Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Booktopia
Categories Menu

Posted on 24 Apr 2020 in Extracts, Non-Fiction | 2 comments

CATHY PERKINS The Shelf Life of Zora Cross: extract

Tags: / / / / / / / / /

This week’s extract is from Cathy Perkins’s biography of Australian poet Zora Cross. Largely unknown today, she was a sensation when, still in her 20s, she published the bestselling Songs of Love and Life in 1917. Frankly erotic by the standards of the time, her poems were compared to the sonnets of Shakespeare and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and she was called ‘an Australian Sappho’.

Cathy Perkins’s lively biography returns Zora to her place as an important figure in Australian literature in the early decades of the 20th century. Her output was prodigious: she published five collections of poetry and four novels, as well as producing verse and prose for numerous newspapers and magazines, and one of the earliest introductions to Australian literature. She was an enthusiastic correspondent, leaving a treasure trove of letters to editors, publishers and fellow-writers.

Born in Brisbane in 1890, she grew up in Gympie, and wrote regularly for Ethel Turner’s ‘Children’s Corner’ in the Australian Town and Country Journal. As a teenager she moved to Sydney, and while still at school was submitting poems to the Bulletin. She won a scholarship to teachers’ college, but left teaching in Sydney to return, married, pregnant, and sans husband, to Queensland. She went on to perform in a travelling vaudeville show and run an elocution studio. All while continuing to write.

Bertram Stevens, redoubtable editor of The Lone Hand magazine, saw her potential and published her work, and she also sent her poems to David McKee Wright at the Bulletin, who would become the father of two of her four children.

This extract describes how Songs of Love and Life came to be written, and how it was published by Angus & Robertson.

Extract courtesy of Monash University Publishing

From Chapter 3, The Sting of Ecstasy

‘The Bulletin has a new poetess,’ Stevens’ dining companion, the artist David Souter, told him in late 1916. ‘She can write and, by George, she has a good pen-name, Zora Cross.’

‘That’s not a pen-name,’ said Stevens. ‘That’s her own name.’ He passed on the compliment to Zora.

A poem that may have caught Souter’s eye was Zora’s ‘The Vision of Jehovah’, published in the Bulletin in October 1916 – about a month before her return to Sydney. This anti-war poem, veiled in classical imagery, shows her ability to seduce readers across almost two columns of print. Giving her feedback by letter on an early draft, the Bulletin’s literary editor, David McKee Wright, had wondered if ‘the wine-god boozing at the breast of Aphrodite’ might be ‘a trifle over the odds’, but he left the line in.

Most of the poetry she wrote in Queensland and published in the Bulletin that year is much lighter, like the playful ‘Poet’s Vow’, which appears to be an overdone love poem until the reader wonders if the line ‘Your eyes are humid pools of light’ is meant to be taken seriously, and the poem ends: ‘Believe me, Ever thine alone … / Alecia, Ettie, Rose—O Lor’! / Whichever did I mean this for?’

There is an absence of parody, though, in ‘To a Favorite Poet’, which appeared in the Lone Hand in September. ‘I have been reading verses that you wrote,’ the narrator tells a poet whose verse is full of fairies and nymphs playing beneath olive trees. These images were common enough in the poetry of the day not to be immediately identified as belonging to David McKee Wright – although a few months earlier, his poem ‘Revelation’ had featured pink-white nymphs and elm trees. In her image of ‘Southern Venus thridding through the bay / With white and naked knees’, Zora makes a statement that erotic verse is not a male preserve.

As her friend and literary advisor on her return to Sydney, Wright encouraged this sensuous direction in her poetry, even if it didn’t fit the Bulletin’s masculine character. When she presented him with six ‘Sonnets of the South’ – full of a woman’s passionate declarations to her lover – he took them to the more open-minded Triad magazine. Published in early 1917, these poems gave readers a taste of the candour that would make her famous in Songs of Love and Life:

Ah! how I love to kiss the hair that lies

Across the smooth contentment of your brow

To join our mouths and make the happy vow

That trembles all its promise to our eyes!

Zora would remember the Triad ’s praise, setting her apart from other women writers, at the top of the page carrying her sonnets. It was the strongest encouragement she had received from someone she didn’t know. ‘Miss Zora Cross’s work, with some crudeness, shows much strength,’ it read. ‘She is never genteel or merely ladylike. She is a million leagues apart in spirit from the thousand Australian and New Zealand girls who send the Triad its weekly reams of ting-ting. She has a positive quality and a soul of her own.’

