Australia Writes, T. Inglis Moore ed.

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My late father’s books are an endless resource, more than I’ll ever read, not before I retire at least and by then I’ll be too tired. I’ve shelved them with mine, not so ordered as Lisa’s, so I come upon them at odd times. The bookcase on my left as I write – jarrah shelves roughly knocked together by an old family friend of Milly’s late mother, years ago when she was a widow with six school age children – contains mostly stuff from when I was studying, Miles Franklin, her contemporaries, Lit. theory, but I found` there today Australia Writes (1953), a compilation of short stories and poetry “written or published since 1950” and which Dad must have got second hand (for $6.00, compared with the original price of 19/6 – 19 shillings and 6d for all you youngsters, or just under $2.00).

The title page says “Edited for the Canberra Fellowship of Australian Writers by T. Inglis Moore”. Moore (bio here) writes in the Foreword –

Within its diversity the fiction … holds characteristics common to contemporary Australian writing. It turns frequently to the countryside – perhaps because writers feel that the true traditions of Australia lie in “The Bush”. It is marked by vigour and sincerity. The feeling for social justice is pervasive. The outlook is upon a workaday world; over it we could hang the roadside sign: “Men at Work”.

Men at work indeed, of the 30 short stories, six are by women – Flora Eldershaw, Dorothy Harrison, Ethel Anderson, Kylie Tennant, Elyne Mitchell, Henrietta Drake Brockman. I didn’t count the poets, but it’s more or less the same, Judith Wright, 5 or 6 other women and 30 men.

Eve Langley’s there:

A youth, kicking the self-starter of a
motor-bike sends
A vast vibration out to the sun, and it
returns his shadow in rain.
Out from the sun startles the line of
things, and the flying cars
Set their undertones in a dark and
silver note upon the line.
(This year before it ends)

Drake Brockman’s is a puff piece about Miles Franklin; and Tennant’s is a funny, queer, all right – strange story, a slice of many lives during a flood in Narbethong (not the Narbethong NE of Melbourne I don’t think, but one on a river with a dam upstream).

The story I’ve chosen to review is The National Game by T.A.G. Hungerford, a West Australian writer about whom I wrote earlier this year (here). His ‘national game’ is not Australian football as I expected but a two-up game in the national capital.

WG do you recognise this landscape?

Eastside Camp squats on the top of a red gravel hill and droops in untidy folds of unpainted wooden buildings down the slope to where a road skirts the willow-lined river… Behind it is the sky, and in front of it the road and river, and the lush greenness of the lucerne flats. Dotted with red and white cows, they stretch almost unbroken to Duntroon and the aerodrome.

Map (here): The camp may have been near Mt Pleasant, in the centre of the map. Lake Burley Griffin was not filled for another decade. I can remember visiting Nana and Pop, Dad’s parents when the lake was just paddocks as Hungerford describes.

Two men, Ransome and Kernow, an Old Australian and a New Australian, a Pole, called a ‘Balt’ by the Aussies, are workers on a project, maybe Civic (Canberra Centre), which was completed in 1961. Hungerford imagines what it might be like to be in Kernow’s head, dealing with the vagaries of slang and the latent hostility of ‘Old’ Aussies, who complain about foreigners taking their jobs, despite, as Kernow points out, there being a chronic shortage of labour.

Ransome offers to take Kernow to play two-up:

“I’m going up the game – up to Ainslie.”
“Game?”
“Yeah, the game. Swy – two-up, you know, with the pennies? At Limestone Hostel. They run a big one there in the scrub, behind.”

They play, Kernow wins, wins big, and they are chased home by some sore losers. Hungerford’s point is not the outcome of the game but to discuss aspects of Australianness by shining a ‘New Australian’ light on it. Kernow offers Ransome half his winnings, but Ransome demurs: “No Paul … we don’t do things like that here – you won it and it’s yours. Whack it in the kick.”

Kernow (note that Hungerford makes no attempt to give him a typical Polish name. Too hard.) is unhappy that he is not accepted by Old Australians even after two or three years and proposes using the money to return to Germany (Not to communist Poland!) but Ransome persuades him he has enough with his savings to buy some land.

To buy some land! His hands clenched hard about the the wads of notes they held; not the rich black soil of Poland, farmed and loved for hundreds of years by his father and his father’s father, but the wild soil of this wild, wide country that would have to be tamed, and coerced, and then, with love, brought to yield.

