The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Elizabeth Jolley

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Up till now I have read only one Elizabeth Jolley, The Well, which I wrote on during my studies 12 or so years ago. I would have used my essay as the basis for a post, being shameless in my recycling, only I cannot find it. My old 3” back-up discs are not well-labelled. I also have Brian Dibble’s 2008 Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley in my TBR, if only I could get to it.

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) was born and grew up in England, and began training as a nurse before entering a complicated marital relationship with Leonard Jolley, with whom she emigrated to Western Australia in 1959. According to Wikipedia (there is no ADB entry), they lived in the comfortable middle class Perth suburb of Claremont until 1970 when they purchased a small orchard at Woorooloo in the Ranges on the outskirts of the city.

Jolley had always been a writer, mostly of short stories, but remained unpublished until 1976. Shortly after this she began to teach one of the earlier Creative Writing courses, at WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin Uni.). Her first novel, Palomino was published in 1980. The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981), a novella really, was her second.

No one knew or cared where the Newspaper of Claremont Street went in her spare time. Newspaper, or Weekly, as she was called by those who knew her, earned her living by cleaning other people’s houses.

And so we begin. ‘Claremont Street’ is an imagined long street in Claremont, mostly residential but with a very old fashioned mixed-business grocery cum haberdashery store. Weekly lives in an old rooming house at one end, opposite an intrusive block of flats, and her clients live along its length. Weekly, who was brought up ‘in service’, cleans and helps out at dinner parties. At the end of each day she plonks down in a chair in the store and gives off a few items of news.

The story has a timeless feel which makes it difficult to place, but Weekly’s friend Nastasya was a teenager during the Russian Revolution and she and Weekly appear to be similar ages. By the time of the story Weekly is in late middle age so perhaps the setting is the early 1960s, before supermarkets had wiped out all the old grocery stores.

We learn that Weekly and her mother had been in service in England, and had emigrated to Australia when her father was killed in an accident. An older sister goes to work in the wheatbelt and we don’t hear of her again, but Weekly’s younger brother, Victor, who had been doing well at school in England, becomes a young con man, hanging around and taking what he can from Weekly and her mother, until at last, owing too much to the wrong type of people, he too disappears.

Weekly and her mother were in service in a large house. House cleaning was the only work they knew. Between them on swollen feet, they waited on Victor, cherishing him, because they knew no other way. And Victor, as he grew older, made his own life which they were obliged to hold in reverence because they did not understand it.

All the time, as Weekly works and saves, we are on the edge of her thoughts, listening in …

It was if her mother’s sigh persisted through the years, sadly and quietly, in the noise of the leaves flustering in front of the broom. Weekly added her own sigh and then shook off the thoughts. It was such a long time ago now.

Eventually Weekly gets a little car, persuades one client to give her an old car they have for sale, and another client, not to be outdone, to pay for her driving lessons, and begins to drive out into the country to seek out a little farmlet to which she might be able to afford to retire.

The fly in the ointment is that Nastasya, who has been used all her life to be waited on, has moved into Weekly’s room and Weekly doesn’t have the heart to abandon her. Twice they head for the ‘hospital’ (nearby Graylands, formerly the Hospital for the Insane) only for Weekly to turn back. So finally Weekly takes Nastasya with her, to the shack on a few acres in the hills and there she comes up with a solution to her need for isolation and quiet that is as shocking as it is funny.

Jolley’s writing is exquisite and her characterisations are brilliant. She writes with great feeling about what it is to be an older woman, but more than that, she writes with insight on what it is to be, in Australia.

 

Elizabeth Jolley, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 1981. Audio version, The Association for the Blind of WA, 2009, read by Coralie Ellement

Diary of a New Chum, Paul Wenz

Paul Wenz (1869-1939) was a Frenchman who became an Australian grazier and author, contributing to the myths of the Australian Legend, in French. Diary of a New Chum and Other Lost Stories (1990) is the first collection of his stories in English. Frank Moorehouse contributes an unnecessary Preface which indicates some points of interest in the various stories, but happily there is a much more interesting Introduction by the collection’s editor, Maurice Blackburn.

