The Broad Arrow, Caroline Leakey

It seems, although it wasn’t my intention, that I am filling in the gaps in my reviews of Fifty Books you must Read. First The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, now The Broad Arrow: “being passages from the history of Maida Gwynnham, a lifer (1859). The illustration above is Maida mourning the death of her (illegitimate) baby which is an early event, I guess her seduction, which occurs off-screen, is the initial event, in the chain of events which leads to a well brought up middle class young woman being transported to Hobart Town in the early 1850s.

Caroline Leakey was only in the colony for a few years, staying with her sister in Hobart and recuperating from illness at Port Arthur – she describes Emmeline, who more or less represents her in the novel, looking out her bedroom window across to the front gates of the famous prison, with all its comings and goings. I’m not sure she found it very restful.

To spare Emmeline the fatigue of a rather steep flight of stairs, Mrs. Harelick had devoted to her special service a large front parlour on the ground-floor. It opened on the station, and had by no means the pleasant landscape which enlivened the upper apartments. The lovely Bay, and the Isle of the Dead were not to be seen; but some gardens intervening, beguiled the more immediate sight from the prison apparatus, unescapably conspicuous on a prolonged survey from the bow-window.

The Broad Arrow is a very sermonising work, the way so many worthy nineteenth century novels are, but Maida’s story is well done; there is a wealth of detail about the interactions of free settlers and their convict servants; and the descriptions of place, it seems to me, would be familiar to current residents. I said this to Pam/Travellin’ Penguin and she segued to the Broad Arrow Cafe, the site of Australia’s last mass shooting, in 1996. Pam, I’ll make it to Tassie one day, and we’ll definitely meet over coffee and cake.

I am writing last Sunday, so to speak, as I have work during the week, a road train load for a construction company up the coast to Cape Preston, this side of Karratha; and if I am to post anything at all it will have to be this pointer to my review on the AWWC site.

The last few weeks of work have been very Goldilocks, not too much, not too little, but enough to keep the bank balance ticking over. And speaking of my shaky bank balance, yesterday I got a firm offer for my remaining ‘spare’ trailer – payment due this coming weekend – which I should have sold before buying my new trailer, my new toy Melanie says (rightly!), last September.

You’d think the days off in between jobs would be enough to keep my reading and reviewing up to date, but sadly not. The last few ‘guest’ posts on the AWWC have involved huge amounts of editing as I attempted to abridge 4,000 word papers to meet our 1,500 word standard (I failed. They all came in at around 2,000). But the two ‘projects’ they covered – women’s service in WW1 and female servants in nineteenth century Australian women’s Lit were both enormously interesting.

[Now, today as I post, I’ve come north to Port Hedland to pick up a couple of tray trucks to take back to Perth]

Not the first novel of Australian convict life, that was Quintus Serviton (1831), but a vivid, and the earliest, picture of female convicts in domestic service. Read on …

The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, Henry Kingsley

For a long time in Australia, up until at least the 1980s, the only Nineteenth century Australian books in print were Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1870), Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1882) and, to a lesser extent, Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859). Even today, along with Lawson and Paterson, these three are the only ‘old’ books you will consistently come across in bookshops.

I have written often enough about the role of Dale Spender in getting our early women writers back into print, in Pandora and Penguin in the 1980s, though whether they still are is another matter, and maybe all we have left is Virago. Whatever we might tell ourselves about our urbanity and sophistication, Australians have an endless fascination with men being virile in the Bush.

The Recollections must have remained pretty well-known for at least half a century after publication, as Furphy in Such is Life (1903) went to some pains to express his contempt for the Buckleys – Kingsley’s English gentlefolk who take up a grazing property in the Australian Alps. In fact, a search of Trove shows that The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn ran as a serial in country newspapers in 1871 and again in 1894.

Written in 1859, after be had been five years in Australia, Henry Kingsley’s Geoffry Hamlyn, now appearing in a new edition, published by Ward, Lock, and Bowden Limited (of London and Melbourne) deserves the welcome which one gives to an old and cherished friend. [from The Australasian (Melbourne), Sat 8 Dec 1894].

I can’t find any reviews, but in 1910, the novel was being run for a third, or more likely, fourth, time. One introduction concludes: “It is almost unnecessary to note that the justly celebrated author of Westward Ho !, Charles Kingsley, was our author’s brother”. I’m afraid I only know Charles for The Water Babies which Gee insisted I read to her over a long series of nights, protesting if I ever seemed to be ‘skipping’ (which I would if I could get away with it).

Joseph Furphy writes: “Those whose knowledge of the pastoral regions is drawn from a course of novels of the Geoffry Hamlyn class, cannot fail to hold a most erroneous notion of the squatter. Of course we use the term ‘squatter’ indifferently to denote a station-owner, a managing partner, or a salaried manager”. There are “a thousand types”, but none of them include “the slender-witted, virgin souled, overgrown schoolboys who fill Henry Kingsley’s exceedingly trashy and misleading novel with their insufferable twaddle.” (Such is Life, 164)

Langa-Willi, Skipton, Vic.

Henry Kingsley (1830-1876) left Oxford without graduating and came out to Australia in 1853 to join in the Gold Rush. “For some time Kingsley had little or no money and carried his swag from station to station. Philip Russell stated in 1887 that he employed Kingsley at his station Langa-Willi, and that Geoffry Hamlyn (1859) was begun there. Miss Rose Browne, daughter of Rolf Boldrewood, stated it was on her father’s suggestion that Kingsley began to write. Russell’s story is confirmed by her further statement that her father gave Kingsley a letter to Mr Mitchell of Langa-Willi, that he stayed with Mitchell, and there wrote Geoffry Hamlyn.” (wikipedia). Kingsley returned to England in 1857, wrote some more, and died of cancer of the tongue aged 46.

