(Joan Austral Levick, née Fraser)
Du Guesclin; Sun-Setna
26 January 1918 - 18 September 2001
As an author Amy Witting was publicly invisible for most of her long life. As a young woman the difficult social conditions of the 1930s, family circumstances, and her own particular personality made it impossible to consider life as a writer, although this remained a 'background quest' for many decades. She was the equal of her male peers at Sydney University (many of whom went on to become prominent Australian writers, poets and academics), but needing to earn a living she took up a teaching career in high schools. Witting continued to write whenever she could, abandoning for the time the idea of writing a novel (and especially the mythical 'Great Australian Novel'), and confining herself to the short story form and later to poetry. It was only in later life, after retiring from teaching, that the publication of her second novel I for Isobel attracted an admiring audience of readers and critics. Witting was 71 at the time an unusually late start to a literary career. Recognition then came with a rush, and this was undiminished at the time of her death in 2001.
Witting's father, Thomas Alexander Fraser, was born on 5 January 1890 in Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales and was employed as a postal worker. Her mother, Elizabeth Reid was born in the country town of Young, New South Wales on 29 September 1888. They were married in June 1914 and moved into the house at Annandale, an inner-city suburb of Sydney, where they remained throughout their married life. Witting was born Joan Fraser on 26 January 1918. She was given the middle name of Austral to acknowledge the fact that her birth occurred on Australia Day. Her two sisters were also born at Annandale; Marie on 28 April 1915 and Shirley on 31 May 1923.
The three sisters attended the local Catholic school, St Brendan's, Joan from 1923-1929. She was bewildered by the cruelty and religious hypocrisy she observed. Further mental suffering occurred because her peers did not understand her exceptional intellect, and she was physically ill with what was later diagnosed as tuberculosis. Secondary schooling took place at the prestigious Fort Street Girls High (1930-1934), where once again Fraser was ostracised because she was top of the class. Indicative of an early feistiness, she sat for the entrance examination to this selective school without telling her parents.
At the age of 16, and writing under the pseudonym of De Guesclin, (a reflection of her absorption with French poetry and culture), Fraser's poem 'Wanderers' was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 July 1934. It seems that staff at the newspaper were surprised and somewhat dismayed to find themselves handing over the considerable monetary prize to a schoolgirl.
At the University of Sydney (1935-1937) she studied English, Latin, French and German, and became part of what Peter Coleman called the 'sourly brilliant literary circle' that included James McAuley, Harold Stewart, Dorothy Auchterlonie (later Green), Oliver Somerville, Alan Crawford and Ronald Dunlop. There is at least one poem 'Craoghfordh's Lament' from this era, published under the pseudonym 'Sun-Setna' in the university magazine Hermes, 1937. Fraser graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, but because her father had died on the day of her final French examination at the end of 1937 she was forced to join the workforce, undertaking a series of unsuccessful jobs. At this point her mother also went into the workforce as a sales assistant at David Jones Department Store.
In 1939 Fraser gained a Teachers' College scholarship and completed a Diploma of Education; she was unable to afford the £3 to obtain a copy of her Certificate. During 1939 she met Donald Horne (who provides a vivid picture of her as a young university student in his book The Education of Young Donald) and later, John Kerr (Governor General of Australia from 1974-1977), who became a life-long friend.
Her first teaching appointment was to Riverside Domestic Science School in Sydney in 1940, followed by a number of transfers throughout New South Wales. With many Australian men fighting in World War II, Fraser, like many women, found herself replacing the male teachers in boys' high schools. A longer appointment occurred at Coonamble, an isolated town in New South Wales, and throughout this period Fraser wrote short stories about her experiences of outback life and the tough characters she met, whilst also developing her confidence as a teacher.
In 1948, when teaching in Kempsey, she met her husband Les Levick, an industrial arts teacher. They were married in the Judge's Room at the Kempsey Courthouse by a Registrar in December 1948 and they remained in this town until 1953. When a routine health check of students was carried out Joan Levick was also tested; it was confirmed that the untreated tuberculosis that had plagued her youth was serious, and she entered Bodington Sanatorium, in the Blue Mountains, in 1953, remaining there for five months. For many others this disease was often a death sentence, but Levick was successfully treated with streptomycin. This isolating experience provided the opportunity for her to turn to writing in earnest, and although no published stories eventuated, the experiences later informed her work, especially the novel Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop.
