The Dream Lover, Elizabeth Berg

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The Dream Lover (2015) is a fictionalized life, written in the first person, of celebrated French novelist George Sand (1804-1876) who was of course a woman, born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. I’ve been listening to it over the past couple of days and have constructed this review from my memory of the story, relying on Wikipedia for dates and names.

Ironically, in her memoir Histoire de ma Vie (1855), Sand writes, “I would not want to tell my life like a novel. The content would be overwhelmed by the form.”

Sand was the author of 60 or so novels and two memoirs. As well as I can gather, her themes were adultery, sexual satisfaction for women, and the unfairness of marriage laws which vested all of a woman’s property in the husband. She went about publicly in men’s clothes, lived separately from her husband, conducted a number of ‘scandalous’ affairs, and hinted at being bi-sexual, particularly in her relations with the actress Marie Duval.

I am always looking out for antecedents for the strong anti-marriage theme in the writing of C19th Australian women novelists and feminists like Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Gaunt and Rosa Praed, and Sand interests me in this regard. I’m not sure how much of her work was translated into English, though I’m sure she was well known. Berg quotes passages from Sand’s work and what I presume are genuine letters, particularly in relation to her views on sexual politics, but again does not suggest any influences.

The novel begins in 1831 with Aurore leaving her husband Casimir Dudevant and their two children at their country home Nohant – which she had inherited from her grandmother along with a substantial fortune, but which he controls – to join her lover in Paris and to set out on her career as a writer. We move ahead in two parallel streams – her career as an independent adult going on from that point, and her childhood and young womanhood leading up to the separation. The writing is good, but not excellent, and the story itself is fascinating. As we switch back and forth between the timelines each episode is dated but still with the potential to be confusing, especially listening and not paying full attention, for instance Aurore dealing inexpertly with a suitor in one timeline and dragging a lover into bed in the other.

As briefly as I can, the story is that her well-born father Maurice Dupin was an officer in Napoleon’s army. While serving in Italy he falls in love with Sophie, a courtesan, whom he marries secretly against his mother’s wishes. They have a daughter, Aurore and subsequently a son who is born when Sophie joins Maurice in Spain (I guess at the beginning of the Peninsular War) but who is sickly, particularly after the long trek back to Nohant in central France (about 300 km south of Paris) and soon dies. Maurice dies not long after, in a riding accident. Sophie does not get on with her mother in law and accepts an allowance to go and live in Paris while Aurore is brought up as a lady by her grandmother, and is educated by Maurice’s old tutor.

Aurore is probably a bit wild. She gets her first taste of men’s clothing riding around the countryside in trousers and a loose shirt. Her grandmother reacts by putting her into a convent school run by English catholic nuns in Paris where she spends a relatively happy couple of years until she is 16 and it is time to put her on the marriage market. Her grandmother dies and Aurore becomes mistress of the estate until at 19, she marries Dudevant and he begins to run it down.

Berg pictures her as inexperienced (of course) in bed but also unresponsive. Nevertheless they have a son, Maurice, and then a daughter, Solange, though by then Aurore has been experimenting with lovers, so Solange’s paternity is uncertain.

Dudevant offers Aurore no comfort intellectually and she is frustrated by his stewardship of her estate. After eight years they separate and Dudevant gives her an allowance (out of her own money!) to live in Paris. Initially the children stay with their father and the parents take turns living at Nohant.

Aurore and her lover Jules Sandeau jointly write Rose et Blanche (1831) which is published under the pen name Jules Sand. The following year she writes Indiana, using the pen name George Sand, which name she adopts for herself from then on (that is, people now call her George). She has a job as a theatre critic and starts wearing men’s clothes because only men are allowed to sit in the cheap seats down the front.

The problem of women achieving satisfaction is a running theme in her early novels, and Berg has her spending one never repeated weekend of sensual delights with Marie Duval at Nohant where Duval teaches her the uses of all her ladybits. This seems to make life more pleasant both for her and for the many subsequent men in her life.

Divorce was abolished in France by Napoleon, but after four or five years of independence Sand and Dudevant negotiate a legal separation in which she regains control of Nohant and custody of the children. Sand is in any case already a prolific and commercially successful author and so though her stated sympathies are with the poor, her upbringing and lifestyle put her firmly with the rich and famous.

We go on. Maurice is a good boy, Solange is a handful. George is friends with Franz Liszt and stays with him in Switzerland in time to meet baby Cosima (The Young Cosima, Henry Handel Richardson). Liszt introduces her to Frederic Chopin, and Sand and Chopin live together for the decade 1837-47, eventually separating when Chopin sides with Solange over Solange’s impetuous marriage to August Clésinger.

In 1848 Sand is an enthusiastic supporter of the February Revolution marking the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the (short-lived) Second Republic. I think though that with the return of Empire under Napoleon III she finds it politic to retire to the country. She continues to entertain and in later years becomes friends with the reclusive Flaubert, twenty years her junior. She dies at Nohant in 1876.

 

Elizabeth Berg, The Dream Lover, Random House, 2015. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 2015, read by Emily Sutton-Smith

Google Books has some interesting critical studies of George Sand (here) including modern introductions to Story of my Life and Indiana.

Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers has set up a collaborative blog for George Sand (here) to which this post has been added.

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The Spare Room, Helen Garner

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The Spare Room is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters in this book and real people, living or dead, is coincidental.” Except of course that this is an almost journalistic account of Helen Garner’s nursing of her friend, Jenya Osborne (Wiki), Nicola in this ‘novel’, who is dying of cancer.

