Jane Austen: Independent Woman

Jane Austen (1775-1817) English novelist remembered for her six great novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. Engraving.

In my dissertation (here) I wrote: “And it is in the choosing of husbands, rather than of careers, that the Independent Woman is initially manifested, most famously of course, in literature, in Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.”

The last time I ‘studied’ Jane Austen (1775-1817) was in high school, and although I have read all her books and seen all the movies, most recently the Lady Susan story misleadingly titled Love & Friendship, I would not pretend to be able to add to the considerable scholarship which surrounds her. However, the recent post on Northanger Abbey (here) by devoted Austenite Sue at Whispering Gums, and the comments ensuing, has prompted me to discuss those ways in which Austen is (and isn’t) a precursor for the Independent Woman paradigm.

Firstly, Jane was herself independent. After a failed engagement, and likewise for her older sister Cassandra, she and Cassandra were apparently happy to remove themselves from the marriage market and to live in a household consisting of just themselves, their mother and while he was alive, their father. Unlike Miles Franklin, however, or many other early Australian women writers, this is not a solution which Austen advocates for others.

Austen heroines start out ‘independent’ but strangely seem to get less and less so as their author gets older. Austen began writing ‘seriously’ in her early teens, circulating stories within a small circle of family and friends. Her first complete work, Lady Susan is an epistolary novella written around 1794. The eponymous Lady Susan is “the most accomplished coquette in England”, shuffling lovers and potential husbands to maximise the benefits to herself. Lady Susan remained unpublished for eighty years, till 1871. One can imagine it was written to amuse and scandalize her family, and to hone her skills, rather than for public consumption.

Pride and Prejudice, which as First Impressions was the first of her novels to be offered to a publisher, in 1796, abounds with ‘independent women’. This and Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), written about the same time, reflect directly on the author’s life – particularly Jane’s relationship with the presumably more serious Cassandra, and the financial insecurity of the women in the event of the death of Mr Austen.

Elizabeth, in P&P, steers herself by the moral compass, and calmness, of her older sister, Jane. Marianne, in S&S, may be a little rasher but she too is ‘brought to harbour’, so to speak, by Elinor’s steadiness. Then, in P&P we have Lady Catherine de Bourgh, not likeable! but certainly independent, and Lydia, though she is not so much independent as wilful, but all provide examples of how and how not to act. Interestingly, the men – except for Uncle Gardiner – are all weak. Mr Bennet provides no direction for his wife and daughters, Mr Collins is ridiculous, Bingley is easily led, Darcy is too proud, Wickham is a cad.

In S&S, in Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, Austen introduces men who are both upright and willing to provide direction to the weaker sex; and I think these men, the earnest young clergyman and the upright, withdrawn, slightly older man of property, appear, one or the other or both, in all her subsequent novels.

From this point on, in Austen’s writing, it is difficult to make a case for the ‘independent woman’. The next-written novel, Susan, not published till many years later as Northanger Abbey, is famously a spoof on ‘Gothic’ melodrama. In it, for the first time, the heroine, Catherine, is shown as needing and accepting direction from a man, Henry Tilney, a young clergyman, though mainly it must be said, on the hazards of depending too much on the tropes of gothic fiction.

Austen’s subsequent novels were Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. In Mansfield Park the one ‘independent’ woman, Mrs Norris is shown throughout in a bad light, acting only  in the interests, as she sees it, of Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny, the heroine, young and insecure, is entirely dependent on the advice and support of her cousin Edmund Bertram (a clergyman in training).

Emma is certainly independent, but gets set down a number of times by Mr Knightley, for her thoughtlessness, and Austen’s sympathies seem to be with Mr Knightley rather than Emma. When Emma insults Miss Bates (implies she talks too much) at the picnic on Box Hill, Mr Knightley waits till they are on their own then tells Emma:

Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do; a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible.

Catherine, Fanny and Emma all accept direction about their behaviour from men whom they subsequently choose to marry. Independence within marriage, let alone without it, would seem to be a way off.

Persuasion is not so good for my case, as Anne, the heroine, is older (than her fellows in the earlier novels) and less inclined to immature behaviour, harking back maybe to Elizabeth Bennet, though she (Anne) is not so, what is a good word?, forward maybe.

This is a brief summary of my case, and if nothing else, points up the need for closer reading, which I should one day undertake.

