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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James, Florence Gertrude (1902–1993)

by Marilla North

This article was published online in 2020

Florence Gertrude James (1902–1993), literary agent, editor, writer, and peace activist, was born on 2 September 1902 at Gisborne, New Zealand, elder daughter of New Zealand-born George Llewellyn Denton James, engineer, and his English-born wife Annie Gertrude, née Russell. As the Jameses moved frequently, Florence attended a number of schools. In 1916 Lew took the family to Darwin while he oversaw the construction of Vestey Brothers’ meatworks. On their return to New Zealand later that year, Florence attended Iona College, Napier. She matriculated from St Cuthbert’s College, Auckland, where she had written short stories and other pieces for the school magazine, in 1919. The following year the family moved to Sydney. Florence attended the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, studying voice and piano. She joined the Theosophical Society in Australia, where she met Willem Johan Cornelis (Pym) (later William John) Heyting.

With Heyting, James enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1923 (BA, 1926). A brilliant student, she was influenced by Henry Lovell and George Wood, and graduated with first-class honours and the university medal in philosophy. In 1927 she travelled to Europe, settling in London where she worked as an advertising copywriter and briefly stayed with Christina Stead. She joined the Empire Literary Service in 1930, syndicating women’s magazine features to English-speaking countries worldwide.

On 1 September 1932 James and Heyting—by now a barrister—married at the register office, Hampstead. Between 1933 and 1938 she worked as a freelance journalist and literary agent, including popularising the work of the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. In 1938 she returned to Sydney with her two daughters to visit her widowed father. From January 1940 she was employed as the public appeals officer for Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, fund-raising and editing its journal, R.P.A. She resigned in 1945. In the meantime, Pym had returned to Australia and from 1941 to 1949 served as an intelligence officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.

James had kept up correspondence with her university friend Dymphna Cusack, who had recently retired from school teaching. They and their children shared a rented cottage in the Blue Mountains where they initially collaborated on a children’s book, Four Winds and a Family (1947). A second project exposed the impact that American troops on leave from the Pacific War had made on Sydney. The manuscript, ‘Unabated Spring,’ focused on the experiences of a group of women employed in a beauty salon in a Sydney hotel. Under the pseudonym of Sydney Wyborne, it was entered in the 1946 Daily Telegraph novel competition, and won the £1,000 prize. However, owing partly to concerns about possible breaches of obscenity and libel laws, as well as the novel’s length, the authors spent two years haggling for the prize money and—after Australian Consolidated Press Ltd refused to publish it—the release of the manuscript.

Having returned to Britain with her daughters in July 1947, James divorced Heyting in May 1949. Cusack arrived from Australia in July 1949 and they began further revising and cutting their manuscript. Now entitled Come in Spinner, it was published under their own names by William Heinemann Ltd in 1951, with a run of twenty-four thousand for the first edition and four reprints in the first year. The eminent bibliophile and publisher Michael Sadleir gave it a glowing review in the London Sunday Times. He recruited James to advise his firm, Constable & Co., on the literary quality of manuscripts submitted by Australian and New Zealand authors. She acted as a reader and talent scout for Constables, and also for Richmond, Towers and Benson Ltd. Among the authors she promoted were Mary Durack, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Maurice Shadbolt, Colin Johnson (Mudrooroo Narogin), and Nene Gare.

A member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, James participated in several anti-nuclear weapons demonstrations, which led on one occasion to a month in gaol. She returned to Australia in 1963. Living at Manly, Sydney, she continued her involvement in the feminist and peace movements, and in 1968 joined the Society of Friends (Quakers). Richard Walsh, of Angus and Robertson, commissioned James to revise the original uncut manuscript of Spinner for an unabridged edition, which he published in 1988. In March 1990 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation screened a television miniseries version.

‘Warm, generous and serene’ (Cato 1993/94, 23), James was modest and dignified. In the last year of her life her sight deteriorated, and she could no longer read the books which ‘were life for her’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1993, 17). She died on 25 August 1993 at Manly, survived by her daughters. Her life and work were commemorated by a plaque at the Woodford Quakers’ Cottage garden in the Blue Mountains where, as she had requested, her ashes were scattered.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Cato, Nancy. ‘Vale, Florence James.’ Australian Author 25, no. 4 (Summer 1993/94): 23
  • Freehill, Norman, with Dymphna Cusack. Dymphna Cusack. West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson (Australia), 1975
  • My Grandmother’s Footsteps: The Life of Florence James. Television documentary. Written by Pippa Bailey and Margie Bryant, and directed by Margie Bryant. Special Broadcasting Service, 1994
  • James, Florence. Interviews by the author, tapes and transcripts, 1980–89
  • North, Marilla. ‘The Anatomy of a Best-Seller: The Making of “Come in Spinner.”’ MA (Hons) thesis, University of Wollongong, 1990
  • North, Marilla, ed. Yarn Spinners. A Story in Letters: Dymphna Cusack, Florence James, Miles Franklin. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001
  • Pesman, Ros. ‘In Search of Self, Love and a Career: Florence James in London.’ Southerly 58, no. 4 (Summer 1998–99): 75–83
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 5877, Florence James—Papers
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘No Surrender for This Spinner of Earthy Tales.’ 27 August 1993, 17

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Marilla North, 'James, Florence Gertrude (1902–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/james-florence-gertrude-19109/text30682, published online 2020, accessed online 22 October 2020.

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