Miss Herbert, Christina Stead

 

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Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife) (1976) was the twelfth of Christina Stead’s 13 novels – if you count her first, The Salzburg Tales as a novel, which I do, or 14,15,16,17 depending how you count The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas (1965), but anyway it was the second-last published; and the second set mostly in Britain. Cotter’s England was the first (not the ‘only’ as it says in Wikipedia, today at least) and For Love Alone, probably the most biographical of her works, ends up there as well. In fact, Miss Herbert in a way continues on from For Love Alone in that it uses the everyday details of Stead’s struggles to support herself in London before and after WWII, on the fringes of the publishing industry.

Christina Stead (1902-1983) was born in Sydney, moved to London, where she met her life-long partner Bill Blake in 1928. They lived for a while in Paris, spent the war years in the USA, sailed back to Europe in 1946, initially to Belgium. In 1948 Stead was in England working on Cotters’ England and some time after, but certainly by 1952, began work on Miss Herbert, which remained unpublished – I don’t know why – until 1976.

Miss Herbert is an odd book, or at least a book about an odd woman as she makes her way through her adult life. In some ways it is as though Stead set out to write an English Lettie Fox  (1946). Lettie Fox is a young American woman who knows what she wants – sex and marriage – and sets out to get it. ‘Miss Herbert’ wants to get married, to become a suburban wife, but has no real self-awareness and falls into sex almost by accident. The writing does not have the virtuoso quality of Lettie Fox or even of Cotters’ England but that is not to say it is not well written, but rather that it reflects very well the unreflective and maybe even stolid mental processes of its protagonist.

I should say the ‘Miss Herbert’ of the title begins life as Miss Eleanor Brent. Herbert is the name of an old county family from whom her mother is descended. Eleanor feels herself to be a Herbert and later in the novel when she is in need of a name this is the one she adopts. The novel starts with a reunion of school friends, old girls of Miss Appleyard’s academy. Some of the girls have gone on to university or commenced careers but Eleanor, living on a small allowance from her father

… was different. A nobly built beauty, playingfields champion, excellent student, loved at home, admired at school and by men, she had been happy and confident always. Her future was planned too; she was “an engaged girl.” But with all this, she was unsettled; she was only quite happy with women friends.

Her fiance, Robert, a doctor, is in a hospital ‘up north’ making his way through residency and so on. Eleanor takes a world cruise, becomes engaged to one or two other men while she’s away, and on her return lives with a young colonial businessman for a month in his London flat.

But she felt too active and intelligent for the idle mistress life and began taking correspondence lessons in writing with a Mr Beresford Banes who ran a Fleet Street literary agency.

She resumes her engagement with Robert and telling him that she is on a walking tour, gets menial work in a country hotel where she makes out with all the men, before returning to London, to a student hostel, getting by on odd writing jobs. And all the time talking about sex and free love with her girl friends, having men back to her room, holding herself out as inexperienced. Later, I had to re-read these early pages because when Eleanor, at age 30 or so, does finally fall into the suburban marriage she had dreamed of, she blanks out any recall of these encounters or holds them out to herself as innocent.

Eleanor is fascinated by the relationships of her friends, particularly those in de facto marriages or with long-term sexual partners, questioning them without regard to their embarrassment, maybe reflecting on her own status, as it was around this time, after many years living together that Stead and Blake were finally able to marry. Eventually she breaks with Robert for the last time and becomes engaged to Heinz, a Swiss who is an organiser for her mother’s church or religious society (I never did work out exactly what it was). She admits to him that she has had one or two lovers and he wants to know what they did, she must do for him what she had done for them. When he admits to lovers of his own “she ran wild with men, resentful and jealous: a fury burned in her; for a moment she wanted to go to the devil, roister, never marry – her heart burned. She would never marry the wretch.” But she does.

And settles down, has children, a girl and a boy, works hard in the house her in laws had bought, lodgers in the upper floors for a little extra income. Over time Henry – he insists on Henry rather than the foreign ‘Heinz’, dreams of a distant knighthood – works more and more away from home until at last he tricks her into going to live on her brother’s farm and claims to have been deserted. She never thinks of herself as not married, even when Henry begins to suggest divorce, but looks again to writing and to supporting herself and her children as a reader for publishers.

Life drifts on. She moves back to London. Me are still interested in her but she seems to have got out of the habit. Late in the piece she thinks she has fallen in love with her daughter’s boyfriend:

In the night, awake, she rose and fell, like a floating swimmer, on easygoing great waves of voluptuous joy, while thinking, Not for me, no,no, it’s all nonsense; it’s all past, not for me, no longer; how can it come now when it never came? It’s an illusion.

