Anne Jamison reflects on the Australian Women’s Writing Symposium held at the State Library of New South Wales on November 3, 2016.
Maggie MacKellar, at the close of her essay in the Sydney Review of Books on nineteenth-century author and social reformer Catherine Helen Spence, urges her audience to read Spence’s novel Clara Morison (1854) in order to ‘see where we have come from and … how far we’ve still got to go.’ Similarly, and as part of the same essay series, Jessica White concludes that to overlook Australia’s nineteenth-century women writers such as Rosa Praed is to turn our heads from ‘the blazing suns that map our literary culture.’ ‘It behoves us,’ continues White, ‘to become more attentive readers, and finer stargazers.’
These passionate and earnest responses to reading Australian women’s literature in the nineteenth century were part of a research project that I coordinated throughout 2016. The project had two purposes: to bring together authors and scholars from across Australia to discuss the interconnections between past and present women’s writing in Australia; and to readdress how we value and understand that writing, both within the academy and beyond. As part of that impetus, the project commissioned three contemporary Australian women writers – Maggie MacKellar, Jessica White and Fiona Wright – to (re)read and review their nineteenth-century counterparts for the SRB.
Mackellar and White further joined SRB editor Catriona Menzies-Pike in conversation at the one-day Australian Women’s Writing Symposium on November 3, 2016 at the State Library of New South Wales to discuss their essays on Australia’s historical women writers. The full symposium included leading scholars of these writers: Susan Martin and Lucy Sussex from La Trobe University, The University of Western Australia’s Tanya Dalziell, and The University of Sydney’s Elizabeth Webby. Emily Maguire, author and NSW Schools Ambassador for the Stella Prize, also joined the symposium for a special session with me on gender and children’s literature, past and present.
In anticipation of this event, I wrote a VIDA blog entitled ‘“Who do you think you are?” Australian Women Writers‘ in September 2016. In that blog, I suggested that gender and genre were inextricably intertwined both historically and now in terms of the construction of Australian literary history, the gendering of creative practice, and what constitutes literary worth. I also proposed that asking what affinities and differences – moments of connection and potentially disconnection – existed between contemporary women writers in Australia and their historical peers might help to encourage an active culture of reading and discussing women’s writing in Australia.
Part of my reasoning for the symposium was, thus, to bring together scholars currently working on nineteenth-century Australian women’s writing, as well as contemporary Australian female authors, in order to register and explore the contributions of Australia’s women writers to a literary landscape that has too often marginalised their significance. In so doing, it was hoped that an ongoing dialogue with the female writers of Australia’s past could be generated, a dialogue which I suggested was crucial to reconfiguring how we understand and value Australian women writers both past and present.
The opening paper by Dalziell responded directly to much of this thinking; a literal ‘coo-ee!’ to come together as scholars and writers to discuss and think about the multiple strands of current scholarship in this field. Dalziell especially deliberated the role of digital humanities in the ongoing study of nineteenth-century Australian women’s writing and how this digital turn opens up modes of distant reading that illuminate connections and patterns across both time and space. She also cautioned, however, on the need to continue to pay attention to difference and specificity. The latter was celebrated in the subsequent papers by Sussex, Martin and Webby, who spoke on individual writers and their specific publishing contexts, and who also examined a variety of genres, including poetry, crime fiction and periodical fiction.
Concerns around the ways in which we value and understand contemporary women’s writing in Australia repeatedly overlapped in these discussions with how Australia’s historical women writers have been positioned within Australia’s literary history. The interconnections between past and present constantly reminded how necessary study and appreciation of historical women’s writing still is in Australia. Especially in terms of rethinking and challenging dominant cultural attitudes towards contemporary women’s writing.
Maguire’s paper, in particular, spoke of and to the current gender inequities in Australian school curricula and recommended reading for children. It demonstrated the ways in which both genre hierarchies and masculinist attitudes towards women’s writing more broadly have a profound impact on school reading curricula. Literary reviews and prizes that are inflected by wider gender biases within the literature industry, as Maguire illustrated, have a significant influence on school curricula, especially in terms of the literature chosen for children to read and study. Such biases are thus further perpetuated. Australian school children at the reading end of this gendered loop inherit a mode of thinking that predominantly associates literary merit with male authors. As Jessica White observed in her post-symposium blog, ‘Not much has changed, then, since the nineteenth century.’
The symposium and SRB essays, however, also provoked more positive confluences. White noted several times in her essay on Praed the ‘synchronicities between Rosa’s life and mine.’ These moments of recognition coalesce around both literal similarities – her bush upbringing and ‘experiences of deafness’ – as well as those that relate to her approach to writing – putting ‘my own voice and body into the text’ – and their mutually ‘headstrong heroines.’ Even more insistently, MacKellar reflects in her essay on Spence that ‘I hadn’t expected a novel writing lesson from Miss Spence. But that’s what I’m getting.’ From ‘plotting’ to wrestling ‘to write fiction from what is known’, MacKellar finds in her reading of Clara a desire to ‘write like’ Clara’s creator.
Both MacKellar and White also both recognise in their respective readings of Spence and Praed the road women have more broadly travelled since the nineteenth century. MacKellar argues that to read Clara Morison is to see that ‘the rug women now stand on is far larger than the one Clara stood on before her uncle’; and White writes that to read ‘Rosa Praed is to read a woman railing against the confines of her culture while remaining deeply embedded within it.’ Such writing also admits to the moments of dissonance that reading these nineteenth-century novelists engenders, particularly around the issue of race. Spence’s characterisation in Clara of its one Aboriginal character is a ‘vicious portrait’ and a reminder that the social change Spence was seeking and which is passionately expressed through Clara’s story ‘is change only for white women.’
Together, these connections and disconnections begin to form a lively conversation between the past and the present and they pay testament to the ongoing legacy and significance of nineteenth-century Australian women’s writing. Post-symposium, and in collaboration with Elizabeth Lheude at the Australian Women Writers Challenge, three female postgraduate students (two from Western Sydney University and one from the University of New South Wales), all working on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australian women’s writing, have also now come together to write further retrospective reviews for the AWW blog. That White and MacKellar’s conversations, as well as the discussions that took place at the symposium, have since inspired others to continue this debate is possibly the best outcome of this project and one I hope others will emulate.
Anne Jamison is Lecturer in Literary Studies at Western Sydney University. Anne has published widely on nineteenth-century Irish women’s writing, including her recent monograph E. Œ. Somerville and Martin Ross: Female Authorship and Literary Collaboration (Cork University Press, 2016). She is currently Nancy Keesing Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales and is working on a comparative project between nineteenth-century Australian and Irish women’s writing.
Follow Anne on Twitter @AnneJamison3.