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Amy Witting was 71 when her novel I for Isobelwas published and attracted critical attention, and since then most of the backlog of her stories and poetry (written over a lifetime) have been published. She is now known to a wide readership for the quality and sophistication of her work. She was born in Annandale, an inner-city suburb of Sydney, then a 'tough place' inhabited by many who were hard up. Witting claims that this environment at least provided her with an inexhaustible subject, survival, that recurs throughout her work.
Joan Fraser, as she was then, attended the local Catholic school, St Brendan's, from 1923 to 1929. Family circumstances were difficult and she was under pressure at home and at school; she was also often ill with what was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis (TB). Like her character Isobel, Joan was an avid reader and retreated from reality into a rich inner world. Her secondary schooling was at Fort Street Girls High from 1930 to 1934. Joan Fraser, aged 16, had a poem, 'Wanderers', published in the Sydney Morning Herald, under the pseudonym 'Du Guesclin'. At the University of Sydney, from 1935 to 1937, Joan Fraser studied English and Modern Languages and became part of what Peter Coleman (q.v.) calls the 'sourly brilliant literary circle' that gathered around James McAuley (q.v.): Harold Stewart, Dorothy Auchterlonie (later Green), Oliver Somerville, Ronald Dunlop (qq.v.) and Alan Crawford were in this group. She graduated Bachelor of Arts, but when her father died during her final examinations at the end of 1937 she had to seek work.
After gaining a teachers' college scholarship she completed her Diploma of Education. Her first appointment was at Riverside Domestic Science School in 1940, followed by short transfers within the New South Wales education system, leading finally to Coonamble. After the war she taught in Young, then Manly Boys High School. In 1948 she went to Kempsey, where she remained until 1953. There she met Les Levick - a teacher of industrial arts. They married in December 1948. Joan Levick entered the Bodington Sanatorium in 1953. During this enforced isolation she turned to writing. In the early 1960s Levick and Thea Astley (q.v.) were both teaching at Cheltenham Girls High. Astley, an established writer, was impressed by Levick's story 'Goodbye, Ady, Goodbye, Joe', and encouraged her to submit it for publication. This story, inspired by factual details of a major flood in Kempsey, was accepted and published in the New Yorker in April 1965.
Witting has always written under a pseudonym, and her choice reflects a promise to herself to 'never give up on consciousness', not to be unwitting, but to always remain 'witting'. After six years at Cheltenham (1957 to 1962) Witting's teaching career concluded with her appointment as Mistress of Modern Languages at North Sydney Girls High School. After retirement she was writing full-time, while she taught English as a second language for another twenty years. She continued to write, despite diminishing eyesight, until the time of her death.
See also entries by Yvonne Miels in Jane Eldridge Miller, ed. Who's Who in Contemporary Women's Writing (Routledge, 2001, p. 347) and Lorna Sage, ed.The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English (CUP, 1999, p. 674)
'Isobel Callaghan is struggling to make a career as a writer in Sydney. She is isolated, poor and hungry, and fears she’s going mad. Leaving her room in a boarding house in search of food, she has a breakdown on the way to the corner shop.
'Waking in hospital, Isobel learns that she will be confined to a sanatorium in the Blue Mountains. There, among the motley assortment of patients, and with the aid of great works of literature, she will confront the horrors of her past. But can she find a way to face the future?
'Confronting and compassionate, profound and funny, the second Isobel Callaghan novel is every bit as brilliant as its much-loved predecessor. It confirmed Amy Witting as one of the finest Australian writers of her time.' (Text Classic summary)
'When her husband of three decades announces he has a younger lover and wants a divorce, Ella Ferguson realises how protected her life has been—she has ‘seen no evil, heard no evil and spoken no evil’. Alone, enraged, she must come to terms with her failed marriage and her relationships with her adult children. A Change in the Lighting, Amy Witting’s third novel, is the compelling story of a woman cast adrift.' (Synopsis)