THE COMPLEXITIES OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIP

Yarn Spinners: A Story in Letters - Dymphna Cusack, Florence James, Miles Franklin. By Marilla North, ed.. University of Queensland Press, 2001. Passionate Friends: Mary Fullerton, Mabel Singleton, Miles Franklin. By Sylvia Martin, OnlyWomen Press, 2001.

Reviewed by Maryanne Dever.

The pairing of Marilla North's Yarn Spinners and Sylvia Martin's Passionate Friends is a fortuitous one. Together these works not only offer valuable new insights into the lives and careers of Australian women writers like Dymphna Cusack, Miles Franklin and Mary Fullerton, they also contribute in important ways to on-going debates on the role of scholars in sifting, editing and interpreting sources for literary study, the formation of Australian literary culture in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, and the complexities of female friendship. Despite their differences in orientation - North's is an edition of letters and Martin's a critical study - they nevertheless address an overlapping set of concerns. Each traces the evolution of friendships among a circle of women, each follows central figures in their journeys back and forth between Australia and England, and each is troubled by the teasing gaps that primary sources inevitably harbour.

Yarn Spinners is a hefty volume that brings together letters between Dymphna Cusack, Florence James and Miles Franklin from the period 1928 to 1955. Cusack lived a rather peripatetic existence for much of her life and her tendency to travel light means that she preserved less of her correspondence than Franklin and James who proved more assiduous in preserving Cusack's letters to them (and copying theirs to her). As a consequence, it is Cusack's voice and personality that dominate here, and her career and chronic health problems frequently take centre stage. The letters open in the late 1920s when Cusack - 'Nell' to her intimates - was in the early years of both her school teaching and writing careers, James was away on her grand tour of Europe, and Franklin yet to make the acquaintance of the young pair. Part one of the volume follows Cusack through her various minor triumphs in playwriting and false starts in fiction to her success and notoriety with the publication of Jungfrau (1936), runner-up to Kylie Tennant's Tiburon for the S.H. Prior Prize in 1935 (that was won by Franklin with All That Swagger in 1936). Cusack and Franklin came to know one another through the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the surviving letters from this period show the lonely, older Franklin finding a kindred spirit in the bolshy, ambitious and irreverent Cusack. Across 1938, the two collaborated on the manuscript of Pioneers on Parade (1939), a satire on the official Sesquicentenary celebrations of the same year, celebrations marked by a sycophantic preoccupation with vice-regal personages and by the suppression of the nation's indigenous and convict past. Their letters across this period provide a see-sawing commentary on the delicate art of literary collaboration, something that is often by its very nature rather difficult to tease out. But it is Cusack's next collaborative effort, Come in Spinner (1951) that ultimately anchors this volume and provides its strongest and most compelling narrative sequence. To speak here of 'narrative' is to point to North's considerable achievement in judiciously marshalling what must have been an unwieldy mountain of material into a series of coherent and intensely satisfying episodes, a task underpinned by her unobtrusive linking text, the selective incorporation of additional documents and her comprehensive footnotes.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Florence James had returned to Australia with her two young daughters and, in 1945, uncertain when she might be reunited with her husband in England, she took a house in the Blue Mountains with Cusack. Within months the two were working long shifts on a sprawling fiction of Sydney in wartime, determined to submit it for the Daily Telegraph's novel competition. Many readers will be familiar with the broad elements of the controversy surrounding the belated appearance of Spinner, but North's volume documents in welcome detail the extraordinarily protracted and murky history of its progression through the competition, through revisions dogged by the conflicting claims of the newspaper, the judges and various unwelcome editorial advisers, to its final publication in a much reduced state long after the co-authors had departed Australia's shores. Anyone prone to lament the latter day perfidy of editors, publishers and newspapers may console themselves upon reading this section that it was ever thus. North's layering of letters allows for the complex motives and shrewd strategies of various players to be thrown into relief, but one of the most compelling ironies to emerge is Cusack and James' ignorance of the fact that Franklin, their confidante throughout these trials, had submitted an entry for the same competition and suffered its rejection. Franklin is, of course, renowned for her odd habits of secrecy, acts of literary deception and complicated affections. These attributes are here confirmed once more, but against the competing claims of friendship and half-concealed professional rivalry. Franklin receives an unwelcome dose of her own peculiar medicine some time later when Cusack withholds from her the revelation that she is now living in Europe with Norman Freehill, then still a married man. The final letters between the three delineate Franklin's lonely decline (“My paper is full, my strength is gone”) and her repeated injunction to Cusack to stay abroad to establish herself rather than returning home rings rather hollow.

Taken as a whole, Yarn Spinners not only documents the individual careers of these women, but also offers through their particular trials further insight into the major challenges involved in forging (or maintaining) a career as an Australian writer in a period when limited opportunities existed for remunerative local publication and when royalty arrangements offered in London discriminated against those making decent sales in their home market. While these issues aren't new to anyone familiar with the territory, we nevertheless learn a good deal more about precisely how it felt to be on the receiving end of these and other injustices. In reading the volume, it is difficult not be struck by the lop-sided nature of literary posterity. Cusack is best known today for Jungfrau and Come in Spinner, particularly since the latter's reissue in uncut form and the highly successful television mini-series based on it. But it is a shame that novels such as Southern Steel, Say No to Death and The Sun in Exile have not been reissued in recent years. I would guess too that Pioneers on Parade remains unread by many of those who count My Brilliant Career and All That Swagger among their favourites. In this sense, North's substantial volume, while filling certain gaps, conjures up others that remain. One can only look forward to the biography of Cusack that North's bio note tells us is underway.

