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

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The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory

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Home at last! I landed at Perth airport, home from Melbourne, last Tuesday week at 9.30 am and by noon was at work. I’ve driven, unloaded, driven, loaded for ten and half days straight till now I’m ‘out of hours’ and must take a two day break. We haven’t worked like this since the end of the mining boom a couple of years ago. Obviously I haven’t had time to write any new blog posts but I have done plenty of (audio) reading.

When I’m unloading and sometimes when I’m queuing to load I catch up on my news and blog reading and when that’s done I can read a real, physical book – at the moment Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales. Meanwhile, during all that driving, I’ve listened to, amongst others, Amerikanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Pride and Prejudice, The Taming of the Queen, The Road (Cormack McCarthy), and The Drowning (Camilla Luckborg).

Amerikanah – currently the subject of the Mayor of New York’s citywide book group – was a disappointment, just another plain vanilla American novel, with none of the African rhythms of other Nigerian writers, Nnedi Okorafor say, or Ben Okri. The Road was also less than I expected, just ordinary, post-apocalyptic SF. I get the impression that when literary writers move into SF, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is another example, they get far more credit than SF specialists who often do it much better, and here I’m thinking of the relative lack of mainstream appreciation for JM Ballard, PK Dick, Ursula La Guin and so on.

The Drowning, standard – which is to say, good – Swedish crime fiction, brought up a different problem, that is depictions of violence. I can only describe the detailed descriptions of two distinct acts of violence, one sexual and one not, perpetrated on one girl as pornographic. The denoument, involving a split personality, was also less than compelling, but that’s another story.

So we come to The Taming of the Queen. Marion Diamond, who blogs at Historians are Past Caring, joked on another post of mine on historical fiction (no, I don’t remember which one) about ‘feisty, feminist medieval princesses’, but this is in fact the thesis of this recent (2015) Philippa Gregory Tudor romance. Gregory is passionate about the feminist credentials of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, ‘Kateryn’ Parr (1512-1548).

I have listened to other books by Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl most recently, and have enjoyed them for the romance and for their veneer of historical fact. One critic has described Gregory’s books as the Mills & Boon of historical fiction. More or less by coincidence I’ve also listened to Hilary Mantel’s much more respected books of the same period, Wolf Hall and Bring Out the Bodies, so I’m getting to be a real expert.

Historical fiction is in the long tradition of well-known stories being re-told to illustrate current concerns, a tradition dating back no doubt to before Homer as it is a given in oral cultures that stories must be retold to survive. My own “opposition” to historical fiction is to retellings that end up obscuring important aspects of the past. So, medieval history is not important to me and I am happy for it to be used as a canvas for Gregory’s imaginings, just as I enjoy learning what I can of Wellington’s campaigns from Georgette Heyer’s The Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride.

Australian history is important and so I must interrogate why I value Voss and not The True History of the Kelly Gang, why I look down on The Secret River and, yes, A House is Built but not The Timeless Land or That Deadman Dance. Voss, I think, like the many adaptations of Shakespeare, celebrates the original story (in this case the disappearance of explorer Ludwig Leichardt) without replacing it; That Deadman Dance is important for supplying an Indigenous perspective to first contact, as is the much earlier The Timeless Land, though of course in that case Dark, the author, is white. Carey’s Kelly Gang rightfully asserts Kelly’s Irish rebel antecedents but I don’t understand why he gives Kelly a wife or how he imagines 1870s Victoria without Aborigines (and I hate novels written in dialect). The others are in a long line of historical fictions written with modern sensibilities and where the facts may be much better understood from accounts written at the time.

Philippa Gregory imputes to Parr a vital part in the survival of the Reformation in England, and indeed the two main threads of this novel are the feminist and intellectual underpinnings of Parr and her inner circle of Ladies in Waiting, and a virulent anti-Catholicism. I have no religious leanings at all, and if I don’t like the appellation ‘atheist’ it is only because there is no theos from which I am ‘a’, but I was a bit shocked by Gregory’s language. Don’t get me wrong, I agree totally that “men in fancy dress performing hocus pocus” is an apt description of Catholic priests, I just didn’t expect to come across it here.

