The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Elizabeth Jolley

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

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

Jolley had always been a writer, mostly of short stories, but remained unpublished until 1976.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Jack Davis, Part II

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Jack Davis (1917-2000), as we saw in my review of his childhood memoir, A Boy’s Life (here), had a normal rural working class upbringing in those years of scarcity prior to World War II, with just a few months at the Moore River Native Settlement in 1932 to remind him of his status as a non-white. The memoir ends in the 1940s with him droving in the Gascoyne, arid country, probably given over to sheep in those days, 1,000 km north of Perth, while one of his brothers and some of his school mates went away to war.

In the 50 pages Tony Hughes-d’Aeth devotes to Davis in his monumental (600pp) Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, he gives a solid account of the dispersal of the Noongar – the Indigenous people of southwest WA – first by the pastoral industry in the 1800s and then by the transition to wheat farming in the 1900s. In the years before widespread mechanisation Aboriginal labour was vital, though generally unmentioned in rural histories. After WWII Aboriginal people, both Noongar and those from up north (like Davis’ parents), often dumped in the south west via the ‘Native Settlements’ at Carrolup and Moore River, and more and more often unemployed, settled on the outskirts of country towns.

Davis’ mother, after the death of his father, had gone to live with her sister at Brookton, 140 km east of Perth, where the jarrrah forested Darling Ranges merge into the gently rolling hills and open plains of the WA wheatbelt, and there she married into the local Indigenous Bennell family. H-d’A quotes Davis:

Reserves were small useless parcels of land left over from the great land-grab. Once the property needs of the farming community and its town had been met, a few discarded acres would be set aside as a reserve for Aborigines. It seldom had any economic value and certainly never had sufficient natural resources to support a traditional Aboriginal lifestyle. Itinerant labouring work was the only means of support an Aborigine could expect …

Davis lived for a time at the Brookton reserve both before and after the War, and through his connection with the Bennells was introduced into Noongar culture. In passing, H-d’A comments on Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers (my review) and adds the information that Gare’s husband was with the Dept of Native Affairs, and that was the origin of her material, though she was also friends with Indigenous writer, Alice Nannup.

Davis had apparently begun writing poetry as early as his Moore River days. In 1937 he had a poem accepted by the Carnarvon Northern Times but it was never printed. Davis blamed racial discrimination and thereafter wrote only “for my own amusement”. Finally, in 1970, when he was 53 and running the Aboriginal Centre in Beaufort St, Perth, four decades of Davis’ poetry were collected in The First Born and other poems with a long preface based on the transcript of a biographical interview with Davis by the novelist Richard Beilby, and a ‘Bibbulmun’ (which I think is a Noongar sub-group though the two words sometimes appear interchangeable. I’m sure Daisy Bates says Bibbulmun where we would now say Noongar) vocabulary. Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), a Noonuccal (Stradbroke Is., Qld) woman had published two books of poetry in the 1960s – the first by an Aboriginal person – with sensational success and this may have made publication of Davis’ work possible, or at least more likely.

The poems in Jack Davis’ The First Born are generally short, rhyming lyrics, often in the elegiac tonality that was one of the key-notes in Walker’s poems, although they did not follow hers – at least not yet – down the path of political manifesto …

There is a sense of every-day Aboriginal experience to Davis’ poems. I’ll quote one, ‘Camped in the Bush’ (note the truck!), set in the Ranges outside Perth on the main east-west railway line.

Over the campfire
The bat cries shrill
And a “semi” snarls
On the Ten Mile Hill

And the lonely whistle
Of the train at night,
Where my kingdom melted
In the city’s light

 In 1968 Kevin Gilbert had written The Cherry Pickers, the first play by an Aboriginal to be performed (in 1971), though Davis credits Kath Walker with his move into drama: “As early as 1972 I had been experimenting with theatre  … I had seen the script of a short play by Kath Walker …”. His first play, The Dreamers was staged at the Bunbury Arts Festival (a provincial city south of Perth) in 1972, leading to his ‘great trilogy’ of plays – Kullark (1979), The Dreamers (1982) and No Sugar (1985).

