This thesis argues that Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Thea Astley’s An Item from the Late News and Drylands, Elizabeth Jolley’s Miss Peabody’s Inheritance and “Woman in a Lampshade,” Gail Jones’s Black Mirror, Kristel Thornell’s Night Street, and Krissy Kneen’s Steeplechase subvert literary and gender conventions as an expression of revolutionary sentiment, showing how the revolt against gender norms and standards in these texts is shown in their employment and transgression of generic, stylistic, and narrative conventions, and the representation of the woman artist. The ‘artist’ as discussed in this thesis is defined as a figure engaged with writing or the visual arts. This discussion allows an examination of what I call the ‘astonishing tricks’ used in the representation of the woman artist in experimental and innovative Australian women’s writing, tricks being the literary games, loops, and paradoxes each text plays with language, genre, or style. In reading these texts, I refer to Julia Kristeva’s work on the ways in which poetic discourse can enact a metaphoric revolution through transgressive practices. I also draw upon Judith Butler’s theories of performance and some ideas about women, representation, and language. A broad methodological approach is necessary, in my view, as the texts discussed in this thesis engage with different issues related to the hegemonic masculinism experienced by the woman artist in the historical period in which each text is set.
I consider the idea of literary play—being the use of irony, humour, unusual language, surprising metaphors, and subversion of genre—as a form of feminist revolt or subversion. These authors, I argue, offer political interpretations of women’s relationship to art. In some cases, these statements are made in subtle, elegant ways, for example, Franklin’s subversion of the romance and realist genres. In others, the feminist sentiment in the text is vigorous and powerful, such as Astley’s scathing irony or Jones’s references to feminist theory. Franklin, Astley, Jones, and Thornell explore women’s relationship to art in the Australian context. Jolley and Kneen, however, investigate wider notions of art in relation to women’s sexuality and desire.
The texts discussed in the thesis enact the transformative potential of transgressive strategies in writing. In each text, the woman artist inhabits a linguistic landscape designed, owned, and protected primarily by men. She is marginalised in the masculine symbolic order, marginalised not only socially but also in and through language. However, this marginality allows the woman artist to claim a space of her own. Franklin, Astley, Jolley, Jones, Thornell, and Kneen’s methods for narrating the woman artist’s subjectivity both question and revise pre-existing traditions. This also allows them to explore the feminist concerns that are, I argue, so central to these texts. The use of strategies such as humour, irony, ambiguity, paradox, and inversion keep the writing open-ended, heterogeneous, and dynamic, enabling alternative playful interpretations, alternative ways of seeing and being.
The interiority of the woman artist is foregrounded in each text, alongside an interest in feminine subjectivity. Just as the author may play with or abandon formal features often found in novels, the women artist protagonists resist the framing devices that influence female subjectivity, desire, and aesthetics. I discuss how these texts engage with the question of the woman artist in relation to literary tradition and value; women, creativity and creative production; and the representation of love and experience of self and other, showing how they can be read as political analyses, from the perspective of women, of Australian culture in the period, as well as examples of experimental fiction. I examine the astonishing tricks performed by the women artists in these texts, and the astonishing tricks Franklin, Astley, Jolley, Jones, Thornell, and Kneen employ in representing her.