The background to the novel is that the Reformation had taken hold in England following the teachings of Martin Luther and later, John Calvin. Henry, who had his own disputes with Rome, carved off the Church of England in 1529 with himself as head, though the teachings and practices of the church continued to vacillate between Protestantism and Catholicism (to this day). This is also the background to The Scarlet Letter which I reviewed recently.

Henry has already got through five wives in his attempts to come up with a male heir when in 1543 he marries Kateryn, a 31 year old widow who has up till then lived in the north. Henry, by then 52, is grossly overweight and ill. He has a wound to his leg which will not heal, which threatens to kill him through blood poisoning, which requires constant draining, and which of course both stinks and makes it difficult for him to walk unaided. The descriptions of this are all a bit gross! As are the descriptions of Henry’s attempt at intercourse. Gregory posits that a medieval lady would hold herself remote from the processes of sexual intercourse and describes Kateryn sitting stiffly in Henry’s lap as the poor man attempts to ‘get it up’ without assistance.

Although the practices of the Church of England were largely Catholic, reforms included an end to belief in Purgatory – and of payments to the Church to hasten the progress of the dead through Purgatory – services in English and the distribution of an English language Bible (possibly the Wycliffe version from a century or so earlier). Henry himself seems to have translated at least some prayers from Latin into English.

Gregory describes Parr as taking up the cause of Protestantism when she arrives at the court, of she and her ladies making new translations, particularly of the Psalms, from Latin into English and of suffering from the forces of reaction as she fails to give Henry the (second) male child he so desperately wants, and as Henry comes under the influence of pro-Catholic advisors. Parr corresponded with her stepson (later Edward VI) in Latin and  published three books of prayers and religious reflections in English. In an afterword Gregory writes:

No woman before Kateryn Parr had dared to write original material in English for publication and put her own name on the title page, as Parr did with her last book, The Lamentation of a Sinner.

Spoiler Alert. Despite temporary imprisonment in the Tower, Kateryn survived Henry to marry her lover, only to die a year later in childbirth.

Gregory is not the literary writer that Mantel is but this is still an enthralling story well told, and with more heft than her earlier work, those that I’ve read anyway.

 

Philippa Gregory, The Taming of the Queen, Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Audiobook, Audiobooks.com, narrated by Bianca Amato

 

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

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Geology daughter, a single mother with two infants and a teenager, and half-way through her PhD, obviously has time on her hands. She recently joined a book group, suggested they do The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which up to that stage she hadn’t read, and then according to her sister who went along with her, gave a rousing presentation. I asked her to write it up for me, and she has, and if you knew her you would know it could only be called:

Things I hate about the handmaid’s tale

Thanks to a nicely timed mini-series this book is having a public resurgence and so my book club (the meeting ground for middle aged women sans children) decided to review it – everyone liked it except me. I just couldn’t get past some major inconsistencies in the plot which totally undermined the story.

To sum it up, the story is set in post 1985 USA when far-right white Christians have mass murdered everyone in Congress and taken over most of the country, replacing the government with an extreme patriarchal, evangelist, totalitarian regime.

The birth rate of middle class Americans has been declining, following a series of environmental disasters, and the ‘handmaids’ of the title act as vessels or surrogates for infertile privileged women, apparently based on a precedent in the Old Testament.

So much here makes no sense scientifically. I’m not a big science fiction reader, but in my experience SF books tend to take a concept or a time period where history could change and then move on into their fiction, but this novel has no clear historical divergence point. Flashbacks into the handmaid’s memories of her mother’s life do not correlate with my knowledge of 1940-50 USA. I’m a scientist by trade, so I like facts and I find this lack of historical basis just research-lazy and really annoying to read.