 

see also:
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009 (my review)
Whispering Gums’ JA posts here


On Tuesday when my next post is due, I will be in the air, and for the next month, until Anzac day, will be travelling. I will stick to two posts a week, Tuesday and Friday, if I can but no promises. Check out my facebook account from time to time (see the ‘f’ in the sidebar) for photos.

Hippy Days, Arabian Nights, Katherine Boland

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Hippy Days, Arabian Nights is a memoir in two parts by Melbourne-based artist, Katherine Boland (1957 – ). The first part, her childhood in England and Victoria and her life as a hippy and young mother in a community on the NSW south coast, is interesting reading. Part 2, her love affair as a fiftyish divorcee with an Egyptian man half her age, is less so.

Boland, her younger sister Lisa, and her parents migrated to Australia from England in 1961, settling in Melbourne where her father found work as a photographer, taking postcard images all round Australia. After two years, maybe wishing to settle down, he bought a photography business in Bairnsdale, a coastal town in eastern Victoria.

While the budding artist decorated the chook shed and created masterpieces of “swirling crop circles and intricate geometric patterns” with the ride-on mower, her father was descending into depression.

By the time I was ten years old, he had slowly but surely become a misery guts… At the age of forty, disillusioned with how things had turned out, Dad became increasingly depressed and maudlin, drowning himself in drink.

After ten years he sold up and the family returned to England, to Manchester and “my grandfather’s damp and camphor smelling, old person’s house”. Boland writes:

At the age of eleven [ie. at about the time of WWI], my grandfather and grandmother were sent to work in one of the many cotton mills operating in Lancashire at the time. Crawling on hands and knees under the thunderous industrial looms, it was their job to collect the drifts of lint building up on the factory floor …

This strikes me as extremely unlikely. Anyway, dad can’t find work and they move again, to Spain where “Mum and Dad began to lose all direction, perpetually arguing and moving from one alcohol fuelled party to the next”. After six months of this, nearly out of money, they give in and return, not just to Australia but to Bairnsdale. A few months later, still without work, Dad parks his car in the bush, pipes the car exhaust into the interior, and dies.

Katherine goes on to study Art at RMIT, meets John, a political science student at Monash, and moves into his St Kilda flat. After a year, they toss in their studies and armed with The Vegetable Gardening and Animal Husbandry Handbook from the Space Age Bookshop in Swanston St, they head up to ‘Kelly country’, camping in the bush east of Wangaratta until they can find a farmhouse to rent “officially ready to become ‘alternative life stylers’”. For 18 months they live off their own vegetables, chooks and goats, but they want more. A trip to WA to earn ‘big money’ on prawn trawlers is a failure and they end up in Sydney, as live-in maid and gardener/chauffeur for ‘Lady Hooker’ (presumably the widow of LJ Hooker, who died in 1976).

Finally, they have enough money to purchase 100 acres of bush, in the Bega Valley, near Mumbulla Mountain and inland from Bermagui. Slowly, they clear the bush, build themselves a wattle and daub hut and begin to make a go of things. Other hippies purchase blocks nearby so there is always the possibility of shared labour – and shared dope, which increasingly becomes a problem.

Boland’s optimistic and humorous approach to what is really a recreation of C19th pioneering lifestyles is reminiscent of Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I (1946), dimly remembered from my mother’s bookshelves.

A baby, Eva, comes while John is at a new year’s eve party. Katherine phones a neighbour who finds “the expectant father smoking hashish from a home-made hookah in the back of a Ford Falcon panel van.”

I spent seven glorious days in the Bega District Hospital, the longest stay permitted before they threw new mothers back out into the world. Compared to our mud hut in Brogo, it was like holidaying at a Four Seasons Hotel.

Over time, Katherine persuades her mother to live with them (in a refurbished goat shed); John who works part-time as a bricklayer, builds them a new house with real bricks, electricity and a flush toilet; and Eva joins pony club. Then, “in the weeks before 9/11”, it all comes to an end. Eva has left home at 16 to complete her high school education in Canberra, and Katherine  catches John out in an affair with another woman from their community, and returns to Melbourne to live with her sister, determined to make her way as an artist.

