Bold Women in Print
Talks / Lecture
Curator Dr Grace Blakeley-Carroll looks at the experiences of early twentieth-century Australian female writers Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin and Christina Stead and the publishing industry, as revealed through a new display in the Treasures Gallery.
*Speakers: Dr Guy Hansen (M), Dr Grace Blakely-Carroll (G)
*Location: Nationa Library of Australia
M: As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and thank their elders past and present for caring for the land we’re now privileged to call home. This afternoon we’ll be treated to an in-depth presentation from Dr Grace Blakely-Carroll. Grace has a PhD in history from the ANU – art history, sorry, and has previously worked at the National Portrait Gallery. We’re now very lucky to have her here as part of the Library’s exhibition curatorial team.
Grace’s presentation today emerges from research that she’s been doing for our Treasures Gallery. If you’re familiar with the Gallery you’ll know that this is a place where we present some of our most valuable treasures to the broader public. This gallery is organised chronologically, it does a broad sweep through Australian history from 1700s really up to the present. And we change this Gallery over quite regularly to try and bring out some of the other hidden treasures and put them on display and celebrate different aspects of Australian history and culture.
Last year when we were discussing what could be a potential new display it occurred to us that we have a fantastic collection of women’s writers’ materials from just not long after federation and this was a really important topic that we should be exploring and our collections could do it really well. And Grace dove into this material, read the books, searched the collections and put together a wonderful display which is on show now in Treasures. So I’d like you to join with me now and welcome Grace Blakely-Carroll talking about bold women. Thank you.
G: The period from the 1890s through to 1940 was a golden age for Australian literature. It saw the emergence of writing that reflected a growing sense of nationhood and concern with Australian life, history and social issues. This was particularly true of female novelists who published important works throughout the period but they rose to prominence in the late 1920s. The genre of the novel overtook that of verse as the most published form of literature at this time, and almost half of the novels published in Australia between 1928 and 1939 were by women.
Female writers arguably produced the best work from this period through to the end of the second world war. For this reason, as Guy mentioned, last year a display celebrating late 19th and early 20th century female writers was installed in our Treasures Gallery. I’ll show you a picture if you haven’t seen it. And the idea for the display was first initiated by my colleague, Matthew Jones. It focuses on three women writers, Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin and Christina Stead. I’ll just give you a bit of a closeup of some of the material. Drawing on the Library’s rich holdings including the personal papers of the writers, portraits of them and first editions of their novels we celebrate their achievements and also shed light on their creative processes.
At the same time we explore some of the difficulties they experienced as writers as overcoming these difficulties demonstrates their commitment to their vocation as writers. It is important to stress that they have been chosen for inclusion in our Gallery because of their talent. Incidentally they all happen to be women and for that reason they experience particular challenges that reflect gendered attitudes of the time in which they lived and worked.
Some of these writers were under male pseudonyms, struggled to get their work published in Australia and received belated recognition. They were bold and determined authors who despite difficulties faced by leading a creative life, and the added challenges they experienced because of their gender, they persevered with their creative endeavours and as a result have made a substantial contribution to Australia’s literary canon.
In this talk I’ll speak about Richardson, Franklin and Stead’s experiences as writers and I’ll particularly focus on their dealings with the publishing industry and their sort of experience of getting their work published.
I’ll also discuss some of their most renowned novels which are featured in our Treasures Gallery display – you might see some books in the showcase. It’s always very exciting to have books on display in a library – and these novels including Richardson’s trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Franklin’s, My Brilliant Career, and Christina Stead’s, The Man Who Loved Children.
Reading these novels, some for the first time and others with fresh eyes, I was struck by the recurrence of strong female characters who defied expectations of their eras. Each novel was informed by the author’s family experiences, that they should not be treated as autobiographical and this personal context leads me to argue that their experiences and feminist outlooks can be seen in these strong characters so I’ll look at some of those characters today as well.
Henry Handel Richardson was born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson in 1870. The oldest of the three she was one of Australia’s most acclaimed novelists. She’s best known for her coming of age classic, The Getting of Wisdom, 1910 and for the historical fiction trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony published in three volumes in 1917, 1925 and 1929 and then as a trilogy in 1930.