There are also major geographical issues in the novel. During the Coup the handmaid travels for days to presumably the Canadian border, but when captured ends up back in the same town she has lived in before, full of memories of her daughter. Geographically this is extremely unlikely- if I was ruler I would not put prisoners in their home town where memories would make them resistant and they would have increased knowledge of buildings, people etc. Also does the regime cover just this little town? No, it covers everywhere to at least the border so plenty of presumably bigger towns and cities to choose from.- it’s weird.

So many issues with the character Moira. Moira is an old friend of the handmaid’s (from before the takeover) who the handmaid meets again in the red centre, and later working in the brothel. But 1. Handmaids are women who have proved fertility by having a live child, and Moira is childless so, no, Moira should not be a handmaid. 2. Handmaids are fertile, and in the brothel Moira states she has had her tubes tied (something only available to women “before”) so again- obviously she wouldn’t be a handmaid.

I have more issues- like why are the women suddenly infertile in just three years? Where have all the non-white people gone? That’s 60% (??) of USA disappeared. Why are the Japanese tourists seemingly not bothered by infertility or environmental issues?

People are hailing this as a feminist book and I think that’s nonsense. The main character is so wishy washy, and the two strongest female characters are both punished to die inconceivably horrible deaths- Moira in the brothel where women do not live longer than three years, and the handmaid’s mother in some toxic clean-up zone (where your skin may literally peel off).

Furthermore, the epilogue is set at an academic conference 200 years in the future where all the speakers appear to be male, and they make fun of women (calling the female rescue rail road the “frail-road”). Actually, that’s pretty much the same as academic conferences today.

This book indisputably highlights a number of key topics effecting women, however it is not a pro-feminist novel, by which I mean it fails to show women as capable of equality. Two major topics which appeal to present day audiences are Attwood’s predictions that the perceived threat of Islamist terrorism will be used to further a far right Christian agenda and limit civil liberties, and that the “protection” of women will be used as an excuse to limit their freedoms. For anyone who saw the recent image of Trump and seven wealthy white men signing the Planned Parenthood restrictions, the concept of the White right controlling women’s reproductive rights is not science fiction.

 

Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985

By coincidence, Kim at Reading Matters has also just posted a review (here)

 

Existentialism, Sartre

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Sartre, Iris Murdoch
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, Thomas R Flynn

Existentialism is commonly associated with Left-Bank Parisian cafes and the ‘family’ of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) who gathered there in the years immediately following the liberation of Paris at end of World War II… The mood is one of enthusiasm, creativity, anguished self-analysis, and freedom – always freedom. (Flynn)

These two books are only short, not taking up much room in my backpack, and I thought, rightly as it turned out, that I might at last have the leisure to both read and think about them as I was training and boating around southern Europe. To say that I understood them however, and particularly Iris Murdoch’s dense 1953 account of Sartre’s early writing, would be an overstatement.

I first came to Existentialism when I lost my licence (for speeding in a heavy vehicle) and returned to uni for a year of Arts in 1971, and it subsequently became an important part of my opposition to conscription and the Viet Nam War.

I was impressed by Sartre’s credo – Existence precedes Essence, by his work as a novelist, and by his commitment to Revolution. For a number of years I carried a battered copy of his opus, Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943) with me in the truck, a copy which went missing with many of my ‘political’ books when my son was a teenager, and which I saw maybe ten years ago, on the shelves of one of his friends. When I chipped him about this he said, “Oh yeah, there’s a few of your books in a box out the back.” But that’s as close as I ever got to recovering them.

English philosopher and author Iris Murdoch’s book was the first monograph on Sartre in English (Wiki). Sartre’s writing is notoriously difficult but a beginning to comprehending it might lie in Murdoch’s description of his discursive method of argument. Sartre believes (you can take as read in all that follows, “in my limited understanding”) that you can never know yourself fully through self-reflection, but that, if you are honest with yourself, then each iteration of reflection results in improvement.

