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Cross, Zora Bernice May (1890–1964)

by Dorothy Green

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Zora Bernice May Cross (1890-1964), writer, was born on 18 May 1890 at Eagle Farm, Brisbane, daughter of Ernest William Cross, a Sydney-born accountant, and his wife Mary Louisa Eliza Ann, née Skyring, whose parents were early settlers at Moreton Bay. Zora inherited literary aspirations from both parents: a strong sense of poetic mission from her mother, and a strain of Celtic fantasy from her father, the son of an Irish printer. She was educated at Gympie and Ipswich Girls' Grammar School, and from 1905 in Sydney at Burwood Superior Public School and Sydney Girls' High School. In 1909-10 she attended the Teachers' College, Sydney. She started primary teaching but left the service to give birth to a daughter who died. On 11 March 1911 she married Stuart Smith, an actor, but refused to live with him and the marriage was dissolved on 10 September 1922. The child of a further mysterious love affair Norman Garvin (b.1914) was adopted later by Zora's de facto husband David McKee Wright, editor of the 'Red Page' of the Bulletin; they had two daughters.

With immense courage and enterprise, Zora Cross supported herself by acting in one of Philip Lytton's companies and teaching elocution, then by freelance journalism. She wrote drama criticism for the magazines Green Room and the Lone Hand, was a columnist for the Brisbane Daily Mail, sent poems to literary magazines, and after the outbreak of World War I, toured North Queensland with a concert party in aid of war funds.

In 1916 Zora Cross submitted her first novel, apparently on an Aboriginal theme, to T. C. Lothian, who refused it. Her first book of poems, A Song of Mother Love (1916), was published in Brisbane in answer to the German 'Song of Hate'. She was also corresponding about a long poem with Wright, who tried to impose some discipline on her life and her writing.

Zora returned to Sydney in 1917 and at the end of the year published Songs of Love and Life, some of which had already appeared in the Bulletin. The sixty love-sonnets in the book were the first sustained expression in Australian poetry of erotic experience from a woman's point of view, a fusion of sensuousness and religiosity, rather than sensuality; they attracted favourable if somewhat startled reviews. These sonnets, and similar poems in The Lilt of Life (1918) were a frank, passionate, if somewhat monotonous, expression of her love for Wright, with whom she later went through a form of private marriage in an empty church.

As the inspiration of the poems became known, the affair scandalized literary and journalistic circles in Sydney, mainly because it was mistakenly believed that Wright had abandoned his responsibility for his four sons by Margaret Fane, who had left him for the journalist Hilary Lofting; in fact he and Zora contributed generously to the support of the Lofting ménage. Nevertheless, Wright seems to have been gradually eased out of his editorship of the 'Red Page'; the strain on their combined resources was severe.

Wright's sudden death in 1928 left Zora in great financial difficulties. Her struggle to support her three children, mainly by freelance journalism, makes a painful story, though she remained cheerful, free of self-pity and simply got on with her work. Her younger daughter remembers her as 'a delightful and amusing parent, who never for one moment lost sight of her priority as a writer and a poetess'. In spite of a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension of £2 a fortnight from 1930, the family were often short of the bare necessities.

After Wright's death, Zora concentrated on a Roman theme which had surfaced from a previously unpublished novel, 'A story from Australia, or the complete education of Daisy Marsh', intending to write a trilogy of Roman novels. A legacy from her mother in 1953 enabled her to visit Rome for research, but the books were never completed. Faithful to her dream of love and poetry, she continued to work until she died of arteriosclerotic heart disease on 22 January 1964, at the cottage in which she had lived with Wright at Glenbrook, in the Blue Mountains: she was buried with Anglican rites in Emu Plains cemetery. She was survived by her son and her younger daughter April; her elder daughter Davidina died in 1941.

Zora Cross had a true lyric gift, revealed best perhaps in some of her children's verse: for example, the charming The City of Riddle-mee-ree (1918), and in more sombre tones in the fine Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy (1921), in memory of her 19-year-old soldier brother, John Skyring Cross. The landscape of her verse is rarely Australian in character, but she could suddenly abandon romantic convention for lines of surprising dramatic strength. Her serialized novels have little artistic importance: those in book form, notably Daughters of the Seven Mile (1924) show a then unusual interest in Queensland settings and some awareness of developing social and economic stresses in Australia. Her pamphlet An Introduction to the Study of Australian literature (1922) has outlived its original usefulness, but her unpublished impressions of writers she knew still have value. So have the accounts left by members of her family of their relationships with tribal Aboriginals, of which she made some use in her novels.

Select Bibliography

  • Aussie, 15 June 1922
  • Herald (Melbourne), 15 Nov 1919
  • Bulletin, 14 June 1939
  • Z. Cross papers (State Library of Victoria, State Library of New South Wales, and University of Sydney Library)
  • W. P. Hurst correspondence (State Library of Victoria)
  • D. McK. Wright papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Dorothy Green, 'Cross, Zora Bernice May (1890–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cross-zora-bernice-may-5828/text9897, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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