Miles Franklin’s Last Diary


Between the last two entries in The Diaries of Miles Franklin (2004) Paul Brunton writes:

If Miles Franklin kept a diary for 1954 [the year of her death], it has not survived. She made her last known diary entry, for 1 January 1954, at the back of her pocket diary for 1953.

Jill Roe, of whom Brunton writes, “All those who venture into Franklin studies are in the debt of Dr Jill Roe for her scholarship over the last two decades”, does not write about Franklin’s diaries directly in her monumental Stella Miles Franklin (2008), though she occasionally quotes from them. For the last year of Franklin’s life she must have relied on Franklin’s correspondence which she had edited and published 15 years earlier.

Now, as of March 7, we know there was a diary for 1954, known of these last 30 years but inexplicably kept secret. Julie Power writes in the Age (and no doubt in the SMH but I come from Melbourne):

Everyone believed the diary of her final year was lost until her distant relative Margaret Francis spotted it in an old suitcase. Seeing the diary with Franklin’s tiny spidery writing was ‘‘ a moment of absolute exhilaration’’ , said Ms Francis, who lives in Wagga Wagga.

She glimpsed the diary 30 years ago, and had kept a promise to keep its existence a secret, hoping that someone had put it somewhere safe.

After finding it three years ago, Ms Francis – who has dedicated much of her life to writing three volumes detailing the extended Franklin family’s rise from illiterate convicts and settlers to the educated squatocracy – would get up at five in the morning to read and transcribe the entries.

By the beginning of 1954 Miles was 74 years old and presumably knew she was getting near the end. However, her first entry for the year was cheerful enough: “Awaked to a grey day. Must have had quite 7 hrs sleep!!! so I felt very well. Left at 10.45 for Killara & walked from station to 36 Springdale Rd [maybe 500m]” and there follows an account of a family gathering for dinner, “Beautifully roasted turkey & vegs & 4 sweets. Nuts & chocolates”.

Throughout 1954 Miles was mostly querulous, as might be expected. Wrote to friends “I can’t complain” but did. Continued her work in the garden, and with the Fellowship of Australian Writers; and maintained friendships with fellow writers Jean Devanny, Katharine Susannah Prichard (and KSP’s son Ric Throssell) and Dymphna Cusack – maybe she was a closet socialist realist after all! I was going to write that in 1952 she prepared “a lavish lunch” in honour of Lenin’s birthday, but I see on re-rereading it was actually for her Aunt Lena.

With recognition as a writer coming so late in life – after that amazing early start was so completely lost – she was still struggling with mss right up to the end. With Cockatoos, the next in line of the Brent of Bin Bin books which Angus & Robertson had undertaken to publish; an anti-war play The Dead Must Not Return; and a book of essays arising from a lecture tour to Perth, which was eventually issued posthumously as Laughter, Not for a Cage.

In her last chapter “Shall I pull Through?” Roe writes at length on Franklin’s ambivalent attitude to sex, which underlies all her writing. Franklin told Jean Devanny in 1954 “that now sex had come to stay it was time to give it a rest” (I think she means writing about it). But she was still interested enough to read Kinsey.

In 1952 when he met Franklin for the first time at a FAW meeting young playwright Ray Mathew saw her as “an amusing figure, a kind of combination of Mrs Pankhurst and Mary Poppins”, but he grew to respect her and in a 1963 monograph – the first literary assessment of the whole Brent of Bin Bin oeuvre – ‘argued that although Cockatoos was the only one of the Brent books likely to survive in its own right … the series was a masterpiece’, and defended Miles’ method of ‘possuming’ and ‘yarning’. But he also discusses Franklin’s ‘sexual confusion’ which “may either irritate or amuse the reader, but it does force the author into extraordinary studies of women desiring but incapable of consummation which are subtle and unique in Australian writing.”

As the end approached Franklin dictated a letter to Vance Palmer which begins, “Dear Vance, I had your book ready to read when I was taken with a heart attack five weeks ago; so I have not read it but I am glad it is out & know it will be a great success.” [I can’t see what book that would be, maybe a short story collection]. She speaks of her illness and of being taken to stay with Mrs Perryman in Beecroft and adds “I do not know whether it is worth struggling to survive.” (July 23rd 1954).