According to Murdoch, Sartre is an unwilling solipsist. He wishes to believe in the Other, indeed he imagines himself the unwilling object of the Other’s gaze, but is unable to determine what, or even if, the Other is thinking. And this leads us to ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Good Faith involves constant reflection, to refine our understanding and therefore, our behaviour. Bad Faith consequently, involves a lack of reflection, an acceptance of ourselves as we imagine we are seen by others.

Being and Nothingness is apparently just a (very) extensive rendition of Sartre’s reflections, psychoanalysis as metaphysics according to Murdoch, in which successive iterations progress his arguments (and our understanding, to the extent that we can follow him). Likewise, Flynn’s much later ‘Very Short Introduction’ describes how Sartre’s political thinking was progressed both by reflection and by his better understanding of the external, “real” world, as he got older.

Sartre comes to politics from two points of view. Partly he approaches it as a philosophical solution to a solipsistic dilemma. Partly he meets it as the practical concern of a Western democrat. Sartre has in himself both the intense egocentric conception of personal life and the pragmatic utilitarian view of politics which most western people keep as two separate notions in their head… (Murdoch)

Sartre’s writings were initially concerned with his theories of self, and were very much derived from intense and continuous self analysis. However the War, and in particular of course, the fall of Paris to the Nazis in 1940, brought home to him the need to engage with politics. The pivotal position of the Communists in the Resistance, and his own distaste for the bourgeoisie, made them first port-of-call, but he soon found both their totalitarianism and their insistence on historical determinism at odds with his insistence on freedom, and so moved on.

As Sartre’s politics moved increasingly towards the Left, he separated himself from former friends whose political development moved in the opposite direction [referring to Camus and Merleau-Ponty]. By the time of the student revolt of 1968, Sartre was associating with the so-called French ‘Maoists’, who had little to do with China but a great deal to do with such classical anarchist ideals as ‘direct democracy’. (Flynn)

I recommend Flynn as a very clear account of existentialism and its grounding in European philosophy from the ancient Greeks onwards, whereas Murdoch’s book is more one of one philosopher engaging with another, contemporaneously, only a few years after the War, which is to say, at a time when Sartre’s politics and European philosophy were going through some big changes. Flynn goes on to discuss Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism which movements seem to me, to the very limited extent I understand them at all, to both involve a great deal of sloppy thinking, and to have been appropriated by the Right to justify their aversion to truth speaking.

Murdoch and Flynn both see as important Sartre’s What is Literature? (1948) in which he writes, “Though literature is one thing and morality another, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative.” Sartre attempts, unconvincingly, to demonstrate that it is the writer’s intrinsic duty to advance the cause of freedom, and proposes a distinction between Poetry and Prose in which the latter is ‘instrumental’, committed to the alleviation of suffering, whereas Poetry, like Music, is non-instrumental, art-for-art’s-sake. A distinction which I think even he was forced subsequently to disown.

You will have to read Flynn for yourself if you are interested in other authors, first amongst them Camus, who advanced existentialism in their writing, but I will say a little about de Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner for life both personally and intellectually. De Beauvoir, a prolific writer, was probably ahead of Sartre in her understanding of the individual as a member of society. Her seminal The Second Sex (1949) contains the line, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” meaning, I gather, that a woman begins with certain sexual apparatus, but that society imposes on her the condition of ‘being a woman’.

This leads us back to the famous “Existence precedes Essence”, which comes from a 1945 lecture, ‘Is Existentialism a Humanism?’. Sartre and his philosophy were atheist, so there was no obvious basis for acting morally. Sartre claimed that this freedom from doctrine was itself the basis for moral action, ‘in choosing anything at all, I first of all choose freedom’, not just for himself, but for every member of society. And by “Existence precedes Essence” he meant that every moment of every day we must choose, that our ‘essence’ is what we make of our ‘existence’, and that further, almost the worst choice we can make is to not choose, to be ‘in bad faith’, to abrogate our freedom, to allow our existence to be what others choose it to be.