On the night of her first exhibition, she begins an ultimately abusive relationship with “the clever, charismatic, cocaine-sniffing, Croatian architect Vicko”. She does more art, gets some overseas residencies, including one at Luxor. She, by then aged 52, and her translator, “the stunningly attractive” Mr Gamal Bahar, aged 26, engage in love at first sight, and so begins ‘Arabian Nights’. Boring.

Over the next five years, she visits him in Cairo, staying in his empty flat across the road from his family’s apartment, then when that is forbidden, at a hotel where they can’t sleep together; they talk daily on Skype; they meet in Viet Nam, Thailand and London. He can’t get a tourist visa to enter Australia – too many Egyptian men overstay apparently – they consider marrying in Egypt, his father says No; there’s the riots and army takeover following the ‘Arab Spring’; they prevaricate over an Australian ‘Prospective Marriage Visa’.

If it doesn’t cost too much, read this book for its first half, an amusing and informative account of modern day subsistence living, which all of us boomers probably considered at one time or another, however briefly.

 

Katherine Boland, Hippy Days, Arabian Nights, Wild Dingo Press, Melbourne, 2017 (Review copy supplied by Wild Dingo Press).

Boland’s art on Pinterest (here)

From the Wreck, Jane Rawson

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SS Admella was an Australian passenger steamship  shipwrecked on a submerged reef off the coast of Carpenter Rocks, south west of Mount Gambier South Australia, in the early hours of Saturday 6 August 1859. Survivors clung to the wreck for over a week and many people took days to die as they glimpsed the land from the sea and watched as one rescue attempt after another failed. With the loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure… the Admella disaster remains the greatest loss of life in the history of European settlement in South Australia. Of the 113 on board 24 survived, including only one woman, Bridget Ledwith. Wikipedia (here)

Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but there was another survivor, an interstellar, shape-shifting alien, and Jane Rawson’s latest fantastic novel, From the Wreck (2017) is its story.

I’ve found it always difficult to review Rawson, her stories have surprises on every page, and to reveal even one is to lessen the impact. So what can I say? The action revolves around a steward on the Admella, George Hills. George is saving to marry his sweetheart, Eliza, though he wouldn’t mind some fun in the meanwhile and Bridget Ledwith, who may or may not be the woman he saw talking to the racehorses in the ship’s hold, has a nice arse.

He gets his wish, although not quite in the way he might have hoped, spends eight days locked in the arms of the woman who may have been Ledwith after the ship breaks up on the reef and the survivors huddle on deck awaiting rescue. In my recent review of Tasma’s A Sydney Sovereign I quote Tasma’s use of the word ‘anthropophagi’, it’s a word that might usefully be reprised here.

George, and of course Ledwith, are among the 24. She disappears, he is persuaded to marry Eliza. They settle in Port Adelaide, in a home for seamen, and go on to have three children, boys Henry, Georgie and Wills. The shape-shifting alien has its own point of view about what may or may not have happened over the course of the wreck and subsequently, in its own way, and only on the edge of George’s awareness, it too takes its place in George’s household.

George senses the alien’s influence, both during the shipwreck and in his new home, as a malevolent presence associated with or arising from Bridget Ledwith; advertises for Bridget Ledwith to reveal herself, but only false Bridgets reply. In the stables behind the home for seamen lives an old woman, of course a witch, with the care of her teenage daughter’s abandoned son; George applies to her to lift the curse; she cannot. Henry knows the alien best, but he is just a boy growing up, and he keeps what he knows to himself. This is the alien’s story:

On a planet, all ocean, there was a small, happy person living small and happy and quiet in her own small niche, her own small place, her own quiet space. Born, grew, lived, loved, ate. The sun, that star, shining on her one happy face.

One day they came out of the sky and her world filled up with dirt and everyone she knew died. She fought and killed and everyone else she didn’t know died and everyone who was left fled. She, they, all of them tumbled into another time, space, dimension and she fell into a new ocean in a place called earth.

Henry reveals a little of what he has learned to Mrs Gallwey, the witch-woman, and maybe back in Sydney she knew a sailor from California who had experienced some of what Henry is experiencing. The alien, lonely with just the company of a school-age boy, is excited and forms the intention of making her way to California, with or without Henry. Without, as it turns out, but her quest is interrupted mid voyage and she spends some time at the bottom of the ocean, comfortable and well-fed, but lonely, and must perforce make her way back to Port Adelaide, to Henry just getting used to being ordinary, and to George, who for a while, felt as though a spell had been lifted.