Blackburn describes Wenz as “a good storyteller with the right mix of wry humour and sentiment … the first, and so far the only, writer to give the French reader a true picture of Australian bush life. His stories bespeak an ambiguous feeling towards the outback, and he always seems to maintain an ironic distance from his characters.” Blackburn writes for a number of pages on whether, as a writer, Wenz is Australian or French. Wenz was well-read in French and his most obvious influence was Guy de Maupassant. He was also friends and corresponded with his schoolmate André Gide. However:

Wenz the horseman and sheep farmer personally appreciated the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon and the bush balladists, like the rest of his class, and was a regular reader of the Bulletin… he knew well and greatly admired the stories of Henry Lawson, and recommended him to Gide; his own bush stories show that he was certainly influenced by the new Bulletin school of writing that was at its peak in the period 1890-1905.

Blackburn also detects elements of Steele Rudd, Barbara Baynton and Joseph Furphy.

Wenz’s contemporary, linguist and arbiter of Australian Lit., Nettie Palmer, commented in a Bulletin article in 1929 that Wenz was able “to use the essential rhythms of Australian life”, and that the bushmen whom Furphy “saw from within … Wenz draws as silhouettes with bizarre, decorative effect.”

Diary of a New Chum, which is less than 40pp, and is the one story originally written in English, was first published in 1908, apparently as a book, under the pen-name Paul Warrego. Until this edition it had not been republished since the 1920s.

The protagonist attends a fancy dress ball (presumably in England) and after too much champagne falls hopelessly in love with a French peasant “displaying pretty arms and very shapely legs”. The next morning he discovers that he is engaged to be married to Miss Mary Smith and that his only recourse is to flee to Australia. As a ‘new chum’ on an Australian sheep station he recounts his trials with understated humour, in short episodes, as he learns on the job and attempts to escape his engagement.

The remainder of the collection consists of 8 short stories, first published in the collections A l’autre bout du monde (1905) and Sous la Croix du Sud (1910), three previously unpublished texts, including an account of his meeting Jack London in Sydney in 1909 (Wenz subsequently translated London’s Love of Life into French), selected letters, including to André Gide and Miles Franklin, and some photographs of Wenz and his property near Forbes, NSW, and including, again, Miles Franklin.

Most of the short stories are fairly ordinary, not up to the standards of Henry Lawson, nor even Steele Rudd. Charley for instance, notable only for being translated by Margaret Whitlam, is just a few pages leading up to the pathetic death of an old rabbiter. The story I liked the best, The Waggoner, which left me with a tear in my eye, tells of a young girl growing up as her father’s companion as he services the stations out past the Darling in northern NSW, carting supplies out and wool back in, with his heavy red gum waggon and team of 18 horses.

One other story I must discuss is Picky, which is set on a station in the back blocks of Queensland. Picky is an Aboriginal girl who along with her grandmother, Old Mary, has been rescued by a station owner and his religious daughter after a massacre. Some of the racism is ‘standard’: “Picky made progress and showed an intelligence and memory which might not have been expected in her thick myall skull”; there is a brief moment of enlightenment in what I would have thought was an early highlighting of the euphemism “dispersed”, as in:

Old Mary … recounted how her tribe, accused of having speared to death several head of cattle, had been ‘dispersed’ by the police; and except for herself and Picky, the whole camp, eighteen men, women and children, had been killed by the troopers.

And some of the racism is plain gratuitous, for instance: “Thompson knew the natives, and had killed two or three out of necessity, yet he wasn’t a cruel man.” The early part of the story recounts the efforts of Thompson’s daughter to make Picky a Christian, despite Picky’s clear preference for the company (and tucker) of her grandmother, and the latter part how Picky and Old Mary gain their revenge on a ‘blacktracker’ who had participated in the massacre of their (and his) fellows.

The letters too are interesting as Wenz discusses with Gide his writing, problems with getting published, and meeting other authors such as Joseph Conrad and JM Barrie. In 1933 Gide worries that Wenz’s French is becoming too Australianized – “some errors or infelicities of expression lead me to think that many of the sentences have first been thought in English” – and gives him some examples, with corrections, from his latest ms.