And that is the basis of my objection to conscription in the Viet Nam War years: that my fellow 20 year olds failed to choose freedom; that they allowed society to choose for them to be soldiers; that they allowed themselves to be used to kill Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians, who were fighting for nothing more than their own right to make their own choices.

Paola (19)

Iris Murdoch, Sartre, first pub. 1953, my edition (not pictured above) Fontana, 1967
Thomas R Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, Oxford, 2006


I’ve been reading Charmian Clift’s Travels in Greece, a combo of Mermaid Singing and Peel Me a Lotus, but have spent too many lotus-eating days myself on Greek islands and so am behind with my review. Luckily I had Sartre ready, and, touch wood, I’ll put up Clift this time next week.

Hippy Days, Arabian Nights, Katherine Boland

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Hippy Days, Arabian Nights is a memoir in two parts by Melbourne-based artist, Katherine Boland (1957 – ). The first part, her childhood in England and Victoria and her life as a hippy and young mother in a community on the NSW south coast, is interesting reading. Part 2, her love affair as a fiftyish divorcee with an Egyptian man half her age, is less so.

Boland, her younger sister Lisa, and her parents migrated to Australia from England in 1961, settling in Melbourne where her father found work as a photographer, taking postcard images all round Australia. After two years, maybe wishing to settle down, he bought a photography business in Bairnsdale, a coastal town in eastern Victoria.

While the budding artist decorated the chook shed and created masterpieces of “swirling crop circles and intricate geometric patterns” with the ride-on mower, her father was descending into depression.

By the time I was ten years old, he had slowly but surely become a misery guts… At the age of forty, disillusioned with how things had turned out, Dad became increasingly depressed and maudlin, drowning himself in drink.

After ten years he sold up and the family returned to England, to Manchester and “my grandfather’s damp and camphor smelling, old person’s house”. Boland writes:

At the age of eleven [ie. at about the time of WWI], my grandfather and grandmother were sent to work in one of the many cotton mills operating in Lancashire at the time. Crawling on hands and knees under the thunderous industrial looms, it was their job to collect the drifts of lint building up on the factory floor …

This strikes me as extremely unlikely. Anyway, dad can’t find work and they move again, to Spain where “Mum and Dad began to lose all direction, perpetually arguing and moving from one alcohol fuelled party to the next”. After six months of this, nearly out of money, they give in and return, not just to Australia but to Bairnsdale. A few months later, still without work, Dad parks his car in the bush, pipes the car exhaust into the interior, and dies.

Katherine goes on to study Art at RMIT, meets John, a political science student at Monash, and moves into his St Kilda flat. After a year, they toss in their studies and armed with The Vegetable Gardening and Animal Husbandry Handbook from the Space Age Bookshop in Swanston St, they head up to ‘Kelly country’, camping in the bush east of Wangaratta until they can find a farmhouse to rent “officially ready to become ‘alternative life stylers’”. For 18 months they live off their own vegetables, chooks and goats, but they want more. A trip to WA to earn ‘big money’ on prawn trawlers is a failure and they end up in Sydney, as live-in maid and gardener/chauffeur for ‘Lady Hooker’ (presumably the widow of LJ Hooker, who died in 1976).

Finally, they have enough money to purchase 100 acres of bush, in the Bega Valley, near Mumbulla Mountain and inland from Bermagui. Slowly, they clear the bush, build themselves a wattle and daub hut and begin to make a go of things. Other hippies purchase blocks nearby so there is always the possibility of shared labour – and shared dope, which increasingly becomes a problem.

Boland’s optimistic and humorous approach to what is really a recreation of C19th pioneering lifestyles is reminiscent of Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I (1946), dimly remembered from my mother’s bookshelves.

A baby, Eva, comes while John is at a new year’s eve party. Katherine phones a neighbour who finds “the expectant father smoking hashish from a home-made hookah in the back of a Ford Falcon panel van.”

I spent seven glorious days in the Bega District Hospital, the longest stay permitted before they threw new mothers back out into the world. Compared to our mud hut in Brogo, it was like holidaying at a Four Seasons Hotel.

