‘Taking a Risk’: Disability, Prejudice and Advocacy in the Editing and Publishing History of Ruth Park’s Swords and Crowns and Rings


Ruth Park’s award-winning novel, Swords and Crowns and Rings had a fascinating, and so far largely unknown, journey to publication. This article traces the editorial and publishing history of the novel and finds that was Park was sent edits that would have limited the agency and nuance of her short-statured character, Jackie Hanna. From my surprising discoveries in the archive, this paper demonstrates that Park resisted these edits, and in doing so acted as an advocate on behalf of her disabled protagonist. She preserved her vision for a character who is a fully rounded human with the intention of conveying his humanity. Combining the tools of critical disability studies with original, archival research and close reading, this analysis establishes that Park largely avoids the narrative prosthesis that commonly troubles ableist renditions of disabled characters (Mitchell, Snyder 2001). This article demonstrates that it is at every level of publishing, from authors through to publishers and editors, that ableist attitudes can inhibit authentic representations of disability in literature.

While Ruth Park is best known for The Harp in the South (1947), the book that attracted Australia’s most prestigious award, the Miles Franklin, is Swords and Crowns and Rings (1977): a long novel about a short-statured protagonist, Jackie Hanna, who comes of age in an Australian country town during the Depression.1 This article considers how Jackie’s impairment was a hindrance to Park’s finding a publisher, how the book’s path to publication offers an interesting case study in both literature as advocacy, and how Park represented her character in a way that largely (though not completely) avoided what is known as ‘narrative prosthesis’.

Although the book has remained in print since its release, the novel is not well known among scholars, especially compared with The Harp in the South, so I will outline the plot. Set in Kingsland (note the fairy-tale nomenclature), Swords is the story of Jackie, born short-statured, and his childhood playmate and later sweetheart, Dorothy ‘Cushie’ Moy – so named because her father thought she looked like a cushion as a baby (12). The novel is mostly told from Jackie’s perspective in limited third person point of view. When Jackie is unable to get a job after leaving school because of prejudice against his disability, he moves north to help some relations, the Linz family, on their farm. After Jackie leaves, Cushie finds she is pregnant with his child and moves to Sydney to stay with her aunt and abort the foetus. Away from her comfortable home life, and depressed at her separation from Jackie, Cushie becomes an alcoholic and takes some time to find purpose, helping her grandmother run a charity. While staying with the Linzes, Jackie is abused and tormented and ultimately tricked into marrying his cousin, Maida. Marriage offers a new start and Jackie creates a life with his wife away from the Linz family. Just as Jackie has found work and is hopeful for a future with his wife and small child, tragedy strikes and Maida and the baby are killed in a fire. Jackie is falsely accused of causing their deaths but is cleared by the coroner and returns to Kingsland. By now, the Depression has started and it is nearly impossible to find work. He travels with his stepfather, ‘the Nun’, from town to town, trying to find work and enough to eat. Ultimately, after much hardship, Jackie and Cushie are reunited and, with Cushie’s inheritance, spend the rest of their lives together helping Sydney’s disadvantaged. Predominantly written in a realist mode, Swords also ‘draws upon the ancient legends and fairy tales of Europe to tell the story of Australia’ (Greaves 149). I will return to the interplay of fairy-tale stories and realism later in the essay.

This article is not the first time that Swords has been examined in relation to disability: CA Cranston’s 1991 PhD thesis undertook some of that work. Her thesis sought to ‘explore how much the deformed are utilised as a literary “device”: that is, as a contrivance, a method of deception, or as an illuminator of the literary work’ (7). In the case of Swords, she finds that ‘Jackie’s dwarfism is imperative as a figurative device: the dwarf … reflects the novel’s attempt to incorporate legend with a social-realist, economic and political thesis’ and further that Swords ‘is informed by an interchange of myth and social realism, with dwarfism providing the connection’ (82). Ultimately Cranston argues for an interpretation that Jackie’s short stature is not operating only as what would now be termed ‘narrative prosthesis’, which disability scholars Mitchell and Snyder define as ‘a stock feature of characterization and an opportunistic metaphorical device’. As these authors argue, this approach produces ‘a conundrum: while stories rely upon the potency of disability as a symbolic fixture, they rarely take up disability as experience of social or political dimensions’ (Narrative Prosthesis 222). In other words, disabled characters are used for the sake of making an allegorical point or as a plot device. For Cranston, Jackie’s short stature is a figuration of the dynamics between the UK and Australia. That said, Cranston also finds that Park’s representation of his disability depicts Jackie as a complex character in terms of his relationships, education and working life.