Kullark was performed alongside Dorothy Hewett’s The Man from Mukinupin. H-d’A writes:

Whereas in Hewett the Aboriginal characters perturb and destabilise the white town’s sense of itself, in Davis we see the perspective reversed for the first time – how white people and, in particular, white history looks to the Indigenous.

Davis’ plays are all realist dramas, the first two ostensibly played out in the present, but actually through speech and flashbacks demonstrating the intersection of family history and white settler racism. In The Dreamers, the dying Worru bridges the past and the future, and as he dies his language becomes more and more Noongar, illustrating the language’s survival against all odds.

No Sugar, set in 1929-34, is based on the removal and internment of a whole Noongar community, barely legal even under the 1905 Aborigines Act, from Northam, 100 km east of Perth and in the (conservative) Premier’s own electorate, to Moore River. The penalty for escaping from Moore River was six months in Fremantle Jail. The 1929 setting enables Davis to comment not just on the Depression, but also on the WA Centenary, and by implication on the (then) recent, 1979 state Sesquicentenary and upcoming ‘national’ 1988 Bicentenary celebrations (the 200th anniversary of the movement of the new British settlement from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour, an event of little significance outside NSW and increasingly offensive to the Indigenous people forced along with the rest of us to celebrate it).

Interestingly, the infamous Chief Protector, A.O. Neville, is a character in the play as the action initially moves backwards and forwards between the Mundays and Millimurras at the town camp, the Northam police station, and the Chief Protector’s office. In the second act, the whole camp, 89 people, has been moved to Moore River. “The climax of the play has Jimmy Munday and the others subverting the ceremonial visit of A.O.Neville to Moore River on Australia Day 1934. Jimmy confronts Neville and [Superintendent] Neal, jeering them about the defeat of [Premier] Mitchell in his seat of Northam.”

Davis’ drama asks who was A.O. Neville ‘protecting’:

… the major beneficiaries of the “Protection” offered in the [1905] Act were the mainly white citizens of Western Australia, particularly those living in rural areas. In the emerging towns of the wheatbelt, the provisions of the Act were used to institute a form of apartheid in which Aboriginal people were kept out of the towns through curfews and other forms of soft or hard police power.

Hughes-d’Aeth concludes: “What Davis is able to do, better than anyone before or since, is to capture the complexity of Aboriginal policy as it affected the lives of thousands of people during the twentieth century.”

 

Jack Davis, No Sugar, Currency Press, Sydney, 1986
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWAP, Perth, 2017

Jack Davis Part I, A Boy’s Life (here)
see also: Mairi Neil’s review (here) of Jack Davis’ poetry in her blog Up the Creek with a Pen …
and my review of Kim Scott’s researching of his Noongar heritage, Kayang and Me (here)

I see in Hughes-d’Aeth’s Notes that there is a biography of Davis by Keith Chesson (211pp) which is also available as an audio book from WA Assoc’n for the Blind (Trove)

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)

 

A Boy’s Life, Jack Davis

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Honey Flow, Kylie Tennant

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Painting: Black Mirror, Lina Bryans, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

The novel begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

See also my review of Ride on Stranger (here)

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

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter (1850) has long been a favourite of mine, one I had been thinking of reviewing, along with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth as early, and rare, examples of stories about single mothers. So I was happy to find it in my (new) local library as an audio book. We all know the story. Hester Prynne, a young married woman in Boston in the earliest days of the settlement of New England by English Puritans, commits adultery and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for adulteress on the front of her dress for the rest of her life.