But it passes, she’s fifty after all, “Soon I will have my pension and then I am going to write the story of my life; then I will really get down to it; and it will open some eyes.”

 

Christina Stead, Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife), Random House, New York, 1976. Virago Modern Classics No. 97 (pictured above), 1979

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead page (here) for a full overview of Stead and her work, including links to reviews by Lisa, me and others.
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters,1989 (Biography – here)


The British did it hard in the decade after World War II, with shortages of many basics and ongoing rationing. Sue at Whispering Gums a week or so ago discussed Australians sending food parcels ‘back home’ (here), and I noticed this in Williams while looking up background material for this review:

Christina’s family back in Australia helped her in those ration-stricken times in England. Her cousin Gwen and her sister Kate sent parcels of tinned meat, woollens, dripping and other essentials to her and her friend, Anne Dooley [the model for Nellie in Cotters’ England]. Christina wrote to Gwen in June 1949 that “… for those who need it most, the hard constant workers, the food is grievously, wickedly insufficient. Meat, that strength-builder, is in terrible shortage.”

 

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Coming Rain, Stephen Daisley

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I’ve written before, especially in the context of other bloggers’ reviews of Stephen Orr’s The Hands, that I don’t like (modern) books about blokes in the bush. They seem to me the literary equivalent of a Holden ute flying multiple flags on Australia Day.* However, I listened recently to Coming Rain (2015) and thought that I would discuss some of the issues it raises for me. Unfortunately, the next book I listened to was a ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ detective story, Mr Jelly’s Business (1937) set in almost exactly the same Western Australian wheatbelt location, and the two became so mixed in my mind that I’ve had to re-read a paper copy of Coming Rain to unsort them.

Coming Rain is textbook Australian Legend, two itinerant workers in the 1950s head a hundred miles or so out into the wheatbelt from Perth in their old Ford truck to do a spot of shearing. What Daisley thinks he brings to this tired old trope, I’m not sure. Certainly not the few Aboriginal words he throws in for political correctness, nor even the parallel story told from the point of view of a dingo bitch which at least adds a touch of White Fang (Jack London), or more pertinently, Dusty (Frank Dalby Davidson).

The two workers are Lew McCleod, in his twenties, and ‘Painter’ Hayes, in his sixties. Lew at age 11 was taken to work with a shearing crew and Painter, who had known his father, took him under his wing. In the following decade Lew never runs into his father nor goes back to see his mother.

We start off with some gratuitous sex for Lew and then a ‘charcoal contract’ near Boddington (in the jarrah forest south of Perth), which I guess sets the scene, before an all-night drive out along the Great Eastern Highway to the edge of the wheatbelt, which would be somewhere between Merredin and Southern Cross (respectively 260 and 360 km east of Perth) in their 1939 Ford truck.

They are to shear 1200 sheep – about 3 days work under normal conditions – for the Drysdales, remnants of an old pioneering family, John, a widower and his private school-educated 19 yo daughter Clara, who are unable to afford labour for the shed and plan to bring the sheep up to the yards and pick up and sort the wool themselves. Which would be fine with so few sheep, except they don’t bother every day, leaving the men to pick up their own fleeces. The property is improbably mostly wheat, this year at least, in those days more labour intensive than sheep, and during the greatest wool boom in Australia’s history, when the whole of Australia up to the Tropic of Capricorn was swarming with merinos.

The Drysdales have been notorious for not employing ‘blackfellas’ and indeed in earlier days, for clearing them off the station altogether. “‘Old man Drysdale and Dingo Smith persuaded them to move down south to round Boddington just after the first war,’ Painter said. ‘Never came back’.” Why Daisley nominates Boddington, which is way south and on the far side of the Darling ranges, I’m not sure, when the Noongars of this region mostly congregated around the regional centres of Merredin and, closer to Perth, Northam and Brookton (when not forced into Native Settlements at Moore River and Carrolup).

Lew and Clara manage to surmount their class and educational differences and engage in a spot of skinny dipping, followed by … well you get the picture. The dingo dips in and out of the story, has a bit of followed by … herself and looks for somewhere to have her pups.

Dingo Smith reappears late in the piece, living in a nearby mining ghost town with all the shops and houses still standing like a model pioneer village, which may have been true in the 50s, though these days old mining towns are just a signpost and a few vague shapes in the ground. (I said between Merredin and Southern Cross because Southern Cross marks the end of the wheatbelt and the beginning of the Goldfields.)

