Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska

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.

26 thoughts on “Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska

  1. Hmmm, interesting about Wikipedia…
    It’s years since I read Poppy, but I read it with a book group and whatever about now, at that time we treated it as a *groundbreaking* memoir. To quote what I wrote about it when I was reviewing DM’s own memoir Second Half First: ” The memoir of her mother was experimental in form, filling gaps in the historical record with questions and imaginative reconstructions that treated her mother’s life with respect.”
    Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe in her subsequent writing she’s ‘fessed up to it being ‘fiction’ but I think the reason it was considered groundbreaking was because it was one of the first to do what is now common: to fill in the gaps of a life that cannot be known through inference and imagination, and to signal that by including herself as narrator and researcher in the narrative.
    The take-home message that I have after all these years is that many children of migrants will *never* know the whole story of a parent’s life because some of it is too painful — or even shameful — to talk about. Sometimes really terrible memories are suppressed and sometimes parents don’t want to burden the child with a traumatic story. Whether DM was explicit about this in the book, or whether it’s something I inferred, I can’t say.


    • Modjeska talks about the work being fictional both within the work and in accompanying material. I think it is an effective way to talk about her mother’s trauma but not to read about it, because we still have no way of knowing what actually happened. You’re right though that even so we learn little about what was it about Poppy’s parents that led to her subsequent breakdown.
      Thankyou for your detailed answer. I haven’t being paying other people’s posts much attention this past week as I struggle with a difficult trip. Luckily I have for once a store of drafts ready to post.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m trying to think if I have read fictional biographies. I’m not sure how I’d go with them but I do keep an open mind. I think I prefer a clearer delineation between what’s real and what’s not. I haven’t read anything by this author. I enjoyed your ponderings though.


    • Most ‘fictional’ biographies we just read as interesting stories I think, safe in the knowledge that the author has done these sort of things and been to these sorts of places. This one is so personal, so intimate that I don’t think ‘fictional’ works.


  3. Hmmm… my initial reaction is that I would find a memoir adopting creative elements problematic because I’d want to know which bits were true and which bits were not, but if it’s marked as a novel then I guess it wouldn’t worry me as much because all novels are essentially a blend of fact and fiction, right?


    • The truth of the matter is that I thought I was reading memoir and it was only when I got near the end and discovered I was not that my initial reaction was outrage. But as I said to Pam, I don’t think fictional was the way to go with this material in any case, or at least taking the form of biography was not the way to go

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have always wanted to read this. My reading group read it early on, but when we were away on our US posting. I always understood that that it was an experimental/fictionalised memoir, and therefore, technically a novel. I like what Lisa says about migrant parents and perhaps never knowing fully what they experienced (as if we can any parents anyhow, but here, perhaps, even more). As you know I don’t really have a problem with the form. The important thing for me is the “truths” not the “facts”.


    • In most autofiction the author uses their own experience and feelings as the basis for a story. Modjeska goes further here, and uses the forms of non-fiction to relate fiction, and while no doubt based on her own family, to me it feels dishonest rather than subversive.


      • I think I’d have to read it before I comment on the dishonest bit. I’m uncomfortable with calling an author as thoughtful and careful as Modjeska “dishonest”. From what I know about the work, I think she’s “honestly” playing with form to tell the story she wants to tell. You/we may not think she’s made the best decision but I don’t think I could call it dishonest. That said, these autofiction works and/or semi-autobiographical novels do challenge readers because of their lack, for want of a better word, of clarity.


  5. There are many examples of readers feeling betrayed, cheated, lied to when they learn a memoir is mostly fictionalized. I wonder why we do that to ourselves, create a relationship of trust with someone we don’t know, accept things in memoir we never would in fiction. There is evidence Malcolm X left a good deal out of his own autobiography. After I read Roots, which is largely fictionalized but based on Alex Haley’s research of his own family, I felt betrayed to learn he had plagiarized part of the novel and had to pay the original author for his theft. And then I’ve read memoirs that acknowledge in a meaningful way how they are fictionalized to. For example, Elizabeth Crane writes a memoir about her mother who is now dead. In many places, Crane “talks” to her dead mother on the page and writes responses as the mother, imagining how her mother might answer, or perhaps writing what she wishes her distant mother WOULD answer. In Crane’s case, I never felt betrayed or lied to, and I thought it a smart way to go deeper into her feelings in memoir form without purporting to guess what her mother was thinking but writing it in a way that reads more like truth (i.e. “of COURSE my mother would feel remorse about blah blah…”).


    • Love your opening question Melanie. I don’t know why, partly because I rarely feel it. I think I have a healthy (at least I call it healthy) sense of looking for truths not facts. That sounds a bit naive in a way because sometimes facts are more than simply “facts”, I guess, and can be damaging if misrepresented or misunderstood. Anyhow, I like your Crane example. I like authors who are playing with facts and truths give us the heads up about, or make very clear in some way, what they are doing.