Drawing on this and other arguments in the field of disability studies,2 and on new findings from Park’s archive that add significant detail to the story of the novel’s acceptance of and shaping by the publisher, I move beyond Cranston’s account of Jackie. In this article, I argue that Park conceived of Jackie as fully formed with agency and rich interiority. She remained committed to this approach throughout the production of the work, resisting editorial suggestions that she trim material about Jackie’s stature, and in interviews following the book’s release. Park repeatedly used interviews about the novel to make a case for including a short-statured character as a fully realised person, and to attempt to persuade prejudiced readers that discrimination of short-statured people is wrong and cannot be justified. In Park’s novel and in interviews she acted as an advocate on behalf of her disabled character.

The Mitchell Library in Sydney holds Park’s archive and some of her correspondence is not open until 2070, so my research is incomplete. However, by consulting edited manuscripts, reading some correspondence and seeing Park’s annotations to her work, I am able to reconstruct significant details about the editorial process that Park experienced, and to draw limited conclusions from these records. When the archive is fully opened, there may well be a revisioning of the Park oeuvre. The papers of Beatrice Davis, Park’s editor, are also held at the Mitchell and contain a number of letters from Park as well as internal memos from Davis’s time at Thomas Nelson, the original publisher of Swords. These documents contribute to new findings and add significant detail to the story of how the novel came to the publisher and which forces exerted influence on the editing process.

From The Harp in the South to Swords and Crowns and Rings

Swords is not the first novel in which Park featured characters with disabilities. In The Harp in the South, ‘the Darcys rent an attic room, in their slum home, to an abusive woman named Mrs Sheily and her twenty-year-old son Johnny who has Down syndrome’, as Sarah Kanake describes it. She goes on to say, ‘Johnny is used by Park to reach narrative extremity and shed light on the violence of his mother’ (12). Some key differences between The Harp and Swords include where the reader’s reactions are directed and how the characters operate in the text. Johnny does not have an interiority and we do not get a sense of his mental state. Park describes his ‘big aimless eyes’ and that, when pulling a face, he ‘looked like a bloodhound’ (210). On seeing him, another character says, ‘Oh crumbs, Johnny, you give me the creeps’ (210). Seven years later, Park featured a short-statured character in her novel Pink Flannel, though Cocky Cuskelly was not fully realised and a peripheral character (Cranston 81). By the time Swords was published in the late seventies, Park’s depiction of characters with disability had changed, evidenced by the characters who mistreat Jackie because of his short stature and Jackie’s response. While in The Harp the protagonist speaks pejoratively about a disabled minor character, in Swords our empathy is with the disabled protagonist. When Jackie meets the Linz brothers and finds one of them staring at him, he says:

‘Well you got nothing better to do than stare?’

‘Nope,’ said the dark brother. ‘Never seen such a comic cuts before, so I’m taking my fill.’

Jackie, red as fire, his eyes glaring, poised for a spring, but the dark brother snatched a spanner from the desk and clonked it … saying ‘You watch it monkey man. Give me no trouble and I’ll give you none.’

Jackie subsided, boiling; not afraid, but biding his time. (70)

In this interaction our sympathies are with Jackie as he rages at the injustice of mistreatment on the basis of his size. In the close third-person narration we note his resolve to strike back. Jackie’s determination and agency are emphasised in the comment that he is ‘not afraid, but biding his time.’ Elsewhere we see Jackie experience horrible discrimination, such as after Maida’s death. After returning to his home town, having been cleared of killing his wife and baby by a coroner, Jackie finds that the story has reached Kingsland (note the town's name used ironically as Park disparages its denizens) and that most people believe he is guilty since physical difference leads to mental deviance in their eyes. Often imagining the best in his peers, Jackie ‘was wounded that … his own town, should believe such evil of him’ (290). As with other difficulties in his life, this treatment does not stop Jackie from pursuing his ambitions. He does not give up or hide, instead he looks for work elsewhere.