Peter Carey, for the back cover blurb, calls this “A PERFECT NOVEL, imbued with all Garner’s usual clear-eyed grace …”. But Robert Dessaix writes in his review, “[Garner’s works] are not novels. They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. ”

Let Garner have the last word, “She doesn’t want to define fiction, and the notion that it should be entirely made up is, of course, absurd.” [Interview in The Age, 29 Mar. 2008]

Garner, and her protagonist ‘Helen’, were about 60 when The Spare Room was written, living in an inner-northern Melbourne suburb within walking distance of the Broadmeadows train line, with her daughter’s family next door, when she accepted a request from an old friend, Nicola, to stay for three weeks while she underwent a course of ‘alternative’ therapy for her terminal cancer.

Before Nicola arrives Helen discusses her with her therapist friend, Leo:

‘You work with cancer patients,’ I said. ‘Does this sound bad?’
He shrugged. ‘Pretty bad. Stage four.’
‘How many stages are there?’
‘Four’
[…]
‘Maybe that’s why she’s coming to stay. Maybe she wants you to be the one.’
‘What one?’
‘The one to tell her she’s going to die.’

In Sydney, Nicola, an old hippy, has a house on the northern beaches accessible only by dinghy and a long clamber up from the beach. This involves an effort which for some time she has been too weak to make and so she has been staying with her niece and the niece’s boyfriend, Iris and Gab, in their one-bedroom flat closer to the city. Unbeknownst to Nicola, Helen and Iris have been discussing her via email.

The treatment that Nicola has chosen involves injections of huge doses of Vitamin C which incapacitate her and leave her in tremendous pain, which she attempts to deal with, initially at least, with aspirin, though Helen quickly gets her to a real doctor and a prescription for proper pain killers.

Garner’s writing is spare and to the point. For three weeks she takes us through the day to day struggle of getting Nicola to appointments; of edging her back to conventional medicine; of the sleepless nights spent removing and replacing bedding soaked with night sweats; Helen’s own life and work, even her relationship with her granddaughter, on hold for the duration.

The heart of this story is not the failure of alternative therapy; not the huge workload imposed on Helen, the long nights, the hours spent ferrying Nicola to and from appointments; nor even Nicola’s refusal to give up on alternative therapy in the face of all evidence to the contrary; but of Helen dealing with her anger – her anger with the venal and incompetent alternative therapists, with Nicola’s rictus of a smile in denial of her punishing pain, but most of all, with Nicola’s refusal to face up to her impending death.

Yet through it all, Helen maintains her love for Nicola and remains committed to caring for her for the whole three weeks. I don’t think Helen is ever angry at Nicola for asking this of her and I certainly don’t think she begins to hate her, although this was the impression I retained from listening to all those Radio National discussions of The Spare Room back in 2008.

Iris and Gab come for a short stay and they encourage Helen to confront Nicola with her anger:

The last of my self-control gave way.
‘Get that grin off your face. Get it off, or I’ll wipe it off for you.’
It faded of its own accord. She took two steps backwards, gaping at me. ‘Why are you so angry?’
‘This house is full of anger! Can’t you feel it? The rooms are stuffed with it. And a lot of it’s got to be yours.’
[…]
‘Everyone’s angry, everyone’s scared,’ I shouted. ‘You’re angry and scared. But you won’t admit it. You want to keep up this masquerade, so you dump your shit on me. I’m sick with it. I can’t breathe.’

Nicola gets a new diagnosis which means an operation and then recuperation in Melbourne but Helen cannot face even one more day beyond the 21 requested. In a final chapter Garner fills us in on Nicola’s final weeks – she has the operation and recuperates in the Windsor Hotel (a fine old hotel and a Melbourne icon) with carers flown down from Sydney, then Helen flies to Sydney to join the women in Iris’s apartment seeing Nicola through to the end.

As seemingly with all Garner’s work, this is a story about Garner, about Garner’s reaction to the stress of having sole care of a dying, loved friend. We know this is the third time she has had to do this, first for her sister, then her mother, so perhaps its about her reaction to them dying too, despite her care for them. Garner’s utter honesty about her own reactions make The Spare Room unputdownable.

 

Helen Garner, The Spare Room, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008

Robert Dessaix’s review in The Monthly (here)
Jason Steger, The Age, Melbourne, 29 Mar 2008, Interview: It’s fiction and that’s a fact, (here)

Michelle at Adventures in Biography is a Garner fan and has posts on Garner’s This House of Grief (here and here)
Sue at Whispering Gums must be a fan too. A list of her Garner posts (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers is not a fan but she has reviewed The Spare Room (here)
My review of Garner’s essay collection The Feel of Steel (here)

Great Australian Girls, Susan Geason

 

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Before you tar and feather me, ‘Girls’ is Geason’s word, not mine, although  she attempts amelioration with ‘and the remarkable women they became’. And how Ned Kelly, or a female Ned Kelly – do they look like woman’s eyes to you too? – got on the cover I am not sure.

This 1999 book is a collection of biographical sketches of Australian women who shared “qualities like courage and determination, the strength to face adversity and obstacles and still fight on.” The idea of course, although Geason does not say so in her short Introduction, is to provide positive role models for girls when our histories, and the daily press, are so full of role models for boys.

As you might expect, the older stories are of more interest to me, some of the later stories might have been articles in the Women’s Weekly.

Mary Reibey (1777-1855) This is the most extensive account I’ve read of Reibey, who vies with Elizabeth Macarthur for the title of Australia’s first businesswoman. Mary was born in Lancashire into a middle class family. Her parents died early on and she was taken in by her grandmother and educated at Blackburn Free Grammar School. When she was 13 her grandmother died and rather than enter an ‘orphanage’ (a parish poor house probably) Mary ran away, stole and attempted to sell a horse, and although for a short while successfully posing as a boy, was eventually transported to New South Wales as a female convict on the Royal Admiral in 1792. Geason says as “part of the Second Fleet” but I think she is wrong about this, and in fact I think she relies too often on her general knowledge instead of looking things up, as for instance when she says “after a fast run across the Pacific … sailed through Sydney Heads”. In fact sailing ships came from England from the other direction, via Cape Town and the Southern Ocean.