There’s a tragedy. The shape-shifting alien is not to blame, nor Henry for that matter. George drinks a lot. Bridget Ledwith makes an appearance. Much is resolved. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, as fantastical as, but less gritty than Rawson’s debut novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists; nineteenth century Port Adelaide, and George and Eva’s extended family play a much bigger part than I have given any idea of here. I advise you all to buy it, and hope Jane is already working on her next. She is a remarkable talent.

 

Jane Rawson, From the Wreck, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2017


The official launch is on 21 March 2017 at 7.00pm at the Sun bookshop in Yarraville (more here)

I think Jane has already nominated the perfect review, Linda Godfrey at Newtown Review of Books. I’m not game to read it, for fear of discovering my mistakes, but you may. It, and a couple of others including Lisa at ANZLL’s, are linked to Jane’s post Welcome to the World, From the Wreck.

My reviews of Jane Rawson’s previous works (of fiction) –
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) here
Formaldehyde (2015) here

The Independent Woman in Australian Literature

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In my reviews of Australian books, especially those with women authors, I refer quite often to my thesis that, just as Russell Ward identified the ‘Lone Hand’/independent bushman as the basis for depictions of maleness, and by extension Australianness, early Australian women writers had been developing a parallel, though largely unacknowledged paradigm, the Independent Woman.

I undertook my M.Litt at CQU a decade or so ago – it took a while and I should thank again my supervisor John Fitzsimmons for his patience and my tutor Ayesha Hall for her persistence – and, because I do refer to it, I have decided to put up a cut down version of my dissertation as a ‘page’.

I say ‘cut down’, but it’s still 16,000 words, plus links to books that I’ve already reviewed. Read it at your own peril!


 

Abstract

The starting point for discussions of Australianness has long been Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) with its account of the myth of the Lone Hand, from which women are almost entirely absent. Even in the subsequent Pioneer myth, women have only a subsidiary role.

This absence of women has often been decried, but any reading of the large body of literature by and about Australian women, particularly in the first half of the 20th Century, clearly demonstrates that a case can be made for a parallel myth, the Independent Woman, who makes her way without, and often despite, men.

In the first chapter I discuss the development of the Lone Hand myth, its importance to how we see ourselves as Australians, and, particularly, how women have responded to their exclusion from this myth. The remaining chapters are basically chronological, showing how the fiction of each period, and biographies of the women of those periods, can be read in such a way as to contribute to the development of the counter-myth, the Independent Woman.

So, Chapter 2 covers the blossoming of women’s fiction in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the principal women of ‘first wave’ Feminism in Australia. Chapter 3 is devoted to Miles Franklin, her partly autobiographical heroines, and her connections to first wave Feminism. Chapter 4 covers women’s writing between the Wars and up to the 1950’s, and, in particular, the development of Eve Langley’s heroine, Steve, in direct response to her reading of the bush stories and poetry of Henry Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. Chapter 5 is of a similar period to Chapter 4 but is centred on women whose independence carries them into Lone Hand territory and into the deserts of Central Australia. Finally, Chapter 6 discusses some developments in depictions of the Independent Woman since the sexual revolutions of the 1960s.

 

21 February 2011

W.A.D. Holloway


The Independent Woman in Australian Literature page (here)

The World Repair Video Game, David Ireland

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David Ireland (1927- ) had his first novel published in 1968. He put out five more, three of them Miles Franklin award winners, over the next dozen years –and one of those, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), is in my view a serious contender for Great Australian Novel – and kept going into the 80s, but his popularity was waning, and he has since had trouble getting published. Geordie Williamson writes that “the violence and misogyny that characterised Ireland’s earlier novels – such as The Glass Canoe (1976) and A Woman of the Future (1979)[My review], on which rested his reputation as a defiantly proletarian novelist who employed a feral version of literary modernism – began to erode his standing as intellectual fashions changed…”

Spoilers: The violence which is the ostensible subject of this novel is gradually revealed throughout and is intrinsic to any understanding of it.

So The World Repair Video Game (2015), published in Hobart by Island Magazine Inc, is an old man’s (ie. Ireland’s) cry of rage against fashionable opinions. His psychopath protagonist, 42 yo Kennard Stirling, whose first murder was as a schoolboy, has set himself the project of murdering slackers and incorporating their remains into the pathway he is building to the lookout on Big Hill on his 50 hectare, NSW south coast hobby farm.