Aside from thinking him evil, there are characters in the novel who repeatedly underestimate Jackie or expect him to be intellectually impaired because of his physical impairment (61, 70, 400). Over and again he confounds their expectations through his autodidactic tendencies and hard work. He successfully works as a camp cook (276), runs a boat that delivered milk and cream to farms along a river (228) and learns how to do accounts (396).

As well as making an argument for disabled people’s capabilities in the workplace, Park also shows their aptitude in the economy and politics. Take, for example, the scene later in the novel, where Jackie speaks alongside NSW Premier Jack Lang at a rally railing against the punishingly high repayments on English bonds. Jackie gets up on stage alongside Lang and, as he relates to his step-father:

asked him to explain why the Commonwealth Government was suing New South Wales. So he could tell the crowd that as soon as he refused to pay bond interest last April the Federal Government went creeping off and paid, and are now dunning New South Wales for reimbursement. Everyone knows the facts but he wanted to put it his own way, so as to get the reaction he wanted. Like a comedian and his straight man. (405)

Jackie is savvy, for he is conscious that his appearance next to the tall politician will be striking and he has noticed that Lang could use a ‘straight man’ to ask the right questions so that Lang can give the answers he wants.

Unlike in The Harp, or any other novels that Park wrote, the disabled protagonist in Swords features in many scenes that demonstrate the injustices he faces and how he constantly resists discrimination and poor treatment. Jackie is the product of an author in very different circumstances from the author of The Harp. As Alice Pung notes in her introduction to the Text Publishing reissue of Swords, ‘Park had by this time abandoned the Catholic faith of her youth and become interested in Zen Buddhism’ (ix). Park commented on her engagement with Buddhism in an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald around the time Swords was released, describing when she was wandering San Francisco after a Buddhist retreat. When a well-dressed university student asked for money, she was initially annoyed at herself for giving him a coin, out of shock. On reflection she determined that, whether or not the man was deserving, she was right to give what he asked for since the ‘good is still there, inherent in the giving itself ’(16). As Park notes in the article, this is not part of a Christian sensibility but a different way of thinking. Pung determines that when ‘Park sat down to write about Jackie and Cushie, she was no longer dealing with fixed absolutes but with fluid, more radical identities’ (ix). The book includes a lesbian couple, people from different social strata and, unlike in The Harp, where an accident befalls a character so she does not have to go through with the abortion she planned (296), in Swords Cushie aborts a foetus.

It would seem that there was a change in Park’s attitude to her short-statured protagonist, even during the process of drafting the work, that was resolved by the time it came to submitting the book to publishers. In an undated note in the archive, Park asks herself: ‘Why is Jackie a dwarf? He could just as well be black, to handicap him. But there’s a fairytale aspect to dwarfism, especially when a great big spirit is contained in a little frame. The great strength of dwarfs too’.3 This comment demonstrates an inclination to instrumentalise Jackie’s short stature as a figurative element in the novel. However, over the course of the writing, it became important to her to make Jackie a rounded, believable character. In another comment to herself about Cushie that seems to have come later in the process she said, ‘She has this very strange feeling for Jackie … they’re almost two sides of the same coin. But Jackie is firmer. He may be small but he’s a real man, and really I think that I have developed him well and naturally’.4 While Jackie’s stature may have initially been a choice in order to include the ‘fairytale aspect’, the finished work does not reduce him to a token character.