The Levicks decided to remain in Sydney and their only son Gregory was born on 21 July 1954 at Epping where they had bought an old farm house. Joan Levick returned to teaching in 1957. Her career included seven years at Cheltenham Girls High School (1957-1963) and concluded with her appointment as Mistress of Modern Languages at North Sydney Girls High School, where she remained until retirement. Despite her early misgivings, teaching proved to be a rewarding profession and her correspondence file contains letters from past students grateful for her teaching and guidance. The classroom, staffroom and school yard provided the source material for many short stories, and the novel After Cynthia.
Her choice of Amy Witting as a pseudonym is indicative of her independence and feistiness; in Peter Craven's article 'An Unwitting Excellence' in the Sunday Herald, Witting states that she promised herself 'that she would never be an unwitting monster' like a teaching colleague at Riverside Domestic School in the 1940s one Miss Wicht and 'that she was always going to know ... she would not be Wicht, but Witting.' Like many women before her, she made a conscious decision to choose a name that offered protection and an ability to 'move into a self-forgetfulness, a world where I don't count'.
Witting is a realist writer, fascinated by the subtleties and complexities of life that are deceptively present in the simple events of life and ordinary exchanges between people. She admitted that nothing was invented in her work, merely observed but it was always transmuted. She is adept at selecting events and emotions and then blurring boundaries so that a distance is created between the narrating 'I' and herself as author. Even though she writes in traditional forms, Witting's style often subverts such a conventional approach, particularly through the use of irony and dark humour. Perennial themes recur in her writing: art and life, love and hate, time and death, and the complexities of human relationships. These are the areas in which she worked out her central philosophical concerns, and revealed her considerable empathy with others.
Over a lifetime of writing Witting destroyed a great deal of material. Little remains from earlier decades except some chapters of a long novel, The Iron Ration (c.1939), a novella, The Garment of Grace (c.1951), and a short story 'Death of a Poet' (c.1965).
In 1956 Witting began to publish her short stories. The first, 'The Strait of Hellespont', appeared in Southerly in 1956. Other stories continued to appear in Coast to Coast, the Bulletin and Southerly, but a break-through occurred when her teaching colleague and published author, Thea Astley, impressed by Witting's story 'Goodbye, Ady, Goodbye, Joe', encouraged her to submit it to the New Yorker. It was accepted and published in 1965, and the New Yorker requested a second story a singular honour for those times.
During the 1960s Witting met the Australian authors Patrick White (Nobel Prize winner) and Hal Porter. White was impressed by her short story 'The Weight of a Man' which had appeared in Porter's selection for Coast to Coast 1961/62. White was also complimentary about 'The Survivors', published in Stand in 1975. Many critics agree that this story is 'a minor masterpiece' and White, in a letter to Witting, 'thought the story very well written ... you get the idiom marvellously. The characters are alive ...'. Along with Kenneth Slessor these authors offered support and encouragement whilst Witting was effectively being ignored by the Australian literary establishment.
In 1974 Witting was caught up in a literary debacle which reflected on her standing as a respected teacher. She had read Michael Wilding's 'The Nembutal Story' and Frank Moorhouse's 'Oracular Story' in Tabloid Short Story, and thought these writers were indulging in 'callous and mindless sexism'. She decided to respond, and in doing so to deliberately adopt their idiom of 'flip, value-free sex and violence'. Aware of the danger of a teacher publishing anything that might be construed as obscene she submitted her story 'A Piece of This Puzzle is Missing' a potentially confronting piece, under the androgynous name of Chris Willoughby. However, when the story was accepted the publishers asked for biographical details. Witting decided to drop the name of Willoughby, thereby leaving herself little protection from investigative journalists. She supplied a photograph and a biography acknowledging that 'she was a teacher'. Perversely the editors printed a photograph of a young, sexy-looking woman instead. Then, by an extraordinary twist of fate, the Tabloid Short Story for the month of July 1974 became a supplement to the New South Wales Teachers' Federation Journal. Witting found herself in an unintended and embarrassing situation.
Much earlier the Bulletin had rejected her 1962 story 'Faces and Voices' because the editor was concerned about hints of a homosexual relationship in the plot. (This story was eventually published in 1990 by the magazine Scripsi). But Witting was not one to shirk what she saw to be her responsibilities towards 'real' life, and her sense of humour and the real intention of 'A Piece of This Puzzle is Missing' kept her going through the ridiculous furore which eventually spread from the Education Department to the State Parliament. It finally lost impetus when Witting's true identity as a respected Senior Mistress and published author was revealed, and when she explained the point of her protest to Gus de Brito in the Daily Mirror: 'I was having a crack at the libertarians. The girl [in the story] shocks the man by wanting to be loved ... love is the piece of the puzzle that is missing ... without love nothing can add up.'
