Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Excavating a Bonanza: Sarah Campion

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Excavating a Bonanza: Sarah Campion

Article excerpt

JEAN Devanny, in Queensland in 1943, enquired of Miles Franklin, 'Do you know how I could locate Sarah Campion? Do you know if she is up here?' (Ferrier 100). Devanny, unless she had noticed the enthusiastic reviews of the first two Burdekin novels, (1) had probably just lifted her head from reading some of the most compelling North Queensland bush writing she'd ever come across, but Franklin was unable to answer Devanny's query (Ferrier 101). A year later, Vance Palmer and John McKellar exchanged letters with Campion, but by the late 1990s Rachel Scott, editor of some of the journalism of this 'fascinating and forthright woman ... with a rare writing gift', asked again: 'Where was she now? Why had I not heard of her?' (Campion, I Live Here Now 9). There had been answers, tentative or wrong, but this essay aims to tell the story of Sarah Campion and her writing for the first time.

Campion was reviewed widely and admiringly in England in the 1930s and 40s, and in Australia in the 1940s and 90s. A few substantial critical essays, similarly enthusiastic, include H.M. Green's report on her and her writing in his History of Australian Literature Pure and Applied (1193-96), John MeKellar's essay 'Sarah Campion' published in Southerly in 1950, and more recently my own work including the Introduction to the Penguin edition of Mo Burdekin, 1990. Admiring but less extended comment can be found in essays by R. Store and John Heuzenroeder, both of which appeared in 1968. I interviewed Campion on several occasions in 1987 and 1988, and the material in this essay is drawn from those interviews and a wide range of published and unpublished sources. (2)

As Campion is one of the best writers of her period, it needs to be stressed from the outset that reviewers and critics of her work have written with surprised delight at the power of her fiction; a good number question the steady republication of novels less meritorious than Campion's, all of which remain out of print. (3) This essay is written with some urgency because Campion's history in Australia, so marked by acclaim and neglect, seems now likely to disappear. This neglect is demonstrated not only in the paucity of critical commentary, but also in recurring errors of fact about Campion's life and travels in Australia: dates, whereabouts, even names. (4) My essay aims to set a shaky biographical record as straight as possible, and to provide a biographical-critical survey of her novels. A key point is that without exception, Campion's books are alert to the lives of their women characters, and she is prepared to bring gender discrimination into clear-cut relationship with ethnic prejudices and racism.

English born and bred Sarah Campion became the author of five Australian novels, or six if the off-shore Turn Away No More (1940) is included. Never the Australian citizen she longed to become, she belongs far less securely to Australian literary history than these important novels should have ensured. Her published writing began with two articles in the Cambridge Review in 1931 and includes eleven novels and two books of non-fiction, all of which contain rich memories of her early childhood, both world wars, and much global travel. Her two non-fictional works are National Baby (1950), an amused account of producing a child in the care of England's just-born National Health scheme, and her tumultuous best-seller Father, Portrait of G.G. Coulton at Home (1948), a scathingly unfilial but deeply affectionate portrait which is also an invaluable resource on its author. In addition, Campion published many essays, sketches, journal articles, and two book-chapters from her very late age (1987 and 1989). Her career closed with an edited collection of her fifties New Zealand journalism in 2000, thereby spanning most of the twentieth century. Her Burdekin trilogy, her most significant work for Australian literary history, was published in the early 1940s by Peter Davies in England, where Campion was already an established author. …

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