By contrast, Passionate Friends is a trim volume, but it nevertheless makes its own timely contribution to the field. While Yarn Spinners will inevitably serve to consolidate the profiles of Dymphna Cusack and Miles Franklin and to remind us of the role played by Florence James, Sylvia Martin's study brings to our attention two figures who have to date proved to be of peripheral interest, at best, to mainstream Australian literature scholars. While Franklin, who appears here again, requires no introduction – at least to Australian readers – Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton are far more shadowy figures: Singleton unknown to most and Fullerton remembered mainly for her childhood memoir Bark House Days (1921) and through the story of Miles Franklin's efforts to secure the publication of works by the mysterious poet then known only as 'E'. Fullerton emerges as the principal figure in Passionate Friends, a study charting her literary friendship with Franklin and her life-long relationship with fellow feminist activist Mabel Singleton, an Englishwoman she first met through suffrage circles in Melbourne in the early 1900s.

The title of this work points to one of its central preoccupations, namely the difficulties that contemporary scholars encounter when engaging with female friendships dating from earlier historical periods. Martin articulates the tension between the desire to locate an obscured history of same sex relationships and the need to produce such a history without making recourse to problematic, ahistorical categories of experience. Having marked out the traps and challenges that inevitably lie in wait, Martin demonstrates a surety and subtlety in handling her subjects. It is clear that Martin is deeply engaged with these women ('my particular passion is exploring the papers of women who led unorthodox lives'), but she balances this investment with a fine scholarly touch. Her study is based on meticulous archival research that is sensitive to what such repositories can reveal, what they might conceal, and her own quite palpable desire to bridge the gap between the available sources and the unknown and unknowable in these women's lives 'the pleasures and frustrations involved in such a project'.

One of the particular joys of this work - and there are many - is Martin's engaging narrative style. She is a consummate story-teller, something that often remains oddly unremarked upon (and unrewarded) in literary scholarship. She traces Fullerton's life from her Gippsland childhood, through her move to Melbourne in her twenties and her growing involvement in suffrage circles, to her encounters with Singleton and later Franklin and the relationships that develop from there. Her account is supported throughout by detailed and sensitive readings of Fullerton's published and unpublished verse. At the time Fullerton meets Singleton, the latter is the respectable middle-class wife of a Melbourne businessmen she had encountered in England. Martin draws us into teasing episodes such as the birth of Singleton's only son Dennis and the ambiguities surrounding the new mother's seeming banishment from the family home to a remote house in the Dandenongs where she was joined by Fullerton. Martin pieces together fragments of manuscript verse, letters and oral testimony which gesture toward such explanations as possible adultery and she weighs these against the remaining puzzling elements in the episode. The collapse of her marriage left Singleton to raise her son alone, albeit well-supported by her on-going friendship with Fullerton with whom she would, after some delay and not a little indecision, establish a permanent household in England in the early 1920s. Almost a decade later, Franklin would join them in their Kensington apartment, residing with them for over a year while penning Bring the Monkey (1933), a work that is heavily indebted to those days together.

But if Singleton's status as an estranged wife (and later widow) had its difficulties, they were notably different from those experienced by Fullerton and Franklin who both remained unmarried in an era when this inevitably cast them as odd or unfulfilled women and left them open to uncomfortable labeling as to their sexuality. Martin explores in detail the ways in which the two women understood and represented their sexual identities and buttressed themselves against emerging sexological discourses that would construct them as 'abnormal' and 'frustrated'. In contrast to Franklin's insistent proclamation of a celibate heterosexuality which she claimed was based at least in part on the incompatibility between marriage and careers as elaborated in My Brilliant Career, Fullerton constructed herself in terms of a chaste asexuality. Martin unsettles this, however, by pointing to Fullerton's particular interest in Emerson's philosophy of friendship and Edward Carpenter's theory of an intermediate sex. But perhaps one of the most interesting sections here is Martin's analysis of how each writer negotiated between their preferred understandings of their sexual identities, their feminist politics, and their commitments to a nationalist literary culture that necessarily complicated and compromised the first two of these.

As writers Franklin and Fullerton provided a good deal of support to one another, and not just when they shared a household, although this certainly provided an opportunity for each to benefit from intensive workshopping. The two were arguably saved from the worst iniquities of professional rivalry by their commitments to different genres. As novelist and poet they were not in immediate competition and this permitted them a measure of generosity. It is clear, though, that Fullerton experienced the uncomfortable sense that Franklin understood hers to be a lesser talent in spite of Franklin's efforts to shepherd her work into print. It is to be hoped that Martin's study will generate renewed interest in Fullerton and her writing at the same time as it sheds new light on the troubling contradictions that are so much a part of the better known Franklin. I suspect, however, that the greater contribution of Passionate Friends will be its analysis of the passions that joined these women as a group - passions that provide on-going conceptual and methodological challenges to our ways of understanding and interpreting personal lives and personal narratives along the fault-lines of sexual identity.


Maryanne Dever is Director of The Centre for Women's Studies and Gender Research in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. Her PhD thesis was on M. Barnard Eldershaw and she has published widely on Australian women fiction writers.