It’s an interesting book of our white picket fence past, those last few years before the ‘sixties’, womens lib, the anti-war movement, multiculturalism. Aborigines are, and would remain invisible for many more years. They get one poem, Nomads by Roland Robinson, and maybe a second, The Ancestors by Judith Wright of which I could make not head nor tail: “in each notched trunk shaggy as an ape/crouches the ancestor, the dark bent foetus …”

I should give it to B2, to mark his birth year.

 

T Inglis Moore (ed.), Australia Writes, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1953

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The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorehouse (ed.)

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The cover painting above is Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife (1945) from a trip he made the previous year and his drawing A Drover’s Camp near Deniliquin (1944). Deniliquin is in NSW, 80 km north of the Victorian border at Echuca. I have often been through that way, heading east to Conargo, Jerilderee, Wagga or north to Hay, Hillston, Bourke and on into outback Queensland, and drovers and their mobs of sheep are still a common sight. Twenty years ago, destitute, I seriously considered the merits of getting an old truck and a plywood caravan and travelling at walking pace as the sheep in my care grazed the back roads and byways of the Riverina. As it happens Milly saved me, for the time being anyway, and that’s a story for another day.

Drysdale always claimed the naming of his painting was unconnected with the title of Australia’s most famous story, but many have sought to connect the two, not least Murray Bail, who in his own The Drover’s Wife (1975) claims that the big bodied woman is his (or more strictly, his dentist narrator’s) missing wife.

In this book Frank Moorehouse brings together a whole collection of this, his own and other writers’ stories and essays – on some of which I have already written (Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer, The Drover’s De Facto) – to make a fascinating whole.

Let me attempt a brief chronological overview (Moorehouse’s book is arranged thematically). The undoubted source of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (read it here) is his mother, Louisa’s early married life in the bush near Mudgee, NSW, her husband often away droving and prospecting. Louisa chucked it in in 1886 when Henry was about 19, moved to Sydney, bought a newspaper, and became a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She was a loud forceful woman, Henry was not, and a great story teller.

Moorhouse includes an essay by Louisa, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889), see above, which discusses many of the elements of hardship and isolation which Henry includes in his story. Henry’s The Drover’s Wife first appeared in the Bulletin in 1892. Two years later Louisa used her presses to publish “a poorly printed collection” of Henry’s stories entitled Short Stories in Prose and Verse. Then in 1896 Angus & Robertson brought out a more comprehensive collection, While the Billy Boils.

Academic Ryan O’Neill demonstrates how the Bulletin‘s house style moulded Lawson into one of world’s great short story writers. He argues that the influence of the Bulletin‘s and Lawson’s “Bush Realism” was to be hugely influential in Australian short fiction into the 1960s. Moorhouse looks at iterations in the text to interrogate Lawson’s attitude to race. So, the B in Blacks is capitalised for the first time in the version the Lawson’s printed, but is subsequently discarded, while the comic King Billy intercedes between the drover’s wife and the Black midwife, Mary only in later versions and, according to Moorhouse, only after Lawson got feedback from his cronies down the pub. In a separate essay Matthews argues that Lawson was gay.

Lawson’s genius was to both write within the Bulletin format and to rise above it, subtly – and not so subtly in The Drover’s Wife – spreading his mother’s first wave feminism, while all the time being upheld by men as the messiah of mateship. Men sought to emulate his laconic style, from Vance Palmer to Roger McDonald, but he was also influential with women, not least Miles Franklin and Eve Langley.

In lieu of interrogating this influence Moorhouse has included ten or so short stories which reference Lawson’s story. I have already reviewed The Drover’s De Facto; others include The Drover’s Wife’s Dog by SF writer Damien Broderick; a long story of a young woman’s coming of age, Afraid of Waking It by Madeleine Watts, good but barely relevant; Murray Bail’s story about the woman in the painting; and Moorhouse’s own mock account of an Italian student’s misreading of the Lawson and Bail stories and Drysdale’s painting, which allocates to Australians the extreme affection for sheep usually ascribed to Kiwis.

There are some excellent photos of Drover’s Wifes paintings, images from stage works, notably Leah Purcell’s play (and also stage notes), and a wonderful pair of images titled the Drover’s Wife, Urisino Bore (1958) of drover Ronald Kerr and his sixteen year old wife Mavis, married 39 weeks pregnant (by Jeff Carter (1928-2010)), and again in 2011 after more than 50 years together (and quite often apart, as is the case for all drovers’ wives).

Sue/Whispering Gums has recently re-brought Barabara Jefferis (1917-2004) to our attention and her The Drover’s Wife (1980) is a fitting story to end this review.

