‘Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945’ by Drusilla Modjeska

1991, 258 p

I feel as if I am reading this book at several steps removed. My copy of this book is the 1991 reprint of the original 1981 version which itself was taken from Modjeska’s PhD thesis.  So they do exist-those mythical creatures who actually get a book out of their PhD!  In the introduction to the 1991 edition  she describes the intellectual milieu in which she wrote her original thesis.  It was written in the early 1980s when she could not foresee the dominance of women in Australian writing and publishing in the upcoming decade, and under the influence of the Women’s Liberation Movement as it was known at the time.   There’s a rather rueful admission at the end of Chapter 2 that perhaps she had mis-attributed a publication to a particular author (and unfortunately, she does make rather a lot of this publication), but she allows the original text to stand.  I assume that many academics have similar infelicities which they know about in their own work, but can allow them to go through to the keeper because the work is not reprinted.  I found it interesting to read the rather earnest 1981 acknowledgments page, followed by the 1991 introduction which reflects an older, more relaxed narrative voice, more similar to that found in her other, later writings.

Modjeska points out

The 1930s were remarkable years in Australian cultural history.  Women were producing the best fiction of the period and they were, for the first and indeed only time, a dominant influence in Australian literature… They were politically active, they were often angry and they made sure their presence was felt as writers and as women.  Their remarkable history and the broader tradition that stretches beyond them has been undervalued and obscured.  This book is a history of these women writers, tracing the interconnections between their lives, their work, their politics and their fiction.  It is a book not only about social history but about writing, about cultural and ideological struggle, about feminism and fiction, about the contradictions of class and gender. (p. 1-2)

Her book ranges around a number of women novelists of the 1920s and 30s- Miles Franklin,  Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark, Jean Devanny, Dymphna Cusack and Katharine Susannah Prichard (my impetus for reading the book).   Many of these women were linked through their contact with Nettie Palmer, whom I had only ever encountered as part of the Vance-and-Nettie-Palmer team.  Miles Franklin gets a chapter to herself, while the others are woven together by their letters and communications to and through Nettie Palmer and amongst themselves.

Much of the book discusses the role of politics on these women’s writings and identities as public intellectuals during a decade of the Depression, the rise of Fascism, Stalinism, the Spanish Civil War and World War II.   Some of them, like Prichard and Devanny became overtly identified with the Communist Party, to the detriment of their writing;  while others distanced themselves from or resisted such clear allegiance, even though Modjeska portrayed most of them as leftist in their politics. They all had to face and somehow accommodate the demands of being wife, mother and daughter.

For me, the least successful chapter came near the end of the book where she discusses a string of books, many of which I have not even heard of, let alone read.   Modjeska’s analysis is heavily influenced by the Marxist Feminism of the 1970s and 80s , something her subjects lacked:

One of the problems for the writer-women of the thirties was that their anger, their feminist protest was backed by very little theory. In consequence their political anxieties deflected from the early feminist impulse in their fiction while forcing them back on a commonsense faith  in what they knew was important in their experience as women and which they expressed as a female humanism… In the absence of theory they had to rely on those old female virtues of commonsense and intuition (p.256)

I’m not convinced that it was such a deficiency as Modjeska felt it to be, or whether she would feel that way today.

I admit to being out of my depth in much of the subject matter and I ‘m not sure whether I picked up on the overarching argument of the book.  The chapters were self contained and read almost as essays in their own right, but I wasn’t able to pull them together into a structured argument.   I have seen this book cited several times, and it obviously broke new ground when it was published.   I also sense that in many ways, the deficiencies that Modjeska identifies in terms, say, of a strong critical biography of Miles Franklin have been taken up in recent scholarship. What I did detect, however, was the complementarity between this book and Modjeska’s later work Stravinsky’s Lunch, which I class amongst the best Australian non-fiction books I have read.  And I find myself wondering, if Modjeska were to write this book today 30 years on, what sort of book it would be.

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One response to “‘Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945’ by Drusilla Modjeska

  1. I have dipped into this book over the years but for some reason don’t have my own copy. I should rectify that because I think the 1930s was a fascinating period in Australian culture – and particularly for the significance of the women writing at the time. They have been way too forgotten and I think that’s a huge shame because they have a lot to offer – particularly in relation to “feminism” but also just to show that we didn’t actually “invent” ideas in the 1970s etc. They were there long before.

    Flora Eldershaw was also pretty political, on the left side, but not overtly communist like Prichard and Devanny.

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