3 December 2001

Letters written over almost 30 years between three famous Australian women authors have been lovingly compiled into a book by a UQ researcher.

The book, entitled Yarn Spinners: A Story in Letters(University of Queensland Press, $34.95), by School of English, Media Studies and Art History PhD student Marilla North, will be relaunched at the New South Wales State Library (SLNSW) on Wednesday, December 5.

The result of 25 years’ research, the letters between Miles Franklin, Dymphna Cusack and Florence James tell a tale of Sydney’s post-World War II newspaper circulation wars, of attempted literary suppression in the climate of the late 1940s Cold War, deception, intrigue and deals between politicians and press barons.

But it is also the story of a great and enduring friendship between three women in particular Dymphna Cusack and the generation-older Miles Franklin, author of the classic Australian novel My Brilliant Career. This year represents the 100th anniversary of the novel’s first edition with its preface by Henry Lawson who had taken the manuscript with him to London to find a publisher for Franklin.

Margaret Whitlam AO will be the special guest for the launch, which will include a dramatised reading from the book, featuring actors Tara Morice (Strictly Ballroom), Annie Byron and Penne Hackforth-Jones.

Curator of Manuscripts for the SLNSW’s Mitchell Library, Paul Brunton, will officially launch the book at The Metcalfe Auditorium, Entrance Level, Macquarie Street Wing, at 5.30pm for 6pm sharp.

Ms North gathered the letters from friends and relatives of the three women, from Australian, British and European libraries and archives and travelled as far afield as Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Germany in her research for the biography of Cusack, and to background the letters’ collection.

“I have edited the letters to form a seamless narrative, providing informative links and backgrounding so even the least ‘literary’ reader can enjoy the whodunits of the behind-the-scenes manipulations and the ups and downs of collaborations and publishing dramas,” she said.

School-teacher Cusack and freelance journalist James wrote the landmark novel Come In Spinner(1951) based on the sordid and corrupt activities in Sydney during World War II while Franklin and Cusack earlier collaborated on the scandalous parody of Sydney society, Pioneers on Parade(1939).

Ms North, who is also working on a biography of Cusack, said Yarn Spinnerswas essential reading for all Australians but particularly young women as it offered an insight into how far they had come in just half a century.

“Franklin and Cusack were darlings of the bohemian, feminist ‘blue-stocking’ set of Sydney in the 1930s. These writers and artists produced and directed each other’s plays and gathered at the little cafes and restaurants in The Rocks area,” she said.

“Meanwhile Florence worked on the fringes of Fleet Street as a journalist in London.

“But life was never easy for these women. Miles Franklin saw out her life as a frugal spinster caring for her aged and widowed mother who was racked with dementia and her nephew, the orphaned John Franklin. John had returned from World War II with that euphemism ‘shell-shock’ which manifested as alcoholism and schizophrenia. Miles scrimped and saved all of her inheritance to put into her legacy enshrined in her will for an annual award to encourage the growth of a truly Australian literature—now known as Miles Franklin Award for writers,” Ms North said.

Yarn Spinnersincludes the first-time publication of Miles Franklin’s will and a significant proportion of the book’s royalties will be distributed into each of the three women’s respective estates.

“Dymphna Cusack intermittently suffered from terrible pain all of her life from Multiple Sclerosis (undiagnosed until 1979, two years before her death) yet led an exciting existence. She had a wonderful love affair with communist and finance journalist Norman Freehill whom she later married, living all over the world with him including three years in the late 1950s in China,” she said.

“In 1945, at the end of the war, Dymphna and Florence, who had been close friends since they were at the University of Sydney together between 1923 and 1925 were both exhausted, burnt-out and their lives at mid-life crisis so they retreated to the Blue Mountains and a ramshackle house called Pinegrove at Hazelbrook for two years with Florence’s two daughters and Dymphna’s niece and nephew. While there, they wrote a sweet children’s book together called Four Winds and a Family, published in 1947. It was just the rehearsal, for they then collaborated on Come In Spinner.”

Ms North said the friendship between Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack was strong, savvy and supportive and began in 1938 when they found themselves sitting side-by-side on the rim of a lily-pond at Government House in Sydney poking fun at the dignitaries attending a Vice Regal garden party there. At the time, Miles Franklin was 58 while Dymphna was aged 35.

Ms North’s fascination for the three writers began when she attended Newcastle Girls High in 1958 where Dymphna Cusack had been a schoolteacher 16 years previous. In 1976, while working at the Film and Television School in Sydney, she met Julie James Bailey, Florence’s daughter, who was researching the viability of turning Come In Spinner into a movie. Ms North helped design the research study and the earlier fascination became the basis of an ongoing quest.

Until Sunday, December 9, Ms North will be touring various parts of New South Wales to promote her current book. See will also try to locate more living memories and photograph the landscapes which were important to Cusack’s work. Ms North plans to use this information in the biography and in her PhD thesis.

She will be visiting various towns where Cusack was born, grew up, went to school and later taught in. Some of these include Bathurst, Parkes, Temora, West Wyalong, Guyra, Armidale, the Blue Mountains and Newcastle.

On Saturday, December 8 there will be another dramatised reading from the book. Annie Byron, Barbara Morton and Maureen Green will play the parts of Florence, Dymphna and Miles respectively. It will be held at 2pm in the Varuna Writers Centre in the Blue Mountains.

Media: For images contact photo librarian Diana Lilley at UQ Communications (telephone 07 3365 2753 or email d.lilley@mailbox.uq.edu.au). For further information, contact Marilla North (mobile 0438 843 443, telephone 07 5578 9096, email marilla@myplace.net.au) or Joanne van Zeeland at UQ Communications (telephone 07 3365 2619, email j.vanzeeland@mailbox.uq.edu.au).