What there doesn’t seem to be much of in mystery fiction, however, is female detectives who begin detecting in middle age (two cases in point: Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski was 32 when we began to follow her adventures, while Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta was 36). Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.
But it’s a surprise if you’re a woman in your 40s who is beginning to write mystery novels – which not so long ago I was. And while it’s a cliche that people write what they know, when I decided to write a mystery I entered into that cliche wholeheartedly. I started writing mysteries in my 40s – and I made my detectives two women in their 40s.
But while I designed my detectives in part to mirror myself, I also chose their age for entirely different reasons. For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.
This decision is a small one, but for me it engaged with a question I’ve long struggled with, the question of what, intellectually, literature is supposed to do. Should it report on the world as it is, or should it model the world as it might – could, should, would – be?
Recent fiction may not have been filled with middle-aged women, but it has been filled with angry ones. It’s jam packed with dystopian models of female repression and with women and men implacably set against one other: look at Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. As I began to create my fictional world, I was troubled by the question of whether these outpourings of rage, all justified, all earned, are enough.
In one way this literature is unquestionably good: female rage is something else culture has assiduously avoided considering for centuries, and during those centuries women have been subjugated, silenced, used and abused in ways that deserve outpourings of anger.
Nor is this landscape of female repression changing quickly, and there is value in forcing it before readers’ eyes. In a recent article for The Guardian about the Staunch Prize, the new award for the best crime/mystery novel that does not feature violence against women, the novelist Kaite Welsh wrote that she wouldn’t “sanitise my writing in service of some fictional, feminist utopia … my work lies in marrying my imagination with the ugly truth”. This is an important argument.
Modeling the future
But while I don’t care about the absence of feminist utopias, I do care about the absence of writing that models the future we want. What will it be like, the world we’re striving for where the playing field is level and men and women are just people being people together? I believe that we can only imagine based on what we’ve seen, and that it’s part of literature’s job to help us see what doesn’t yet exist but could.
For this reason, although I grounded my novels firmly in the present (well, Death in Paris is set in 2014 and The Books of the Dead in 2016), I made some specific choices about that present. In my books, every person in a powerful position is a woman. Department heads and doctors, sources of knowledge and implacable foes: all are female.
More importantly, as far as I was concerned, no one draws attention to that. It’s so normal as to be unworthy of note. Nor does anyone comment on the fact that both my detectives are childless, and one remains happily unmarried in her mid-40s. Both of these detectives are heterosexual, but I made that decision so I could give each a husband or boyfriend who sees them as an intellectual and emotional equal, and for whom that equality is also the norm. The women in my books have and enjoy good sex, and they have and enjoy good conversations – almost none of them about men.
My books are full of oversights and omissions, and I’m far from satisfied with them. But what I aimed to do, and am still trying to do, is to augment the justifiable depictions of anger, the honest depictions of ongoing brutality and violence against women, with a small model that allows for a morsel of hope.
Straddling the private and public domains, the early French women’s press – the various published journals and pamphlets that began to appear in the 18th and early 19th centuries – can provide a unique insight into women’s everyday struggles and successes during a particularly turbulent period in France’s history.
Women’s magazines today are often thought of as ideologically somewhat conformist. They are seen to promote a limited range of feminine role models and to reinforce norms regarding women’s position within patriarchal society. The content of much of the early French women’s press presents a very different picture.
The origins of the French women’s press date back to the 18th century. The first women’s journal of any substance and longevity, Le Journal des dames, was published from 1759 until 1778. Over the next few decades a variety of different subsections and types of article emerged – many of which, whether the domestic magazine or the problem page, remain current in today’s women’s press.
It was my interest in the “political” potential of these representations of French women’s daily lives that gave rise to my book Figurations of the Feminine in the Early French Women’s Press, 1758-1848. During this period, French women had no right to political representation. Despite the Enlightenment emphasis on the rights of the individual, women were not considered of equal status to men. Their education was significantly less extensive than men’s in terms of both subjects taught and duration, resulting in high levels of illiteracy.
The Napoleonic Code of 1804legally obliged wives to obey their husbands and gave the latter complete control of all property. So how did these earliest women’s journals engage with the rights and roles of French women at the time?
