Earlier this year, I was approached by Dr Anne Jamison of the University of Western Sydney to see if I was interested in writing an essay on Rosa Praed for the Sydney Review of Books and participating in a symposium on nineteenth century Australian women’s writing. I just about jumped out of my chair with excitement. Not only because I’d been writing on Praed for more than a decade, but because more people would know of her work. A successful and prolific expatriate author, her writing is sadly still much neglected.
For the essay (which you can read here), I wrote about my relationship to Praed and her writing, and how this was altered by my research on Maud, her deaf daughter. This is also the essence of my book, which is nearing completion (one more draft to go, thank god).
The symposium was held at the State Library of NSW on 3rd November 2016. It was delicious to be in a room with the best scholars on 19th century women’s writing, although we were sadly missing Julieanne Lamond, who was away. We first heard from Tanya Dalziell of the University of Western Australia, whose work I knew, and it was really good to meet her in person and listen to her paper ‘Coo-ee! Responding to the call of late nineteenth century women’s writing’. She discussed close and distant reading and how, while the latter can stretch across borders and find patterns through the digital humanities, it also needs to take into account specificity, difference and subjectivity. She called a coo-ee, as it were, to continue to gather scholars face-to-face and map what is happening in the field.
Following on from Tanya was Susan Martin, who has written much on gardens and gardening in the nineteenth century. Sue’s topic this time was Millie Finkelstein, author of The Newest Woman: The Destined Monarch of the World. Finkelstein complicated the worlds of sport and writing, which we tend to separate and stressed inversions of traditional roles for women in her creation of bushrangeresses (although this is still a diminuitive term). Finkelstein’s book has been digitised by Reason in Revolt: Source Documents of Australian Radicalism and is available for all to read.
Anne Jamison took the baton next and spoke on Catherine Helen Spence and women’s literature for children in the nineteenth century. Spence thought that the best way to learn is through enjoyment, but she wrote terribly didactic stories. She was also a close reader of English writer Maria Edgewortha and both were interested in education for girls. Writer and Stella schools ambassador Emily McGuire picked up this thread, discussing how patriarchy minimises an entire field of writing ie children’s and young adults’ literature, because women are predominantly responsible for children’s education. And yet when men enter a field that is dominated by women they are disproportionately praised (it’s become known as the ‘John Green effect). These ‘genre transcenders’ have implications because a child learns about culture through what they read, and so there’s a negative feedback loop in literary culture which we see playing out in reviews and prizes (which are dominated by blokes). In addition if a book has fewer reviews, it’s less likely to be included on a curriculum. This in turn sends messages to boys & girls about who is worthwhile and it raises a generation that associates literary merit with men. Not much has changed, then, since the nineteenth century, as Julieanne Lamond has observed in an excellent article in Meanjin.
In the questions and comments following this panel, Lucy Sussex pointed out that Lianne Moriaty has been written up as a superstar of domestic fiction, and yet Christos Tsiolkas, who writes about similar topics, has never been described with this moniker. Emily Maguire added that writers such as Susan Johnson who write about women are incredibly under-celebrated (I agree!) and Sue Martin added that teachers are often still recycling what they learn at university, so the cycle of under-valuing women writers is perpetuated.
Elizabeth Webby, a much-loved doyenne of scholarship on Australian literature, spoke next on nineteenth century women’s poetry which is still overlooked, even by feminist scholars. Likewise, as writer and academic Lucy Sussex added with her paper ‘The lady vanishes: women and crime writing in nineteenth-century Australia’, if you look at Trove you’ll see just how much crime women wrote, but it still hasn’t received that much attention. Mary Fortune ended up in a home for homeless women despite being the most published woman in Australia.
Much like The Stella Prize, the Davitt Awards were set up to recognise crime writing by Australian women, because they barely get a look in at the ‘Neddies’ (the Ned Kelly awards for crime writing). Again, things are still not altogether different from the nineteenth century.
After a cuppa, Maggie Mackeller (whose book When It Rains I loved) and I sat on the stage for a convo with Catriona Menzies-Pike and Anne Jamison. Maggie had written a marvellous essay on Catherine Helen Spence for the Sydney Review of Books in which she described how, settling down to read Spence’s novel Clara, she expected it to be another pious work. Instead, she was taken for a galloping ride. Alas Fiona Wright, the third contributor to the Sydney Review of Books suite of essays, couldn’t join us, but you can read her precise, detailed close reading of Barbara Baynton’s work on the site.
Why don’t we read more nineteenth century women writers? Anne asked, opening a conversation she'd been thinking of for a while. I confess to being a bit stumped. I fell in love with Jane Eyre when I was eighteen, Rachel Henning when I was twenty, and Rosa Praed when I was twenty-five, and there was never any looking back.
‘Well, they’re racy, exciting, and passionate,’ I replied, although it wasn’t an adequate answer. I thought on it again as I contemplated writing this post, and asked my boyfriend the same.
‘Why don’t you read nineteenth century fiction?’
‘It’s boring,’ he replied. ‘And I did it at school.’
‘I love it,’ I told him, and enumerated the reasons why: writers weren’t afraid to dwell at length on their characters rich emotional lives and I liked watching how women operated when their power was constrained (the same reason I like Game of Thrones, aside from the excellent dresses). Yet many readers don’t find this interesting, as Maggie wrote in her essay:
‘In contrast to the celebrated male writers of nineteenth-century Australian literature Spence’s stage was not the wide-open plains, it was not mountain ranges or river crossings, her enemies were not drought or drink or fire or flood. The new land was not a character. Instead her drama is enacted nearly always inside – studies, kitchens, bedrooms, parlours – and the danger is in poverty and powerlessness.’
And these constraints are still in place, and they are still dismissed. Women’s lives, spaces, bodies and writing are still dismissed. Just look at the US election: the unsubstantiated claims about Clinton’s emails practically brought her down, while a lewd showman, whose comments about women as objects were caught on film, strode into power.
Why do we need nineteenth century women writers? Maggie says it perfectly:
‘Read Clara to see how strongly racial prejudice and stereotypes infiltrated our culture. Read her to see where we have come from and read her to see how far we’ve still got to go.’