Her last (published) letter is to Pixie O’Harris, Sep 3 54. “Pixie dearest dear, You little know, I perceive, by your letters, how near I still am to tumbling into the grave.” Typically, she also writes “Tell Ray Mathew not to worry about his play, I always feel worse than he does.”

She died on September 19th. The final entry in her diary, three days earlier, was ‘‘Went to Eastwood by ambulance to be X-rayed . Ordeal too much for me. Day of distress and twitching. Returned to bed’’.

This last diary has been donated to the State Library of NSW, which already has the 46 previous diaries detailing the author’s life from 1909. What Ms Francis plans to do with her three years of transcription I’m not sure, maybe add it to her family history.

photo: Louise Kennerley, the Age, 7 Mar 2018


Julie Power, Miles Franklin’s Secret Diary Discovered, The Age, Melbourne, 7 March 2018 here

Paul Brunton ed., The Diaries of Miles Franklin, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004

Jill Roe ed., My Congenials: Miles Franklin & Friends in Letters, vol 2 1939-1954, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1993

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008

see also: Miles Franklin page for a list of her works and links to reviews and other posts


Treasures from the Attic, Mirjam Pressler


This is a difficult post to write. Not because I have any problems with the Anne Frank story. I don’t. Her diary is one of the iconic works of western, and Jewish, humanism. But because, as so many works about the Holocaust continue to appear, and to be reviewed in this corner of the blogosphere, I feel that the anodyne comments I have made to date conceal rather than represent what I think about Holocaust fiction in particular and Zionism in general.

So, it is time that I made my views clear in the hope that you will then forgive me if a) you disagree with me; and b) if I no longer comment on your posts about those two subjects.

My politics after a year or so at uni, from 1969 on, were (and remain) as I have discussed before, left-wing, anarchist and anti-war. But as well, at least partly in response to a strong (loud) right-wing Zionist movement at Melbourne Uni, they quickly became pro-Palestine and anti Israeli expansionism. Today I believe the Settler movement and the support it receives from the Israeli government is indistinguishable from Apartheid.

Like many ‘liberals’ I am torn about whether the British should have plonked the post WWII Jewish refugee problem – which they and all the Europeans were more than happy to deal with ‘off-shore’ – onto the Palestinians. But it was done, and in any case Zionism has a long history, and is now as much a fact as the Viking and Norman invasions of England. My argument is not that it should be reversed but that by behaving immorally (not to mention illegally) with regards to the Palestinians the Israelis are building up a store of trouble which will surely overwhelm them some time in the future.

My problem with Holocaust literature, and fiction in particular, is firstly with Jewish exceptionalism. Yes, we white Europeans are still horrified to discover what we were capable of in Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust is still within living memory. Anne Frank, if she had survived, would be two years younger than my healthy and active mother. But, while the blame for the Holocaust might lie with the Germans  – though they had plenty of willing collaborators throughout Europe who have not been so willing to own their share – Genocide is a world problem, the fallback position of demagogues in every country, however they use weasel words to disguise their intent.

I could mention Turkish Armenians in 1915, Rawanda in 1994, the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the shocking decline in the Indigenous population of Australia in the first century of white settlement. Arundhati Roy in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), which is written around Hindu persecution of Muslims, writes, aptly for my argument:

… there’s that other business that’s become pretty big these days. People – communities, castes, races and even countries – carry their tragic histories and their misfortunes around like trophies, or like stock, to be bought and sold on the open market. [p.195]

The point is not that Germans, or Turks or Serbs or Hutu or Hindu nationalists are bad, but that ordinary people everywhere are easily led, can be persuaded to kill, to look the other way, to fail to prevent others from killing in their name.

So my points about Holocaust fiction are that:

The Holocaust is not an argument in favour of current Israeli government policy towards Palestine – and may even be an argument against it.

More peoples than just the Jews have been the subject of systematic attempts at elimination.

Fictions about ‘good’ Germans, as To Kill a Mockingbird is about a ‘good’ white man in the South, are designed to make us feel better about being ‘upper’ – oh no, we wouldn’t behave like those Germans, those Vichy French, we would all be abolitionists or in the Resistance. The truth is the evidence suggests otherwise.