Building communities of women
The early French women’s press spans a range of genres, from the literary review (Le Journal des dames) to the fashion journal (Le Journal des dames et des modes [1797-1839]) to the more socially conscious feminist journal, La Femme libre (1832-34), which strove to improve employment conditions for women. These publications had a variety of target readerships, depending on the sorts of issues they covered – and these, in turn, partly depend on their historical period of publication.
Just as the Revolution of 1789 provided an impetus for women’s journals and pamphlets, such as Les Étrennes nationales des dames(1789) to intensify their demands for sexual equality, journals during the Restoration adopt a moralistic tone (Le Journal des dames et des modes, focusing on more light-hearted subjects such as fashion and characterising female readers as guardians of the hearth and paragons of virtue.
The actual readership of early French women’s journals, aside from what we can glean from articles and letters submitted by readers, is more difficult to establish and circulation claims are notoriously unreliable. Both literacy levels and the expense of the earliest women’s journals clearly limited their readership, although journals were passed among friends and within households – and, according to the correspondence of readers in Le Journal des dames et des modes (July 1803) were even read aloud.
What is clear is the pleasure expressed by many women readers at engaging in dialogue with a community of like-minded individuals and the resulting sense of collective identity and political consciousness based on gender. For the first time, French women readers – largely confined to the domestic realm – were encouraged to articulate their “private” opinions in a public forum.
Women authors too, such as Madame de Savignac – who published educational fiction for young people – writing in Le Journal des femmes in May 1833, appreciated the role played by women’s journals in supporting women’s intellectual achievements and in giving women authors the confidence to renounce their male pseudonyms.
Many contemporary women authors adopted male pseudonyms – Savignac makes specific mention of George Sand – in order to maintain anonymity and increase the likelihood of publication in a male-dominated publishing world.
Women’s journals both act as a mirror to the society in which they are produced but can also help modify aspects of that society. Like today’s women’s press, early women’s journals in France were also selling the notion of a better life. But rather than appealing to the reader’s materialist aspirations, they did so by highlighting the need for women’s personal and public responsibility. They demonstrated a form of “civic feminism”, to employ a term adopted by the historian Carla Hesse.
If the content varies depending on the journal and the historical context in question, the radicalness of the agenda and of the narratives these journals promote is striking. Many journals – in particular the fashion press – still remained conservative in their worldview. But many others confronted legislative and social prejudices against women in an endeavour to strengthen their rights – whether to divorce or to vote – and to improve their standing in French society through the promotion of a more intellectually challenging education for women. As Suellen Diaconoff remarks in her study Through the Reading Glass: Women, Books, and Sex in the French Enlightenment:
It would be overstating the case to say that female editors focused on setting a full pro-woman agenda in their periodicals, or to assert that they saw themselves first as feminist activists and secondarily as journalists. But it is, nonetheless, true that their journals often carried a competing and alternative discourse for women, at significant variance from the model widely accepted in the mainstream.
Early French women’s journals also fought for a more inclusive French canon that treated women authors seriously. They championed women’s right to choose their own husbands in an age of arranged marriages and encouraged those women with unhappy marriages to write in anonymously about their problems, thereby providing the first example of the problem page (Le Courier de l’hymen, journal des dames, 1791).
They petitioned for improvements in women’s education and employment conditions (La Femme libre and La Voix des femmes, 1848). In short, for their contemporary readers, these early journals promoted women’s intellectual, familial and professional contributions to French society.
For today’s reader, they provide a privileged and – as yet – largely un-navigated mapping of French women’s evolving personal and political trajectories.
In Dervla McTiernan’s book, The Scholar, published earlier this year, women are consistently used as the “fall guys” for men with high aspirations. Two young women are killed when they uncover fraud. Another female colleague is then framed for the murders.
Before writing crime fiction, McTiernan worked as a lawyer for 12 years, for international companies like the one in The Scholar. Her background lends her book authority, even though it’s fiction.
McTiernan joins a batch of crime writing women bringing professional clout to their books. Others are Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Marcia Clark, Alafair Burke, Anne Holt, and Lisa Scottoline. This list is a tiny fraction of the trailblazing authors.
