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The shelf life of Zora Cross

The Australian writer Zora Cross was hailed as a genius and many expected her to endure as a household name.

Portrait photograph of Zora Cross
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I was sitting on the concrete floor of the Mitchell Library basement in 2008 when I first saw the name Zora Cross. Working as an editor at the Library, I’d taken the old wooden lift down to the stack to check a reference in a book of letters to and from the publisher George Robertson — known through his forty years of publishing as Robertson, the Chief, the Master or GR. 

I came across a set of letters about a book of poetry called Songs of Love and Life, which was published in 1917. It was clear that this book had been a publishing sensation, but I’d never heard of it or its author, Zora Cross.

Robertson had initially turned down the manuscript without reading it. But he saw a copy of the self-funded paperback in October of that year, read some of the sonnets that exalted sexual passion, and quickly bought the rights.  

He asked Norman Lindsay to illustrate the book, but the artist refused on the grounds that women couldn’t write love poetry because their ‘spinal column’ wasn’t connected to the ‘productive apparatus’ (although Lindsay did produce a cover design). Robertson was undeterred. He believed that Zora Cross would endure as a household name along with the great sonnet writers, from William Shakespeare to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Angus & Robertson rushed out a new edition before Christmas and before the second conscription referendum of the First World War. Songs of Love and Life — with 15 extra poems and a portrait of the 27-year-old author — would be reprinted three times and sell about 4000 copies. Soldiers took it to the trenches and many newspaper inches were devoted to the author’s genius and courage.

I was intrigued by this success in the face of Lindsay’s dismissal, and by a letter Zora wrote to Robertson after receiving his publishing offer. ‘My heart is tired from years of disappointments — disappointments in love, in work, in myself — in all things,’ she told him. ‘I have suffered alone and let no one know.’ She wanted him to think of her as a child, ‘Then you will understand me and be able to forgive those thoughtless things which might otherwise seem unpardonable.’

I liked the way her letter breached the convention of how an author should communicate with her publisher, and I wondered about the nature of her suffering and her sense of being out of control.

Searching the State Library’s collection, I found that it holds hundreds of personal letters by Zora Cross. Corresponding with leading literary figures of the time — authors Ethel Turner and Mary Gilmore, editor and critic Bertram Stevens, poet and professor John Le Gay Brereton, George Robertson and his assistant Rebecca Wiley among others — she captured her obsessive struggle to write and to be published, through financial hardship, personal tragedies and two world wars. This extraordinary contribution to the archives was an irresistible source for biography.

Cathy Perkins is the editor of SL magazine. The Shelf Life of Zora Cross (Monash University Publishing, 2019) is available from the Library Shop.