Authors: Jessica Anderson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Australian fiction writer.

September 25, 1916

Gayndah, Queensland, Australia

July 9, 2010

Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, Australia


During the twentieth century, Jessica Margaret Anderson was one of Australia’s best-known and most prolific authors. In addition to several novels and short stories, she also contributed work to many periodicals and wrote for film and television. Anderson, the daughter of Charles James Queale, a former stock inspector, and Alice Queale, married at an early age but divorced her first husband, Ross McGill, after only a few years. She married Leonard Culbert Anderson in 1954, but that marriage, too, ended in divorce. Anderson had one daughter, Laura Rae McGill.

Anderson received her education in public schools in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Like many Australian artists before her, Anderson once imagined that the centers of the literary world were in Europe. However, after a few years spent in London she learned that for her “Australia is inescapable.” After returning to Australia, she spent most of her life in Sydney.

Before Anderson earned and secured her literary reputation as a serious novelist, she was active in other genres. She submitted short stories to newspapers and provided dramatic scripts for radio programs, most of them adaptations of works by Henry James and Charles Dickens. Traces of James’s influence can still be detected in Anderson’s later works; in fact, Anderson, who listed James, Evelyn Waugh, and Henry Green as the authors she admires most, is often referred to as Australia’s foremost novelist of manners.

Although Anderson wrote steadily throughout her twenties and thirties, she did not write her first novel until after turning forty. According to Anderson, it was, paradoxically, her love of literature that prohibited her from beginning such an involved project. Her respect for literature delayed for many years her initial attempt at a novel. Anderson’s hesitation, however, enhanced rather than diminished her storytelling prowess. Her first novel, An Ordinary Lunacy, a penetrating observation of a sophisticated segment of Sydney society, was received with praise, both when it first came out in 1963 and when it was republished one year later.

In the wake of the success of this work, Anderson entered the most productive phase of her literary career. In the ten-year period from 1970 to 1980, Anderson wrote the four novels The Last Man’s Head, The Commandant, Tirra Lirra by the River, and The Impersonators. In all of them, she focuses on the manners and mores of Australian society, but she manages to cover vastly different territory in each. The Last Man’s Head is, ostensibly, a crime novel with moral and psychological subtleties that allow the story to transcend this genre. The Commandant is a historical novel based on the life of Captain Patrick Logan, commandant of the Moreton Bay penal settlement from 1826 to 1830. Tirra Lirra by the River recounts the life of Nora Roche, the novel’s seventy-year-old protagonist, and presents an intimate picture of life in suburban Australia between the wars. The Impersonators chronicles the rise and fall of one Australian family’s fortunes during the 1970’s; the theme of this structurally complex novel is “money and the impersonations that its pursuit imposed on people, especially women.”

Of these four novels, Tirra Lirra by the River and The Impersonators received the most critical attention. Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin Award and the Australian Natives Association Literary Award for Tirra Lirra by the River; The Impersonators received the Miles Franklin Award and the NSW Premier’s Award. Both works helped catapult Anderson into international literary circles. The later novel Taking Shelter attracted much attention in the United States.

All of Anderson’s work displays a compressed style, delicate irony, and narrative control. Her subjects may be Australian, but her style and appeal have proved to be universal.

Anderson died in 2010 at the age of ninety-three after suffering a stroke. She was survived by her daughter, Laura Jones, a screenwriter; her son-in-law, Peter Jones; and her granddaughter, Olivia Farrell.

Author Works Long Fiction: An Ordinary Lunacy, 1963 The Last Man’s Head, 1970 The Commandant, 1975 Tirra Lirra by the River, 1978 The Impersonators, 1980 (also pb. as The Only Daughter, 1985) Taking Shelter, 1990 One of the Wattle Birds, 1994 Short Fiction: Stories from the Warm Zone, and Sydney Stories, 1987 Bibliography Barry, Elaine. Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1992. A critical study. Garlick, Barbra. “Of Rhinos and Caryatids: The Dialogic Imperative in Jessica Anderson.” Journal of Narrative Technique 21, no. 1 (Winter, 1991). An examination of Anderson’s literary style. Haynes, Roslynn D. “Art as Reflection in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River.” Australian Literary Studies 12, no. 3 (May, 1986). Focuses on Tirra Lirra by the River. Keenan, Catherine. “Domestic Isolation Got Creative Juices Flowing.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Aug. 2010, Accessed 20 Apr. 2017. Anderson’s obituary includes a brief biographic profileof the author’s life and work. Sykes, Arlene. “Jessica Anderson: Arrivals and Places.” Southerly: A Review of Australian Literature 46, no. 1 (March, 1986). Provides an overview of several of Anderson’s works. Willbanks, Ray. “The Strength to Be Me: The Protagonist in the Fiction of Jessica Anderson.” SPAN: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies 27 (October, 1988). Analyzes the autobiographical and feminist elements in Anderson’s novels.

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