Crimes close to home
Last week, Elizabeth Farrelly wrote that “crime fiction is the morality drama of our time” that can “heighten and dissect the battle of good against evil enacted daily in our living rooms, cities and streets”. She compared crime books about violence against women with Australia’s deplorable record on domestic violence and rape.
In books written by ex-justice professionals, we are asked to examine our cultural and moral compasses. These authors don’t just write about serial killers – who are thankfully more common in the pages of crime books than in real life – they more often focus on murders by spouses, family members or colleagues of the victim. Some push for changes to how rape trials are prosecuted. They focus on the justice system problems that women face, as victims and as professionals.
The stories also ask us to question how we perceive professional women. These authors’ characters, who often have much in common with their creators, face a barrage of harassment on the job. Lisa Scottoline’s fictional all-women law firm is consistently targeted by abusive prank callers. In her latest book, Feared, the firm is sued for “reverse” sexual discrimination.
What’s the appeal?
Australians are avid readers of crime fiction. In a 2017 study, 48.5% of respondents read crime fiction, making it the most popular genre for enjoyment.
While researching my book on the topic, I had the opportunity to read Dorothy Uhnak’s fan letters, held at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Readers (many of whom were prison inmates) repeatedly told Uhnak that her books touched on inequalities in the justice system that rang true for them, and reading her work was therapeutic.
Cosy vs hardboiled
Female crime writers have historically been pigeonholed as writing “cosy crime” novels as opposed to more graphic masculine representations of “hardboiled” detectives.
We are used to reading about women as amateurs, from Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth, Miss Marple, to Janet Evanovich’s bumbling and untrained bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum. Since the 1970s, more authors have written about women as hardboiled private detectives.
Now, we are increasingly seeing women characters in professional roles. When the author is also a professional, she has even more authority. She has “insider knowledge.” Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones surveyed women who read feminist crime series and found that readers identify with the struggles of characters who are realistic professional women. Often, the fictional investigations have similarities to real ones the author has worked on. Central Park 5 prosecutor turned crime author Linda Fairstein received pointed criticism about these similarities.
In Australia, ex-police officer Y.A. Erskine’s debut The Brotherhood tells the story of rookie cop Lucy Howard who is blamed when a senior sergeant is killed on a routine call-out. She can’t join the brotherhood of the Tasmanian police force, because, in her words, she doesn’t have the “standard-issue penis”. She is an outsider inside the system.
In Erskine’s follow-up, The Betrayal, Lucy is raped by a colleague. When she makes a complaint, she is vilified and blamed for tarnishing the reputation of the police. The complaint is briefly investigated before being dropped.
Another Australian ex-cop writing crime is P.M. Newton. Her debut, The Old School (notice the theme in the titles?), follows Australian-Vietnamese officer, Nhu “Ned” Kelly. She deals with the racism and corruption of her male colleagues before being shot by one of them.
Newton’s following book, Beams Falling (a reference to Dashiell Hammett’s Flitcraft parable within The Maltese Falcon), tracks Ned’s struggle with post traumatic stress disorder. While fictional detectives usually bounce back quickly after violence, Ned never fully gets over the trauma, and her work offers little support.
Ex-cop Karen M. Davis, has also created a character damaged by her policing experience. Davis’ Lexie Rogers has been stabbed in the neck, and fears facing her attacker in court – a fear exacerbated by her insider knowledge of the justice system. Davis has spoken about how she retired from the police because of trauma, and began writing as a kind of catharsis. Erskine has spoken out about how the rape of Lucy in her books is based on her own unreported rape by a colleague.
These authors have seen the inside of the criminal justice system, its flaws and the experience of women within it. They bring this cachet of lived experiences to their crime fiction. Bestsellers by Marcia Clark or Anne Holt could spark moral reflection, validate women’s experiences, and be part of the cultural shift needed to end violence against women.
As you indulge in summer reading, consider this fact. If not for the path-breaking women in Canadian publishing, some of Canada’s best-known writers might not have made it: Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Carol Shields.
Although it’s known that women have always participated in Canadian publishing, the lasting influence they’ve had on the industry remains largely unacknowledged. It’s time we honoured Irene Clarke, Claire Pratt, Anna Porter and Bella Pomer — Canada’s own Diana Athills, the famous British editor — whose contributions count alongside those of men like Jack McClelland, a name that still dominates the history of Canadian publishing.
