The Toucher, Dorothy Hewett

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002) “was an Australian playwright, poet and author, and a romantic feminist icon. In writing and in her life, Hewett was an experimenter. As her circumstances and beliefs changed, she progressed through different literary styles: modernism, socialist realism, expressionism and avant garde.” I liked that description from wiki, but I must say I would have had ‘Communist’ in between Australian and playwright, and I imagine she would have too.

It’s interesting how many writers of Hewett’s generation (AWW Gen 3, of course) were confirmed Communists, at least for a while, and how many since are just wishy-washy liberals.

Hewett was born in WA, on a prosperous wheat farm. Wiki doesn’t say where, but that it was “cleared by 15 year old Albert Facey” (for non-Australians, author of the hugely popular memoir A Fortunate Life) which I think puts it in the Narrogin region, south east of Perth. When she was 12 her parents moved to the city and Hewett went to PLC (Perth) and on to UWA.

In adulthood Hewett joined the CPA and with them went to the USSR, then under Stalin, and to early Communist China. The protagonist of The Toucher recalls being in a parade in Moscow, with Stalin waving from a balcony.

Hewett had a number of marriages and lived mostly in Perth – on attempting a return to education, she was expelled from Graylands Teachers College for having been married and divorced – till, when she was 50, she moved permanently to Sydney. While she was better known as a playwright and poet, she wrote three novels –
Bobbin’ Up (1959)
The Toucher (1993)
Neap Tide (1999)
and the first volume of her autobiography –
Wild Card: an autobiography, 1923–1958 (1990)

In The Toucher the protagonist, Esther, like Hewett in her later years, is overweight and wheelchair bound, but she has retired to a large house on the ‘French’ River in south-west WA. This fictional location seems to be based on the Frankland River which enters the sea at Walpole, on the south coast, west of Albany (mentioned only obliquely, as “the safest harbour in Australia”).

She sat quite still in her wheelchair in the very centre of the house, the coastline spun out around her, the estuary with its great body of water sliding past to the sea. She had come back three years ago, pulling house, garden and river around her like a cocoon, imagining that one day she could emerge, remade into the outer air. But there had been no healing …

Opening lines

Esther had grown up in this part of the south west, in a hut in the karri (very tall eucalypts) forests where her father painted. Now she has returned, initially with a husband, but is soon a widow; finding herself and her father remembered; the same old fishing families still in their cottages; Maxie Crowe, the bad-boy love of her school days now a decrepit grandfather.

Her carers/housekeeper/handyman are (oldish) husband and wife Clarrie and Fred. Clarrie goes off to another country town to stay with her daughter, initially for the birth of a grandchild, but soon, it appears, indefinitely. Esther’s own children are variously ignoring her and living in other parts of the world.

Into the picture come, first the very young Iris, filling in for Clarrie, then Iris’s boyfriend: “‘Hello’, he said, ‘I’m Billy Crowe.’ They breed like flies, she thought.” Yes, he’s Maxie’s grandson, and just as much a bad boy, skilled at fishing and bushcraft and entirely uneducated.

‘I used to sit next to your grandfather in primary school. You’re a lot like him.’
‘All us Crowes look alike. Can I borrow one of y’ books to take home, one y’ wrote y’self?’
‘I don’t think you’d like them’
He bristled. ‘Why not?’
‘I don’t think they’d be quite your cup of tea.’
‘Because I’m too dumb. That’s what y’ think, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s not that.’
‘Yes it is, but I’m not stupid. I can learn quick. I could find out a lot from y’ if you’d teach me.’
‘What could I teach you?’ she said wearily.
‘Oh, I dunno, about books an’ life an’ that, but you’re too much of a snob, aren’t y’?’

She gives in, gives him some hours of work; lets him drive the Merc; employs him to type the ms of her latest novel, an autofiction of past loves and adulteries; lets him put her in the bath, as Iris watches on helplessly; and so begins a strange love affair, and eventually a murder mystery. Well written, in no style at all really, certainly no hint of the socialist realism of Bobbin’ Up, and some hints that Hewett, or her protagonist at least, is past all that.