If you’re wondering about that photo, Victoria’s Western District, the home of our squatting aristocracy, looks more like England than it does like the rest of Australia.

The novel begins with some very tedious, and very Victorian – meaning the era – opening chapters. Introducing first Hamlyn and the Buckleys, in 1857, in oldish age on the verandah of an Australian homestead, about whom Hamlyn has written a book; and then going back half a century to establish the various families on their estates in England.

We’ll ignore their antecedents, and by say, the 1820s, all the principal characters of the novel were gathered in or around a Devon village, Drumston. They are the Buckleys, who, no longer able to afford its upkeep, have given up their ancient estate, Clere and moved into (youthful) semi-retirement; their baby son, Sam; the widowed vicar, his spinster sister Miss Thornton, and his wilful daughter, Mary; Mary’s cousin, Tom Troubridge; Hamlyn; his friend Jim Stockton; Dr Mulhaus, a German aristocrat; George Hawker, son of a villianous farmer and his gypsy ‘housekeeper’, Madge; William Lee, a convict escaped from Tasmania and his off-sider Dick.

George Hawker is led, rather willingly, into a life of crime and gambling by William Lee. Mary is an heiress twice over, and moreover is keen on Hawker, who can act the gentleman as necessary; so Hawker runs off with her to London where they are married, she gets pregnant and he runs through her first fortune. Mary finds her way home, running into Hawker’s cousin and the mother of another of his children along the way. The Vicar dies.

Stockton, who Mary should have married, goes to NSW with Hamlyn, where they take up land and prosper. The Buckley’s decide that sounds like the way to revive their own fortunes and head off after them. Dr Mulhaus, Troubridge, Mary with her son Charles, and Miss Thornton, her aunt, decide to accompany them.

You may remember that when the various sides of Miles Franklin’s family arrived in Sydney, they were forced to go south, into the mountains at the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, for free land. Hamlyn and Stockridge have land further south again, on the far side of the mountains where the Snowy rises and rushes south into Bass Strait. Out one day looking for a lost bull, they come across, purely by accident, a party of travellers. Yes, it’s the Buckleys.

Mary Hawker and Tom Troubridge (he’s her cousin remember) take up land on the edge of the mountains, and the Buckleys take up land some miles further out into (relatively) open country, in what is today East Gippsland (Victoria). Dr Mulhaus lives with the Buckleys, and the reformed William Lee is their overseer. Dick turns up one day in the bush, and he becomes Hamlyn’s manservant, because of course he does.

There are a couple of aristocratic families nearby – a widow with a son and two daughters, Capt Brentwood with a son, and a daughter, Alice, away at school, and some Irish families who of course are not aristocratic (and have rather more children). Listen, it’s just an ordinary British adventure book, with all the prejudices that implies. But it also just happens to be the first set in the Australian bush, which is rather better described than you might hope.

A new heaven and a new earth! Tier beyond tier, height above height, the great wooded ranges go rolling away westward, till on the lofty skyline they are crowned with a gleam of everlasting snow. To the eastward they sink down, breaking into isolated forest-fringed peaks, and rock-crowned eminences, till with rapidly straightening lines they fade into the broad grey plains, beyond which the Southern Ocean is visible by the white sea-haze upon the sky.

The properties prosper. The young men grow up together, with little education except that Dr Mulhaus acts as tutor to Sam Buckley. Alice comes home and is of course the most beautiful, intelligent and good natured girl that Hamlyn has ever seen. A notorious bushranger turns out to be another native of Drumston. There’s an exciting battle (if you want some real colonial bloodthirstiness check out the rape of the bridal party in Ralph Rashleigh).

Everyone makes their fortune – without the Goldrush being mentioned, though much of Sam’s comes from speculating in Melbourne property (plus ca change, what) – and they all go back to Britain (or Germany) and resume their rightful titles.

Seeing as these fortunes have all been made on someone else’s land, let’s have a look at that. “The land referred to as ‘East Gippsland’ is country that spans three indigenous nations, these are the nations of Bidewell, Yuin, Gunnaikurnai and Monero (Ngarigo). These nations never ceded sovereignty and continue their custodianship of the land of waters within so called ‘East Gippsland'” (here).

At this point trucking calls. I have two trips back to back, and no time for writing. As I have quite a bit to say about Hamlyn’s unselfconscious settler-colonialism, I will post at this point and write up his representation of settler-Aboriginal interactions as soon as I can.


Charles Kingsley, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, first pub. 1859. 474pp.

The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler

12 Books of Boyhood. #4

The Way of All Flesh (1903) is a searing indictment of Victorian (era) thought and parenting. Apparently. Which had to wait until after the author’s death to be published. I say apparently because it is hard for us at this distance to understand what a profound effect Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859), in particular, had on Church of England orthodoxy, though maybe not so hard for those living in America’s bible belt.

Commenting on her own blog recently, Melanie (Grab the Lapels) wrote “if I look at a character like Mrs. Jellyby [Dickens, Bleak House], I might assume all Victorian parents were horrible, neglectful religious zealots.” If you read The Way of All Flesh, you would be certain of it.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902), the freethinking Victorian whom George Bernard Shaw deemed “the greatest writer of the latter half of the nineteenth century” was … the son of an Anglican clergyman … In 1858 he earned a degree in classics from St John’s College, Cambridge, but after a crisis of faith, he refused ordination in the ministry … Following a bitter quarrel with his father … he immigrated to New Zealand and soon prospered as a sheep rancher … During this period his study of The Origin of the Species caused him to further question the tenets of Christianity.

introductory bio.

Butler returned to England in 1864, studied without great success to be a painter, then “in 1872 published Erewhon, a Utopian satire on Victorian society that EM Forster later called a work of genius”, but which led to him being banned from his parents’ home. “About this time he began writing The Way of All Flesh, a thinly disguised account of his own upbringing aimed at exposing the self-righteous hypocrisy underlying Victorian family life and its bourgeois values.”