Wenz also corresponds with AG Stephens (of the Bulletin) and with Miles Franklin. The latter who has met Wenz on his sheep station while travelling with Frank (and Mrs) Clune, sends him a copy of Back to Bool Bool “which I consider goes more beneath the surface than the general run of Australian novels.” A month later Wenz asks her, “Does anybody know who the author is?” (It is of course MF under the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin). Wenz also reads My Brilliant Career, MF’s copy presumably as by 1937 it had been long out of print, and puzzles “to get the ‘real’ out of the imaginative – so naturally and vividly it is written.” MF has read some of Wenz’s novels and they discuss MF translating them, which indicates that at some stage after leaving school MF has become fluent in French.

The book ends with 20 pages of Notes dated from 1834 – the birth of Wenz’s father – to 1959 – the death of his wife. Wenz was only a minor author but he was nevertheless a valid contributor to the Legend and a genuine member of the Australian, French and to a lesser extent, the English literary scenes.

 

Paul Wenz, Diary of a New Chum and Other Lost Stories, Angus & Robertson/Imprint, Sydney, 1990. Edited and translated by Maurice Blackburn. Translations by Patricia Brulant, Margaret Whitlam and notes by Jean-Paul Delamotte.

The Swan Book, Alexis Wright

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Waanyi, Gulf of Carpentaria woman Alexis Wright (1950 – ) is older than I am, which is to say retirement age, but The Swan Book (2014) is only her third novel. Her second, Carpentaria (2006) won the Miles Franklin. I listened to it a few years ago, but didn’t like it, found it an uncomfortable combination of standard outback story-telling and magic realism. I commented on this after a Whispering Gums post and she, Sue got me started on Indigenous Lit, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance first-up, until now I have a much better idea of how Indig.Lit works – and the crossovers between spiritualism and magic realism in non-Western Lit generally – and anyway I think now I probably confused Wright with white Australian author Alex Miller, and that shaped my expectations.

The Swan Book is a great, swirling confusion of words that gradually coalesces into the story of Oblivia, an Aboriginal girl, mute after being raped, living in a coastal swamp in northern Australia, some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars.

Through this cyclone of words drift scraps of the local, Waanyi language, lines of old songs, phrases from books and poems about swans, sly digs at the language of Indigenous Affairs – ‘Intervention’, ‘Closing the Gap’.

Here are the elements from which we may construct a story: Oblivia’s people are the caretakers of country which includes a vast lake; the armed forces tow a flotilla of old and wrecked ships into the lake and abandon them there, to be used for target practice by the airforce; great dust storms close the channel to the sea and turn the lake to a swamp; Oblivia sleeps for decades in the bowels of an old eucalypt until she is rescued, still a young girl, by Bella Donna, an old refugee woman from Europe, and taken to live in a hulk in the middle of the lake; the army fence the lake, turn it into an internment camp, the better to protect the children.

An elder, a healer for the country arrives, a wululuku, “an Aboriginal man with an Asian heritage … a half caste, yellow fella, or mixed blood urban Aboriginal … Someone with special healing powers who travelled anywhere he was needed, just by thinking himself into a sick person’s mind”, the Harbour Master.

Bella Donna in her travels has seen all the types of swans, was led to safety by a white swan, swaps swan stories with the Harbour Master, carries books of swan stories which she reads to Oblivia. Black swans come up from the south and settle on the shores of the swamp.

The old man and woman daydreamed themselves into every swan image on earth, and off they went again. There they go – la, la, la, the wild girl Oblivia whinged under her breath, excluded from entering their world of knowledge.

The drought ends, the sand is blown away, the Harbour Master departs, Bella Donna dies, Oblivia lives on in the hulk. In a neighbouring community, the Brolga Nation, golden boy Warren Finch is being trained for leadership.

Twenty years later Warren is a modern Moses,  a saviour, deputy President of Australia, solving problems around the world:

He was the lost key. He was post-racial. Possibly even post-Indigenous. His sophistication had been far-flung and heaven sent. Internationally Warren. Post-tyranny politics kind of man.