You know I don’t get historical fiction, not the rehashing of things which are familiar to us and are little more than an opportunity for an author to display his research. So it is not enough for Lew and Painter to cook their own dinner, they have to do it on a ‘green Metters stove’, with food from their ‘Coolgardie safe’ (I’m sure we said ‘cool safe’). Daisley has looked up a whole heap of sheep terms – ewe, wether, two-tooth, hogget – implying in the process that all the flock are in their second year. When a truck passes by on the highway it has ‘a powerful American motor’ though most American trucks in those days had petrol motors and a ‘large articulated truck and trailer’ was far more likely to be British.

We solve the murder, Boney catches the late train to Kal and on to the Trans and across the Nularbor. Oops, that’s Mr Jelly. Try again – Mates stick together, a woman gets in the way, things are hard in the bush … that’s probably both of them. Read Coming Rain if you have to, our antediluvian judges are still giving awards to this tired old pap. I’ll still try Stephen Orr, because you ask me nicely, but I really don’t have much time for back in the day when men were bronzed, even ironically.

 

Stephen Daisley, Coming Rain, Text, Melbourne, 2015. Audio version Bolinda Books, read by Paul English.

Lisa at ANZLL who is far more to be trusted than I am, liked it (here)

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1939 Ford truck
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*Holden ute (Wikipedia)

Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman

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The doctrine of Terra Nullius was the ex post facto justification for British settlement in New Holland (Australia); basically, the continent was regarded for legal purposes as uninhabited. That it was occupied by and subject to the laws of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for tens of millenia was not accepted into Australian Common Law until the Mabo decision of 1992 – a decision which ‘conservative’ governments have been at pains ever since to read as narrowly as possible in order to protect the interests of the miners and graziers who are their principal constituency.

Claire Coleman, the author of this recently released fictional exploration of the doctrine, identifies as Noongar, the indigenous peoples of the south west corner of Western Australia, where Terra Nullius is set. This is her first novel, written while travelling around Australia in a caravan according to this interesting profile (here).

Coleman, like multi-award winning author Kim Scott, is specifically of the people of the Ravensthorpe/Hopetoun region [the Wilomin] and in the interview references a memorial acknowledging the massacre of her family’s ancestors near Ravensthorpe (see my post The Cocanarup Massacre, here) which is also important in Scott’s writing, particularly Benang and Kayang and Me (reviews here and here).

The writer she most reminds me of though is not Scott but Charlotte Wood. Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (review here) is almost a parable, timeless, although probably in a near future, and placeless, set in a generic ‘outback’. As well, the writing of both has a certain flat, unemotional quality suited to the dystopian scenes each is describing.

“The best way to sneak in a statement without people realising is through sci-fi. The best novels are controversial. I wanted to make a connection, so that people sitting on the edge will fall off it.” (Coleman)

The first half of Terra Nullius feels as though it is set a hundred years or more in Australia’s past and it is not until we are half way through that we are made to realise that it is not. Likewise the scrub country which is the novel’s setting has no real place. Perth and the small town of Jerramungup (half way between Albany and Esperance in southern Western Australia) are the only towns mentioned, but they are not important; and the scrub country of the novel borders on the desert, although Jerramungup is in reality separated from the Western Desert by hundreds of kilometers of scrub and temperate woodlands.

The novel consists of a number of stories, told in parallel, which gradually come together [the pedant in me struggles with parallel stories converging]. Jacky runs from a Settler farm where he had been working for no wages and was unable to leave, ie. was a slave. He has only vague memories of being taken from the bush as a child to a mission where he was trained for servitude. Sister Bagra runs the mission:

Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them… Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.

The Head of the Department for the Protection of Natives, known to everyone only as Devil, finds “nothing to like about the job except the satisfaction he received from helping the Natives to help themselves. Natives raising their own children to the primitive ways they lived before he came was unacceptable, they would have to be elevated.”

Esperance runs a camp in the scrub on the edge of desert, her ‘hut’ a single sheet of corrugated iron, her people a motley collection united only in being pushed off their lands by the advancing Settlers.

Sergeant Rohan makes up a party of young Settlers to recapture Jacky, none of them competent trackers, and always on the edge of running out of water as they struggle from one reported sighting to the next.

Jacky finds his way to the mission, breaks in, not for food although he is starving, but for information. A young nun comes on him in the dark, tells him to head east, that he was taken from Jerramungup.

Two young nuns appear to be defying Sister Bagra. Someone has written to the authorities to inform them that Native children reported as absconded may have been mistreated and died. An investigator is coming from ‘home’.