A hammer blow in a night train. How I hate the sight of bodily organs, the insides that ought not be seen, the greasiness of blood and how good it feels to wash hands and arms and feel clean once more.

The novel takes the form of Stirling’s journal, interspersed with random thoughts generated by his subconscious (which he calls Pym after the Edgar Allan Poe novel). Ireland at one stage has Stirling reading Richard Brautigan, and his daily entries – from Sept 8 to Dec 21 – could be said to mimic Brautigan’s often very short chapters. The entries themselves are discursive, rather than formal, and inclined to head off at tangents, so the whole is very much stream of consciousness.

That said, not much happens. Stirling, who lives on a remittance from his wealthy Sydney-based family, is a volunteer four mornings a week in the nearby town of ‘Pacific Heights’ delivering meals and gardening for the elderly and so on, and otherwise spends his time regenerating bushland on his 50 hectares, that is, when he is not rendering down bodies and incorporating them into wet cement and compost.

My family Protestantism, alive when I was a child, suggested we are all free and equal, that power rests in the people, but now we know the sovereignty of the people is an unproductive joke, that democracy has few virtues and can’t take difficult steps in hard times and doesn’t reward courage.

Stirling is a loner, private-school educated and a once talented (rugby) footballer. As a refugee from the regimentation of the family business his “family” is now his kelpie-cross Jim, his ute Brian, a cat, and a majestic manna gum, Big Manna. He has had a girlfriend, or at least a love interest, at some stage, Leonora, “daughter of a judge, executive on a management team, retired footballer, weekend painter”, but she has left him, without word or backward glance.

His victims are recognisable by their slack and impoverished appearance, their dismissal of ‘reasonable’ proposals for work, and by the birds which sit on their heads and shit down their backs. They are clearly of the underclass. “The layer above is the working poor, the middle class is miles above”.

They are caricatures, never worked, never wanted to work, refusing to be tied down and experts at ‘claiming’. “This is a non-worker, healthy, uninjured. A non-cooperator, he consumes without producing, as Orwell says… He stinks of failure, stale and sour. He is less a prole and menial toiler and more a chiseller than a drudge, and lives on that edge where the crypto-criminal lives.”

… not far ahead I see a kookaburra riding on something. I get closer and see the bird is perched on the head of an angular man in Jesus sandals and unwashed Judas feet, a silver nostril ring, hairless chest, mauve shirt open to the navel, red tattoos and lemon shorts. He’s my man

I lost track of how many men are killed, six I think, five stabbed with his homemade stiletto and one upended and dropped on his head, all loaded onto Brian for the trip to the farm, then boned and rendered down.

The novel peters out with the completion of the path. The farm is sold. Stirling gets a terse note from Leonora. A new project beckons, eliminate those parasites at the other end of the pecking order, “not the many honest CEOs rewarded for performance, but the few among the top money people whose greedy domination in dysfunctional capital markets weakens the spirit of social fairness.”

Leonora, my light, how I treasured the twins Iphigenia and Chloe, and the potential of dear Clytie, and imagined Andromeda’s warmth. And didn’t tell you. Simply thinking your name creates music in me.

Forget what you have read, The World Repair Video Game is only incidentally a novel about serial killing. Ireland’s concern is politics, the gaming of the welfare system, the shortcomings of socialism, the restrictions political correctness imposes on a right-wing misogynist loner. I can’t agree with him, but at 88 he remains a brilliant writer.

 

David Ireland, The World Repair Video Game, Island Magazine Inc, Hobart, 2015. Afterword by Geordie Williamson

Kindly loaned to me by Lisa at ANZLL, her review here.

A Sydney Sovereign, Tasma

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‘Lady in Grey’, John Longstaff, 1890

If I were to attempt a PhD my subject would be Daisy Bates in Western Australia. She was here for a number of years at the beginning of the last century and there is lots of material to cover. But, I have to keep working so that’s just a pipe dream. I will however, as soon as I can fit it in, review her collection, The Passing of the Aborigines.