My research focuses on Canadian authors and their publishers, editors and literary agents. It has led to many happy hours immersed in archival collections in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where I’ve uncovered the record of women’s labour in mainstream Canadian publishing. In making a place for themselves in the mainstream press, these women helped lead the way for the feminists who established their own imprints, such as Press Gang Publishers (1970-2002) and Sister Vision Press (1985-2000).
Who were these trailblazing figures?
Irene Clarke, publisher
Irene Clarke (1903-1986) was Canada’s first woman publisher of English-language books. In 1930, she co-founded Clarke, Irwin.
In 1941, Clarke took another bold step and published Emily Carr’s first book, Klee Wyck, under the Oxford University Press Canada imprint. At the time, in an unusual arrangement, Clarke, Irwin shared staff and premises with Oxford.
Carr’s book of sketches, which had been rejected by other publishers, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction and helped generate new recognition for her paintings.
A close bond formed between Irene Clarke and Emily Carr, two women who broke historic ground, one as a publisher, and the other as a writer and a painter. Clarke not only launched Carr’s literary career. She went on to publish and acquire the copyright to all of Carr’s writing, which now endures alongside her more celebrated paintings.
Claire Pratt, editor
From 1956 to 1965, Claire Pratt (1921-1995) was senior editor at McClelland & Stewart, where she worked closely with individual writers.
Pratt came to know Margaret Laurence through her fiction set in Africa and recommended the novel This Side Jordan (1960) and The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories (1963) for publication.
When she read the draft of The Stone Angel (1964), the first novel in Laurence’s Manawaka series, the editor was deeply moved. Pratt’s appreciation won the author’s trust and she remained a touchstone figure in Laurence’s life.
Pratt was most vivacious with the spirited poet Irving Layton. Pratt worked with Layton on four volumes issued by McClelland & Stewart, the first of which was the Governor General’s Literary Award-winning A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959).
Layton sought Pratt’s opinion of his poetry. He tested her patience by continually revising a manuscript until the moment it was forwarded to the printers. He bartered constantly: if he were to remove one poem from a collection, might he replace it with another? He also enriched Pratt’s professional life and offered some of the most heartfelt expressions of thanks she received over the course of her career, even an ode glorifying “Saint Claire.”
Anna Porter, publisher
Following a similar path taken decades earlier by Irene Clarke, Anna Porter (born in 1943) became the first woman to head a Canadian publishing company devoted to English-language non-fiction trade books. In 1979, she co-founded Key Porter Books, and then in 1982 assumed the lead as publisher of the firm.
Today, non-fiction is a popular and steadily growing genre that appeals to a wide audience. When Porter established her company, however, she broke new ground by rejecting fiction in favour of the expanding category of non-fiction.
Porter pursued journalist Allan Fotheringham, whose Malice in Blunderland or, How the Grits Stole Christmas (1982) was Key Porter’s first best-selling title and the first of Fotheringham’s six books to be issued by the press.
The crusty Farley Mowat was one of Key Porter’s more outspoken and popular authors. Mowat and Porter shared a long and fruitful connection characterized by impassioned and vigorous debate and reconciliation.
Bella Pomer, literary agent
Bella Pomer (born in 1926) established her own literary agency in 1978. One of Canada’s first agents, she was undaunted by the prospect of entering a burgeoning field that soon was dominated by a cluster of women based in Toronto.
Pomer’s most prominent client was Carol Shields. Their agency agreement lasted 20 years, from 1982 to 2002. Pomer’s vision and tenacity helped shape Shields’s career.
When Pomer placed The Stone Diaries with Random House of Canada in 1993 — after 11 lean years of representing Shields — the response was immediate. Critics and readers alike were intrigued by the novel’s structure and captivated by its elusive protagonist, Daisy Goodwill. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize and went on to win the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Soon, Pomer was handling the countless administrative details that increased exponentially in the wake of The Stone Diaries. She orchestrated U.S., British and foreign publication of all of Shields’s books, ensuring that each edition received individual attention. She negotiated with publishers and sub-agents to secure handsome royalty advances for Shields’s subsequent books.
As a top agent, Pomer was more than a professional who shared in Shields’s triumph. She was also an attentive listener, an ally and a strong defender of Shields.