For all you who loved Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, a wildly different look at one older woman’s desires and motivations.


Dorothy Hewett, The Toucher, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1993. 300pp

17 thoughts on “The Toucher, Dorothy Hewett

  1. I’ve had this book for ages, but I find myself reluctant to read it, in the light of her daughters’ 2018 revelations about Hewett encouraging their sexual abuse in her home.


    • I remember the reviews (of Kate Lilley’s book I think). Esther in this novel, and no doubt Hewett herself, led very sexualised lives. And I agree it was wrong, and maybe criminal, to drag the kids into it.


      • I’m usually able to shake off any negative perceptions that I have about an author, but I think that my sense of distaste at the very least would colour my reading.


      • It was Rozanna Lilley, Kate’s sister, who wrote the book (and it was initially to be about her autistic son). I think both girls/women had therapy, and I think it’s been problematic for them, because, at least from Rosanna’s point of view these were her parents and my sense is that she wants to give them the benefit of the doubt but at the same time felt exploited.

        Sorry I missed this when you posted it. I note your point about The weekend! What though do you think was Hewett’s point in writing this book?


      • I can’t make an informed comment without reading the daughter’s book, but I think Hewett, puts Esther’s kids to one side in this novel, and just writes about what a sexualised life – through to oldish age – means to her.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have this in my pile, picked up cheaply at last year’s Save the Children Fund book sale (I think?) but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I really enjoyed Bobbin’ Up when I read it last year, even though that kind of novel would never get published today because people would jump up and down about class appropriation or something 😆


    • I think Hewett put in the hours in the factory to earn the right to speak for the Bobbin’ Up women, though given her schooling I’d be interested to know how posh was her accent.
      Anyway, this one is completely class appropriate, and an interesting study of an ageing woman.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That first quote is beautiful – a lovely rhythm to the writing. Though I always find the phonetic depiction of accents very difficult to follow, and that second quote is no exception! (Even Dickens, who did a very good job accurately depicting the rural working class Kentish accent that my own grandparents had, takes me out of the narrative).


  4. I agree with you totally about accents, they make reading very difficult. Australia’s are class rather than regional, and Hewett, given her play writing probably has a good ear for them.


  5. I feel funny about your description of the character as “overweight and wheelchair bound.” Pairing them together sounds like both are disabilities, or one caused the other, or that these are the only two qualities about this person worth mentioning, and both are bad. Otherwise, why not describe other features? “Bound” sounds like we should pity her, but a wheelchair is a tool for locomotion, not a prison. Just some thoughts.


      • I don’t mind waiting. I wonder if Australia has much in the way of disability lit. Actually, the author Asphyxia writes about disabilities often on her blog. I started following her after I read her novel you recommended.


      • Is it tomorrow? I feel like it might be the day after. I respect that “overweight and wheelchair bound” is a cliche and sounds judgemental. Sorry. It does however express how the author describes her protagonist and probably herself. I’m not sure she tells us why she is trapped in a wheelchair (diabetes?) but that is how she feels.

        When Billy undresses Esther the first time and runs a bath for her – a) she steps in herself; and b) he tells her ‘Y’ look all right in the nuddy. Y’ got nice tits. I like women with a bit of flesh on ’em instead of them scrawny things.’ So I clearly should have expressed myself a bit better as you rightly point out.

        Psyche at the present stage is only using a wheelchair when she’s out and liable to get tired, and is not partying (she saved up all her energy and danced at the weekend, after I left). I am already finding I have to be careful how I talk to her about herself.


  6. I think reading different speech patterns in text is much like watching movies with subtitles, it becomes easier with practice. As with the longish passage you’ve quoted, I often mark the discussions about books and reading too.


    • The places I find comments by M McC! You obviously have a system for sneaking them in behind my back. I have always enjoyed movies with subtitles – for their artiness usually – but now prefer subtitles (captions) all the time. I rarely bookmark anything, but writers talking about writing always catches my attention.


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