Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

‘After the War: Returned soldiers and the mental and physical scars of World War I’ by Leigh Straw

Straw_After_the_War

2017, 205 p.

It’s a strong, handsome face that appraises us from the front cover of Leigh Straw’s After the War. When the author saw it from the front page of the muck-racking Truth newspaper, she was struck by its resemblance to her own husband. It accompanied a report of a murder-suicide in Collie in 1929 where an Andrew Straw had murdered Muriel Pope in the street by shooting her, before turning the gun on himself. Leigh Straw, a historian who is better known for work on the Sydney and Melbourne underworld from the 1920s (see one of my reviews here) had stumbled on her own real-life family crime, one that had been suppressed and altered in family lore.

Andrew Straw, returned WWI veteran, is just one of the West Australian men that Straw deals with in this book. There are fifteen main protagonists, with the brief appearances of another fourteen veterans, all of whom volunteered as members of the 1st AIF. Her book takes us through enlistment, fighting, and their return to Western Australia, with a particular focus on the difficulties they faced when returning to their families in a society limping through indifferent economic conditions towards the Depression.

Chapter 1 ‘When the Call was Given: A Nation at War’  summarizes the war experience from enlistment, Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Armistice. Here we meet many of the men who will reappear in later chapters. These are personalized further in Chapter 2 ‘Dad did his turn at the war’: War Experiences’.

Chapter 3 ‘Civilian Life’ brings them back to Western Australia. Arrangements for repatriation had been set in train right from the earliest years of the war, and injured men were being sent home long before the final demobilization at the end of the war. Of the 32000 Western Australian men who had volunteered for the war, 24,000 returned with 16,000 of them injured, invalided or incapacitated by mental or physical wounds.

Soldiers with tuberculosis faced years in and out of sanatoriums as shown in Chapter 4 ‘Isolated: Tubercular Soldiers’. Western Australian soldiers had the added complication that many of them had been miners, or lived in mining towns. At first the Repatriation Department (always keen to reduce ‘shirking’) raised questions about prior mining work and war service. However, most medical reports highlighted the war experience as a causal factor even where there was a work history in the mines.  Tuberculosis can sometimes take years to manifest itself, and gradually the policy of restricting payouts for tuberculosis to a two-year period after the war was eased to allow for later illness. The Woolooroo Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in the general population was established 50 km outside Perth in 1915, just after Gallipoli, and it was expanded after the war with a military section.

Ch 5 ‘Unbalanced’: The ‘Mental Soldiers’ of War’ examines ‘shell-shock’, ‘war neurosis’ and what we would now call PTSD. As Marina Larsson points out in her book Shattered Anzacs (my review here),  families fought hard to have shell shock distinguished from ‘mental illness’ more generally. They advocated for separate facilities at Stromness Hospital and Kalamunda Convalescent Home to distinguish returned soldiers from the patients at Claremont Hospital for the Insane, but there was always cross-over between the two.

In Chapter 6 ”A Ruined Man’:Postwar suicide’, Straw turns to the newspapers to find details of this outcome of war that was so difficult to talk about by immediate families. West Australian government policy shamefully decreed the destruction of inquest reports after ten years, and so she needed to turn to newspaper reports when the inquest notes did not appear in the repatriation files. Using Trove, she sampled between 1915 and 1940,  after which point World War II reports made searching by keyword more difficult. She found that veteran suicides accounted for more than 10 percent of all registered male suicide deaths in the state- a number which was lower than I expected. However, as she points out, deaths reported as ‘accidental’ or through drowning allowed widows or family members to claim a war pension, when a finding of suicide did not.  Those that were reported as suicide generally (60%) involved fatal gunshot wounds, most to the head or chest. Almost one third involved poisoning. One distinguishing feature from the current-day veteran suicide statistics was the number of self-inflicted razor wounds. Nearly 40% of the suicides took place in the five years between 1925-1929, before the Great Depression, but when a large number of men reached middle age and struggled to find work. War pensions were increasingly questioned and lowered from 1925. Alcoholism featured heavily, and there were marital and family problems.

