Drusilla Modjeska (1946- ) is an Australian writer and academic, born and bought up in Hampshire – there’s a comment somewhere that Jane Austen posted her mail in a market town nearby – and university educated in PNG and Australia.
Poppy (1990) is a fictional biography of her mother, and of her mother’s influence on her, though I didn’t realise that it was fictional until I began this review and read Modjeska’s ‘My Life’ on her website. Despite, I’m sure, having read a number of reviews on other blogs over the years.
Modjeska’s first book was Exiles at Home (1981) which was the basis for my write up of AWW Gen 3, and I also have, unread, the anthology, Sisters (1995), but I haven’t read any of her – other – fiction (Wikipedia has Poppy under ‘Novels’).
Reading, I was impressed, willing to compare Poppy favourably with Brian Matthews’ Louisa, my gold standard biography (sorry MST), but “fictional” … now I am up in the air. The style is biographical, there is none of the sizzle of my other gold standard, Normal People, perfect autofiction. And the introspective elements, the views of the daughter through the eyes of the mother, can either of these be trusted, how are we to know to what extent they are self-serving?
I just don’t find Poppy – the name Modjeska assigns to her mother – particularly interesting as a fictional character.
You will say that the things that this fictional author in Modjeska’s place writes about her mother, her mother’s catholic priest lover, her father, her sisters, herself and her lovers would be impossible in a biography at this little distance from the events described/invented. You might even say that the then young, well 40-ish, academic Modjeska was subverting our expectations by using the forms of biography for a work of fiction.
Miles Franklin, for instance, wrote a series of ‘autobiographical’ fictions – My Brilliant Career, My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos – and by comparing them, with each other, with her other works, and with what we know of her life we can learn a great deal about her, as a person and as a writer. Should I do all this work for Modjeska too? I think not. Poppy will have to stand alone.
So when I read through what I’ve written, as one does a letter before it is posted, I realize that it is the story of the life I live off the pages of this book that pleases me, the glimpse of a present and daily reality I never intended to reveal.
I will describe the work, and say that I read it with a great deal of interest, as an insight into a difficult life and the effect it had on the daughter. I struggle to say why I feel so betrayed discovering that it is all (or part, but which part) made up. When Modjeska writes ‘my mother did this, I felt that’ I cannot help but accept it as truth, that’s the way the biographical form works. Yes, we write routinely ‘all biographies are fiction’, but they purport to be true, and that’s the difference. Here, the made up bits cast doubt on the whole.
Poppy, the daughter of a rich scrap metal dealer, and an uncaring mother (‘China’) marries Richard, an upper class lawyer. They raise three girls in the south of England where Richard can commute to work; Poppy has a breakdown and spends a number of years in a sanatorium; the author is sent away to school. Poppy gets out; Richard leaves her for Cicely; the author marries straight out of school and moves with her husband to Australia (Sydney – the two are treated throughout as synonymous).
Poppy gets closer and closer to Roman Catholic priest Marcus, becomes a probation worker, opens a home for deliquent boys, visits Sydney, goes on a pilgrimage to India, visits Sydney again, collaborates throughout, somewhere between unwillingly and resigned to being misunderstood, with the writing of this biography. Marcus dies of cancer. Poppy dies of cancer.
I’ve written all of the above with a chapter to go. It’s called Friends, and while the underlying theme of the book is Poppy’s search for a meaningful, spiritual life – against Richard’s failure of understanding and Marcus’ controlling and self-serving certainties – this last chapter is of the finding of friendship in love.
Whatever has happened to me, or has not, with husbands (de facto and de jure), continuity and security have been built on the excellence of friendship; and when I look at Poppy’s life I can see that this was so for her too. Yet these connections between women are taken for granted, a backdrop to the real business of life: Husbands, children, jobs. It takes only the slightest change of focus to see that these neglected intimacies, independent of more passionate demands, can offer the terms on which we best learn to be ourselves.
I must say I am tempted to let Modjeska have her cake and eat it too; to let her be Lalaj, her mother ‘Poppy’, her lovers ‘unnamed’ and G and Thomas; to let her hide behind ‘fiction’ and nevertheless let this be her own coming of age; to accept her account of 1950s and 60s England, to accept that the pressures and difficulties she describes are the pressures and difficulties she grew up with.
Otherwise, what was the point of writing it?
Drusilla Modjeska, Poppy, Penguin, Melbourne, 1990. 316pp.