Books

Cathy Perkins
The Shelf Life of Zora Cross

Zora Cross was a poet and journalist writing a hundred years ago. The obviousness of the assertion that if she had been a man we would be considerably more familiar with her oeuvre doesn’t make the reality of it any less enraging. Her 1917 poetry collection, Songs of Love and Life, was a publishing sensation – the initial print run of 3000 received rave reviews, and sold well even by today’s standards.

Cathy Perkins came across Cross in her work as an editor at the State Library of New South Wales, and was instantly intrigued by this lost story of literary success. Cross appears to have taken the writing impetus seriously from a young age. She started sending letters to Ethel Turner’s popular Children’s Corner in The Australian Town and Country Journal when she was just nine. Many of those letters were published, and Cross and Turner – who is most famous as the author of Seven Little Australians – maintained a correspondence for several years.

Perkins succeeds in explaining why Cross, who had a horse race named after her, has been lost to history. Society likes women to be unconventional only in an acceptable way, but Cross was pregnant when she separated from her husband, and her future partner, Bulletin literary editor David McKee Wright, had a partner and children when they met. Perhaps most significantly, however, at a time when there were many other expectations of her, Cross ensured that nothing got in the way of her work. When Norman Lindsay was approached to illustrate Songs of Love and Life, he refused, saying women couldn’t write love poetry. (In the end, he illustrated the cover, but not the text.) Without dwelling on this point, Perkins notes that Lindsay’s female nudes have survived while Cross’s work has not.

George Robertson, of Angus and Robertson, was an early supporter and publisher of Cross, and Perkins packs in a stash of historical anecdotes that bring 20th-century literary Australia vividly to life. Even during the scaled-down publishing program of the war years, 10 per cent of the initial print run of Cross’s first poetry collection was mailed out for review, and it is fascinating to read about the fastidious list-keeping that her publisher did of review spaces. Robertson struck off from the list any who repeatedly didn’t review his books, “and if they complained they were sent a list of books they had failed to review”. Perkins writes with animated clarity of the literary men – poets, publishers, editors and booksellers – who helped and hindered Cross. Even those who encouraged her often did so in a disdainful and patronising way.

As well as writing and editing, Cross did some acting and teaching. Only illnesses seemed to slow her down and, by any standard, she had an astonishing work ethic. After setting aside the teaching and performing, she wrote books and an abundance of journalism. Perhaps it is striking how similar her life was to the writer’s lot today: pitching articles, waiting for a response from publishers, corresponding with other writers, rewriting and editing manuscripts. At the time, though, she was among just a small coterie of women whose journalism was published outside the “women’s pages”, and her poetry was read widely.

The excerpts from letters between the author and her publisher, and those between the author and the publisher’s assistant, make it clear just how intimate these working relationships can become. At one point George Robertson asks his assistant to spend a month in a hotel in the Blue Mountains with Cross because the author is feeling rundown – they do, and a firm friendship develops. That loyal publishing assistant, Rebecca Wiley, who plays a bit part in this story, sounds remarkable in her own right, another woman largely lost to history, another potential biography of interest.

Cross was quietly astonishing, and it is easy to see what drew Perkins to her. When Cross noticed that women were missing from an encyclopaedia, she worked towards correcting that by publishing interviews with her fellow women writers. Little of this work has survived, and searching for women’s writing during this period is made more difficult because they often wrote pseudonymously. Pen names were used by prolific authors in order to have more work accepted, or for writing the author considered inferior, or to mask gender.

Cross, who died in 1964, suffered through the awful conventional trials and tragedies: her children dying, constant sickness, house fires, gendered expectations, and a lack of insurance against accidents, joblessness and illness. In 1914, she left her baby son with family so that she could earn her living in wartime Brisbane. For stretches of her life – which recall sections of Sylvia Plath’s journals – Cross was lonely and isolated in the country with a sick baby and child. Her financial struggles rarely eased. In a letter to her son Ted, she philosophised: “Life is a rotten writer.”

Perkins includes close analysis of Cross’s poetry. Through a historical lens she situates Cross in the literary milieu of the time. Crucially, Perkins gives invaluable insights into what it was like working as a woman while also charged with the role of parenting, which for much of Cross’s time she did singlehandedly.

This book sits alongside the work of Clare Wright, righting the wrongs and colouring in the half of the ledger that barely exists. It’s worth remembering that Cross, who was white, was given a seat at the table when Indigenous writers so often weren’t, and while many elements of work were difficult for her, they were not impossible.

Cross was prolific; her daughter April remembers a mother who sat at her Remington day and night. Nonetheless, Cross’s writing fell out of fashion and has been all but forgotten. We can only hope that this lively new volume, which shows precisely why we need university presses, will help to correct that. As Cross wrote: “The oldest of us is such a short time here and the wisest of us know so little, it seems the only thing to do is keep on working and trying.”

Louise Swinn

Monash University Publishing, 304pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Cathy Perkins, The Shelf Life of Zora Cross". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Louise Swinn