Forgotten Australian women novelists

Marjorie Clark

Marjorie Clark aged 20

It’s only the last ten years or so that I have really questioned how few Australian women novelists there were (or at least we know of today) writing in the years 1900-1950. Before then I just accepted the exceedingly low number as normal and relative to the times. Australia was a small country, population wise. It was a given that in those years it would have been much harder for women to get published and then harder still to keep writing with the demands of a husband and children. And nearly all not as lucky as Eleanor Dark with a studio of her own. No surprise there weren’t many. Or so I thought.

As I began to read more widely on the subject, I discovered that quite a few had slipped through the net of history. They wrote, they published but were forgotten (or ignored) by those who came after to make up the lists of worthy novelists of the 20th century. What I’ve only recently discovered is how many were left off the lists! A surprisingly large number. I have had to do a complete 360 in my thinking and marvel at how many were actually writing and regret that so many came to be forgotten and in most cases completely out of print.

Dale Spender in her book Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers chronicles those who have slipped through the net and for me (researching Australia during the 1920s) it was wonderful to read about these women. I also mention this in my blog How fiction/historical fiction can save historical fact and touch on my discovery of Jean Curlewis and her writing. An excellent essay on this fascinating writer is here.

Consulting Spender again this month I have made up a shortlist of forgotten Australian women novelists I would like to read. They are:

Elinor Mordaunt 1872-1942

Mary Eliza Fullerton 1868-1946

Mabel Forrest 1872-1935

Marie Bjelke-Petersen 1874-1969

Agnes Littlejohn 1865-1944

Julia Levy 1881-1959

Hilda Bridges 1880-1971

Lillian Turner 1867-1956

Velia Ercole 1903 -1978

None of the authors’ works are available to buy. At least as far as I have been able to discover, except for Velia Ercole’s second novel Dark Windows at a cost of approximately $90 including postage from the US. (I did wonder what it was doing there). However, several libraries hold titles by the above authors so I’m hoping I will be able to borrow some of their books soon.

The titles I’m particularly interested in (because they appear to deal with Australian city life) are The Wild Moth by Mabel Forrest (a very interesting and talented woman), Jewelled Nights by the very prolific Marie Bjelke Petersen. I would also like to read Devotion by “Juliet”, the pen name of Julia Levy, who I couldn’t find much information about. Also Our Neighbours by Hilda Bridges a Tasmanian writer, along with her brother who was Tasmania’s most prolific writer with 36 novels.

Lastly but not least (as the book won the Bulletin novel competition for 1932) is No Escape by Velia Ercole (Margaret Gregory). It is set in the 1930s and explores the experiences of an Italian doctor adapting to life in rural Australia. Although not really fitting my bill for a book that will help my research of life in Sydney or Melbourne in the 1920s, it sounds very interesting.

Whilst troving for details and books of the above authors, I came across three more forgotten authors in this essay in the La Trobe Journal. Jean Campbell has not been completely forgotten although you can’t borrow or buy her first novel Brass & Cymbals for love or money. I’ve tried, believe you me. Unless my memory is playing tricks I don’t remember reading about Marjorie Clarke (writing as Georgia Rivers) in the Spender book. Her photo is at the top of this blog and she looks to me like a “kindred spirit”. I hope to be able to read She Dresses For Dinner. The third writer is Doris Kerr writing as Capel Boake, who died quite young. Her output was small and the one novel of hers I really want to read, I will probably never be able to. “‘The Flying Shade’, set in Melbourne and depicting art student life in studios and cafés in the city, was finished by early 1921, but was never published.”

Lastly I’ll finish with Vera Dwyer who I discovered in a book of Australian women photographers. Her portrait, taken by May Moore, is striking and when I read she was a writer, I was drawn to discover more about her. I’ve since read two of her books, The Kayles of Bushy Lodge and The Banished Lovers, both of which I bought at abebooks.com. Several more of her books are available which is strange considering she is one of the least known of the forgotten novelists. (Is that an oxymoron?)  I don’t remember her being listed in the Spender book and she’s definitely not in Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at Home: Australian women writers 1925-1945.

Please watch this space in my journey to read these forgotten Australian women novelists. Hopefully I won’t experience the dramas I had trying to read Eleanor Dark’s first novel Slow Dawning. More details here. Wish me luck.

PS Last Saturday I found a book for $5 at the Lifeline shop at Charlestown. It looked old – a pale blue cloth hardback entitled Annette of River Bend by Irene Cheyne. I opened the book to find it was published by Angus & Robertson in 1942. Another forgotten Australian woman novelist.

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