By Cathy Perkins, Monash University Press, 2019, 285 pages.
Why should you read a biography of a poet and author who died nearly 60 years ago and has been out of print for nearly 80? Because there is so much to learn from the story of Zora Cross, and now is the time to tell it.
Zora Cross was born in 1890, at Eagle Farm, Brisbane, when that area was mostly farmland. She grew up and was educated at Gympie, Ipswich, and for a time in Southport. She showed precocious talent, and from about the age of 12, she began to publish poems and stories in the Australian Town and Country Journal under the stewardship of Ethel Turner (of 7 Little Australians fame).
At 15, Cross relocated to Sydney to complete her education. On finishing high school, she studied teaching, but she was forced to give this up after she fell pregnant, apparently out of wedlock. The child later died, and Cross suffered at the hands of two further ill starred love affairs (one of which produced a child) before meeting the enduring love of her life, David McKee Wright, who was then the editor of the Bulletin Red Page. Together they had two children, but they never married. Cross and Wright moved to the Blue Mountains, where Wright, 20 years older than Cross, passed away in 1928.
Cross’ second book of poetry, Songs of Love and Life (1917) was a best seller, running to 5 editions, and was received with varying levels of acclaim (and occasional concern) as probably the first mainstream Australian book to celebrate female sexual love with any degree of candour.
As Perkins shows in her biography, turn of the century Sydney had an established Bohemian artistic community, with moral standards very different from at least the public morals of the wider community. However, Cross and Wright never seem to have gained a more than passing acceptance in the Sydney literary scene. Perkins is particularly scathing on Norman Lindsay, who believed woman could not write love poetry, and called Cross a ‘servant girl poet’.
Perkins has crafted her book around Cross’ relations with 9 key figures in her life (a number of whom were major literary figures). Perkins reveals illuminating detail about Cross’ parents, particularly her father’s lack of financial acumen, his bankruptcy and conviction for fraud. Though Cross never disconnected from her family, it was perhaps her sense that she had no reputation to uphold that freed her to take the literary and personal risks she did.
Perkins also charts the slow decline of Cross’ reputation (and income) as a writer. Songs of Love and Life, was her American Pie. The follow up, The Lilt of Life achieved nothing like the success of Songs, though it features finely crafted poetry, and Cross’ final book of poems Elegy on An Australian Schoolboy (1921) a nuanced and reflective elegy on her brother, who died on the Western Front, only achieved an initial print run of 100 copies. After that, Cross raised her family and cared for her dying husband. Through these and many other hardships she never lost the urge to write. During these difficult years Cross eked out a meagre living as a journalist and published some novels, but to little lasting fame.
In recent years, Cross’ star has been in the ascendant. Her poems are reprinted on a number of literary websites (including this one) and a digital copy of Songs of Love and Life is now available through the State Library of Victoria. I suspect that Cross overestimated her ability as a writer, but she remains important now because of what she tried to achieve in her writing, and as a woman because of who she was and the life she lived.
The life we see, as revealed through Perkins’ well written and nuanced biography is also revealing as to why Cross wrote the poems she did. The child who kept no secrets from Ethel Turner became the woman who drew on her life for a series of remarkable poems
This biography is long overdue, but it has found the perfect author in Cathy Perkins. My Christmas wish is for this book to be supplemented by a reprint of the best of Cross’ work.