Australian women writers emerge from publishing shadow

susan-sheridanProfessor Susan Sheridan’s new book sheds light on a “lost generation” of Australian postwar women writers.

Nine Lives: postwar women writers making their mark traces the early careers of Jessica Anderson, Dorothy Hewett, Judith Wright, Amy Witting, Gwen Harwood, Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley, Rosemary Dobson and Dorothy Auchterlonie Green.

All were born between 1915 and 1925 and ultimately achieved public and critical recognition.

But, as Professor Sheridan (pictured), Adjunct Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Flinders University points out, that kudos was not easily won. A variety of social, cultural and economic factors combined to put up hurdles for these women writers.

“There were very strong expectations on women that their principal sense of self would be formed around their family, their husbands and their children. And while all of these women married and had children, they wanted something more,” she said.

“The scene that these women were trying to establish themselves in as writers in the years after World War II looked as if it ought to have been very encouraging,” Professor Sheridan said.

“There were lots of new little magazines and this worked very well for some of the poets, like Wright and Dobson. But it was much harder for people writing fiction,” she said.

“There were few Australian publishing houses, and it was very difficult to get novels by Australian writers, set in Australia, published in England.”

“Publishers and editors were predominantly men, and they did not necessarily see a role for themselves as mentors for unknown women writers.”

A lack of institutional support for literature and the absence of writers’ festivals, creative writing courses and Australian literature courses in Australian universities did little to help matters.

“These women were also rather isolated,” Professor Sheridan said.

“There wasn’t the web of connection between women writers in the ‘50s and ‘60s that existed in an earlier generation.

“I’m struck by their amazing courage and their faith in themselves and their writing. Each of them saw literature as a high calling and was serious about her own ambition.”

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