The 1930s were a remarkable decade in Australian cultural history, when women were producing most of the published fiction. Their novels made dramatic use of womens experience, dealing frankly with the underside of marriage and the infidelities of men, the cross-currents of poverty and gender, illegal abortion, and the terrible cost of race relations on the frontier. By the standards of the day, novels such as Katherine Susannah Prichard's Coonardoo, Eleanor Dark's Waterway, Christina Stead's Seven Poor Men of Sydney, and Dymphna Cusak's Come In Spinner were controversial, even scandalous.
Exiles at Home traces a remarkable generation of women writers through letters, diaries, notebooks and the memories of contemporaries. It shows how they supported each other through the hard years of composition, through rejection and publication, the vicissitudes of reception and the perennial problem of earning a living. At a time of social flux, with economic depression and the build-up to war making their writing lives doubly precarious, they used their fictions and their network of friendships to confront the tough questions of the time and maintain a public presence in the face of discouragement or outright opposition. Even for a generation of emancipated women who could, on the whole, write without upsetting the family or enraging the critics, being a writer was not a straightforward business.
" I turned to these writers... because they were tackling questions about how to live and work in this country as women and as writers, and how to build a culture that has its roots in Australian histories and conditions, rather than in a foreign past."
It is a great pleasure to read, to follow her skilful and discerning negotiations between the writers' views of themselves and each other, and the questions which she brings to them from the present day, questions 'about writing, about cultural and ideological struggle, about feminism and fiction, about the contradictions of class and gender'. As the first ever book-length study of Australian women writers, 'Exiles at Home' sets a high standard.
Drusilla Modjeska's Exiles at Home is ... invaluable to all readers seriously interested in the history of Australian literature.
It reminds us that since the days of Jane Austen and the Brontës, the novel has been a primary source through which women have expressed their art, their culture, their history, their hopes and fears. In Australia and England this tradition has been particularly strong.
The significance of Exiles at Home is not that it fills a gap in our literary and critical history, though it does. Nor is it that it provides the link between first and second wave feminis. That is a task yet to be attempted. Rather it takes a period of Australian cultural history and turns it upside down. We are delighted to find that it makes better and more constructive sense that way.
It also lifts feminist scholarshiop cleanly into the mid-twentieth century. Having lain out with compelling skill the richness of the evidence, it clears a path along which further inquiry will surely go.