He wrote no other fiction, rather concentrating on a series of works on the implications of Darwinism.

I read The Way of All Flesh for my matric, at a time when my relations with my ambitious, remote father were frosty to say the least, and it reinforced everything I felt.

The central character of the novel is Ernest Pontifex born in 1835, the same year as the author. But the author sets up the story by having the narrator, Edward Overton, b.1802, grow up, the vicar’s son, in the same village as Ernest’s great-grandfather, John Pontifex, an old man by the time Overton remembers him. John Pontifex, a carpenter, had prospered and become a land owner. His son, George, had been sent to be apprenticed to a publisher of religious works, had inherited the business, and he too had prospered. So that George’s children, all around Overton’s age, and whom he knew from their infrequent visits to the older Pontifexes, felt themselves to be rather above their grandparents.

George’s wife dies early on and his children – Eliza, Maria, John, Theobald and Althea – have only a remote relationship with their father who all their lives holds over them the threat of censure and disinheritance. Eventually John is taken into the business and Theobald goes up to Cambridge to become a clergyman. Eliza and Maria become spinsters and in old age are quite poor. Althea is loved by Overton, but she insists on being ‘just friends’. She doesn’t marry, but is well off.

So Butler’s first step is to build up a picture of Theobald – who will eventually be our hero, Ernest’s, father – as brought up without a mother, by a stern and effectively, unloving parent; sent off to a boy’s boarding school and then Cambridge; and knowing little of either affection or women; “… he had come to dislike women, as mysterious beings whose ways were not his ways, nor their thoughts as his thoughts.” Which was pretty well the conclusion I had reached about both the author and his narrator by the end of the book.

Theobald, after a number of years of being engaged to Christina, the daughter of another vicar, is finally brought to the altar. He takes a living, and Christina bears him three children – Ernest, Joseph and Charlotte. And so, from pages 60-200, we deal with Ernest’s unhappy childhood and school days. (Studying for the clergy at university takes another 50 pages, and the remaining 180 or so take us through the first decade of his adulthood).

Until he was old enough to go away to school, Ernest was taught by his father, who made rules in the expectation and hope that they would be broken and who rewarded all infractions with whipping (I assume the author means caning).

Christina did not remonstrate with Theobald concerning the severity of the tasks imposed upon their boy, nor yet as to the continual whippings that were found necessary at lesson times. Indeed, when during any absence of Theobald’s the lessons were entrusted to her, she found to her sorrow that it was the only thing to do, and she did it no less effectually than Theobald himself; nevertheless she was fond of her boy, which Theobald never was, and it was long before she could destroy all affection for herself in the mind of her first-born. But she persevered.

My case wasn’t so bad, but reading this you could weep for the author.

Christina is pictured as silly and sly, getting on Ernest’s good side only to betray him to his father. Ernest goes away to school and isn’t popular. Many pages later Overton says, “I may spare the reader more details about my hero’s school days” and I will too.

At university Ernest starts off with the Evangelicals and ends up with the High Church. The arguments that go with this no doubt reflect Butler’s own at the same time, but the secular reader will find them hard going. Ernest is ordained, and chooses to live in the slums in the parish (in London) where he is one of two curates. He is fleeced of the money he had from his father; feeling his oats and coming belatedly to understand that the young women in the rooms above him in his boarding house are prostitutes, he propositions/assaults a young women who isn’t; is sent to jail; and emerges to find that he is destitute.

He has more to bear, quite a bit of which is driven by Butler’s dislike of women it seems to me; but eventually Ernest finds his way through; comes into an inheritance and settles to a life of bachelorhood writing on science and philosophy.

Stuck as I was at 17 with a distant and autocratic father, and looking for a way out of the Church of England which religion my father preached but rarely practiced (he was a lay preacher), I can why The Way of All Flesh appealed so strongly, but I can’t see that its relevance has extended into the twenty first century.


Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, first pub. 1903. My ed. The Modern Library/Random House, New York, 1998. 430pp.

Book #5, to be reviewed at the end of May will be: Jack London, The Iron Heel

For future months I will select from:
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Leslie Charteris, Enter the Saint
Georges Simenon, Act of Passion
Jane Grant, Come Hither Nurse (jointly with Doctor in the House?)
Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil
William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: the Left-Wing Alternative

Fifty (Australian) books up to 1950 you must read

Read that title as “…must read to understand how Australian Literature began and developed”.

For the last twenty years, for my degree, and here on this blog, my objective has been to establish that the Independent Woman is at least equally as strong an archetype for Australianness as the Lone Hand in the Bush/Brave Anzac so beloved of politicians.

The Lone Hand myth was the product of AG Stephens at the Sydney Bulletin at the turn of the C20th, building on the ballads of Adam Lindsay Gordon and Banjo Paterson, the short stories of Henry Lawson and Steel Rudd, and Joseph Furphy’s groundbreaking novel Such is Life. And building also on what seems to be suburban Australia’s love of the Bush and the Outback.

Stephens was actively misogynist, writing approvingly of men “going home to beat their wives”, and anti-Melbourne to boot, so it was easy for him to characterise the earlier (and overlapping) school of Ada Cambridge, Catherine Martin and Tasma to name a few, as Melbourne-based, women writers of domestic and romance fiction. Melbourne’s premier writer, Marcus Clarke, was guilty more or less by association.

The idea of Australians as rugged individualists at home in the Bush was only given strength by the wartime (WWI) reportage of CEW Bean and Keith Murdoch. Then after the War, with universities studying only English Lit.; the overweaning influence in publishing and education of Colin Roderick, himself no mean misogynist; and the dominance of returned servicemen in education generally; that first generation of women was lost to view, out of print for another 60 or 70 years.