Over time, Katherine persuades her mother to live with them (in a refurbished goat shed); John who works part-time as a bricklayer, builds them a new house with real bricks, electricity and a flush toilet; and Eva joins pony club. Then, “in the weeks before 9/11”, it all comes to an end. Eva has left home at 16 to complete her high school education in Canberra, and Katherine  catches John out in an affair with another woman from their community, and returns to Melbourne to live with her sister, determined to make her way as an artist.

On the night of her first exhibition, she begins an ultimately abusive relationship with “the clever, charismatic, cocaine-sniffing, Croatian architect Vicko”. She does more art, gets some overseas residencies, including one at Luxor. She, by then aged 52, and her translator, “the stunningly attractive” Mr Gamal Bahar, aged 26, engage in love at first sight, and so begins ‘Arabian Nights’. Boring.

Over the next five years, she visits him in Cairo, staying in his empty flat across the road from his family’s apartment, then when that is forbidden, at a hotel where they can’t sleep together; they talk daily on Skype; they meet in Viet Nam, Thailand and London. He can’t get a tourist visa to enter Australia – too many Egyptian men overstay apparently – they consider marrying in Egypt, his father says No; there’s the riots and army takeover following the ‘Arab Spring’; they prevaricate over an Australian ‘Prospective Marriage Visa’.

If it doesn’t cost too much, read this book for its first half, an amusing and informative account of modern day subsistence living, which all of us boomers probably considered at one time or another, however briefly.

 

Katherine Boland, Hippy Days, Arabian Nights, Wild Dingo Press, Melbourne, 2017 (Review copy supplied by Wild Dingo Press).

Boland’s art on Pinterest (here)

The Independent Woman in Australian Literature

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In my reviews of Australian books, especially those with women authors, I refer quite often to my thesis that, just as Russell Ward identified the ‘Lone Hand’/independent bushman as the basis for depictions of maleness, and by extension Australianness, early Australian women writers had been developing a parallel, though largely unacknowledged paradigm, the Independent Woman.

I undertook my M.Litt at CQU a decade or so ago – it took a while and I should thank again my supervisor John Fitzsimmons for his patience and my tutor Ayesha Hall for her persistence – and, because I do refer to it, I have decided to put up a cut down version of my dissertation as a ‘page’.

I say ‘cut down’, but it’s still 16,000 words, plus links to books that I’ve already reviewed. Read it at your own peril!


 

Abstract

The starting point for discussions of Australianness has long been Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) with its account of the myth of the Lone Hand, from which women are almost entirely absent. Even in the subsequent Pioneer myth, women have only a subsidiary role.

This absence of women has often been decried, but any reading of the large body of literature by and about Australian women, particularly in the first half of the 20th Century, clearly demonstrates that a case can be made for a parallel myth, the Independent Woman, who makes her way without, and often despite, men.

In the first chapter I discuss the development of the Lone Hand myth, its importance to how we see ourselves as Australians, and, particularly, how women have responded to their exclusion from this myth. The remaining chapters are basically chronological, showing how the fiction of each period, and biographies of the women of those periods, can be read in such a way as to contribute to the development of the counter-myth, the Independent Woman.

So, Chapter 2 covers the blossoming of women’s fiction in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the principal women of ‘first wave’ Feminism in Australia. Chapter 3 is devoted to Miles Franklin, her partly autobiographical heroines, and her connections to first wave Feminism. Chapter 4 covers women’s writing between the Wars and up to the 1950’s, and, in particular, the development of Eve Langley’s heroine, Steve, in direct response to her reading of the bush stories and poetry of Henry Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. Chapter 5 is of a similar period to Chapter 4 but is centred on women whose independence carries them into Lone Hand territory and into the deserts of Central Australia. Finally, Chapter 6 discusses some developments in depictions of the Independent Woman since the sexual revolutions of the 1960s.