A trooper takes part in a massacre:

Johnny was with them as they chased the terrified, fleeing survivors, in the almost dark, in the glowing red light of scattered coals from campfires, in the light from burning humpies. Some of the Native men grabbed their primitive arms and tried to fight back but men with ancient weapons cannot stand against men with modern guns. They were gunned down… Johnny ran with others of his troop, guns empty – who could be bothered reloading? – running buoyed by their laughter, knives in hands slitting throats and piercing bellies.

but is sickened, as well he might be, and deserts into the bush, meeting up with and being accepted into a party of Native marauders.

Johnny gets ill, is left behind by his mates. Jacky, still heading vaguely east but with no idea of where he is, comes upon Johnny, spares his precious water to revive him.

In her review, Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) writes, “Always have faith that an author knows what she’s doing! As the novel progresses there are odd little incongruities here and there, details that seem like mistakes that an editor should have picked up, until about half way through the novel when the penny drops and the reader’s assumptions fall away…”. What else can I say, except: Well done! Claire Coleman, long may you produce novels as good and original as this one.

Let Johnny, the renegade, have the last word: “Stealing something to eat, that is a crime that would get me flung into jail. Stealing everything, that is just good government.”

 

Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette, Sydney, 2017

 

 

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible (1998) which must be well known, my copy has ‘International Best Seller’ on the cover and elsewhere I see ‘Oprah Book Club’, has been sitting on my bedside cupboard for months, years even, but who gave it to me I do not remember. However, seeing it there every morning (every morning that I’m home, which is about half) at least prompted me to pick up the audio version when I saw it in the library.

The story is of a Southern Baptist preacher, Nathan Price, who takes his wife and four daughters to Kilanga, a village deep in the Congo jungle in 1959. No, that’s not quite right, the story is of the daughters, how they survive their father, how they survive the Congo, how the Congo becomes a part of them. Each section is introduced by Orleanna, the mother, back in Georgia in the present day, and then we hear, not in any order, the voices of the daughters – Rachel (15 in 1959), Leah (14), Adah (14) and Ruth May (5).

The girls all have slightly different voices, which made the book very easy to follow. Rachel is a Mrs Malaprop and Adah expresses her intelligence by thinking her sentences both forwards and backwards (it gets tedious after a while). Leah’s is the voice we hear most often. The author succeeds in making Ruth May sound young:

Mama needs her some Quick Energy. After Father went away with Leah in the plane, she went and got in her bed and won’t get up…

I told Rachel and Adah we needed some 7Up for Mama. Rachel does the radio advertisements from back home and that is one: ‘Bushed? Beat? Need ionizing? 7Up is the greatest discovery yet for getting new energy quick. In two to six minutes you’ll feel like a new you.’

We learn quite early from Orleanna that one of her daughters will die, so this is one source of tension during the first half of the book. The other source is family dynamics as the dysfunctional Nathan attempts to bring christianity to the ‘natives’ without any understanding of them at all, while Leah, Adah, Ruth May and to some extent Orleanna, become increasingly involved in community life. Rachel amusingly remains a southern belle, even in their early hand to mouth existence in Kilanga with all the dresses brought from Georgia turning to rags.

Barbara Kingsolver (1955- ) is a good woman, anti-war, pro-environment, an advocate of living close to nature (Wiki), and she has produced here a portrait of a man completely out of his depth, surviving only by the kindness of the locals, of which all the Prices are blithely unaware, and the desperate attempts of his wife and daughters to support him while living within the constraints of traditional village life.

Over the three or so years of producing this blog I have become increasingly interested in how literature reflects – and no doubt influences – black white relations. How books by white liberals, of which this is one, so often put modern white liberal protagonists into historical situations to yes, accept blame, but also to suggest how things might have been done better; and how the books of Indigenous Lit. and, in the US, African-American Lit., increasingly paint a completely different picture.

The Belgian Congo was a colony ruthlessly exploited by US and European businesses with the support of the Belgian government. In it’s early years as a colony, at the end of the C19th the Congo, 75 times larger than Belgium, was the personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II: “along with the uncounted thousands who died of disease and famine, many Congolese were killed by Leopold’s agents for failing to meet production quotas for ivory and rubber, the territory’s principal sources of wealth before its diamonds, copper and zinc were discovered. Mr. Hochschild estimates the total death toll during the Leopold period [1885-1908] at 10 million.”*

By 1959 this was supposedly coming to an end, with the Belgians agreeing to withdraw, and in 1960 Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of the Congo. However within a few months the US, which has always preferred right wing dictatorships to protect its commercial interests, engineered a coup. Lumumba was deposed by the head of the army, Joseph Mobutu, imprisoned, beaten and shot. The CIA’s instigation of the coup was confirmed by US Congressional hearings in 1975 (the Church Committee) – which Kingsolver refers to. Mobutu’s increasingly despotic rule lasted until 1997.

