THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN WOMAN
What do we think of when we hear the words ‘Aussie hero’? Ten bucks says it’s not a woman. Soldiers, sportsmen, farmers, emergency services workers all vie for glossy advertising space in my mind, their smiling, sweaty poster-blokes too loudly high-vis to allow a view of much else.
That’s some stubborn social conditioning, I guess, but I’ve had some very interesting conversations lately on the place and constitution of the Great Australian Woman that have led me to wonder if she’s been sent further to the background than ever before.
In doing a bit of research for an upcoming festival chat, I’ve been asking around: Where are our women heroes of Australian literature today? Our favourites seem to be those of the past, among the most beloved of them, Sybylla from My Brilliant Career, and Philadelphia from All the Rivers Run. Intriguing and complex gals, too: Laura from Voss, and Cushie from Swords and Crowns and Rings. Even our contemporary lady protagonists step from the mists of history, however glitteringly: Edith Campbell Berry from Grand Days et al, and the unflappable flapperish Phryne Fisher.
Whole women, imperfect women, their voices distinct, their ways idiosyncratic, and all of them women of personal agency and intrinsic power. Women rich in character. Women who drive their own stories and sit at the centre of them.
Where are they in Australian literature today, though?
A disturbing head-scratch seems to have followed the question: Hmmmm? Dunno.
Perhaps we lack the critical distance to identify them in the bustle of now. More worryingly, perhaps they’re no longer marketable.
At the more commercial end of things, Australian publishers are leery of ‘difficult’ women protagonists, preferring more safely saleable action Barbie heroines who rarely falter in their stride, always beat the bad guys and always get their man. They almost always wear Akubras, and if they don’t, they’re almost always miraculously able to travel the world being multi-talented while overcoming every single obstacle in their path. They are loads of fun but fairly shallow – and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.
Over the past ten years or so, I’ve watched the pressure to conform grow. I’ve been on the receiving end of that pressure myself and it’s as upsetting as it sounds: write to market-tested template or fail. I’ve chosen the latter, at least in spreadsheet terms – because I’m trying to forge something uniquely my own, however foolhardy that choice might be. The publishing industry isn’t somehow deliberately devaluing female protagonists, though: if difficult women equal difficult selling, in an ever contracting and perhaps steadily failing traditional business model, they have no choice. Whack a chick on the cover, whack her on the shelves of as many discount department stores who’ll have her and cross fingers for maximum units moved as quickly as possible – they’re compelled along this track to financially survive.
But what of the ‘literary’ side of the story? One publisher friend made the observation that trends here have seen grittier female characters cast as unreliable narrators for the tricksy plotting possibilities they provide, or used as vehicles for exploration of the troubles of the world, limbecks for the distillation of today’s big-ticket political agendas of gender, race, climate, and going to hell in a handbasket as lyrically as possible.
That particular conversation led me to wonder if the whole idea of heroes is a bit passe now. Perhaps we’re so chained to the idea that we’re indeed going to hell, heroes as such have become pointless diversions from reality.
And that led me scrambling back to the Greatest Australian Woman I know – the one who’s had the greatest influence on me: Henry Lawson’s nameless bushwoman from ‘The Drover’s Wife’. It’s a tiny thing, this short story of 1892 – read it here over a coffee – but it defines the female hero for me, and one that can be found nowhere else on earth but the land I call home.
The drover’s wife lives in a kind of hell – on a remote and ruined sheep station Lawson tells us is remarkable only for its lack of anything resembling beauty or safety or peace. Her husband has been gone, droving, for six months, and she’s alone on the property with her four kids and their dog, Alligator, when a deadly snake is seen slithering under the house.
In no-nonsense fashion she bundles the kids into the earthen-floored kitchen set back from the main house, and makes up a bed for them there, where they’ll wait out the night – and wait for the snake to emerge so that it might be killed before it kills one of them.
As her children sleep, ‘she has an eye on the corner, and a green sapling club laid in readiness on the dresser by her side; also her sewing basket and a copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal.’
Like all great heroes, she locks into a lonely psychological struggle against her enemy, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of her mending and her enjoyment of her preferred magazine – of course!
The struggles of her existence are overwhelming, and she reflects on them through the night: she’s given birth to two of her kids in the bush; and when one them died, she had to ride nineteen miles for assistance. When bushfire threatened the family home, she literally donned her husband’s trousers and fought it off as best she could until help arrived. When flood threatened the family home, she dug an overflow trench herself, but failed to save her husband’s crop. She once fought off a mad bullock, shooting him and skinning him, selling the hide; and she has regularly fought off the unwanted company of wandering swaggies, too.
To the superficial gaze, she is a woman made hard by her circumstances and her grief, but she’s as sensitive as any other: she weeps at her losses and she loves her children fiercely; she loves her somewhat hopeless husband as well, for the goodness in him. Above all, she laughs. In tears at being hurt by a falling woodpile that stressful night, she attempts to wipe her face only to have her thumb rip through her threadbare handkerchief, and she laughs now, too. She has, so Lawson tells us, ‘a keen, very keen, sense of the ridiculous’.
So much so that she religiously dresses in her best every Sunday, dressing up the children too, and they walk for miles through the bush, seeing no-one and going to no church.
Her moral compass is internal. No-one instructs her. She is entirely herself and she is the fulcrum of her world.
When Alligator does his job, thrashing the snake to death on its reappearance at dawn, the bushwoman throws it on the fire and cries quietly again. Why? In relief at the ordeal ended, or in some sorrow for the snake, Lawson deftly doesn’t say.
Does she exist today? Can she? I peppered my first novel, Black Diamonds, with references to her, and every novel since has celebrated the heroic in those like her – the unseen and unsung, the extraordinary in the ordinary – but all my characters, all my women heroes, come to me from the past, too.
And perhaps here’s the answer and the challenge: I’ll have to write a Great Australian Woman for today myself. One day.
In the meantime, I’m sure she’s out there already. I’m sure she’s with us. In the as yet barely navigable and ever expanding realms of independent publishing, she’s there. In the dreams of hundreds and hundreds of Australian writers, she must be there.
Waiting for her dawn…
Image: ‘The Drover’s Wife’, Russell Drysdale, 1945