Chapter 7 ‘War’s Aftermath: Family stories’ turns to the oral histories given by family members, both to Leigh Straw herself and to earlier oral historians. For a number of these families, including Straw’s own, these stories went untold for years . ‘Conclusion: the men who came home’ summarizes the findings of the book, and a final epilogue ‘A Disordered Brain’ returns to Andrew Straw’s story – the man whose face is on the front cover, and who was the impetus for this book.

This book, written in 2017, locates itself and pays tribute to much of the work on war injury, repatriation and the effects on family which has been undertaken over recent years. There is much of it, and I found myself wondering why Straw chose to move out of her academic field of crime/social history of the early-mid 20th century when so many other historians have worked in the area of WWI repatriation before her. I’m thinking, for example,  of Marina Larsson, Joy Damousi, Stephen Garton and Alistair Thomson – all of whom have written about loss and return over the past twenty-five years.

I think that part of the answer lies in the event that prompted to her to write: the discovery of a close family relationship, that even travelled generations to manifest itself in the face of her own husband. Other books on the same topic tell individuals’ stories and use oral histories, as she has done. But in this book, she focusses on fifteen men whose stories re-appear across the various chapters of analysis, supplemented by other examples. It is an academic history, complete with footnotes and literature review, written with a family history focus.

A second aspect is its emphasis on Western Australia, rather than the more populous eastern seaboard. In this regard, it is no surprise that the book was published by  University of Western Australia Publishing. Western Australia’s commitment to the war effort was the highest in the country by proportion of population, with close to 10% of the state’s population enlisted in the war.  The state more strongly supported conscription than the other states, right throughout the war. Many of the enlistees from WA were relatively recent arrivals from Britain or Victoria attracted perhaps by the 1890s gold discoveries, with possibly shallower family connections. Schemes and plans for repatriation were implemented across the nation, but being so far distant from the other states, the Western Australian government worked largely in isolation.

This is an easy book to read, despite its difficult themes. It is an academic text, but with its grounding in the lived experience of men and their families, it wears theory and argument lightly. Beyond the photo of Andrew Straw on the front cover, it does not have any pictures, which is surprising given the co-operation the author received from many family members. But perhaps that is not the drawback it might appear.  Photographs, with their staging and smiles, do not capture the pain and struggle that is perhaps more apparent taken across the whole life span, and into further generations. That comes from stories, and this book is replete with them.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

After the War was joint winner of the 2018 Margaret Medcalf Award from the State Records Office of Western Australia.

aww2020I have included this on the database of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

‘There Was Still Love” by Favel Parrett

parrett_there-was-still-love

2019, 210 p.

There is an unsettling synchronicity about writing a review of this book while our government is closing its borders and our lives are being upended and constricted by government fiat. The parallels between our current situation and the 20th century of Czechoslovakia are slim, however. I may not hold my grandchildren for six months, but the rupture in the lives of those who escaped the fall of the Iron Curtain and those who did not was far deeper. But, as the title says, there was still love.

There are three threads in this book. One of them takes place in Melbourne in 1980, with young Malá living in with her Czech grandparents, Mána and Bill, cocooned in the warmth of their love in a frugal and ordered household typical of many post-war refugees. At the same time, there is her cousin Ludek, also living with his grandmother Babi in Prague, completely unaware of his cousin’s existence. He yearns for his mother Alena to return from her tour of the West with a theatrical company, and doesn’t realize that the government is using him as the lure and tether to bring her back to Czechoslovakia.

It is only near the end of the book that you realize the link between these two stories of grandchildren, wrapped in the love of their grandmothers. The two grandmothers were sisters, and by sheer happenstance, one ended up in the West and the other in the East. Their lives diverged at that point, even though they ran along parallel lines.

There is no great build-up or denouement in the book, which is gentle and quiet. I will confess to finding it a little difficult to follow. The narrative swaps back and forth between Melbourne and Prague and across time, with the focus on different characters whose names rather too similar – Malá, Mana, Ludek and (admittedly, a surname, Liska). I found myself wondering why she chose to structure the book in this way. Perhaps it was to make more complex what was actually a simple, if profound story?

What comes through most in this book is, as the title suggests, love. Love between sisters separated by distance and ideology; love between mother and child, and most of all love between grandparent and grandchild – each time, flowing both ways.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

aww2020I have included this in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

 

‘Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John’ by Helen Trinca

Trinca_Madeleine

2013, 243 p.