It ought to be set straight. All very well for them to spin yarns and make jokes but nobody has written any sense about me. nobody has even given me a name except one and he got it wrong and said I was called Hazel. The drover’s wife, the doctor’s wife, the butcher’s wife. You wouldn’t think of all the countries the one where women are the fewest would be the one where they don’t exist, where men’ll say ‘the missus’ sooner than give a name.

In a chronology I couldn’t quite keep up with Jeffris’ DW is first a kid from the backclocks of NSW who runs off with a dentist [the Murray Bail story]; runs into Henry Lawson – “so I told him a lot. Talked too much – must’ve – because some of it he took and turned into that story about the snake …”, and the story about Mary, the Aboriginal midwife, and the story about the baby she lost – “That was the story I told Mr Lawson a long time afterwards, or at least the parts of it that were alright to tell a man.” Meets and is painted by Mr Drysdale, and then there was Murray Bail “who must have known the dentist”.

What I meant was to tell not so much about me and the drover and the dentist and the rest of them but about how women have a history, too, and about how the Bushman’s Bible and the other papers only tell how half the world lives… We’re not sheep or shadows, or silly saints the way Mr Lawson would have. There’s more to us. More to me than any of them have written, if it comes to that.

But she still doesn’t tell us her name.

Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017


AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019

I’ve put up the first iteration of the AWW Gen 2 page (here) with links to reviews and posts by me, Lisa/ANZLL, Sue/Whispering Gums, Kim/Reading Matters and Brona’s Books – check them out and see what else I can add – and links also to stories and novels readable as pdfs or downloadable to e-readers.


see also:

Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)

Nancy Elin’s review of Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife (here)

The Drover’s De Facto, Anne Gambling

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Mack cattle truck, triple road train
The Drover’s De Facto (1986) is from Frank Moorehouse’s collection of stories and essays inspired by the iconic Henry Lawson short story The Drover’s Wife, which I visited earlier (Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer) and which, if I spend yet another day stuck in Sydney, I might finish reviewing.

BTW isn’t ‘de facto’ so 1970s. I was passionate back then about not requiring government approval for my relationship status. Though I was eventually brought to realise that spouses and children should be acknowledged in some sort of formal way, about the same time as ‘de facto’ lost its stigma and fell out of common usage.

The ‘drover’ in Gambling’s story is a cattle truck driver from a Queensland cattle/oil town – think Dalby, Roma, Moonie (map). The Mack pictured above is about the right vintage (I care, I’m not sure you do) but from Victoria River in the NT. I would have included a photo of me and the Young Bride in front of my own much more modest cattle truck in 1974 but it’s home on my desktop. YB and I started off de facto, from day one, but in 1973 I got a job driving for a neighbour of my grandfather’s and mum couldn’t stand the shame if Grandma and Granddad found out about us living in sin.

‘She’ picked him up in a singles bar in the city,

… left with him.
He took her to a classy hotel in his big Mack truck.
Called ahead on the CB to reserve the honeymoon suite while she giggled like a schoolgirl, twenty-five with a degree.

His wife has shot through with their kid. He doesn’t have much to offer, a small house in a country town. He’s away a lot.

The romance of the bush overtook her sensibilities, Paterson and Lawson combined to urge her toward a life for which she was uneducated and unprepared.
But that’s OK, she said, I’ll work on my Masters. Yeah, he said, something to do, I guess.

This is starts out as an amusingly written story, though, in the Lawson tradition, with a sad ending – I would say with a pathetic ending but there’s a word whose meaning has been taken from us – of, I estimate, about 4,000 words or a third more than the old Bulletin 3,000 word limit which taught Lawson to write with such concision. But the undertones are savage, and I begin to wonder what truckie done her wrong.

‘She’ battles with the old wood stove. Chopping wood, which I like most country kids did routinely, gives her blisters and open sores. Having a hot meal on the table when he gets home. Or when he’s ready.

And he’d arrive home at whatever time it was and want to lay her. At first she thought it romantic until it came to the physical torture of no foreplay and no satisfaction ever, for her, enduring half an hour at a time … She’d go limp in his arms and if it was dark, she’d cry. Whimpering that he took for signs of ecstasy … Then he’d finish with a thrust … Soon, he would lift his head and say I’m hungry, how would you like to cook somethin’ for me, love?

 

They start to fight. She goes into town while he’s away, drinks and dances with the engineers in from the oilfields. He hears of course, from his mates, and belts her. And that’s it, it’s over, and soon she’s on the road out of town.

