Essay by Kerryn Goldsworthy

In 1978, Australia’s two most coveted national literary prizes of the time were both won by women: Helen Garner’s first novel Monkey Grip (1977) won the National Book Council Award for fiction, and the Miles Franklin Literary Award was won by Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), Jessica Anderson’s fourth novel. Both of these books have since become classics of Australian literature, rarely out of print and regularly rediscovered by new generations of readers.

Australian fiction, both in its production and in its critical reception, had been dominated by male writers since the end of World War II. There were isolated exceptions, most notably Christina Stead, Elizabeth Harrower, and Thea Astley, all now regarded as major Australian novelists. But the two big awards to Anderson and Garner in 1978 marked a shift in readerly tastes and the beginning of something more like equality in the writing, publishing and reading of fiction in Australia. It may or may not be a coincidence that the narrator–heroines of both Monkey Grip and Tirra Lirra by the River are both called Nora; it’s the name of the main character in Ibsen’s classic play A Doll’s House (1879), which, like both of these novels, explores the theme of women’s emancipation and selfhood in modern society.

Anderson’s own life was adventurous in this respect, particularly in her youth when the norm for women was marriage and children, rather than sexual freedom, careers, or vocations. Born in 1916 in the Queensland country town of Gayndah, Jessica Anderson was brought up in Brisbane, where, after the end of her schooling, she briefly attended art college before moving, at the age of eighteen, to Sydney. She travelled in 1937 to London and lived there for several years with her partner, Ron McGill, at a time when living openly with a man to whom you were not married was both unusual and frowned upon, before returning to Australia at the beginning of World War II and marrying McGill. Thereafter, Anderson lived in Sydney until her death in 2010. During her first marriage, finances were tight and uncertain, and Anderson earned money doing what she called ‘donkey work’: first typing and research-assistant work in London, and later, back in Sydney, writing commercial stories for magazines under a pseudonym that she never divulged to curious journalists and scholars. She also wrote radio plays and adaptations, where she honed her gift for structuring a story and her extraordinary skill with dialogue.

It was only after her second marriage in 1955 that she felt financially secure enough to begin writing for art rather than for money; her first novel, An Ordinary Lunacy, was published in 1963 when she was already in her late forties. This novel was published by Macmillan in London and was well received, but her second, The Last Man’s Head (1970), was misleadingly published and promoted as crime fiction. She was even more disappointed with her publisher’s treatment of her third novel The Commandant (1975), a brilliantly imaginative and subtle account of the Moreton Bay prison settlement in 1830 when presided over by the notoriously harsh Captain Patrick Logan; this novel was again inappropriately packaged and marketed by its London publishers as genre fiction, this time as a Regency bonnet romance. But with the publication in 1978 – in Melbourne, this time – of Tirra Lirra by the River, the design and presentation of the novel gave a more accurate reflection of its contents.

Along with her contemporaries Olga Masters, Elizabeth Jolley and Amy Witting, Anderson emerged in the 1980s, in the wake of Tirra Lirra by the River, as an acknowledged star in the Australian literary heavens. She won the Miles Franklin Award again in 1980 for her novel The Impersonators, and her previous novels were reissued and rediscovered by a new generation of readers. As the critic Susan Sheridan has said, ‘Tirra Lirra by the River is the best known and most critically valued of her novels, yet it would be a great pity if she were to be remembered as a one-book writer.’ Anderson published three more books: Stories From the Warm Zone and Sydney Stories (1987), a collection of autobiographical and semi-autobiographical reminiscences from her youth in Brisbane and Sydney, and two novels of social and family life: Taking Shelter (1989) and One of the Wattle Birds (1994).

Born in the middle of World War I, Anderson lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and some of the technological revolution. As the critic Geordie Williamson has pointed out, her sense of self – as a woman, as an Australian, and as an artist – must have undergone some fundamental shifts during that long, fraught century. He argues that the ‘rich and various cast of female characters’ who inhabit Anderson’s fiction have one common feature: ‘a provisional sense of self’. All of her novels explore the ways in which the self is constructed and constrained: all of her characters’ lives and personalities are shaped externally by the behaviour, the attitudes, and the expectations of family members and friends, and internally by their compliance or resistance. Action and reaction among social and familial groups move all of her plots along.

The reasons for the critical success and enduring popularity of Tirra Lirra by the River are not at first apparent. It is a story told by an old woman – in terms of age and gender, the least valued demographic in society – and a childless old woman at that, which pushes her even further down the totem pole of perceived social value. It is also a book about the inner life: about memory, imagination, and the still, silent workings of one person’s mind. The novel’s external time frame is not much more than a month or so, while Nora is almost immobilised by illness. But the story is essentially one long act of remembering, covering almost seventy years, punctuated by short forays into the present day when things happen to jog her memory further. There is very little action, except within the frame of her memories. And yet this book has been widely read, widely praised and widely loved by two or three generations of Australians.