On arrival in Sydney Town, Mary wasn’t selected from a line-up of new arrivals as a ‘wife’, but two years later, at age 17 she married Thomas Reibey, a ship’s officer with the East India Company. Reibey became a prominent businessman, firstly as a farmer on the Hawkesbury, then as the owner of small ships servicing his fellows on the Hawkesbury and subsequently the coastal and Pacific Islands trades. Thomas was often away and Mary was active in running the business, as she continued to do after his death in 1811, growing in prosperity and respectability for the next 40 years.

Geason mentions Mary Reibey’s diary, though not in her extensive list of sources, but here it is at the Mitchell (NSW State Library).

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) was born on her parent’s property, Oldbury, in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Her mother, an educated woman, daughter of a barrister, took over the property when her husband died two months after Louisa’s birth. There followed eight years of  moves and disruption, not to mention a disastrous re-marriage to an alcoholic, before Charlotte finally had James Atkinson’s will executed in her favour. The lesson Louisa learned from this was the one preached by many of my other Independent Women: “a woman without money and friends was at the mercy of men. Marriage was not the answer… A woman had to gain the skills and knowledge to earn her own living.” Charlotte before her had been an author – of the first children’s book published in the colony – and an amateur botanist. Louisa took up botany at an early age and at 19 started producing nature notes and drawings for the Sydney Illustrated News, and subsequently as ‘A Voice from the Country’ in the Sydney Morning Herald. With her friend Emma Selkirk she made long excursions into the Blue Mountains searching out new plant species –

On horseback, with their long skirts hiked up like trousers, the two would pick their way up and down steep ravines, through dense forest and undergrowth… One of their favourite haunts was the fern gully at the Kurrajong waterfalls, where they discovered several new ferns.

Sounds like the women in Christina Stead’s story ‘On the Road’ in The Salzburg Tales.

Louisa’s major work was an illustrated Australian natural history. In 1870 she sent the ms to famous botanist Ferdinand von Mueller but it was lost in the upheavals of the Franco-Prussian War. She also wrote a number of novels though Geason mentions only the first, Gertrude the Emigrant (1857).

Finally, aged 35, she married, but died a couple of years later in childbirth.

Mary MacKillop (1842-1909). I’ve been meaning to look into the life of Mary McKillop for a while and by this account she was a lively and determined woman. Leaving aside the nonsense of “Australia’s first saint”, she famously established an independent order of nuns, the Josephites, against the bitter opposition of Australian Catholic bishops.

In 1865 the three older MacKillop girls set off to Penola [north of Mt Gambier, SA] to start their school. Mary was 24, Annie was 17, and Lexie only 15. They started out teaching classes in their cottage and the local church.

In January 1866, by donning a simple black gown, Mary became a nun, the school became the Institute  of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and a new religious order was born. When she died, aged 67, Mary ‘left behind 750 nuns teaching over 12,000 children in Josephite schools in Australia and New Zealand.’

Next up are Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) whom I discussed here, and will treat at length ‘one day’ soon; and Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson (1870-1946) here and ditto.

May Gibbs (1877-1969) was born in England and came to Australia when she was four. Her father attempted to farm poor country north of Adelaide before giving in and moving to Western Australia where he farmed first at Harvey, south of Perth, then at Butler’s swamp which is now the (inner) suburb, Claremont. (I once had a boss, a milkman, who remembered when cows were run on the South Perth foreshore). May had virtually no formal schooling, but at 20 she became a student at the new Art Gallery and then at 23 she enrolled first at the prestigious London art school, the Cope and Nichol, then after a brief interlude back in Perth, at first Chelsea Polytechnic then at Mr Henry Blackburn’s School for Black and White Artists.

Back in Perth again Gibbs found some work as an illustrator (eventually losing out to Ida Rentoul) but it was not until she moved to Sydney with her friend Rene Heames that she found consistent success. Bib and Bub, the gumnut babies grew out of her work illustrating the NSW Primary Reader and School Magazine, before popping up in Ethel Turner’s The Magic Button, then Gibb’s own books, Gum-Nut Babies and Gum-Blossom Babies appeared ‘just in time for Christmas 1916. Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie came out in 1918 and the rest is history*.

There follow Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) who went from farm girl to international opera star to crippled by polio; Nancy Bird (1915-2009) pioneer commercial aviator; Linda McLean (1917- ) who wrote a memoir of her hardships during the Depression, Pumpkin Pie and Faded Sandshoes; Dawn Fraser (1937- ) the great Australian swimmer whose working class background rubbed too many ‘amateur’ swimming officials up the wrong way; Pat O’Shane (1941- ) a Yalanji-Kunjandji woman, ‘Aboriginal activist and magistrate’; Irene Moss/Kwong Chee Wai Lin (1948- ) characterised as ‘a fighter for justice’, the Race Discrimination Commissioner wife of the Chairman of Australia’s most rapacious bank (Alan Moss, Macquarrie Bank); Lorrie Graham (1954- ) photojournalist; Beverley Buckingham (1965- ) one of the best jockeys in Tasmania until the fall in 1998 which rendered her an ‘incomplete quadriplegic’; Heather Tetu (1967- ) trapeze artist graduate of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and an early organizer of circus exchanges with China, left unable to perform  after a fall in 1992; Sonya Hartnett (1968- ) writer, whom I reviewed recently (here); Fiona Coote (1970- ) heart transplant recipient; Louise Sauvage (1973- ) multi gold medal winning wheelchair racer; Rebecca Smart (1976- ) actor, Buster in The Shiralee (1987), and Const. Donna Janevski in The Water Rats since this book came out; Tamara Anna Cislowska (1977- ) child prodigy pianist; Monique Truong (1985- ) girl.