    • I’ve said a few times that I read ‘literally’ and by that I mean I don’t look for hidden meanings – I just take what the author says at face value. Here, as you say, I trusted the author, and was upset towards the end when she wrote ‘hah, fooled you, that was all just fiction’ or words to that effect.
      I can see why authors want to experiment with the boundary between fact and fiction – and yes I do see truths in fiction, that’s what storytelling is for – but I don’t always appreciate it when they experiment on me, or when I think the experiment doesn’t work.


    • I really like the sound of the example you give. My instinctive reaction to the question of fiction presented memoir/biography is that it is different between the two subgenres. I feel like it’s one thing to make up events from your own life, though I don’t really see the point, but lying about someone else’s feels unethical towards the subject. I think if you are presenting something as a biography of a real person, you have a responsibility to be as honest as possible – otherwise, you are basically telling lies about someone who may not have the right of reply (if they are dead). Even if at the end, they say “haha fooled you I made it up”, there is no obligation for a reader to read that far, so they may go away with totally the wrong impression of someone. By making it clear that she was imagining her mother’s responses, it sounds like Crane is being more honest with the reader.

      That said, I think I’ve only ever encountered the opposite thing (memoir presented as a novel, e.g. in Ruth Adam’s A House in the Country) – I don’t know how I would feel if a memoir or novel I loved presented itself as fact, and ended up being mostly fiction.


      • You would have to wonder I suppose how much of The Egg and I (other readers will have to go to Grab the Lapels to see the context for that comment) is fact and how much was embroidered to make it humorous, but then I don’t think we have the same expectation (of truthfulness) of funny stories that we do of ‘serious’ stories.

        After all of the above though, you might actually like Poppy the ‘novel’. It’s an interesting picture of England in the 50s and 60s, and Poppy is an interesting character.


      • Whenever I’ve read a novel that was pretty much real life, I always discover the author gets quite defensive when readers point out how similar the character and the author are. Which makes me laugh, actually.

        When I taught writing classes, we discussed how factual essays — ones that do not contain an argument — are still arguments. How so? Because choosing what to include or exclude, and deciding which sources to use, are all acts of argument. The writer is saying one source is better or more useful than another they did not include. For example, there are two big biographies about Shirley Jackson that are completely different. The first is almost all interviews with Jackson’s friends, family, neighbors, etc. The second is largely library research.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Oooohhh, dear, I could see where this was going, in just the first couple of paragraphs. You were going to feel as though you’d been tricked, in much the same way that you felt deceived by Omar El-Akkad’s recent novel. *winces* And I don’t necessarily think this will be helpful to know, but there are also pressures within the industry to label and market books like these to adapt to trends and to challenges/successes that similar books faced/overcame depending on that marketing strategy worked (or didn’t) in previous instances. Especially when there are living family members of an age similar to the writer, there seems to be a tendency to call something fiction, as though announcing in advance that “it’s all made up, don’t go getting litigious.” Or maybe the writers actually do bend that way, hoping to smooth any ruffled feathers later, at holiday gettogethers. I vote for her having cake and eating cake: after all, it affects her more than it affects you! 🙂


    • You’re right about El-Akkad of course. And I think you’re right about publishers in particular using the label ‘fiction’ but hoping for the extra power of the work being read as fact.

      I think postmodernism is interesting theory, but I have no doubt the left have trapped themselves, by giving the right cover to lie and dispute what should be indisputable. We can’t claim that our fiction is sort of truthy but their truthy journalism is clearly false (or that ours is clearly true)


  7. This review made me think that, if you’re going to write about your mother but also going to make some of it up and not tell us which parts, you should just call it fiction and not tell us it’s based on anyone at all. Let us ponder it ourselves.
    I also don’t know if I’d want to delve as deeply into my mother’s life as I’d need to in order to write a book about her. I think mothers should remain slightly mysterious to their children. Not completely, just slightly. Or, at least, that’s how I feel about my own parents. Lol


    • To be fair, Modjeska did call it fiction, somewhere, but not anywhere I saw up front. And it’s not written as a novel, but as a collection of the author’s recollections, her sisters’ recollections, research, discussions with her mother and with her mother’s lover and so on. So I read it as fact, as insight into the author’s upbringing. And on reflection I am inclined to follow Marcie and let Modjeska call it fiction and follow the hints that it’s probably near enough to all fact. I think what made me angry was that I felt that Modjeska didn’t give me the chance to make that choice.

      Our relationship with our parents is complicated, but so many women writers seem to expect far more of their mothers than they were ever likely to get.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s an interesting comment about women’s expectations of their mothers? I don’t feel that in my case, which may say something either about me or about my Mum – or, about bereavement rose-coloured glasses, perhaps. Overall, though, I’d say my Mum just gave and gave.


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