The Toowoomba Ladies Literary Society and the Civic Function of a Literary Past
'Down the length of this country like a zip Connecting inland to coast, mountains lie— And we are locked in the neat teeth, in this city Going nowhere, fast. As the morning rises I walk, weighted, through my dreams of leaving. White fog slowly unwraps.' ‘In a Provincial City, Cycling to School,’ Jean Kent
Founded in September 1913 by Lady Littleton Groom, the wife of the then Federal Member for the Darling Downs, Sir Littleton Ernest Groom, the Ladies' Literary Society was originally conceived as a self-improvement society for young women [i]. It also established literary pilgrimages to the memorials for Essex Evans (from 1929) and Steele Rudd (from 1950) [ii].
Since then it has emerged as the most important custodian of Toowoomba's literary heritage. The society is not responsible for the Essex Evans memorial which was built in Webb Park on the edge of the Range in 1909 through public subscription, however, since its inception it has established a plaque at the site of Essex Evan's home and erected commemorative cairns, plaques or fonts to Steele Rudd (1950), the critic A.G. Stephens (1967), the poet, essayist, editor and long time president of the society, Margaret Curran (1963), and the poet, story writer, editor and longtime Vice-President, Alice Guerin Crist .
A pilgrimage, as everyone well knows, is a journey to a sacred place. The literary pilgrimage canonises the poet as a substitute religious figure and establishes him as a versatile source of moral, social, cultural, and political authority.
This shift in signification from Religion to Culture has its roots in the nineteenth century, and the Toowoomba Ladies' Literary Society's consecration of the poet has much in common with Thomas Carlyle's veneration of the poet as a visionary hero [iii]. The 1918 editorial of the society's only venture into print, The Lamp, sets out the relationship between the poet and the Ladies' Literary Society, and that between the Society and the general citizenry of the region and the nation:
... we have turned our eyes to the torch of knowledge and sought for light divine. Some time ago we first met together under an inspiration that moved us to higher things. As the deeper movements of national life surged around us we longed to hold communion with those great souls whose masterpieces are the pride of our literature. We have made companions of the poets, dramatists and novelists. We have endeavoured to sink our individual personality and to see life from their point of view. Our eyes have been opened and we have seen ... the nobler and higher impulses of life. We have realised that-
Poetry is itself a thing of God,
He made His prophets poets, and the more
We feel of poesy do we become
Like God in love and power--undermakers [iv] .
The poet here is an inspired visionary who dispenses revelation to his less inspired audience. This audience's ability to recognise a literary revelation when they see one sets them apart from the more general populace and authorises their missionary role in the wider dissemination of 'the light ... which has come to us through the great masters' (The Lamp 3).
The Ladies Literary Society of Toowoomba received a great deal of support from the local newspaper, the Toowoomba Chronicle, which would publish the full text of the pilgrimage addresses for many years. Prominent civic figures such as politicians, teachers and businessmen, many of them married to members of the Society, were also actively involved.
In addition to the pilgrimages the Society met monthly to present and listen to talks on a variety of literary topics. The monthly programs from 1920s to the 1980s include discussions of 'Lady McBeth', 'Poetry in its relation to life', 'Citizenship', 'Australian novelists', 'An introduction to modern literature', 'Russian literature before 1914', 'Shakespeare's country' and 'Ballads of the people'. In the early years there were debates on issues such as 'Do pictures tend to the improving of the ideals of a community' and 'Hero-Worship is beneficial to a Nation' as well as an essay competition for members on 'Notable Women' [v].
Margaret Curran, who was the President of the Ladies Literary Society for thirty years from 1933 to 1963, clearly states the civic aspirations of the Society in her speech on the opening of the Steele Rudd memorial cairn in 1950:
The president of the Steele Rudd Memorial Fund Committee (Mrs Margaret Curran) said during her address that the history of man, which was largely the history of civilisation, might be read in its memorials -- often beautiful, and occasionally grotesque.
The degree of civilisation achieved by any community or country was measured by the attitude of the inhabitants toward its memorials.
Toowoomba was overlooked by a memorial to a poet, George Essex Evans; there was a memorial on the new Toowoomba Highway which had been raised to the memory of Sir Littleton Groom; and in Toowoomba's busiest centre, the tall grey stone of remembrance known as the 'Mothers Memorial' was a stern reminder to the careless passer by that freedom was purchased 'at a great price.' Now, another memorial has been erected only a few yards from the very birthplace of a native genius.
The Toowoomba Literary Society, Mrs Curran added, had begun the movement to provide the memorial ... because it 'did not choose that the land from which he sprung, should be shamed' by utter forgetfulness. [vi]
Literature, its associated characters, geographies and monuments, represent a form of historical architecture which cultivates a civilised sensibility within the municipal space. Toowoomba is civilised by the monuments that continually prompt the 'careless passer by' to rehearse a set of ethical values which the monument somehow locates and a proper respect and attention to literature fulfills much the same function. The Ladies Literary Society is a custodian of the literary culture of the city and this makes it an important part of the local imaginary.
