Kenneth Slessor and Bertha Blither: Two Sides of an Australian Writer Between the Wars

Rod Grant

Abstract


Very little of the material Kenneth Slessor contributed to ‘Smith’s Weekly’ has received scholarly attention despite the divisions and incongruities it reveals in his approach to writing. One could read Geoffrey Dutton’s biography, or more recent criticism by Philip Mead, and remain ignorant that Slessor was chiefly famous as a humourist during the 1920s and 30s. This essay focuses on Slessor’s part in the development of a comic character featured in ‘Smith’s Weekly’ from 1929 to 1938. Originally conceived as a lampoon of Dorothy Dix, Bertha Blither gradually assumed more diversified responsibilities at the paper as her outrageous behaviour won popularity. By the early 1930s the hard drinking Bertha was an ‘expert on everything’ and her career constituted a grotesque commentary on advances made by women in the public sphere. Bertha allowed Slessor to inhabit the persona of a crass and domineering woman whose views and values were diametrically opposed to his own, a ploy foreshadowing later excursions into cross-dressing by Barry Humphries. The degree to which Slessor’s best writing was a product of such contradictory impulses is a central concern of the essay.

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