It’s an interesting, if obvious, riff on The Drover’s Wife, a middle class city girl thinking through an idle daydream. Working out for herself the consequences, though she might be pleased to know we’re not all stereotypes.

 

Anne Gambling, The Drover’s De Facto, first pub. in Latitudes, 1986

Frank Moorehouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017


I have to put this here in case I later lose track of it, as I inevitably do. A terrific essay in the London Review of Books (June 2003) by Marxist literary academic Terry Eagleton, whom I greatly admire, reviewing three George Orwell biographies (here).

Anchor Point, Alice Robinson

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Alice Robinson is a Melbourne-based author, I can’t tell you her age but she doesn’t look very old (here), and more disappointingly I can’t tell you whether or not she grew up in the country. But this is her debut novel, impressively long-listed for the Stella, after a PhD in creative writing. I worry about novels like this, straight out of school, that the story follows a formula designed to suck me in and I am. But before my criticisms get out of hand, let me say right at the beginning that Laura, the book’s central character engaged me and I was very invested in learning more about her.

In many ways Anchor Point (2015) is a worthy newcomer to the long line of books I have been studying and writing about as I delineate the myth of the Independent Woman, particularly in the setting of the Australian Bush which has been and still is claimed for the archetypal Australian man, ‘lone hand’, larrikin soldier etc.

Although set in the 1980s and 90s – in a fictional location in the foothills of the Alps in north eastern Victoria – Laura’s story embodies in one generation the dichotomy between the pioneering settler of Australian legend on one hand and Indigenous land claims, climate change and land degradation from over clearing, on the other.

Laura herself embodies almost from the time her sister Vic is born, when she is five or six, the ‘drover’s wife’ (here) condemned to kitchen servitude and drudgery (although not, in this case, endless childbearing), to support the intrepid pioneer, her father. A servitude she adopts, in the house and out on the property, through the disappearance of her mother when she is ten, through the schooling of her sister, through to her own reluctant bid for independence as the partner of another needy, controlling man in Sydney, and finally to her return to the farm to care for her father and the property when her father falls victim to early onset alzheimers.

The book is written in the third person entirely from Laura’s POV. Her father, Bruce, himself the son of a failed farmer, has bought a couple of hundred of acres of bush which he plans to clear in order to farm sheep. Kath, Laura’s mother, is a German-born potter, who ‘neglects’ her housework and her daughters to pursue her art. Both the housework and the care of Vic increasingly fall to Laura.

Do we feel for Kath? We all felt for Katherine Mansfield last week (Who Does the Dishes?), are their situations the same? Bruce, all pioneers, all men maybe, have this expectation that women will keep house while they get on with the real work. Does Laura feel for Kath? Not really, certainly not after she gets a black eye when she drops one of her mother’s vases. Bruce and Kath spend another night arguing, there’s a storm, the creek floods, Kath disappears. Laura’s own actions are not above reproach (no spoilers!), but she picks up the slack, Bruce brings in men to clearfell the trees, Laura drops out of school and becomes a farmer alongside Bruce.

Her only friend is Joseph, an Aboriginal boy her own age, a token? No, but nearly. He may have been her romantic interest but in the end is not. In fact, this novel is like those movies of the book where a number of characters are conflated into one. Where in real life we might take up with a dozen others before coming upon our partner for life, each of the girls meets one man and that’s it. And poor old Bruce meets no-one.

It is telling that when we finally learn more about Kath it turns out her name is actually Katya, which Bruce had insisted on Australianising. Bruce stands in for all those settlers right back to 1788 who insisted on farming methods brought with them from England. You can only shudder as all the trees are removed, all the way down the hill to the creek, and he even regularly threatens to chop down the ‘canoe’ tree in the yard of their modest house.

The drought years which come increasingly often are a marker for climate change. In the end Laura makes mostly futile efforts to re-forest the ruined land, promises it to Joseph who wants it for Indigenous access, then must renege and sell-up, probably to developers for housing, as her own health declines.

In the last chapter Laura is with Vic, in Vic’s apartment on the 33rd floor, the power out, looking out on a Melbourne ringed by bushfires. Anchor Point, intended as a parable for our times, I guess is that, but works best as a character study of Laura and her relationships – to her father, to her dependent sister, to Luc, her dependent partner, and to her absent mother.

 

Alice Robinson, Anchor Point, Affirm Press, 2015. Audio version – Queensland Narrating Service, read by Ursula Wharton.

