A Writer's Friends & Associates: Notes from Correspondence in the Zora Cross Papers

Article excerpt

In Exiles at Home(1), Drusilla Modjeska examines the problems of isolation experienced by Australian women writers. She explains the way Nettie Palmer's efforts engendered a sense of camaraderie among writers with her introductions, encouragement and criticism giving Australian literature a positive thrust, though she "made no gesture towards Zora Cross" (p 24). But Cross was not the only one outside Palmer's circle; Modjeska points to other "significant omissions" from the group such as Slessor, Lindsay and H.M. Green (pp 86-99).

Zora Cross was physically isolated in the Blue Mountains for most of her writing life. Her hardships were compounded by the lack of child care and good health, and the presence of continuing poverty. Despite these difficulties, Cross managed to jump the gender boundaries. Nettie Palmer's sponsorship, had it occurred, might have have enhanced Cross's standing but when the Palmers began the correspondence which contributed centrally to the construction of their circle,(2) Cross already had several successful publications and a firm circle of supporters who helped criticise and edit manuscripts and wrote reviews of her work.

Mary Gilmore and Ethel Turner were among her early admirers but Cross also received enthusiastic support from many others including John Le Gay Brereton, Robert Broinowski, James Devaney, William Siebenhaar and Professor Frederick Todd. The Zora Cross Papers at the University of Sydney(3) contain many letters from her friends and associates.

Ethel Turner was among those who congratulated Cross in 1917 when Songs of Love and Life first appeared: "...through all the tumult and pain I could hear the clear, unmistakeable note of the real singer.... I can't let my own girl have it yet. It is of youth but certainly not for youth.... My love and my unstinted praise for all that is lovely in it".(4) Ethel Turner's words ten years later confirm Cross's status among her peers: "Odd that only a few weeks ago my pen began an article on you -- I wanted to do your sketches as a contribution to Authors' Week -- you, Mary Gilmore, Helen Simpson and Winifred Shaw...". (ET to ZC, 16.11.27)

Zora Cross wrote several articles on Ethel Turner whose warmth is evident in this response: "It was a pleasure to have a talk with you and my thoughts kept drifting to your personality and life instead of coming to heel as thoughts should at interviews. The Herald's fault for sending interviewers more interesting than the interviewed victim." (ET to ZC,15.5.38). Ethel Turner also praised Cross for her serialised fiction: "I was reading `The Victor'(5) before I had your letter asking me to do so...It seems to me extraordinarily good -- a projection into the past come alive in the way so very very few writers...can manage...I congratulate you very warmly indeed." (ET to ZC, 20.2.33)

Modjeska comments that after Cross "retreated from her attempt to define the self that is sensual, erotic, creative and separate from men, her poetry relapsed into the genteel rhyme that marked the poetry of the many minor women poets who wrote for a journal like the Spinner....a short-lived poetry magazine...during the twenties...dominated by rather homey poetry" (p 24). But Cross earned her living from writing and journalism and her varied styles of verse in different papers and magazines may be indicative of the subject matter acceptable for publication, and payment. Cross wrote under different pseudonyms for a number of newspapers and magazines. Pseudonyms have often been used by women to mask their gender, but Cross's names generally identified her as a woman.(6) Her use of pseudonyms seems primarily so that she could write for opposition papers or for different columns in the same publication, thus providing a wider source of essential income.

Mary Gilmore appreciated the direct approach taken by Zora Cross in her journalism. After a review of The Passionate Heart in 1919 she wrote to Cross:

I have to thank you for your more than ordinarily kind notice of my book. …