Path to Publication

Park’s decision to centre a short-statured character is particularly interesting given what the archive reveals about the difficulties this choice presented to her, and the kinds of prejudices that her character faced before he could reach readers. In an internal note at Thomas Nelson, eventual publisher of Swords, editor Sue Ebury wrote to colleagues Anne Godden and Beatrice Davis:

Collins, Macmillans [sic], A&R and Penguin have all rejected [Swords and Crowns and Rings]. Collins weren’t mad about the dwarf theme, and wanted to cut it severely, (author wouldn’t consent); I’m not sure what A&R thought; John Hocker would have liked to do an original Penguin, but decided that it wasn’t quite up to the literary standards required by that; Macmillans [sic] couldn’t come at the main character being a dwarf – turned them right off! The idea turned me off too, but I overcame the feeling quite quickly.5

This is the first reference in the Beatrice Davis archive to the length of the work – in Collins wanting to cut it severely – and, pertinently, to the protagonist’s disability. While readers of novels in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were accustomed to some characters with disabilities, disabled protagonists were less common and many plots followed unusual things happening to relatively ‘ordinary’ people, as Lennard Davis has noted. Disabled protagonists came to be more common in the twentieth century (‘Who Put the “The” in “The Novel”’ 328). As Mitchell and Snyder assert, ‘the representational prevalence of people with disabilities is far from absent or tangential’ (Narrative Prosthesis 226), though these characters tend to be ‘construct[ed] … as humorous or mythical [and] are likely to create a distorted perception’ (Pritchard, Dwarfism 13).6 Disabled characters are also not new in Australian fiction. In the local market in the 1970s we have Rhoda in The Vivisector (1970) who is ‘hunchbacked’, blind Jack Holberg in Thea Astley’s The Acolyte (1972) and short-statured Billy Kwan in Christopher Koch’s My Year of Living Dangerously (1979).7 In each case, however, the disabled character is part of an ensemble or a secondary character, and the more general, distorted depiction of short-statured characters in literature would impact on responses to them in new works – such as Park’s novel.

The editors at Collins, Macmillan and Nelson were all clearly concerned about publishing a work with a disabled protagonist – a consistently ableist approach from these cultural gatekeepers. Though an explanation of why is not offered in the archived note, we can extrapolate that the thinking is based on their assessment of the market. Ebury’s emphasis that the ‘main character’ is a dwarf seems to mark a difference between the kind of reading experience where disability is sidelined as opposed to one where it is foregrounded. We can take from this a belief that the reading public will not respond as well to a disabled protagonist as to an able-bodied protagonist. Given the relatively small number of short-statured people in Australia,8 perhaps they determined the book would have difficulty appealing to readers who are physically different from the protagonist. The glib expression ‘turned them right off!’ is the kind of comment usually confined to private communication. Ebury is able to overcome her disgust at the character’s impairment because, as she writes earlier in the same note, ‘I did find myself forgetting or not caring that the main character was a dwarf – she handles the characterisation of Jackie very carefully and engages the reader’s sympathy and compassion’9. From Ebury's comments, we can determine that Park is successful in creating a character who is able to overcome some readers’ prejudices.

In the same way that there can be an awkwardness in ableist responses to disabled people in everyday life (see, for example, Garland-Thomson’s examination of this phenomenon in Staring: How We Look, 2009), in fiction there is an uneasy relationship between the ethics of depicting characters with disabilities and how these depictions are rendered. It is likely this awkwardness is part of the reason for Ebury’s comment, quoted earlier, that other editors were ‘turned off’ at the idea of a short-statured protagonist. Ultimately it is a sign of Park’s success as a writer that she was able to push past the prejudices of these early readers, and to resist attempts to cut elements of the novel that operate in this uneasy space, to produce a novel that engages readers.

Cutting Thirty-Thousand Words

One of the key ways we can see Park’s vision of her work and her advocacy on behalf of her short-statured character is in her resistance to cutting sections that feature Jackie and her focus on his physicality. Though Davis was a contractor for Thomas Nelson in the 1970s, she was the person who wrote to Park saying her book was ‘a wonderful piece of work which Nelson’s would very much like to publish – if you can bring yourself to agree to cutting by about 30,000 words’.10

Park, seemingly sensing the odd specificity of the number, asked,

Who fixed this arbitrary figure and why? Longer novels are more and more being published. Taking at random two from my shelf, I have counted them up….Margaret Drabble’s Needle’s Eye is almost 163,000, and it covers a very small area of time, space, life. Kerryn Jones’s Holding On is over 150,000, though that covers a longish lifetime and is a spacious book in character development and historical happening.

