Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

History Revisited - Dymphna Cusack: writing her own story

RENOWNED PLAYWRIGHT: Armidale educated Dymphna Cusack travelled the World during her writing career
From time to time in this column I have commented on the many writers with New England connections. Dymphna Cusack (1902-1981) is another such writer.

Dymphna Cusack was born in 11 September 1902 at Wyalong, the third of six surviving children of Beatrice and James Cusack. The combination of straightened family circumstances with the girl’s ill-health led to her being brought up by her childless aunt and uncle, Nell and Tom Leahy at Guyra.

Dymphna was very much alone during those bush years apart from her Aunt and Uncle and her cat, William Adolphus. However she loved animals, fishing and time spent outdoors. Her uncle was a keen fisherman, and they often went fishing together. Later, she would live in many great cities across the world, but she remained a bush girl at heart.

The child read omnivorously. She also discovered a love of teaching when the headmaster at Guyra Primary (“what a man! what a teacher!) let her take over lower classes when their teachers were away.

In 1917, Dymphna was sent to board at St Ursula’s in Armidale. I have commented before on the contribution that St Ursula’s made to New England’s cultural life. Founded by German nuns in 1882, the school still (in Dymphna’s words) “bore their imprint in its reverence for learning for learning’s sake, and in its rigid discipline.”

Importantly, the school trained girls for University entrance. As a consequence, in 1920 Dymphna won an exhibition and Teachers’ College scholarship to study at the University of Sydney, taking her place in 1922. Upon graduation, she embarked on a teaching career while also writing.

Dymphna wrote her first play while at University, followed by three more that were all well received. In 1936 came her first published novel, Jungfrau, a tale of personal relationships and moral conflicts based on her University experiences.

By the time of her death, she had published twelve novels (two of which were collaborations), seven plays, three travel books, two children's books and one non-fiction book. She also helped Catherine Edmonds write Caddie. Caddie, Red Sky at Morning, and Come in Spinner (written with Florence James) all became Australian films or television shows. Another . book, Heatwave in Berlin, was staged and televised across the Soviet Union as part of the 1965 celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of victory over fascism.

The themes in Dymphna’s work reflected her changing life experiences, taking her far from that early New England life. Yet her love of the county remained and was reflected in some of the descriptions and memories contained in her writing.

In 1961 she returned to her earlier memories in Picnic Races. The setting is the imaginary gold mining town of Gubba, one that combines echoes of Bathurst and Goulburn as well as her beloved New England.

Her husband, Norman Freehill, described the book as a deceptively light-hearted yet profoundly critical study of rural Australia against a pioneering background which was her own.

The sometimes malicious anecdotes and passing descriptions in the book would be instantly recognisable even today, a trait that she shares with other New England writers.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 19 August 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.


Hels said...

The book/tv programme of Cusack that I was most familiar with was Come In Spinner, first published in 1951. I remember it well because during WW2 my father was paid sod-all as a soldier and only made a bit of money on the side as a two-up player.

Now I discover that Come in Spinner was co-written with Florence James. How can two people co-write a novel? Do they alternative chapters? Take control of different characters?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Hels. That's an interesting question. They knew each other well and were, I think sharing a house at the the time. That proximity would allow for many different forms of working. You can imagine them discussing the day's work, and splitting it up between them, with the pattern perhaps changing over time.