Australian Women writers #
There were many strong colonial women who made a new life for themselves and their families in the early years of Australia. Many had to take charge of their own affairs either because their husbands were improvident, absent or had died.
Mary Reibey was left with seven children and in entire control of numerous business concerns when her husband died. She was 24, a hotel-keeper, and involved the tough school of competition with American, Chinese and Indian traders.
Elizabeth Jurd’s husband died when she was 36, leaving her with nine children, the youngest seven months. She was among other strong, self-reliant and enterprising colonial women of her time like Elizabeth McArthur or Esther Abrahams.
Eliza Hamilton Dunlop #
Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.
About 28 Wirrayaraay people died in the massacre near Inverell in northern New South Wales. Dunlop had arrived in Sydney in February, and the Irish writer was horrified by the violence she read about in the newspapers.
Moved by evidence in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre, Dunlop crafted a poem condemning settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime. It read, in part:
Now, hush thee—or the pale-faced men
Will hear thy piercing wail,
And what would then thy mother’s tears
Or feeble strength avail!
Oh, could’st thy little bosom
That mother’s torture feel,
Or could’st thou know thy father lies
Struck down by English steel
The poem closed evoking the body of:
“my slaughter’d boy …
To tell—to tell of the gloomy ridge;
and the stockmen’s human fire”.
The graphic content depicting settler violence and First Nations’ suffering made Dunlop’s poem locally notorious. She didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press, declaring she hoped the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.
The Sydney Herald founded in 1831, tended to be a bit more on the side of constituted authority. The masthead’s early attitudes towards Australia’s original inhabitants “is a matter which the reader of today must find it hard to understand or to forgive”. (By 1841 it had become The Sydney Morning Herald)
In several editorials published before, during and after two Sydney trials in late 1838 relating to the massacre, the Herald essentially campaigned for the 11 accused mass murderers to escape prosecution. It also opposed the death sentence eventually handed to seven of the men.
This was not due to a lack of evidence or genuine doubts over the integrity of any legal process, but because the perpetrators were white and the dead black. In one editorial published ahead of the trials and amid a public debate about legal protections for Aboriginal people, the Herald proclaimed:
“The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly documents on which we have already wasted too much time.”
The same editorial said the colony did not want “savages” to exist.
“We have far too many of the murderous wretches about us already,” the editorial declared.
In another piece, the Herald encouraged readers to shoot and kill Aboriginal people if they ever felt threatened. The combined effect of the editorial approach helped support the proposition colonists should be entitled to impunity for violence against Aboriginal people.
Following the recent Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese observed that we have lived through a silence, a long tide of denial gnawing away at our spirit.
“We have to come to grips with the past because a country that does not acknowledge the full truth of its history is burdened by its unspoken weight,”
In 2023, The Sydney Morning Herald offered a full honorable apology:
The Herald has a long and proud history of telling the Australian story. But on Myall Creek, the truth is we failed dismally.
A code of silence hid the mass killing of Indigenous people. Now that code has been broken
Dunlop often wrote about the Irish diaspora in poems which were alternatively nostalgic and political. But she also brought her knowledge of the violence and divisiveness of colonisation, religion and ethnicity to her writing on Australia. Her optimistic vision for Australian poetry encouraged colonial readers to be attentive to their environment and to recognise Indigenous culture. This reputation for sympathising with Indigenous people — and her husband’s arguments with settlers in Penrith about the treatment of Catholic convicts — were widely criticised in the press.
This affected David’s career as police magistrate and Aboriginal Protector: he was soon moved to a remote location. There, too, local landholders campaigned against his appointment and undermined his authority.
She wrote a suite of Indigenous-themed poems in the 1840s, publishing poems in newspapers such as The Eagle Chief (1843) or Native Poetry/Nung-ngnun (1848). These poems were criticised by anonymous letter writers, questioning her poetic ability, her knowledge and her choice of subject.
Some critics were frankly racist, refusing to accept the human emotions expressed by Dunlop’s Indigenous narrators.
The Sydney Herald had railed against the death sentences of the men responsible for the Myall Creek massacre, and Dunlop condemned the attitude of the paper and its correspondents. She hoped “the time was past, when the public press would lend its countenance to debase the native character, or support an attempt to shade with ridicule”.
Dunlop would publish with one outlet before shifting to another, finding different editors in the volatile colonial press who would support her.
Dunlop as the first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture.
Dunlop died in 1880. Like many women of the time, her writing was neglected and forgotten, until it was rediscovered by the literary critic and editor Elizabeth Webby in the 1960s.
Webby identified Dunlop as the first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture. Webby published the first collection of Dunlop’s poems in 1981.
Today, communities and linguists regularly use Dunlop’s transcripts for language reclamation projects in the Upper Hunter Valley.