Between the Wars, male writers like Vance Palmer struggled to be the next Henry Lawson, Xavier Herbert maybe a notable exception; while women writers, working in the mostly urban Modernist and Social Realist streams, regained centre stage. Those women whose spiritual home was the Bush pushed a third theme, both in Literature and in Politics, reclaiming a place for women alongside men, as ‘Pioneers’. Ironically, the most successful of all the writers following Lawson was Eve Langley, whose Steve fights so hard to be both Independent and at home with Bush life.

The novels I have listed below are both worth reading for themselves, and important for their contribution to these themes. Interestingly, leaving aside the very early writers, nearly everyone here says that the Australian writers they read initially at least, were Kendall, Gordon, Lawson and Paterson. Of the English they say Milton and Byron. Some say the Vicar of Wakefield, Thackeray, a few Dickens. I am yet to see one who says Austen. Novel-reading I suspect was not seen as serious.

I admit I have not read all these works yet myself, and some I have read I actively dislike (looking at you Mrs Gunn). Often I have chosen just one work, or sometimes two, to stand in for an author’s whole body of work.

The themes a work contributed to are in brackets at the end of each listing. Quite a number give views of Aboriginal life, only Unaipon is himself Indigenous. There are roughly 50 novels and 25 others – Poetry, Criticism, Non Fiction


Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, 1793, review (NF, Pioneer, Indigenous)

Henry Savery, Quintus Serviton,1831, no review (Lone Hand)

Charles Harpur, The Bushrangers and Other Poems, 1853 (Verse)

Catherine Helen Spence, Clara Morison, 1854, review (Independent Woman)

Rafaello Carboni, The Eureka Stockade, 1855, no review (NF)

Frederick Sinnett, The Fiction Fields of Australia, 1856 (Criticism)

Louisa Atkinson, Gertrude the Emigrant, 1857, review, (Pioneer)

Henry Kingsley, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, 1859, review (Pioneer)

Caroline Leakey, The Broad Arrow, 1859, review (Independent Woman)

Henry Kendall, Leaves from the Forest, 1869 (Verse)

Marcus Clarke, For the Term of his Natural Life, 1870, no review (Lone Hand)

Adam Lindsay Gordon, Bush Ballads & Galloping Rhymes, 1870 (Verse, Lone Hand)

Rolf Boldrewood, Robbery Under Arms, 1882, no review (Lone Hand)

Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, 1886, no review (Urban)

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, 1889, review (Urban)

Rosa Praed, The Romance of a Station, 1889, Proj. Gutenberg (Remote)

Catherine Martin, An Australian Girl, 1890, review (Independent Woman)

Ada Cambridge, The Three Miss Kings, 1891, review (Independent Woman)

William Lane, The Workingman’s Paradise, 1892, no review (Urban, Anarchism)

Price Warung, Tales of the Convict System, 1892 (Short Stories)

Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians, 1894 (YA)

Banjo Paterson, The Man from Snowy River, 1895 (Lone Hand, Verse)

Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, 1896 (Lone Hand, Short Stories)

Mary Gaunt, Kirkham’s Find, 1897, review (Independent Woman, Outback)

Louise Mack, Teens, Girls Together, 1897-8, review (YA)

A Sutherland & HG Turner, The Development of Australian Literature, 1898 (Criticism)

Steele Rudd, On Our Selection, 1899, review (Pioneer, Short Stories)

Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, 1901, review (Independent Woman)

Henry Lawson, Joe Wilson and his Mates, 1901 review (Lone Hand, Short Stories)

AG Stephens ed., The Bulletin Story Book, 1901 (Lone Hand, Short Stories)

Barbara Baynton, Bush Studies, 1902, review (Independent Woman, Short Stories)

Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, 1903, review (Lone Hand, Modernism)

Mrs Aeneas Gunn, We of the Never Never, 1908, review (NF, Pioneer, Indigenous)

Mary Grant Bruce, Billabong books, 1910-42, review (YA)

Mary Gilmore, Marri’d, 1910 (Poetry)

Louis Stone, Jonah, 1911, no review, (Urban)

CJ Dennis, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, 1915, review (Verse, Urban)

Louise Mack, A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, 1915 (NF, Memoir)

Rosa Praed, Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land, 1915, review (Outback, Indigenous)

Maurice Furnley, To God: From the Weary Nations, 1917 (Verse)

May Gibbs, Snuggle Pot and Cuddlepie, 1918 (YA)

Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding, 1918 (YA)

DH Lawrence, Kangaroo, 1923, no review (Modernism)

DH Lawrence & Mollie Skinner, The Boy in the Bush, 1924, review (Lone Hand, Modernism)

Kenneth Slessor, Thief of the Moon, 1924 (Verse)

Brent of Bin Bin (Miles Franklin), Up the Country, 1928, review (Pioneer)

M Barnard Eldershaw, A House is Built, 1929 (Pioneer)

C Hartley Grattan, Australian Literature, 1929 (Criticism)

Katharine Susannah Prichard, Coonardoo, 1929, no review (Remote, Indigenous)

David Unaipon, Native Legends, 1929 (Indigenous)

Arthur Upfield, The Barakee Mystery, 1929, no review (Lone Hand, Indigenous)

Henry Handel Richardson, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, 1930 no review (Pioneer)

Frank Dalby Davison, Man Shy, 1931, no review (Independent Woman, Outback)

Flora Eldershaw, Contemporary Australian Women Writers, 1931 (Criticism)

Leonard Mann, Flesh in Armour, 1932, no review (Lone Hand, War)

Ion Idriess, Drums of Mer, 1933, review (Indigenous)

Dorothy Wall, Blinky Bill, 1933 (YA)

Eleanor Dark, Prelude to Christopher, 1934, no review (Modernism)

Georgiana McCrae, Georgiana’s Journal, 1934, review (Pioneer Memoir)

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau, 1936, review (Independent Woman, Modernism)

Miles Franklin, All That Swagger, 1936, review (Pioneer)

Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness, 1937, review (NF, Outback)

Xavier Herbert, Capricornia, 1938, no review (Outback, Indigenous)

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children, 1940, no review (Modernism)

Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land, 1941, no review (Pioneer, Indigenous)

Kylie Tennant, The Battlers, 1941, no review (Social Realism)

Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers, 1942, review, (Independent Woman)

Miles Franklin & Kate Baker, Joseph Furphy, 1944, review (Criticism/Biog.)

