Dymphna Cusack – Literary Activist

Day 137 of Colourisation Project – September 21

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Today’s colourisation subject is one of Australia’s greatest novelists, Ellen Dymphna (Nell) Cusack, born this day, 21 September in 1902.  Known mainly as Dymphna Cusack, she was also a playwright and one of Australia’s most prolific and translated writers.

Graduating from Sydney University with an Honours Degree in Arts and a Diploma of Education she worked as a teacher until multiple sclerosis forced her early retirement in 1944.

Dymphna Cusack

State Library of New South Wales collection – Photographer Unknown – Dymphna Cusack 1947 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Cusack, a foundation member of the Australian Society of Authors, wrote twelve novels (two of which were collaborations), seven plays, three travel books, two children’s books and one non-fiction book. Described as a romantic realist, Cusack wrote about the real lives of ordinary people. The wide and varied breadth of social problems raised in her books is always rooted in Australian society; issues which may seem tame by today’s standards but which still resonate 70 or more years later. All her works draw attention to social and political injustices arising from prejudicial factors such as class, gender and race.

A committed socialist and peace activist, her novels were popular in the former socialist bloc during the Cold War period. Her works were translated into numerous languages and have been published in at least thirty-four countries. Cusack belonged to a class of left-leaning, social realist writers of the 1930s, a group that in Australia includes the likes of Katharine Susannah Prichard, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Miles Franklin, Jean Devanny, Judah Waten, and D’Arcy Niland.

Her most popular novel would have to be Come in Spinner 1951, a collaboration with Florence James. It is  realistic study of group of women working together in wartime Sydney and raises controversial issues (for the time), such as prostitution, abortion, class and nationalism.  Come In Spinner was an immediate sensation. 30 years later an unabridged version was published in 1988 and became an ABC TV series in 1989.

Other popular novels include, Caddie, an autobiographical narrative of a Sydney barmaid published in 1953, The Sun in Exile (1955), which tackles an interracial marriage and is a bitter denunciation of racism, Heat Wave in Berlin 1961, the aftermath of fascism in post-war Germany. A dramatised version of Heatwave in Berlin was produced in Moscow and several other socialist countries. After its publication the Brisbane Courier Mail wrote, “Dymphna Cusack is an Australian author who, much to the annoyance of the Australian literary establishment, has become itinerant, controversial and successful. She is writing books that are getting world attention.”

It’s hard to think of a topic she hasn’t covered. Picnic Races (1962) is a satire of Australian rural life. The Half-Burnt Tree (1969) deals partly with the Vietnam War and partly with Aboriginal problems. A Bough in Hell (1971) focuses on alcoholism.

Cusack has also been described as a feminist and liberal humanist writer; women and sexuality are naturally recurring themes for her.  Her novels centre on female characters and the double standards and sexual morality of her time along with the pressures on women to conform to standards of femininity.  Cusack’s literary career was launched in 1935 when her first novel, Jungfrau, was published to great critical acclaim. Dealing frankly with sexual matters, it was runner-up in the 1935 Bulletin competition. Set in Sydney, it is regarded as Cusack’s most feminist novel.  It explores the friendships between a small group of women and their ideological conflicts when one of them has an affair with her professor, falls pregnant and then commits suicide. 

Between 1949 and 1972 Cusack travelled throughout Europe, China and Russia for 20 years with her partner Norman Freehill, a journalist and member of the Australian Communist Party. Although Cusack never belonged to a political party, she was preoccupied with social injustice in all its forms. The themes of justice, peace and racism are overtly present in her novels and plays.

Pacific Paradise, a particularly popular play which deals with the issue of nuclear weapons, has been published and performed in China and other countries; Eternal Now, which won a prize in the 1946 Playwrights Advisory Board competition, was televised by the BBC in 1954; The Golden Girls, produced several times by the ABC, was staged in England and won a British Arts Council grant in 1955; and Red Sky at Morning was produced as a film in 1944.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, describes her thus:  “A committed social reformer, she interpreted history through the lives of ordinary people and used various forms of popular culture to entertain, inform and educate.  She regarded herself, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, as an écrivain engagé—one for whom the pen was mightier than the sword. Despite constant illness, she was a brave and prominent anti-nuclear activist in the World Peace Movement during the Cold War era.”

With her co-operation her biography, Dymphna (1975) was written by her husband, Norman Freehill.

In 1975 she was named Woman of the Year by the Union of Australian Women. In 1976 she refused the Order of the British Empire due to her republican ideals. In 1981 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to Australian literature.

In 2011 Cusack was permanently recognised by the addition of brass plaques at the Writers’ Walk in Sydney, set amongst the plaques of other literary giants.

Cusack died in Sydney on 19 October, 1981, aged 79.


“The sum total of my years of teaching in Broken Hill and Goulburn was the conviction that the high school curriculum was insane…It was the same in every country town I lived in. An essential part of our history was ignored, whether massacres of whites by blacks or blacks by whites, while we got bogged down in the Hundred Years’ War or the Thirty Years’ War or the Seven Years’ War – all taught with no reference whatever to the basic economic causes underlying them.”    Dymphna Cusack

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