He comes to the swamp to claim Oblivia as his promised bride. They make a journey through the desert, escorted by bodyguards who are natural scientists, cataloguing wildlife – owls and snakes living on a plague of rodents. Warren in constant contact with the world through his mobile phone, until at last they leave behind their vehicle, leave behind the bodyguards, take a small plane from a remote outpost to a crumbling city on the coast.

Oblivia is dressed in borrowed finery – “The girl looked into an oval mirror and saw herself like golden syrup in a cream dress with the same colour arum lilies of the land of the owls” – nods in the right places, is declared married, stands off to one side at the reception as Warren circles through his hordes of admirers and benefactors, is led by Warren through filthy streets to a flat on the upper floor of an apartment block, where he leaves her.

The Harbour Master joins her. Food is left at her door. Over the years they see Warren, now President, on TV, accompanied by her, the promised bride. The swans find her again though many are injured swooping between the buildings, and she rescues them, keeps them safe in her flat.  I’ve already told you a lot, elements of story gleaned from torrents of words. I won’t tell you the ending, though it’s not a great shock.

As we have been with paintings, we are blessed to have been given this gift of literature derived from 50,000 years of oral tradition. Treasure Indigenous Lit. Treasure Alexis Wright, she is a great, great talent and we have had too little from her. I’m going back to re-read Carpentaria.

 

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book, Giramondo, Sydney, 2013

see also Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
and Lisa at ANZLitLovers review of The Swan Book (here)

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

The Honey Flow, Kylie Tennant

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Painting: Black Mirror, Lina Bryans, 1964

Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was a novelist for the battlers. Probably best described as middle class – her father was a clerk and later a company executive; she was educated Brighton College, Manly and subsequently enrolled in Arts at Sydney Uni (which for financial reasons, she was unable to complete); and her husband was a school teacher (ADB) – nevertheless, she immersed herself in depression-era working class life, and her books reflect this.

I have written already on her most important novel, Ride on Stranger (1943) (here) and briefly on the Honey Flow (1956) in my dissertation (here – in Chapter 4, if you really want to go and look), where I summarised it as “the story of a young woman, Mallee, who takes on her late grandfather’s beehives and an old truck, and so takes on also the very male world of itinerant apiarists moving and tending their hives in the NSW southern highlands”.

My Imprint Classics edition has an Introduction by Jean Bedford which is really just a review of the novel itself rather than any extra material about the author or a wider view of the issues discussed or of the book’s place within either the author’s work or the wider Australian literary scene. I was and am interested in The Honey Flow for its heroine’s independence. Bedford is maybe not as impressed as I am, writing:

Little more than cursory lip-service is paid to the wider social issues that informed Tennant’s earlier work. There is an underlying feminist precept – that a young woman can break the barrier of social expectations and succeed in a male world on her own terms – but it is a precept applied specifically to Mallee, and it is part of her individual oddity…

Yet The Honey Flow remains an engaging, funny and rewarding novel, despite its avoidance of the deeper motives and consequences of human behaviour … Mallee is an attractively lonely and gallant figure and we can forgive her face-saving flights into wry humour. (1991)

In my magnum opus, I wrote further, that: “In many ways this is the novel Miles Franklin might have written if she’d stayed in Australia. The setting is Franklin country; Tennant, like Franklin, writes with a breezy style and doesn’t look too far beneath the surface; but unlike Franklin, Tennant, while sharing Franklin’s moral view, is able to look sex in the face and not be frightened”.

The novel begins:

Every time my memory opens its mouth it dribbles roads. Not so much the great bitumen and concrete flanks that cut the mountain spurs and plunge over the edge of plateaus, but bush tracks that suit a kangaroo or a rogue bullock, but look incredible to drivers who have never had to force a great truck loaded with bee boxes or honey tins through the forests, over corduroys where the forestry gangs have thrown down a few trees to make a footing in a swamp, down into steep creek beds, over places with names like Muldoon’s Mistake or The Downfall.

That’s exactly it! Us drivers, we open our mouths and dribble roads. Mallee is a truck driving apiarist, travelling her bees, competing with her fellows for the best sites up and down the east coast. “You sweat and lie exhausted and swear and talk obscenities and live on bread and corned beef and creek water with a little tea to disguise the taste of mud. The professional name for all this is migratory bee-keeping.”