Please answer this question.11

One of the determinations for this edit was the cultural and financial force of Literature Board grants. In an internal letter from Thomas Nelson publisher, Robert Sessions, to editor Beatrice Davis, he wrote, ‘The 30,000 words which we asked to be cut is simply a figure which brings the total word length within the ambit of the maximum grant available from the Literature Board’.12

As the grant only covers a certain word length, anything over that amount would be more expensive for the publisher to produce. He softens his request with a comment that he also does not want to ruin the relationship with Park since he would have understood that it is in large part an author’s cooperative efforts that help sell a book once it becomes available. Furthermore, as is evidenced by Nelson’s continued publishing of Park, they were interested in her future books. Finally, he also makes the point that he thinks trimming the manuscript would improve the book, which is a publishing truism.

In her reply to the edit, Park says she is glad Davis gave her home address so she could write a more frank response:

Forgive me, I had forgotten, temporarily, that you are a true workman. But I have recalled it all over again. Most of your cuts I accept without question. Some I shall replace by others of the same length. For example, I must keep in material about dwarfs, how they are the same as other people, just smaller … and how greedily they grab any information about historic dwarfs which shows that a man’s stature does not matter. And I must, even if I do it in a briefer way, give anecdotes which show the really terrible condition of Australia, particularly in New South Wales, during the Depression.13

Park writes of Jackie ‘greedily grabbing’ stories of short-statured characters early on in the book.14 Jackie shows Cushie picture books of ‘black elves working at their goldsmiths’ forges’ (15) and together they go into the hills in search of ‘a whole race of people’ like him. Perhaps it was in part to offer alternative stories for short-statured people, stories that were not fairy tales, that Park was insistent on including Jackie as the protagonist of her novel.

To take a specific example regarding her representation of disability, on the edited typescript is a note from Davis, asking ‘Ruth, could you delete this episode’. The episode in question is where Jackie remembers his attempt to get a job in the office at the Dairy Co-op and the interviewer tries to dissuade him on the grounds of Jackie’s ‘delicate health’. Park’s response was short, emphatic, written in red and circled: ‘No’.15

In the published novel, Jackie recalls the response from his interviewer when applying for a job: ‘Your references myumm are excellent, yes, myumm, Mr Moy of the Bank, Father Link … I’m sure your qualifications, myumm, quite suitable. But it’s your myumm, delicate health, you see the work perhaps too myumm much for you.’ Jackie is busy converting the scene into an anecdote to tell his parents, imagining the clerk saying ‘Exacting work myumm couldn’t be done by anyone under myumm six feet tall. Our stools myumm, would be much too short for you, don’t you agree, myumm?’ (61).

This scene is not crucial to furthering the plot – the reader already knows of Jackie’s inability to secure a job, and the repetition of ‘myumm’ may seem a little heavy-handed – and it is not connected with mythic representations of ‘dwarfs’. Park is emphasising Jackie’s experiences in the world and finding barriers where others would face no difficulty. This scene actively avoids ‘narrative prosthesis’.

Although Jackie has not been ill, the clerk asks after his ‘delicate health’, a feminising euphemism for his disability. Here Park deploys her version of advocacy and tries to persuade the reader that short-statured people are ‘the same as other people’, as quoted earlier, since Jackie is utterly capable in the employment context. Jackie ultimately passes many of the milestones that might be considered notable in an ‘ordinary’ life: he is gainfully employed, finds love (first with Cushie, then with Maida and Cushie again), fathers children and is politically and socially engaged.

The potential hindrance of the stools for a short-statured employee calls to mind Garland-Thomson’s comment that ‘Stairs disable people who need to use wheelchairs to get around, but ramps let them go places freely’ (‘Disability and Representation’ 524). In other words, even though the tables are high and the only stools too tall for Jackie, such physical impediments could be rectified easily. Jackie is disabled by furniture, not by his short stature. By pushing back against the requested edit, Park emphasises her attachment to making this sort of advocacy in the novel.

While true in the case of the stools, not all disability can be erased by affordances made structurally and socially, as Tom Shakespeare has found. Shakespeare, short-statured himself, notes that this reality presents an issue to the social model of the disability movement in that ‘there remains disadvantage associated with having many impairments which no amount of environmental change could entirely eliminate’ (Disability Rights and Wrongs Revisited 219). Naturally, whether or not this is relevant to a given person with a given impairment depends on the individual case.

