Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers, 1925-1945, by Drusilla Modjeska.
Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers, 1925-1945, by Drusilla Modjeska. Sydney : Sirius Books, 1984.
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WITERS
4 stars ******
A fascinating account of a network of Australian women and their interactions with the cultural and political crises of their time.
Drusilla Modjeska has written an unusual book about women struggling to be writers in a changing and challenging time in Australian history. This is not a book with a series of chapters about different women and the literary contributions of each. Although Modjeska gives us such information, her focus is on the interactions within which a group of woman writers and the social political environment in which they were heard. According to Modjeska, the women were a dominant voice in Australian literature. Yet as women they faced particular problems in both their private and public lives–problems many of us today face as we seek to combine families, responsibilities and careers.
The principle writers on whom Modjeska focuses were diverse in character and background. Their political allegiances varied widely although often their friendships spanned those differences. Nettie Palmer was at the core of the group, nurturing the others, bringing them together, as she sought to promote a liberal national literature. Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw wrote together as M. Barnard Eldershaw, while Eleanor Dark wrote from an individualistic liberal perspective. Jean Devanny and Katherine Prichard both joined the Communist Party which encouraged their writing at the same time it thwarted them as artists and women. Modjeska explains how Prichard internalized her problems with the party, while Devanny tried to fight back. Miles Franklin is the one author to merit a whole chapter, where Modjeska does an excellent job of discussing what she gained from her involvement in American feminism and how that influenced her on her return to Australia. Other women writers move in and out of the text. She deliberately excludes Christina Stead and Henry Handel Richardson because they did their major writing abroad.
Exiles at Home is full of detailed attention to the women writers’ lives and words. Abundant citations confirm Modjeska spent long hours over their books and papers. In the late twenties and early thirties, she sees women writing about women’s individual lives, often criticizing the marriages they observed but not the institution of marriage itself. Their books tended to suggest individual or liberal solutions rather than major social change. While critical of women’s options, few promoted united feminist change. Often set in local landscapes, their writing contributed to a national literature that valued democracy and equalitarianism. Although they tried to foster these ideals as explicitly Australian traditions, they seem to have meant only those of settlers descended from Europeans. Only Prichard dealt substantively with Indigenous characters.
By 1933 Fascism was gaining sway in Europe and raising fears in Australia. Communists organized in the continent, and joined with other left-leaning groups and individuals to oppose Fascism and promote social changes. Women writers tended to move away from personal issues into the need for political and economic changes. Feminism and criticism of problems facing women diminished. While some accepted class conflict, others sought the same goal through liberal education and reform. But as war approached, anti-fascism grew in importance, and a split developed between what were recognized as “politics” and “women’s problems.” Anti-fascism and fears over the failure of liberal democracy pushed other issues aside.
Somewhat innovatively, Modjeska provides details about the contradictions within the daily lives of the women who were seeking to write. It took a middle-class income to even try to bridge the difficulties. Although the women lived middle-class lives, married or single they had to earn money. Supportive husbands and maids were important but not always available. Married women typically devoted time and energy to their husband’s careers at the expense of their own. Single women were not spared domestic responsibilities, often being left responsible for aging parents and without financial support.
Drusilla Modjeska is an important Australian writer, always ready to explore fiction and history from unusual perspectives. She has fast become a favorite of mine. Modjeska’s interests mirror my own. We both are less concerned with books as literary productions and more curious about what they say about the lives and ideas of their authors and subjects; what contradictions and tensions they display; and what are their underlying assumptions. Yet it is difficult to write about such topics, especially for a group rather than individuals. As much as I liked what Modjeska was doing, I struggled with her book. Part of my problem, of course, was my lack of knowledge about the writers she examined or even Australian history for this period. More informed readers would probably gain even more than I did. I finished this book with lots of new additions to my TBR list.
I highly recommend this book, not only for those interested in Australian women writers, but also for all who are concerned about what it means for women to write and the conditions that are needed for them to do so.