Ern Malley, The Darkening Ecliptic, 1944 (Verse/Hoax, Modernism)

Norman Lindsay, The Cousin from Fiji, 1945, no review (Independent Woman)

Christina Stead, For Love Alone, 1945, no review (Independent Woman, Modernism)

Ruth Park, The Harp in the South, 1948, no review (Social Realism)

Patrick White, The Aunt’s Story, 1948, no review (Independent Woman, Modernism)

Judith Wright, Woman to Man, 1949 (Verse)

Frank Hardy, Power without Glory, 1950, no review (Socialist Realism)

Colin Roderick, An Introduction to Australian Fiction, 1950 (Criticism)

Nevil Shute, A Town like Alice, 1950, no review (Outback)


That’s about 1200 words already. I’d like to do a commentary on each book, but 50 words per book would take me past 4000. Meanwhile, where I have them, I’ve linked to my reviews.

NB. Loiusa Egerton (Castle Herbert), 1830 by Mary Grimstone who was in Tasmania from 1825-29, was probably the first novel written in Australia but it has no Australian content. Women’s Love, 1832 sounds more interesting. Back in England, Grimstone moved in Socialist and Unitarian circles which included Elizabeth Gaskell.

Marshmallow, Victoria Hannan

April 1 was release day for Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy. Off I went to my local indi, who disappointingly as usual, had Wright tucked away in a corner and a (presumably) new Atwood front and centre of New Releases. One book is never enough and so I picked up Marshmallow and a new to me Octavia Butler, Fledgling. It’s an expensive hobby, not much change out of a hundred bucks there.

You’ll remember I reviewed Hannan’s debut, Kokokomo, just a few weeks ago. In Comments, Kate W said that she had read Marshmallow (I’ll find and link to her review at the end) and thought this time Hannan had spread herself a bit thin, writing from the perspective of each of the five protagonists. I on the other hand (unexpectedly) enjoyed it and thought it the right approach for a novel whose subject is the effect of a tragedy on a friendship group.

Of course friendship groups are something I only know about from watching Friends and Big Bang Theory – which I still do on Facebook, more often than I like to say. Russell and Cam and Di and so on who were my friendship group for the three years I was at or around uni were never anything like Nathan, Annie, Ev, Claire and Al in this book; and anyway, even leaving aside me getting married and going off truck driving, the others soon all went their separate ways (The following year I was meant to come back from Queensland for Cam’s wedding but YB was crook, it would have involved hitchhiking, time off work; and that was the end of that).

Once again Hannan uses the setting she seems to know best, Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, this time mostly Brunswick and North Fitzroy, along St Georges Rd. Plus a look at Toorak, Melbourne’s most expensive suburb, which Nathan comes from (and Russell too from my own friendship group – Nathan’s parent’s house seemed very familiar). The timing is just two days: from the morning of the day before, to the evening of the first anniversary of the tragedy. But of course, using recollection to circle round and round, from their first days at uni together – they’re now in their late thirties – to close in on the tragedy itself.

All five were there when the tragedy occurred, and feel some level of blame. Nathan and Annie, childhood sweethearts now married, were at the centre of it; Ev to a large extent, is the rock as the others fall to pieces around her; Al and Claire, a couple since uni, are spiralling apart, with Al routinely drunk and Claire, a high-powered lawyer, working ridiculous hours.

[Al] read the same articles with the same photo of the smiling boy. Nothing new. Nothing damning. Yet it bought him no peace, no solace. It didn’t change the fact of what had happened nearly a year ago.

He knew he should stop and look through his inbox, write a to-do list, get his shit together. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t stop looking, couldn’t stop venturing off his now-daily anxiety tour of the internet.

That’s from chapter One. There are 27 chapters in all, averaging eleven pages per chapter. Each chapter a close third-person perspective on one protagonist. Some start out observational and it takes a minute to work out whose chapter it is. Annie, who is closest to the tragedy, gets just one or two pages each time, and we see her mostly from the ‘outside’.

I guess the central theme is that one grief brings out another. To deal with the immediate grief you have to deal with everything. Al with a friend who died when he was a teenager; Nathan with remote and controlling parents; all of them with guilt.

‘Why did you lie to old what’s-her-chops about how they’re doing?’ Al asked.

‘Because I don’t think either of them would appreciate me telling Patti fucking Saunders that they’re not coping at all,’ Claire said. ‘That Ev’s not coping, that we’re not coping.’ Al didn’t say anything. Claire kept going. ‘Grief is a rollercoaster ride, Al. And it’s cumulative. These feelings … they can bring up stuff about others you’ve lost.

She heard Al sigh.

Like your mum. for example,’ Claire added carefully.

‘Don’t bring her into this.’

Right at the end, it all comes together a bit too neatly for my taste. Life’s just not that good, even when mummy and daddy have given you (Nathan) the money to buy a million dollar inner-suburban terrace.

