“Savagery and passion amongst the wild women convicts of early Australia.”
Today’s Pulp Friday offering is Journey Among Women by Diana Fuller, published by Sun Books in 1977.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about out of print classic Australian books. Journey Among Women has long been unavailable and details about its author are also thin on the ground.
That the book lives on at all in our cultural memory is only due to the cult following of the movie version, released in 1977, scripted by Fuller and directed by Tom Cowan. Unlike the book, the film is available, although it’s not easy to get.
Set among the brutal colonial beginnings of Australia, the story centres on the daughter of a judge who runs away with a group of hard core female convicts. They establish a women’s only society in the remote bush, successfully defending themselves from the wild men who dwell there and the colonial police and soldiers trying to capture them.
Journey Among Women is apparently based on a true story, the escape of a group of female convicts from a NSW Paramatta stockade in our early colonial days. Shot on a small budget, the movie was by all accounts incredibly controversial due to its graphic violence, overt lesbianism and explicit nudity.
But while the cast and director thought they were making an feminist film, it was more popular with drive-in audiences who flocked to see its racy content. The film is nowadays classified as part of the Ozsploitation wave of movie in the seventies.
It’s symptomatic of our nations’s narrow cultural bandwidth that films like My Brilliant Career (1979) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), both idealised, mythical versions of our past, continue to be emphasised over more daring works like Journey Among Women, which despite its pulp sensibility is arguably a far truer depiction of our bloody convict history.
The other interesting thing about Journey Among Women is its publisher. Sun Books was founded in Melbourne in 1965 by three men who had previously worked for Penguin but grew tired of the distain for Australian books shown by head office in London. Sun Books produced a large body of local literature, everything from poetry, political analysis to literary and semi-pulp fiction.
In the process they gave the first leg up to a number of fledging Australian writers who went onto become major literary figures. Sun Books was eventually absorbed into McMillan Publishing and ceased publishing stand alone titles altogether in the late eighties. In the course of researching this piece I found this link to a PDF of an exhibition on the history and work of Sun Books, held by Monash University in 2005.
Here’s the back cover blurb from the Sun Books paperback.
“In late 18th century Australia a desperate escape takes place from an isolated British penal colony.
A hard core of brutalised, intractable female convicts enlists the aid of Elizabeth Harrington, the refined daughter of the Judge-Advocate. They flee into the wilderness taking her with them.
Together the women learn to survive – hunting, foraging and fending for themselves, going deeper into the bush, deeper into a world without men…
But Elizabeth’s fiance, Captain McEwan, determines to bring Elizabeth back to the rigid confines of society and the convict women to the degradations of their cell. he does not realise the epic confrontation before him – a confrontation of fire and freedom…”
I remember this film and this book very well. It was definitely seen by my mother and her feminist friends as a feminist film and it seemed that way to me too. Another example I guess of how women don’t ever get to determine what images of the female body ‘mean’.
It never occurred to me this story was seen as ‘Ozsploitation’. But I think you’re right that it’s daring and political and should be seen that way. Thanks for reminding me of it. The info on Sun Books is very interesting too.
Thanks for stopping by and for providing that insight. I would add to the post, just because Journey is now seen as an exploitation film, it doesn’t mean it can’t be daring and political. In my book anyway.
“Journey among women” is perhaps close to the worst film I have ever seen – a product of the febrile mindset of “feminist” separatism movement of the late 1970s. Its risible dialogue, the “accidental” appearance of an Aboriginal woman (the usual tokenism), the utopianism, all contribute to a first rate lemon. When it was released it quickly did the rounds of adult cinema and was opnely advertised as sexploitation; most feminists of my acquaintance were embarrassed by the publicity and regarded the film as little more than semi-porno agitprop.
Did you read the book? If so, I’d love to know what you thought of it. As bad as you say the film is?
Sorry, Andrew, I haven’t read the book; the film was enough! (I do concede that very bad films have been made of better than average books, however.) Occasionally both the book and the film are bad – “Turtle Beach” for example….the book was described by a Malaysian academic friend as possibly the most racist book ever written about Malaysia, and the film more or less vanished without trace…