Pomer’s business approach to her many book deals was a boon to writers. With understanding and skill, she brokered better terms and royalty advances for her clients and sold their work outside of Canada. Such intervention succeeded in altering Canadian publishers’ negative perception of agents. More importantly, it helped reform dated practices that favoured publishers over authors.
Clarke, Pratt, Porter and Pomer were among the women who changed the face of Canadian publishing. Their achievements, which resonate in today’s highly charged publishing environment, deserve our attention.
In the late 17th century, the female English playwright Aphra Behn wrote a smash hit play about a man obsessed with the moon, who was constantly travelling there in his imagination. Exactly 282 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually made that dream a reality.
Their astonishing achievement on July 20, 1969 led some to worry that the moon would become an object of purely scientific study – a barren and lifeless body, no longer a source of romantic inspiration. Fortunately, this fear did not come to pass.
For example, in the year that marked the 40th anniversary of the landings ten years ago, the then poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy edited To the Moon: An Anthology of Lunar Poems which gathered together works from ancient to modern, and included her own poem, The Woman in the Moon.
And while no woman has yet stepped on to this celestial body, women have long been associated with the moon – with its tidal pull, and the binary thinking that places it secondary in majesty to the sun. It is no wonder, then, that the moon has stimulated some incredible literature by female writers.
The moon is often envisaged as a female entity, which inspired poems on the theme of her gaze as she looks down on Earth benignly. Way back in antiquity, the Greek poet Sappho did just this in her short song describing how:
When, round and full, her silver face, Swims into sight, and lights all space.
This trope continued for millennia and into the 19th century. Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) wrote The Mother Moon in 1856, imagining a benevolent maternal moon looking down on the Earth, occasionally hidden but ultimately undiminished by clouds. Also in the 19th century, American poet Emily Dickinson’s moon similarly shone “Her perfect Face Upon the World below”.
Duffy’s more recent poem contains these familiar elements, being written in the persona of a woman in the moon – one who is incredulous anyone could have believed instead in a man in the moon. The woman in the moon has spent millennia observing Earth and now implores those gazing up at her to reflect on the neglect humans have wrought on planet Earth, repeating the question “What have you done?”
Shining a light
Of course, not all female literary responses to the moon have been quite so lyrical. Aphra Behn’s hilarious farce The Emperor of the Moon, which took the London stage by storm, is one example. Behn was one of the first English women to earn a sustained living through writing, breaking social barriers and becoming a valued literary role model for later generations of women authors.
Based on a French source, but changed in many ways to make it Behn’s own, the play centres on a doctor, Baliardo, who is tricked into believing he is in the company of men from the moon.
He longs to know whether the moon has seas, why it shines so brightly, and whether there is proof to the theory that its atmosphere was so like the Earth’s that it, too, was inhabited.
The obsession makes him so gullible that when his daughter’s mischievous lover pretends to be the “Emperor Iredonzor”, and spouts clever sounding jargon in order to complete the disguise that he is an inhabitant of the moon descended to Earth, the doctor is convinced.
The fake emperor of the moon is then able to convince his future father-in-law that he is conferring a great honour on the family through a conjugal union with his daughter (who is in on the scheme). As the play finishes, the doctor realises that he has conceded to marry his daughter not to a superior creature from another planet, but to the fairly ordinary boy next door.
The farcical plot was spectacular and breathtaking in production and special effects. The original stage directions describe how:
The Globe of the Moon appears, first, like a new Moon; as it moves forward it increases, till it comes to the Full. When it is descended, it opens, and shows the Emperor and the Prince. They come forth with all their Train, the Flutes playing a Symphony before him, which prepares the Song.
We can only imagine the audience’s reaction, but the play was an enormous success, staged 130 times by 1749. If Behn had thoughts of space travel, too, she did not commit them to paper.
But perhaps as NASA ramps up preparations for further lunar exploration, the moon will move out of the purely imaginary. Maybe women will at last be among the exclusive number of humans to have stepped on to the moon and gazed back to Earth for themselves.
Just as fiction’s George Smiley made sense of the world – and even made his baffling way about a world at war through knowing the works of minor German poets – our own very real Michael Sharkey (who has an equally resonant and unlikely name) has found that his passion for a certain strain of minor poets also intersects with history, war, intrigue, political resistance and troubling nationalism.
