this field, imposing.

Victorian-born Henry Handel Richardson (Mrs. J. G. Robertson) is one of those whose names first leap to mind when a survey of Australian literary endeavor is being made. Critics in England and America were quick to notice and acclaim the splendid work in her first novel, "Maurice Guest," published in 1908, and those who praised her in those early days had their prophecies more than borne out when the three books making up her famous trilogy, "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony," appeared.

This author's work lacks the sensational pages and meretriciously "clever" touches that would undoubtedly make it better-known among that great reading public which can provide a novelist with ocean-going yachts and several cars, or condemn her to comparative financial obscurity.

But by a relatively small audience-- numerous enough overseas to be important--Henry Handel Richardson is regarded as an outstanding figure, one whose writings will undoubtedly remain when more talked-of books are sifted out on to the dust-heap of mediocrity.

In Helen Simpson we have another woman whose reputation in her own land pales beside the acclaim her books have brought her in other English speaking countries. Miss Simpson, although she has written for the stage, is best known by her novels. "The Woman On the Beast" was a particularly fine example, both of her ability as a story-teller and of her craftsmanship. "Boomerang," a novel that could be compared with any book written by a woman of recent years, won her the distinction of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1931. Her latest book, "Saraband For Dead Lovers," will be no disappointment to admirers of her talent.

Other Famous Figures

The name of Katherine Susannah Pritchard is better known in this country, as is her work, than that of either Henry Handel Richardson or Helen Simpson. "Coonardoo," joint winner with "A House is Built" of the first Bulletin Novel Competition, brought her name well before the public, but even before that she had made her own circle of admirers with earlier novels.

Possibly no book written by an Australian, and very few written by any woman, has met with the unanimous praise that critics gave to Miss Christina Stead's "Salzburg Tales" on its publication in London. It was compared, and not unreasonably, in scope and understanding and craftsmanship with the most famous classic collections of its type. The "Salzburg Tales" is certainly a splendid achievement, and one that, even without Miss Stead's later book, "Seven Poor Men of Sydney," would qualify her for an eminent position in the ranks of contemporary writers.

Success came to G. B. Lancaster with the publication of "Pageant," one of the most colorful and capable of Australian historical novels. This book sold extraordinarily well not only in the Commonwealth but overseas, and, as a picture of the Tasmania of a bygone day, has certainly given the author a definite place in Australian letters.

Mention has been made of "A House is Built." This novel of early Sydney was the work of two women, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, and is an excellent piece of work, and a fine kaleidoscope of the era with which it deals.

Poetry and Criticism

To do full justice to the fine work that has been done, and is being done, by Australian women in literature would demand a book rather than a short article. Still unmentioned are novelists of the calibre of Winifred Birkett, whose "Earth's Quality" was recently reviewed by us, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, author , of "Blue North," Mary Marlowe, and, among the writers of juvenile books, Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce.

Then there are the writers of verse: Mary Gilmore and Dorothea MacKellar, whose names have become household words, and Zora Cross, some, of whose best sonnets have not yet achieved their full recognition. Nor, in a country sadly lacking in critical standards, should Nettie Palmer be overlooked. Mrs. Palmer's flair for work of good quality, her honesty of outlook, and genuine critical ability place her in that numerically inconspicuous, outnumbered band of Australian critics who know.

First published in The Australian Women's Weekly, 13 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 September 19, 2012 8:48 AM.

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