1976: All That False Instruction

Although published the previous year, Elizabeth Riley’s novel, All That False Instruction, really started to have an impact on Australian gay people in 1976 as word of its publication spread.

It was as the subtitle, in hot pink on the otherwise discreet blue cover, announced ‘A Novel of Lesbian Love’ – indeed, the first such published in Australia.

The book itself had an odd history. It had been written in London in the early 1970s by Kerryn Higgs who had, as all good Australians did in those days, gone to the Mother Country to find herself. On the strength of the first two chapters she won a publishers prize, including a contract to publish and within six months the work was done.

It tells the story of Maureen Craig, her life, her sexuality and, especially, her struggle as a woman in a sexist society. Her encounters with men (disastrous, for the most part) and her coming to political and sexual awareness. Like many first novels it had a strong autobiographical element alongside the fictional bits and the exaggerations.

Maureen’s early lesbian encounters are adolescently romantic and timid – but they get better. And for its time it was daringly explicit. Which is where the problems arose. Higgs’ mother was appalled by what the neighbours in her regional town might think and even threatened to sue her author daughter for libel. Hence the pseudonym. Hence, too, the surprising decision to transfer the events from Melbourne to Sydney – now, happily, restored in the recent reissue.