We do not need ‘historical’ fiction to remind us of the Holocaust. I write this and yet I wonder if it is true. Certainly we do not want the Holocaust used gratuitously as the background for otherwise unremarkable stories, but on the other hand survivors and their descendants are still dealing with the Holocaust every day. You only have to read Lily Brett’s Lola Bensky for this to be clear. Two recent posts – Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Belladonna by Daša Drndić (here) about failure to acknowledge guilt; and Emma at Book Around the Corner’s account of listening to and meeting F-H Désérable, the very young author of Un Certain M. Piekielny (here), put the opposite case.

“As F-H Désérable pointed out, it is only thanks to literature that we were all in this room, talking about people who died during WWII and thus acknowledging their existence and their horrible untimely death. I think that’s why dictators are often afraid of books.”

Are you still with me? I had better get to the book at hand, which I enjoyed but which I must warn you I listened to a few days ago and must review from imperfect memory. Treasures from the Attic (2012) came about when the wife of Anne Frank’s cousin decided to go through all the letters and memorabilia accumulated in the attic of the home in Basel, Switzerland which one branch of the Frank family had moved to, from Munich, in the 1930s.

Mirjam Pressler was selected by the family to write up the letters because she had previously edited the definitive (German) version of Anne Frank’s Diary. This is a story in itself. Anne apparently intended her diary to be published and from her first ‘raw’ version wrote a second, more polished version which differed in a number of respects from the first. Anne’s father Otto on coming into possession of the diaries after his release from Auschwitz, combined the two to produce the version first published and I think he may also have done the first translation from Anne’s Dutch to his native German.

The story – and it is fascinating to have so much background come to light on such an iconic figure – is in three parts, telling the lives of three generations of Anne Frank’s family:

Alice, Anne’s grandmother, married to Michael Frank

Helene (Leni) Elias, Alice’s daughter and younger sister of Robert, Otto and Hector Frank.

Buddy Elias, Leni’s son and Anne’s cousin who had played with her when she was 9, who continued to correspond with her until the progress of the war made that impossible, and who gradually became the principal advocate of Anne Frank’s Diary as Otto grew older.

In the early part of the twentieth century Michael Frank had become a prosperous merchant banker in Munich with his three sons serving in the German army during WWI. Even during the hyper-inflation of the 1920s I think the family did ok, but with the rise of Nazism it was felt prudent to emigrate. Robert became an art dealer in London; Otto, the head of the family business after his father’s death, moved the bank to Amsterdam; Hector never settled down but eventually spent the war attached to the Elias’s in Basel.

Leni and her husband Eric(?) moved to Basel where Eric was the director of a German firm, but increasingly the Elias family’s income came from Leni’s business buying and selling the unwanted possessions of Jews fleeing Europe. They were joined in Basel by Alice and by Leni’s mother in law.

Pressler tells these stories, which are interesting in themselves, without ever losing her focus on Anne. Holland, despite declaring its neutrality on the outbreak of war, was occupied by the Germans in May 1940. Otto made increasingly desperate pleas to be allowed to emigrate, to the US, to England, to Cuba, but they were all refused. And as is well known, eventually went in to hiding with his family in the ‘secret annexe’.  By the end of the war 70% of the Jewish population of Holland had been deported and murdered (wiki).

Betrayed and shipped to Auschwitz, of the Otto Franks only Otto survived. On his release he was returned to Holland, although even there his citizenship was uncertain. His letters to Leni tell of Anne and her older sister Margot being taken away and of Anne’s mother dying of illness and starvation in the last few weeks before liberation.

Eventually the family is given a heart-rending account of the girls dying together in Bergen-Belsen by the last women to be with them.

Leni’s and then Buddy’s story pick up Otto’s life after the war and the rise and rise of Anne Frank’s Diary, the book, the play, the movie.


Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic, Penguin, 2012 (No English translator acknowledged). Audio version BrillianceAudio, read by Sherry Adams Foster


Carpentaria, Alexis Wright


Alexis Wright (1950- ) is a Waanyi woman of the “southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria”. For non-Australians the Gulf of Carpentaria is the big body of water in the north of Australia – between the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula – and the Gulf country is the land to its immediate south: largely unpopulated, flat, tropical, seasonal rivers, mud flats and mangroves.

The Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria (2006) made Wright’s reputation as a writer, but it is often mentioned that this is her second novel and I had to do some searching to find her first: Plains of Promise (UQP, 1997). She has also written some notable works of non-fiction, most recently her genre-busting (and large!) study of Tracker Tilmouth, Tracker (Giramondo, 2017).

