Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Qld]


Image result for tirra lirra by the river

I’ll tell you a secret. All the time I was reading this, I thought I was reading a Thea Astley. And it was only when I got to the end and idly looked at some biographical details that I discovered I wasn’t. I don’t have any excuse, Jessica Anderson’s name is there plain as day as they say, on the cover, but I had no reason (I thought) to look at it.

Astley (1925-2004) and Anderson (1916-2010) are of the same generation; both from Queensland; both moved to Sydney, and both continued, I think, to write about Queensland. I was mildly surprised as I was reading by the gentle subject matter – an old woman reflects on her life; when I was expecting something much more savagely political, like A Kindness Cup for example.

The old woman, Nora, is older than the author – no, I’m not revisiting the path I took last week with The Weekend – and I got the impression her age was about the same as the year, ie. that she was born around 1900, in a typical ‘queenslander’ weatherboard house, on stilts, 14 steps up from the ground, in one of Brisbane’s many riverside residential suburbs. Her father, whom she does not remember, dies when she is six and she lives with her mother, older sister, Grace, and brother, until he is killed in the trenches in France (which my grandfather, another Brisbane boy survived) along with Grace’s young man, and most of the neighbourhood boys.

Nora’s life has four distinct phases: growing up in Brisbane, bursting with sexual tension but no sex; a childless marriage in Sydney, where she and her husband find a flat with the bohemians on Potts Point until he is able to move them into his mother’s house in the suburbs to see out the Depression; divorce, a shipboard romance with a married man, an abortion, the end of sex, years in London sharing a house with two other women and the landlord; and the return in old age to the empty family home in Brisbane, Grace having married late but now dead.

Nora’s recollections are partly her own, partly the result of being cared for on her return by a couple who had always lived nearby and so had known her and her sister since childhood, and partly recollections of stories she had told her housemates in London. In fact, she had so often told and laughed over the stories of her unsuccessful marriage to Colin Porteous, that “Perhaps the real man has been so overscored by laughter that he will never be retrieved”.

Anderson was adamant that Tirra Lirra was not biographical, though the bohemians and old houses on Potts Point were drawn from life. There is one other character in the novel and that is Olive Partridge, Nora’s schoolfriend who becomes an author. The two meet up in London before the (Second) War, and Olive goes on to Austria. I was wondering as I read if Olive contained aspects of the author, thinking Astley, or of a friend, but no one springs to mind. Anderson herself was in London in 1937, but I don’t recall her being mentioned by other Australian authors in London between the Wars and in any case it was only in the 1960s, in her forties, that Anderson had the freedom to begin working on novels.

This is a slight novel, 141pp, and in fact began as a 20,000 word novella which publishers persuaded her to expand. It’s theme is Nora’s frustration, sexually, artistically.

One moonlit night, coming home across the paddocks from Olive Partridge’s house, I threw down my music case, dropped to the ground … I unbuttoned my blouse, unlaced my bodice, and rolled over and over in the sweet grass. I lay on my back and looked first at the moon, then down my cheeks at the peaks of my breasts…. I must have been less than sixteen.

… though I was quite aware of the sexual nature of the incident I don’t believe I was looking for a lover. Or not only for a lover… If that sounds laughable, do consider that this was a long time ago, and that I was a backward and innocent girl, living in a backward and unworldly place. And consider, too, that the very repression of sex, though it produced so much that was warped and ugly and cruel, let loose for some natures, briefly, a luminosity, a glow, that I expect is unimaginable now.

Later, we discover that Nora’s only other ‘sexual’ experience is with a boy a few years younger, who “teases” her, whom she allows to tease, when they are left alone, by jumping out at and grabbing/caressing her. It is some years before she marries, and when she finally becomes comfortable with sex her husband tells her to lie still and not carry on like a harlot. Sinking into depression in her mother in law’s house, not permitted to work, Nora is only saved by Porteous offering divorce and a small settlement. After that there is just the one shipboard romance, and then nothing.

In parallel, Nora sublimates her artistic talents in embroidery and later in dressmaking, and only on reflection sees what she might have achieved.

This is an interesting work to bear the ‘Independent Woman’ tag because Nora’s suppressed sexuality is not so different from Miles Franklin’s Sybyllas, Sybyl, Ignez et al*. Young Nora feels the rising sap, as they did. MF’s women flirt but hold themselves back from contact. Nora falls into marriage and finds it horrible. MF, I think, would feel vindicated.


Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1978 (my edition is the later Penguin, with the cover above)

*The Sybyllas are from My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, Sybyl from On Dearborn Street, and Ignez from Cockatoos (all here).






24 thoughts on “Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson

  1. This sounds like an interesting book and with some good feminist themes of awakening, art and memoir. How funny that you had it mixed up with another author, though. Are you going to collect your full bingo by the end of the month?


    • When I left home I said “I’m going to put that Thea Astley in my bag” and I never gave it another thought. Your right about feminist themes, too. She, and her friends whom I barely mentioned, clearly live independent and fulfilling lives. Interesting, as Anderson in an interview said that her first duty was to be a housewife and it was only after her second marriage proved more supportive that she turned her writing towards novels.

      I opened the laptop this evening to write up NT. That leaves me SA, Tas and ‘Free’. I have SA and Tas with me but it also looks like I’ve got a couple of weeks of work ahead of me, so we’ll see. If you set a bingo I might finally learn the counties of England. Or would you choose regions of the British Isles?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ooh, doing the counties would be fascinating! Although then you’ve got the worry of all the boundaries changing. One to mull over, certainly, or you could run it from over there, which would be quite funny!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I picked up a copy of this book several years ago in a second hand bookstore in FNQ. It was a signed edition. A bargain at only a few $$$. I read it not long after and loved it, especially the London section, but never actually got around to reviewing it. I keep meaning to read it again and your review is a nice reminder that I really ought to do so.


    • Anderson only spent a short time in London, so wisely I think, she restricts the London part of the novel to the suburb or two that she knows, and brushes over the War. I hope you review it soon, while I still remember what I read.


  3. I read Anderson’s The Commandant two years ago for AusReadingMonth and absolutely loved it. Have been meaning to try another one of hers ever since. For some reason I wasn’t sure about this one – perhaps the autobiographical elements were off-putting?? But you’ve made it sound like something I would enjoy after all – thanks.


    • Years since I read The Commandant. This one isn’t particularly autobiographical, just enough to make sure she gets the locations right – which I appreciate. I’m loving #ausreadingmonth, haven’t read so many physical books for ages, though I don’t think I’ll get to FREE, Bruny’s a bit big.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Glad to help you with your tbr pile Bill & it makes me happy to hear you’ve enjoyed AusReadingMonth. I was hoping to get to Bruny too but in my tired & emotional state late last night I picked up The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted instead. The gentle angst was just what I needed! And ticks the Victoria box for me as well ☺️


  4. Oh Bill, you made me laugh with your Thea Astley comment. I would say that it would not only have been the content that clued you in but the style? I loved Tirra Lirra when I read it but that was between two and three decades ago now so my memory is general. However, if you are thinking Astley and older women, there is Coda (although Coda’s protagonist is very different to Nora.)

    It’s interesting that when I think of those writers I read in the 1980s I think of Astley, Jolley, Masters and I keep forgetting Amy Witting and Jessica Anderson – and yet I really like what I’ve read of hers, two of which I’ve reviewed on my blog.

    BTW Did you know that Jessica Anderson’s daughter is Laura Jones, who’s well-known for her literary adaptations for film, though she seems to have been quiet lately.


  5. There’s a missing verb, I’m guessing ‘taught’, and no I didn’t. Astley and Anderson are late Gen 3 by my definition, though I think there’s a post-60s element to Astley’s writing. Something to worry about next year. (Which reminds me of something I should have thought of earlier – I’m taking my xmas hols now and may well be working during Gen 3 week (part 1).


    • Yes, sorry, they taught together. I should proofread my comments!

      You’ll have to pre-schedule some Gen 3 posts now for then, then!

      Hmm, late Gen 3? Jessica Anderson (and Witting) were latebloomers so while they were born in 1916 and 1918, respectively, they didn’t publish their first novels until the 1960s and 1970s respectively.


      • In other words, for example, Ruth Park was born a year after Anderson, but published her first novel about 15 years before her? I feel that Anderson and Witting were moving into a different area of writing again?


  6. I’m always happy to enter into arguments about what characterizes each generation. I’ve hardly thought about post 60s writing, so I haven’t come up with a definition yet.


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