She was born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy to Irish-born medical doctor, Walter Richardson, and his wife, Mary Bailey. Her parents had migrated to the Victorian goldfields during the gold rush of the 1850s and her – after her father’s death when she was just nine years old she and her younger sister were raised by their mother.
Their mother supported the family by working as a postmistress in the Victorian town of Koroit and in 1883 Richardson was sent to Presbyterian Ladies’ College as I’m sure many of you know. It’s a very prestigious school that was established in 1875 and one of the first independent schools for girls and experiences from her time at the school informed The Getting of Wisdom.
In 1889 Richardson and her family moved to Germany so that she could study music and she never returned to live in Australia, only making one return visit to her homeland in 1912 and on that occasion she was here to research for her trilogy. And some of the notes from this trip are held in the Library’s vast collection of her papers and they demonstrate the amount of research that she undertook. So she includes place names and historical events and there’s other lists where she’s detailed great Australian novels and also her works of historical works that she was reading and ticking off in order to inform her thinking and her writing.
Also on the trip she purportedly was banned from visiting Presbyterian Ladies’ College as it was assumed that the unflattering depiction of a ladies’ college from The Getting of Wisdom was based on her time at the school.
So Richardson spends most of her life in England where she lives with her Scottish husband, George Robertson, whom she married in 1894. Robertson became a <inaudible> 7:44 German at University College London and was a huge supporter of his wife’s career and through his career they were brought into a very rich intellectual circle in London.
There Richardson continued her parents’ interest in spiritualism, said to have sort of tried to contact her dead husband through a Ouija board after he passed away and she was also involved with the suffragette movement and her younger sister, Lillian, was particularly involved with the suffragettes.
Richardson published six novels between 1908 and 1938 and she also wrote a memoir and a number of short stories and she died of cancer in 1946.
Despite the critical acclaim her novels received for many years her profile in Australia did not match her talent and as scholar and author, Drusilla Modjeska, had argued, it really wasn’t until well into the 1930s that she received proper recognition here. This was after she received the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal for the third volume in her trilogy in 1929. In part this may have been because some of her novels such as her debut work, Maurice Guest, 1908, was set overseas and they were not considered Australian enough whereas novels within Australian setting like The Getting of Wisdom have proved much more popular here.
Like a number of other female writers of the era and in times preceding Richardson wrote under a male pen name. Hers was part truth and part fiction with the spurious names Henry Handel added to her maiden surname. Apparently she had an uncle called Henry and scholars have deduced that Handel might be a reference to her musical interests.
One of the reasons she adopted a male pseudonym was to enhance critical reception of her work as she explained in a letter in 1940. There had been much talk in the press of that day about the ease with which a woman’s work could be distinguished from a man’s and I wanted to try out the truth of the assertion. Sorry, I missed that slide.
Her identity including her gender remained a secret for many years and even her publisher wasn’t aware that she was a woman when he accepted her first novel. Her husband took the manuscript to the publisher claiming it was from a friend.
All reviews of The Getting of Wisdom praised the author, who was still believed to be male, for writing a powerful book about the experiences of an adolescent girl. This was a source of great pride for Richardson who wrote to a friend that critics were in the dark as to my sex at present. The authorship has been kept a dead secret over here in England.
She was motivated by a desire to increase her chances of being published and being taken seriously as a writer at a time when female writers were frequently derided and she also wanted to protect her privacy. Women’s writing is often considered to be more autobiographical than men’s by critics and by the public, and women’s private lives often, particularly at that time, received more critical attention.
And an extract from a 1917 letter to a friend attests to these dual motives and she says my own instinct is, I must confess, to remain entirely in the shade and let the books speak for themselves. But besides this I still think a book like Maurice Guest has a better chance if written by a man than a woman. [Hoi] 11:07 prejudice lingers, whatever one might say to the contrary.
Richardson’s decision to adopt a male pen name marked a continuation of a long trend of women writers who likewise wrote under male pseudonyms. They too wanted to increase their publishing prospects while also protecting their privacy. The Bronte sisters wrote under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, Louisa May Alcott frequently wrote under the name A M Barnard, and Mary Anne Evans adopted the pen name George Eliot.