The Scarlett Letter is actually historical fiction, that is it was written 200 years after the events being portrayed took place. In a very long and largely irrelevant prologue, Hawthorne describes his own position in the Customs House in Salem, Mass., which was apparently his home town, though he had spent a long time away. In all the material for Americans who must have to study this book at school, there is a suggestion that Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. The premise of the prologue is that Hawthorne discovers some old papers in the attic of the Customs House which tell Hester Prynne’s story.

Hawthorne begins his ”introductory” with “It is a little remarkable, that – though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends – an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public” and then goes on to talk about himself for 40 pages. He should have been a blogger! But don’t get me wrong, I love old fashioned first chapters. My favourite is from Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) which begins (after a long preface): “The Browns have become illustrious by the pen of Thackeray and the pencil of Doyle, within the memory of the young gentlemen who are not matriculating at the universities… For centuries in their quiet, dogged, homespun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English countries, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands.” And so it goes on. It is indicative of the sort of books that I read and gave my children that I advised them that it was always ok to skip the first chapter when starting a difficult novel.

The Puritans, in Boston at least, were members of the Church of England who believed that the English Church, which had separated from the Catholic Church in the 1530s, remained too Catholic in its ceremonies. Up until the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, 21,000 English Puritans emigrated to colonies on the east coast of North America. Brought up ‘low’ C of E as I was, I am sympathetic to the Puritans who were attempting to establish a rules-based society in reaction to the excesses of the Crown – Elizabeth, James I and Charles I. The problem of course is that any set of rules attracts people who enjoy enforcing them.

Boston, founded in 1630, would by 1642 still have been a quite rudimentary settlement, hemmed in between the dark forest and Massachusetts Bay. Salem, which plays no part in this story after the prologue, is 20 odd miles northwards along the coast, and was settled a few years earlier. A later passage illustrates the impression I have of Hester’s gloomy surroundings:

The road … straggled onwards into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect images of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.

The novel proper begins with Hester Prynne being released from jail, holding Pearl, her 3 month old baby daughter. She is led to the town square, refuses once again to divulge who is the father, and is displayed – “pilloried” – for three hours on a platform which has been built for that purpose, although she is not held in the stocks.

Hawthorne seems fascinated by witches and they constitute a minor theme throughout the book. A crowd has gathered to witness Hester’s humiliation, as for an execution:

But in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child … was to be corrected at the whipping post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian… It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows.

Misstress Hibbins subsequently invites Hester, on more than one occasion, to join her and her fellows in the forest.

The “SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated on her bosom” can only have been intended as a defiance of the sentence imposed on her by the colony elders, and also the always bright clothes worn by Pearl, as she grows up, in contrast to the sober clothing of the Puritans. Yet, over the decade or so encompassed by this novel, Hester earns grudging acceptance from her fellows for her quiet, helpful and industrious ways.

The scarlet letter must also have been a very rare punishment, as towards the end, Hester is still been being pointed out by out-of-towners at a local fair.

The novel is an interesting precursor for the (Australian) Independent Woman paradigm. Hester is already married, but the whereabouts of her husband are a mystery. In fact, it is her getting pregnant in his absence that leads to her conviction for adultery. She lives a quiet and virtuous life, in a cottage on the edge of the settlement, supporting herself by her skill at needlework. We discover early on who the husband is, but he holds himself apart, and the lover, Pearl’s father, is not disclosed until near the end. Disappointingly, Hawthorne says very little about Hester’s problems in bringing up a child unaided, other than to say that Pearl is wilful and undisciplined.

The other thing I would say is that I found the writing very formal. More “old fashioned” than Austen and Walter Scott who were a generation older, or Hawthorne’s near contemporaries Dickens and Mark Twain, as I remember them. I am listening to Anna Karenina at the moment and find the flow of C19th writing infinitely soothing, though I suspect that the Tolstoy is a modern translation.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, first published 1850. My edition (not the cover pictured) ‘Best Seller Classics’ from Award Books, USA, undated but maybe 50 years old. “This book is a reprint of the first edition … published in Boston by Ticknor, Reed & Fields in 1850”. Audio version: Dreamscape Media, 2014, read by Robert Bethune.