If I just wanted a project, I’d get together Miles Franklin’s bits and pieces, the best of her short stories, journalism and plays, and publish them as a book. The closest we have at the moment is the collection of essays arising from her lectures in WA in 1950, Laughter, Not for a Cage.

This slim volume is a collection of short works by Tasma, a novelist from the generation preceding Franklin, edited and introduced by Michael Ackland. A Sydney Sovereign was originally a novella, published with some short stories under the title A Sydney Sovereign and Other Tales in 1890 to take advantage of the author’s success with her debut novel Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill a year or so earlier. In this edition, Ackland has in fact included just a few pages of the title story, to give an idea of the flavour of the original, while retaining the other short stories, written in the 1870s, plus a couple of new stories from 1890-91. All were published at the time in magazines such as the Australasian and The Australian Ladies Annual. Ackland has not taken the opportunity to include any of her other work, which is a pity as I would very much like to have read examples of her literary criticism.

Jessie Catherine Huybers (1848-1897) was born in England to parents of Dutch and French ancestry who migrated to Hobart in the early 1850s. Her father prospered and Jessie had the run of a fine, and presumably multi-lingual, library. Neither Ackland nor ADB mention her education. She married Charles Fraser in 1867 and they moved to Malmsbury, Vic, taking up a property with the auspicious name, Pemberley. Fraser however was a gambler and womaniser, and eventually a bankrupt, and in 1883 she divorced him. Jessie, who by this time was writing short stories under the pen name Tasma, had for some time been living overseas and had already met her next husband, Belgian journalist and politician, Auguste Couvreur. Her ADB entry says that some of her novels following Uncle Piper were “so obviously autobiographical that Charles Fraser must have been recognized in them from one end of Victoria to the other.”

Tasma is a lovely writer, Jane Austen-ish (dare I say it) in her elegant writing and sly wit. You know I don’t read more short stories than I can help, but she is completely at ease with the form, unlike Vance Palmer (here), say, whose struggles with both getting underway and bringing the thing to a neat conclusion are ill-concealed. I enjoyed every one of these stories, not just because their endings were difficult to anticipate and often amusing, but for their descriptions of lovely Hobart Town, Melbourne’s dirty smelly lanes, crowded Parisian streets, and wide open Australian bush.

In What an Artist Discovered in Tasmania, a young man wishing to discover the ‘perfect’ model of an evil face, leaves his sister behind in London to travel to the end of the world. ‘”Where’s that?” cried Polly’:

Kind Tasmanians – whose blossom-garlanded isle is the original Eden of the Anthropophagi; whose aromatous breezes greet the pallid stranger, and efface from his recollection the haunting odours of Yarra bank noisomeness – do not stigmatise Polly as an imbecile for her ignorance.

In another, The Rubria Ghost, the 80 yo owner of Rubria Station brings home a much younger bride:

I think the most terrible thing connected with [the groom] was the pale reflection of passion that flickered in his dulled eyes every time they rested on his wife…. And, notwithstanding, she appeared to cherish him!

The ‘ghost’ which appears to the bride in the moonlight in the path through the Murray pines (sheoaks?) is her former lover, begging her to run away with him. But this is a tale with an anti-moral. She hesitates. The old man dies. She inherits.

So for anyone who is outraged upon hearing that Emily married the ghost, and that she and he are now in the springtime of their delight, I will offer this pale reflection of a moral: Who can forsee the end? Let us hope he will beat her.

Twenty years ago I was working in a largish fleet and a new driver was employed who quickly earned the sobriquet ‘Life of Brian’. Mr and Mrs Brian had allowed a temporarily homeless mate to stay; Brian of course was often away driving; inevitably, the mate ran away with the wife; and Brian, understandably, couldn’t stop telling us about it. In How a claim was Nearly Jumped in Gum-Tree Gully, a Lawson-esque tale of two mates clearing scrub in rough country – think Castlemaine, Vic – mate two realises before it is too late, that he is falling for mate one’s new wife. It’s a lovingly described story, both of the mates’ relationship and of the bush they are working in, the huge gums along the creek bed of Gum-Tree Gully.

Tasma’s theme is always, it seems, aspects of love, and surprisingly, with little consciousness of class or class differences. If I may be allowed to describe just one more story, the only one with a totally ‘European’ setting, in His Modern Godiva an artist is searching for a model with just the right amount of experience for an illustration of Hester, the heroine of A Scarlet Letter:

True, he could find in the Quartier Latin many grisettes of the type of the heroines in Murger’s Vie de Boheme  … [but] their experiences were too frequent and free to leave upon their faces such a stamp as he could imagine the Puritan maid-mother might have worn.

