Jungfrau is the story of three independent young women who have been friends since university, living in Sydney in the mid-1930s. Eve is an obstetrician who has recently returned to her Catholic faith, Marc a social worker with progressive philosophies who lives life to the full and Thea, a teacher, sensitive and lacking the clear-eyed view of the world of the other two. The novel takes place over a few months as Thea, who is thinking of undertaking a Master of Arts, embarks on an affair with her Professor, a married man twice her age. Her friends watch on, aware of the possible consequence for Thea, but unable to dissuade her. Cusack presents a realistic psychological portrait of the women and the interplay of friendship, ethics and aspirations. Cusack’s language is at times poetic and her descriptions of Sydney capture perfectly the landscape and the play of light and water of the harbourside city.
The novel was published in 1936 and presents the reality of life in the 1930s with its economic pressures, double standards and social dilemmas including unwanted pregnancy, abortion and women’s desire for independence in that period of social change. Jungfrau is believed to be the first fictional examination of women’s sexuality and its personal consequences in Australian literature. Although it came second in the Sydney Bulletin‘s S. H. Prior Memorial Prize (for a work of Australian literature) and was praised by literary critics, Jungfrau overall had a mixed reception and underwhelming sales. It was not republished until Penguin’s 1989 edition which includes an Introduction by Florence James with whom Cusack co-wrote Come in Spinner.
Jungfrau is a must read for anyone interested in the lives of women in Australia in the 1930s. A number of impressive Australian women were writing during this period including Katharine Susannah Prichard, M. Barnard Eldershaw (Marjory Barnard and Flora Eldershaw), Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead as well as my favourites Kylie Tennant and Dympna Cusack. Any of their writings are well worth reading, not just as historical artifacts but as good stories that still resonate.
A more detailed review can be found here.