The full poem:
THE ABORIGINAL MOTHER #
By Eliza Hamilton Dunlop First published in The Australian 13 December 1838
Oh! Hush thee – hush my baby,
I may not tend thee yet,
Our forest-home is distant far,
And midnight’s star is set.
Now, hush thee – or the pale faced men
Will hear thy piercing wail,
And what would then thy mother’s tears
Or feeble strength avail!
Oh, could’st thy little bosom,
That mother’s torture feel,
Or could’st thou know thy fathers lies
Struck down by English steel;
Thy tender form would wither,
Like the kniven in the sand,
And the spirit of my perished tribe
Would vanish from our land.
For thy young life, my precious,
I fly the field of blood,
Else had I, for my chieftan’s sake,
Defied them where they stood;
But basely bound my woman’s arm,
No weapon might it wield:
I could but cling round him I loved,
To make my heart a shield.
I saw my firstborn treasure
Lie headless at my feet,
The goro on his hapless breast, half human/dragon
In his life-stream is wet!
And thou! I snatched thee from their sword,
It harmless pass’d by thee!
But clave the binding cords – and gave,
Haply, the power to flee.
To flee! My babe – but wither!
Without my friend – my guide!
The blood that was our strength is shed!
He is not by my side!
Thy sire! Oh! Never, never
Shall Toon Bakra hear our cry: derogative term for white man
My bold and stately mountain-bird!
I thought not he could die.
Now who will teach thee, dearest,
To poise the shield, and spear,
To wield the koopin, or to throw
The boommerring, void of fear;
To breast the river in its might;
The mountain tracks to tread?
The echoes of my homeless heart
Reply – the dead, the dead!
And ever must the murmur
Like an ocean torrent flow:
The parted voice comes never back,
To cheer our lonely woe:
Even in the region of our tribe,
Beside our summer streams,
‘Tis but a hollow symphony –
In the shadow-land of dreams.
Oh hush thee, dear – for weary
And faint I bear thee on –
His name is on thy gentle lips,
My child, my child, he’s gone!
Gone o’er the golden fields that lie
Beyond the rolling clouds,
To bring thy people’s, murder cry
Before the Christian’s God.
Yes! O’er the stars that guide us,
He brings my slaughter’d boy:
To shew their God how treacherously
The stranger men destroy;
To tell how hands in friendship pledged
Piled high the fatal pire;
To tell, to tell of the gloomy ridge!
And the stockmen’s human fire.
Eliza Hamilton Dunlop Writing from the Colonial Frontier, edited by Anna Johnston and Elizabeth Webby, Sydney University Press.
Australia has some of the world’s best writers, including women.
The first novel in Australia was published by a woman, The Guardian. A Tale by ‘An Australian’ in Sydney in 1838, fifty years after white settlement.
Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Richardson), Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner and Nettie Palmer, colonial writers, who stood apart from the governing myths of blokes, bush and The Bulletin.
Helen Garner said of Baynton:
“she knows the landscape, with its bleak terrors and its occasional beauties. She has observed with a merciless eye the dull stupidity and squalor that poverty brings”.
Michael McGirr claims a biography of the four writers
“serves a culture that wants to believe the past was a simple place and the struggles of the present are something new”.
Louisa Lawson #
Patricia Grimshaw, The University of Melbourne wrties:
Louisa Lawson was an outstanding leader in the campaign for women’s right in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In 1887 she bought the Republican and with her son Henry edited and wrote most of the paper’s copy. In 1888 she established the Dawn, a journal devoted to women’s concerns that continued publication until 1905. In May 1889 Louisa launched the campaign for female suffrage and announced the formation of the Dawn Club where women could meet to discuss reform questions and gain experience in public speaking. After the franchise was won Lawson continued to promote law reform and the extension of women’s work opportunities. She died in 1920.
For Henry Lawson’s take on colonial women see: https://nebo-lit.com/novel/lawson/feminism-in-lawson.html
The young Katherine Mansfield, struggling with her alarming attraction to women, wrote to a friend in 1909 that thinking about Wilde had led to “fits of madness” like those that drove him to “his ruin and his mental decay.”
Ada Cambridge #
Ada Cambridge emigrated to Australia in 1870 after she married her curate husband, George Cross, who was “committed to colonial service”.
Thy love I am. Thy wife I cannot be,
To wear the yoke of servitude — to take
Strange, unknown fetters that I cannot break
On soul and flesh that should be mine, and free.
Better the woman’s old disgrace for me
Than this old sin — this deep and dire mistake;
Better for truth and honour and thy sake —
For the pure faith I give and take from thee.
I know thy love, and love thee all I can —
I fain would love thee only till I die;
But I may some day love a better man,
And thou may’st find a fitter mate than I;
Some want, some chill, may steal ’twixt heart and heart.
And then we must be free to kiss and part.