Monique is definitely my favourite of the ‘others’. When she was 11, her parents’ Canley Vale (Sydney, western suburbs) house was broken into by a gang of schoolboys armed with pistols. Unhappy with what was there to steal they took Monique with them, eventually holing up in a Parramatta hotel –

[The leader] grabbed one of the single beds for himself, while Monique and the other boy shared the second one, a pillow between them.

In the morning Monique slipped a note under the door and was soon rescued, physically unharmed. However, as might be expected, she needed counselling and her family moved to Queensland, where they feel safer.

 

Susan Geason, Great Australian Girls, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

*Lisa, ANZLitLovers attended the session ‘The Real May Gibbs’ at the recent Bendigo Writers’ Festival

A Boy’s Life, Jack Davis

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Jack Davis (1917-2000) was a poet, a playwright, a Noongar man, and an indigenous rights campaigner. His plays, including No Sugar, his best known, are studied in Western Australian schools but I first came to hear of him only a couple of years ago. Reviewing Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence I wrote: “[The girls] were held at the East Perth Girls’ Home (the author says this is now the Jack Davis hostel, to which I cannot find any reference, though Jack Davis seems to have been an Indigenous writer and activist whom I should follow up)” -and now I am.

Davis’ parents had both been taken from their families up north, but by 1917 his father had his citizenship papers and was working at Waroona not far south of Perth, so young Jack was born prosaically in King Edward Memorial Hospital (equivalent to Royal Women’s in Melbourne) and not “delivered by Aboriginal women in the glow of a campfire” as he might have wished.

However, a quote on the second page marks the place where all accounts of Indigenous life in Australia must start until we whites acknowledge and internalize the great wrongs that we have done and are doing:

[My father] remembers holding his boss’ horse outside the Roebourne police station while his boss went to obtain a permit which gave him permission to shoot troublesome blacks on his property. The cost of the permit was one shilling.

Jack’s father came south and married, with jobs in Waroona and Lake Clifton before settling in Yarloop, a timber milling and railway town between Perth and Bunbury. Jack was the fourth of 10 children and grew up with a happy home life, his father with a job at the mill, no more impoverished than the people around them during the 1920s and 30s, with access to good hunting in the jarrah forests of the Darling Escarpment,  a Black family in a mostly white community and no mention of racial tension.

These are stories of going to school, growing up in any Australian rural town, any loving mother with a big family, getting into scrapes and all the rest of it, at a time when roads were unpaved and cars were rare. The writing is spare and cheerful. The stories are short and not as detailed as Norman Lindsay’s for instance, nor as sickly-sentimental as Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella. I had a look too, at the opening chapters of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, which I haven’t read for a while, but again there was more detail and more continuity than in Davis’ short (150pp) book of stories.

In the last few chapters Jack  falls into the snares of the infamous ‘Protector’ of Aboriginals, A.O.Neville. When Jack is 14 Neville offers him and his next older brother, Harold ‘places’ at Moore River native Settlement to ‘learn farming’. Mrs Davis accepts and the boys make their way there via the Home in East Perth which was later to bear Jack’s name. The offer is of course a con and the boys are used as unpaid labour. As we know, conditions at Moore River were terrible:

One day two sixteen-year-old girls who tried to abscond from the settlement were caught, brought back and locked in the boob. Next day they were taken down to the storeroom where they were both laid over sacks of flour and Mr Neal [the superintendent] flogged them with the cat until they wet themselves. He then ordered them to eat the flour.

Davis thinks superintendent was a tough job, but someone had to do it. After a few months, mostly in the outer camp with the adults, the boys were told to return home. A year or so later, the Depression really starting to bite, the older boys unable to find work, their father dies in an accident, and the family breaks up. Davis heads north and spends the war years droving in the Gascoyne.

Although Davis doesn’t say so, I think his father’s citizenship papers insulated the family from the worst effects of the 1905 Aborigines Act, but the fact that both parents were ‘stolen’ and the Act’s prohibition of ‘citizens’ consorting with Aboriginals meant that nearly all family connections were lost. Neville would claim of course that the Davis’ ‘normal’ family life was proof of the efficacy of this prohibition, but the personal cost was enormous and Jack only discovered he had family connections in the Brookton area east of Perth when author Sally Morgan ran across part of his mother’s family tree during research into someone else, in the latter years of his life.

At this point I have less insight into Davis’ writing than I had expected. Perth academic and editor of Westerly, Tony Hughes d’Aeth, has just released Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt which I will review at length ‘soon’, but it contains a chapter on Davis (and another on Facey). For those of you not up on WA geography, the Wheatbelt is a belt of semi-arid country south of a line from north of Geraldton to east of Esperance, but not including the high rainfall jarrah forests of the south west corner. For reasons probably to do with rainfall, that outer boundary roughly coincides with the outer boundary of Noongar country.

For the next few days I am working up the Pilbara coast, but when I get back I’ll put up a part II on No Sugar (the script, I haven’t seen a performance) and d’Aeth’s chapter on Davis.

 

Jack Davis, A Boy’s Life, Magabala Books, Broome, 1991

see also Mairi Neil’s review (here) of Jack Davis’ poetry in her blog Up the Creek with a Pen …
Jack Davis, No Sugar, Currency Press, Sydney, 1986
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWAP, Perth, 2017

Louisa, Brian Matthews

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Brian Matthews begins Louisa (1987) with complaints about his typewriter, which is dented and damaged and “everyone else I know or had ever heard of” was using a word-processor; his struggles with writing; and his problems with biography. ‘At the top of a clean, white page’ he has written:

“Louisa Lawson (née Albury) was born on ‘Hungry’ Rouse’s Guntawang Station in February 1848 and was baptized in the homestead drawing room by the Reverend Archdeacon Gunther.”