Women chose to write under male names because as scholar, Ann-Marie Priest, writes in her forthcoming book about Australian women writers and vocation in the 20th century, there was – and I quote – the assumption that a successful writer was by definition an unsuccessful woman, an attitude that dominated in the 19th century and very much continued into the 20th century. And indeed as Drusilla Modjeska has observed there was a fundamental contradiction between a woman’s dependent social position and the mystique of the writer as a culturally transcendent being, a contradiction between their ability to write and their internal barriers against speaking out.
Adopting a male nom de plume at that time allowed Richardson to tackle more ambitious themes such as those explored in her celebrated trilogy. I’ll have a bit of a look at The Fortunes of Richard Mahony now. Last year was the centenary of the publication of the first volume which was initially called The Fortunes of Richard Mahony but when incorporated into the trilogy the name was changed to Australia Felix which of course is Latin for The Lucky, Lucky Australia or The Lucky Country which is a term often used to describe Australia.
The blend of fact and fiction of her pen name is echoed in the plots of her novels and she drew on family circumstances when writing The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and also personal experiences were incorporated into other literary works. This ambitious trilogy mapped out a pivotal period of Australian life in the second half of the 19th century. It commences during the Victorian gold rush and chronicles the life of restless doctor, Richard Mahony, who was modelled on Richardson’s father and indeed she dedicated the book to him.
So during periods of boom and bust he moves his family to various towns in Victoria and home to England. While the first volume received positive reviews the second flopped, it appeared eight years later so it was said to be too big a space between them. Determined to complete the trilogy she persevered, later confessing, to go on with volume 3 after such a failure was the hardest thing that I have ever done and it left a mark on me that no success will erase.
So of course the title of the trilogy is ironic as Mahony’s is a tale of successive misfortunes. From the outset a curious picture of him emerges that suggests he’s definitely not on track to prosper in Australia. Having turned his back on medicine he runs a shop in Ballarat with little success. He marries Polly Turner, an English migrant, who does not share her husband’s longing for home. And the reader starts to observe his slow withdrawal from society and constant search for greener pastures so he moves back to England then back to Australia then back to England then back to Australia so there’s a lot – a big sort of theme of the trilogy is this sort of migrant experience and the sense of being dislocated from a home. And this is something that Richardson felt herself and she said that she didn’t really feel Australian, she actually felt Irish and didn’t really like living in London, really liked living in Germany but lived in London. So that kind of – and other sort of scholars have argued that there’s also a lot of herself in her father’s character as well.
So in the final volume, Ultima Thule, which is sort of like the ends of the known earth, Mahony’s drastic mental decline sees him unable to care for himself and his family. Medical professionals have praised the realistic way Richardson wrote of his health crisis and have suggested that he may have suffered from early onset dementia. Others have concluded that he was suffering from advanced syphilis and perhaps we’ll never know.
So while Mahony is the trilogy’s protagonist it’s his wife, Mary, who undergoes the greatest transformation in the narrative and becomes its heroine. A shy teenager when she married Mahony – he’s about 10 years her senior – she develops into an incredibly strong character who challenges her husband when his health and decision-making skills deteriorate. His decline sees her forced to provide for the family while caring for her dying husband. And there’s a great passage where she sort of despairs about having – not being equipped to take on the role of the family breadwinner essentially.
There seems to be nothing a woman can do except teach and I'm too old for that, nor have I the brains. I was married so young and had so little schooling myself. Mary perseveres and she learns of opportunities for women in government service, in particular as postmistresses and she sets her sight on securing a job which she does and this saves the family.
Although she soon realises that there’s a huge mental and physical drain associated with running a household, holding down a job and being a sole parent after her husband dies. She has a moment of great despair, fretting over what would become of her children and this turns into a moment of incredible strength.
In the character of Mary we are presented with a - strong and determined women based on Richardson’s own mother who was also called Mary and did indeed become a postmistress to support the family. Mary does not dwell on the tragedy that surrounds her and instead she puts her middle-class pride to one side, takes up a profession and supports herself and her family.
So like Richardson Miles Franklin also chose against writing under her real name. Her masculine-sounding middle name, Miles, was a comfortable nom de plume that enabled her to disguise her gender and increase her chances of being published. She was born Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin in 1879 in Talbingo, New South Wales, and she was the eldest child of John Maurice Franklin and Susannah Margaret Eleanor Franklin nee Lampe. Now both her parents were Australian-born members of the squattocracy.