This is a powerful anti-establishment sonnet espousing ideas not widely expressed in public in those days. It begins a tradition of questioning later echoed by Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood and many others.
Cambridge’s poems reflect:
• Indignation at social and sexual injustice.
• Longing for love and sexual expression.
• Exploration of motherhood, fear, death
• Voiced the agony of innocence to maturity.
• Challenged conventions and orthodox thinking.
• Protested against imposition of values from above.
• Questioned all hypocrisies of conventional marriage.
• Raised the possibility of divorce and re-marriage.
• Advocated for the poor and women.
• Expresses freedom for women in a male dominated society.
• Gave voice to passion and rebelliousness in a direct manner.
• Allows women to talk openly from the heart to asset her views.
The tradition of narratives of unhappy, unfaithful women: Madame Bovary (1856), The Awakening (1899), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), The Bride Stripped Bare (2003).
Henrik Ibsen’s plays, especially, A Doll’s House, emphasizes that everyone in suffers under the binding ties of patriarchy.
Strindberg (Swedish – 1874) also wrote about sex with absolute realism, dramatising the compound of love, hate, fury and desire that characterises random couplings and permanent relationships. If Ibsen caught the tensions of the night before, Strindberg revealed the acrid taste of the morning after.
The Stella Prize has shown that feminist activism in the literary sector can work. At its outset, in 2013, it drew attention to the lack of women on prize shortlists.
There is also courage in representing women who manifestly do not “keep it together” in their roles as mothers, partners, and friends, or who “let themselves go” in terms of not maintaining the forms of bodily or emotional control society expects of them. To read these works is to be gripped and compelled: they will stay with you.
Dame Mary Gilmore 1865 - 1962 #
Memorialised on the Ten dollar note, Mary Gilmore was a socialis t who advocated for a more humane Australia. She supported William Lane’s venture to establish a Utopian socialist settlement in Paraguay.
From the Women’s Page of the Worker, Gilmore aired her grievances and launched a wide range of campaigns for social and economic change. Aligning herself with the cause of Aboriginal rights and the plight of the working man, she became a voice for outcasts and the socially disadvantaged. A feminist, she also championed equal status for women and improved health care for children and expectant mothers.
Her signature poem was Australia
Bad Art Mother #
by Edwina Preston
The figure of Veda Gray, the mother of this novel’s title, draws from many female artists across history who have produced art in the face of a social structure that makes it very difficult to do so.
Aspects of her story echo that of Australian poet Gwen Harwood, who found it impossible to get her poetry published under her own name, but remarkably easy under a male pseudonym.
In her anger, Harwood published a sonnet that said, when read acrostically: FUCK ALL EDITORS. Veda undertakes a similar protest, but with devastating personal impact.
Like Harwood, Veda writes poetry about aspects of women’s daily lives in housework and caregiving that are considered unworthy of poetry by male gatekeepers. Veda is unruly, in disarray, a “bad mother” who makes a difficult bargain with a rich couple to share care of her son. She is joined in an evocatively detailed world of restaurants and art in 1960s Melbourne by a cast of other women artists whose brilliance finds varied paths to light.
Preston uses Veda, and the narrating figure of her son Owen, to think about the choices women have to make – now as in the past – between their own creative achievement and what society expects of them as mothers and wives.
Judith Wright #
Writes about early Australia, the environment, indigenous Australians and being a woman. See:
Rosemary Dobson #
Rosemary Dobson was a painter and a poet, during one of the most contentious periods of Australia’s cultural wars; modernism and conservatism, and nativist or European traditionalism. While she accepted the invigorating and energy of the modernists, she preferred “order, discipline, spareness, and reserve”.
Gwen Harwood #
Harwood, is an Australian poet born Gwendoline Foster, in Brisbane in 1920. She claims to have had a happy childhood, strongly maternal, with close relationships with her great grandmother, grandmother, mother, daughter and granddaughter - “a wild daughter of a line of independent women”.
The #MeToo movement gave us a greater appetite for women’s writing and women’s point of view. However, if we naively believe all women are better, then men, simply because they are women, we are in for a great disappointment. If women don’t recognise this, they may not be recognised by men.
Thea Astley #
• Toni Jordan is an Australian novelist writes about Astley’s novel The Acolyte
Thea Astley sees Australians with her clear, killer eye. The Acolyte is about art and genius and fear and self-consciousness and the folly of pomposity, but I’ll close on what reading it did for me. It let me wallow in the playfulness and cruelty and subtext and layers of those smallest units of expression. It made my view into a microscope, when until then I was reading as though seeing landscape from an aeroplane window. The Acolyte made me fall in love with words again.
Henry Handel Richardson #
Henry Handel Richardson – The Fortunes of Richard Mahony - Australia Felix helped to put Australia on the literary map.