Shakespeare has conducted studies on self-perception of short-statured people and recorded a response from one woman who said ‘I’m just like everybody else, but just shorter, that’s how I see myself’ and another who said ‘My life is a great one and, although achondroplasia is a hindrance, [life] is as full and active as my normal height siblings’ and parents’ (‘No Laughing Matter’ 30). It seems that Park correctly guessed the way that some short-statured people feel about their impairment, although without an archival record it is difficult to say how she arrived at that idea.

Setting the scene with the clerk is not an isolated incident of Park’s resistance to cuts relating to Jackie’s short stature. She also resisted cuts on realist sections in the novel that include a description of ‘orthopaedic and optical deterioration’16 which Jackie learns could be a potential difficulty for him in the future. Park rejected cuts again to scenes in which Jackie is looking for work as a bookkeeper again and the boss rejects him (723).

Notably, Park accepted many of Davis’s edits. In particular she accepted some edits where Jackie was figured in a mythic way, suggesting that she was refining the characterisation to move away from what would now be called narrative prosthesis. For instance, Davis suggested trimming a description of Jackie daydreaming about people like him: ‘No dwarfs lived there, nor amongst the haystacks of festering timber where towers and windlasses had collapsed, filling the tainted scrub with snakepits of corroded wire rope.’17 Park’s fairy-tale characterisation of short-statured people in this sequence renders them less realistic characters, less fully formed and persuasive and more as tools for metaphor and imagery. For the most part, Park works to avoid the kind of shallow characterisation that attracts the charge of narrative prosthesis. Examples include repeated depictions of Jackie as a sexual character, who finds pleasure with Cushie (54) and then with Maida (222). These scenes clearly place Jackie as a fleshy, human character, and not a mythical presence in the novel.

The ending of the novel highlights the ways in which Park turns away from fairy-tale characterisations of disability. In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for instance ‘when a disabled hero is portrayed, his heroic qualities are often brought to the fore as he triumphs despite the social stigma of his disability – a triumph typically rewarded in fairy tales with the magical erasure of his physical anomaly’ (Schmiesing 1–2). While there is a triumph of sorts at the end of the novel, it does not come with an erasure of Jackie’s short stature, rather, it is a kind of reclamation as he thinks to himself: ‘To dismiss dwarfism as a burden was one thing; but to make an asset of it was a challenge, tomorrow’s challenge. He felt a salty joy in his own toughness’ (446). Jackie does not align with Ann Schmiesing’s figuring of fairy-tale disability, which features a ‘shallowness of fairy-tale descriptions and … paucity of detail’ (14). As Sue Ebury noted in her initial response to the book, she was not able to dismiss Jackie precisely because Park ‘handles the characterisation very carefully’ as quoted earlier.

Given the book was not accepted by a number of different publishers and that Davis, on behalf of Nelson, said they would accept the work on the basis of cutting thirty-thousand words, it would have taken a certain steeliness on Park’s part to reject the edits. The success of The Harp in the South was many years before Park’s agent looked for a publisher for Swords. As we can see from Sue Ebury’s note about the book being rejected by other publishers, past sales were of limited relevance to publishers deciding whether or not to acquire Swords. Park would have known that she had few prospects for this book finding readers and, given the comment that acceptance for publication was on the condition of cutting, her resistance points to what she saw as important in communicating her ideas about this character with her readers.

Interviews and Reviews: Persuading a New Audience

When it was first published, several reviews of Swords echoed the concern that editor Sue Ebury expressed about the work at the acquisitions stage: namely the presence of a short-statured protagonist (‘When Fairy Tales Are No Joke’ 24; Sykes, ‘Ruth Park’s People’ 16). As Elizabeth Riddell remarked:

Ms Park … was taking a risk in writing a book about a dwarf … Even with the addition of a fond and sexy friendship between Jackie and the better-endowed, financially and physically, Cushy [sic] Moy, the line is a hard one to sell. But some powerful reason kept me reading it until 3 am. (8)

Evidently, the editors at Macmillan, Collins et al. who rejected the book had correctly anticipated that some readers may react negatively to Jackie, however Riddell emphasises that Jackie is endearing, persuasive and highly engaging and Park’s efforts were ultimately successful since she managed to overcome this ‘risk’. When reflecting on her work, Park had faith in the authenticity of her protagonist as we can see from a note to herself in the archive: ‘It seemed to me to be better than anything I have ever done, the character first-rate, and the central figure, Jackie, so alive he jumped. I just couldn’t wait to hear what came next’.18 It is this faith in her own writing that perhaps gave her the confidence to push back against requests to remove material from her work.