The second half of the book, which I didn’t find as interesting as the first, deals with the girls as they become adults and live separate lives, in the US, in the Congo/Zaire and towards the end, in neighbouring Angola, itself fighting to stay independent with the support of Cuba in the face of US/South African sponsored rebels. We also follow Anatole Ngemba who, when the Prices arrive, is the village school teacher, and later a political activist in the anti-Mobutu movement.

A lot of the book, most of it even, concerns the day to day problems of subsistence living in a small and remote village, in which the Prices must take part, having only a small stipend as missionaries and that gone with the flight of most whites at Independence; and of the confusion arising from Nathan’s inability to master even the rudiments of the local language. Kingsolver spent a few months in the Congo as a child but is otherwise constructing her story from research. The scenes sound authentic but we have no way of knowing how close they are to reality.

Where she succeeds is in telling a story which is both interesting in itself and which acts seamlessly as a vehicle for her political purpose – to excoriate her government for the ongoing harm it has caused the people of the Congo.

 

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, Faber & Faber, London, 1998. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 1998, read by Dean Robertson

see also:

*Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Houghton Mifflin, 1998, cited in NY Times, 21 Sept. 2002 (here)

CIA report: CIA’s Covert Operations in the Congo, 1960–1968 (here)

Author Interview, Sarah Goldman

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Illustrations from Caroline Chisholm

Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force by Sarah Goldman (my review) is the recently released biography of one of the most interesting and influential women in Australia’s early history. My review copy arrived with a letter suggesting Sarah would be happy to be interviewed, so I sent her some questions to which she has been kind enough to give extensive answers. I didn’t let on, but this is my first interview.

Q. Personal Stuff: It bemuses me that publishers ‘always’ put in an author bio, “so and so lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog”. The things that affect how I read a work are the author’s gender, age and education.

A. none [that’s what I get for being impertinent!]

 

Q. Writing: This is your first book. I like the writing, it is both fluent and informative. Did you arrive at this point by writing in the course of your work, keeping a journal, writing for publication short stories/essays, or maybe just by writing/re-writing Caroline Chisholm? During the course of writing Caroline Chisholm did you publish any extracts?

A. I’ve written all my life, firstly as a newspaper journalist and then later as a television producer mostly in news. They say of journalists that they know a little about a lot, but not much about anything. Writing this biography gave me an opportunity to concentrate on one, fascinating character and the people and places which became the background to her story. It did take me a time to develop my voice though. In most news writing, one avoids expressing opinions whilst striving to communicate relevant facts concisely and effectively. Writing about Caroline demanded a different style altogether. I soon found that expanding and colouring-in with the facts were both enjoyable and rewarding, particularly as I had such a rich subject and environment to explore. Through the process I was helped by being part of a writers’ group at the NSW Writers’ Centre. Disinterested opinions from other writers are very valuable. Once the rhythm to the writing was established though, I found it quite easy to continue. It was also a thoroughly enjoyable process and one I am eager to repeat.

 

Q. Motivation: Did you always want to be a writer? A biographer? What drew you to Caroline Chisholm in particular?(The more I read about her, the more I admire her).

A. Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a journalist and I honestly enjoyed every moment of my career, whether it was in newspapers or television, in Sydney, Melbourne or London. I vaguely thought that one day I would write a book, but it wasn’t until I started delving into Caroline’s life that I became absolutely determined to write about her. It all started years ago when I mentioned her to my (then) young sons, who knew nothing about her. I began to investigate Caroline so that I could tell them about her and I became hooked. I was busy at the time and put the idea of writing a biography away until a few years ago when I decided to give it a go. I was interested in not just telling what she did and how she did it, but who she was, in effect the flesh and blood woman behind the story. Similarly, I also thought it important to explore the physical and social environment in which Caroline lived because they too are vital aspects of her life. I thought it important to look at her 19th Century world and try to understand it from a 21st Century viewpoint.

 

Q. Process: Had you already started when Carole Walker published, did this give you pause? By your notes you rely on the McKenzie Memoirs, is there much other source material for the early part of her life (I infer there is no birth record naming the mother)? I imagine Chisholm becomes increasingly visible in Trove over time. Was your manuscript or parts thereof workshopped?

