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)

Miles Franklin: Her Brilliant Career, Colin Roderick

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My late father had retired by the time I was doing my Masters so I kept him busy with a list of the books that I was having trouble finding and he would scour Melbourne’s second-hand bookshops. Consequently my Miles Franklin shelf includes half a dozen biographies and a whole string of Aust.Lit. overviews, from HM Green’s A History of Australian Literature to Clement Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism.

My Miles Franklin biographies are:-

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (2008) which I got (new) for my birthday when it came out in the final years of my 7 year struggle to finish.

Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin (1967)

Colin Roderick, Miles Franklin: Her Brilliant Career (1982)

Verna Coleman, Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career (1981)

W. Blake, Miles Franklin: Novelist and Feminist (1991)

Sylvia Martin, Passionate Friends (2001)

Miles Franklin, Childhood at Brindabella: My First Ten Years (1963)

Not to mention her diaries and letters and importantly, all the essays introducing republications of her work, for instance Elizabeth Webby in My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung, A&R (1990) and Roy Duncan in On Dearborn Street, UQP (1981).

Jill Roe’s is of course the most comprehensive, but the others have their uses and Verna Coleman’s is very good on MF’s time in Chicago. Sue (Whispering Gums) warned me off the Colin Roderick some time ago but I was reading it late at night, just to get it out of the way really, while some recent MF posts were fresh in my mind, and it was quickly obvious that she was right. Roderick’s disparagement of Franklin is so blatant, sexist and disagreeable that I thought I would write about it.

Colin Roderick (1911-2000) was an important figure in Australian literary circles and a vigorous promoter of Australian Literature. He was editor at Australia’s premier publishers, Angus & Robertson, 1945-65, and a director from 1961-65, foundation professor of English at James Cook University 1965-76, and was appointed to the inaugural judging panel of the Miles Franklin Award under the terms of MF’s will, which position he held until 1991, “when he resigned in acrimonious circumstances over the definition of what constituted a work of Australian fiction.” (Pierce)

In his obituary for Roderick (presumably in the Age of 16/6/00 – Dad has cut it out) Peter Pierce writes that “Roderick began a remarkable career as an author in 1945, with The Australian Novel. This was followed by critical and biographical works on Rosa Praed (1948), Miles Franklin (1982) and ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1993). The height of Roderick’s literary scholarship is represented by his impeccably edited, multi-volume collections of Henry Lawson’s verse and prose.”

I have Dad’s copy of The Australian Novel with his name and the year 1947 (it must have been set for Teachers’ College) inside along with the price (10/6) and the obit cutting. Miles Franklin has supplied a Foreword which includes:

… extracts from the literature of the British Isles and other parts of Europe, included in the class readers of my mother’s and grandmother’s times, were treasure trove to me before I was twelve. A little later came the discovery of Australian writers like Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood, Gordon and Kendall… Fuller enchantment came with Lawson, Paterson, and others not so prominent.”

So, no women writers for young Miles.  In 1945 Roderick was a Gympie, Qld school teacher but he had an MA and this book was his path to a doctorate. In fact, only two pages of it are his and the remainder consists of 19 extracts from Australian novelists, 11 men and 8 women. Without payment. Roe writes, “when Roderick told Miles he was doing it for the good of Australian literature but expected to get a D.Litt. for his efforts, she set about organising a boycott.” This petered out and all the authors or their estates gave grudging permission – no doubt many of the anthologised novels were out of print.

Roderick was an early advocate for the Brent of Bin Bin books, and though of course she never acknowledged her authorship of them, Miles was inclined to cut him a little slack. In the small world of writers and publishers in Sydney they inevitably met quite often but never had a good relationship.

According to Roe, “whereas [Barnard’s biography] sought to elucidate the legend, Roderick tried to demolish it. (No doubt Roderick was shocked to discover from her papers [released 10 years after her death] what Miles really thought of him.)”

At the time of her death in 1954 Franklin was a writer of the Pioneer school, and decidedly out of fashion, but the rise of second-wave feminism in the late sixties, aided by the release of a film version of My Brilliant Career in 1979, made her anti-marriage heroines relevant again. Dozens of editions of My Brilliant Career were released around the world, My Career Goes Bung was reissued a number of times, and in 1986 even Some Everyday Folk and Dawn was ‘rescued from obscurity’ by Virago.

This seems to have made Roderick – who was after all a far north Queenslander – uncomfortable. He had Miles pigeon-holed as rural, out of date and eccentric and to apply to him the ‘psychology’ he is fond of applying to Miles, he was probably miffed to have lost his hold over her re-burgeoning reputation.

When it comes to the chronology of Franklin’s family and of her life as a writer, Roderick’s biography is detailed and interesting – Roe remarks that Roderick had first access to MF’s papers but fails to acknowledge them – but when it comes to analyses of Miles’ character and writing, Roderick uses pop psychology and perhaps his (unacknowledged) unhappiness at his portrayal in her letters to paint an unflattering and inaccurate picture. Some samples:

[her] unshakeable conviction of physical inferiority and lack of physical attraction… converted her into a skittish coquette stringing two or three men along simultaneously and a synthetic man-hater… It forced her to become a defensively bellicose propagandist for feminist causes. (p.14)

To be a proper woman she needed to submit to a man:

One of her American suitors might with a sure instinct express his intention of putting her across his knees. Had one of her Australian beaux done so in 1899 [the American would not have needed to, ie. she would already be married]. (p.72)

… she spent the best years of her life as a lackey to dominating women who were natural obsessed feminists. (p.75)

The blighting of Miles Franklin’s career was the result of indiscipline during her literary infancy … When she had put the finishing touches on the ebullient perturbations of her adolescence, they fell into the wrong hands. So did she. [This] was to lead her into a quagmire of irrelevant and wasteful New Woman militancy. (p.76)

And so it goes on. Roderick gives no credit at all to Franklin’s lifelong devotion to women’s and charitable causes, nor to her important contribution to women’s writing during the years of first wave feminism; and of course the one book he does credit as ‘literary’ is that homage to men’s endeavours, All That Swagger (1936).

The final lines of My Career Goes Bung are: “Was a woman’s refusal to capitulate unendurable to masculine egotism, or was it the symptom of something more fundamental?” It was certainly unendurable to Colin Roderick.

 

Colin Roderick, Miles Franklin: Her Brilliant Career, Rigby, 1982

Colin Roderick, The Australian Novel, Wm Brooks, Sydney, 1945

Sue at Whispering Gums: Who is Colin Roderick? (here)