The author of this biography, Helen Trinca, came to know of Madeleine St John through one of her books. So did I.  For me it was The Women in Black, which I read back in 2011 as part of an online Australian Literature bookgroup and reviewed here. Erroneously suspecting that it was autobiographical, it seemed to me at the time to be a “happy, satisfying read” and “a small nugget of a book, affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic.” The film, The Ladies in Black (I hadn’t noticed the change in title before) was released in 2018, and it also struck me as a “feel-good, look-good” movie.

Having now read Trinca’s biography of St John, I couldn’t have been more wrong about The Women in Black being autobiographical.  And if I found the book “affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic”, perhaps that says more about St John’s skill as a writer than anything else, because the author was certainly none of those things.  Instead, she was prickly, bitter and more likely to hold a grudge than indulge in nostalgia.

Born in 1941 while her father was with the A.I.F. in Palestine, Madeleine St John’s mother Sylvette was Romanian, but styled herself as French after arriving in Sydney in 1934. Her father was the barrister and later M.P. Edward (Ted) St John, from a blue-blood conservative family.  The surname, pronounced ‘Sinjin’ niggled at me – something about the Voyager maritime disaster– and Trinca’s book reminds us that it was during his maiden speech as a Parliamentarian that St John attacked his own party and called for  second Royal Commission into the accident (which, when it finally occurred, completely overturned the findings of the first, flawed Royal Commission). But the Ted St John who appears in this biography is not so much the politician, as a father – and in Madeleine St John’s eyes, a very poor one.  Her parent’s marriage was an unhappy one. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Madeleine and her sister Colette were packed off to boarding school. When Madeleine was twelve, her parents divorced and soon afterwards her mother Sylvette committed suicide. Her father badly bungled telling his daughters, and remarried too quickly, to Val.

As Madeleine St John was too ready to tell everyone, her father’s perfidy and betrayal lay at the heart of her own world-view. Her anger and bitterness about it warped nearly every aspect of her life right up to her death. She was mercurial, cruel and self-centred, allowing people to come close and then spurning them when they became too close. The irony is that even though she despised her father and idolized her mother, she combined traits from both of them.  While denying all her life that her mother had committed suicide, she shared Sylvette’s fragile mental health, and suffered depression and breakdowns. She certainly shared her father’s black-and-white views about what was right, and refused to compromise them for anyone. For the sake of her own principles, however she defined them, she often acted against her own interests and burnt many people. She was more like her father than she would ever have admitted.

Madeleine enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1959 and circulated amongst that golden generation who were to head off to England: Clive James, Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford, Les Murray, Robert Hughes, Mungo MacCallum. In this testosterone-heavy atmosphere, she became one of the sub-editors of Honi Soit (the university newspaper) but was never published in it. She was part of a group of eight girls, dubbed ‘The Octopus’ who joined up with the Sydney University Dramatic Society and regularly met at a cafe in Manning House.  She married and moved with her husband, Christopher Tillam, to America where he embarked on a film-making career. As emotionally brittle as she was, it was no surprise that the marriage faltered. Madeleine moved to England where she worked in a succession of bookshops and antique shops, managed to get council housing and developed an image that combined a  stylishness and snobbery that belied her meagre income. She became rigidly religious, and spent years – even decades- writing a biography of Mme Blavatsky, the Theosophist, which she ended up burning (and which I would have been quite interested to read, really.) She was not published until 1993, at the age of 52, when she released The Women in Black, set in the sun-drenched Sydney of her own adolescence. Her three other works were set in her own London-based suburb Notting Hill, one of which (The Essence of the Thing)  was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, thus bringing her to the attention of the Australian literary scene.

She did not particularly welcome the acclaim that publication brought her, and although it gave her the financial means to travel, she was no happier than she had been previously.  She abhorred the thought that she would be embraced as an Australian by the Australian literary scene, when she had spent all her adult life putting her Australian nationality behind her. In poor health, she eschewed the attempts at reconciliation by her step-mother Val, and continued to draw in and then reject her friends, who would be bewildered by her change towards them.  In poor health from emphysema, she became increasingly concerned to shape her image after her rapidly-approaching death, rejecting one literary executor for another, and demanding the return of letters.