But why civilian poets, and why women? In the spirit of redress, Sharkey has uncovered expressions of how the war felt, how it was imagined, and how it was negotiated as a moral, political and deeply personal though socially shared phenomenon by those who were doubly separated from the conflict — through being so far away in Australia, and by the fact of being women.
Paradoxically, such a project, he suggests, makes a lot more sense and is closer to home for Australians than reading anthologies of poems by British soldier-poets. Like the best writers and researchers, Sharkey went about producing the book that he wanted to read.
We know that difficult times and extreme events can take us to poetry, and perhaps this impulse was embraced in the early 20th century with more grace, confidence and a deeper conviction of what is fitting than could have been the case earlier or later, especially among women.
A natural expression of thought and emotion
As an anthology of largely unrecognised minor poets, the reader’s interest is inevitably drawn to the limitations of the works selected, and to their representative significance. It seems that many women were not only capable of turning to poetry, but that there was something natural, even expected about this avenue to public expressions of thought and emotion. Sharkey notes in his introduction that the 24 women poets included, and the many others whose poetry was not, were consistently eloquent and technically competent, a testimony to the high standards of education early in the 20th century.
Universal education though, brings with it inevitable nudging towards “prevailing tastes” and narrowing of the imagination. These poets, working with readers’ and editors’ expectations, were themselves heirs to 19th century English traditions in poetry. Hence, as Sharkey observes, much of this minor poetry tends to read to us now as “lilting or lolloping”.
Against this observation (and taking a lesson from it), the current vogue for a colloquial, free verse in English language poetry might read in the future as a sign of how far contemporary poetry has drifted from song and lyric.
Some lines that might suffice as an example of the skill and musicality in this poetry come from Nettie Palmer’s 1916 poem, Birds, a love song from a wife to a soldier-husband, written when Nettie lived at Emerald in the Dandenongs.
The rhyming on a falling meter at the moment of each stanza’s inserted couplet, together with the dramatically long line following a two-beat line, work to bring both delicacy and the sense of a faltering, yearning spirit to lines that can’t help but touch our hearts:
At morning, when white clouds like leaves drop down
Filling the hollows,
And make vast, milk-white lakes and silence follows,
There on a stump some laughing jackass clown
Stiller than wood thought all the world his own.
But all the world was ours! The birds were ours,
Because we knew them,
The trees were ours, because our love passed through them,
And every dome of cloud and all the flowers
And mountain mists that built our silent bowers.
Enough, we had been jubilant too long,
The gods have judged us,
Such vital joy their tranquil eyes begrudged us.
You fight in France: here when the thrushes throng
How can I bear alone to hear their song.
The poetry in the anthology ranges, as we would expect, from imperialistic nationalism rife with improving sentiments and sentimentality all the way to poetry of open protest against the war. In the many nuances of reaction between these extremes, Sharkey perceives that the sheer quantity of poetry by women in response to that war “pointed to a catastrophic intellectual and emotional crisis experienced by the poets.”
There was so much of this poetry that any plan to publish it would be not only grandiose, but uneconomic. Hence, the interestingly narrowed state focus of this anthology: Victorian Australian women poets: presented in alphabetical order, with each poet introduced by several pages of historical context and life history (each one meticulously referenced).
Wit and sympathy
Beatrice Vale Bevan (1876-1945) is one of those whose poetry might lilt and lollop through its paces, but nevertheless what shines through is her wit, her sympathy and her plainly human reaching towards a language that might come somewhere near sensing and expressing how deplorable death had become.
At the end of her poem debating William Locke’s statement, “Human nature is only capable of a certain amount of deploring”, in the poem that offers the book its surtitle (Many Such as She), Bevan reflects upon the flowers on the twin graves of a soldier in France and his young widow at home who, it seems, had suicided: the final stanza goes:
And he and Margaret, now above,
(since heaven’s above?) no loss deplore,
But love each other more and more!
Why say we ‘dead?’ ‘Immortal dead!’
‘Immortal living!’ some have said,
When was this violet in my hand,
When summer scorched and dried the land?