Q. I came across Carole Walker’s excellent PhD thesis and then book sometime after I had started my work on Caroline. It did not really give me pause because I soon realised that we were approaching the same subject from two different viewpoints. Another major difference was that Carole Walker’s best research and interest was focused on Caroline’s life and work in the UK. As you have obviously seen from my end notes and bibliography, I have certainly referenced some of her admirable research, but I have also been able to follow other leads. One valuable resource was Edith Pearson’s essay on Caroline which was written after Pearson interviewed Caroline’s daughter, also named Caroline. Elsewhere I found other resources for example the notice of Caroline and Archibald’s wedding in the Northampton Mercury and William Whellan & Co., History, Gazetteer and Directory of Northamptonshire which gave me valuable information about Caroline and Archibald’s neighbours in Northampton in 1831 and the whereabouts of various of her relations at that time and afterwards. Elsewhere I was fortunate to happen upon the log of Archdale Low Whitby, who sailed to Australia in the Slains Castle, Caroline’s first Family Colonization Loan Society boat. The log gives fascinating information of what it was really like to make that journey in the mid-19th Century and, I have the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies to thank for using that wonderful material. Without doubt, both the British Newspaper Archives and more particularly our own Trove from the National Library of Australia were invaluable and truly engrossing sources, both to follow Caroline’s career and that of her various family members.

 

Q. I think you are careful to say when you are ‘imagining’, which is not always the case. What do you think about the fictionalizing of real lives? What influence have other biographers had on your work? Have you read Brian Matthews’ Louisa for instance which is really an extended discussion on constructing a life from insufficient facts.

A. I think that the art of biography is to bring a real person alive as a character so that they are interesting not only on an intellectual level, but an emotional level also. If the reader is engaged with the subject then the enjoyment of the book is so much richer. There are various techniques. I have chosen to use short fiction pieces at the start of most chapters, each easily identified by a change in font. As I explained in the introduction, in each case, the fiction relates to events that follow in the body of the chapter. They were also created using actual facts and evidence, be it direct writings by Caroline or other people such as Charles Dickens or a diarist of the time.

 

Q. Last of all, do you have a new ‘life’ in mind, underway even?

A. Yes, I do have another project in mind, but it is still percolating through my brain at the moment, so I will remain a little coy about it for the time being.

 

Thank you Sarah!

 

Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)

I also referred to:

Carole Walker, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)

Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852)  preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).

 

Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Justine Ettler

Justine Ettler’s 1995 best seller The River Ophelia is in the process of being re-released and I’ve been asked if I would like to conduct an author interview. Of course I would! In my researches I came across an open on-line interview with Ettler from about 20 years ago in which one Kate W was a participant. Did you get anything out of it Kate?

I was offered a choice of formats – not including an open chat session, thank goodness, which looks like a mess. My preference would be to sit down over a glass of wine, but us not being in the same cities, that’s out of the question, and anyway would I remember to write down her answers. I get tongue-tied on the phone with strangers, so that leaves written questions. As part of the process, I thought I would re-read Ettler’s Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure which was published the year after The River Ophelia but which Ettler says she wrote first. And so, this review.

Marilyn’s a blonde very-Marilyn-with-a-touch of Meryl Sydney girl who has a crush on an older Wall Street type – Twentiethcentury Solomon Fox jr – she’s seen on daytime tv. Trying to contact him in New York through directory assistance she’s put through instead to Lisa who works in a downtown bookstall while waiting for an off-off-Broadway break.

Virginia, a girl she meets at New Year’s Eve party, persuades Marilyn that they’ll fly to New York together the next day, leaving behind her boyfriend hairy snail Lawrence, and her lovers Miller and Durrell.

[She] stares off into the hazy middle distance reluctant to hear her life so far reduced to what sounds like a reading list for an adult education course in modern literature and female sexuality …

Years ago I went through an Anaïs Nin phase so these are familiar names, though I assumed the Lawrence went with Durrell when Ettler may have intended D.H.

Virginia stands her up at the departure lounge – gets a super secret job offer she just can’t refuse – and Marilyn sets off on the 31 hour flight on her own, or on her own except for an I-don’t care-if-I’m-a-lousy-hack-air-hostess-because-I-know-I’m-Bette-Davis-where-it-counts who keeps sneaking looks in Marilyn’s new diary, as do we, and forgetting to feed her, but helps her interpret her dreams and slips her some drugs and so the time passes until Marilyn finds herself on the kerb climbing into a taxi, and giving an address to a black driver with lots of gold jewellery who asks, as does everyone she meets, often even before she speaks, are you Ostralian?