Franklin grew up on the Brindabella Station which is depicted here in this artwork in the Brindabella Ranges and later lived on the [Monero] 17:53 Plains and these areas informed her writing, great influence on her.
She completed her first novel, the feminist classic, My Brilliant Career, when she was just 19 and it was published a few years later in 1901. She went on to write more than a dozen novels, a memoir, two nonfiction books and of these it’s her 1936 novel, All That Swagger, that is the most critically acclaimed after My Brilliant Career.
Franklin continued to write novels that draw on her experiences on the [Monero] Plains even while she lived in America and England between 1906 and 1932 and there she worked for women’s trade unions so feminism was very important to her.
Of the pseudonyms under which she wrote she’s generally remembered as Miles Franklin and her name has of course taken on a new significance through the Miles Franklin Award for Australian literature and she saved long and hard to leave enough of a bequest to set up that award and it was a great surprise to everybody when it was announced that there would be an award after her death in 1954. And it was first awarded in 1967 with Voss by Patrick White being the recipient.
In 2013 an award celebrating Australian women’s writing, The Stella Prize, was named in her honour, pointedly taking on her first name. Today a literary classic, My Brilliant Career was rejected for publication in Australia. It did however find a supporter in the bush poet, Henry Lawson. In response to Franklin’s request for aid he took the book with him to London and there his literary agent, J B Pinker, secured William Blackwood and Sons of Edinburgh to publish it. My Brilliant Career was met with immediate critical acclaim and I'm showing you a dust jacket – sorry, a cover from the first edition which I think is an excellent image. However few realised that the intended irony in the title or sort of sense of doubt in the title was altered by publishers changing in its meaning.
So this is what she wanted the title to be. The question mark in the original title adds a degree of uncertainty to protagonist, Sybylla Melvyn’s decision to reject a marriage proposal in favour of pursuing a career as a writer and more importantly as an independent woman. When writing to Pinker Franklin, insisted that the question mark be included in the title and asked him to on no account allow Miss to prefix my name on the title page as I do not wish it to be known that I am a young girl, the desire to post as a bold-headed seer of the sterner sex. In fact it was perhaps a well-meaning Lawson who outed Franklin as a female writer as he wrote the preface to the book.
A few months before I left Australia I got a letter from the bush signed Miles Franklin saying that the writer had written a novel but knew nothing of editors and publishers, asking me to read and advise. Something about the letter which was written in a strong original hand attracted me so I sent for the manuscript and one dull afternoon I started to read it. I hadn’t read three pages when I saw what you will no doubt see at once, that the story had been written by a girl and as I went on I saw that the work was Australian, born of the bush. I don’t know about the girlishly emotional parts of the book, I leave that to the girl readers to judge but the descriptions of bush life and scenery came startlingly, painfully real to me and I know that as far as they are concerned the book is true to Australia, the truest I ever read.
So on the one hand he’s giving her a huge compliment but on the other hand he’s saying that it’s a woman’s book which certainly wasn’t a compliment for Miles Franklin. So we can only speculate about what the book’s reception would have been like if it was assumed to be written by a male author as she intended. It did sell well particularly in Australia but as scholar, Elizabeth Webby, has argued, Franklin certainly paid the price for having little in the way of authorial control over the final manuscript. Publishers softened the story because as her biographer, Jill Rowe, has observed and I quote, My Brilliant Career is an angry book and well brought up young women were still not supposed to express anger so a lot of the anger was taken out of the story and sadly the original manuscript has been lost so we can’t recover what it would have been like.
These factors contributed to Franklin’s decision to adopt other pseudonyms, mostly male, for a number of her subsequent novels and the best known of these is the ambiguous name, Brent of Bin Bin. Another factor that led her to adopt other pseudonyms was a desire to avoid comparison with My Brilliant Career. When her identity as the author became apparent My Brilliant Career was assumed to be autobiographical and in an era where traditional gender roles were upheld and women were expected to place marriage above all else, particularly in rural areas where she was raised, this assumption greatly embarrassed Franklin and her family. Indeed Rowe has drawn attention to the fact that Franklin always considered her first novel to be a juvenile work and she withdrew it from publication in 1910 and her will stipulated that it could not be reissued until a decade after her death. It’s been continuously in print since 1965.
