Wilde Eve (1999) is a memoir of Australian author Eve Langley’s years in New Zealand before and during WWII, constructed by Lucy Frost from Langley’s voluminous and previously unpublished writings. The writing is as luminous and poetic as her two novels, The Pea Pickers (1942) and White Topee (1954) (my review of both), giving the lie to the oft repeated claim that her later writing was dense and unreadable.
Langley was born in NSW in 1904 and her sister June was born a year or so later. Their father died when the girls were young and Myra their mother, disinherited daughter of a well off Gippsland family, moved them back to Victoria where the girls completed their education at Dandenong High.
I guess the first thing that we think of in connection with Langley is that she and June, using the names Steve and Blue, wore mens clothes and worked as itinerant farm labourers during the Great Depression. And the second is that she was or became mentally ill, committed to an asylum by her husband, later dying alone and unnoticed in 1974 in a hut in the bush near Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains. The effect of the latter is that for all the joyful lyricism of her writing, I find it impossible to read her without feeling her impending descent.
After working for a number of years in Gippsland and with a new fiancee (‘Ray’ not Macca), at the beginning of 1932 Langley sailed for New Zealand to rejoin her sister and mother. Throughout this period Langley had poetry published in the Bulletin and other literary magazines and maintained, or attempted to maintain, comprehensive journals. From the 1940s onwards she used the material from these journals to produce a series of autobiographical novels, 12 in all. We often discuss the continuum from autobiography to memoir to autobiographical fiction and it is clear her later works at least, which include great chunks of her journals, can reliably be classified as memoir.
Langley’s works were titled as follows:
The Pea Pickers
The Land of the Long White Cloud
Demeter of Dublin Street
The Old Mill
Last, Loveliest, Loneliest
Portrait of the Artist
All, apart from the last which finishes abruptly, are of equal length, about 400 pages. The first five cover Langley’s years in Gippsland and the following seven are the source of the writing in Wilde Eve (which at 300 pages is therefore about 10% of the available material).
Interestingly the author (Langley, not Frost who supplies only a short introduction and afterword) addresses us from a number of viewpoints. Firstly, 20 or 30 years later writing in the past tense describing events in the 1930s and 40s, then inserting journal extracts written at the time, and finally and only occasionally, interpolating from her present, the 50s and 60s, as she says “the age of the atom bomb”.
Langley doesn’t feel that Steve is a suitable name in NZ and “got down to calling myself Eve and training Mia and Blue to do the same” and got down too to (mostly) wearing dresses. Eve looks for work for Ray but is distracted, moves on, is interested in meeting Maoris, is interested in women, “I thought that I should like to lie dreaming between the flowerless hills that are her breasts”, until inevitably she falls in love, with Luigi, who abandons her when she falls pregnant (the baby dies – unrecorded in this memoir – aged 3 months).
And all the while there is her evocative writing: “I sit inside the caterpillar train and read Lawson, who hurts me with his slow deep words. From time to time I drop him onto my green-coated lap, just as one lets fall a work of which they are weary, or as one drops a letter that has hurt.” (Going up to Wellington to apply, unsuccessfully, for work). But also there is her increasing dependence, so at odds with the spirit of The Pea Pickers, and, hanging over all, that dreadful future.
In 1936 she meets the art student Hilary Clark, and sets her cap at him, so that by 1938 she is pregnant with their first (girl) child Bisi, they are married and living on his income as a labourer and part time art teacher, or as much of it as he doesn’t drink, and what little she can get for her poetry. Over time they struggle with poverty, Hilary often stays out partying. Eve is supported in her work by Bulletin poetry editor Douglas Stewart and sometimes by Ruth Park who is working at the Auckland Star. June, no longer ‘Blue’, is sometimes around. They have another child, a boy, Langley, and Eve is left very ill. The war starts. Eve is opposed but Hilary appears ambivalent.
Stewart alerts her to the 1940 Prior Prize, £300 for an unpublished novel and Eve begins working from her journals to compile The Pea Pickers, scraping for every penny, and sometimes feeding her children boiled weeds. But for someone who wanted to be – who is currently writing a manifesto for – a woman in the bush, as independent as a man, Langley is surprisingly happy in motherhood and marriage. “Then thoughts of marriage, good and eternal, cleansed me, and I drew the great curling head of Hilary towards me….. As wild as the tempest beating on the glass was my desire to tell him of my love.”
A few weeks ago I reviewed The Drums Go Bang, a relentlessly upbeat memoir of the early days of the marriage of Ruth Park and Darcy Niland, covering the same period and much the same circumstances, although in Sydney rather than Auckland. But when that novel ends with Park winning the 1946 SMH prize we know the desperate times are behind her and success beckons. When Wilde Eve ends, Langley too has won, though sharing her prize with two others, but the money is spent, a third child is on the way, Clark has stopped painting, and gives up his teaching work, his last connection to his dreams of being an artist. They talk of their life together. Hilary says, “That one day you came to my studio, and that I realized here was a mind absolutely unique, that I was determined to never let it go, and so I married it.” But Eve wants to be loved as a woman. They climb into a boat with their children. And there her account ends.
In her afterword Frost tells us what happens next. They live in the boat for some months, Bisi is almost fatally injured by boiling water in the galley during a storm. Clark takes advantage of his conscription into the army to abandon them. Eve is declared an unfit mother and Clark comes back just long enough to have her committed to an asylum where of course she is given shock treatment. After seven years she is released and resumes her life as a writer but only White Topee is ever published.
An afterword of my own. I am stuck up the bush waiting, 2 days so far, to be unloaded. I will post this now, Thurs afternoon, but must wait until I get home at the weekend (hopefully!) to put in any links or even to do a proper proof reading.
Lucy Frost ed., Wilde Eve: Eve Langley’s Story, Vintage, Sydney, 1999
See also Sue at Whispering Gums on Australian Literary Memoirs.