This Wednesday night literary critic and writer Geordie Williamson and I will attempt to kiss to life some of the so-called sleeping beauties among Australian women writers. Or, we’ll be talking about the Australian women writers we love and what we think is so exciting about their work – especially those writers who’ve been neglected. The event is called Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s forgotten women writers - and it’s presented by the Stella Prize at the State Library of New South Wales at 6.00 pm.
I’m sure our conversation will range far and wide and encompass many wonderful women writers, but I’m keen to talk about five in particular: short story writer Barbara Baynton, novelist Henry Handel Richardson, and poets Mary Gilmore, Judith Wright and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. (And Geordie will cover many others, especially those who feature in his new book The Burning Library.)
The work of Baynton, Gilmore and Noonuccal is pretty much forgotten today, outside academia.
But it’s arguable that Henry Handel Richardson and Judith Wright aren’t neglected at all. Their work is central to the Australian literary canon and is still in print. And Henry Handel Richardson’s goldfields saga The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is considered by many to be THE great Australian novel. But the part of their work that I particularly love has been sidelined, now and/or when it first appeared.
With Richardson that part is Maurice Guest, a tragic love story on a Wagnerian scale complete with purple prose and featuring music students in Leipzig. The novel was almost impossible to find in print until recently (it’s just been reissued by Text in its classics series) and has been overlooked in favour of Richardson’s Australian work, Richard Mahony and The Getting of Wisdom. I’m interested in why this might be – questions of setting, genre, its lack of Australian nation building, who knows? – and hope to touch on these questions on Wednesday.
The part of Judith Wright I love and which has been considered lesser – in particular by Meanjin founder Clem Christesen, who published Wright’s first collection, The Moving Image - is her second collection Woman to Man. Perhaps the title says it all. Wright sent the collection to Christesen, writing: ‘I had better warn you, however, if you think of taking this lot on, that it will almost certainly not be as “popular” as The Moving Image‘. Christesen did not take them on.
Instead, Woman to Man was published in 1949 by Angus and Robertson. Wright had been right – her frank treatment of sex and pregnancy in the opening poems shocked conservative post-war Australia, and the critical acclaim and popular success of her first book (focused on that Australian literary perennial, bush landscape) did not immediately follow with her second. As critic WN Scott wrote in 1967: ‘these poems seem to have embarrassed many or most male readers … There was a facet of life which no male could experience.’
I think these two cases are emblematic of the problems Australian women writers have faced in a literary culture which seems to have been formed – and frozen – in the 1890s, a decade in which a distinctively masculine, bush-centred Australian literary culture was championed by the Bulletin‘s AG Stephens.
We’ll be discussing all this and more on Wednesday night. The conversation will be chaired by Radio National presenter and producer Cassie McCullagh. It’s at 6pm-7pm, Wednesday 5 December 2012, at the State Library of New South Wales. Hope to see you there. I’m thinking it will be fun. And lively.