So the plot of My Brilliant Career centres on the headstrong and vibrant teenager, Sybylla Melvyn, who has ambitions for a brilliant career as a writer and I'm sure most people here are familiar with the story if not from reading the book but from the 1979 film directed by Gillian Armstrong which revived the story for a new generation. Strong female characters appear throughout Franklin’s [erve] 23:58 and we also see this in the vivacious and assertive Dora Barry in Franklin’s 1931 novel, Old Blastus of Bandicoot which is set on the [Monero] Plains and the original manuscript for this novel is on display in the Treasures Gallery and we have a number of notes and other material related to this novel.
In My Brilliant Career Sybylla is portrayed as being bored with family life and burdened by difficulties of drought and her father’s alcoholism. She is sent to live on her grandmother’s property where she meets Harry Beecham, a wealthy young man who falls in love with her. She rejects his marriage proposal believing he doesn’t really love her. As her family’s economic troubles deepen she is sent to be a governess and a housekeeper to a poor and illiterate family that her father owes money to. The grudging work takes a huge toll on her health and she is forced to return home. Harry visits her and once again proposes. Despite her feelings for him she again rejects his proposal explaining that she never intends to marry and plans to pursue her writing. And I love this passage where she’s sort of talking about this great secret that she has and you know this horrible sort of thing about her that’s going to shock him and make him not want to marry her that of course it’s – she declares that she’s going to be a writer.
So after hearing her confession Harry says that he’ll gladly support her writing, he’ll you know create a studio for her, doing whatever she needs but she still declines the proposal believing he doesn’t really understand her creative drive or the realities of being a female writer and also believing that it – probably not practical if she were to marry that she really would have the freedom to write, particularly if she were to go on and have children.
Franklin concludes the novel by declaring her love for her brothers and sisters of Australia so this might be a bit of what Lawson was picking up on in the foreword and she aligns herself with the latter, saying my ineffective life will be trod out in the same round of toil, I am only one of yourselves, I am only an unnecessary little bush commoner, I am only a woman. So I find this comment revealing particularly when considered in light with the original title of the novel and that – sort of the doubt over her brilliant career. There’s no certainty that she will have a career as a writer and particularly as her – the financial situation of her family means that it’s very likely that she’ll have to find paid employment in a service role, most likely.
Nonetheless I think the important part of the story is that she chooses to carve out her own path and be the master of her own destiny. It’s a bold choice that reflect Franklin’s own feminist views and the way that she chose to live her life.
A generation younger Christina Stead was not compelled to write under a male pseudonym in order to get her work published. She did however experience setbacks to her literary career, particularly in Australia. The degree to which her gender contributed to these is debatable however critics have argued that the fact she was an expatriate who set many of her novels overseas, lived with a married man and was engaged with Marxist thinking and also because she was a woman impacted on her reputation and certainly in Australia.
Indeed as Modjeska has argued, although the generation of writers from the 1930s onwards had greater support than their predecessors because there were more of them, it was still very challenging for women as she observes, and I quote, their situation was not always overtly oppressive but was hard and oppression can take many and subtle forms. Today Stead is considered by critics as one of the country’s most important writers who also boasts an international reputation. And when preparing this display I was really amazed by how many people had never heard of her, particularly people who had you know a sort of deep engagement with Australian literature had never heard of Christina Stead and I think that’s starting to change, there’s more books coming out about her but I think it’s interesting that she doesn’t seem to be as well-known as the other writers.
Stead was born in Sydney, the daughter of marine biologist and conservationist, George – David George Stead. The only child from his first marriage, at the age of nine she moved to Watson’s Bay where she lived until she was 26. It was a busy household, she had five half-siblings from her father’s second marriage. In Australia she trained as a teacher and the occupations she was very ill-equipped for and eventually got her certificate of medical absence so she didn’t have to complete her five years or repay her teacher training. And she also worked as a researcher assistant to a psychology lecturer.
So Stead left Australia in 1928 and this is a photo from her farewell and you can see her there and I love that photo so much, it gives me a real sense of how much she didn’t really want to be a part of her family. It’s great.
