Monash University Publishing, November 2019, 285pp (inc Index), ISBN (pb): 978-1-925835-53-3, RRP: $29.95
‘£20 and you shall have her’ (p.60). This financial exchange in 1917 between Sydney bookseller James Tyrell and publisher George Robertson sealed Zora Cross’s fate. Her collection of 50 sonnets, Songs of Love and Life, would now be published and marketed by the respected Robertson, rather than printed as a cheap paperback. Given that these candid and passionate poems were written by a female in 1917 – a time when women were often thought to endure sex, not desire it (‘lie back and think of England’) – Zora certainly benefitted from having her provocative, some might say salacious, sonnets published by a respectable publisher.
How is it that this ‘diminutive little woman’ who sits nervously ‘on the edge of her chair’ and looks ‘like a Sunday school teacher’ came to write passionate love sonnets? (p.60) And how is it that this once celebrated author of 11 published books and countless magazine columns, articles and poems, who was likened to Shakespeare and Sappho, is now forgotten?
In The Shelf Life of Zora Cross, we join Cathy Perkins on her personal quest to discover this prolific, neglected, Australian writer. Perkins has done the hard work for us – transcribing Zora’s hand-written letters, and analysing and organising her voluminous correspondence, published works and rejected manuscripts into a coherent narrative. Through it, we discover the unconventional, original and irresistible Zora Cross.
As well as being a writer, Zora was a school teacher, actress, editor, vaudeville singer and mother. She was intensely patriotic and romantic. At the beginning of the First World War she travelled the east coast of Australia entertaining troops as a singer and comic actress. Little did her admiring audience know that she was six months pregnant. Her son was born in August 1914 when she was 24 years old and initially cared for by Zora’s mother. Three years later, her collection of erotic sonnets caused a sensation. Soldiers took her book of sonnets to the Front and a second reprint was required.
Reading this biography, one senses that the author knows Zora intimately. In the introduction and epilogue, Perkins uses first person voice to explain her inaugural encounter with Zora and how it bewitched her into a journey of inquiry that resulted in a Master of Philosophy thesis (at the University Sydney under the supervision of Mark McKenna) and this biography (published by Monash University Publishing). The origins of the book as a history thesis are evident in the meticulous research and referencing.
Perkins makes it her mission to understand how and why Zora came to be an author and poet. Zora came from ‘literary stock’ and won her first prize for a published work at the age of nine years. The prize of two shillings worth of stamps (which would enable the writer to post about 20 standard letters) was all the encouragement she needed. Zora wrote regularly, becoming a ‘cornerist’ – a regular contributor to the Children’s Corner pages of the Australian Town and Country Journal, which was edited by Ethel Turner (author of Seven Little Australians). I was intrigued to learn of the young ‘cornerists’ and how they commented on each other’s submissions and enquired after each other, much like you could on Twitter today.
Perkins crafts the story of Zora’s unconventional life into ten roughly chronological chapters. These are sub-titled with the name of a person, usually a literary figure, who is significant in her life. It is through Zora’s correspondence with editors and writers like Ethel Turner, Bertram Stevens (The Lone Hand), David McKee Wright (The Bulletin) and Mary Gilmore that we learn much about Zora’s influences and motivations. Fortunately, their personal papers, or the business archives of the company they worked for, have been preserved by institutions such as the State Library of New South Wales. Given that so much business is transacted via email, SMS and online messenger applications today, I doubt if Perkins could research this book had Zora lived 100 years later.
The level of intimacy that Zora achieves with her correspondents through only an exchange of letters is extraordinary. I have written elsewhere about the power of personal letter writing and Zora employs the medium to its full emotional extent. For example, once George Robertson had decided to publish Zora’s collection of risque sonnets, he began editing it with a vengeance. Zora wrote to him: ‘I used to dream night after night that you were chasing me through interminable forests with commas and semicolons like awful hatchets’ (p.64). Before she had even met David McKee Wright, editor of the literary pages at The Bulletin in 1916, she wrote to him describing a dream she’d had where they ‘were bathing – a la Adam & Eve – on the Cairns beach [. . .] clad in nothing but one’s own hair’ (p.148). Wright would become her partner of eight years (they couldn’t legally marry as they were both already married), father of her two daughters and step-father to her son.
Perkins quotes extensively from Zora’s letters, poems and manuscripts. Many sentences are constructed by intermingling the two voices, which in the hands of a less accomplished writer could have been very clunky. For me, as a reader, I enjoyed the prose most when the two voices were kept separate and Perkins was free to provide her own interpretation of Zora’s extraordinary life in her own words.
Perkins is loyal to her subject and her admiration of Zora shines though. I particularly enjoyed the subtle digs at Norman Lindsay, who refused to provide eight illustrations for Zora’s book of sonnets, believing that women could not write ‘passionate literature’ because their spinal cord was not connected to their productive apparatus! (p.61).
The cover of The Shelf Life of Zora Cross is as beguiling as its subject. It features a studio photograph of Zora taken in 1919 when she was 29 years old. As the structure of the book is not strictly chronological, I thought it would benefit from a timeline that plots Zora’s important life events and literary achievements. Similarly, a map might help international readers, as well as Australians who are not familiar with the geography of the east coast, understand the distances Zora traversed as a ‘common vaudeville singer’ and with her family of origin.
The Shelf Life of Zora Cross will interest lovers of Australian history, literature, feminism and publishing. Cathy Perkins has resurrected Zora from her forsaken literary grave with a book which is compelling and astute.
Reviewed by Alison Wishart, November 2019
Visit the publisher’s website here.