Dymphna Cusack & Florence James – literary chicks

YARN SPINNERS Dymphna Cusack and Florence James (Photo: University of Melbourne Archives).
YARN SPINNERS Dymphna Cusack and Florence James, working at Dymphna’s dictaphone (Photo: University of Melbourne Archives).

A Writer has another look at an Australian classic.

LITERARY analysis of the Blue Mountains in NSW tends to focus, perhaps a little too much, on the works of Eleanor Dark and Norman Lindsay, the enduring foundation for writers which bears her name, and the iconic gallery featuring his.

Other writers’ works also emerged from the cool climate heights of the region, in fact one of Australia’s most popular and enduring novels was written in the tiny town of Hazelbrook, in a home which never became a writers’ retreat.

The story behind its creation is the story of two women, their daughters and niece, who escaped the wartime city in order to live and write, and in doing so, created a literary milestone…

This article was published in the June-July 2011 edition of Blue Mountains Life.

Come Home Spinner

The Hazelbrook tenants who created Australian Chick Lit.

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour in May-June of 1942, Sydneysiders woke-up to the reality of imminent attack, and many headed for the Blue Mountains to ‘see out’ the war.

With two generations of men fighting in Europe, job opportunities for women were on the increase, and the city was flooded with American troops. Right in the thick of this changing world, two writers — Dymphna Cusack (1902-1981) and Florence James (1902-1993) — rekindled the friendship they’d started as undergraduates at Sydney University in the 1920s.

Florence had been ‘caught by the war’ in Sydney with daughters Julie and Frances while on a visit from London, and Dymphna was living with her sister and family at Coogee. In spring, 1944, the women hatched an escape plan of their own: to write full-time in the sleepy Blue Mountains village of Hazelbook.

Dymphna had retired early from teaching, suffering with multiple sclerosis. Florence needed a place to live while her husband Pym served in Europe. Combining Cusack’s small pension and periodic literary grants with Florence’s ‘allotment’ from Pym, in January, 1945, the families moved to ‘Pinegrove’ on the south side of Hazelbrook.

In this unassuming fibro cottage with views to the Sydney basin, James’ and Cusack’s ruminations on literature and social justice gave birth to the first international bestseller to present contemporary Australian women to the world.

They started with a children’s book — Four Winds and a Family — created in autumn, 1945.

An allegorical telling of the adventurous episodes of the Pinegrove residents, complete with writers Tess and Topsy (Florence and Dymphna), and youngsters Fan (Frances), Jay (Julie) and Dee (Dymphna’s neice, also called Dymphna), and various cats, goats and other animals, the book maps their ever-growing world of friendly neighbours and unfriendly school teachers.

FAMILY PICTURES Nan Knowles’ illustrations show an allegorised Florence and Dymphna.

They commissioned Nan Knowles to illustrate and sent the manuscript to a publisher the same year. Knowles’ work included a naive map (eventually the front endpaper) illustrating the part-real part-fantasy realm of Four Winds. It’s an enduring symbol of the secure world mother and aunt sought for daughters and niece at Pinegrove.

Emboldened by their success in juvenile fiction, Florence and Dymphna soon embarked on their magnum opus, the book they’d been talking into existence ever since leaving the city: Come in Spinner.

“We picked everyone’s brains,” Florence recalled when interviewed by Marilla North (editor of Yarn Spinners – A Story in Letters the letters of Dymphna Cusack, Florence James and Miles Franklin).

“Everyone” included local cleaning help Mrs Catherine Elliot (who regaled the authors about the realities of working as a barmaid in the inner city); and Blue Mountains Mayor Tom Walford (who explained the rules of popular gambling game ‘Two-Up’ in which ‘Come in Spinner’ is the call ending all bets before two pennies are spun).

Through the author’s letters, Marilla North was able to pinpoint the exact day that work on Come in Spinner began at Hazelbrook – Monday July 30, 1945, only a fortnight before the end of the Pacific War.

“Addressing issues like abortion, rape and prostitution, Cusack and James’ second collaboration placed female protagonists in the real world.”

“It took us two-and-a-half years to write,” Florence explained, “we didn’t write by each exclusively developing one character’s story. If one of us had an inspiration about it then she’d do that bit of the writing. Then everything had to be interwoven”.

“We worked five days a week when the kids were at school. At the weekends we had friends up and kept in touch with what was going on in Sydney. We went down there occasionally and very reluctantly…” Florence said.

In order to write without causing pain to her hands, Dymphna made use of a dictaphone she nick-named ‘Delphi’ (probably a reference to the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece into which prayers were whispered). Tom Walford arranged for local typist Joan Gray to produce manuscripts from Cusack’s reels.

The story of a trio of resident beauticians at the fictitious Marie Antoinette salon of the Hotel South Pacific, Come in Spinner explores their lives and relationships against a cross section of Sydney’s working and elite classes.

Seen objectively, beauticians Deb, Claire and Guinea are the natural evolution of the three girls in Four Winds and a Family, placed in a world much less secure, with no map to guide them save whatever moral compass their upbringing had given them.

Each of the women takes a journey through wartime Sydney, juxtaposed against the innocence that came before shortages and the black market, and a new world of gaining an advantage by any means.

In Four Winds and a Family the breeze is never strong enough to blow the girls into too much trouble, whereas Come in Spinner suggests life’s fortunes can be decided in a gamble. Addressing issues like abortion, rape and prostitution, Cusack’s and James’ second collaboration placed female protagonists in the real world, making it hot property even before publication.