The thing most often said about Tirra Lirra by the River is that it is the story of one person’s search for a home. For displaced Europeans in a settler culture, uneasily aware that they have in turn displaced the earlier inhabitants, that will always be a question, and the post-colonial writing of any country will eventually turn on it or turn back to it. For Nora, finding a home is a matter of matching what she calls ‘a region in my mind’ with her actual physical location and the way she spends her days there. This idea is formed in her early childhood, when by accident, looking through the window of the old family house in the Brisbane suburbs, she sees a vision of ‘a country as beautiful as those in my childhood books’:

I find myself looking through the glass onto a miniature landscape of mountains and valleys with a tiny castle . . . But it is not richly green, as it used to be in the queer drenched golden light after the January rains . . . I was deeply engrossed by those miniature landscapes, green, wet, romantic, with silver serpentine rivulets, and flashing lakes, and castles moulded out of any old stick or stone.

When she later encounters Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’ in one of her dead father’s books, she realises ‘I already had my Camelot’: her vision of an ideal home in a mythical place, forever unattainable, is one of her earliest memories. As a girl and young woman living in Brisbane, she yearns for Sydney, which she calls her ‘proxy Camelot’. Once she arrives in Sydney with her husband Colin, she makes an effort to find a house by the water. And when the Depression hits and she and Colin move in with Colin’s dreadful mother, she changes the room to make a piece of her own space:

It was winter when we went there, and outside the window of the room assigned to us stood a lemon tree heavy with fruit. I took fire from the yellow and green . . . I made white curtains and a yellow bedcover, and varnished the floor black . . . I polished the brass bedstead and painted a honey jar white and filled it with flowers from the garden.

When the marriage finally comes to grief, her solution is to move yet again, to an even more distant place. Liberated by the financial settlement of the divorce, she announces without really thinking about it that she is going away:

I didn’t really have a firm intention of going anywhere, but I said London because it was the first place I thought of . . . And that’s how I came to go to London, not because I particularly wanted to, but as an affirmation of the wonderful discovery that nobody could stop me.

This seemingly aimless trip, undertaken more as a celebration of freedom than anything else, becomes the hinge of her life; she leaves Australia in her mid-thirties and does not return home until she is in her seventies. While in London she finds her professional calling, which is in itself a kind of home, and then establishes herself in a small household of kindred spirits, with two other women and a man all more or less her own age. When she first returns to Australia after the distressing disintegration of this household, it is her constant point of reference: she misses not just its physical comfort but the intimacy of company on her own wavelength, and the reassurance of the stories she has told to her friends and polished over the years, a carefully shaped and selective version of her own past.It is only when she returns to the family home in Brisbane near the end of her life, to a house now empty but kept for her in case she should ever return, that she realises the true strength of family ties: a nephew to whom she has always felt close is now taking care of her interests out of pure affection. Just as she has done all her life, she finds a place to match ‘a region of my mind’ – a corner of the house where she is pleased by the colours and the way the light falls – and determines that she will make these two rooms her base. And when she finally admits to some true kinship with her pragmatic older sister, now dead, she is rewarded with the return of a long-suppressed family memory that supplies both Nora and the reader with a key to several mysteries.

But while this search for a home is a major theme, it is far from the whole story. There are many other strands in the weave of this book: the problems and dilemmas of the female artist; the complex, unreliable nature of memory; the lures and dangers of love and sex in an unorthodox life; the effects of losing a parent in childhood; the physical fragility and social frustrations of old age; the love of beauty in general and poetry in particular, and the way those things are focused and filtered through the European medievalism that is the cultural inheritance of most white-settler societies. For a short novel, Tirra Lirra by the River is extraordinarily rich in content and meaning, so densely layered in its characters, incidents, sense of place, cultural references, and symbolism that the experience of reading it is almost closer to the experience of reading poetry than of reading fiction. And it is as intricately structured and patterned as a poem.

Reading this book is like gazing at a sapphire or a ruby: it is saturated in colour and light, like one of Nora’s brilliant embroidered wall hangings from her youth, or like her glorious childhood vision of an imagined Camelot with its deep greens and rich golds. Brisbane and Sydney are the Australian cities in which Anderson lived for almost all of her long life, and in this book, as she negotiates the opposition between Australia and Britain that has dominated the lives and imaginations of so many Australian artists, she evokes with a tender, luminous clarity the bright sub-tropical colours of her home cities.


  • Baker, Candida. Yacker 2: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work (1987).
  • Barry, Elaine. Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson (1996).
  • Corbett, Claire. ‘Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River’. Overland No. 217 (Summer 2014). Available online.
  • Sheridan, Susan. ‘Tirra Lirra and Beyond: Jessica Anderson’s Truthful Fictions’. Australian Book Review no. 324 (2010).
  • Sheridan, Susan. Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making Their Mark (2011).
  • Williamson, Geordie. The Burning Library (2012).

© Copyright Kerryn Goldsworthy 2015