I think that Madeleine St John would have been infuriated by this biography, where the author treats her with a cool impassiveness. She does not buy into St John’s histrionics and manipulations, but recognizes patterns in her behaviour and makes some sense of it, without condoning it. The book lightens, as did St John’s own life, once she achieved her break-through publications, but for Trinca (and me, for that matter), her writing only highlighted the paradox between the writer and her work. Trinca keeps her eyes steadily on Madeleine the character, and there is no in-depth analysis of the books as such. Her footnotes pay testament to the author’s diligence in tracking down friends and acquaintances – none of whom could give unalloyed praise for St John. She was fortunate to be given access to a collection of audiotapes recorded by St John that were left in the keeping of a friend.  She read St John’s own statements about her life with a judicious eye, and combed through the lively but self-serving correspondence that other people had kept, much against St. John’s wishes. Using this network of friends and acquaintances, Trinca manages to weave a background against which St John’s life can be placed; a background that captures the heady optimism of university life in the early 1960s, the tangled connections amongst an intellectual and creative largely expatriate milieu, and the continued warp and weft of family background, no matter how much someone might want to distance themselves from it.

There are a lot of people in this book, and I was often glad of the index to remind myself who was who. It was a little frustrating that the index was organized by surname, whereas the text referred to people, in a familiar tone, by first name. More than once I found myself having to scan the whole index, until I found the first name mentioned in the text.

This is an excellent biography, that captures well the ambivalence of the biographer towards her subject.  It won the Prime Ministers Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2014, and was short-listed for several other awards. The summary on the back cover of the book mentions sadness, tragedy, love and perseverence.  I don’t know if I could be so charitable. Self-centredness, control and vindictiveness spring more to mind for me. And the mismatch between St John’s writing and her own life? I remain mystified, and I suspect that even after all this exhaustive research, I think Trinca might be too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from:  CAE bookgroup and read for The Ladies Who Say Oooh.

aww2020

I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

 

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper

hooper_arsonist

2018, 245 p.

This book was awarded the Judges Special Prize in the 2019 Community History Awards announced during History Week last year, which surprised me a little.  Not because it’s not a worthy recipient – it is – but I hadn’t thought of it as ‘history’ as such, although of course, one day it will be.  After all, journalism has been described as “the first rough draft of history”.

However I see this book more as journalism than history.  It explores the police case and resultant trial of Brendan Sokaluk, the man found guilty of intentionally lighting the Churchill fires on Black Saturday 2009.  I happened to read it in January 2020 during our summer of smoke (we haven’t yet coined a name for it, perhaps because we fear that the worst is yet to come).  The Murdoch media was (incorrectly) proclaiming arson as the major cause of the fires that have ravaged our east coast this season. However,on Black Saturday in 2009 – which I wrote about at the time here and here– there was a case of arson and it is explored in this book.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I ‘The Detectives’ follows the arson-squad detectives,  dispatched to Churchill while the appalling toll of 173 deaths from the Black Saturday fires was still mounting.  Here we very much see the fire’s immediate impact on both the environment, and on the people who faced it. The detectives inspect the site, they question Churchill residents, and the name ‘Brendan Sokaluk’ keeps arising. When they interview him, they suspect that they are being played, and that he is feigning incomprehension.

Part II ‘The Lawyers’, focuses mainly on the defence lawyer, Selena McCrikard, whom Hooper thanks in her acknowledgments for “her trust”.  Other workers at Victoria Legal Aid, are also thanked “for their time and candour”. Selena McCrikard, like the police, was not sure about Sokaluk’s intellectual capacity, and as part of her defence she uncovers a delayed diagnosis of autism, and a long and sad history of isolation, bullying and disadvantage. Brendan lives in his own squalid house, but his parents have tried to help him to be independent. He had worked in the gardening section at the local university, but his workmates distrusted and disliked him. It’s a pretty threadbare life.

Any sympathy evoked in Part II is put to the test in Part III ‘The Courtroom’, three years after the fires. Parallels spring to mind with Helen Garner, who has written several books based on court cases, but Hooper keeps her distance here, instead of writing herself into the story as Garner often does.  It is interesting to see fire expert Dr Kevin Tolhurst, who has appeared on our televisions and in our newspapers over the last few months, being hung out to dry in the court. The case lasted 23 days, and the jury deliberated for three days.