Of Henry Handel Richardson’s Ultima Thule The Sydney Mail, recognised the almost unanimous praise that English authoritative critics heaped on this great Australian novel, but added anyone who takes up this book expecting to read anything typically Australian will be grievously disappointed. The unrelieved gloom permeated by blank despair does not reflect the happiness and humour beneath our sun.
Published: April 9, 2014 Paul Giles Professor, Challis Chair of English, University of Sydney
The American novelist John Updike had once said to him the one Australian novel that could be found on every American library shelf when he was growing up was Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, published over 12 years in the early 20th century. Malouf expressed some puzzlement as to what Americans might have found especially interesting in this epic trilogy chronicling the fortunes of an Irish emigrant to Australia during the gold rush, and since I had not at that time read Richardson’s work I had little to contribute to the conversation. I subsequently consumed the saga – 909 pages in the Penguin edition – and was awestruck by the expansive scope of Richardson’s imaginative world. The story also struck me as having a direct relation to the American epic tradition, of which it works in some ways as a sophisticated parody. Published originally as three separate novels in 1917, 1925 and 1929, and then as a trilogy in 1930, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is essentially a 20th-century rewriting of a 19th-century historical novel. It takes the theme of the self-made man, the characteristically Victorian trope of a picaresque hero which American fiction reconfigured as the Horatio Alger prototype, and subjects it to the ironies of modernism in an alternative Australian framework.
There are, in effect, multiple displacements at work throughout the narrative: Mahony’s passage from Dublin to Edinburgh to England to Australia (and, intermittently, back again) is matched by a formal displacement of the traditional Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, into a more ambiguous, enigmatic realm of psychological interiority.
The representation of Mahony’s thoughts in Richardson’s text owes something to the stream-of-consciousness idiom that was being developed in the 1920s by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
In this sense, Richardson’s innovative narrative method dismantles Victorian assumptions in style as well as substance. Mahony’s “black Irish pride” and the fact “his nature had a twist to it” serve to hollow out assumptions of linear teleology and epic consummation.
There is a random quality to Mahony’s fortunes in Australia: his destiny is shaped not so much by the accumulation of economic fortunes but by ups and downs dispensed by the whimsical goddess Fortuna, with Mahony contemplating how nothing was “fixed and settled” in Australia, and how “fortunes here were made, and lost, and made again, before you could say Jack Robinson”.
Hence Richardson appropriates Australia to map a new relation to the novelistic genre more generally, one where contingency rather than character becomes the dominant strain. Being “led blindfold along a road that was not of his own choosing,” the eponymous hero moves across this trilogy apparently at the mercy of various irrational but compulsive forces that lead him into “giving up home after home”.
Richardson accordingly advances a quizzical critique of what the idea of “home” might mean, something that involves a modernist demystification of the stable sequences of the Victorian serial novel, such as we see in George Eliot or Anthony Trollope, with the author here using the relatively uncharted territory of Australia to map a new relation to the novelistic genre more generally.
Another kind of displacement in this novel involves the kind of gender reversal that becomes evident towards the end of the saga, when Richard’s wife, Mary, becomes his nurse and carer, as the ruined paterfamilias is left slumbering “as a child on its mother’s breast”.
It also traces overlaps between economic and mental depression, with the family’s fluctuations in fortune impacting upon “the dark side of their married life”.
Although Richardson’s novel encompasses the traditional epic architecture – chronicling a society’s development over time through its sequence of family births and deaths – it also, through the systematic nature of such metaphoric reversals, interrogates conventional understandings of temporal and generational evolution. Mahony’s “inborn contrariness” is reflected in Richardson’s epic mode – which is regressive as much as progressive.
And while the novel is perceptive about class and ethnic stratifications in Ballarat and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century, it also gains in resonance by comparing these societies directly to the “medieval provincialism” of village life in England, described here as a “slow-thinking, slow-moving country,” as well as to “that Eldorado of thieves and scoundrels, America”.
One of the reasons The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is an Australian epic is that it does not just focus on Australia, but self-consciously juxtaposes the contours of this country against those of other national formations.
Charmian Clift #
Some literary couples share success – to a point. Though possessive of the table, Niland encouraged Park to write Harp in the South. Wheatley notes of Clift-Johnston: “one of the common misconceptions about the relationship was that Charmian was perennially jealous of George’s output and success.”
Similarly, Wheatley recounts that Johnston “recognised [his wife] as a fellow writer, and indeed for many years he even publicly acknowledged that by literary standards she was a better writer than he was.”
If kids come along, things get more fraught. Pregnant again in 1948, with her first child only seven months old, Clift was frustrated. She and Johnston had just won a Sydney Morning Herald novel prize for their collaboration, High Valley. Clift recalled: At this point I should have taken wings and started to fly but […] I was involved in having children […] I think those are terribly difficult years for any young woman and for a young woman who wants to write or paint or anything else, even more so. After they moved to Kalymnos in 1954, she gratefully paid a local woman to help. She did the same on Hydra, when their third child was born on the island. Later, back in Australia, Clift applied for a literary grant for “domestic help”.