As I said, I enjoyed it, but for me Marshmallow was ‘just’ Grief Lit., well written general fiction. Hannan is now at that point in her career where she must decide if she wants to go down the popular, and profitable, Liane Moriarty path or if she is to use her considerable skills as a writer and observer of Gen whateverthisis behaviour to be the next Charlotte Wood, say. (I suppose I could say the Australian Sally Rooney, but to do that she would have to do away with the prop of ‘issues’ and I’m not sure she can, or will).


Victoria Hannan, Marshmallow, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 292pp

Kate’s review in BooksareMyFavouriteandBest (here)

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

It seems to me that many of the commentators on Cold Comfort Farm (1932) missed the Note at the beginning: “The action of the story takes place in the near future”.

One set of notes for students says “The events described in the novel take place over a five-month period from February through June. Given the book’s publication date, the reader can assume that the year is 1931”, ignoring that one character is mentioned as having fought in a war in 1946.

What made me go back and check though was when Flora, our protagonist, phones a friend in London from a phone box in the wilds of Sussex, he is able to observe her on his television screen, talking and fidgeting. Could I write a review of Cold Comfort Farm as Science Fiction? I thought about it but it was beyond me.

By being set in 1946 or 7, Gibbons’ failure to predict WWII leaves a hole, which of course most readers, ignoring that it’s set in the future, don’t notice. But there is also the absence of the Depression, which I and many readers know best through Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London set at about the time this was being written. Not that conditions at the eponymous farm are much above Depression-level!

It’s possible also that Gibbons saw her use of aeroplanes for personal transport as futuristic, though she doesn’t really describe anything that was not possible at the time of writing.

Gibbons, born in 1902, was a poet and journalist, London born and bred, bought up amongst the comfortable middle classes. Cold Comfort Farm is a parody not just of rural dramas, which were popular at the time, but of authors as notable as Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence, and I imagine Gibbons writing it from the comfort of home, making up plants, farm implements and regional dialect as she goes.

The story is that Flora Poste at age 19 loses both her parents and finds that the £100/year left to her is rather less than she expected, and so she must impose herself on distant relatives, settling on the Stackadders at Cold Comfort Farm in the wilds of Sussex, near the village of Howling; although hardly remote by any other than English standards, the nearest station, Beershorn, being 4½ hours by slow train from London Bridge (Google Maps says 50-60 miles).

**Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.

The farm was crouched on a bleak hillside, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village at Howling, a mile away. Its stables and outhouses were built in the shape of a rough octangle surrounding the farmhouse itself… The outhouses were built of roughcast stone, with thatched roofs …

That para, beginning **, is the first of quite a number spread through the book, never explained that I can see, but looking like insertions from Flora’s writing journal. A page further on, “Under the ominous bowl of the sky a man was ploughing the sloping field immediately below the farm” with what appears to be a single furrow plough drawn by two beasts, horses or oxen, Gibbons doesn’t say. “Every now and again, when he came to a corner of the field and was forced to tilt the scranlet of his plough almost on to its axle to make the turn, he glanced up at the farm where it squatted on the gaunt shoulder of the hill.”

Scranlet is a made-up word, one of a number. Searching the internet you can see the puzzlement of readers coming across them. The best known is “sukebind”, a weed whose voluptuous flowering is symbolic of the reign of the family’s reclusive matriarch, Ada Doom.

There are a number of generations of Stackadders at the farm, forbidden to ever leave by Ada Doom who has been deranged since seeing something nasty in the woodshed as a child; various servants, farm labourers, and as it turns out, secret wives.

Flora is met at Beershorn station by 90 year old Adam, in a horse and buggy; arrives to find the great rambling house in the final stages of dirt and disorder, but has been granted her own bedroom and parlour, perhaps to right the ever unnamed wrong done her father (ignoring the fact that it was her mother who was connected to the Stackadders); and promptly sets about insinuating herself into the running of the property.

The people of the farm are as dark and moody as the farm itself. Amos, the elder under Ada, is a hellfire and damnation preacher; his son Rueben, has ambitions for the farm which he is prevented from carrying out by Ada’s tight control of the purse strings; there is a young maidservant living in a shack in the fields, barely able to work she is so constantly pregnant; Adam the yardman is responsible both for the four cows – who are constantly losing bits: legs, hoofs, horns – and for the dishes from which he cletters dried porridge with a thorn twig; Seth, who must beat off women with a stick, “off a-mollocking in the village”, an activity which results in pregnancies, when he would rather be watching movies; Elfine, 17, a fine beauty ” wild and shy as a Pharisee of the woods”.

The expectations I had at this point, early on, were for a farce, a series of rural disasters, as indeed there might have been as various animals and workers are lost down wells, and the farm itself seemingly operating under one or more curses; but I was overlooking the opening epigram, from Mansfield Park, “Let others dwell on guilt and misery.”

Flora glides through all opposition, not least from Ada Doom and the fear she engenders in all her family, to arrive at not one but half a dozen happy endings.

Cold Comfort Farm would have been a wonderful book to have grown up with and to have become more familiar and more loved with each re-reading but I have, sadly, come to it only in old age. Ms 10 will be 11 in October and this must be her present.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, first pub. 1932. 233pp

Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) is the ninth of Murakami’s 15 novels/novellas, coming 20 years after the first, when the author was about 50. And at the height of his powers? I’m not sure. This is certainly not one of my favourites. I like the first three – Hear the Wind Sing (1979), Pinball (1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) for their grungieness; and I like the later novels – After Dark (2004) and 1Q84 (2010) for their flights of fancy. Indeed they are probably my favourites.

I’m in no way an expert on Murakami, indeed I came to him late, and in particular I have not read the five novels between A Wild Sheep Chase and Sputnik Sweetheart. Still, the impression I get is that Murakami in this novel was building up to an idea (or ideas) of parallel worlds which he handled much better in later works.