Now I have to make an admission. I first listened to Carpentaria some years ago and intensely disliked it. Maybe I conflated Alexis Wright with Alex Miller but anyway I thought this was a white guy book, patronising and worst of all, magic realism. Since then I have read real magic realism from South America, not the fashionable, western wannabe stuff; sub-Saharan African spiritual realism; and above all, have made some inroads into the considerable body of Australian Indigenous Lit. with which we are now blessed, but particularly Kim Scott’s Benang (1999). So second time round I had a context for understanding what I was reading and of course found it marvellous.

The novel is set in the coastal township of Desperance, Qld which may be based on aspects of Burketown or Karumba. I wondered how personally Indigenous people in these towns took Wright’s depictions of them and their disputes, but Wright herself grew up in Cloncurry, 400 km south, not that there are any towns in between, so I guess her depictions are generic rather than particular.

We follow the lives of town elder Normal Phantom, his wife Angel Day and their son Will. Not linearly but swirling backwards and forwards in oral story telling fashion – much enhanced by the choice of Noongar actor Isaac Drandich to do the reading – to pick up aspects of the story that might have earlier been glossed over, as we slowly build up to the confrontation between Indigenous forces supporting Will Phantom and the local Big Miner, and the subsequent fall-out.

Indigenous Lit. has an element of looking at white middle class life from ‘underneath’ – Marie Munkara’s sardonic depictions of Darwin bureaucrats for  example – which gives a new aspect to our view of ourselves in general and to the myths of the Australian bushman in particular. Not just the casual, and not so casual, violence, but the self-interested decision making. Terra Nullius has an entirely new meaning when seen from the point of view of the people of whom the Land was supposedly Empty.

But Indigenous Lit. also has elements which are entirely its own. Country which lives. Fauna seemingly sentient and effective. Carpentaria begins:

The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously – if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of tears ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Norm Phantom and Angel Day, not able to live in the township proper, build themselves a ‘castle’ in the pricklebush, outside the town limits, from scraps salvaged at the tip; raise a family of three boys, Will is the third, three girls and one more boy, Kevin, intelligent, lively, inquisitive, damaged in a mine accident and murdered by young white men playing out KKK fantasies. Norm is at odds with a rival faction led by old Joseph Midnight, from different country and so they end up westside mob, Norm’s lot, and eastside mob, on opposite sides of the town.

We find Norm older, Angel Day gone off with the preacher Mozzie Fishman who leads a convoy of followers in battered cars, his two older boys in secure employment with the mine, Will unemployed with a reputation for rebellion – a reputation whose slow unfolding is the core of the novel – estranged from his father, and as we discover eventually, partnered with Hope, old Midnight’s granddaughter and with a son, Bala. The daughters, abandoned by their men, home again, caring for Kevin.

An old man appears from the sea, walking in over the mud flats, amnesiac, given the name Elias Smith, is befriended by Norm and spends long days with him, out on the Gulf, fishing. When trouble comes he takes Hope and Bala in his dinghy, disappears into the mist. Reappears dead, sitting up in his boat with bags of ocean fish, floating in an inland lagoon. Discovered by Will and Fishman.

White men occupy the peripheries of the story, the policeman, Truthfull, growing fat, sleeping with Norm’s daughter, the only way to get him out of the house; Stan Bruiser, former snake oil salesman made good, now cattleman and town mayor: “If you can’t use it, eat it, or fuck it, it’s no use to you… everyone in town knew how he bragged about how he had chased every Aboriginal woman in town at various times until he ran them into the ground and raped them.” That this is sayable, writeable, over and over, not just by Wright, but by writers black and white, from Rosa Praed onwards is an indictment of the redneck North, of Queensland, of Australia. Of all of us.

But the real villain is Gurfurrit, the mining company, fiercely, murderously protective of its rights. And the most telling part of the story is the light that comes into the men’s eyes when they realise that they have taken on the mining company and won. One win after two centuries of defeats.

The most important part of this book is the writing, which is outstanding, but it also a confronting, unmissable story of love and eco-terrorism and life in the far north.