Such fastidiously slavish conformity to formula: she/he (name) was born on/at (place) in (date) and (add in more or less random detail for balance); such awful inertia, such adamant refusal to open out into anything of further interest.

This sentence … reminded me forcibly of the problematic nature of biography and of this biography in particular. The truth of the matter was: despite my diligent pursuit of fact and evidence, anecdote and clue, I knew very well as I finished and recoiled from that so conventional opening gambit that there was a critical shortage of material.

Brian Matthews was born in 1936 and “lives [in 1987 at least] in the Mount Lofty Ranges (Adelaide) with his wife and five children” – a sentence whose point I have never understood, and yet it is found, with just the details changed, in nearly every author bio. He was teaching Literature at Flinders Uni, and had written previously on Henry Lawson. Now he was tackling Lawson’s less well-known mother, a fiercely independent woman, a writer and publisher, and an important figure in Australian first-wave feminism. The problems to overcome, as he sees it are;

First: paucity of hard evidence. The act of writing biography is stalked at every point by the temptation to invent…

Second: even when material is plentiful, but especially when it is not, there exists the danger that the writer will enter the narrative, inflated and indulged behind the fluctuating presence of the subject.

For a dozen pages he proposes and abandons various forms of parallel factual and speculative texts before settling on a new beginning:

Gertrude Eloise was the second of twin girls born to Louisa Lawson on 30 April 1877 in Mudgee. Her sister Annette Elizabeth, whom her mother and Henry later referred to as Nettie, died in January of the following year.

And so we finally begin making our way, easily and fluently, into Louisa’s story, although with occasional interspersions from ‘Owen Stevens’, our biographer’s alter ego.

Gertrude in later life was to write about both Louisa and Henry. Owen Stevens comments on her value as a source: “She failed as far as Henry was concerned … But she was far too close to Louisa for far too long … to get it really wrong.” But the next paragraph begins: “The biographer is both shocked and obscurely excited about the forthrightness of this statement” and after some further questioning, “henceforth he will patrol the alternative text, like an editor” ready “if need be, to kill him off at the slightest sign of trouble.” So, it seems we are to have not one but two alternative streams of text.


I’ve written about Louisa before, in The Independent Woman in Australian Literature, but here is a re-hash of her bio:

Brian Matthews describes Louisa as tall, with striking looks, and tirelessly hard-working. Used from a young age by her mother as an unpaid skivvy and child-minder, she rushed into marriage at 18, to an itinerant 34 year old gold miner, Peter Larsen. With 5 children under 10 before she was 30, she struggled to survive on their small bush block at Eurunderee, near Mudgee (the source of many of Henry Lawson’s stories), running a small general store and post office, farming with the help of Henry, Peter being mostly away, and still finding time to write poetry and to lead a successful local campaign for Eurunderee to get a school; before finally giving up and moving to Sydney in 1886, where she supported herself by sewing and washing and taking in boarders.

 In 1887 she purchased an ailing newspaper, the Republican, which had its own small printing press, and which in 1888 morphed into Dawn, a monthly newspaper for women. Later the same year the absent Peter died leaving her some money, enabling her to enlarge her press, and within a year she was employing 10 women, including printers, earning her the enmity of the (male only) printers’ union. Through Dawn, Louisa launched a campaign for female suffrage in 1889, and in 1891 she was elected to the council of the newly formed Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. Until the vote was won in 1902 she frequently spoke at large assemblies, and the facilities at Dawn were volunteered for meetings and the printing of pamphlets. Louisa, no doubt reflecting on her own experience, was fierce about the difficulties faced by women forced by economics into unhappy marriages: ‘“Half of Australia’s women’s lives are unhappy,” proclaims the first editorial.’ In 1900 she was hit by a tram and the effects of the injury lingered, until, in 1905, Dawn, which had been an important voice educating and campaigning for women’s rights, was closed down and Louisa retired to her gardening.


It is central to both Louisa’s life and to Henry’s writing, that Louisa was a great story teller. Matthews points out that Louisa, who moved in all kinds of Sydney social circles, despite her limited education and having lived in the bush in poor to desperate circumstances until she was in her forties, assumed a position of leadership in the women’s movement by dint of her articulate public speaking, both formally and off-the-cuff. And he is able to analyse how stories, related at various times by Louisa, Gertrude and Henry, gain in dramatic intensity, while retaining a core of near-identical ‘facts’. So, most famously, The Drover’s Wife, is in essence a story that Henry and Gertrude had often heard told (and embellished) by their mother.

The biography progresses with each chapter of ‘mainstream’ text enlivened by suggestions from ‘Owen Stevens’ and counter-suggestions and occasional grudging agreement from the ‘real’ biographer. Louisa clearly had a hard life, starting out in rural poverty, reinventing herself in the city, encumbered by sons with serious mental illnesses, and then, at the height of her success as a publisher and women’s advocate, is knocked down by a tram, confined to bed for a year, left with ongoing back problems and headaches, and finally declines into what sounds like dementia with her children – other than Henry who by 1920 was totally incapacitated by alcoholism – scheming to inherit her cottage.

Matthews discusses Louisa Lawson’s achievements under four headings: Poetess, Dawn, Womanhood Suffrage, Inventor, before grudgingly adding a fifth, Henry.

Poetess: Louisa wrote poetry throughout her life, was published, in other magazines as well as her own, and published one collection, The Lonely Crossing (1905) which Matthews says is worthy of serious consideration. “The situation at the heart of many of Louisa’s poems is reminiscent of Barbara Baynton’s stories of besieged women. Indeed, she shows quite considerable consciousness of other writers – Boake, Longfellow, Kendall, to name a few – and often benefits from her knowledge of them.”