I can barely write “parallel worlds” without thinking/writing “therefore Science Fiction”. Certainly, if Atwood wrote or implied “parallel worlds” (which is all Murakami does) I wouldn’t hesitate. But Atwood writes from firmly within the traditions of English Lit. and Murakami doesn’t. If he fits anywhere well it is within European Surrealism, though of course SF has always had its own surrealist stream. But what streams exist within Japanese Lit, I can only guess.

Lit Professor and blogger Jessica Schad Manuel says (I think !) that Murakami is rendering the products of the unconscious real. Certainly, many aspects of his later fiction work like dreams. What I am saying is that they are not alternative environments for exploring human behaviour, which is how I think of SF.

Sputnik Satellite is dry, and although the character Sumire seems to have slipped out of this world, it has none of the poetry and dreaminess of After Dark. The narrator K is a (male) school teacher whose one divergence from conformity is his platonic friendship with Sumire, a struggling writer

Sumire wanted to be like a character in a Kerouac novel – wild, cool, dissolute. She’d stand around, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her hair an uncombed mess, staring vacantly at the sky through her black plastic-framed Dizzy Gillespie glasses, which she wore despite her 20/20 vision. She was invariably decked out in an oversize herringbone coat from a second-hand shop and a pair of rough work boots.

K is in love with Sumire, though she would laugh at him if he said so, and so he sleeps with other women, with the mother of one of his students eventually. K and Sumire have flats in different parts of, I presume, Tokoyo – I miss being able to follow the geography, both for its own sake and for the class clues that are there when a writer uses as his location a city you know well. Sumire’s flat is tiny and full of books, so mostly she comes round to his place and he cooks her meals, which she often forgets to do for herself.

She writes and writes, beginnings of novels, ends of novels, parts of novels, but never beginning, middle, end. Scraps most and brings what’s left to K to read. “My head is like some ridiculous barn packed full of stuff I want to write about.” But somehow she is unable to infuse her scenes with a life that brings them all together.

Sumire meets Mui, a rich, older woman, a wine importer, at a wedding reception and is invited by her to dinner. When Sumire later phones K in the middle of the night, from the phonebox in the street outside her flat, it is to tell him she’s in love and can she come round.

Suumire arrived at my apartment a little before five… Her hair was short in a stylish cut … She wore a light cardigan over a short-sleeve navy blue dress and a pair of enamel, medium-high heels. She even had stockings on

Mui has told her that she, Sumire, is not ready to be a novelist yet, and has offered her a job as her assistant. If I haven’t made it clear, Sumire is in love with Mui, who maybe realises, but does not want/is unable to get physical.

The story potters along, told in K’s dry school teacher style. Sumire does her job, polishes up her languages, reads. Her writing dries up. K helps her to move to another suburb further away, closer to her job. Then he gets a long letter from Rome. Mui and Sumire are in Europe on a business trip. Shorter letters follow as the travellers visit vineyards and attend concerts around Italy and France. In the last, a guy they have met over dinner tells them he has a house on a Greek island and they would be doing him a favour if they stayed in it for a while. I should meet this guy.

A little later K gets a phone call from Mui. She’s on the Greek island. Sumire has disappeared. Will he come. He’s in the last two weeks of summer break. He flies to Greece, makes his way to the island.

We’re at p.90 of 230. For the remainder of the novel K searches the island without success, returns to Tokyo (sleeps with his student’s mother). Sumire has vanished without trace. Murakami manages to imply that Sumire is both gone and not gone. That is his genius. As I said, not my favourite Murakami, but definitely worth reading.


Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart, first pub. 1999. English translation, Penguin, London, 2001 by Philip Gabriel. 229pp

My other reviews:
Wind/Pinball (here)
After Dark (here)

Kokomo, Victoria Hannan

Bodies in the sand, Tropical drink melting in your hand
We’ll be falling in love, To the rhythm of a steel drum band.
Down in Kokomo

[Beach Boys, 1988]

Not deathless prose (or verse) Not sure why Hannan’s novel has that name; neither the name nor the cover do the novel any favours. As various characters point out, Kokomo qua tropical resort is not even a place, the only real Kokomo is a middling industrial city in Indianna. Have you been there Melanie? Is there a statue to the Beach Boys?

So the name’s a distraction, doubly with its vaguely Japanese feel. This is a novel set in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Northcote or Preston, I forget now, about a thirtyish (Anglo) woman dealing with her widowed mother dealing with grief and guilt; dealing with glass ceilings (and glass walls); dealing with her unsatisfactory love life; dropping – at least temporarily – a lover and a good career in London to return home, to her mother and to the Chang’s across the road whose house she grew up in as much as her own, whose children were effectively her only brother and sisters.

I read Kokomo as an audiobiook, a freeby from Audible. I thought last trip I would listen to it again, refresh it in my mind, but more exciting options intervened, so I will have to make do with what memories looking stuff up prompt. First cab: Kate W. Surely “dealing with grief and guilt” means she’ll have a review and she does (here), from nearly two years ago.

Kate discusses Hannan beginning with a “sex scene”. In fact, the novel’s first words are : “Mina knew in that moment what love is.” The protagonist Mina (Jasmina) is about to take her lover and workmate Jack into her mouth when the phone rings. And she answers it!

Next we know, Mina is on a plane from London to Melbourne, and Jack has been left hanging (or standing). Her mother has been seen down the shops, at the chemist, having apparently gone outside her suburban home for the first time in 12 years, since the death of Mina’s father. Over the next two thirds of the novel, Mina waits, increasingly frantically, for Jack to answer her texts and emails. And I thought guys were thick.

