Novels about single mothers are relatively rare, at least for the period which mostly interests me, that is, prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), the story of an unmarried mother who shows real independence in the raising of her son, is immensely brave and largely unmatched until the C20th, although Jill Roe (2008, p.35) says that while still a schoolgirl, Miles Franklin had access to George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), ‘the harrowing tale of the lifelong struggle by London-born domestic servant Esther Waters to support her illegitimate son’ which Miles took the precaution of reading ‘under the bed in the spare room’, to be out of sight of her strict mother. The only others that I can think of are Caddie (1953)(my review), though she was a deserted wife rather than an unmarried mother, and Miles Franklins’ Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931).
First published in 2001, Joan London’s Gilgamesh is rather more recent than those but its central concern is an unmarried mother and her son in the years immediately before, during and after WWII, and their relation to firstly the remote bush community which is their home and, secondly to the deserts and mountains of Western Asia, the homeland of the absent father.
Briefly, Frank Clarke, a convalescing Australian soldier, meets Ada in a hospital south of London at the end of WWI. They marry and live for a while in England, sharing Ada’s family home with Irina, Ada’s widowed Russian sister in law, her son Leopold, and various Russian émigrés.
Frank joined a government scheme to open up the wilds of south-western Australia. Land, parcelled into blocks, was given to a group of twenty or thirty settlers [returned servicemen] who would initially work together to clear each home block and build each other a house. .. Each farm was 160 acres. They were drawn by ballot. This made Frank nervous. He had a Methodist’s revulsion for gambling: he trusted only his own will.
They are allocated a block at ‘Nunderup’ – a realistic sounding name but as far as I can make out, fictitious – on the coast near Busselton. “Close to the beach the soil became white with limestone. Only the wattles and melaleucas kept it from blowing into the sand. Even at its furthest boundary, deep in the forest, you could hear the echo of the sea. It was the least arable of the blocks, but the most picturesque.” They are separated from the other blocks by a strip of forest and the Sea House, a hotel for honeymooners and holidaymakers.
By the time they take up their block Frank and Ada have two daughters, Frances and Edith, and Ada is already beginning to withdraw from community life. All the settlers lead lives of extreme hardship during the years of the depression and the Clarke home never progresses beyond a two or three roomed bush hut. But they survive and pay off their land, unlike many of their neighbours. Frank dies, Edith finishes school and takes a job at the Sea House as a maid, while Frances stays home to run the farm and, increasingly, care for their mother.
Out of the blue, they are visited by their cousin Leopold, who has been working in Iraq as an archaeologist, and his Armenian friend, Aram. As Autumn turns to Winter the men stay on
Men filled a house, [Edith] thought, and yet these ones trod gently, stood back for the women, calling them all by name. Edith, they said, Frances, Aunt Ada, Madame … She woke each morning with a start … She tiptoed past the men’s door, crouched in the bush to pee as she collected kindling for the stove. At last they came into the kitchen, yawning, rubbing their hands by the fire, and the house filled with their good humour.
Aram relates his family’s experience of the forced march out of Turkey into Syria which was part of Turkey’s extermination of its Armenian population, and Leopold introduces Edith to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian whose wanderings with his rival and friend Enkidu are a counterpoint not just to Leopold’s and Aram’s but also to Edith’s and her son’s.
With war breaking out again in Europe, Leopold and Aram leave.
I love the writing in this book, the South-West – Tim Winton country – is perfectly realised, as are the times, three quarters of a century ago now. Here Edith discovers there are no secrets.
Spring came. Winds blew away the heavy rains and tossed the gleaming trees. Dandelions crept in a bright wave across the clearing and arum lilies sprang up beside the rushing creek. The evenings were delicate and melancholy. It was a year now since Frank Clark had died.
One night Ada, straightening her knife and fork on the table like a dinner guest, turned to Edith and discreetly, in formal tones, as if starting a conversation with a neighbour’s daughter, enquired:
‘And when is your baby due?’
Edith has a boy Dmitri, or Jim. And then decides to seek out the father. For me, this is an interesting take on the theme of the Independent Woman. Edith is firstly firmly grounded in the Australian bush and then sets out on an Odyssey, infant son in tow, across the sea to England, where she seeks news from her Aunt Irina, and then across Turkey and into Russian Armenia, where she spends the war caring for an aged and a wheel-chair bound woman, and then into Iraq where an Armenian friend has located Leopold and finally, back to Australia, back to the little farm at Nunderup, where Jim who has been an Armenian urchin, must remake himself as an Australian school boy.
Joan London, Gilgamesh, Picador, Sydney, 2001