Lola Bensky, Lily Brett

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Lily Brett is a well known Australian/New York/Jewish writer, born in Feldafing displaced persons camp, Bavaria in 1946 after her parents, Polish Jews, were released from Auschwitz concentration camp. She grew up in Carlton (Melbourne), attending University High, reported for the Australian pop magazine Go-Set from 1966-68, and moved to New York in 1989 (Wiki).

This is all relevant, as Lola Bensky starts out as a nineteen year old reporter in London for an Australian music magazine, reflecting on her uncommunicative parents’ experience of the Holocaust in between interviewing all the famous names of 1960s London pop culture; marries, divorces, remarries, has children, moves to New York to live. Lives all the time with a type of PTSD arising out of the horrors experienced by (especially) her mother.

I enjoyed the 1960s parts of the book, all the name dropping, interviewing Jimi Hendrix; interviewing Mick Jagger, being invited by Jagger to have a cup of tea with Paul McCartney; then hanging out in New York with Lillian Roxon, “the other fat Australian journalist, as Linda Eastman had so bluntly put it”; being introduced to, and not liking, Jim Morrison. All the time through the prism of her love for her parents and her experience of their horror, and of all the absences, the grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who didn’t survive.

Eastman, from upper-crust Scarsdale, has a Jewish father “who really wanted nothing to do with his Jewishness”.

Even if they had wanted to, Renia and Edek [Lola’s mother and father] would not have been able to discard their Jewishness, Lola thought. Their anguish, their sadness, their wariness was as clear as if it had been printed on them and illuminated and enlarged.

Two years later, when Lillian rings Lola to say that Linda is going to marry Paul McCartney, Lola’s first thought is, “Anyone who could spread her legs that wide could probably get anyone they wanted.”

I enjoyed the rest of the book too, but the first part could have been expanded into an interesting grunge/coming of age novel on its own – and maybe it has, I’m not familiar with Brett’s other work.

We step through the stages of Lola Bensky’s life – 20,30,50,60. At 30 she is married to Mr Former Rock Star in Melbourne, after an awkward ‘mixed’ wedding:

The Jews were too loud. Too emotional. And too obsequious to the Church of England crowd. There was also a lot of kissing from the Jews. And too much kissing for the non-Jews.

They have a son and a daughter, Mrs Gorgeous, but Lola falls in love with someone else, Mr Someone Else, an artist, and moves with him to New York.

Twenty one years later, Lola is lunching with the editor for her new book The Ultra-Private Detective Agency. We digress into the book and its characters for a while. Needlessly, probably. Her mother has died.

Lola had cried for weeks and weeks after Renia died. She didn’t know she would be crying for Renia for the rest of her life. Lola missed her mother. She missed the mother she had and the mother she didn’t have.

Lola understands why her parents couldn’t always be there for her, I’m sure this book is part of Lily Brett’s working her way through to an understanding. At one point, discussing that Lola’s parents had trouble ‘hearing’ her, she writes:

It would take Lola many years to understand that Renia wouldn’t answer questions. that Renia was terrified of questions. And terrified of answers.

Lola’s parents were unable to live in the present.  Mrs Gorgeous for instance is the image of Renia’s niece, nine-year-old Hanka, who with her mother was separated from Renia and Edek on arrival at Auschwitz, into the line for, though they didn’t know it, the gas chambers. And Lola must live, not in the past with them, but in a present where the past is always present too.

To be honest, I avoid Holocaust books. Like every other person in the western world I know it happened, and in a general sense, what has happened since. But Brett says that Australia has the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors of any country in the world, so the Holocaust is an Australian experience too. I’m still not sure I want to know more about it – factual or fictionalized – but I found this ‘memoir’ profoundly moving.

 

Lily Brett, Lola Bensky, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), Melbourne, 2012

see also Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)