The Society did not only encourage an informed appreciation and promotion of literature, however, and a number of members over the years have been active writers in professional contexts and through local writing groups. Curran and the long term Vice-President, Alice Guerin Crist, both earned a living as professional writers and editors and both can be seen to carry on Essex Evan's work as public poets committed to the civic life of the city [vii].
Alice Guerin Crist immigrated with her family to Australia from Ireland at the age of two in 1878. Her father was a teacher and she spent her childhood in a number of small South-East Queensland rural schools. In 1896 she accepted her own appointment to the Blackhall Range State School near Landsborough but after a transfer to West Haldon the following year she was rather unfairly dismissed from service.
Crist returned to her family at Douglas on the Darling Downs and in 1902 married a German immigrant farmer, Joseph Crist. The Christ's moved to an isolated property at Rosenberg near Bundaberg in 1910 but returned to the Darling Downs in 1913 when Jo Crist began a fuel supply business in Toowoomba [viii].
Despite significant periods when she had to concentrate on farm work and the domestic care of her children, Crist was able to pursue a remarkably active literary career. She was a prolific writer of verse and short fiction and published widely in Australian newspapers including the Sydney Bulletin, the Worker, and Steele Rudd's Magazine. Crist's devout Irish Catholicism was associated with democratic politics and in 1902 she became a member of the Socialistic Democratic Vanguard. At about this time she became friendly with another poet and schoolteacher, Mary Gilmore, who published her work in the woman's page of The Worker. Crist tended to write about her rural and domestic experiences and frequently celebrated the natural beauty of the bush and the virtues and struggles of Irish Australian pioneers. There is also a marked Celtic influence in a number of poems about the nostalgic homesickness of Irish immigrants and in the sprights and faeries which pop up at the bottom of the garden in her nature verse and poems for children. Crist's youngest brother, Felician, was killed at Paschendale in 1917 and she contributed Anzac day poems to the Toowoomba Chronicle and other occasional verse for many years.
From 1920 she made a determined effort to derive an income from her writing. The Catholic Advocate began to pay her for rural and religious poems and stories and in 1927 she published her first collection of verse, When Roddy Came to Ironbark and Other Verses. The Catholic publishers Pelligrinis brought out a collection of her religious poems entitled Eucharist Lillies and Other Verses the following year and a serial story, Go It Brothers, in 1929. In 1930 she became the editor of the Children's page of the Catholic Advocate and over the next few years she used the versatility of this outlet to stimulate Queensland's catholic children. Crist's page, like her verse, was an inventive mix of Catholic Irish-Australian nationalism, domestic virtue and environmental appreciation, and she encouraged correspondents. In 1935 she was awarded the King's Jubilee Medal for her contribution to Australian literature and in 1936 she added the Commemoration Medal of the Coronation of George VI.
When Roddy Came to Ironbark and Other Verses can still be found in second hand book stores and it is a representative selection of Crist's more secular work. 'The Way of the Bush' combines her religious sensibility and bush experience in a celebration of the ethical character of a pioneering community:
A night of storm and wind and rain,
Tall trees bowing beneath the blast
That shakes and rattles the window-pane,
And a thunderous roar as the creek goes past.
Inside there are pictures and flowers and books,
And a slim girl-wife with shingled hair;
The lamplight glimmers on cosy nooks,
And Desmond Keane in his easy chair
Thanks God for home and the day's toil o'er [ix]
It is not long before a neighbor in need comes to leave his children while he rushes to the hospital to comfort his ailing wife: 'For this is the way of the bush… neighborly service prompt at need' (79). Keane helps his neighbor through the storm to his wife, the children are well looked after by his own partner, and the entire community rallies around in support:
Courage and patience and sturdy toil
And kindness unstinted in others' needs-
How the God that made them must love them all!
For the 'way of the bush' is His way indeed. (80)
Go It Brother's was dedicated to the work of the Christian Brothers of Australia and it was initially published serially in the Catholic Advocate. It represents a series of idealized and moralistic accounts of the education of boys at St. Mary's school in Toowoomba. Regular sporting contests with their honorable rivals from Grammar provide opportunities for affirming catholic ideology, for 'Brother Moyland … had trained them perfectly not only in football but in all the ethics of manly sport, so that although there was plenty of excitement, nothing but the most generous feeling prevailed' [x]. The characters in these stories are exemplary. When Miss Lucy attends the climactic football match between a touring English side and a Toowoomban team mostly made up of old boys from the friendly old rivals St Mary's and Grammar, the narrator is at pains to point out how 'very hard' it was 'to persuade her to relinquish her charge of the mending basket, and cooking board' (147). Still it is not long before her 'cheeks grew pink with pleasure and surprise' as she sights 'the Doctor of Hidden Creek … elbowing his way towards them' (147). Nevertheless, when the local boys establish the genetic prosperity of the Darling Downs by snatching the game from the tourists 23-20, it is the hero of the game who is licensed to seek out his sweetheart.
