Eve Langley (1904-1974) wrote two novels covering the painful search of her heroine, “Steve”, for love and independence in rural Victoria in the 1920s, and ten* further novels which remain unpublished.
The Pea Pickers (1942) commences in June (1924?) with two sisters 18 and 19 years old, who live with their mother Mia in an old cottage in Dandenong (then a country town 30 km southeast of Melbourne), looking for work in Gippsland (eastern Victoria):
Mia had encouraged us to wander; made restless by long hard years of gipsying through the Australian States, she found peace in urging us out to follow the echo of the aboriginal names of towns that had tempted her when she was young. And of all the provinces, Gippsland, she said, was the most tradition-haunted. (1942, p.4)
They take men’s names – “Now that we’re going to Gippsland, we said, we must put off our feminine names for ever.” – and wear men’s clothes not as a disguise, which was illegal at the time, but consciously, to participate in the life of the bushman, in the myth which, after Ward, we call the Australian Legend, and which they knew from their mother’s stories and from the writings of Lawson, in particular. Later in the novel she writes:
Some day, I shall write fully our life together, with its tragedy and comedy. But better than that, I shall write of Australia and bring lovers to her so that they shall fill the land with visionaries. (p.250)
The older sister, the narrator, takes the name “Steve” after Steve Hart of the Kelly Gang: “So I am Steve. We spoke of this new person as a long, crooked-moustached fellow who didn’t care much for women and was sure to end up living alone, a hatter, in the scrub …” (p.7) and her sister, not able to be “Jim”, her first choice, for that was a name reserved for “good old mates”, is ironically named “Blue”, for the night cart driver’s assistant.
The men they worked for, and the men and women they worked and socialized with, were mostly accepting of the girls’ purpose and never treated them other than as, albeit eccentrically dressed, women (though the same cannot be said for officialdom, and the police in particular). On the girls’ first Saturday night in the bush they were invited to the home of fellow workers: “then with that peculiar dim whirling mixture of smells, hands, smiles and defiance which dazes us when another sex enters the room” (p.23) some young men come in and “Down I fell, in love.” And throughout both novels there is this tension between Steve falling in love, firstly with Kelly Wilson, and subsequently and more importantly, with “Macca”, and her struggle to maintain her identity as an independent worker and poet in the bush.
Like Miles Franklin’s heroines Sybylla and Ignez (the Career novels and Cockatoos), Steve is often alone with young men and feels, and resists, the pressure to give in to them. After a day picnicking, Kelly exclaims, “I feel like a bottle of yeast that must soon explode.” But when they part at her gate it is “timidly and shyly, fearing even to touch each other” and Steve exalts:
There was the cold but happy ideal of the virgin in my mind, forever, a joy and a torment to me, and I laughed as we parted, saying, “We conquered … we conquered. Hands and hearts go pure to bed.” (p.31)
They work in the apple and pear packing sheds until the season is over, return home for a short visit, stroking their imaginary moustaches and entertaining their mother with their stories before taking the train north, initially to Rutherglen, looking for work pruning vines and harvesting maize and hops. “We were ready, as the picker is always, to leap out of our tailored clothes and mutilate anything in exchange for a hut and a few shillings a week.” (p.48) But, “amply feminine in our masculine clothes”, they run into trouble for their dress. The farmers won’t employ them because they are women, and a police sergeant bails them up because they are dressed as men. Steve is defiant:
You ask … are we masquerading as boys. No, we are masquerading as life. We are in search of a country … the promised land …” (p.83)
They make an abortive trip into NSW, to Gundagai and Tumut, dodging police on two more occasions, but there is no work and they are forced to return home.
They have left behind in Gippsland not just Kelly but a new mate, Jim, who writes and offers to find them work picking peas, so they take the train once again to Bairnsdale then a ferry to Metung on the Gippsland Lakes. There’s no Kelly at the station to meet them but Jim introduces them to his mate Macca, “a short, broad youth, sandy haired, with many freckles, heavy blue eyes, full lips and pigeon toes” and Steve, once again, is in love.
The girls find a hut to live in, make beds for themselves, from branches and old sacks, and, with Jim living outside in a tent, scrabble for food and for work. Throughout the course of the novel they are in tremendous poverty, living in the meanest huts, often without work, and scrounging, and sometimes stealing, food from their workmates.
Langley is probably the most lyrical writer in Australian literature and much of both The Pea Pickers and its sequel, White Topee is given up to Steve’s walks in the bush and along the shores of the Lakes and the nearby ocean, but she also has a Lawsonesque eye for a yarn, so there are detailed and often amusing descriptions of the girls and their mostly Italian workmates, in the fields and socializing on Saturday nights. But throughout, Steve is working out where she fits in bush life, that is, who she is as an Australian, and what this leaves for her love life.