Alexis Wright, Carpentaria, Giramondo, Sydney, 2006. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2006, read by Isaac Drandich. 520pp/19.16 hours

see also:
Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
my review of Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s Indigenous Reading list (here)

AWW Gen 1, Treasure Trove

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week 15-21 Jan. 2018


If this is Friday then I must have been to a copper mine north of Meekatharra, though by the time you’re reading this it’ll be Saturday and I’ll have got back to Perth, hooked up two loaded trailers and be on my way to Kalgoorlie.

The sign above is from my Wednesday delivery, a mine on the edge of the Nularbor, out towards Balladonia. In Kim Scott’s Benang, his great grandfather Sandy One Mason is a teamster delivering supplies out of Esperance to amongst other places, Balladonia which I guess was then a sheep station (it’s now a roadhouse 180 km from the nearest town), based on his wife, Fanny’s (Benang) knowledge of the country.

In all this driving I am drowning in wordy books, reading when I get the chance Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and listening to Canterbury Tales, Vanity Fair, and over the last couple of days, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, which will be my next review.

But a letter this morning from my cousin Kay, a librarian in Bendigo who last got a mention three years ago, has alerted me to a story in the Age about a ‘treasure trove’ of nineteenth century Australian fiction which has only recently come to light with the digitisation of old newspapers.

Linda Morris writes: “When Katherine Bode, an associate professor at the Australian National University, set out to answer this question, she had only a vague sense that some fiction was printed in Australian newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.” (!)

“The more than 21,000 forgotten novels, novellas and short stories she has uncovered indicate that early newspapers published fiction constantly, from Australia and all over the world, and everyone was reading it.

“The collection includes seven rediscovered titles from well-known writer Catherine Martin, author of the acclaimed 1890 novel The Australian Girl [my review].

“Martin was a feminist writer of her time but her stories were published anonymously or under a pseudonym and had therefore been lost to literary history until now, according to Dr Bode.

“You can visit the project and search, read, correct, add or export the works by visiting To Be Continued – The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database at

I’ll do that, just as soon as I get to spend a day at home. Meanwhile, one more pic …

Yes I know, it’s filthy. You wash your truck, it rains.


Linda Morris, Australian National University Researchers recover lost treasure trove, the Age, Melbourne, 1 Mar 2018 here

Vanity Fair, Thackeray


William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was born in India while his father was employed by the East India Company, was shipped back to England to start school on his father’s death in 1815, and during a short stopover at St Helena had the ex-Emperor Napoleon pointed out to him (wiki).

During his lifetime he was apparently second only to Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in the ranks of great Victorian novelists, though really only Vanity Fair (1847-48) of all his works has endured. He regarded Dickens as a ‘sentimentalist’ and himself as a ‘realist’ though in fact he made his reputation as a satirist, and his authorial interpolations in this novel hark back to novelists of the previous century like Fielding (here).

I have never studied this period, between Jane Austen (who died in 1817) and the early Australians who began writing novels in the 1850s and 60s (here), so was keen to begin filling in the gap, though I have still to write anything about Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott who remained influential (with guy writers anyway) throughout the nineteenth century.

Vanity Fair, all 18 31 hours worth! playing on the truck speakers as I drive, is to some extent Historical Fiction, in that the events it describes take place three to four decades before it was written. And in fact it overlaps by a decade the last years of Jane Austen’s fiction. This provides considerable interest as both authors discuss the lives of the wealthy middle class, although from radically different angles. Austen from the point of view of the landed gentry interacting with upwardly mobile naval officers and merchants, Uncle Gardiner in particular; and Thackeray from the point of view of stockbrokers and entrepreneurs only one or two generations removed from the slums, whom he satirises for aspiring to gentility, and their sons in Wellington’s army or the East India Company.

In this novel without a hero the central character is Becky Sharp of whom I have often heard and never before met. We first see Becky on her last day at Miss Pinkerton’s where she had been a tutor and her late father before her, drawing master. She is going with her friend, final year pupil Amelia (Emmy) Sedley for a couple of week’s holiday before commencing as a governess with Sir Pitt Crawley.

I could take the next 800 words and still not give you a lucid summary of the plot, but here is a very brief overview. Becky’s mother had been a dancer and Becky had lived very rough indeed until accepted at Miss Pinkerton’s. She angles first for Emmy’s fat, well-off brother, Joseph, home from the East India Company, without success; goes to Queens Crawley where the dissolute Sir Pitt uses her as a secretary and his young daughters are ignored; looks for a while like she might become companion to Sir Pitt’s wealthy sister; is found to be secretly married to Rawdon, a captain in the guards and Sir Pitt’s younger son; the aunt disinherits Rawdon.