Something has to give – and it’s the housework or childcare, not writing, if they can afford it.
Peel Me a Lotus did not have its first Australian publication until a decade later, when it was occasioned by Clift’s suicide in 1969, aged 46.
Germaine Greer #
Germaine grew up in a difficult home in Melbourne with a distant unknowable father, scarred by the war and a frustrated unfulfilled unhappy mother. She was a brilliant student gaining a degree in literature from Melbourne Uni (Chris Wallis Crabbe and others), where she became captivated by Shakespeare, who she claims “doesn’t tell us anything; he makes us think.”
She gained her Masters from Sydney where she got caught up in The Push, a bohemian libertarian movement that challenged all authority. Other member included John Anderson, a Philosophy professor, Professor John Anderson, who founded the Australian Realism school of empirical thought. Roelof Smilde, member of Sydney Push, professional punter and bridge master, Barry Humphries, Robert Hughes, Clive James, Germaine Greer and many others.
Like many other Australians, she fled to Britain in the sixties where she took a PhD from Cambridge.
Rachel Buchanan, Curator, Germaine Greer Archive, University of Melbourne Archives, writes that:
The Greer who wrote The Female Eunuch was a phoenix, but that flaming bird could not exist without its counter, the stabilising, harmonising, quiet, steadfast turtledove. “Dr G” – the rockstar groupie, the cunt power shocker, the TV host – was the loudmouth partner of Dr Greer, the academic.
Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor in Media, University of Notre Dame Australia, writing for The Conversation claimed that Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch changed lives.
The Female Eunuch told women the project of emancipation had stalled. Freedom would not be wrested from a process of reform, by “genteel, middle-class women” sitting on committees or signing petitions. To grasp their freedom, “ungenteel” women would need to “call for revolution”, “disrupt society” and “unseat God”.
Indeed, “marriage, the family, private property, and the state” were in the firing line.
Greer urged women to think beyond the stereotype patriarchal society had created for them, which limited their capacity to act. She likened the situation of the 1970s woman to that of a bird “made for captivity”.
“The cage door had been opened but the canary had refused to fly out,” Greer wrote. “The conclusion was that the cage door ought never to have been opened because canaries are made for captivity; the suggestion of an alternative had only confused and saddened them.”
Women, she wrote, needed to “discover that they have a will”.
Greer was recently interviewed by David Wenham on ABC’s One on One.
“You used to rail aganist this country as a cultural wasteland; outdated geb=nder roles and deadening suburbs.”
Greer: “I loath the suburbs. I spent twenty-five years trying to get out of the suburbs, but we will always dream of the skies of home.”
Helen Garner #
The New Yorker, October 2023, acknowledged Helen Garner as one of Australia’s most beloved writers, Garner—who has published novels, nonfiction, and three volumes of diaries—is finally catching on in the U.S., according to its headline: The Startling Candor of Helen Garner.
Amanda Lohrey #
Julieanne Lamond of Australian National University, writes on the intellectual fearlessness, politics and the spiritual impulse of the remarkable career of Amanda Lohrey whose husband Andrew was for many years a Tasmanian Member of Parliament.
The Morality of Gentlemen courageously captures the entanglement of personal desire, ideological commitment and institutional constraint that I saw in the daily experience of politics. The intellectual fearlessness takes up a common way of doing, saying or thinking about something and baldly asks: why?
Amanda Lohrey was born in Hobart on 13 April 1947 and grew up on its working-class waterfront. She tells Charlotte Wood:
I was raised by men for the first five or six years of my life. My mother worked and the men in my family were shift workers. So often during the day I was looked after by my father – which meant he just carted me around wherever he wanted to go. The pub, the bookmaker’s club, the wharf – there was no concession.
This was a childhood in which clashing narratives about the world and how it worked were part of daily life. The 1950s was a period of intense ideological and religious conflict in Australia, with a failed referendum to ban communism in 1951 and massive division between Left and Right in the Australian Labor Party, leading to a split, with Catholic anti-communist members breaking off into the Democratic Labour Party. It was a period of McCarthyist sentiment in Australia that Lohrey witnessed first hand.
I copped it from both sides. You’d get a set of stories at home and a set of stories at school and they didn’t quite match up. You start shuffling the variables around and in the end you come up with your own story.
A Catholic education
Her contribution on Catholic childhoods focuses on sexuality with a determination to be clear and straightforward in the face of the elisions and fearful paraphrasings that sex was met with in her own education.