See also:

Jessica White’s review (here). And Jess did grow up on the land, in cotton country, cleared and levelled to within an inch of its life.

Lisa (ANZLL)’s author interview (here)

AWW Gen 2 Week

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Frederick McCubbin, The Pioneer, 1904, NGV

The second generation of Australian writing, as I see it, covers the period 1890 to 1918. HM Green, who as I discussed earlier, divides my Gen 1 into two periods, 1788-1850 and 1850-1890, heads his account of this period Third Period 1890-1923, “Self-conscious Nationalism”.

In Australia the spirit of the nineties and early nineteen-hundreds… took the form, in the literary as in the social and political worlds, of a fervent democratic nationalism: it was based upon a broad social consciousness, a feeling of mutual relationship, that found its most characteristic expression in Lawson’s doctrine of mateship.

The writing, dominated by the influence of the Sydney Bulletin, could be called Bush Realism, an intense effort to portray Bush life in all its details, paralleled in the art world by Australia’s contribution to Impressionism, the Heidelberg School.

AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019, will be an opportunity to discuss women’s writing, representations of women, and the role of the Bulletin, in the ’90s and up to and including the Great War. This is a very fertile period for discussion with women’s suffrage, Federation, the anti-conscription movement, the war itself. But perhaps, except in general terms we might leave those to another time.

Although the ‘AWW’ in the title is of course Australian Women Writers I think we should also discuss the outbreak of men’s nationalistic writing, led by the Bulletin, which gave rise to the dominant myths of Australianness, and which formed the baseline for all subsequent discussions of Australian writing. Men on their own in and against the Bush is the generally accepted theme of this period, but we have already seen that bush-women were equally alone, facing the extra hardships of childbearing and child rearing, not to mention predatory men. There is also a further myth that began in this period, although it wasn’t generally recognized until the 1930s, and that was the myth of the Pioneers, men and women working together to carve out a space for themselves from virgin country (and it is only recently that we have begun contesting that “virgin”). Miles Franklin believed that she (under her own name and as Brent of Bin Bin) and Steele Rudd were the founding writers of this myth.

In the subsequent, post WWI period, women writers focused on social realism, often in an urban setting, and I have used this to distinguish Gen 2 writers from Gen 3. In particular, I place Miles Franklin (1879-1954) in Gen 2 and Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) in Gen 3. As a sort of aside, and a follow-up to last week’s post on bush-women, I found this in the Bulletin Vol 57 No. 2946 (29 July 1936), on the release of All That Swagger:

Miles Franklin (a note on one point of criticism) –

“I am grateful to one reader of this MS who complained that too much prominence is given to childbearing. This shows that the effect of real life has been achieved. No doubt every old pioneer mother would have cordially agreed as each year found her in heaviness and weariness enlarging her brood until it reached a dozen, or seventeen, or a score; but in those days there was no redress. In a land sans serfs the women not only bore but had to rear and clothe, and frequently to educate, their children. There was some drinking in bars, and belligerence and roystering in mining camps, with carnal indulgence with a few trulls to enliven the unattached men and make livelier tales, but pioneering in this empty land was largely and respectably carried forward by women and children. It was a slow, unspectacular process, demanding stoicism, patience, heroism, fatigue, sheer passivity, pain and childbearing, childbearing, childbearing – above all, childbearing.”

I think we can see why Miles chose to stay unmarried!

The principal texts on this period are:

Nettie Palmer, Modern Australian Literature (1924)
Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties (1954)
Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (1958)
Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife (2017)
Colin Roderick was probably the most influential commentator for most of the C20th, but he is shockingly contemptuous of women.
Feminists who contested the men-centred (men-only, really) myths of the Australian Bush include Kay Schaffer, Marilyn Lake, Gail Reekie, Anne Summers. The Pioneer myth was developed by John Hirst, Judith Godden, Jemima Mowbray (and others, I suppose).

The main male writers were: Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd, Joseph Furphy, AB Paterson, Paul Wenz and poets Henry Kendall, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Maurice Furnley.

