University of Tasmania
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Moving forward, looking back : middlebrow women writers in mid-twentieth-century Australia

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posted on 2023-05-27, 11:18 authored by Robyn GreavesRobyn Greaves
This thesis focuses on the writing of four successful Australian women authors whose work falls into the period 1930s-1970s: Ernestine Hill (1899-1972), Henrietta Drake-Brockman (1901-1968), Mary Durack (1913-1994), and Patsy Adam-Smith (1924-2001). These women wrote prolifically across a range of genres and publishing mediums. They travelled widely throughout the remote regions of Australia and transcribed their experiences for an audience eager to learn more about their country. The four writers participated in the serious, nation-building pursuits which contributed to the development of a distinctive national culture in early-to mid-twentieth-century Australia. Although their work was well-received and widely read at the time, they have largely fallen into obscurity. By drawing attention to these four women and their work, this dissertation contributes to scholarly calls for a broader and more inclusive understanding of the development of white Australia's sense of itself during the early-to mid-twentieth century. One key connection between these writers for the wider purposes of this study is that they all contributed to Walkabout magazine (1934-1974, 1978), a popular middlebrow periodical with an Australian focus. Middlebrow writing has a history of being derided, devalued and avoided in critical scholarship. The thesis argues that one of the key reasons for the critical neglect of these writers is their positioning within this category, which reached its initial peak in Australia during the time they were publishing. Middlebrow culture in Australia evolved during a period of rapid modernisation and had a nationalistic focus. One of the effects was to give women a more prominent place in society, particularly as consumers. Increased opportunities for employment, albeit in limited areas, became available, giving women a public platform from which to speak. They made up a significant proportion of producers and consumers of middlebrow culture, which led to the perception of this category as a location of the feminine, further devaluing the arena of middlebrow culture overall. While this thesis is interested in historical context, the focus is on representation and textuality. It reads across a variety of texts and genres including historical and romance novels, travel texts, articles for magazines, family histories, autobiography and memoir. It compares and contrasts the representations of self, country and others in these writers' work through a focus on four main themes: gender, nation, mobility and race. These interconnected themes are crucial sites for cultural representation and are closely tied to relationships of power in postcolonial society. As such, this thesis is concerned with the ways in which these writers negotiated a sense of belonging as white women in a predominantly masculine culture. Female writers were necessarily caught up in dominant patriarchal/colonial discourses but also stood outside these due to their gender. The ways in which these women constructed their authority is analysed in order to interrogate the public personas available to women in this period. Identity formation in settler colonial societies is inextricably bound to complex relationships with the land and with Indigenous Australians. White settlers occupied an inbetween space in a nation that was not wholly theirs, which expressed itself in internally contradictory texts. This thesis examines the assumptions, attitudes and arguments advanced by these writers' texts and the relationship of these rhetorical strategies with colonial and postcolonial discourses. The study considers how women writers used the positions available to them to speak to the nation as well as to critique it. Through its close reading of the work of these neglected women writers, this thesis contributes to a broader critical consideration of the cultural work performed by middlebrow writing.


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