As the wife of a high ranking Congregational minister and school headmaster, Beatrice’s climactic questions, and even her asides, are hard won and bravely spoken, and do go some considerable way towards expressing a vision of widening circles of deplorable grief that a war leaves in its wake.
Among those whose poetry sees death and life as equally noble when offered to the cause of the empire, are Marion Bray (1885-1947) who offers in a short poem a simple pair of knitted socks to a soldier far away, Muriel Beverley Cole, Martha Coxhead, Violet Cramer and others.
War sprung sprightly into tripping verse
Mary Bright, a deeply committed poet and spiritualist with many publications in her lifetime, and like several of the women here, one who had lost her husband and a nephew and cousins to the war, was unafraid of imagining herself into the maddened, bewildered and patriotic minds of soldiers being killed and maimed on the battle fronts:
… we couldn’t find our mates.
They were all scattered far and wide
Through death’s untimely gates.
…. We didn’t want to die—for fame
Nor for glory did we care.
We had to go, our country called—
We did but do our share.
It can be difficult to know what to make of such verse. It can be a chilling experience to find that war sprung so sprightly into tripping verses. But this would be, perhaps, to mistake the tone of public literary activity in these years.
The poetry does not pretend to more than papering over what is beyond the deplorable and nearly beyond meaning. We do read tragedy between the lines here, and there is no reason this would not have been the case in 1916, perhaps especially through the prism of awareness regarding imposed and self-dictated censorship in public utterances.
This situation makes the poetry of Mary Fullerton (1868-1946) remarkable for its outspokenness:
In many a cot the woman,
With the babe on her shelt’ring breast,
Is nursing his limbs for battle
A-crooning her son to rest.
All over the world the women
Give service and love and life;
While over the world the tyrants
Are brewing the brew of strife.
-From The Targets
Among the bereft was Phyllis Lewis (1894-1986), a gifted teacher and briefly fiancée to a certain Robert Menzies.
Her one published poem, 1918, was a eulogy to her brother Owen, killed in a plane accident near Amiens: “Oh lawless howling wind—/Oh darkness none can lift—Oh hopeless night—/Oh gibbering shadows making heavy flight—/Oh soundless gloom of mind!” her long four-part poem goes when she must face what the war took from her and her family.
Recently my father died and I have inherited some boxes of papers that detail a kind of family history. Among these papers is the telegram informing my grandmother that her son, my father’s brother, died in action in New Guinea in the last week of WWII on that island.
This loss hung over my grandmother and over the whole of her family, for that war really could not stop reverberating until they died with this loss still in them. Such reverberations are the true subject matter of this anthology, and giving them our attention might be more important than we could ever suppose.
Sharkey is to be thanked for finding a way to present these 24 poets to Victorians and to Australians, and for giving us another way to understand and hear our own history. Walleah Press have done a fine job of packaging the anthology as a sturdy paperback.
Many such as She: Victorian Australian Women Poets of World War One, is edited by Michael Sharkey and published by Walleah Press.
Three centuries ago, when modern science was in its infancy, the gender disparity in education was not a gap but an abyss: few girls had any decent schooling at all.
The emerging new science was clearly a male enterprise.
But it arose from a sense of curiosity, and women, too, are curious. If you look closely enough, it’s clear women played an important role, as both readers and authors, in the history of science writing.
New vs old ideas
Both science and science writing were up for grabs in the 17th century. Technology was rudimentary and researchers struggled to obtain even the simplest observational evidence, and then searched for ways to make sense of it.
You can see this struggle in the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei’s famous Dialogues of 1632 and 1638. He painstakingly and somewhat tortuously tries to justify his arguments for heliocentrism – in which the planets go around the Sun – and the nature of motion and gravity.
Tortuously, not only because he was bending over backwards to please the censors – heliocentrism was held to defy scripture – but especially because most of the experiments, methods, and even the mathematical symbolism of modern science did not yet exist.
So although yesteryear’s scientific content was simple compared with today’s overwhelming complexity, Galileo’s Dialogues show that the lack of data, methods and scientific language presented its own problems for science communication.
Conversation in science
Galileo resorted to the Socratic device of a conversation, in which he debated his ideas in a long dialogue between an innovative philosopher, Salviati, and two (male) friends.
In trying to convince even the least scientifically learned of his interlocutors, Galileo was writing what we might call popular science (although the more complex parts of the 1638 Dialogue read more like a textbook).