It begins with usual forthrightness to discuss her earliest memories of masturbation. In the face of being constantly called to account for any perceived impurity or sin, Lohrey recounts a feeling not of shame
“but of a privileged naughtiness, something which was a desirable secret from the adult world and which belonged to a whole repertoire of special pleasures”, containing “a feeling of excitement, of discovery and, above all, of independence”.
Characteristically, she uses this topic of masturbation not to think about her own experience but, rather, for what it reveals about the reasons for Catholics and other repressive institutions to so insistently police it:
“power and autonomy are the last things that such people can afford to let a child have”.
Lohrey’s account is vivid in detailing the absurdities of such acts of policing: the icy-faced Mother Imelda, unable to name the deed but nonetheless attempting to entice nine-year-old Amanda to admit to it. Amanda responded by returning her stare, unblinking.
But this account also considers the longer term impacts of this constant surveillance and being called to account: a distrust of authority, of friends, and a “defensive distrust of other women”:
Apart from my mother it is always men who give me support and encouragement, who tell me I am clever and give me books to read. My grandfather gives me A Short History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), my uncle, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. The women tell me that I am untidy, that my hair is a mess, that my body is suspect and my attitude unladylike.
These experiences suggest why Lohrey writes in such searching detail about masculine subjectivity. They also explain her umbrage at suggestions that she writes about masculine worlds she could not possibly understand. Lohrey was constantly warned about “reading [herself] out of the church” when caught reading Freud, Stekel and Marx, although the latter was a bit confounding: what was this word “bourgeois” that seemed to crop up in every second sentence but couldn’t be found in my dictionary?
At fourteen, she escaped Catholic school and enrolled at the local grammar school, “a transition unheard of at that time and one subject to excommunication”. The relief was immense:
I felt as if I’d been let out of the madhouse. There was no battleground of seething sub-texts.
At the end of A Work in Progress, Lohrey recalls being in Venice in 1983, and on a whim deciding to enter an 18th-century church and light a candle to the Virgin. She enters and “instantly recoils” at the images on its walls, feeling physical revulsion.
Nothing is there. There is nothing in the church for me and nothing in me to connect with it. It was a fantasy, a desire to recover a lost innocence, a childlike faith in irrational possibility.
Nonetheless, writes Lohrey, the “spiritual impulse remains. Desire. The need to embrace the world.”
This impulse remains an enduring interest in her fiction.This impulse remains an enduring interest in her fiction.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was well aware, and critical, of the rise of the “women’s novel”, which privileged female subjectivity and in which
“characters are defined by their feelings for themselves and others close to them, rather than as social actors who are significantly related to public events or issues”.
The Liberated Heroine: New Varieties of Defeat? is a long review-essay published in Meanjin in 1979, considering novels by Marilyn French, Erica Jong, Alison Lurie and Joan Didion, and it lays out Lohrey’s views on the emerging genre of American women’s fiction.
The essay takes its reader on an erudite consideration of the forms of agency available to women across literary history. Lohrey traces the figure of the woman attempting to escape her conditioning from George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke to Henry James’ Isabel Archer and Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood. For each of these characters, the result is “some form of defeat”.
The nature of the success available to women in fiction and in reality is a live question for Lohrey. One of the books under review is Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life (1977), a novel of sexual adventure which ends in a romantic relationship. Taking issue with Diana Trilling’s reading of this ending as a failure, Lohrey asks:
What would constitute “victory”? Running for Congress? A life alone? Is the need/desire for an intense emotional commitment necessarily unliberated? Is it not the coupling but the mode in which the relationship is conducted thereafter, on a day-to-day basis, that adds up to victory or defeat?
She is always aware of how personal desires – for fulfilment, self-knowledge, freedom – are shaped by institutions and communal connections.
She has been subject to little scholarly attention. Until The Labyrinth, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary award for fiction in 2021, none of her novels have sold in high numbers.
Lohrey writes about how women writers had struggled to establish the domestic sphere as a “legitimate” and “serious” focus of ambitious writing, every bit as important as war or bullfighting.
This is most explicit in The Morality of Gentlemen, which is clearly influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s theories of estrangement or alienation. Early in Lohrey’s career, she described this in Brechtian terms as short-circuiting emotional identifications,
“whereby you disorient the audience through a series of devices that destabilize the realist or naturalist conventions of what has come before. One thing you can do, for example, is destabilize the point of view.”
Like Wharton, Lohrey uses fiction to investigate what a particular society at a particular time can do to a person. Both writers trace how financial constraints (especially debt) structure affective experience and interpersonal relationships. In the many shifts of perspective across Lohrey’s novels an interest becomes apparent not just in society but in consciousness.
Lohrey’s novels spoke to me in the late 1990s as a young woman working out whether to devote her career to politics or to literature, showing me how imbricated the two can be. Reading them as her career progressed, they have spoken to me again and differently: about masculinity and its effects, the relationship between human and non-human worlds, and how to survive disasters both personal and broader scale.