Mallee, and her step-father who travels with her for a while, are script writers for a radio serial and that gives both a certain literary feel to the writing and positions Tennant/Mallee as middle class observer/participants in a working class environment. Mallee inherits some hives, borrows an old Ford truck and sets off for the bush, joining up with the well set-up outfit of the Muirdens, brothers Blaze and Joe, their father and their offsider in the Pilliga Forest in north central NSW. They subsequently journey back down to the Southern Alps – Miles Franklin country – and then up to the Brigalow scrub of south central Qld, following the seasons, the blossoms and water. You learn a lot about what bees need.

Blaze is the male lead, though hardly the ‘love interest’. He has a fiancée back home who is sick of him being away all the time, is a bit of a “ladys man” and anyway, Mallee is mostly too busy to be interested. The setting is the years immediately post-WWII – which is only referred to with the briefest references to men who have been living under canvas – and although we think of the 50s now as a prosperous time, the roads, the rough and ready vehicles, the primitive living conditions in camp are all reflective of a people, a way of living which had been tempered by years of Depression before the War (Are you old enough to remember when a bottle of dry sherry was a cheap substitute for beer? I am, and I can’t touch it now!)

Let me briefly address the points raised in the introduction: Bedford dismisses Mallee’s independence with faint praise, but at a time, the 1950s, when ‘every’ woman was married with 3 children in a little suburban house with a white picket fence, Mallee’s rejection of marriage – like Shannon and Sybylla before her – and her determination to succeed on her own terms is inspirational. Further, the work in classic Australian Legend style is set firmly in the bush, which in many places is lovingly and knowledgeably described, but with a female protagonist.

Franklin rediscovered her muse writing about the exploits of her mother’s and father’s families as pioneers in southern NSW. Tennant, born and raised in Sydney, famously walked with the unemployed and the battlers in the bush during the Depression, she lived the lives she wrote about and it shows. She writes of tying down a load, something I have spent years doing, drive tankers now to avoid:

It was daylight before the trucks were loaded, the ropes braced over, and the last double sheepshank knotted round the metal rod that ran along under the sides of the big table top. [It’s called a “tie rail”, Kylie.]

Mallee, like Franklin’s heroines and Eve Langley’s too, is surprised when her virtue isn’t obvious to others. She “gets a reputation” as did Langley’s Steve and Blue before her, for sharing her hut with men.

Franklin struggled not so much to write about sex, which she didn’t, but to portray relationships which were sexual. Tenant is much more relaxed. Here Blaze has put the hard word on Mallee: :“Would you ever just act human? Would you come over to my tent some night and say, “Well, you bastard, you win. Move over”?” So that night she does, “It would be nice to give Blaze a pleasant surprise. Well, I thought, what does it matter?” But without entering the tent she can hear that he is in bed with another woman. Mallee laughs and walks away. “Dear old Blaze! How I like that man! A heel if there ever was one.”

If I haven’t made it clear already, The Honey Flow is written with a light, sure touch and is well worth reading.

 

Kylie Tenant, The Honey Flow, first published A&R, 1956. My edition Imprint Classics, 1991

See also my review of Ride on Stranger (here)

Tennant later wrote the introduction for a reprint of Mary Gaunt’s 1897 novel of another woman seeking independence through bee-keeping, Kirkham’s Find (here)

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

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

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Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

My sister-in-law M keeps a copy of ‘The List‘ (of Independent Women) on a notice board in her apartment and from time to time gives me suggestions for inclusions. She recently attended a National Trust WA event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which officially included Aboriginals in the Australian population, and came away with the booklet Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter.

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel was born around 1840, 11 years after the founding of the Swan River colony, on Matagarup (Heirisson Is.), just outside the eastern boundary of the land reserved for the Perth settlement, which at that time may have had a population of 1,500 with a similar number downstream at Fremantle. She was a Whadjuk yorga (a woman of the Whadjuk people, the Noongars based on the Swan R. plains), the granddaughter of Mooroo leader Yellagonga and niece of Yagan, the best known of the Noongar resistance fighters.

