Jungfrau, Dymphna Cusack

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By coincidence I’m reading Jungfrau straight after All Passion Spent. Both are modernist works by women authors, both pose the question, Should intelligent women marry or pursue careers? (and both see the question as either one or the other), APS came out in 1931, Jungfrau in 1936, both writers were in their thirties, but…

Sackville-West was at the height of her powers, living not just England but in Bloomsbury, and with a number of novels over the previous decade under her belt; Cusack (1902-1981) so ten years VSW’s junior, was in Australia, a school teacher, first out west in Broken Hill then in Sydney, with limited exposure to the modernist movement sweeping England, Europe and the US. And this was her first novel. And then there’s class – Sackville-West was the daughter of a baron and the wife of an MP; Cusack was the daughter of store keeper, Catholic, and though employed, was much closer to the Depression which amongst other things, depressed wages and limited the distribution of new books.

Sackville-West’s writing is sublime, Cusack’s is awkward. Lady Slane in APS finds herself married at 18, steamrolled by her parents and her husband, but as she comes to love Henry she willingly subsumes her self for the sake of their children and his career. Only after their long marriage ends with his death does she allow her real self to emerge. I think by presenting the story in this way Sackville-West is asking: Is this what you would do? It’s certainly not what she did herself. Cusack’s three women are already in their mid to late twenties, in careers, unmarried, none of them Vicereine of India surrounded by servants, but living small, comfortable lives in bed-sits in inner Sydney. Their question is: How do I deal with love?

The three women are Thea, a dreamy, pretty teacher, Eve, a doctor and devout Catholic, and ‘Marc’ (short for Marchesa) a red-headed, bohemian, psych student/social worker. Thea is friends with Terry who wants to marry her, but she is in love with a 49 year old English professor. Eve is friends with another doctor, John. Marc, may be ‘loose’, or maybe she just flirts a lot; Eve is angry that she doesn’t wear a bra. Cusack adopts the point of view of whichever protagonist she is dealing with at the time.

Eve is actually quite a sympathetic character and her rigid Catholicism creeps up on us. Thea is the ‘jungfrau’ of the title, virginal and childish (Cusack makes too much of the Swiss mountain of the same name, having Eve come up with a clumsy metaphor about a lover taking the trouble to ‘climb’ Marc only to find other men had been up before him on the funicular railway).

A lot of the early part of the book is setting up discussions about relationships. Each of the women take their job seriously but what they are talking about and thinking about here is their relationships with men. Eve, who works in a maternity ward, has opinions very similar to Miles Franklin’s (and Cusack’s next novel was written jointly with Franklin) – that chastity is to be valued and that the consequence of marriage is endless child bearing.

Thea has chaste little meetings with her professor in the grounds of the uni and is consumed by her growing infatuation. Marc meets an Antarctic explorer at a party, becomes close to him, and says she will sleep with him before his upcoming two year expedition, but, only if he has complete faith in his ability to trust her –

“There’s only one worthwhile relationship as far as I’m concerned, and that’s the chosen companionship of two perfectly free people. We’d never have that till you had faith – in both of us.”

Eve goes from an exhausting shift on the wards to mass and reflects on chastity (to contrast with what follows). Thea has one perfect night with the professor. Marc has dinner with her explorer. We’re at the halfway point, and the novel is about to change direction.

Thea drops round to Eve’s to ask for help, she’s pregnant. Eve is devastated, spends a sleepless 24 hours crying at Thea’s loss, and planning how to help her have the baby. They meet. Thea is incredulous. The help she wants is an abortion, which Eve is morally unable to perform.

Thea drifts, for weeks it seems, then goes to Marc who arranges for her to see an abortionist, but she loses her nerve at the last minute and runs out of his office. Jungfrau is apparently “the first psychological exploration of women’s sexuality and aspirations” in Australian fiction, and the remainder of the novel deals mostly with Thea’s internal monologue.

A decade later Cusack gave up modernism for social realism, writing with Florence James the gritty war-time (WWII) story of women working and quite actively sleeping with one or more men, Come in Spinner. In that novel, and in a number of others of that time, there is a “backyard” abortion which ends in the death of the pregnant woman.

So does Cusack answer the question I ascribed to her at the beginning? I think she does, partly anyway. Single women clearly should work. But. They also are driven to pair bond, and that means marriage, eventually.

 

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau, first pub. 1936 (in the Bulletin), Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Melbourne 1989. Introduction by Florence James. The cover painting is by Grace Cossington-Smith, “Interior with Blue Painting”, 1956.

see also:
Australian Women Writers, Gen 3 Page (here)

13 thoughts on “Jungfrau, Dymphna Cusack

    • Initially I didn’t think it would be (enjoyable), I thought Cusack was trying too hard for just the right phrase. But as the novel went on I found that I was looking forward to getting back to it each time I put it down to do something else. In the end it works quite well and I’m pleased that I read it (and yes I am hesitating to say “enjoyed”).

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      • Same as Liz, I wondered if you thought this was enjoyable, so I’m glad to read your answers. Perhaps it’s something about how you wrote this review, but the JungFrau sounds more interesting than All Passion Spent. Perhaps it is because there is a group of women, and as an American raised on “girl group” stories (Baby-sitters Club, Sex and The City, Now & Then), it’s something I’ve come to like.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for a while.
    It brings into sharp focus how feminism, before The Pill, meant bitter choices.
    Love the Cossington-Smith on the cover too.. I’ve got her bio somewhere, I should read that as well.

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    • So much that we should read! I’ve tried to emphasize in my readings of 1930-1950s women’s fiction just how diabolical the choices were for women. Social realism (the school of writing) by women in that period generally included mostly fatal backyard abortions. Interestingly, in this her first and maybe naive work, Cusack is at pains to say that abortions by doctors are relatively risk free.

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  2. Okay, I just checked and it looks like I can get a copy of All Passions Spent because it was published in New York City in 2017. However, Jungfrau was only published in Australia, so I can’t get it here.

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    • Jungfrau is a powerful story, more powerful than my review indicates probably. It’s also interesting in that it presents without comment three young women (who never speak about their families) supporting themselves in white-collar jobs. They must have been nearly the first generation to do so. I am more used to Australian 1930s fiction being about the working class.

      It’s a shame it’s not available in the US. Hopefully all early Australian fiction will gradually become available as ebooks as they come out of copyright.

      I look forward to your opinion of All Passion Spent.

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  3. I appreciate the comparison that you’re making here, but I wonder if it displays Jungfrau in a poor light. Reading your review, I get the impression there is a lot worth getting out of Cusak’s story, even if the writing isn’t as strong. I am intrigued by the comparison of the three sisters. I cannot imagine how life would have been for such women. It’s in reading literature like this where I can really appreciate the freedoms I have as a modern woman!

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    • I’m often unfair to authors, I expect a lot of them. There is certainly plenty in Jungfrau to think about (and it was runner up in our national literary prize at that time). Just the subject matter – women doing white collar jobs as a matter of course – was unusual. And as Lisa points out, access to doctors for (illegal) abortions wasn’t even a possibility for working class women, because of the money involved. But men and women falling in love with the wrong person – that’s timeless.

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      • I think it’s okay to expect a lot from authors. It’s hard to compare like to like in these cases. You will always be comparing an author and their works to others. It’s the nature of literature, particularly comparative literature. I respect that you acknowledge the unfairness — even if it’s justified. Being an author is often an unforgiving career.

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      • I think Cusack had the potential to be a good author, and that she was thoughtful about her craft, but having to make her living as a teacher in the unforgiving 1930s consumed too much of her time.

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