Meanwhile Emmy is promised to her childhood sweetheart George Osborne, a lieutenant in a line regiment and is secretly loved by William Dobbin, George’s friend, a captain in the same regiment and whose fathers look down on each other in their capacities as merchants and stockbrokers.

Emmy’s father is bankrupted; George is forbidden to marry her; but with the connivance of Becky and William does anyway; and is disinherited. They all go down to Brighton in Jos’s carriage. Napoleon escapes, war breaks out, and in May-June 1815, in the days before Waterloo, they make their various ways to Brussells. There’s lots and lots more, centred around Becky and Rawdon living on Becky’s wits and Rawdon’s card playing, living well on nothing per year as Thackeray puts it, and describes in some detail as many novelists don’t what misery this causes amongst the lower classes who provide the services and don’t get paid.

There must be a century and half of scholarship around Vanity Fair on which I have chosen not to draw, so these are just my own impressions. I see the ‘Fair’ of the title as reflecting not what we might think first – a field full of merry-go-rounds and amusements – but more a marketplace, as in a horse fair. Thackeray refers repeatedly to ‘Vanity Fair’ in the text as though it were conceptually at least a place, a place where the aspiring middle classes trade furiously for advantage, selling their sons, their daughters, their honour.

The final question I wish to consider is, Is Becky Sharp an early Independent Woman? She certainly has an independent spirit, was taught early by her parents how to deal with (the non-payment of) creditors; cheerfully as a young woman seeks employment – and refuses to do one scintilla more than that for which she has been contracted. She approaches the idea of marriage with the repulsive Jos Sedley calculatingly and without sentiment. It comes as a surprise then to find her married almost without explanation to Rawdon Crawley, though she deals with his predictable disinheritance with characteristic cheerfulness. Thackeray discusses the disadvantages of not having a mama to do her marriage-dealing for her, which reminds me of early Australian author Catherine Martin:

We sometimes forget that the freedom of choice in marriage which is permitted to women of the Anglo-Saxon race has the effect of making some of them regard the institution on cool business principles. It is an ‘arrangement’ made by themselves instead of by the mothers, as in France. [An Australian Girl (1890)]

Becky is cold-blooded in her self-promotion, and in her mothering, and Rawdon is happy to do what he is told. Thackeray makes it clear in his oft-declared imperfect understanding of women that he doesn’t like her particularly, especially in comparison to the milksop Emmy. He has Becky solicit and receive gifts from her husband’s superior officers, and if she doesn’t actually go to bed with them that is probably more reflective of the morals of Thackeray’s mid-Victorian period readers than of Becky’s own. If she were a Rosa Praed heroine she would have ditched Rawdon by the half-way mark and married into money and a title.


William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, first published in Punch over 19 monthly episodes, London, 1847-48. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by John Castle, 2008

Sun. With about three hours of the book left to go I am having an unexpected couple of days off. If I happen on any surprises between now and posting on Tues morning, I will let you know.

Mon night. The big surprise was to see that the novel takes not 18 but 31 hours. After a long day’s work I still have “three hours” to go, Dobbin has grey hair and still pines after Amelia, Jos has grown prosperous in India, and Becky and Rawdon … well for those of you, like me, who haven’t seen the TV series, that would involve spoilers.


Yesterday (Sunday)I had to drop off granddaughter and friend at the movies (Black Panther) and came home via Crow Books. A couple of you, Lisa Hill and Kate W probably, have spoken of the cheering properties of book-buying, not that I need cheering, but I was positively elated to come across this near perfect 1958 hard back edition of The Pea Pickers for just TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS. More so as the boring Patrick White next to it, which I already own, was $55. As you can see I picked up a few others which were on my list (and a couple which weren’t).


Troubled Bones, Jeri Westerson


Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and in particular, his Canterbury Tales, marks the transition in English Literature from Latin to English. Or so I always thought. But this is what wikipedia has to say:

It has been suggested that the greatest contribution of The Canterbury Tales to English literature was the popularisation of the English vernacular in mainstream literature, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer’s time, and several of Chaucer’s contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, the Pearl Poet, and Julian of Norwich—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was seminal in this evolution of literary preference.