Although Davis seems to have shared the concerns of Sue Ebury (who foresaw comments of the kind that Riddell made) in that she suggested trimming the material relating to Jackie’s stature, Park’s decision to keep scenes and comments relating to his short stature was not ultimately an impediment to readers since the book sold well (around 7,000 copies in hardback according to the Bulletin [‘A Novel Discovery’ 16]) – or indeed to prize judges, since it won, and was shortlisted for, major prizes.

Aside from the representations of Jackie as a character with agency, the power of self-determination and extraordinary fortitude despite the discrimination that he faces in the novel itself, we can see that Park was advocating for short-statured people in the interviews she gave on the occasion of the book’s publication. Park was working to persuade journalists, in the same way she persuaded her publisher, that Jackie is the right protagonist for her novel.

It would seem, from her comments that it was a chance meeting that led to the inspiration for the book. She says, ‘I had never had much feeling about dwarfs, except that it must be a terrible handicap, that lack of stature … Then I met a dwarf and this was a person of such enormous stature … I realised that a person has no size at all’ (Sykes 6). In another interview she comments on the way short-statured people are portrayed ‘either as sinister or mentally deficient, when, really, the only thing different about them is their stature’ (‘Nagged Her Way to Writing Success’ 16). Making a similar point in another interview, Park says, ‘People are uneasy about dwarfs, even fear them. A dwarf is placed in jeopardy from birth’ (Riddell 8). This calls to mind the response that the Kingsland residents have to Jackie on hearing about the death of his wife and child (290). Park reiterates the point she makes over the course of the novel about Jackie’s humanity, encouraging able-bodied readers to shift their perspective.

While there are clear calls for empathy in some of her remarks, not all of Park’s interview comments were so straightforward in their advocacy. There remains a tension between her initial idea of the fairy-tale element in her novel, embodied in Jackie, and her eventual determination to ensure that he present to the reader as a fully realised character. We can see this in the text itself and in her comments quoted about the standard portrayals of short-statured people at the time she was writing. In a newspaper interview, asked how she came to write about a short-statured protagonist, Park said, ‘One day in the city I saw a dwarf in the crowd, and I started to think about him and couldn’t stop, about how strange it must be, like being from another planet. A dwarf who gets through has to be a hero’ (Riddell 8). In another, Park said, ‘After some research, I was amazed that a dwarf had never been a hero for a novel. I looked at all the situations a dwarf would face – the physical side, which seemed like an obstacle course, the sexual side, and the jobs side’ (Jordan 39). While these comments show that Park was conscious that disabled protagonists were rare and that she wanted to depict a rounded character, one engaged economically, sexually and socially in the Australia of the time, she characterises short-statured people as alien, ‘from another planet’, and admits to writing about her protagonist in part because of the ‘novelty’ of his stature. Each instance is a kind of ‘othering’ that Dan Goodley critiques in his discussion of contemporary disability studies (639). These accounts thus exist in some tension with Park’s treatment of Jackie and disability in Swords.

Despite these missteps, the publication of the novel, then, is not just an opportunity for advocacy in and of itself, but interviews marking the novel’s publication afforded Park outlets to speak about her work and the reasons for placing Jackie at the heart of the work. We can use Park’s commentary in interviews to further understand her project in centering Jackie as her protagonist.