Dawn: “Louisa’s great years [1888-1900] began when the scatty, exciting, amateurish, outrageously belligerent little Republican disappeared overnight and re-emerged as The Dawn. For the next twelve years, Louisa Lawson was a known, striking and ubiquitous figure in Sydney journalistic and feminist circles.”

Dawn, throughout its seventeen years, crusaded for the interests of ordinary women – not anti-marriage but against laws and customs which gave men the ‘whip-hand’; pro divorce; full of useful hints – how to ride a bicycle , or ‘the possibilities in a leg of beef’; plain living; women’s health; opportunities for women to exchange ideas and information; women’s shelters; womanhood suffrage.

Womanhood Suffrage: In May 1889, Louisa addressed the inaugural meeting of The Dawn Club which became an important forum for discussing women’s rights. Two years later, a meeting addressed by Louisa, Rose Scott and others resolved to form The Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW into which the Dawn Club was merged. Matthews lists an executive committee which does not include Louisa, though her ADB entry says: “When Mrs Dora Montefiore formed the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales in 1891, Louisa was invited to join and was elected to its council.” In any case, Louisa continued to play an active part, both at meetings and in The Dawn – in contrast to the studied silence of the mainstream press. If I have a criticism of Matthews it is that he has very little to say about the League and the part played by Louisa.

Inventor: By contrast, Matthews spends a whole chapter on the saga of a buckle for securing mail bags invented by Louisa and adopted for use by the Post Office. She won a couple of contracts to supply the buckle and there was talk of it being used by Post Offices throughout the Empire, but eventually her design was stolen by the firm she was using to manufacture it, and with the connivance of managers within the Post Office bureaucracy, and despite numerous, tedious court cases, her title to the design and hopes for an independent retirement, were lost.

Henry: In those times before Henry Lawson was in the process of being forgotten it was common to blame Louisa for neglecting her children (I think this may be a dig at Colin Roderick and his book The Real Henry Lawson). But in fact Henry was an adult when Louisa moved to Sydney. She found him work and then when she purchased the Republican and its printing press, he worked for her there and later wrote articles for Dawn. Louisa always encouraged Henry with his writing (to which Peter, his father, was opposed) and was the first to publish him, Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894),  including for the first time anywhere, The Drover’s Wife.

Matthew’s opinion is that: “Henry Lawson was a great writer. He was also, sadly, critically disabled by deafness [not to mention a poor education, and a disinclination to accept criticism]… Allowing for his misfortune, however, it can still be said that he was impetuous, shallow and an incorrigible whinger.”

The final chapters document the years of Louisa’s decline, which I am happy to gloss over. Louisa Lawson was a striking woman and this is a striking biography, both for its form and its content, and should be on the TBR of every student of Australian Lit.

 

Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, 1987. My edition Penguin, 1988

see also the much more expert opinions of Nathan Hobby, here
and I recently wrote on Bertha Lawson’s biography of Henry Lawson, here

My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson

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My Henry Lawson, published in 1943 and never republished as far as I can see, is a memoir of the great short story writer by his wife. I read other works about Lawson during my studies, particularly City Bushman by Christopher Lee and Louisa by Brian Matthews, which I plan to re-read and review in the next few months, but this one makes a nice entry point. Briefly, Lee argues that the mythologising of Australian bush workers was a product of city-based writers, in particular Henry Lawson; while Louisa is an account of the life of one of our great Independent Women, who also happened to be Henry’s mother. Bertha writes of her mother in law:

If there is anything in heredity, Harry’s literary talents undoubtedly came from his mother, who fifty years ago, owned and published the first women’s newspaper in Australia. It was called “the Dawn – a Journal for Australian Women.”

Lawson, then quite young and not yet a published poet, was working elsewhere at the time and “had nothing to do with it, not even as a contributor”. Later in the same chapter Bertha writes:

Louisa was a remarkable character, a very determined woman and she and her poet son could never see eye to eye. Apart they remained friendly; together they were at daggers-drawn. They had many and fierce arguments and eventually Harry left home.

Henry Lawson was born at Grenfell [NSW], in a tent, on June 17, 1867. A “birth in a mining camp … was such a novelty, that every digger visited the home to ask to see the baby and to leave generous presents.” Bertha describes Lawson’s antecedents and upbringing, and it is important in light of Lee’s argument to emphasise just how much time Lawson spent in the bush, both growing up and as a young man.

Lawson spent some time in bush schools, though was often truant or helping his parents with work, and then his deafness, caused by illness, also intervened. Louisa had some poetry published in a local paper and Lawson, aged around 10 or 11, attempted some as well but his father objected to his “vaporisings” and they were thrown in the fire. At 14 he was working full time for his father who was a building contractor in country towns west of the Blue Mountains. His education was only resumed after Louisa left her husband and moved to Granville where Henry, then 16, was able to attend night school 3 nights a week. Within a year he had a poem about a shipwreck then in the papers (The Wreck of the Derry Castle) accepted by Archibald for publication in the Bulletin.

Lawson made a number of attempts to matriculate so he could go on to university, but failed, about which he was always bitter: “I was taught too little? I learnt too much/To use a pedant’s diction” (Lawson, The Uncultured Rhymer to His Cultured Critics). He drifted in and out of employment until at 19 he returned to working for his father, at Mt Victoria. There “he learnt to drink and found that under the influence of liquor he forgot his shyness”. When his father died at the end of 1888, Lawson completed his contracts and returned to Sydney, drifting again, but keeping on writing, and for a while working as a columnist in Brisbane.