Her story crosses over with that of my favourite Independent Woman, Daisy Bates, who documented some of their meetings, and when she died on 20 March, 1907, she was living at the Maamba Aboriginal reserve on the Canning R. (15 km or so south of Perth (map)) where Daisy Bates had been camped since July 1905 as a continuation of her employment with the WA Registrar-General curating Indigenous languages.

Elizabeth Salter in her biography Daisy Bates (1971) writes of Bates’ application to move her base to Maamba:

At the Maamba Aboriginal reserve in Cannington at the foot of the Darling Ranges were many old Aborigines who were the last of their different groups. If the Government would give her permission she would pitch her tent among them and take down information from them at first hand. This way she could be sure of her facts, and record dialects that would die out with the natives on the reserve. She would report regularly to the office and continue to work for her eight shillings a day.

Bates herself writes in The Last of the Bibbulmun Race, Chapter VII of The Passing of the Aborigines (1938):

When I came upon the remnants of the Bibbulmun [Noongar], they had been in contact with civilization for some seventy years, and in that short time it had reduced the native inhabitants of the city of Perth and its environs to one old man, Joobaitch, and an older looking niece, Balbuk.

My first camp was established on the Maamba Reserve … in the early years of this century a beautiful kingdom of bush still rich in native food and fruits. The Bibbulmun race was represented by some thirty or forty stragglers, and these would gladly have gone back to their own various grounds; but their health and sight had failed…

A circular tent, 14 ft, in diameter, sagging about me in the wet and ballooning in the wind, was my home for two years in that little patch of bushland bright with wild flowers … I would be on duty from night till morning, collecting scraps of language, old legends, old customs, trying to conjure a notion of the past …

Bates implies that it was Balbuk’s grandfather who gave up the Noongar lands to the British – “Joobaitch… was the son of that Yalgunga who ceded his springs on the banks of the Swan to Lieutenant Irwin.”* She describes “Fanny Balbuk as she was called” as a “general nuisance of many years standing” and devotes a page to her misdeeds, which is the source of some of the material in the National Trust booklet.

One of her favourite annoyances was to stand at the gates of Government House, reviling all who dwelt within, because the stone gates guarded by a sentry enclosed her grandmother’s burial ground…

She raged and stormed at the usurping of her beloved home ground… Through fences and over them, Balbuk took the straight track to the end. When a house was built in the way, she broke its fence palings with her digging stick and charged up the steps and through the rooms [Bates, quoted in booklet].

The booklet consists mostly of photographs and short statements by women Whadjuk Ballardong Elders. I’m not sure they make the case for her being a ‘resistance fighter’ but she was certainly a notable and colourful protester.

There is also a long letter from Fanny Balbuk, “with Daisy Bates as her scribe”, to her son Joe. “All our people are dead. Jimmy Shaw and Billy Shaw your two uncles are the last that have died. Old George Joobytch [presumably the “Joobaitch” above] is alive and well, and lives close to me at the Government reserve. Jimmy Shaw’s daughter married Henry Gijjup, your cousin and they have three children …” and so it goes on.

The release of the booklet coincides also with the 110th anniversary of Fanny Balbuk Yooreel’s death. Associated events included a walk, a public talk, a seminar and a display of quilts, all of which I’ve missed. There is also a half hour documentary on You Tube.

Trove has a long and detailed account Fanny Balbuk Yooreel’s life, written by Daisy Bates for the Western Mail of 1 June, 1907.

 

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Noongar, group portrait, before 1907. State Library WA

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter, National Trust WA, 2017. Research and interviews by Casey Kickett

Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines, first pub. 1938. My edition, Benediction Classics, Oxford, 2009

Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates, A&R, 1971, republished Corgi, 1973


*Bates is presumably referring to Capt. Frederick Irwin, the officer in charge of a detachment of 60 or so soldiers from the 63rd Regiment, who arrived on the Sulphur on 8 June 1829, though Charles Fremantle, captain of HMS Challenger, who had arrived a month earlier and claimed the whole of Australia west of NSW for the Crown, took a ship’s boat up the Swan on 2 May: “Continuing up the Swan River as far as the Canning River, Fremantle had his first encounter with a group of curious, but friendly, Aborigines”. (Settlement-of-the-Swan-.pdf).