Even though Zora would credit Wright with ‘forcing a pen into my hands’ and believing in her when she was just a ‘common vaudeville singer’, it was the Triad ’s endorsement that sent her home to write another thirty love sonnets. When Wright told her they were good, she wrote twenty more. She didn’t think she was more passionate than any other woman, but she had the freedom to express her passion. Her ambition to be a writer, her experience as an actress, her disregard for convention allowed her to reveal her sexuality in a way that most women writers couldn’t.

Zora was living with her family in Mosman and getting to know her two-year-old son, though her mother continued to take charge of him. ‘He has never had me,’ she would tell her friend John Le Gay Brereton, ‘and even when he has me I just spoil and spoil him.’ Pursuing her divorce was difficult without knowing where her husband was living, but she contacted a solicitor and lodged a petition in the Supreme Court. After the freedom of Brisbane, her burdens were piling up. It was hard to see how she could make an independent life for herself, so she buried herself in poetry. ‘I am determined to get on with my writing,’ she had told Stevens just before her return to Sydney, ‘and push everything else aside.’

In the first few months of 1917, she gathered her love sonnets and the best poems she had published in newspapers and magazines. She took the manuscript to Bertram Stevens, who presented it to George Robertson. When Robertson declined to read it, Stevens advised her to get it printed herself if that was what she wanted: ‘follow your instinct as to what is right’.

He wasn’t worried that she might receive ‘hostile criticism’. Strong opposition to her work might stimulate her to write more: ‘Supposing Keats had stopped because of the assaults upon his first book – “Endymion” – not merely assaults but sneers and insults, we should have missed his very best work.’ But he was concerned that readers might be indifferent, or misunderstand her.

*

Later that year, in the back office of his bookshop at 89 Castlereagh Street, George Robertson sees an advance copy of Zora Cross’s Songs of Love and Life. It’s a cheap-looking paperback edition produced by his former employee James Tyrrell. He remembers turning down the manuscript without reading it, even though Bertram Stevens had told him it was ‘hot stuff’. He would blame this oversight on his mood – ‘I am a man of moods’ – and the fact that Zora’s mother had offered to pay for the printing, which is ‘almost invariably a bad sign’.

Robertson is wary of risking the firm’s money on publishing. With a thriving bookshop and extraordinary wartime sales of CJ Dennis’s comic narrative poetry series Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, he could afford to knock back a proposal on a whim.

Events in the second half of 1917 have affected Robertson’s confidence in publishing. When the six-week Great Strike, beginning in August that year, took 100,000 people out of the workforce, he showed no sympathy for them. He estimated that the action cost his company £1000. ‘We have had an awful time during the past two months,’ he told Norman Lindsay, explaining the delay in printing The Magic Pudding. ‘No gas or electricity during the daytime in the binding shops, no sea transport and a hundred-and-one other inconveniences.’ Now that the strike has ended, he is worried that the second conscription referendum at the end of that year will affect Christmas sales. A book would have to be astonishing to entice readers.

He opens Zora’s book at the poem ‘Memory’, which begins, ‘Late, late last night, when the whole world slept / Into the garden of dreams I crept’. He admires the playful conceit of a twenty-two-year-old visiting her eight-year-old self. The child asks, ‘Have you had much spanking since you were me?’ And the young woman turns away, ‘For I’ve earned more spanks than I dared to tell.’

Then he starts reading the fifty love sonnets. Some hint at physical love (‘When your warm finger, like a breath of eve, / Lies on my breast or on my silken sleeve’). Others go further (‘Now you are here. Your body on my own … / Smothering me o’er with Heaven this perfect night.’). And one, ‘Sonnet X’, goes so far – with a sexually aggressive female narrator – that it will be left out of Angus & Robertson’s edition (‘Where Venus holds Adonis by the hair / And drains his sweetness till he fain would die’).

Robertson finds the sonnets extraordinary. In this inferior edition, he tells his assistant Rebecca Wiley, is the ‘great poetess of the age’. It is poetry to rival Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, and it’s about to be released in a brown paper cover. He rushes next door to James Tyrrell’s bookshop.

‘Jim, this woman is too good for you! Have you published it?’

Tyrrell reassures his former boss that he gave him a sample copy before it was sent to other bookshops.

‘What will you take for her?’ ‘£20, and you shall have her.’