Bertha doesn’t say so, but Lawson was becoming well known (see my earlier post Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson). In 1892 he borrowed some money from Archibald and took off for Bourke and subsequently Hungerford in far north-west NSW looking for work. His mate Jim Grahame wrote in the Bulletin in 1925 that he and Lawson tramped around the country west of Bourke working as rouseabouts (picking up fleeces, not shearing as was sometimes reported) for six months, before Lawson returned to Sydney by train as a drover with sheep going to the abattoirs at Homebush.

In 1895 Bertha was an 18 yo nurse from Bairnsdale, Vic, in Sydney visiting her mother. A friend introduced her to Lawson who became very persistent in pursuing her and they were soon planning to get married. By this time he had two books of short stories and poetry to his credit and a third, In the Days When the World was Wide, was with the printers. The future was looking rosy. After a couple of hiccups, Bertha’s mother gave her consent and the two were married on April 15, 1896.

In her description of a rowing excursion on Middle Harbour we are given a privileged view into their lives and Lawson’s writing:

Harry took pencil and paper, and while I sat and sewed, or rowed slowly, he wrote verses, chanting them softly to himself, to get the beat and rhythm. This was different from when Harry wrote verse at home, for then he would dictate it to me in that sing-song way of his, and after I had written it down, while he paced to and fro, he would correct it and read it to me.

With money in his pocket, an advance on his book, Lawson was restless and so they sailed for WA where Lawson hoped to become a gold miner, though as it happened they never made it past a camp on the hill near the cemetery in East Perth. When their money was about to run out Bertha engineered a return to Sydney. We get a glimpse of how famous Lawson was becoming:

… in Melbourne, the pressmen came down to interview us; and although we were travelling in the steerage, the captain allowed us to use the saloon, for Harry to entertain the press. It was the grand finale to our tour, and we landed in Sydney with two shillings in the exchequer …

In Sydney Lawson’s drinking mates were a problem, and with an introduction to the Premier, they moved on again, to New Zealand. A job was found for Lawson, as the teacher at an isolated Maori school where Bertha conspired with the locals to make it difficult for Lawson to get to the ‘bright lights’ of Kaikoura 12 miles away on the coast. Here she says, Lawson did some of his best work, all of Joe Wilson and His Mates, a play, and some poetry, including Written Afterwards in which he jokes about the restrictions imposed on him by marriage.

At the beginning of 1898 they returned to Wellington where their son, Jim was born and on to Sydney, where Lawson freelanced for a while till he found work as a clerk with the Government Statistician and gave up the grog. Despite his boss telling him he only had to show up during working hours and he could write what he liked, this lasted just one week!

Another book came out, there was another advance to spend, and another baby, Bertha (b. Feb 1900). Lawson was getting good reviews in Britain, the State Governor offered to pay his passage, and soon the family were on the move again (taking with them of course the ms for My Brilliant Career).

He had become one of the literary lions of London. A dinner had been given to welcome him, at which the leading literary men were guests. The world was at Harry’s feet…

Lawson however made little attempt to take advantage of the opportunities opening up for him. And after two years on the wagon, on arrival in London he started drinking again. Friends had found housing for them, but “with all this appreciation we still had not enough money to buy food”. Mary Gilmour, her husband and child came to stay (after the failure of New Australia). “We were all in deep financial difficulties”. Then Harry got an advance from Blackwoods (publishers) and Bertha “lost no time buying passages for myself and the children for Australia”. Lawson followed soon after.

They met up again in Colombo but by the time they were back in Australia the marriage was very nearly at an end. Bertha stayed in Melbourne for six weeks, while Henry went on to Sydney; they lived together for a while in Manly, but first Henry, then Bertha, was hospitalised for long periods; their furniture was seized for arrears of rent; a third baby died at birth.

Bertha found employment as a travelling saleswoman for Stuart & Co., booksellers while Lawson took lodgings, “it was useless taking up house again as he was quite penniless and the children had to be provided for.”

He had his happy times and I think those periods were usually associated with absolute freedom from responsibility and full expression of his genius. He hated to be tied down.

In this period, immediately before the Great War, Lawson had published a prose volume “The Rising of the Court” and a book of verses “Skyline Riders”. For a while during the War, the government gave him make-work, writing advertising for the Leeton irrigation area.

Bertha goes on to analyse Lawson’s writing, his connections to the working class, where she and he fit into his stories, particularly the Joe Wilson stories, and his links to the Australian ‘Bohemians’. Lawson died in 1922, of cerebral haemorrhage. He was given a State Funeral and according to Bertha, was buried in the grave that had been prepared for Henry Kendall.

This excellent little book ends with a previously unpublished Lawson short story, A Wet Camp.

 

Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (the drawing reproduced on the cover is signed McCormack)

Travels in Greece, Charmian Clift

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Charmian Clift (1920-1969) was a well-loved writer, though more by women than by men probably, famously married to journalist/author George Johnson (1912-1970). The two met at The Argus in Melbourne in 1946 when Clift was a fledgling reporter and Johnson was an editor and renowned war correspondent. They began an affair, for which they were sacked – mostly because Johnson was already married but also, I think, because they were not discreet.

They moved to Sydney, Johnson secured a divorce, they married, and they began co-writing novels, winning a prize with High Valley in 1948. Next stop was London in 1951 after Johnson obtained a prestigious position there with Associated Newspapers. But after only a few years they moved again, to Greece, with the intention of living as cheaply as they could, as full time writers of fiction.

Clift and Johnson were ten years in Greece, one year on the island of Kalymnos, close to the Turkish coast, the remainder on Hydra where they used all their savings to purchase a house. They had two children, a boy and a girl, Martin and Shane, born in Sydney, and another son born on Hydra. Clift wrote about living on Kalymnos in Mermaid Singing (1958) and about their first year in Hydra in Peel Me a Lotus (1959). Travels in Greece (1995) is a combination of the two.