Entered anonymously into The Daily Telegraph’s novel prize of 1946, the families remained at Pinegrove while the authors edited their manuscript. In 1947, the cottage was sold, meaning eviction by June, even as editing continued.

Florence and her daughters sailed for England to be with Pym. A separation of almost a decade (apart from occasional leave visits) saw the marriage unable to survive the reunion. Dymphna moved back to Sydney and continued work on other novels, sailing for Europe herself in 1949.

HOME SPUN First edition cover (1951).
HOME SPUN First edition cover (1951).

Come in Spinner eventually won The Daily Telegraph award but was never granted the promised publication, considered too controversial for Australian release. The authors were awarded the thousand-pound prize, but had to extricate their work from the newspaper for Florence to offer it to publishers in the United Kingdom.

The William Heinemann company published Come in Spinner in 1951. It proved an instant international bestseller after a series of rave reviews in the United Kingdom and has never been out of print.

With its cast of female protagonists, and its omission from most literary criticism (despite an enduring popularity), the novel ranks amongst the first true examples of Chick Lit in the world.

In deference to regular Pinegrove visitor and the author of My Brilliant Career, Come in Spinner was dedicated to the woman whom Dymphna Cusack described as the godmother of the collaboration – Miles Franklin (1879-1954).

The drawn-out publication and success of Come in Spinner has tended to overshadow the other works which came out of Pinegrove. Two other novels by Dymphna Cusack (Say No to Death, exploring the affliction of tuberculosis, researched in part at Bodington TB sanatorium in Wentworth Falls where one of Dymphna’s friends was a patient; and Southern Steel, set in the industrial city of Newcastle) were substantially written while at Hazelbrook.

Another collaboration of sorts was Caddie – the story of a Barmaid written by the woman who came once a week for laundry and chat – Catherine Elliot. It was Dymphna and Florence who suggested to Elliot that she write her memoir in her own ‘voice’. Dymphna edited the manuscript, assisted Elliot in finding a publisher, and wrote the forward for the novel which became a classic and a popular movie in 1976.

In her capacity as an editor and literary agent, Florence James encouraged two further generations of female Australian authors, including Mary Durack and Nancy Phelan.

Justine Clarke and Rebecca Gibney in the ABC’s production of Come in Spinner (1989).

Come in Spinner was adapted as a mini series by the ABC in 1989. Times had changed enough for an unabridged version of the novel to be published in Australia by Angus and Robertson.

Dymphna had died in 1981, after spending three decades travelling and writing, mainly abroad, which meant Florence was tasked with editing controversial sections of the collaborative work which were removed before publication in the 1950s.

Pinegrove still stands at Hazelbrook, although its original acre is somewhat diminished by development and many of its pines are gone. It was renamed ‘Four Winds’ after becoming the home of Sheryl and Geoff Smith three decades ago.

There are traces of the literary hotbed the home was in the 1940s – the wall where Florence and Dymphna pinned-up a plan of the plot, characters and eight-day storyline of Come in Spinner is still there, off the sizeable living room which attracted the women to the house for their growing girls. The same room inspired Geoff and Sheryl to buy the house on first inspection.

The autumn weekday afternoon of my visit comes with an almost complete silence which must have been a godsend for a pair of writers, nestled as the place is away from the highway and railway.

Sheryl shares with me a copy of Four Winds and a Family given to her son by Florence James herself, who revisited the home for the making of a documentary not long before her death. On the fly leaf, a dedication reads: “A happy life at ‘Pinegrove’ – where Dee, Jay and Fan used to live – also did Tess – Florence James.”

‘Tess’ had come home, but what about ‘Topsy’?


“Why oh why did we leave Pinegrove?” Dymphna wrote to Florence, on the brink of an international career which took off in a cottage in Hazelbrook. It is not known if she ever returned.

Extracts from Yarn Spinners – A Story in Letters edited by Marilla North (published with the permission of University of Queensland Press). Now available in a collector’s edition.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

7 thoughts on “Dymphna Cusack & Florence James – literary chicks”

  1. What a fabulous story! I’ve never read Come In Spinner, but I might just have to now. What a great time Dymphna and Florence must have had writing it. Maybe I need to find a cool-climate collaborator… Thanks Michael, I enjoyed this very much.

    1. Thanks Sarah, this was a pleasure to put together. I read the novel, the 1951 original, but they say the 1989 unabridged version is much better. These kind of collaborations are rare, I think. Florence James did not write much after Come in Spinner, but became more of an editor, whereas Dymphna Cusack wrote many later novels.

  2. Congratulations Michael,I have just read your article after looking up Dymphna Cusack on google ,and so very pleased that you have put Hazelbrook in it’s proper place in her story.
    I have a Ist edition of Four Winds and a Family,given to me by my cousins on my seventh birthday,and read and re-read dozens of times so that I almost knew it off by heart.
    At the time when I was at Grammar and we lived in Hazelbrook we were only a few hundred yards from the house in Valley Road.
    I have let Ken Goodlet know about your article, and he was very pleased as well.
    Best wishes,
    Valerie Noonan

    1. Thanks for getting in touch Valerie, I was very inspired to research this article. There is so much more to literature in the Mountains than ‘the usuals’. All the best, Mike.

  3. Thanks for the inclusion of my Yarnspinners website address. Just rescued it earlier this year and it’s being expanded considerably right now.

    My husband – artist and musician Robert G Jones – died after several years of my home palliative caring for him. I was exhausted after the 2017 publication of the vastly revised into the digital age edition of “Yarn Spinners “ and the chapbook”Lucky in Love.”
    You might enjoy them … especially silly the later.
    I’ll let you know when it’s properly operant. Rilla x

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