The book closes with a coda, when Hooper returns  to Churchill.  This is the second time she has been there, having visited it just a few days after Sokaluk was arrested. Returning to it after 2017 she found that the Hazelwood power station, the main employer in this economically depressed area, had been decommissioned after a series of suspicious fires had burnt the coalmine in 2014.  She closes her book with a reflection on fire and climate change. Arson cannot be stopped entirely, and “warmer summers in a changing climate will provide more opportunities for those drawn to lighting fires” (p. 240). The pylons that stretch from the LaTrobe Valley across Victoria, she notes, feed an electricity grid that was responsible for more deaths on Black Saturday than Brendan Sokaluk’s fire.

This is an elegantly written book, conveyed without the mental anguish and ethical turmoil that marks the work of Helen Garner, another non-fiction writer drawn to writing about crime and courthouses. Hooper does not try to pathologize Sokaluk: she leaves that to the courtroom experts.  Neither does she minimize the effect of Sokaluk’s actions on the people of Churchill. Instead, she leaves us with Shirley, who lost both her sons in the fire.  As in her earlier book, The Tall Man, Hooper peels back the layers of contemporary Australian society, and reminds us  – as if we have needed reminding this summer- that fire will continue (and even more) shape our view of ourselves as Australians.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2020

I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2020

‘Kathleen O’Connor of Paris’ by Amanda Curtin

Curtin_OConnor

2018, 320 p.

Look again at the title: that little preposition ‘of‘ is important. Artist Kathleen O’Connor was born in New Zealand; her family lived in Western Australia; she lived in Perth and Fremantle herself in old age, but she always saw herself as being “of” Paris. Paris was her artistic and spiritual home, and she was bound there by networks of friends and connections.  Drusilla Modjeska may have written about the sacrifice demanded of women artists in the 20th century in Stravinsky’s Lunch, but Kathleen O’Connor lived her artistic life very much on her own terms.

West Australian- based Amanda Curtin had written about Kathleen O’Connor previously. In 2011, the short story  ‘Paris bled into the Indian Ocean’ was published in a collection of Curtin’s  work. It was based on the legend that Kathleen O’Connor had returned to Australia in 1948, and enraged by the duty she had to pay to bring her own paintings back into the country, threw many of them into the ocean.  In the way that art does, this story and its evocative title spawned an art exhibition in 2014, where artist Jo Darvall responded with her own series of watery images.

As part of her research, Curtin was struck by photographs of Kathleen O’Connor taken at the age of 90 in 1967, where she glares defiantly at the photographer, her hair covered by a stylish scarf, just as the photograph on the front cover shows her in the 1920s.   Reading through a collection of letters to O’Connor held in the Battye Library in Perth, Curtin’s eye is drawn to a rather patronizing letter addressed to her, as a 36 year old woman resident in Europe, by John Winthrop Hackett, a highly respectable patriarch of Perth society,  “…what a brave girl you are to attempt to carve out you own destiny this way”.  Curtin snatches his put-down and brandishes it as an accolade, dubbing O’Connor  “Bravegirl”, a sobriquet she continues to deploy  throughout the book.

While she certainly broke with convention in remaining in Europe unchaperoned and making her own way in the Parisian art-scene, “Bravegirl” was facilitated by her family connections, even though it may not have seemed that way at times. She was the daughter of C. Y. O’Connor, the engineer who is best known for bringing water to the Western Australian Goldfields (fictionalized by Robert Drewe in The Drowner.) The Goldfields Pipeline was strongly criticized, probably prompting O’Connor’s suicide, but  the remaining O’Connor family stayed in Perth, and while not wealthy, did have entree into well-known families.  Compensation for C.Y. O’Connor’s death that the family received from the government helped to support Kathleen during her many years overseas.  However, she worked damned hard too, as seen in the huge number of paintings created during her career, now spread in private and public collections, and often re-named. The list of known exhibitions during Kathleen’s lifetime highlights her visibility, and she has been featured in a number of prominent exhibitions since her death.  And – I have to admit-  I had never heard of her.

