Vale Elizabeth Webby
Respected scholar, literary critic and author / editor of over 200 works, including books, articles, and reviews. The following is a very short selection of some of her many writings about nineteenth century women poets, poetry, and print culture, a field she defined through her work.
Elizabeth Webby, Early Australian Poetry: An Annotated Bibliography, Hale & Iremonger, 1982.
‘Born to Blush Unseen: Some Nineteenth Century Women Poets’ in A Bright and Fiery Troop: Australian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century. Ed Debra Adelaide, Penguin, 1988.
‘Introduction’ The Penguin Book of Australian Ballads, eds Elizabeth Webby and Philip Butterrs, Penguin, 1993.
‘Writers, Printers, Readers: The Production of Australian Literature before 1855’ ALS 13.4 1988.
‘Foreword’ by Elizabeth Webby in Katie Hansord, Colonial Australian Women Poets: Political Voice and Feminist Traditions, Anthem Press, 2021.
Photograph: Rosalind Webby
For Elizabeth Webby
I could say that I first met Elizabeth Webby at an ASAL conference. And I was incredibly excited to, and to first see her, looking on in the audience, as I nervously presented my first ever paper on a little-known nineteenth-century woman poet, knowing that she was the almost only other person to have written or ever thought much about her. I think that she felt the same excitement, from the other side, that somebody was finally interested and pursuing that same obscure subject, the things less recognised, that she had also given her time to, because of the same recognition of a huge imbalance and a desire for justice – and had never forgotten despite many other priorities pressing, years ago. But it isn’t exactly true. I first met Elizabeth Webby in a more unusual place than that. I was there looking for something to make sense of everything (or maybe just anything) through. I was looking for other women’s poetry. I suppose at its heart I was looking for someone who thought, or was, a bit like me… somebody who expressed themselves and their queerness against the ways of the world in ways that I could understand and feel understood through.
The place I met Elizabeth in was a book called Early Australian Poetry: An Annotated Bibliography. One of several books that Elizabeth wrote, and this one she had published in 1982, the year before I was born. This is a more strange book though; unlike any other book I’d read. It incredibly contains all the titles, author names or their initials, dates, page numbers, and a frequently utterly hilarious brief descriptive note (something like: ‘on a recent bank robbery’ or ‘long, rambling love poem’ or ‘wishes he were in a less restrained society such as Italy’…) for the hundreds upon hundreds of poems that were published in newspapers in so-called ‘Australia’ before the year 1850. I knew I could find more women who were poets in there, if nowhere else, and so I went looking through it all very carefully. Of course, that was how I first found Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, the poet whom I was talking about at the ASAL conference where I met Elizabeth for the first time in person. It was how I first found most of the poets. But before that, I was already in awe of this incredible book full of the potential for answers, doorways into more questions. And in awe of its author. If that wasn’t incredible enough, she later told me she had wanted to go all the way up to the year 1900, in writing her amazing bibliography of newspaper poems – but she’d had a baby. We laughed. I’d also had a baby not too long ago. In fact, my new baby was at the conference with me, little Arlo. Once I’d found the numerous entries of poems in Early Australian Poetry: An Annotated Bibliography, I knew this was what I had been looking for: women poets who had been consistent contributors to newspaper poetry. Then I found the little book of some of some of Dunlop’s poems that Elizabeth had published, also in the early eighties. I learned a lot by opening and going through those doorways in Elizabeth Webby’s annotated bibliography. It undoubtedly changed me, to embark and pursue the questions I had about gender and poetry and the past and the contexts of production and reception so deeply like that, and to be allowed and even encouraged to, flowing with myself into writing instead of trying to fit the wrong ways in the world, and thinking of ways through it all. And Elizabeth’s encouragement was so unwavering, warm, certain, and loving. She was eventually an examiner of my PhD thesis, when it was completed. She was also tough, had high expectations, and expressed frustration, seeing me at an event on women’s writing after this, that I had not kept going, done more work. I didn’t know how I could explain to her, but everything then seemed to be going all wrong in my life… I was on my own, my mother had died, and I had fallen into a dark place of hopelessness about the world and all memory and meaning. Somehow, Elizabeth still believed in me even there, and encouraged and supported me to turn my thesis into a book. I still pinch myself now that I did it. She believed in me, even when I didn’t. And because she did, I somehow could. That was how it happened. This was a part of her magic. I remember that I cried the first time she signed an email she had written me, love. It really meant the world to me to have her support, and always will. I know she gave this same gift so generously to so many people. I am heartbroken that she has now left this world. We know being only one person, it can easily feel like things are too big and too impossible to change. I have felt this many times, but I have also felt in myself how her wisdom and curiosity and generosity and kindness really did affirm things, change things, make things possible, make a difference, and so I think, can ours.