 

21 February 2011

W.A.D. Holloway


The Independent Woman in Australian Literature page (here)

Letty Fox: Her Luck, Christina Stead

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First edition cover

Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) seems at the beginning as if it is to be an account of the sexual adventures of a young woman in New York in the years leading up to and including the Second World War. I put up the opening page (here) last year for Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead Week. It begins

One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening. In general, things were bad with me; I was in low water financially and had nothing but married men as companions…

This paragraph goes on for more than a page, and the whole book for 500pp, in a sustained tour de force of brilliant writing. But the story does not go on from this opening, rather Letty Fox takes us back, takes us through her upbringing, and her disjointed family, that has led her to being this person.

We have discussed elsewhere in ‘Christina Stead Week’ that Stead uses a writing technique we might call ‘stream of speech’. During the early 1930s Stead and her husband Bill Blake were members of the artistic community around Sylvia Beach and her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., the publishers a decade earlier of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which made extensive use of stream of consciousness, where the ‘action’ of the novel is carried forward by the reader following what the protagonists are thinking from moment to moment – and of course, they are often ‘off with the fairies’. So it is with Stead, except that she uses speech – or sometimes letters as a speech substitute – non-stop for pages at a time. And of course, as this is a first person narrative, even when Letty is not speaking or being spoken to she is speaking directly to us, so that the novel is basically 500pp of direct speech.

Letty as a girl is both precocious and naive. Her 25 yo self who is the book’s author is content to leave most of the exposition to the Letty being discussed so that Letty, who at a very early age discovers from the examples of her extended family that the best thing for a woman is to marry early, divorce, obtain alimony, repeat as often as required for comfortable living, tells us frankly what her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are doing in this regard and how she plans to do it better, and of course at the same time lets us see both how much and how little she really understands.

I wondered if another influence that Stead picked up in Paris might not be existentialism. Letty’s mother Mathilde was a would-be actress whom Letty thinks strikes poses rather than expresses ‘real’ feelings, what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’:

Even when she raised her hands to her ears and cried out, the attitude and pang were perfect; now she had no doubt of herself. In this role, written for her many centuries before, she felt at ease …

When … Mathilde was not worshipping her baby-in-arms, or portraying a female defending her young, or walking up and down with the child in her arms, representing to herself an unhappy and loveless woman, she was sitting in a chair … thinking distrustfully of their future.

The same theme comes up later when a woman admires Letty’s poise, though Letty is more self-aware than her mother:

“Mrs Headlong, I have had really, no experiences, but those I have told you.”

She started, “It’s impossible! Not the way you talk! You seem so very much the modern, sophisticated -” she halted.

I took up, “The overdone young woman, the girl about town? I do; but that’s play acting. My mother was an actress once, don’t forget… I acted little girl, I acted young girl, and now I act knowing girl.”

I suppose I must tell you a little of the substance of the novel, though the great joy is to follow Stead’s writing, or Letty’s speech which is the same thing, as Letty lurches into young womanhood.

Letty’s father Solander, is some sort of merchant banker – much in the same way as (Stead’s husband) Bill Blake – who wooed Mathilde by being so often in her presence that she felt unable to resist him, but after the births of Letty and her younger sister Jacky he starts living separately, a fact which Mathilde struggles to acknowledge, denying for years the existence of ‘the other woman’, Persia.

The matriarch of Mathilde’s family is Grandma Morgan who owns a number of private hotels in rural locations around the USA, but principally Green Acres, the home to which all members of the family routinely return.

For a number of years, while Sol and Mathilde attempt to overcome their differences, Letty and Jacky live partially with their Uncle Hogg (separated from Mathilde’s sister) and cousins on a family-owned farm. Perce Hogg’s housekeeper is his sister, ‘Mrs Dr Goodsir’ after the doctor who had got her pregnant and refused to marry her. Mathilde’s younger brother Phillip is also sometimes in the picture, constantly sleeping with and sometimes marrying young women. At one time later on, both Hogg and Phillip are in jail for refusing, or being unable, to pay alimony. The divorce laws are ferociously complicated, with divorces and second marriages being both legal and illegal at the same time in different states.