Although twelve short stories were published in Australian literary journals between 1956 and 1977, it was not until late 1977 that the publication of The Visit, Witting's first novel, drew some positive critical attention to the then 59-year-old retired teacher/housewife. Years of first-hand observation, stored information and an intimate knowledge of the social life in rural and outback Australia provided her with the realistic details of character and place. The people of the novel, she claims, were 'composites' rather than known people, and the country town of Bangoree is a disguised Kempsey, the mid-northern New South Wales town on the Macleay River. Although it received good reviews the hardback was soon remaindered. (It was reprinted again in paperback in 1991, following the overwhelming success of I for Isobel.)
Spurred by the impetus of a published novel Witting immediately commenced work on I for Isobel. This novel had a long genesis, with material coming from what she called the 'vast, probably unreadable novel The Iron Ration' that she had commenced c.1939. Two re-worked sections from it were published in the Bulletin in the early 1960s as short stories, but Witting found the confrontation with her past distressing. Through her character Isobel she recalls the physical and verbal abuse she suffered during childhood, and her ensuing confusion and alienation from society. Isobel's mother a study in perversity and sadism consciously delights in vindictiveness whilst masquerading under a facade of normality. She affects gentility, but projects cold hatred onto her daughter. Isobel's discovery of a valid self takes her on a journey from oppression, divisiveness and hate to discover a liberating awareness of the varied faces of 'love'; a confidence emerges that allows her to accept that she can become a writer she only needs to begin.
Completed in 1979, I for Isobel was accepted by Thomas Nelson, who had published The Visit. In 1980 Nelson suddenly returned I for Isobel, unwilling to publish because they believed it would not sell as 'it attacked the sacrosanct institution of motherhood'. The novel was consigned to a drawer.
With the rejection of I for Isobel Witting became dismayed with writing prose and decided to return to poetry. Throughout her life she had written short verses, generally light or humorous. Reviewing The Visit in the Sydney Morning Herald, Rod Nicholls described Witting as 'a fine poet', referring to the verses that are an integral part of that novel. Witting admits that 'poetry would have been my wish', but she was adversely influenced by the often patronizing, unsupportive attitude of her male colleagues whose general stance was that 'they were the bards'. She had therefore resisted this intuitive leaning towards poetry over her lifetime. With her decision to 'write no more prose', the years between 1977 and 1985 became a specific 'poetry period'. Apart from juvenilia, her first published poem 'Housewife' appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 12 February 1977. She then began to publish in Quadrant and Overland, eventually collecting this work in her first book of poetry Travel Diary self-published in 1985. Reviewing this in 1986, Barbara Giles in the Australian Book Review noted that the poems were 'lucid, thoughtful and accessible ... [and employed] an exuberance of words ... added to this is a nice line in wit and philosophical speculation'.
In 1987 Witting gave the manuscript of the rejected I for Isobel to one of her students who had connections with Curtis Brown in London. This publisher reacted ecstatically and recommended the novel to Penguin Australia, which published it in 1989. The acclaim was considerable, and has not diminished since. Far from readers being outraged by the depiction of a cruel and disturbed mother character, many responded with relief because they identified with similar childhood experiences. It did very well in the United States and was reviewed by the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. Reviewing the novel in the Sydney Morning Herald, author Janette Turner Hospital declared Witting 'a stunning and original writer'. The novel proved to be an artistic turning point; it won the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Barbara Ramsden Award in 1989 and was short-listed for the 1990 Miles Franklin and NBC Banjo Awards, and it remains on school and university reading lists.
In 1990 a collection of short stories under the thematic title of Marriages was published, with Witting drawing her material from work written and sometimes re-written over a lengthy span of time. The stories review adult relationships and 'reach ... into the darker side of human nature incest, illegitimacy, rejection, resentment ...'. This collection was short-listed for The Age Book of the Year Award.
The following year (1991) Angus & Robertson released Beauty is the Straw, a collection of 72 poems absorbing the earlier Travel Diary. A back-cover note by Australian poet Les Murray reads like a mea culpa on behalf of the Australian Literary community for the meagre attention given to Witting. He expresses amazement 'that so fine a poet could have been working unnoticed at such a level of achievement'.
Further short stories and poems were published in journals in 1992 and 1993. Also in 1993 Witting received the Patrick White Award a substantial monetary award given to an author who had not received sufficient recognition of their talents. In May 1994, at the age of 76, Witting's third novel A Change in the Lighting was released. Short-listed for the NSW State Literary Awards, this book focuses on a middle-aged character, Ella, whose life is completely shattered when her conventional marriage of thirty years breaks down. She is forced to confront many personal and philosophical issues for the first time, having lived in a cocoon of unquestioning acceptance where she acted out of politeness and her idea of 'correct behaviour'. Renewal comes when Ella discovers that she can change her attitude and accept life as it is.