Biographers often work hard to capture their subject’s childhood, but old age is often dismissed. Curtin has not baulked at following O’Connor’s life through to the end.O’Connor’s heart and identity might have been in Paris, but she spent many years as an older and increasingly frail woman in Western Australia.  ‘Bravegirl’ continued to paint, and while her world became smaller, she continued her interest in the art world.

The book is replete with pictures, including a series of colour illustrations in the middle of the volume.  I particularly liked the way that the works were located close to where they were discussed in the text, and she numbered the illustrations for easy reference. I was surprised by the muddied, ochred tones of her work, which to me speak more of a smoke-filled room in Europe, rather than any Australian connection.

Interestingly, the 733 footnotes at the back of the book are not divided by chapter – a rather curious approach that I have not seen used elsewhere. The footnotes reflect the deep research that Curtin has undertaken, spanning personal papers, newspapers, memoirs oral histories and interviews, as well as the secondary sources she has used to inform the context she provides so richly.

It’s not easy to know how to classify this book. My library shelves it with the Biographies, but it spills out of that category.  Curtin the author is very much present, and she often struggles again her fiction-writer sensibility, reminding herself that this is not fiction, and warning herself that she is embroidering and imagining. (It doesn’t stop her doing it, though). As with Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, this is a fiction writer wading through the waters of historical research.  Interlaced with her own reflections is  another rather oblique (and to my mind, unnecessary) set of reflections, set in the present day, as Curtin returns to Australia after farewelling a dying friend, probably the Debi to whom the book is dedicated.

I have mixed feelings about this amalgam of genres. When I first started writing my PhD, we were encouraged by some- not all- of our supervisors and other academics to be adventurous in our writing, and to break out of the conventions of thesis-writing (advice I did not follow, by the way). I have always admired the writing of historians in the ‘Melbourne School’  (Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening and more recently within the same tradition Tom Griffiths) and their combination of rigour and reflection.  I loved the biographer Richard Holmes’ Sidetracks and Footsteps:Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,  but some 20 years on, I’m wondering if the reflections of the biographer/ biography combination is becoming a little worn.  I, like all other historians, understand and also have felt the tedium, the intensity and the exhilaration of archive work, but I don’t know if it’s enough to hang a book on, especially after so many other people have done so beforehand.

Nonetheless, I value this book highly for bringing Kathleen O’Connor to increased prominence. Even more, the writing and evocation of place and nuance of character in Curtin’s writing, tempts me to seek out her fictional work. There, she won’t have to resist imagination or constantly wrest her work from conjecture.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2020

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

 

‘The Shelf Life of Zora Cross’ by Cathy Perkins

perkins_zora_cross

2019, 243 p & notes.

“Twenty pounds and you shall have her” and thus were the publishing rights for Songs of Love and Life transferred from a small self-publishing bookshop to that of the publishing behemoth, Angus and Robertson in 1917.  This book of sixty erotic love-sonnets was to become a literary sensation, going through three reprints and selling a respectable 4000 copies. Its author,  27 year old Zora Cross, wrote about love and sensuality from a woman’s perspective – something shocking in 1917.  Norman Lindsay, the artist whose own work abounds with nudes,  refused to illustrate the book, saying that women couldn’t write erotic poetry because their ‘spinal column’ was not connected to their ‘productive apparatus’. He did, however, condescend to provide a mythologized front cover which, to my eye, has nothing like the impact of an alternative cover design of  a bedroom scene with a present-day man talking off his coat, with his lover covering him with kisses.

But the sale of the publishing rights, and the choice of front cover and illustrator were not in the hands of this young, barely-published author. This book, which is a biography of the now-forgotten Zora Cross, is also an exploration of the Australian writing and publishing scene of the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. I had flutters of half-formed recognition of many of the names in this book, and the author has used them as anchors in each of the chapters that move roughly chronologically through Zora Cross’ life.  As Cathy Perkins writes:

I set out to write a conventional biography, but I was drawn to an idea of a life that was made of up relationships. Each of Zora’s relationships shows a different side of her personality and each has its own tensions. (p. xii)

The opening chapter, then, is subtitled Ethel Turner, who as well as the author of the much-loved (by me!) Seven Little Australians, also wrote the children’s page in The Australian Town and Country Journal. Children would send in their contributions and letters (I remember doing the same to ‘Corinella’ in the Sun during the 1960s) and ‘Zora Cross of Pie Creek Road Gympie’ was a frequent contributor. When she grew too old for the children’s page, she finally met her mentor in person.