Crist's friend and colleague Margaret Curran was born at Colinton near Esk in 1887 and was educated at the Ipswich Convent. She worked as an editor and journalist for Steering Wheel, was a sub-editor for the Toowoomba Chronicle, and for forty-five years edited the Country Woman and Producer's Review. In 1928 she published a small collection of poetry with Carter Watson in Brisbane, The Wind Blows High and Low and Other Verses. Her oeuvre is similar though much smaller than Crist's and suggests a shared perception of the subjects and occasions suitable for a female poet. The Wind Blows High and Low and Other Verses includes a number of occasional poems in commemoration of Anzac Day, a tribute on the death of Henry Lawson, some nature lyrics, a number of Irish poems, some Catholic religious verse, and a few interesting poems on women and work.
The work of balancing literary activity and domestic responsibility provides the occasion for 'Buying Fish'. In this poem the narrator's daughter interrupts her distracted mother's literary work to send her along to the shop to buy some fish for her husband and son's lunch:
Now you needn't sigh like that,
Or put a martyr-look in those dear eyes,
Nor glance with longing at your half-done 'pome.'
Men must be fed, though rhyme and scansion wait,
And editors bereave themselves of hair,
Waiting for copy.[xi]
On the way the dreamy narrator is captivated by the natural beauty of Toowoomba and when she returns it is with a bunch of violets, copies of 'Hazlitt on Shakespeare', and 'Zimmerman on Solitude', but no fish. Curran's poems on the domestic circumstances of her literary production are interesting for their glimpses of a woman's writing career in a regional city. 'Anzac Eve', on the other hand, suggests the emotional consolation which the poet found in her personal involvement in the civic promotion of literature and an associated patriotic consciousness. The poem is set around Toowoomba's striking monument to the local men who fell in the First World War.
The memorial was funded by a subscription organized by the mothers of the fallen and is known locally as the Mother's Memorial. It was erected on an island in the middle of Margaret Street on the site where many young Toowoombans first enlisted (though it has since been moved to a nearby memorial park):
In dusk of Eve the city lay-
And Life's dark pall lay o'er my heart;
My feet, by instinct took the way
To that Grey Altar, set apart,
And, sobbing in the dark alone,
I kissed his name upon the stone.
No light had I-But mother heart
Needs no poor earthly light as guide:
My soul rebelled against the part
Fate portioned me … 'My son that died
Has died in vain, and he and they
Forgotten … save when women pray."
Just then the city lights shone out:
Each name shone forth as brightest gold;
A strange, sweet perfume played about
And in my heart crept peace, untold…
I felt …warm hands …upon my own …
My son kept tryst … at the Grey Stone.
What tales he told … of high emprise-
Of fuller life beyond the Veil;
How shone the deeds of sacrifice,
As jewels on the Holy Grail.
He blessed me thrice … I knelt alone,
Shriven and healed … by the Grey Stone. [xii]
The monument, the lights of the city, the evening perfume, patriotism and religious faith come together in an experience of place which consoles the mother for her loss and redeems the son's sacrifice. 'Anzac Eve' provides a nice foil for the civic work undertaken by Curran during her long-term involvement with the Ladies Literary Society.
[i]. Groom was the son of William Groom, the architect of the Queensland Selection Acts. Undated newspaper clipping from the Toowoomba Chronicle, Ladies Literary Society Archives, Toowoomba Municipal Library.
[ii] Christopher Lee, ‘A Society of Country Women and the Functions of Literary Property,’ Designing Women, Margaret Maynard, ed. Journal of Australian Studies 52 (1997): 138-147.
[iii]. See Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus and On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, London, 1908, pp.311-46.
[iv]. 'Editorial', The Lamp, no. 1, 1918, p.3.
[v] Programs in Ladies Literary Society Archives, Toowoomba Municipal Library.
[vi] . 'Unveiling of Steele Rudd Memorial', Toowoomba Chronicle 20 November 1950. Cutting in Ladies Literary Society Archives, Toowoomba Municipal Library.
[vii] Morley Garinger, ‘Toowoomba Ladies Literary Society History: An Interview with Connie Davidson,’ 27 January 1998.
[viii] The definitive biography is Dimity Dornan, Alice With Eyes A-Shine: Seedlings of an Irish-Australian Girlhood, Virginia, Brisbane: Church Archivists’ Press, 1998.
[ix] Alice Guerin Crist, ‘The Way of the Bush,’ When Roddy Came to Ironbark and Other Verses, Sydney: Cornstalk, 1927, p. 78.
[x] Alice Guerin Crist, Go it Brothers !, Sydney: Pelligrini, 1928, p.16.
[xi] Margaret Curran, ‘Buying Fish,’ The Wind Blows High and Low and Other Verses, Brisbane: Carter Watson, 1928, p.27.
[xii] Margaret Curran, ‘Anzac Eve,’ The Wind Blows High and Low and Other Verses, Brisbane: Carter Watson, 1928, p.12.