So she first went to London like her – in 1928 after saving for many years and – like her heroine, Teresa Hawkins in the 1944 novel, For Love Alone, Stead hoped in vain for a romance with a former tutor from the University of Sydney. She took a secretarial job at a grain exchange firm, working for American Marxist economist, Wilhelm Blech, who later changed his name to William Blake, great name for an author’s spouse, I think. And she entered into a romantic relationship with him that was to last until his death in 1968. And Blake, himself a writer, was a great supporter of Stead’s career.
Stead published the first of her 12 novels, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, in 1934 and only it and For Love Alone have Australian settings. She and Blake lived between London and New York with stints in several European cities and all of these places are reflected in her writing, the impact of these different cities are seen in her writing. They finally married in 1952 after Blake was able to obtain a divorce and they spent most of their time together living very frugally and some people have even said in a state of near poverty.
Though critically acclaimed Stead’s novels were never bestsellers and from the late 1940s she found it harder to get her work published. Whereas Richardson was able to develop a literary reputation in Australia despite living overseas the same was not true for Stead. Letters held at the Library reveal her frustration at constant rejection from local publishers. As her books were published overseas they were more expensive than locally produced works so it was further inhibiting people from engaging with her literature because it was simply too expensive and they hadn’t heard of her.
In 1939 while writing her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, she wrote to her cousin and explained and you can see it in this letter. I should like to publish my next novel in Australia. The novel drew on her childhood experiences in a large blended family overseen by a domineering father. Ironically not only was the novel rejected in Australia but her American publisher insisted that the setting be changed from Sydney to Washington in order to broaden its appeal to Americans. And it’s considered a great tragedy that one of Australia’s greatest novels is not actually set in Australia even though that was what the author had intended.
Stead was largely overlooked in her country of birth during her lifetime. In 1946 her novel, Letti Fox: Her Luck, which was set in Manhattan during the second world war and dealt frankly with female sexuality, was banned here. Undeterred she kept trying to secure Australian publishers. A letter declining to publish her 1948 novel, A Little Tea, A Little Chat included the comment from the editor of Sydney’s invincible press that they – and I quote – gravely doubt it is the sort of book that would be popular in Australia, adding, it represents a section of American life which I’m afraid our public would find very difficult to understand.
It was not until the 1965 reissue of The Man Who Loved Children with an insightful foreword by prominent American literary critic, Randall Jarrell, that she began to receive recognition as a literary giant both in Australia but particularly overseas and it’s often said that she’s perhaps well known – better known overseas, particularly in America, than in Australia.
When she returned permanently to Australia in 1974 she was awarded the inaugural Patrick White Award for established yet underappreciated writers and he’d set up that award through the prize money from his award – I think the Nobel Prize for Literature that he received in 1973. And Stead died in 1983.
So I'm showing you a first edition of The Man Who Loved Children and this is another item that’s on display in our Treasures Gallery. In the past dust jackets weren’t kept for a lot of collection material so it was very special to find this within original dust jacket.
Stead described The Man Who Loved Children as a novel about family life and that it is but certainly not an ordinary family. It’s dominated by narcissistic father, Samuel Pollit, who calls himself Sam, the Bold and his depressed sarcastic wife, Henny, who was physically and mentally drained by six successive pregnancies and the problematic relationship with her husband.
The family lives beyond its means and martial tensions contribute to the dysfunction at home. The title of the novel is intriguing. In her biography of Stead, Hazel Rowley argues that – and I quote – what The Man Who Loved Children really loved more than the children as individuals was the power to form young minds. So this is why Sam insists on having so many children as it’s a form of self-love.
While Sam is domineering it is Louisa, the 13-year-old daughter from his first marriage, who is the strongest character in the novel. Described as being plain and overweight Louie or Lou Lou, as her dad calls her, defies the traditional standards of the ideal girl. Indeed as her father’s hatred of plainness enhances Louie’s sense of being an outcast intensifies but it also strengthens her resolve to break free from the situation. And I quote, Sam was not only revolted by deformity and plainness but he actually saw a central evil in it and there’s also a bit where he says to Louie, what can I do with a girl like you? You have no looks, I understand you. And apparently these are the sorts of things that Stead’s father used to say to her.
So being the only child of his deceased first wife contributes further to her sense of isolation. It’s very clear that she’s the smartest person in the house, her intellectual interests are fostered by her father as long as they align with his and as soon as she begins to develop her own ideas and you know become a teenager she starts to keep a diary written in a code that he cannot decipher because he goes through all of her things. Sam becomes threatened by this and accuses her of disloyalty.
