Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing

The Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing edited by Dale Spender (1988) made its way onto my bookshelves back in April last year. I discovered it tucked away on the Literature shelf in the second hand bookshop attached to Gleebooks in Blackheath.

Dale Spender’s Acknowledgements and Introduction were fascinating on several accounts. I enjoy the many connections within Australia literary circles. Spender thanks Debra Adelaide who was one of the major researchers on this book. Adelaide went on to edit her own anthologies of Australian writers Women Writers: A Bibliographic Guide (1988) and A Bright and Fiery Troop: Australian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century (2008) as well as several novels and short stories. Spender marvels that Adelaide included 450 women authors in her Bibliographic Guide, not because she is surprised to see so many, but that so many have fallen away from mainstream view due to ‘their refusal to conform to the masculine image‘.

Right from the early days of the new settlement in NSW, women were writing, but their concerns and issues were different to the men and ‘they were even writing about the men in a way that men rarely wrote about themselves‘. Mateship, from a female perspective was not always the positive thing it was for the men. Romanticising the bush legends and outback stories was not something the women writers felt obliged to engage in. They tended to deal with the realities of isolation, child birth, fear and the lack of agency in their own lives.

She sees the early letter and journal writing by these women as expressions of ‘migrant literature‘ and even a form of therapy – women far from home, in exile, trying to make sense of this new experience and ‘make sense of their new selves and their new lives‘. Their writing revealed the struggle to reconcile the values of ‘the old country‘ with those found in the new.

As the new colony grew, not all of these new values were an issue. In fact, many of the women coming to Australia in the 19th century embraced the freedom and independence this new life could provide. Marriage and child bearing were often criticized or shown to be detrimental to women. Female writers showed that it was the women who paid the higher price for making a mistake in picking the wrong kind of husband.

One aspect of life that many of these women referred to time and again was the exploitation of the Aborigines, especially the black women by the white men. Spender claims that white women did not fear Aboriginal women or wish to subdue them. They were not the ‘enemy‘. It was the power imbalance between men and women that created the problems. It was ‘co-existence rather than conflict’, humanity rather than inhumanity and the strength that could be gained from shared experiences that most women writer’s were seeking.

At the time, these female voices were usually writing alone and isolated and they were often ridiculed by the established male writers. Spender hopes that by collecting them together that it makes it possible to see that these women writers were not in fact isolated examples of female rebellion, but part of a long line of continuous experience of women authors raising ‘their voices against female subordination.’

The collection includes letters, diaries, journals, short stories and chapter extracts from larger works. Many of the early pieces can now be found on Project Gutenberg or Gutenberg Australia as well.

Margaret CatchpoleLetters1762-1819
Elizabeth MacarthurLetters1769-1850
Georgiana McCraeJournal1804-1890
Louisa Anne MeredithMy Home in Tasmania During a Residency of Nine Years1812-1895
Catherine Helen SpenceAfloat or Ashore1825-1910
Ellen ClacyA Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia 1852-18531830-1901
Mary FortuneKirsty Oglevie1833-1911
Ada CambridgeA Girl’s Ideal1844-1926
Louisa LawsonEditorials from The Dawn1848-1920
Jessie Couvreur (Tasma)An Old Time Episode in Tasmania1848-1897
Rosa PraedMy Australian Girlhood1851-1935
Catherine Langloh ParkerAustralian Legendary Tales1885-1940
Barbara BayntonSqueaker’s Mate1857-1929
Mary GauntDick Stanesby’s Hutkeeper1861-1942
Mary GilmoreLetters1864-1962
Henry Handel RichardsonThe Bathe: A Grotesque1870-1946
Ethel TurnerDiaries1872-1958
Edith LyttletonWhy Mollie Wouldn’t1874-1945
Mollie SkinnerThe Witch of Wellaway1876-1955
Mary Grant BruceHow I Became A Writer & Overtime For Wives1878-1958
Miles Franklin & Dymphna CusackCall Up Your Ghosts1879-1954 & 1902-1981
Katharine Susannah PrichardBrumby Innes & The Cooboo1883-1969
Nettie PalmerFourteen Years1885-1964
Marjorie BarnardHabit1897-1987
Eleanor DarkSweet and Low1901-1985
Dorothy CottrellCabbage Roses1902-1957
Christina SteadA Writer’s Friends1902-1983
Sarah CampionMo Burdekin1906-2002
Kylie TennantSpeak You So Gently & The Face of Despair1912-1988
Nancy CatoThe Olive Stealers1917-2000
Faith BandlerWacvie1918-2015
Nene GareA Good Job1919-1994
Olga MastersThe Home Girls1919-1986
Oriel GrayThe Torrents1920-2003
Antigone KefalaSunday Lunch1935-
Germaine GreerThe Female Eunich1939-

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