Today on 2SER Breakfast, Tess talked to historian and author Cathy Perkins about the Australian poet and journalist Zora Cross. Now largely forgotten, in the early 20th century she was wildly popular.
Zora Cross’s poetry collection Songs of Love and Life caused a sensation when it was it was published by Angus & Robertson in Sydney in 1917. She was declared a genius, ‘a new star on the literary horizon’, and applauded for writing openly about sex from a woman’s point of view.
Songs of Love and Life would be reprinted three times and sell about 4,000 copies, a significant number in a population of five million. Soldiers took it to the trenches, and the publisher George Robertson believed the author would endure as a household name alongside the Shakespeare and Rossetti.
I first encountered Zora Cross in 2008, working as an editor at the State Library of NSW. In a book of letters to and from Robertson, I learned that Norman Lindsay had refused to illustrate Songs of Love and Life on the grounds that women couldn’t write love poetry because their ‘spinal column’ wasn’t connected to the ‘productive apparatus’ (although he did produce a cover design). I was intrigued by the book’s success in the face of Lindsay’s dismissal.
I found that the State Library held hundreds of personal letters by Zora Cross. Corresponding with leading literary figures of the time — including authors Ethel Turner and Mary Gilmore — she captured her obsessive struggle to write and to be published, through financial hardship, personal tragedies and two world wars.
Zora Cross was born in Brisbane in 1890 and moved to Sydney as a teenager. During her childhood she published thousands of words in the ‘Children’s Corner’ of the Australian Town and Country Journal, edited by Ethel Turner. She worked as a primary school teacher in inner Sydney schools, and a vaudeville actress in Brisbane, before turning to writing full time.
Following her success with Songs of Love and Life in 1917, she wrote another poetry collection, an acclaimed elegy for her brother who died in World War I and one of the first introductions to Australian literature. Her novels set in Queensland were published in London, and under the pseudonym Bernice May she wrote a series of interviews with other women writers of the 1920s and 30s for the popular magazine Australian Woman’s Mirror.
From 1919 Zora Cross lived at Glenbrook in the lower Blue Mountains, where she raised three children and worked as a freelance writer. Although her fame diminished after World War II, she continued to write poetry for major journals and newspapers.
Towards the end of her life, Zora Cross was thought to be among the leading female Australian poets of the early twentieth century. But after she died in 1964, she was treated coolly by the literary historians that followed. In the late twentieth century, many Australian women writers were rescued from obscurity, but Zora Cross wasn’t among them. Her classical style of poetry was long out of favour, and the extent of her feminism could only be seen through the sum of her work, much of it hidden away in newspapers and magazines.
But Zora Cross filled the archives with evidence of her daily life and professional ambitions. These letters allow us to get closer to her than to many writers whose work better withstood the past century’s literary assessment. Her poetry and fiction, unpublished work, manuscript memoirs, letters and journalism offer a distinct and complex picture of Australian life and publishing history.
Cathy will be talking about her book at the State Library of NSW at 12.30pm on 7 November with curator Sarah Morley (click here for details and to make a booking) and at Gleebooks at 6pm on 18 November with the ABC’s Kate Evans (click here).
This is Tess Connery’s last week as host of 2SER Breakfast, so on behalf of all of the Dictionary presenters and listeners, we’d like to thank her for so many delightful Wednesday mornings and great conversations, and to wish her all our very best for her next adventure in media. Thanks for everything Tess!