Gen 2 women writers:

Agnes Hay (1837-1909) Trove
Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) ADB
Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) ADB
Alice Henry (1857-1929) ADB
Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) ADB
Marion Knowles (1865-1949) ADB
Lilian Turner (1867-1956) Wiki
Mary Fullerton (1868-1946) ADB
Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) ADB
Ethel Turner (1870-1958) ADB
Beatrice Grimshaw (1870-1953) ADB
Mrs Aeneas Gunn (1870-1961) ADB
Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946) ADB
Elinor Mordaunt (1872-1942) ADB
May Gibbs (1877-1969) ADB
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) ADB
Miles Franklin (1879-1954) Miles Franklin page
Louise Mack (1879-1935) ADB
Nettie Palmer (1885-1964) ADB

In and amongst all of the above are the Billabong novels, which I know one of you collects; an Australian grazier writing in French (Paul Wenz, Sous la Croix du Sud (1910)); opportunities to discover the Bulletin and Louisa Lawson’s newspaper Dawn on Trove; two of our greatest novels, Such is Life and Maurice Guest; and more besides, not to mention writers like Baynton and Franklin on whom we have already done a lot of work. Then, though I hesitate to put any extra burden on Nathan Hobby, who has two children under 3, a PhD and a major biography to finish, KSP’s first (I think) novel The Pioneers (1915) seems to fit Gen 2 rather than Gen 3.

Author Jessica White, whose “work of creative nonfiction on Maud Praed, the deaf daughter of 19th Century Queensland novelist Rosa Praed” will be out next year, has already promised a review of Praed’s second last work Sister Sorrow (1916). Two other authors I considered in Gen 1, Mary Gaunt and Catherine Martin, were definitely on the cusp of Gen 2, and we should consider Praed’s later work in this context too.

I guess I’ve run out of excuses not to review The Australian Legend. I should also do Miles Franklin’s biography of Joseph Furphy and finish reading Frank Moorhouse’s The Drover’s Wife. I’ve had it in my mind too to review Verna Coleman’s Her Unknown Brilliant Career about Miles Franklin in America (1906-1915). Then I could always knock off a novel as well. (I wish!)

See what’s available online here in the AWWC database. And you know the drill, let me know in Comments if you have a post in mind, or if you have already done posts in this area (I’ll make up a list of my, Sue (WG) and Lisa’s (ANZLL) existing posts in the next couple of months). – Added 22/11/18. Click on AWW Gen 2 page above.

Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer

The Drovers Wife Stamp

Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (1896) is clearly the seminal short story of Australian Lit. against which all other accounts of life in the Bush must be measured. Frank Moorhouse’s The Drover’s Wife (2017) is a collection of essays on ways The Drover’s Wife has influenced and been reflected in Australian writing and painting. I won’t review the book here, not least because I’ve only just started reading it (and thank you B.i.L who gave it to me for my birthday) but what I do wish to explore are two essays within it which go to the heart of my thesis – that there is an Independent Woman in Australian Literature who is a counterpoint to the myth of the Lone Hand/Bushman/larrikin soldier which most Australians see as the only true symbol of Australianness.

Louisa Lawson, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889)

Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) was of course Henry Lawson’s mother. But she was also a story teller, a writer, a poet, a suffragist, a newspaper publisher, and for many years, a drover’s wife. By 1889 when this essay was commissioned by the Boston Woman’s Journal she had been publishing and writing in her newspaper Dawn and its predecessor for more than a year.

… for hasty purposes, my colonial sisters may be roughly sorted into three heaps – city women, country women and bush-women, and it is of the last I will write; for it is of their grim, lonely, patient lives I know, their honest, hard-worked, silent, almost masculine lives.

Bush-women she says may be all day in the saddle alongside the men, then doing “what little had to be done in the house on her return… It would not anyhow be much more than making a ‘damper’ in a tin dish and putting it in the ashes.”

For by bush-women I mean … the wives of boundary-riders, shepherds, ‘cockatoo’ settlers in the far ‘back country’; women who share almost on equal terms with men the rough life and the isolation which belong to civilization’s utmost fringe.

The bush-woman is thin, wiry, flat-chested and sunburned. She could be nothing else, living as she does.

… she will tramp five miles with a heavy child on her hip, do a day’s washing, and tramp back again at night. She works harder than a man. You may see her with her sons putting up a fence, or with the shearers, whistling and working as well as any.

There is one thing the bush-woman hates – it is discipline. The word sounds to her like ‘jail’.

In those remote and isolated spots, man is king and force is ruler. There is no law, no public opinion to interfere. The wife is at the man’s mercy. She must bear what ills he chooses to put upon her and her helplessness in his hands only seems to educe the beast in him.

Louisa concludes that all of the bush-woman’s hopes reside in her daughters – “now wherever a dozen children can be got together there is a school.” The girls surpass the boys, besides, the men always “have the drink washing away their prospects.” These girls, “quick, capable and active … will give us a race of splendid women, fit to obtain what their mothers never dreamed of – women’s rights.”

