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Seeking a life in the literary position : the writing of Charmian Clift

By Susan J. Carson


This dissertation is an investigation into and analysis of the literary output of the Australian writer, Charmian Clift. It attempts, primarily, a critical discussion of the novels, short stories and journalism that form the body of Clift's own published and unpublished work. Because of the emphasis in thest texts on the role of women in society, I also assess the changing nature of the reception of Clift's work and its contribution to Australian women's writing. Clift has yet to be generally acknowledged as a writer of substance, yet her work has much to say about the issues which were, and are, important to women's writing. To date, Clift's writing has been discussed in terms of her role as a popular columnist and 'travel writer,' or of her life story--what has become known as the 'Clift phenomenon,' that is, biographically-based commentary which features her role as a flamboyant and bohemain personality who was the wife or writer George Johnston. The result is that Clift has largely been discussed within the boundaries of this 'persona' in the popular press; she has not received similar critical attention to Johnston. As the outpouring of feeling on the news of Clift's death vividly indicated, she had developed a loyal readership. This readership did not dissipate with her death and is, in fact, being consolidated with reissues of her work. To a large extent, therefore, this dissertation is an attempt to assert Clift's literary contribution and to push away the constraints of a pre-existing tendency to a biographical focus on her work. To do this I concentrate on the solo-authored published and unpublished texts, referring only to the collaborative works written with Johnston when this is helpful to an analysis of the solo-authored texts. The issue of collaboration, and the related aspect of inter-textuality, requires a detailed analysis of George Johnston's work as well, an interesting project but one which is beyond the scope of this dissertation. I therefore examine the collaborative work only in terms of my overall aim of development of Clift's own 'writing self.' To do this I employ insights from feminist and other literary theory in order to develop a flexible enough framework in which to assess the diverse range of writing produced by Clift. I discuss the texts in terms of the notion of inversion of 'fact as fiction' and 'fiction as fact,' in order to gain access to the different levels of Clift's work. I also note the evolution of Clift's work, culminating in the autobiographical fiction of her unpublished texts. These texts, written at the end of her career, represent the beginnings of Clift's best work--writing in which she had begun to speak in 'her own voice.' Had this progress contiued, Clift would, I maintain, have received the critical attention she so dearly desired

Topics: 200502 Australian Literature (excl. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Literature), Charmian Clift, Literary Studies, Australia, Travel writing, Columnist, George Johnston, Journalism
Publisher: University of Queensland
Year: 1994
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