I’ve owned Langland’s Piers Plowman since my student days but I think I’d rate it as even more difficult to take in than Finnegan’s Wake.

Chaucer was a well-off bureaucrat, under the protection of the first Duke of Lancaster, who was third son of Edward III and acted as regent during the minority of his nephew, Richard II (1367-1400), King of England (1377-1399).

I’ve been listening to The Canterbury Tales as I work – one prologue, one tale then listen to something else. A couple of posts ago I was making my way backwards from Jane Austen (here). Well I guess this is as far as I go unless someone records Beowulf. Anyway, one of the something elses I listened to was a work of ‘Medieval Noir’ by American woman, Jeri Westerson, one of a series apparently, featuring fourteenth century private eye and disgraced knight, Crispin Guest and starring, in Troubled Bones at least – Geoffrey Chaucer.

The plot, as a best I can remember a few days later, is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who makes a great deal of money from pilgrims coming to worship at the tomb of Thomas à Beckett, gives Guest and his offsider/apprentice 13 year old Jake the job of guarding the saint’s bones which he says he thinks will be stolen by Lollards (early Protestants).

On arriving at his hotel in Canterbury Guest finds a group of pilgrims, including Chaucer whom he hasn’t seen for some years when they were both in the service of Lancaster. The pilgrims who are of course the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales, include the Wife of Bath, the Franklin, the Pardoner, the Summoner etc.

On the first night the Prioress is murdered in the Cathedral while Guest sleeps nearby ‘guarding’ à Beckett’s tomb, and then when he goes to investigate the screams of the Prioress’s attendant, the bones go missing. Do we have one crime or two? What is causing unrest amongst the cathedral’s monks? Is the monk-treasurer on the take? Chaucer, who is clearly a Lollard appears to be involved. The Pardoner and the Summoner are up to something, are they involved in the murder, in the theft of the bones? (A Pardoner appears to be an intermediary in the sale of indulgences by the Church, something about which Martin Luther got very agitated a century later.) The Knight and the Prioress had previously been involved in a legal dispute over land, a dispute in which Chaucer had given evidence. The Knight is still angry.

And so we go on with leads and counter-leads. It’s an interesting and well-written work and, except for the idea of a private investigator, probably quite well done in terms of historical fiction. Guest inevitably gets his rocks off with Alison, the Wife of Bath (whom I think is younger in Troubled Bones than she is in the Tales). Jake’s head pops up at all the wrong times and I think the author occasionally forgets he is only 13. But that is just a minor quibble. Give it a try.

The version of The Canterbury Tales I have been listening to, from Brilliance Audio Classic Collection read by David Butler (2002) is straightforward and enjoyable, clearly a modern translation (the table below is extracted from Wikipedia), although it doesn’t say so anywhere on the cover, however not so modernised that you lose all sense of the original, and consists of eight tales and their prologues.

Original Text Modern Translation
This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, This friar boasts that he knows hell,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder; And God knows that it is little wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle For, by God, you have ofttimes heard tell
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle How a friar was taken to hell


Jeri Westerson, Troubled Bones, 2011. Out of print (self-published?). Audio and ebook versions available here

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1387?. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by David Butler, 2002

After, Nikki Gemmell


Nikki Gemmell is an important Australian author. A true statement but I feel the tugging of “, I think”. I’m not sure that the literary world in general agrees with me, though her wikipedia entry, maybe written by a fan, says:

In France she has been described as a “female Jack Kerouac”. In 2007, the French literary magazine Lire included her in a list of what it called the fifty most important writers in the world – those it believed would have a significant influence on the literature of the 21st century.

Here, in Oz, her uncompromising inner views of women attempting to make a path for themselves in a hostile world and the staccato poetry of her language are no match for say the boyish charms of her contemporary, the people’s favourite Tim Winton.

Gemmell’s early novels are, in order, Shiver (1997), Cleave – originally published as Alice Springs (1998), Love Song (2002) and The Bride Stripped Bare (2003). I get the impression that she is gradually stripping away all extraneous action, increasingly focusing her attention inwards on women finding their way in a sexual world, and experimenting as she goes with the language to express that. [That is a para from my earlier review of Love Song (here) – not quoting, just reusing].

Her subsequent novels have been The Book of Rapture (2009), With My Body (2011), I Take You (2013) and there have been a number of works of non-fiction. Which brings us to After (2017) a memoir written in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide.