The artist eventually finds his model and over a series of sittings forms the desire to portray her as Lady Godiva.

It still remained, however, to make Freda hear reason, which is also a phrase that may be variously interpreted. How it came about neither was exactly aware; but before the dress – or undress – rehearsals for the pose were at an end, Edgar’s model had become his betrothed wife.

The picture is a success, but in being so, was also an advertisement for his wife’s charms, and Edgar becomes jealous. How it ends, I advise you to read and see.

 

Tasma, A Sydney Sovereign, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1993

Letty Fox: Her Luck, Christina Stead

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First edition cover

Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) seems at the beginning as if it is to be an account of the sexual adventures of a young woman in New York in the years leading up to and including the Second World War. I put up the opening page (here) last year for Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead Week. It begins

One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening. In general, things were bad with me; I was in low water financially and had nothing but married men as companions…

This paragraph goes on for more than a page, and the whole book for 500pp, in a sustained tour de force of brilliant writing. But the story does not go on from this opening, rather Letty Fox takes us back, takes us through her upbringing, and her disjointed family, that has led her to being this person.

We have discussed elsewhere in ‘Christina Stead Week’ that Stead uses a writing technique we might call ‘stream of speech’. During the early 1930s Stead and her husband Bill Blake were members of the artistic community around Sylvia Beach and her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., the publishers a decade earlier of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which made extensive use of stream of consciousness, where the ‘action’ of the novel is carried forward by the reader following what the protagonists are thinking from moment to moment – and of course, they are often ‘off with the fairies’. So it is with Stead, except that she uses speech – or sometimes letters as a speech substitute – non-stop for pages at a time. And of course, as this is a first person narrative, even when Letty is not speaking or being spoken to she is speaking directly to us, so that the novel is basically 500pp of direct speech.

Letty as a girl is both precocious and naive. Her 25 yo self who is the book’s author is content to leave most of the exposition to the Letty being discussed so that Letty, who at a very early age discovers from the examples of her extended family that the best thing for a woman is to marry early, divorce, obtain alimony, repeat as often as required for comfortable living, tells us frankly what her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are doing in this regard and how she plans to do it better, and of course at the same time lets us see both how much and how little she really understands.

I wondered if another influence that Stead picked up in Paris might not be existentialism. Letty’s mother Mathilde was a would-be actress whom Letty thinks strikes poses rather than expresses ‘real’ feelings, what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’:

Even when she raised her hands to her ears and cried out, the attitude and pang were perfect; now she had no doubt of herself. In this role, written for her many centuries before, she felt at ease …

When … Mathilde was not worshipping her baby-in-arms, or portraying a female defending her young, or walking up and down with the child in her arms, representing to herself an unhappy and loveless woman, she was sitting in a chair … thinking distrustfully of their future.

The same theme comes up later when a woman admires Letty’s poise, though Letty is more self-aware than her mother:

“Mrs Headlong, I have had really, no experiences, but those I have told you.”

She started, “It’s impossible! Not the way you talk! You seem so very much the modern, sophisticated -” she halted.

I took up, “The overdone young woman, the girl about town? I do; but that’s play acting. My mother was an actress once, don’t forget… I acted little girl, I acted young girl, and now I act knowing girl.”

I suppose I must tell you a little of the substance of the novel, though the great joy is to follow Stead’s writing, or Letty’s speech which is the same thing, as Letty lurches into young womanhood.

Letty’s father Solander, is some sort of merchant banker – much in the same way as Bill Blake – who wooed Mathilde by being so often in her presence that she felt unable to resist him, but after the births of Letty and her younger sister Jacky he starts living separately, a fact which Mathilde struggles to acknowledge, denying for years the existence of ‘the other woman’, Persia.

The matriarch of Mathilde’s family is Grandma Morgan who owns a number of private hotels in rural locations around the USA, but principally Green Acres, the home to which all members of the family routinely return.

