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Cato, Nancy Fotheringham (1917–2000)

by Susan Sheridan

This article was published online in 2022

Nancy Fotheringham Cato (1917–2000), journalist, poet, novelist, and conservationist, was born on 11 March 1917 in North Adelaide, second child and only daughter of Tasmanian-born Raymond Herbert Cato, business manager, and his South Australian-born wife Olive Mabel Edmonds, née Pearce, a former nurse. The family lived at Glen Osmond, and Nancy attended the nearby Presbyterian Girls’ College. She received the coveted Tennyson medal for topping the 1933 Leaving certificate examination in English, and then won a fiercely contested cadetship as a journalist with the Adelaide News. This allowed her time off and paid her fees to attend lectures, in English and modern languages, at the University of Adelaide; lacking the mathematics necessary for matriculation, she did not take out a degree. She also studied at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts.

As a young woman reporter, Cato rebelled against being assigned to the social pages. Instead, she reported on eminent visitors arriving by the Melbourne express, covered the courts, and pursued stories on the ‘North Terrace round’ (Cato 1975). The round included the State Library of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, and the Art Gallery of South Australia; and doing that circuit informally extended her education in Australian art and literature. These youthful experiences would form the basis for her last-published novel, Marigold (1992).

On 15 May 1941 at the Anglican Church of the Epiphany, Crafers, Cato married Eldred de Bracton Norman, a business manager. The couple lived at Hope Valley, at that time a small town just outside Adelaide. Eldred ran an engineering workshop, in which he converted ex-army vehicles for civilian use, built racing cars (which he drove in events), and worked on various inventions. Nancy left full-time journalism to bring up their three children. During these busy years, she wrote prolifically, publishing general articles and art reviews in the local press, as well as poetry and stories in literary magazines. Associated with the Jindyworobak poets in Adelaide—Rex Ingamells, Ian Mudie, Flexmore Hudson, and Roland Robinson—she edited their 1950 anthology. She was a co-founder of Lyre Bird Writers, which published her first book, The Darkened Window: Poems (1950). A second volume of poetry, The Dancing Bough, appeared in 1957, and her novel All the Rivers Run, the first of a trilogy, was published in 1958. She was an active member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, South Australia, and, from 1964, the Australian Society of Authors.

The couple moved to Queensland in 1967 for the climate. Eldred died in 1971, and Nancy would spend most of the remainder of her life at Noosa. There, she wrote six more novels (most of them historical fiction); a biography of the missionary to Aboriginal people Daniel Matthews, Mister Maloga (1976); and, with Vivienne Rae-Ellis, a ‘fictional biography,’ Queen Trucanini (1976). Through the research for these works, she developed an interest in Indigenous Australian culture and the history of colonial race relations. Her Queensland novels, Brown Sugar (1974) and Forefathers (1983), drew on her observations of, and research on, the region she had adopted as her second home.

In 1978, at the age of sixty-one, Cato achieved fame when the three volumes of All the Rivers Run, rewritten and published as a single book, became an international bestseller. It was made into a popular television series, starring Sigrid Thornton and John Waters, first aired in 1984. This story of a young woman artist who becomes a paddle-boat captain was inspired by Cato’s mother-in-law, Alma Norman, who had grown up on the banks of the Murray River, where her father, Daniel Matthews, had set up his mission. Alma had studied art with (Sir) Hans Heysen, and Nancy’s own interest in painting is everywhere evident in the novel’s descriptive passages, as well as in her poetry. The other inspiration for All the Rivers Run was the Murray-Darling river system as a bioregion with its own ecological, social, and political history. 

During her Noosa years, Cato was actively involved in the coastal conservation movement. Judith Wright had introduced her to the ‘new science of ecology’ (Cato 1971, 2) when, in June 1970, she had accompanied Wright on a lecture tour of the north coast of Queensland, ‘talking conservation and poetry, driving all the way’ (Cosgrove 2007, 261). Cato campaigned on many environmental issues and published The Noosa Story: A Study in Unplanned Development, which ran through several editions after it first appeared in 1979. She was a member of the Noosa Parks Association and an honorary park ranger.

Although pessimistic that there is only ‘a blind will moving the universe’ and that humans ‘will end up wrecking this planet,’ Cato loved and celebrated life (Giuffré 1990, 157). Her poetry, principally nature lyrics, captured the beauty, fragility, and mutability of the natural world; ‘Villain’ (1993) begins:

There goes the mangrove heron
sneaking and skulking
with tail tucked under and sharp beak
held low.
He slinks like a cat on the prowl
a secretive bird
of the early dusk and the shadows.

An interviewer noted Cato’s ‘strong face’ and ‘forceful eyes’ that contrasted with her ‘quick, low and hesitant’ voice (Giuffré 1990, 151). Throughout her long widowhood, she lived alone, travelled, and participated in Australian literary life. In 1984 she was appointed AM, and in 1990 the University of Queensland awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters, for her services to literature and the environment. She died on 3 July 2000 at Tewantin and was cremated. Her daughter and two sons survived her. A park was named for her at Noosa Sound.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Cato, Nancy. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 5 March 1975. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Cato, Nancy. ‘Uphill Battle on Ecology.’ Canberra Times, 21 October 1971, 2
  • Cosgrove, Bryony, ed. Portrait of a Friendship: The Letters of Barbara Blackman and Judith Wright, 1950–2000. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007
  • Giuffré, Giulia. ‘Nancy Cato.’ In A Writing Life: Interviews with Australian Women Writers, 151–67. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990
  • Norman, Bill. ‘Murray Novel Brought Fame, Fortune.’ Canberra Times, 7 July 2000, 13
  • Shapcott, Thomas. ‘Author Brought Authentic Voice to Literature.’ Australian, 6 July 2000, 13
  • Sheridan, Susan. ‘Nancy Cato at Noosa.’ Queensland Review 24, no. 2 (December 2017): 282–92
  • Sheridan, Susan. ‘Reading All the Rivers Run, Nancy Cato’s Eco-Historical Epic.’ Australian Humanities Review, no. 55 (November 2013): 119–32

Additional Resources

Citation details

Susan Sheridan, 'Cato, Nancy Fotheringham (1917–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cato-nancy-fotheringham-30779/text38126, published online 2022, accessed online 30 November 2022.

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