There were no scientific journals then, and there wasn’t quite the same distinction between the announcement of scientific discoveries to colleagues and the communication of those ideas to a wider public.
It was a runaway success that helped non-specialists accept the Copernican system – a Sun-centred solar system – rather than the time-honoured, seemingly self-evident geocentric one with Earth at the centre.
The hero of Fontenelle’s story, too, is a male philosopher – but this time he is conversing with a pretty marquise, who is spirited and quick to grasp new facts. Although its style was flirtatious, Fontenelle’s book was a significant recognition that women are curious and intelligent.
Science gets complex
Then, the very next year, everything changed. The English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton published his monumental Principia Mathematica. Suddenly science became a whole lot more complex.
For instance, Fontenelle’s explanation of the cause of heliocentrism had been based on Frenchman René Descartes’ notion that the planets were swept around the Sun by gargantuan cosmic ethereal vortices.
Newton replaced this influential but unproven idea with his predictive theory of gravity, and of motion in general, which he developed in 500 dense pages of axioms, observational evidence, and a heap of mathematics.
Principia provided the modern blueprint for experimentally based, quantitative, testable theories – and it showed the fundamental role of mathematics in the language of physics.
The trouble was that only the best mathematicians could understand it. It was so innovative (and tortuous in its own way) that some of the greatest of Newton’s peers were sceptical, and it took many decades for his theory of gravity to become universally accepted in Europe.
Science writers played a key role in this process.
Newtonianism here referred not just to Newton’s theory of gravity. As its somewhat patronising title might suggest, it focused mostly on his more accessible 1704 work, Opticks, which explains his experiments on the behaviour of light and the nature of colour. But these, too, were controversial, and Algarotti was an expert in optics.
He had been inspired to address “the ladies” by two outstanding female contemporaries: his French mathematical friend Émilie du Châtelet, and the Italian physicist Laura Bassi. But both women disliked his book’s flirtatious style.
Du Châtelet and her lover Voltaire were writing their own more serious (and non-gendered) popularisation of Newton’s work. Du Châtelet later wrote a very successful popular synthesis of the scientific ideas of Newton and his German rival Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – Bassi used the Italian translation of it in her own teaching.
Du Châtelet then went on to produce the first translation of Principia outside Britain – an insightful work that is also interesting in the context of popular science writing. She appended a 110-page commentary, summarising Newton’s method in everyday language, and explaining more recent applications of his theory.
The self-taught science writers
Nearly a century later, the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville felt the same compulsion to reach out to the non-specialist reader – male and female – in the introduction to her book explaining the latest developments of Newton’s theory, Mechanism of the Heavens.
It is worth celebrating the fact that Somerville’s Mechanism was used at Cambridge as an advanced textbook in celestial mechanics – and at a time when women were not allowed to attend university.
Like Du Châtelet, Somerville was mostly self-taught. She understood the importance of science writing in educating the public, especially those denied formal education, and went on to write two best-selling popular science books: On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences and Physical Geography.
They were built around conversations between two teenage girls and their female teacher. Unlike Fontenelle’s and Algarotti’s works for “the ladies”, these books were down-to-earth, non-patronising attempts to educate women in practical chemistry and physics.
But like those of Fontenelle and Algarotti, Marcet’s books proved popular with male lay readers, too – including the self-taught British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, who went on to become co-discoverer of electromagnetism.
Biology was also progressing in the 19th century, but this had a downside for women. The discovery that women had smaller brains was used to reinforce the stereotype that women were incapable of intellectual study.
Somerville wrote movingly on how this affected her life. She would have been thrilled to read this year’s book by female neuroscientist Gina Rippon, The Gendered Brain, which asserts that brain plasticity and connectivity should displace old notions of gendered brains.
Rippon’s is one of a growing number of female-authored popular science books on all aspects of science, and it is also an example of how women can contribute important new perspectives to scientific topics.
Another example is the ecological perspective of pioneering biologist and science writer Rachel Carson, whose 1962 Silent Spring played a leading role in launching the modern environmental movement.
Scientific understanding is often driven initially by a reductionist approach, and Carson was the first to clearly point out the role of artificial pesticides on the whole food chain.