Johnson had had little early success as a novelist, tending to rush his writing, and was probably happy to co-write with Clift, to take advantage of her greater attention to style and detail, although he continued also to produce novels on his own, finally achieving critical and financial success only after the end of their time on Hydra, with the fictionalised account of his boyhood, My Brother Jack (1964). Johnson, followed later by Clift and the children, then moved back to Australia. Clift was a script writer on the ABC TV series of My Brother Jack which aired in 1965, and began writing columns for the Sydney Morning Herald, soon achieving a large following.

In 1969 Clift, who like Johnson, had a drinking problem, suicided with an overdose of pills. Johnson’s entry in the ADB (here) says that Clift may have feared what Johnson might reveal in the second part of his fictionalised biography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) which came out a month later. This implies firstly that Clift had something to fear, presumably Johnson’s jealousy of her real or imagined affairs on Hydra, and secondly that she had not seen any earlier drafts of Johnson’s novel, which you would think unlikely, given their former collaboration.


At this point it occurs to me that the subjects of this and my previous review both died by suicide. If you are thinking along the same lines then I strongly suggest you talk to someone about it. I had a shot at it myself, as a young man, when my first marriage failed, and as it happens I was found and resuscitated. I have since had occasion at different times to rely on family, friends, workmates and counsellors, and they have all helped.*


Clift and Johnson’s time-out began on an impulse. They had often talked, when “outside in the Bayswater Road the night was the colour of a guernsey cow, and on the pavements the leaves lay in a sad yellow pulp”, about chucking in the London grind and moving to an island:

Perhaps if that very day we had not met, by accident, a friend newly returned from Greece who had asked me to come into the BBC to hear a radio feature he had made on the sponge-diving island of Kalymnos …

It burst like a star, so simple and brilliant and beautiful that for the moment we could only stare at each other in wonder. Why the devil shouldn’t we just go?

So we did.

We had no means of communication other than sign language, and we had a bank account that didn’t bear thinking about. Still, we thought we might be able to last for a year if we managed very carefully and stayed healthy. We had for some years published a novel every year or so, not very successfully, but we thought that it might be just possible to live by our writing when our capital ran out.

Clift’s writing is straightforward and clear, bringing to life the people they live amongst, and mixing in lots of geographical and historical background. Her own family we don’t get to know so well. George it seems is generally upstairs typing while Clift gets on with the shopping and cleaning, or he’s with her down at the local bar, and the kids are off playing. I enjoyed both accounts, but the first, Mermaid Singing, more than the second, Peel Me a Lotus. The former has a friendlier feel, as Charmian and the islanders, with the utmost goodwill, learn to understand each other and become friends. So much so that, at the end of the book, it comes as a bit of a surprise when they decide to move on.

Surprisingly, disappointingly, there is nothing at all about Clift’s and Johnson’s collaborative writing, or indeed about Clift’s life as a writer, at all. From that point of view, Park and Niland’s lightly fictionalised account of their first year together as struggling writers in Sydney, at about the same time, The Drums Go Bang (my review), is both more informative and more entertaining.

The people of Kalymnos are friendly, but seemingly without personal boundaries, living as they do (did!) in houses with a single bedroom and one sleeping platform for maybe 10 people. Locals wander in and out of the Clift/Johnson house at will, all the family’s activities are observed by hordes of children, it is not possible to walk anywhere alone, without people making it their business to be your company.

Peel Me a Lotus begins with Charmian pregnant with their third child – only ever called ‘baby’, as far as I can tell – on Hydra, having purchased a two storey house from the many empty since the glory days of the previous century, but waiting for the interminable renovations to be completed before moving in, and waiting desperately for the return of the only half-way competent ‘midwife’, before giving birth.

This book is more concerned with the activities of the other expats – not Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t arrive on Hydra until not long before the Clift/Johnsons leave – though George and Charmian still have friends in the local community. Clift is concerned that the charm of the island is being lost as it becomes a summer holiday destination for Athenians, as well as the latest resort for the usual suspects attempting to live cheap.

For it is now apparent that the yearly passage of the smart, penniless, immoral, clever young people – Creon’s ‘bums and perverts’ – has had its inevitable effect. This beautiful little port is to suffer the fate of so many little Mediterranean ports ‘discovered ‘ by the creative poor… We are watching the island in the process of becoming chic.

You will be pleased to hear that ex-Mrs Legend and I found, and the Greeks we spoke to agreed, that Hydra is probably still the least spoiled of the tourist islands. Perhaps the town, pop. 3,000, is too small to ever become a major tourist destination. Hope so!

These are interesting and well-written books with just one discordant note. Lisa at ANZLL in a recent review (here) on Clift’s newspaper columns published as a collection of essays after her death as Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967 (1990) said that Clift had disappointingly expressed the view that she had left school at fourteen because there was nothing they could teach her that would be “of the slightest use”. It was obviously a view she held seriously, leaving her children to the vagaries of Greek village school education, in fact, on the evidence of this book, not paying them much attention at all.

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Hydra, 2017. I believe the cave where Clift and her kids swam is just outside this photo, to the right

Charmian Clift, Travels in Greece, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1995. Previously published as Mermaid Singing (1958) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959)


I’m now home after a marvellous trip, my first and only probably. On the evidence of this past month, if I were to spend that ‘mythical’ year in Europe it would be in Paris, where I could pick up the language, where there is so much to do, and from where the whole of Europe is accessible by Fast Train network. Returning to earth, I have a couple of books left to review, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers written while he was living in Hydra; and Cave of Silence (2013) by Kostas Krommydas, recommended to me by a friendly lady bookseller on Santorini.


*Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia1300 78 99 78