Come in Spinner, Cusack & James

also: Caddie, The Autobiography of a Sydney Barmaid

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Women’s writing of the 1940s and 50s was increasingly concerned with the (related!) problems of sex and abortion, setting the scene for modern, post-sexual revolution fiction. Whispering Gums has put up a number of interesting posts in the past couple of weeks on Dymphna Cusack and her first novel Jungfrau (1936) so I thought I might post on the later Come in Spinner (1951) and the, sort-of, related memoir Caddie (1953).

Caddie, which was published anonymously, was written by Catherine Edmonds (1900-1960), who was for a time housekeeper to, and was encouraged to write by, Cusack and Florence James while they were writing Come in Spinner. It is the lightly fictionalized autobiography of a young woman, deserted by her husband with two children to support during the depression. Caddie spends much time fighting off unwanted attentions. In one scene her landlord enters her bedroom, ‘“Get out of here!” I shouted. He only laughed, “You women make too much of these things. What’s it for, anyway?‟’ (1953, p.132). Her girlfriend, Josie, has a miscarriage induced by an old woman with “a piece of wire” leading Caddie to muse:

I shuddered to think of all the unfortunate girls who must have lost their lives rather than face the cruel criticism and unjust treatment that would be their lot if they had an illegitimate child. Not only their reputation that suffers, but their chance of earning a decent living. (p.87)

As a single mother, Caddie struggles to find carers for her young children while she is working and for a time puts them in church-run homes where she is permitted to visit them for just one hour each week. Caddie is one of only a few novels to deal with the single mother problem, though Miles Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931) provides a different take, with (spoiler alert) the protagonist’s younger “brother‟ turning out to be actually her nephew, her older sister’s illegitimate child.

Come In Spinner is set in Sydney towards the end of the Second World War and tells the stories of three women, Claire, Guinea, and Deb, who are co-workers in the beauty salon of an exclusive Sydney hotel. The novel weaves together these characters with their familial and romantic relationships, as they struggle to manage the realities of working for the privileged upper classes, to whom, seemingly, no rules apply, while their own families cope with wartime deaths and losses, rationing, government Manpower recruitment, and stiflingly conservative attitudes surrounding the role and perceptions of ‘acceptable’ behaviour for women.

Although the winner of the 1948 Daily Telegraph novel competition, Come in Spinner, which, sensationally for the time, covers abortion, adultery, prostitution and rape, as well as promiscuity and the wartime blackmarket, could not find a publisher until it was substantially abridged. And it was not until 1987, following adaptation for television, that it was restored to its original length and republished.

Claire and Deb are in their thirties and Guinea is a bit younger. Claire, the salon manager, has a permanent boyfriend, a good looking gambler who lives off her income. Deb has a husband away at war, and a daughter who lives with her sister’s large family on their farm. She also has a permanent boyfriend, the wealthy grazier, Angus McFarland, who wishes to marry her. Guinea, from an Irish working class family, has a more independent attitude to men and goes out with a range of mainly US servicemen who can afford to treat her in the style to which she would like to become accustomed. Guinea’s younger sister Monnie also features, coming into town to join some friends at the Cross, not realizing they are supporting themselves through prostitution, and being made drunk and then raped by a “customer‟.

Guinea is independent in the modern sense of choosing who she sleeps with, but of all the women only Deb’s friend Dr Dallas McIntyre is truly independent. She actively opposes marriage in favour of pursuing her profession and when Deb approaches her, unsuccessfully, for the name of an abortionist (for Mary, the sister of another worker at the salon) she is lectured about love: “Romantic love! Boiled down all they mean is that women have let themselves be sold the idea that sex is a substitute for life”, and marriage: “society says unless I’m prepared to tie myself up to some man legally, I have no right to bear a child”.(1981, p.329)

They find a doctor to perform the abortion, but Mary subsequently haemorrhages and dies, and the older woman who has been nursing her is taken into custody. This is a long book with rambling lectures on women’s issues, and the causes of war and the Great Depression, but it ends conventionally enough. Monnie is saved from Parramatta (the infamous workhouse for delinquent girls) by a loving maiden aunt; Deb appears ready to plump for the “Rosa Praed‟ solution, divorce and remarriage to the richer man; Claire is persuaded that her wastrel loves and needs her; and Guinea spurns her latest rich American suitor in favour of marriage to the rough, tough Australian with the heart of gold.

Dymphna Cusack and Florence James, Come in Spinner (first published 1951, unabridged 1988) Imprint Classics, Sydney, 1990

Caddie, Caddie, (first published 1953), Sun Books, Melbourne, 1976

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