The book of love sonnets, published in 1917, represents the first-ever expression of sexual desire from a female perspective in Australian literature. Although they are heavy with Romantic imagery – references to Love and Death and Him – that can sound old-fashioned to modern readers, they contain sentences – Here, lying close to you, I feel—I know, My being, even now, is charged and filled – that are artful and timeless. A hundred years later, they still speak of the electricity that can pass between lovers. They hum with erotic force. Perkins says that the wild popularity of Songs of Love and Life, which sold 4000 copies, was a symptom of an Australia that was letting go of prudish Victorian values and forging a new global identity.
“Songs of Love and Life sold 4000 copies and [attracted] hundreds of reviews,” she says. “Australia was trying to show that it had moved on from mock modesty and, because of the First World War, prove that it could produce literature with international value.”
For Perkins, Zora Cross, talented, unconventional and ferociously ambitious, showed that female experience wasn’t partial or specific – a bias that still clouds modern literature. In the process, she changed what women writers in Australia could do or be.
“There were [beliefs] that women didn’t have sexual desires and that was connected to ideas around female power and creativity,” says Perkins, who adds that Norman Lindsay originally refused to illustrate Songs of Love and Life, at the request of Robertson, thanks to his belief that women were biologically incapable of writing frankly about sex. “To experience sexual desire was to show women as complete human beings who were capable of connecting thought and feeling. Cross was showing a female desiring subjectivity and passion from a female point of view.”
Cross was born in 1890 in Eagle Farm, Brisbane. Her father was a Sydney accountant and her mother was the daughter of Moreton Bay settlers. She burned with a fierce desire to write from childhood, submitting dispatches on country life in Queensland to Ethel Turner, who edited the Children’s Corner section of the Australian Town and Country Journal. She moved to Sydney in her twenties, enrolled in teacher’s college while contributing poems and journalism to magazines such as the Bulletin and Lone Hand. In 1911, she married an actor called Stuart Smith. She left him soon after and gave birth to their child, who died at birth, out of wedlock. Cross published her first book of poetry, A Song of Mother Love, in 1916, becoming one of Australia’s best-known authors with the publication of Songs of Love and Life the following year.
Cross would later fall out with Robertson when he refused to publish Rose Brown by Herself. The 1920 novel, which could be read as feminist satire, tells the story of a woman writer who rejects convention to pursue her own ambitions. It takes on themes such as abortion, consent and the power of female friendship. Rose Brown by Herself was never published. But it anticipates the messy explorations of female subjectivity that consume writers such as Elena Ferrante and Sheila Heti, who would shape the modern wave of autofiction nearly a hundred years on.
“Rose Brown by Herself was Zora’s own comment on the publishing industry and how women’s writing is perceived,” Perkins explains. “There is a very startling scene that [depicts] a date rape – she was sending up popular romances and she knocks the rapist over and feels like she has to be polite and help him. It was very subversive and women are still facing the same barriers today. [At the same time] she still had to write something that was palatable for the male gatekeeper. There was only so far she could push it.”
Cross would famously fall in love with David McKee Wright, her editor at the Bulletin.
Wright left his wife to marry Cross and the couple moved to Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains, where they focused on writing and she gave birth to two daughters. At the time, the affair scandalised Sydney’s literary circles. But Perkins believes that the poet’s relationship with Wright, along with her commitment to treating love and sex as if they are worthy of literature, has overshadowed her feminist status – and her legacy as a serious Australian writer who devoted her life to the craft.
“Cross didn’t necessarily present as a feminist but it’s only later that we can see her struggle as a feminist,” smiles Perkins, adding that Cross spent years researching a trilogy of novels set in Rome and supporting her children through freelance journalism following Wright’s death in 1928. “[At the time] it was still accepted that women were second-rate, but Cross had stepped out of a conventional life by having a life outside marriage. The way she documented her ambition and her struggle to write showed something so universal.”