In the fraught world of euthanasia, I say this: if the perpetrator’s family cannot, by law, be involved in the wishes of the person wanting to die, then you’re condemning that person to a horrendously bleak and lonely death.

We begin in the morgue, in an ante-room, Nikki and her brother Paul, the older brother Andrew  choosing to be absent, remaining absent throughout, about to ‘identify’ their mother’s body – a redundant ritual now you’d say, though Gemmell doesn’t – the police with them supportive but also closely watchful, alert for signs, for evidence, that a crime may have been committed, that the obvious suicide, by an overdose of pills in the comfort of her lounge room, may have been ‘assisted’.

This is close up and personal, Nikki’s grief is visceral, its depth and immediacy expressed in broken sentences. But. Gemmell is a writer, a producer of literary output. So this is written from the heart, yes, but then rewritten and rewritten, packaged by a major publisher and presented to us to consume. Polished in its unpolishedness you might say. A writer must always say ‘look at how well I suffer’, her greatness being in making us forget that we are not looking at suffering but at a, at her, depiction of suffering.

The sense of abandonment. Here. In this place. The obscenity of that. The shell of our mother, the skin on her face already sinking into the hollows of her skull. Giving her that distinct, distancing, mask of death. It is not Elayn but an eviscerating absence more skull than life. It is our mother. It is not.

Gemmell’s mother found marriage too constricting, had left Bob her worker husband of twenty years forty years earlier, taken Nikki aged then 10, “the court ordered the boys to stay with their father”, left Wollongong for life in the big smoke, changed her name from the prosaic Elaine, “set about turning herself into who she really wanted to be”.

It is not clear that who she really wanted to be was a mother, and Nikki and Elayn bang heads for eight years until Nikki manages to leave home.

When I was young Elayn would fling, ‘No one likes you.’ When I craved prettiness, ‘You’re so ugly.’ When I didn’t measure up in terms of a daughter, ‘Why can’t you be like …  She wanted them but had me, her swotty clod of a thing. That could write.

Elayn hated Bob all the rest of her life and resented that Nikki didn’t. Elayn had been a model, there are photos of her throughout the book, and Nikki isn’t, though elocution lessons did get her into the national broadcaster. Elayn works and buys an old three bedroom flat in Sydney’s eastern, beachside suburbs and reinvents herself as a glamorous theatre goer. Years later Nikki is shocked to find that the flat is a tip inside, all her mother’s declining strength having been expended on external appearances.

Nikki marries, lives in London, has four children, exchanges brief visits with her mother, finally comes home, purchases a house in a neighbouring suburb and spends the final five years still banging heads but making she thinks, some progress. The last of those years is spent by Elayn in crippling pain after a botched operation, and you could hardly blame her for considering euthanasia. But without discussion or warning? In the week of her oldest and loved grandson’s Year 12 exams!

Gemmell is a weekly columnist in the Australian. She must have written something, her bewilderment at her mother’s choice. A chapter is devoted to readers’ responses. I skim it. Dr Philip Nitshke of Exit International tweets:

Nikki, it was empowerment! – your mother joined, #euthanasia PP Handbook, asked Exit forum Qs and imported.

So, Elayn’s death had been planned and kept secret for months. Gemma meets and becomes friends with a doctor who has suffered chronic pain and who with the full support of her children is planning to end her life in Switzerland where it is legal. Becomes more understanding of the problems of chronic pain and her own lack of awareness of her mother’s opioid drug addiction.

Writing this book is therapy, “Six months since the writing was begun, the maelstrom of bewilderment that was this book. Now, finally, stilled.” It’s an interesting work, but not her best. The edgy young woman of the earlier works is now a suburban mum and a Murdoch hack finding some peace in restoring her children’s valued porcelain pieces, smashed in a storm at around the time of her mother’s death, in line with the Japanese philosophy Kintsugi, to embrace the repair of an object as an aspect of its history, using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, which has acted as a metaphor throughout the work.

I checked the AWW Challenge site (here) and found only eight reviews for works by Gemmell – mine of Love Song not there so I’ll have to upset the statistics again (!) and include a back entry – which rather proves my case that she doesn’t receive much attention.


Nikki Gemmell, After, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2017

see also: My review of Love Song here