*

Before Zora was aware of Robertson’s plans for her book, the publisher dispatched a letter to Norman Lindsay asking for eight illustrations like those he had produced for soldier-poet Leon Gellert’s Songs of a Campaign. Robertson knew that Lindsay’s illustrations would give a ‘flying start’ to any book by guaranteeing a few hundred sales to collectors of the artist’s work.

But when Zora’s book arrived on the doorstep of Lindsay’s Blue Mountains home, ‘Springwood’ – in the village of Faulconbridge, and near the village of Springwood – the love sonnets appalled him and he declined the commission. He sent Robertson a drawing in which an obese man cowers behind a woman on a bed, holding her slim body in his large hands. The woman reaches in desperation towards a thin man in a nightshirt and top hat, who is holding a candle. Written above the sketch are lines from Zora’s ‘Sonnet XIII’:

Oh Love, had you not found me that lone night

When passion knawed [sic] me with his thundering ire …

‘Inspiration stops at the above,’ Lindsay wrote in a letter that accompanied the sketch. ‘I dare not carry it further. An effort to disentangle the mixed metaphors of this estimable married lady forces my Scotch ancestry to indignant protest. Besides, I doubt they will let us print orgasms in pictorial form.’

*

Cathy Perkins
Photo by Joy Lai

When Robertson meets Zora Cross to sign a two-book contract, three days after dispatching her poems to Lindsay, he is shocked by her appearance. She isn’t the ‘deep-chested, broad-hipped poetess’ he expected, but ‘a diminutive little woman who sat on the edge of her chair, looking like a Sunday school teacher, and evidently overawed by the big publisher’. Robertson would say he sustained the same level of shock as Charlotte Brontë’s publishers, who were misled by her male pseudonym Currer Bell. ‘For something like forty-five years I have been meeting authors,’ he tells Stevens, ‘but I have never met one so astounding as Zora Cross’.

They discuss the illustrations, and it becomes clear that she doesn’t want them. It’s her wish that the poetry should speak for itself. Still waiting to hear back from Lindsay, Robertson prepares another letter cancelling the commission, telling the artist that ‘the little lady is evidently out for fame, not for filthy lucre’.

The publisher still wants a cover picture and endpapers, for which he’s willing to pay £21. ‘A bedroom scene for the picture would be fine,’ Robertson tells Lindsay, ‘but I am afraid you would make it too strong for the public we have to capture.’ A garden scene from one of the sonnets might be safer. ‘When Mrs Cross comes in I must ask her what she thinks about this. She is quite young, but she has been on the Stage and probably has ideas of her own about “scenic” effects.’ Robertson offers to introduce Lindsay to Zora when he’s next in town.

That letter is about to be posted when Robertson receives Lindsay’s response to the poetry, and decides against suggesting that the author and artist meet. He drafts another letter. Isn’t it ‘much cleverer’, he argues, if Zora imagined the sex in her poetry rather than ‘merely “reported” it’. The request for a cover artwork goes ahead, as the publisher is confident that the artist won’t decline the lucrative commission.

In the end, Lindsay labours so much over the cover that Rose writes to Robertson asking for more time. She suggests the publisher give her husband half the time he can allow: ‘you will get it late then’.

*

Once the matter of illustrations was settled, editorial drama followed. Stevens had assured Zora that if she were to publish the book herself, he would help her get it ready for the press but wouldn’t interfere with her writing. The ‘expression of deep emotions’, he believed, was the poet’s domain. But Robertson was investing money in the book, and didn’t exempt poetry from editorial polishing. He oversaw corrections – line by line – until Zora felt as though every ‘colon and comma and word has been weighed and reweighed in the Scales of Gabriel’ and she was ‘wondering who on earth has written the book’.

Robertson told his assistant that Zora was the ‘quickest he ever struck’ in responding to editorial suggestions. The author was ‘continually in and out’ of the publisher’s offices, editing the manuscript and correcting proofs. She would ‘first put her finger to her lips and, pen poised in hand, pause a moment or two, then down would go the pen and a line or word appear’. The mental strain invaded Zora’s subconscious, and she would later tell Robertson, ‘I used to dream night after night that you were chasing me through interminable forests with commas and semicolons like awful hatchets.’

From Cathy Perkins The Shelf Life of Zora Cross Monash University Publishing 2019 PB 304pp $29.95

Like to keep reading? You can buy The Shelf Life of Zora Cross from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for for the thrilling extract from what is obviously a remarkable book.
    I have fallen in love with Zora Cross, and will have harsh words with Norman Lindsay.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! And yes, Lindsay does not come out of it well.