This is an edited version of the introduction to Lohrey by Julieanne Lamond (Melbourne University Press).
Nikki Gemmel #
Nikki Gemmell is the bestselling author of 13 novels and four works of non-fiction. She and husband Andy have four children.
She writes refreshingly openly and honestly about life, especially our sexuality.
When Nikki Gemmell suffered her first heartbreak, the kind of which feels like you will never recover her Dad said, ‘Nikki, it will take you three years to get over this and then you’ll walk on and not look back’.
Like Lady Havisham, Nikki was jilted at the altar.
It took about three years to start falling in love with other people and I didn’t really look back. It took three years to feel as though I was loveable again.
The Bride Stripped Bare is a 2003 novel written by the Australian writer Nikki Gemmell, originally published anonymously. The title is borrowed from the painting The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even by Marcel Duchamp.
A woman disappears, leaving behind an incendiary diary chronicling a journey of sexual awakening. To all who knew her, she was the good wife: happy, devoted, content. But the diary reveals a secret self, one who’s discovered that her new marriage contains mysteries of its own.
Nikki Gemmel said that she “loved the idea of writing a book that dived under the surface of a woman’s life, a seemingly contentedly married woman, and explored her secret world-with ruthless honesty”. The act of writing the work anonymously, she has described as “liberating”.
Alicia Simmonds, writing for the Conversation writes:
The law tends to assume that intimates don’t intend to create legal relations. Women are not economically and socially dependent on marriage as they once were, and a failed relationship does not relegate women to the status of damaged goods. Courtship is now defined by love, choice, physical desire and mutual negotiation, rather than by contractual legal obligation.
Fuelled by dating apps that promise a new partner by simply swiping right on your phone, fantasies of romantic plenitude have replaced legal regimes of punishment. Yet people continue to experience injury, be it financial, emotional or bodily, when intimate promises are broken, and the discovery of deceit in relationships can be life-altering.
Joanna Murray Smith #
Joanna Murray Smith is an up and coming playwright. She comments Writers are mysteries to themselves, constantly trying to solve the mystery through invented characters and scenarios.
Smith notes that we’re seeing a seismic social shift. There are certainly people – actors in particular – who have gotten away with murder (unwanted sexual harassment) for years and years and years. Because there’s a kind of charisma attached to them.
That said, she wants to see a more nuanced conversation about the issues.
“What worries me, which is controversial, is that if there isn’t enough subtlety applied to gradations of bad behaviour – if a pat on the bum is put in the same league as serious assault, there’ll be a big backlash,” she says. “Women should still hold on to some agency in terms of dealing with minor, irritating and impertinent behaviour by men.
When Catherine Deneuve came out and said,
‘It’s taken all the fun away’ … it’s controversial, but a part of me agreed … I like men flirting with me, flirt away, please do.”
We are all sexual beings and any attempts to suppress this inherent need, usually ends up as perversion or hypocrisy.
Much better an open acknowledgement of our sexual demands. Mature adults openly banter about our innate attraction to each other.
Women too make advances. It is better to be honest than to pretend it doesn’t exist. Only surreptitious, clandestine, furtive or coercive approaches should arouse suspicion and condemnation.
Any open advances should be dealt with appropriately – graciously declined or gratefully accepted. No need for damaging, demeaning and humiliating allegations, unless they persist with unwelcome advances, these need to be reported, acted upon with as much force as possible.
If not, let’s just all grow up and live in the real world.
Ceridwen Dovey #
Educated in an South Africa primary school, High School in Australia, Universities in America and South Africa, studying Social Anthropology and Visual & Environmental Studies. Dovey made documentaries that highlighted the relationships between farmers and rural labourers in post-apartheid South Africa. Dovey returned to South Africa to study creative writing at the University of Cape Town. then did her graduate studies in Social Anthropology at New York University. She moved back to Sydney, Australia in 2010 spending five years working at UTS on sustainable futures, but her secret passion – what she calls her “guilty pleasure” is writing. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children.
Some write to expose and confront reality. Ceridwen Dovey, born in 1980, a émigré from South Africa claims we write to make sense of our world, to understand our origins, our values and influences. Sometimes we write to escape the grip of the past. In describing writing as a “guilty pleasure”, Ceridwen expresses an appreciation to her audience for reading her work.
Dovey exudes a cosmopolitan air with a modest unassuming demeanour demonstrated by this observation:
“We express ourselves to excavate our past to acknowledge and expiate our complicity with the randomness of life; to dispel wilful amnesia, to deal with or reckon with the secret guilt of our good fortune.”
Hilary Mantel describes the writer’s role to excavate the past to find what historians have hidden.
We are always coming to terms with the past by animating the present, by constantly changing he narrative of history. Influenced by Freud’s theories of suppression, we need to cannabalise history, accounting for different wrong doing.