For a number of years, while Sol and Mathilde attempt to overcome their differences, Letty and Jacky live partially with their Uncle Hogg (separated from Mathilde’s sister) and cousins on a family-owned farm. Perce Hogg’s housekeeper is his sister, ‘Mrs Dr Goodsir’ after the doctor who had got her pregnant and refused to marry her. Mathilde’s younger brother Phillip is also sometimes in the picture, constantly sleeping with and sometimes marrying young women. At one time later on, both Hogg and Phillip are in jail for refusing, or being unable, to pay alimony. The divorce laws are ferociously complicated, with divorces and second marriages being both legal and illegal at the same time in different states.

Grandma Morgan, herself not averse to romance, with an ex-husband she permits to sleep round the back in the stables, has a beautiful younger daughter, Phyllis who during Letty’s adolescence, must be introduced into the marriage market at the maximum price. Sol’s work takes him to London and then to Amsterdam. Mathilde and the girls follow, ending up in Paris, and Grandma Morgan brings Phyllis to join them there. With a friend, Phyllis makes her way as a chorus girl around Europe until finally the family has to rescue her from Egypt, before she is completely unsaleable. Phyllis returns to the USA and pops up occasionally thereafter divorcing and remarrying.

The last part of the family is Sol’s mother, Grandma Fox, a decrepit and dependent old woman who must also deny Persia, though sometimes living with her and Sol, in order to remain friends with Mathilde (the only person in the story who does not wish for remarriage despite the urgings of her family) and the girls.

Back in the USA aged 15 or 16 Letty is determined to ‘discover’ boys and at the new year’s eve party at Green Acres she does, later telling Grandma Fox, who hadn’t been invited, that she had danced with ‘eleven boys’ and got drunk.

… I was doing the Big Apple. Errol was my partner nearly all the evening, although I danced with a couple of other boys I’d just met, and there were a couple of old guys about forty or fifty tried to make me, and I danced with a couple just to kid them, but I wasn’t really having any; no grey hairs in my beer, I said to myself and I said it to them, too, not quite that, but pretty much that. They got it anyway … Well, we went out and we walked up and down … and we looked in every corner – well, frankly, for a place to neck – and we couldn’t find one place. Everywhere we went there were a couple of kids necking, and even more than necking. Gee, much more. And kids wasn’t always the appropriate word. Finally, we had to sit in a corner of a storeroom right behind the kitchen, where there were already three other couples.

But in the end she “was still as mother delivered me into the world, though how I can’t say.”

When Grandmother Fox dies, she leaves her savings, $5,000, to be divided between Letty and Jacky, and Letty spends much of the next few years both begging for portions of this from her father as she runs up bills, on Grandma Morgan’s accounts, for clothes appropriate to the attracting of boys, and holding it out as a bargaining chip in her negotiations with suitors.

Letty does well at school and is a member of a communist youth organisation where she meets Clays, an aristocratic, impecunious (and married) 30 yo Englishman. She determines to win him and does and gets the permission of her family to marry when she turns 17. They manage to spend a night together but laughably, Letty remains a virgin and Clays goes off to the war in Spain as a journalist before he can finalise his divorce. It’s another six months before Letty spends the summer with a friend of Clays whom she does not particularly like, gets pregnant; he pays for the divorce which Sol organises, and then chases her, and eventually her family, to be repaid out of the ‘inheritance’.

By this time, college seems to Letty to be peopled by “demi-virgins and pimpled youths” and she drops out, taking a secretarial job in the fashion industry, and chasing after men. To be honest, this girl-about-town part of the novel – the last quarter – which brings us into the war years, is also the least interesting.

Letty Fox came immediately after Stead’s two best known and most autobiographical novels,  The Man Who Loved Children (1940) and For Love Alone (1945) and so is something of a departure – a Bildungsroman maybe, but not her own coming of age; and not so much a satire on marriage, as is sometimes said, as a satire on the behaviour of a particular sub-stratum of American society, the cosmopolitan, upper middle class. Of course, a novel will always contain something of the author, and perhaps Letty’s line, “It is impossible to resist the pleasure of love, once tried”, which is pretty much her motto, also represents Stead’s own experience.

Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, first published 1946. My copy Imprint Classics, 1991, with introduction by Susan Sheridan.

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead page (here) for a full overview of Stead and her work.
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters,1989 (Biography – Review)
Letty Fox: Her Luck (Excerpt)
Cotters’ England (Excerpt)
Cotters’ England (Review)