Louisa’s vision is remarkably similar, no doubt because of its inherent truth, to that of Barbara Baynton (1857-1929), another woman who spent her early married years imprisoned on an isolated back-block.

Kay Schaffer, Henry Lawson, The Drover’s Wife and the Critics (1993)

I went straight to Kay Schaffer’s essay because countering her arguments had been an important motivator for my Masters dissertation, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (2011). Basically, Schaffer argues that “Women have been considered to be absent in the bush and the nationalistic bush tradition” and that the Bush stands in for the feminine, abused and conquered by men.

Yes, the tradition excludes them, but women are only “absent in the Bush” because Schaffer, and Marilyn Lake, and Gail Reekie and Anne Summers don’t look for them. I argued in my dissertation and I think I have demonstrated over a number of years on this blog that there is a considerable body of work supporting both the Independent Woman and Pioneer Women as ‘myths’ in their own right, most recently of course our own MST’s Elizabeth Macarthur.

Schaffer manages to dispute The Drover’s Wife, in which Henry Lawson essentially restates his mother’s thesis as a short story, by claiming that the wife is a surrogate man – “That is, she becomes part of man’s battle against the land as a masculine subject”.

So Schaffer claims that there is no myth of independent women in the bush because those women who are portrayed as independent are just standing in for men:

In most of [Lawson’s] stories the characters who struggle against the hostile and alien bush are men, but this is not necessarily the case. The position of ‘native son’ could, in exceptional circumstances, be filled by a woman. That is, the bushwoman can stand in place of her husband, lover, or brother and take on masculine attributes of strength, fortitude, courage and the like in her battle with the environment (as long as she also maintains her disguise of femininity). She could also be called and have the status of a pioneering hero. This is the position of the drover’s wife.

For a few pages she discusses The Drover’s Wife and its ongoing iconic status, variously interpreted. But still she comes back to –

She stands in place of her absent husband. The drover’s wife is a woman. But heroic status is conferred upon her through her assumption of masculine identity.

Schaffer can only support her thesis of men vs the Bush by claiming that independent bush-women are token men. Tell that to Louisa Lawson and Barbara Baynton, child bearing and child rearing on their own in the Bush while still working the properties of their absent husbands.

Kay Schaffer is an Emerita Professor in Gender Studies and Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Arts, University of Adelaide.

Postscript

In January, 2019 I’ll hold an AWW Gen II week – I don’t expect the tremendous response we got to Gen 1 week this year, but I guess I’ll have some time off work, and I think it would be worthwhile to discuss women writers who came of age in the period 1890-1918 and the background against which they were writing, ie. the Bulletin and the Legend of the Nineties. More anon.

 

Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017

Australia Post – celebrating the sesquicentenary of Lawson’s birth (here)
WAD Holloway, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)
Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)
Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds (review)
Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s Mate (review)
Barbara Baynton, Human Toll (review)

The Dry, Jane Harper

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In the summer of 1994 the national Scout jamboree was in Perth and for those scouts unable to make the trip Victorian scouts held a smaller “jamborette” at Green Lake in the Mallee, coincidentally, adjacent to one of the three blocks farmed by my grandfather and after him by my uncle, only four years my senior, Les.

The Mallee is sandy country on a limestone base, flat except for low sandhills lightly bound by eucalypt scrub and wheat stubble. In bad years the cleared soil blows in the wind. During the Depression and again in 1984 the prevailing hot summer northerlies created huge dust storms blanketing Melbourne 400 km away with red Mallee dust.

Green Lake is (was) not natural, just a shallow depression in low eucalypt and acacia bushland, fed by the channel system which brought water up from the Grampians. Gone now I hear, converted to pipes. We had huge family picnics there every summer, all Granddad’s brothers and sisters and all their children, and us four boys, the first of the grandchildren.

On the Friday before the jamborette I drove Gee, an enthusiastic scout, and two of her friends up from Melbourne, to stay overnight at Les’s before going on to the camp. Up the Calder Highway through Bendigo, through Charlton, Culgoa where Grandma’s brother, Uncle George  (Cox) bred champion clydesdales and you could sometimes see huge colts gambolling clumsily by the highway, to Berriwillock. Turn left, past the little weatherboard Anglican church, where mum’s younger sister was married while we boys sat outside in the car being fed sausage rolls by the church ladies, out the Woomelang road, turn right at Uncle Bert’s – ‘Wheatlands’, my great grandmother’s home farm – then left again before the bush block with scrubby native pines and bulokes where we’d get our Christmas trees, past the Austerberry’s. Dirt roads now, hard packed sand, graded smooth, pulling up at Les’s side gate, padlocked, round to the front, up the half mile drive to the old familiar farmhouse surrounded by peppercorns, from Brazil I think, not native but endemic throughout all of Australia’s wheat farming country, and a few sugar gums.