Ethel Turner suggested that she try her luck with the Lone Hand, the sister publication to the Bulletin, and thus Cross started up a rather fervent correspondence with the editor, Bertram Stevens, who features in Chapter 2. In this chapter we learn of Cross’s employment as a school teacher and her strange, short marriage to fellow-student Stuart Smith, with whom she had a child who died soon after birth.  Pregnant again to an unnamed father in 1913, Cross travelled northern Queensland with a theatre company, and became editor to the small Bohemian newspaper of arts and social news.

She also wrote poetry for the Bulletin, and it was through this connection that Norman Lindsay, for whom Chapter 3 is titled, was asked to provide the artwork for Songs of Love and Life.  It was published by George Robertson, who features in Chapter 4, who carefully oversaw the sales and  reviews of the books under his imprint.  She wrote copious letters to him, too, and on the walls of his office he had a copy of the beautiful portrait that graces the front cover of this book. However, despite his success with Songs of Love and Life, he declined to publish other manuscripts of Cross’, along with the manuscripts of many other women writers who were to go to fame including Katherine Susannah Prichard, M. Barnard Eldershaw and Christina Stead.

She achieved success writing about the losses incurred in WWI, in Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy written in tribute to her brother John Skyring Cross (Jack), who is explored in Chapter 5. He died of illness after being injured on the Western Front.  In 1919, George Robertson asked his assistant, Rebecca Wiley, to go on a month’s holiday with Zora, who was feeling run-down. Chapter 6, named for Rebecca Wiley, explores the often tense relationship between these two women, especially once Zora had shifted to Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains with her partner, Bulletin editor David McKee Wright, who features in Chapter 7. They never married because David was still married to his previous wife, and she was pregnant to another man when they partnered. They had two daughters together, and David legally adopted her son. He died suddenly in 1928.

Now widowed, Cross continued to write, especially for the Australian Woman’s Mirror, an offshoot of the Bulletin which predated the still-extant Australian Women’s Weekly. Chapter 8, subtitled ‘Bernice May’ refers to her pen-name in much of the writing she did for ‘women’s pages’ . After falling out with George Robertson, she embarked on a series of interviews with fellow women poets and novelists for the Mirror, including Jean Devanny, Eleanor Dark, Dulcie Deamer, and Mary Gilmore.  A long-standing presence in Cross’s life was John Le Gay Brereton, Chapter 9, a friend of Henry Lawson, chief librarian and later professor of literature at the University of Sydney. His access to resources assisted her to write a series of books about Classical Rome, which were not well received (and sound pretty dire). As president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Brereton was a constant source of support when Cross made frequent, and generally successful applications, for Commonwealth Literary Fund pensions and grants.   Another longstanding friend was Mary Gilmore (Chapter 10) who was punctilious in overseeing her bequest of papers to the Mitchell Library. She died in 1963 and a year later, Zora Cross died of a heart attack.

This is a very skillfully written biography, maintaining its chronological trajectory while using various friends and colleagues as a prism through which to explore Zora Cross’s personality and writing.  Cathy Perkins, the author,  who is the editor of SL magazine and other publications at the State Library of NSW inserts herself several times into the narrative, in her research and  advocacy for Zora Cross.  As well as a biography, the book explores the literary industry and the whole issue of literary presence after death. Perkins’ decision to use relationships as an organizing device emphasizes the interconnections between writers and publishers, something that is often invisible to the reader.

She captures well the breadth of Cross’ writing, and quotes generously from her unpublished works, without necessarily championing its sometimes rather dubious quality, leaving it instead up to the reader to decide.  She portrays Cross as a fully rounded character: unconventional mother and partner, hard-working, flirtatious, sometimes needy, mother, grandmother and community member. But most importantly, as a prolific and life-long writer, even if she has been -until this biography- completely unknown today.

My rating: 9/10 A really accomplished biography

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

aww2020

This is my first read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020