Jim introduces her to the Buccaneers, a fishing family, and so begins an enduring friendship with Mrs Buccaneer, the “Black Serpent”, a sensuous, fertile, cheerful woman who provides Steve with an alternative view of how to live a happy, female life:
I had now met a woman who would mould me firmly back into the sexual mould from which I had fled, but which I secretly desired with all its concomitants, love, marriage and children. (p.109)
The girls work, moving from farm to farm picking peas and beans, Jim falls in love with Blue but is quietly and politely put in his place (Blue has a beau back home), Macca visits from time to time, the sun shines and the dust rises:
My impatient blood and my poor bewildered mind fought for the meaning of these years. There was no directness in them. No one spoke the truth to me about anything; no one save the Buccaneers, and their truth was that sex and marriage were the only real things. No, I wanted poetry, and love of the earth, I wanted morning, noon and night spent purely with the one I loved. But don’t talk to me of sex I said. I fear it. I know only that there is beauty. (p.134)
The girls wear men’s clothes throughout because that is an important part of what they are attempting to achieve, to live and work in the bush without regard to their sex. Their workmates only occasionally find this unsettling, sometimes attempting to get lucky, and one confused Afgan feels the front of Steve’s shirt to check for himself, unnecessarily, because both girls are buxom. While sometimes they will dress up to the nines, with ties and starched collars, at other times they wear whatever is to hand. Once, walking out with Macca, Steve “was wearing trousers too, like him, but with my usual touch of the ludicrous had added to the outfit a woman’s blouse and a straw school hat of ridiculous droop. A small dark girl, plump and faintly moustached, passed us with an amazed stare.” (p.134)
After a day of walking and talking of love and poetry Macca takes Steve home: “We tiptoed into the hut and lay decorously on the bed.” But she is too excited to sleep and he snores, so she kicks him out and sends him home. The next day they pledge to each other that they are husband and wife, but still she exults in her virginity and Macca, it seems, understands:
“No, Steve, my love for you is pure. I do not need to touch you. I am with you; that is enough. From other women coarse satisfaction may be obtained, but you give the uncloying cleanliness of your mental passion to me, and I am satisfied.” (p.146)
When Steve is away from Macca she longs for him but when he gets too close she pushes him away, as she pushed him out of bed, knowing that if she gives in it will be the end of her independence. Blue is her support in this, her own impending marriage always in the background and always further down the track:
She hated to see me leave her side. She was right in this, knowing full well that through my incurable sentimentality I was weaker and younger than she. With her lay sanity and peace won through a struggle with loneliness; but I fought restlessly to be with Macca… (p.166)
When the season ends, the girls move on, leaving Jim behind, Blue forcing Steve to acknowledge that they had earned themselves a “reputation” by living amongst men. Macca tells Steve he will wait for her and see her again the following spring, but she is not hopeful.
The girls take work picking hops in the Victorian Alps, around Mt Buffalo. They travel, of course, as men, “two wild-looking, stalwart young fellows with broad chests, black and gold hair and crooked, brilliant faces”, but on arriving are forced to declare, “But we’re girls” (p.186) to avoid being housed in the men’s section. There follows a hard, cold winter with little work and the girls are forced again to scavenge for food. When they seek help from the owner to shift the Italian workers who have taken over their kitchen, Steve’s statement of their case is almost a manifesto:
“You know, of course, what we are. Only as you see us, two wanderers, and women at that. We realize that going about as we do, we can only reap suspicion; yet, unbelievable as it may seem, we are good morally, and have ideals that will some day be more apparent as our generation grows older. That’s how it ought to be, and that is how it is with us.” (p.237)
Then, winter over, “big with work and healthy living, virginal and filled with the bush-genius of our race …” (p.279) they return to the Gippsland Lakes, but Macca is away in the mountains, droving cattle. The two pick peas for a while and visit and sing songs with the Italians. Blue’s wedding is nigh, but, she cries: “Steve, Steve, why have I got to leave you? What days we’ve had together as pea-pickers! I’d rather follow you than marry anyone.” “No Blue,” Steve replies, “You must go home.”” (p.317)
And so, Steve writes, “I was alone.”
White Topee (1954) finds Steve still at Metung, a year or two later (1927), and in more prosperous circumstances as the live-in secretary of a tea planter. The plot is thin and the lyrical style more intense, a prose poem to Australia, to love and to freedom. Blue is home in Dandenong, apparently still about to be married, but, later we hear she is back picking, around Mt Buffalo, and wishes Steve to “ride across the Alps” and join her.
At one level, the Steve of White Topee is an ideal Australian; she smokes and drinks and shoots, has a collection of guns, owns and rides a thoroughbred stallion, is competent at, and employed to undertake, any number of tasks, from mending fishing nets to droving cattle, and lives in idyllic circumstances between the Gippsland Lakes and the rugged bush country of the Victorian Alps. When she is chided for riding to Orbost (about 60 miles each way) she responds, “Ah… keeping up the old tradition. We Australians, you know. Never walk or drive cars when we can ride.” (p.31). But the “old” Steve remains too, reading and writing poetry and pining after Macca; and she knows that both her love and her ideal are, ultimately, unattainable:
The great, cruel continent, Australia, masterless, lay outside the window, brooding over itself. And I loved that continent, I longed to be a man and live in dry yellow glittering gum-leafed gunyahs and labour in pitiless heat. (p.50)
Steve has seen Macca once or twice in passing, but suddenly, in the Spring of 1928 he writes and asks her to marry him. She is terrified, she wants love not marriage, they meet, but “in the end, we could not agree to marry, because I wished only to be alone and worship the past for the sake of it, and poetry.” (p.69) Blue, too, writes, begging Steve to allow her to join her, “No lover, Steve, could love you so wholly and purely as I do.” But Steve is implacable, she wants no ties, “Gently, but heroically, with poetry and blinding prose, I thrust her off. For I loved to be free.” (p.124). And so, surrounded by friends and happy in her work, she writes:
Ah, but I was lonely; the great Australian loneliness, that old disease of mine, swept over me, making my blood slow and painful along my veins. I was lonely and unloved. And worse, far ahead into the future my soul struggled and saw no end of it, no end for ever to my thirst for love. Because, you see, I didn’t want to be loved. Not at all. What I really wanted was to be a man, and free for ever to write and think and dream.
Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1942
Eve Langley, White Topee, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954
Whispering Gums covered the Pea Pickers a few years ago. Check out the comments!
There are a couple of biographies of Eve Langley (which I haven’t read). The Importance of Being Eve Langley (1989), an annotated biography by Joy L Thwaite, and Lucy Frost’s Wilde Eve; Eve Langley’s Story (1999), a selected, edited collection of Langley’s previously unpublished writings