The first time I had made this trip for 30 years, the first (and last) time ever as a driver, but ingrained indelibly in my mind by 15 years of school holiday after school holiday, sitting behind my father, 3 boys across the back seat of the Prefect, the FJ, the EK, our first new car, baby B4 in the front between mum and dad. Granddad and Grandma did their shopping in Sea Lake but went to church in Berriwillock, my uncles played football in the green and gold, and once memorably we went to a gymkhana there where Grandma and all the other ladies chased a greased pig.

Three of Dad’s dozen or so schools were in the Mallee, the first, Sea Lake as I wrote recently, but then Underbool west of Ouyen where B2 was born and from 1961-63, Murrayville, further west again and so we would drive, in hundred degree heat in summer, 68 miles across to Ouyen then 80 miles down the Calder Highway to Sea Lake. Just mallee scrub, paddocks of wheat and oats, paddy melons and tumbleweeds. Identifying and counting cars to pass the endless hours – weren’t all hours endless back then.

Oh, the book review. You really should stop now or jump over to Emma at Book Around the Corner (here). Emma enjoys Harper’s crime fiction and writes a sensible review, which is more than you will get from me.

The setting of The Dry (2016) is a fictitious small sheep farming community, Kiewarra, though not so small it doesn’t have a high school, “five hours from Melbourne”. The number of towns in Victoria that fit this definition is just two, Robinvale and Ouyen in the north-west, the Mallee. Five hours in any other direction takes you into NSW or SA.

Robinvale is on the Murray and has a twin town, Euston across the river. Farming is irrigation dependent – grapes and citrus. Which leaves Ouyen, to the west, semi-desert, mallee scrub country, wheat farming mostly but some sheep. Dry and flat, salt lakes, no rivers. Kiewarra on the other hand has a wide river which normally burbles and rushes along, a lookout hill with a 100m high cliff, and late in the story the bare “fields” which surround Kiewarra become dense bush, tinder dry, threatening to engulf the town with bushfire. Any descriptions are plain vanilla generic – houses, fields, trees, river (and yes “fields” really annoys me).

Even the title is annoying, “the Dry” in Australia is actually winter in the tropics. “The Drought” or “The Long Dry” would have been more accurate given that that is what Harper (or the marketing people who came up with the title) meant, but who am I to argue when sales have been so good.

As a crime fiction novel The Dry is not bad, though in a genre renowned for meticulous technical accuracy her ‘police procedural’ errors are probably unacceptable. But the story is well told and the characters engaging. I especially enjoyed the back and forth between twenty years ago and now, flagged by italic script in the book, but not of course in the reading. It’s the geography that makes me mad. You’d have to think that the closest Jane Harper has been to the Bush is the observation deck of the Rialto with a telescope and the only experience she has of drought and farming is the stories she’s read in the Melbourne Murdoch tabloid, the Herald-Sun.

When the Mallee was divided up for settlement one block was one square mile, 640 acres. These days mechanisation means that an average farm is at least five times that, yet a big farm in Kiewarra is 200 acres. No wonder the farmers are desperate. The basis of the novel is that the ongoing drought has led one farmer to a murder/suicide which his parents ask his Melbourne-based former school mate and Federal policeman to investigate. The school-mate, Falk, around whom Harper is building a series, was blamed for the death 20 years earlier of his friend Ellie who was found at the bottom of the river with stones in her pocket, and he and his father were run out of town.

By the end of the book both Ellie’s death and the deaths of the farming family are explained, with a few unexpected twists along the way, the tension builds nicely, and yes the treatment of Falk by his former townsfolk has a “Deliverance” feel to it. But. The title makes the claim that this is Australian writing in the long tradition of Bush Realism dating from before the Bulletin, Steele Rudd, Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy, back to the mid-1800s and the women we discussed in Gen 1 Week. And it is a spurious claim. Harper has appropriated the tropes of Australian bush fiction to make a setting for her crime fiction and she has done it really, really badly.

 

Jane Harper, The Dry, Macmillan Audiobook, 2016. Read by Steve Shannahan

I knew someone else as well as Emma had reviewed it. Kim at Reading Matters writes: “Quite frankly, The Dry, is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years.”