It seems Crocodile Dundee (1986) has “finally put Ostralia on the map”, though Ettler’s a bit pissed off by Americans? Australians? who read it as “a harmless fairytale”.

“Meanwhile Twentiethcentury Solomon Fox coaxes his body towards his first bowel movement of the day” which is his principal preoccupation, even more than making money from movements in the market, or Garbo, his girlfriend with God-are-they-silicon? tits; while Marilyn who has concussion from when the taxi dropped into an enormous pothole, tries to make sense of being dropped off at Liz’s flat in a run-down apartment building, coming to on a creaky slashed badly sprung vinyl sofa-bed under a dirty blanket to which she reverts in coming days to recuperate.

This is one of those books you read for the writing and for the atmosphere, but if you really don’t want to know how Marilyn ends up, then skip down to the last para.

We spin off into days of partying, random encounters, Marilyn spiralling ever closer to Twentiethcentury. Virginia reappears, disappears forever, and suddenly …

 …it’s the end of Twentiethcentury Fox and the end of the world and the end of her allergy and the end of TV and the end of herbality.

Back in Liz’s apartment everything’s a crazy bustling confusion of Liz and her sisters and her flatmates and all of their I’m-so-pissed-off-about-being-evicted boxes and suitcases and Marilyn’s strangely reassured when she finds Liz in the middle of it all hand-blow-drying real potato French fries and then when Liz asks about Twentiethcentury with a knowing look beneath her dyed natural hair Marilyn shrugs and says:
‘Oh well,’
And they both sigh and sip on their Coronas and gulp down shots of tequila.
And then Liz says:
‘Let’s get this show on the road kid.’

 And just like that, Marilyn is back in Sydney.

Marilyn is not intense in the way that The River Ophelia is. It has a lighter, trippier quality and there is an occasional suspension of causality which reminds me of some of the more ‘way out’ of Golden Age SF writers – PK Dick, Sladek or Sheckley. I’ve put this into a question for her (Ettler) and I’m sure she’ll answer ‘nope, nope, nope’ and cite someone I’ve never heard of, but hey, the reader is king. Right?

 

Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Picador, Sydney, 1996

see also: my review of The River Ophelia (here)

 

Caroline Chisholm, Sarah Goldman

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Caroline Chisholm, or to give it its full title, Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force, How one extraordinary woman helped shape a nation, is a new biography of the woman who single handedly changed (for the better!) the way the Australian colonies dealt with the huge influx of workers, especially women, we needed up till the gold rushes of the 1850s. The author, Sarah Goldman is a journalist – a tv news producer – who lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog. This is her first book.

Goldman believes that earlier biographers have focused on Chisholm’s work and her Catholicism at the expense of revealing her as a person. While adhering to the facts, she says, Goldman has at the beginning of each chapter “imagined scenes that related directly to incidents covered within the subsequent pages.”

Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales … had been surprised when Caroline Chisholm had been ushered into the room, even wondered if he had misheard the name. Instead of the frumpy, bespectacled matron in plain gown and white cap that he had expected, he had been confronted by a handsome, even stately young matron, fashionably dressed and wearing a very fetching bonnet. [Introduction, Sydney 1841]

Caroline Chisholm was born in 1808 in Northampton, England. Her father, William Jones, by then 64, had started out as a farm labourer but was now a prosperous property owner and ‘hog jobber’. He died six years later, leaving Caroline an investment property with substantial rentals. Caroline’s mother, with a number of other children to support, promptly offloaded Caroline onto another Northampton women and then to boarding school where she seems to have obtained a good education. Later, Caroline names another (maybe the same) Northampton woman, Sarah Laws as her mother in the 1851 census.

Caroline early decided on a career in charity. In 1829 she turned 21 and became mistress of her own fortune, but only for so long as she remained unmarried. George Sand whose life we looked at a couple of weeks ago was at the same time in France in exactly the same position – the laws in both countries (most countries probably, I think this also comes up in Anna Karenina) gave complete control of a woman’s property to her husband.

A year later, thirty year old Lieutenant Archibald Chisholm, a Scotsman and a Catholic, returning home on furlough from ten years with the East India Company, met Caroline in Northampton and asked for her hand in marriage. She refused. Only relenting when he acceded to the condition that she retain the freedom to pursue her own objectives. Caroline, brought up Protestant, then converted to Catholicism.