Grandma Morgan, herself not averse to romance, with an ex-husband she permits to sleep round the back in the stables, has a beautiful younger daughter, Phyllis who during Letty’s adolescence, must be introduced into the marriage market at the maximum price. Sol’s work takes him to London and then to Amsterdam. Mathilde and the girls follow, ending up in Paris, and Grandma Morgan brings Phyllis to join them there. With a friend, Phyllis makes her way as a chorus girl around Europe until finally the family has to rescue her from Egypt, before she is completely unsaleable. Phyllis returns to the USA and pops up occasionally thereafter divorcing and remarrying.

The last part of the family is Sol’s mother, Grandma Fox, a decrepit and dependent old woman who must also deny Persia, though sometimes living with her and Sol, in order to remain friends with Mathilde (the only person in the story who does not wish for remarriage despite the urgings of her family) and the girls.

Back in the USA aged 15 or 16 Letty is determined to ‘discover’ boys and at the new year’s eve party at Green Acres she does, later telling Grandma Fox, who hadn’t been invited, that she had danced with ‘eleven boys’ and got drunk.

… I was doing the Big Apple. Errol was my partner nearly all the evening, although I danced with a couple of other boys I’d just met, and there were a couple of old guys about forty or fifty tried to make me, and I danced with a couple just to kid them, but I wasn’t really having any; no grey hairs in my beer, I said to myself and I said it to them, too, not quite that, but pretty much that. They got it anyway … Well, we went out and we walked up and down … and we looked in every corner – well, frankly, for a place to neck – and we couldn’t find one place. Everywhere we went there were a couple of kids necking, and even more than necking. Gee, much more. And kids wasn’t always the appropriate word. Finally, we had to sit in a corner of a storeroom right behind the kitchen, where there were already three other couples.

But in the end she “was still as mother delivered me into the world, though how I can’t say.”

When Grandmother Fox dies, she leaves her savings, $5,000, to be divided between Letty and Jacky, and Letty spends much of the next few years both begging for portions of this from her father as she runs up bills, on Grandma Morgan’s accounts, for clothes appropriate to the attracting of boys, and holding it out as a bargaining chip in her negotiations with suitors.

Letty does well at school and is a member of a communist youth organisation where she meets Clays, an aristocratic, impecunious (and married) 30 yo Englishman. She determines to win him and does and gets the permission of her family to marry when she turns 17. They manage to spend a night together but laughably, Letty remains a virgin and Clays goes off to the war in Spain as a journalist before he can finalise his divorce. It’s another six months before Letty spends the summer with a friend of Clays whom she does not particularly like, gets pregnant; he pays for the abortion which Sol organises, and then chases her, and eventually her family, to be repaid out of the ‘inheritance’.

By this time, college seems to Letty to be peopled by “demi-virgins and pimpled youths” and she drops out, taking a secretarial job in the fashion industry, and chasing after men. To be honest, this girl-about-town part of the novel – the last quarter – which brings us into the war years, is also the least interesting.

Letty Fox came immediately after Stead’s two best known and most autobiographical novels,  The Man Who Loved Children (1940) and For Love Alone (1945) and so is something of a departure – a Bildungsroman maybe, but not her own coming of age; and not so much a satire on marriage, as is sometimes said, as a satire on the behaviour of a particular sub-stratum of American society, the cosmopolitan, upper middle class. Of course, a novel will always contain something of the author, and perhaps Letty’s line, “It is impossible to resist the pleasure of love, once tried”, which is pretty much her motto, also represents Stead’s own experience.

 

Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, first published 1946. My copy Imprint Classics, 1991, with introduction by Susan Sheridan.

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead page (here) for a full overview of Stead and her work.
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters,1989 (Biography – Review)
Letty Fox: Her Luck (Excerpt)
Cotters’ England (Excerpt)
Cotters’ England (Review)