Over at the Australian Women Writers Challenge, where I’m a contributing editor in the area of diversity, I’ve been coordinating a focus on Australian Women Writers with Disability.
I was introduced to Dorothy Cottrell through fellow writer Michelle Dicinoski when I put out a call on Facebook for Australian women writers with disability to add to our list. Strangely enough, I’d just read an essay about Cottrell not two days before when I was looking for literature about far north Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef.
Cottrell was a remarkable woman. She suffered from polio when she was small and was confined to a wheelchair. Her mother largely disowned her, so she was brought up by her aunt. She was also exceptionally talented and confident, taking lessons in sculpture and attending classes at the Royal Art Society. At 16 she returned to Ularunda in the outback to stay with her mother, where she learned how to handle a gun, and then eloped with the station’s bookkeeper, Walter Cottrell. They ended up on Dunk Island (north of Hichinbrook Island off the coast of Queensland), neighbours to the nature writer E.J. Banfield and his wife.
Cottrell’s perceptivity of the landscape is apparent in the beautiful descriptions in The Singing Gold (1928) her most famous work, which was published in book form in the UK and US, serialised in the Sydney Mail and drew praise from Mary Gilmore. The novel opens with the protagonist Joan rejecting a frilly doll, a gift from her grandmother. Joan is a tomboy who loves climbing trees and despises her brother for being much less clever than she is. She loves nature, however, and in a beautiful description of a flowering almond tree, Cottrell demonstrates Joan’s surprising jolt into adolescence and femininity:
After a while I rose from the grass, and climbed carefully into the heart of the tree . . . There was nothing now save sunfiltered, pale blossom, fresh and cool and marvellous, pressing against my bare brown legs and arms and neck, brushing my eyelids, crinkling against my lips. I could not even see the sky, there was only the paleness, and the beauty, and the blossom, and a great buzzing of bees. It was like being in a fairy bath of flowers. (p. 51).
At the novel’s opening, Joan describes herself as ‘not the sort of little girl that harmonises with highly polished old furniture, ornament piled whatnots, and canaries in silk shaded cages’ (8). In climbing into the tree, however, the gentleness of the blossoms, the distinctive sensation of them ‘crinkling’ against her lips and the ‘fairy bath’ all combine to create in Joan a much softer appreciation of nature than formerly. I thought it a beautiful way of describing a girl’s growing sensuality.
One of the most striking passages in the book comes from a description of the novel’s title, from Joan’s father, who drove a flock of sheep across the plains as the sun went down:
And all day long a million larks fluttered singing into the sunshine, and the little cruel hawks of the plains followed the travelling sheep and preyed upon the living sparks of music. Singing they rose, although they knew that the hawks were waiting for them, singing even as they fled from the talons of death. For on the pitiless sun-bleached splendour of the downs there was no shelter for them, and so they rose singing by the hundred, and by the hundred were butchered … the sheep drifted slowly across the gold immensity of down, under the gold immensity of evening, and even the woolly backs were gold, and the rising larks and the hovering hawks so many sparks of fire (26-27).
In this passage there is a contrast, as in much Australian settler literature, between the beauty and harshness of the landscape and its inhabitants, but the overall impression is one of beauty. The rhythm of the phrases gradually builds, mirroring the sense that the sky is swelling with gold, which in turn contributes to the wonder of the passage.
The novel is fairly autobiographical, following Joan’s marriage to a fellow named Clippings. As with Cottrell’s marriage to Walter, Clippings bought six wedding rings because he didn’t know what size his betrothed’s finger would be. In the church he dropped them on the floor and then ‘assisted by the tennis-playing young giants [who were witnesses] he crawled blushingly about the church and gathered up the rings.’
Clippings buys a island, to which the couple then repair, but one day while out in a boat, Joan’s food lands on an unidentified creature in the sea and she is struck with pain, perhaps mirroring Dorothy’s pain of polio. Clippings sells the island, the couple become destitute, and are saved when Joan sells some poems to a newspaper. Although the plot isn’t much to write home about, this novel still has gorgeous nature writing, a strong female protagonist, an that unavoidably heartening theme of gaining financial independence through writing.
In real life, Cottrell became so successful as a writer that she jumped ship to America to avoid paying a huge tax bill in Australia. She’s a great example of a woman who wasn’t hampered by her disability. She spent most of her life in a wheelchair, was a crack shot with a rifle, lived on a Queensland island and makes buckets of money through writing: what’s not to love about that?
Book details: Cottrell, Dorothy. The Singing Gold. Hodder and Stoughton, 1928.
Read in the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
This is my 5th review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.