So as the narrative unfolds Louie increasingly assumes the role of a parent, not just to her step-siblings but also to her father and her stepmother as the adults in the house become further detached from reality and consumed by their own hopes and despairs. Sam’s childish and domineering personality becomes unbearable. The novel is inflected with Sam’s irritating, singsong, childlike manner of speaking which is if you haven’t read the novel – when you do read it it’s very irritating but weirdly compelling, it’s like – it’s just so well written. An example is this is a song that he’s singing to his children when his seventh child is being delivered and he’s sort of jubilant about this birth and I won’t irritate you by singing it but you can imagine.
So at this point I should sound a warning that there’s potentially a slight spoiler coming up so you might want to block your ears. So the most powerful scene at the novel comes at the very end when essentially Louisa makes the decision to leave the family and while that could be quite concerning for you know an adolescent sort of out there on her own, as a reader you’re really reassured that she’s somehow escaped. Letters in the Library’s manuscripts collection reveal that the characters in the book were informed by Stead’s recollection of her upbringing. In 1942 she wrote to Thistle Harris who was her father’s third wife saying, yes, I feel the characters in The Man Who Loved Children are very, very real, recreated but real. Sam really did boil a fish for oil, a shark, not a [tip truck tourist] 37:19 – sorry, I pronounced that wrong – but I had to make it North American. And Henny really did play cards out of desperation and so on and so on. It did not happen exactly all on one day but what I did is a very real representation of life as it was then.
So in light of this I think there very much appears to be something of Stead in Louie, sort of like the ugly duckling who sort of flees the family and goes on and has a really rich life of her own, living it in her own way. She’s clearly wiser than her years yet very confined at home and the theme of a young woman leaving behind a trying family situation is also echoed in For Love Alone when we see Teresa moving for London in pursuit of love but also moving away from difficult home life.
And I guess just on that sort of comment about – that sort of blend of fact and fiction, I think something that I read recently is this idea that we see history is factual but fiction is truthful so while these aren’t autobiographies of any of these writers it was Christina Stead’s truth of her family situation that makes the novel so compelling.
The Man Who Loved Children is regarded by many as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and it’s earned a new generation of fans as a result of American novelist, Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed 2010 essay about the book and some of you might have read this. It was published in The New York Times, circulated widely and it was also included as the foreword to Miegunyah’s publication of the book that year. In it he included an interesting passage about why he feels the novel has still not received its proper recognition.
I suspect that one of the reasons The Man Who Loved Children remains exiled from the canon is that Christina Stead’s ambition was to write not like a woman but like a man. Her allegiances are too dubious for the feminists and she is not enough like a man for everybody else. Stead wasn’t content to make a separate space for herself in a room of her own, she was competitive like a son, not a daughter and she needed to go back in her best novel to her life’s primal scenes and beat her eloquent father at his own game.
So while on the face of it it seems that Stead didn’t really suffer the same degree of sexism that Richardson and Franklin did, I think in light of some of these comments and some of the challenges she faced, I think it does become clear that certainly her gender did impact on her writing and her dealings with publishers, particularly in Australia.
Another thing that she has in common with Richardson is that many of her novels were not deemed Australian enough and as one scholar says it sort of didn’t pass the gumleaf test, there weren’t enough references to gum trees in the novels.
Female novelists wrote some of the finest Australian literary works of the early 20th century. Today Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin and Christina Stead rank among the country’s greatest writers and these three names come up in every scholarly work about Australian literature at that time. During their lifetimes their literary careers were impeded by a number of factors, many of which related to gender stereotypes of the era. These experiences informed their literary works which feature strong female characters who go against societal expectations of women at that time.
Through their perseverance these writers have left a legacy that continues to inform our literary landscape and also that of the global literary landscape. The Library is the custodian of rich material related to each writer and it celebrates our achievements through the display in our Treasures Gallery. So if you haven’t already seen the display I’d encourage you to go down and have a look and I also very much encourage you to read or perhaps reread some of the novels that I’ve spoken about today but some of the other works by these writers. So thank you very much.
M: Thank you very much, Grace, that’s a wonderful talk. I like to think that exhibitions are like icebergs, displays the tip of the iceberg and underneath is all the research.
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