Dovey questions whether Americans are constitutionally bound to believe in clean slates, to worship the promised freedoms of the future rather than think too hard about the tyrannies of the past. (72)
She uses the analogy of archaeology to demonstrate that in excavating our past, we need to do it delicately, with scalpels and brushes, not mammoth earth moving equipment, so as to not destroy valuable evidence. It is through the various excavations of the past 250 years, that credible and reliable evidence of the past has been discovered.
The excavated city of Pompeii reveals rich detailed mosaics of the violent passions - unspeakable desires betwen the mortals and the immortals. There are several contrasting versions of Leda and the Swan, some depicting it as consensual incarnation, while others as bestial rape following aggressive overtures leading to sexual assault. This ambivalence and ambiguity makes it difficult to interpret.
The Garden of the Fugitives
The Garden of the Fugitives, an epistemological novel, becomes a duel between two correspondents, that we, the reader, eavesdrop on, like prurient voyeurs.
The novel depicts an older professor, corresponding with a younger former pupil, excavating the layers of the past and navigating her place in the universe.
Dovey is consciously aware of her artistic creation. Solitary writers write to a solitary reader. To be honest they must recall and invent; to free themselves enough to surrender to imaginative possibilities, however, delicately avoiding self-deception and denial.
The title refers to thirteen casts of fugitives made by pouring plaster into the archaeological cavities left by decaying bodies attempting to flee the lava from the eruption of Pompei in 79 AD. It was the only time a group of bodies had been preserved as they lay where they had died. .. some of the bodies showed facial expressions and occasionally finer details of clothing and jewelry. (88)
Dovey speculates on the lives of archaeologists; who are not so much interested in living people, rather in the dead, through the dry slow methods of piecing together the fragments of the past. Many appeared estranged from their own families. Perhaps we dig to fill the void. (97)
Ceridwin has Kitty say on the past: “letting the past remain peculiar, rather than forcing it to become relatable. ..ancient people seem fathomless to us. Over the centuries the key to unlock the truth of how they lived has been lost…. Artefacts were more like pieces of alien matter dropped from outer space. (149)
Her tutor challenged Kitty “not to get too worked up about our natural desire to connect with the humans of the past – was it not a good thing to look for common ground? Had we not learned by now the dangers of distancing other cultures….believing them to be less human?”
“Relativism is essential for people who have to share time and space. We are all one, all essentially the same. Yet for people who do not have to share the earth in the same timeframe – relativism is not useful. It disrespects them and us and generations in between who have given their lives to change what humans are and can be, and how life is expected to be led. The more we uncover through excavating, the more we obscure.One way of seeing can be mistaken for the only way of seeing. Freud said, ‘the stones speak!’ But they don’t. They keep a dignified silence. (151-52)
But while posterity has the right and even duty to judge the past, we must emphatically renounce the dangerous though often seductive belief in a collective guilt that descends through time to every present and future generation.”
Dovey ponders the ethical legitimacy of using empathy as a tool of engaging our audience. Though her publisher demands she avoid the term “intellectual thriller”, we all want to our works to be readable and addictive. At the same time, we need to keep the imagination on a tight leash, as a tool of grounded understanding.
Because our knowledge is so limited, and cultural factors mean minds are ordered differently, most conclusions are based on conjecture, not certainty, calling into question their validity.
History illustrates that social organisation consists of perpetrators, victims and beneficiaries. Which one of these we are, determines our perspective and motive. We may carry the moral burden of our ancestors; inter-generational trauma.
Examples include: beneficiaries of South African Apartheid, Turks and attempts of Armenian genocide, Germans and the holocaust, or Rwandans dealing with genocide. All British Colonials owe a debt to displaced indigenous occupants. Evidence of vicarious trauma exists for not only our grandchildren, but those of the holocaust and Rwandans eager to volunteer for UN peace keeping forces. Intergeneration guilt and trauma takes a long time to heal.
Dovey considers her grandparents:
On my father’s side, poor working-class but without much sympathy for the plight of the poor blacks all around them; and on my mother’s side, educated gentle church going people who nonetheless did not lift a finger to oppose apartheid. (117)
As perpetrators or beneficiaries, we need to find the right words to heal the vicarious guilt and shame of our inherited past. Some become benefactors – Warren Buffet, Bill Gates….
Dovey distinguishes chronic guilt as “what we have done”, and chronic shame as “what we have benefited from”.
‘To feel shamed is to be made to feel unworthy of our peers, a feeling human will go to great lengths to avoid.
We write to become free of our cultural markers; not to be a prisoner of them. It can be a quest for atonement and belonging.
All art engages with culture, at least good art does. Dovey represents a writer grappling with growing up in a variety of cross cultures – South African, English, Australian, American; majoring in social anthropology across three continents, working briefly excavating in Pompei. This gives her global perspectives.