At the Margins: Working Class Women’s Traditions in Mary Fortune and Louisa Lawson’s poetics

Katie Hansord


This essay considers two important Australian women poets in the tradition of nineteenth-century working-class poetry, focusing on representations of gender and labour in the work of Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) and Mary Fortune (1833-1911). Fortune, who wrote fiction, journalism and poetry, is best known for her highly prolific and innovative detective writing, published in 1871 as The Detective’s Album: Recollections of an Australian Police Officer. While more poems published under her pen-names of “M. H. F.,” “W. W.,” and “Waif Wander” have recently been uncovered through the digitisation of newspapers, Fortune’s poetic output still appears to have been slighter than her writing in other genres. However, her poetry deserves attention for its place in the tradition of radical Australian working-class poetry. Louisa Lawson, whose contribution to Australian radical literature is well-known, also explored connections between labour and gender in her poetry. An analysis of her poem “They Are Taking the Old Piano” (1906) and its poetic relationship to the British poet Eliza Cook’s “The Old Arm-Chair” (1837), shows that the past and ideas of material comfort are evoked through the emphasis placed on specific physical objects relating to the “domestic sphere” within a tradition of “sentimental” poetics. Like other radical women poets, Lawson succeeds in adapting a popular sentimental mode or genre in order to highlight issues about women’s access to financial independence and the right to work.


Poetry, Women, working-class, employment

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