Swords and Crowns and Rings offers an interesting case study in representations of disability in Australian literature, which is enriched by consideration of Park’s archive and tracing the book’s path to publication. It is evident from publishers’ responses to the manuscript, and from reviewers at the time, that Park was pushing against some cultural norms of 1970s Australia with an agenda of representing a disabled protagonist as equal to his able-bodied counterparts. Editors considering the manuscript for publication had narrow expectations of readers’ ability to engage with a protagonist who, most likely, was physically different from the audience. Paying attention to correspondence between Park and her publisher and the edited typescript shows that Park advocated for shifting discriminatory representations of short-statured people by resisting edits to Jackie’s experience at work and his experiences of discrimination. Park pushed back against editorial interventions despite the fact that she would have been conscious of the limited options in terms of publishers for her novel. In this sense, she advocated on the part of short-statured people (albeit an unsolicited advocacy) and strove to avoid the pitfalls of narrative prosthesis. While her efforts may have been resisted by editorial gatekeepers, Swords and Crowns and Rings was nonetheless recognised as a significant work of Australian literature by both the public and the cultural elite, testifying to the importance of including realistic disabled characters in Australian literature.


  1. In Australia, the commonly preferred term for people with achondroplasia and other types of restricted growth is ‘short-statured’ and where possible I use that term. However, in all the correspondence and in Park’s own work from the late seventies, the term used was ‘dwarf’.

  2. Foundational works in disability studies by Lennard Davis (1995, ed, 2013 [first published, 1997]), Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (1996, 1997), and Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell (1997, 2000) began to appear in the mid-nineties. Leonard Cassuto notes the field’s developments in ‘Disability Studies 2.0’ (2010).

  3. Ruth Park, Undated Note, Box 4, Folder 1, Ruth Park and Darcy Niland Further Literary Papers.

  4. Ruth Park, Undated Note, Box 4, Folder 1, Ruth Park and Darcy Niland Further Literary Papers.

  5. Sue Ebury, Letter to Anne Godden and Beatrice Davis, 10 June 1976, Folder 12, Beatrice Davis Papers.

  6. Pritchard considers stories such as ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as circus performances.

  7. For this list and other resources that helped in the drafting of this essay, I have to thank Austlit’s ‘Writing Disability in Australia’ project led by Dr Jessica White.

  8. Current estimates from Short Statured People of Australia (sspa.org.au) are that there are over 1100 people with achondroplasia in Australia – there would have been fewer at the time of publication.

  9. Sue Ebury, Letter to Anne Godden and Beatrice Davis, 10 June 1976, Folder 12, Beatrice Davis Papers.

  10. Beatrice Davis, Letter to Ruth Park, 13 Aug. 1976, Folder 12, Beatrice Davis Papers.

  11. Ruth Park, Letter to Beatrice Davis, 10 Nov. 1976, Folder 12, Beatrice Davis Papers.

  12. Robert Sessions, Letter to Beatrice Davis, 18 Nov. 1976, Folder 12, Beatrice Davis Papers.

  13. Ruth Park, Letter to Beatrice Davis, 10 Nov. 1976, Folder 12, Beatrice Davis Papers.

  14. While there is not a record in the archive of Park interviewing short-statured people (though there is a record of Park interviewing someone about the Depression, see Box 2, Folder 5, Ruth Park Further Papers) she mentions research on short-statured people in two separate newspaper interviews (Jordan 37; Riddell 8).

  15. Ruth Park. Swords and Crowns and Rings. Publisher’s shorter edited typescript, Box 4, Folder 4, p.113, Ruth Park and Darcy Niland Further Literary Papers.

  16. Ruth Park. Swords and Crowns and Rings. Publisher’s shorter edited typescript, Box 4, Folder 4, pp. 48–49, Ruth Park and Darcy Niland Further Literary Papers.

  17. Ruth Park. Swords and Crowns and Rings. Publisher’s shorter edited typescript, Box 4, Folder 4, p. 33, Ruth Park and Darcy Niland Further Literary Papers.

  18. Ruth Park, Note, 13 May 1976, Box 4, Ruth Park and Darcy Niland Further Literary Papers.

Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Ruth Park, Dwarfism, Disabled characters.

Cite as: Grundy, Alice. ‘‘Taking a Risk’: Disability, Prejudice and Advocacy in the Editing and Publishing History of Ruth Park’s Swords and Crowns and Rings.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.dcc270d84a.