Celebrating some of Australia's best women writers

Collection Talk: Bold Women in Print. Dr Grace Blakeley-Carroll. National Library of Australia, Conference Room, Level 4, Tuesday, January 16, 12.30pm. Free admission. Bookings: nla.gov.au.

Writing isn't an easy profession at the best of times. For women in the early 20th century, it was even harder to break into print and stay there. Three women who rose to the challenge are the subject of a Collection Talk at the National Library of Australia next week.

Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin and Christina Stead will be the subjects of Bold Women in Print, given by Dr Grace Blakeley-Carroll, curator, exhibitions, at the National Library of Australia. She completed her doctorate at the Australian National University on the female artist and spiritualist Christian Waller last year. This will be her first public talk at the library.

"It's based on a display in the Treasures Gallery and the reason these three were selected is they were among the best writers of the period," Blakeley-Carroll says.

All three women had to overcome major obstacles to achieve their ambitions to become published writers - two of them, Richardson and Franklin, wrote under male pseudonyms because being taken seriously as women was difficult. the other, Stead, found that her work wasn't considered Australian enough and was initially given more attention overseas before achieving belated recognition in her homeland.

Richardson (1870-1946) was born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson. Her best known books are the coming-of-age novel The Getting of Wisdom (1910) and the trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, published in three volumes in 1917 (Australia Felix), 1925 (The Way Home) and 1929 (The Way Home) and finally as a trilogy in 1930.

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Blakeley-Carroll says, is "critically regarded as a major piece of Australian fiction".

Richardson left Australia in 1888 at the age of 18 and came back only once, in 1912, to research Richard Mahony.

It tells the story of a British immigrant to Australia and the ups and downs of his life - "It could almost be called The Misfortunes of Richard Mahony," Blakeley-Carroll says.

At various times in the book, Mahony's wife is the breadwinner when his business interests fail and he is interested in spiritualism and still regards Britain as home - much of this inspired by Richardson's own parents.

Blakeley-Carroll says of Richardson, "Her mother worked as a postmistress when her father had a mental breakdown and was dying."

Richardson married and her husband was supportive of her writing career.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954) never married. She wrote My Brilliant Career before she was 20 and published it in Britain in 1901 with the support of Henry Lawson, who wrote a foreword, although, Blakeley-Carroll says, the publisher removed the (?) she had inserted after "Brilliant".

:Sybylla, the novel's heroine, is an independent-minded country girl who wants more out of life than to live on a farm as a wife but has a crucial decision to make when she is romanced by a wealthy man.

Franklin lived in the US and England between 1906 and 1932, where she worked for women's trade unions and continued to write novels. So that her other books would not be compared to her first, she adopted other male pseudonyms, among them Brent of Bin Bin. She continued to write throughout her life and supported other Australian writers and literary organisations.

"Franklin left part of her estate to establish the Miles Franklin Award for Australian literature which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year," Blakeley-Carroll says, "and in 2013 the Stella Prize for Australian women writers was established in her honour using her real first name."

Christina Stead (1902-1983), like Richardson and Franklin, also spent many years abroad, living in Europe and the US, where she married writer William Blake,who introduced her to Marxism, before returning to Australia in 1968 after his death.

Blakeley-Carroll says it was "a great tragedy" that Stead could not get her work published in her home country because it was not considered Australian enough.

"Her masterpiece, the 1940 The Man Who Loved Children, was originally set in Australia, but she couldn't get it published in Australia so her agent suggested she set it in Washington."

The novel - inspired in part by Stead's own family - told of a dysfunctional family with a narcissistic father, Sam, his overwhelmed wife, Henny, and the unhappy eldest daughter from his first marriage, Louie. It was first published in the US and Stead was frustrated for many years as importing books to Australia was expensive and she wasn't well known there. But she kept writing and in 1974, she was awarded the inaugural Patrick White Award for established yet underappreciated writers. And in the year before her death, she also received the New South Wales Premier's Medal for Services to Australian Literature.

This story Celebrating some of Australia's best women writers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.