This was followed, in 1995, by another collection of short stories, In and Out the Window. Gathered under the one title are fifteen stories, written over a span of 33 years, most of which had been previously published in various Australian journals. Reviewers noted the pared-down precision of Witting's work, its compassion and command of the language, and her absolute control of timing, dialogue and mood.
The genesis of the fourth novel, Maria's War (1998), can be traced to the short story 'The Interview' published in 1991, which was itself a re-working of material Witting was researching in Augsburg in 1980. A nursing home/retirement village complex is the setting for the novel, whose original title The Ante-room was shunned by the publishers who believed that the obvious reference to the nursing home being 'the ante-room to death' would detract from sales. The novel concerns itself with the deprivations experienced by Maria, both during and after World War II, and the complexity of the private memories and relationships that are too terrible to be completely revealed, even to a compassionate listener.
Coinciding with Witting's 80th birthday in 1998, Collected Poems was released; it includes the poems from Travel Diary and Beauty is the Straw and adds a new section of previously uncollected poems entitled 'Interiors'. This includes the disturbing autobiographical allegory 'Breakdown' in which Witting openly examines the demands of the introspective creative process that absorbed her for so long. In the poem she faces and lays to rest the personal demons of a lifetime, and documents the inner surety and peace which can come with ruthless self-knowledge.
Long-awaited by the fans of I for Isobel, the sequel Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop was published in 1999. Witting resisted writing this book for many years, again because she experienced difficulty in coming to terms with the autobiographical elements. Isobel, the now 21-year-old writer, is isolated in a squalid attic room and trying to cope with rejection slips and her lack of friends. Resolution comes in the curious shape of her experience of the enclosed 'reality' of a tuberculosis sanitorium. Here she discovers how others suffer and stoically face death, and she herself begins to understand the nature of love offered by unlikely people. The novel was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award 2000, and was the winner of The Age Book of the Year Award in 2000.
Faces and Voices Collected Stories, was published in 2000, incorporating Marriages and In and Out the Window, with several previously uncollected stories added. Reviewers again noted her command of the short story form and recognised that she was the equal of the most celebrated international practitioners. The New Yorker aptly summed up her skill with the comment that: 'This Australian writer tells stories with almost shocking economy, packing a novel's worth of impact into a few pages'.
Witting saw the final proof of her sixth novel, After Cynthia, but it was published posthumously in 2001. Set in the staffroom of a high school it explores the dynamics of a group of language teachers and the subtleties of their interactions as they watch the emerging love-affair of colleagues, and also contemplate the difficulty of another teacher's involvement with a student who shows suicidal tendencies. Reviewers noted that the character of Zoe seemed like a self-portrait of the author, and Witting, unusually, admitted that Zoe was indeed a combination of herself and her admired colleagues Thea Astley and James McAuley.
In retirement Witting also directed her considerable energies to teaching English as a Second Language, and assisted in the training of lecturers and teachers who were working towards the nationalisation of the ESL project, commenced in Sydney by The Smith Family. She was made a Life Member of this organisation for her charitable work.
During the years when her writing was finally being accepted Witting was, by a cruel twist of fate, challenged by increasing macular blindness. She purchased a computer to enable her to continue to work by using large type-faces. She also made use of a tape recorder and reading machine; later a friend became an amanuensis. She continued to appear at Writers' Festivals throughout Australia (often travelling alone), and at Writers' Week in Adelaide in 1996 she 'read' her poetry from memory.
Shortly before she died she was awarded the Australian Literary Board's Emeritus Fellowship. Witting died of cancer on 18 September 2001 and obituaries by Peter Craven and Peter Coleman appeared in the Australian in late September 2001. In June 2002 a posthumous award of Member of the Order of Australia (AM) General Division acknowledged her 'service to literature as novelist, poet, short story writer, mentor to young writers'.
Witting remained adamant that there should be no biography of her life; however, her life is revealed in her work, and the prose and poetry subtly expose the power of her personality. They reveal a deeply compassionate, humane person perceptively observing and recording the frailties of others. Hers is a unique voice, sophisticated and intelligent, though plain-spoken, and her understanding of Australian life, particularly in the 1930s-1960s a time when the face of both literature and culture in Australia changed irrevocably is memorably recorded in her work.
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