Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) was a notable artist especially with pen and ink and a competent author. He first came to prominence as an illustrator for the Bulletin (here) in the early years of the C20th; he became and remains famous for his nudes; spent 18 frustrating months in London where he tried to sell “four hundred drawings for a proposed deluxe edition of The Memoirs of Casanova“; before returning to Sydney and purchasing a home in the Blue Mountains where he wrote and painted for the next fifty years (see the 1994 movie, Sirens).
I’ve a corner of my TBR devoted to Lindsay and have had in mind for some time, years probably, a project around the Sydney Push and his son, Jack Lindsay’s book The Roaring Twenties. This is not it, I just wanted something to read on a very wet afternoon last time I was home.
The Push were a group of hard drinking, womanizing (male) writers in Sydney in the 1920s about whom I have written before in connection with the post WWI generation of women writers (AWW Gen 3), especially Zora Cross who made a valiant attempt to join in, Christina Stead who thought about it but concentrated on getting to London instead, and Anne Brennan, daughter of drunken poet Christopher Brennan, who tried too but was mostly just used.
I am a fan of Lindsay’s childrens’ book, The Magic Pudding, which I, and my father before me, give to newborns at every opportunity. I have read his fictionalised memoir trilogy, of his years growing up in Creswick in the Victorian goldfields, starting with Redheap in which he plays fast and loose with the servant girls, and then Saturdee in which he gets the vicar’s daughter pregnant, if I remember correctly (it’s been twenty years). And yet I cited his The Cousin from Fiji – the story of a young woman staying with family in Ballarat at the turn of the last century – in my dissertation for its sympathetic treatment of its female protagonist.
Age of Consent (1938) is the sixth of Lindsay’s ten novels, and like a number of the others it attracted the attention of the censors, though I am not sure if it was banned outright, as so many books were at that time. It’s the story of a 40 year old confirmed bachelor painter and a 17 or 18 year old naive girl living in beach shacks on a lonely stretch of NSW South Coast, so I was worried about how it might turn out.
Not too bad, is my verdict. Lindsay gets off on the girl’s legs and the fact that she wears nothing under her rag of a dress, and draws (and discusses) her, as above, lifting the hem a little higher, waving her legs around as she plays with the painter’s dog and eventually being persuaded to pose nude. But she, Cora, is portrayed as a child of nature, carer since age eight of her demented alcoholic grandmother, her mother long gone to the bright lights of Sydney, as shy as a gazelle, and as innocent.
The story is located in the coastal town of ‘Wantabadgeree’. Now, as it happens, I know Wantabadgery, it’s a farming hamlet near Wagga, so well inland, and years ago (45-50!) I would take a short cut that way from Western Victoria, fording the Murrumbidgee there, and going on to Gundagai and thence to Sydney. Why Lindsay uses it as the name of a town on the coast I don’t know. Ignorance probably.
The basis of the plot is that Bradly Mudgett is a mediocre landscape painter, with enough money from his last sales to keep him going for a couple of months in a shack on a remote beach while he tries his hand at seascapes for a change. He has his dog for company, and needs solitude to concentrate. Not the least interesting part of the novel is Bradly’s prevarication, his working himself up to concentrate, his intense focus once fired up, and the way he visualises what is in front of him in terms of how he is going to paint: tones, colour, light and shade and so on.
Cora, out looking for shellfish, intrudes on one of Bradly’s compositions and he discovers the painting works better with her in it
At that little estuary from the lagoon Bradly set up his easel, dodging about to find the best viewpoint under the dove-coloured stems of the tea-trees, dripping feathery white blossoms over the water. When that was selected, he had her wade into the water, which came no higher than her calves. Against the blaze of light beyond her, she made a lovely pattern, warm with reflected light, cooled by the shadows, and flecked with minted gold from the foliage above her.
‘Pull up your skirt a bit; hook it up with both hands, like you was wading,’ commanded Bradly.
With one of her strenuous wriggles, which either confessed embarrassment, or rejected it, she pulled the skirt up, but it was so short that being pulled up, it came above her thighs, and revealed their warm mystery golden with light reflected from the water.
Into this idyll, comes Podson, a young bank teller from the last town Bradly was painting in, on the run from the police after being chased out the bank manager’s wife’s bedroom window while still owing the bank fifty quid invested in slow horses. Bradly is unable to make himself throw Podson out and is stuck with him, literally eating up his savings, until he, Podson, chances on a lonely spinster.
Cora has her own problems with her grandmother, who threatens Bradly with all sorts of retribution, mostly to do with Cora being underage and naked, when she discovers Bradly has been paying Cora for posing, and that money has not been going towards her gin.
The town policeman, who in passing has his own way of denying sustenance to the unemployed (this is during the Great Depression), especially those who like a drink, becomes involved.
But of course it all works out in the end. I liked it well enough, though Lindsay makes me nervous when it comes to young women and their states of undress.
Norman Lindsay, Age of Consent, illustrated by the author. First pub. 1938 (in New York), First pub. Australia 1962. My edition (not the one pictured) Angus & Robertson, 1991, Introduction by Barry Oakley.