I covered Chisholm’s life and work in some detail in my earlier review of Mary Hoban’s 1973 biography (here), but to give a ‘brief’ recap – Caroline followed Archibald to India where she established a school for the daughters, often mixed race, of ordinary soldiers; then, on his next furlough, they went to NSW, where Caroline took on the problem of female bounty migrants having no support on arrival. She stayed on in Sydney while Archibald went back for another five years in India, touring NSW extensively, escorting groups of young women to positions in the country and conducting an extensive survey into opportunities for rural labour. Here Caroline ventures into Australian Legend territory:

… travelling with the girls on the wagons or, later, riding her own horse, Captain. Her expeditions went “as far as 300 miles into the far interior, sometimes sleeping at the stations of wealthy settlers, sometimes in the huts of poor emigrants or prisoners; sometimes camping out in the bush, teaching the timid awkward peasantry of England, Scotland and Ireland, Protestant and Roman Catholics, Orangemen and Repealers, how to “bush” it.”

By the time Archibald returned, Caroline was well known and highly regarded, and her opinion was sought by – and more often pressed on – the fledgling Legislative Council.

In 1846 the Chisholms returned to England, setting up a base in the poorer part of London and Caroline began advocating for and organising female and family migration to Australia from Britain and Ireland (then in the grip of the Great Famine). There she met Dickens and elements of her survey appeared in the first issue of his magazine Household Words. He was later to satirise her unfairly as Mrs Jellyby* in Bleak House. The establishment of the Family Colonization Loan Society in 1850, and her being only the second woman ever to give evidence to a committee of the House of Lords, made her one of the best known people in Great Britain.

The Society chartered and, later had constructed purpose-built ships, including the Caroline Chisholm which was unfortunately commandeered for troop transport to the Crimean War. Archibald was despatched first to Adelaide, then to Melbourne, where he was subsequently joined by Caroline, to act as the Society’s agent. The Chisholms settled in Victoria, in Melbourne and then Kyneton, but the wave of immigration associated with the gold rushes of the 1850s meant that her work was no longer of such importance.

She was able to persuade the government to establish ‘shelter sheds’, accommodation for families walking between Melbourne and the Castlemaine/Bendigo gold fields, and continued to advocate for an Australian ‘yeomanry’ – family based farms to replace the huge runs taken up by squatters and worked mostly by single men.

Despite her Catholicism, Caroline Chisholm both advocated and practiced multi-culturalism. Attacked by the Protestant preacher John Dunmore Lang for bringing out Irish Catholic girls, Caroline retorted, “I have lived happily amongst pagans and heathens, Mahometans and Hindoos – they never molested me at my devotions, nor did I insult them at theirs; and am I not to enjoy the same privilege in New South Wales?” [reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1846]. Later in Victoria Chisholm was to speak up in the same way for the largely reviled Chinese (I devoted a second post to Chisholm’s views on race here).

In straining to create historical women heroines we sometimes find they are given more prominence now than they were then. The reverse is true of Caroline Chisholm, and of many women authors, whose considerable reputations and influence at the time have not been brought forward by (male) historians. When you think about it, it is nonsensical that school students learn more about the failures of man-heroes Burke & Wills and Ludwig Leichardt than they do about about the successes of Caroline Chisholm, Mary McKillop or Catherine Helen Spence.

In this biography Sarah Goldman presents Chisholm as a powerful early practical feminist, making her way in a man’s world, creating opportunities for women and for families (though at the expense of some neglect of her own), with the unstinting support of her husband. I’m not sure Goldman gets very far behind the public face, though she (rightly) gets angry discussing Dickens and others dismissing Caroline as plump – as well she might be after eight children – and matronly.

The short imagined scenes are an interesting idea to provide an introduction to each chapter, but I was disappointed to find (in the End Notes) that one, where Caroline out in the bush with a dray load of women immigrants is held up by a bushranger, is totally imaginary. Overall however this is a powerful and very well documented work.

 

Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)

Author interview (here)

Other biographies:

Mary Hoban, Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake (1973). My reviews here and here.

Carole Walker, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)

Rod Stinson, Unfeigned Love: Historical Accounts of Caroline Chisholm and Her Work, Yorkcross, Sydney, 2008

Chisholm, Caroline, ed. by John Moran, Radical in Bonnet and Shawl: Four Political Lectures; and Little Joe. (Australia: Preferential Publications, 1994 and 1991)

M. Kiddle, Caroline Chisholm (Melb, 1957)

Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852)  preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).

see also the website http://mrschisholm.com/


*I originally wrote ‘Mrs Jellybelly’, a Freudian slip picked up by Professor Melanie (Grab the Lapels) below.