Academic journal article Hecate

Still Partially Eclipsed

Academic journal article Hecate

Still Partially Eclipsed

Article excerpt

A Review of Flora Eldershaw ed. The Peaceful Army, (reissued, Penguin, 1988).

Call them, Australia! Call them once again,

For they are those who on these shores first stood;

Women upon whose long endurings rest

The might and majesty acclaimed by us today.

Mary Gilmore, "Ode to the Pioneer Women".

Amid the fairly conventional nationalist sentiment which is the hallmark of many contributions to The Peaceful Army, there emerge some unexpected indications that we did not have to wait until 1988 to begin to question the official record of the European presence in Australia. A sesquicentenary project, Flora Eldershaw's The Peaceful Army was originally intended to provide public recognition of the role played by women in the first 150 years of settlement. As Eldershaw writes in her foreword to the volume, "this book is a tribute from the women of today to the women of yesterday". The collection contains essays on such figures as Elizabeth Macarthur, Caroline Chisholm, Mary Reibey and Rose Scott, in addition to poems by Mary Gilmour, Dora Wilcox, Dorothea Mackellar and others. Its reissuing as part of the Penguin Australian Women's Library serves the dual purpose then of commemorating not only the original army of pioneers, but also the generation of women writers such as Eleanor Dark, M. Barnard Eldershaw, Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack who contributed the essays about them. It also recognises (albeit rather belatedly) the literary and editorial efforts of Flora Eldershaw whose reputation has long been overshadowed by that of her collaborator, Marjorie Barnard. More significantly, perhaps, the strategic reappearance of the volume in the Bicentennial year raises the issue of commemorative celebrations in general.

The 1938 sesquicentenary celebrations were part of a series of similar celebrations in Australia throughout the 1930's. Interest in the sesquicentenary, however, was largely confined to New South Wales, other states being more concerned with their respective centenaries. Frank Hurley's 1938 film "A Nation is Built" provides perhaps the best record of just how the then NSW government wished to present the state's past, present and future as an unproblematic vision of glory and wealth. Pioneers on Parade, Dymphna Cusack and Miles Franklin's satirical account of the "sesqui" constructs another story. According to Cusack and Franklin, the whole affair was based on a highly selective account of white Australia's past and, not unlike 1988, was promoted as "one big party" punctuated at regular intervals, again not unlike 1988, by the predictable pomposity of regal and vice-regal gatherings. As head of the Literary Sub-Committee for the 150th Anniversary Celebrations, Flora Eldershaw was responsible for soliciting contributions to The Peaceful Army, a task for which she was well qualified as a former president of the Sydney FAW. Surviving correspondence, however, indicates that the memorial volume was in fact a genuinely collective effort by all concerned.(1) A series of sub-committee meetings were held to determine the nature and constitution of the volume, and Miles Franklin's advice and support was frequently sought on these occasions. Marjorie Barnard was delegated to invite Franklin to meetings and concludes her first somewhat hesitant invitation with the remark that committee meetings were among "the most tiresome things in the world", and she "would not be surprised to hear that [Franklin] had taken a vow against them".(2) Apparently she had not, for it was Franklin who ultimately secured Helen Simpson's contribution and who advised on locating a portrait of Catherine Helen Spence. More amusing are those letters revealing Eldershaw's polite attempts to extract Dymphna Cusack's promised piece on Mary Reibey before their deadline. When the collection was released in late 1937 (not 1938, as the cover of the new edition proclaims), Marjorie Barnard noted that it was an attractive volume and was selling well, although she observed that Edith Muscio, head of the Women's Executive Committee, was disappointed with the finished product. …

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