Arrived in Melbourne, plopped down on her old bed, in her childhood bedroom, Mina finds her mother won’t talk to her, doesn’t want her there, is perfectly happy with daytime soaps and grocery deliveries to the door. Mina is forced into an aimless existence of polite small talk with her mother; hanging around the Chang’s; going out with Keira Chang, her lifelong Best Friend, whom she had left behind; running into the boyfriend she left behind; chasing up Shelley, her and Keira’s friend from university, now hopelessly lost to them in marriage, motherhood and upwardly mobile suburbia.

All this time Mina’s head is still in London. In her flat and Jack’s flat. In the advertising agency where she and relative newcomer Jack are joint department managers. Jack geeing up the troops, playing golf with the boss, screwing Mina. Mina falling in love, working back, getting presentations out on time and perfect. There’s a promotion coming up …

One day Mina sees her mother walking in the street with Arthur Chang, Keira’s father.

The voice of the novel changes from Mina’s first person to Elaine, her mother, in third person (and switches back briefly to Mina right at the end). And so Hannan slowly unravels the mystery of Elaine’s agoraphobia.

If you haven’t already read Kate’s review, do. She captures stuff that I (may have) thought about but couldn’t/didn’t commit to paper –

“Where this book really succeeds, is in how recognisable the uncertainties, introspection, and tensions are – a pause in the conversation that is a beat too long; a work colleague quietly but determinedly undermining you; the poorly disguised dismay of a friend when you drop in unannounced – in fleeting scenes, Hannan creates a gripping emotional narrative. And it culminates with the question, how do we manage the gap between what we have and what we need or want?”

And, like me, Kate loves that the author gets the feel of Melbourne just right.

Victoria Hannan is a Melbourne-based writer and photographer (website). Kokomo was her first novel. She now has a second out, Marshmallow (2022). I must read it.


Victoria Hannan, Kokomo, Hachette, 2020. Audiobook read by Liesl Pieters. 9 hrs 35 min.

A Difficult Young Man, Martin Boyd

12 Books of Boyhood. #2

The four novels of The Cardboard Crown quartet are the story of the Langtons, an idle rich Melbourne family at the turn of the Twentieth century. They are a fictionalised account of Boyd’s own family and an accurate account of the upper class, high church (and atypically pacifist) lens through which Boyd saw the world. I reviewed his memoir, Day of My Delight some years ago.

I read A Difficult Young Man, the second in the quartet, for my matric, in 1968, and for this exercise I have also read The Cardboard Crown, the first.

Martin Boyd (1893- 1972) was a good generation younger than English-born Australian writer, Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) but they shared a common background, which we Australians generally become first aware of in Jane Austen – the idle, land owning upper middle class. And before you get cranky about ‘idle’ let me say that I mean that their income was unearned, coming from rents and dividends.

Cambridge wrote in her memoir, Thirty Years in Australia, that whereas gentleman farmers and rich merchants were a level (or two) below the upper class in England, in Australia they were (and are) the upper class. Boyd goes a step further, claiming that his family, who had claims to an English title, were part of a genuine upper class in Victoria, until they were supplanted by the post-Gold Rush wealthy (This ‘upper class’ lingered well into the 1960s. There was a ‘Rupert Clarke‘ a year or so ahead of me in College whose family had claims to – I think – Australia’s only baronetcy).

The quartet is framed as Guy Langton (the Martin Boyd character) in old age, telling a young nephew his family’s story. So that Guy will sometimes pause in the telling to tell us where he is ‘now’, or what materials he is using, or to discuss his feelings about what he has told us. “I am supposed to be extremely snobbish, even in Melbourne, the most snobbish place on earth,” he says, and goes on in an attempt to show why he thinks snobbishness is rational.

The Cardboard Crown (1952) is based on Guy’s grandmother’s diaries and A Difficult Young Man (1955) is the story of his older brother, Dominic.

The Langton’s estate was in the hills past Dandenong (say 70 kms east of Melbourne) in the region of Koo Wee Rup. But the wider family had houses/mansions in what are now inner beachside suburbs, East St Kilda and Brighton. Guy’s grandfather, Austin marries Alice, the heiress of a brewery fortune and subsequently inherits a title and an estate past its best days in England.

So The Cardboard Crown is the story of how Alice’s money keeps the family afloat; their restlessness as they move between Australia, England and Europe; and their related families, byblows, and their various influences, with in the background, the mad C16th Duke de Teba to whom Dominic apparently bears a striking likeness.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed The Cardboard Crown back in 2013, saying: “it starts off in a kind of meta-fiction type of way, with Guy Langton recalling a conversation in which he was encouraged to write his grandmother’s story. And following on from this, there’s a lot of ground-setting to be done”. But it grows on her and she enjoys it, and so did I.

Kim has now read and posted a review of A Difficult Young Man which she reads as a satire on Australian pretensions. My take is the opposite, that Boyd is deadly serious about the distinction between well-born families and the hoi polloi.

In my grandmother, Alice Langton’s diaries, which are my chief source of information about what happened before I was born, there was not much reference to Dominic. He was then overshadowed by Bobby, our eldest brother, who was all sparkling sunlight and mercurial wit […] When Bobby died at the age of nine, Dominic may have thought he was going to step into his position as the eldest son, but would also bestow, as Bobby had done, laughter, hope and joy about the family, and then he found that he had not the equipment to do this, and so was filled with resentment.

In fact Dominic mostly bestowed on his family bewilderment and despair. I remember matric English as being about fathers and sons (and daughters), but on re-reading I see Dominic’s parents were inclined to go easy on his foibles, and to attribute his extreme sense of right and wrong to the embittered maiden aunt to whom was left a great deal of his upbringing.

At the heart of A Difficult Young Man is Dominic’s love for his beautiful cousin, Helen. At all the family gatherings at grandmother’s East St Kilda mansion Dominic and Helen would always be together, until on one central occasion at the beach, when they were in their mid teens, he was discovered ‘worshipping’ her with her upper body bared and him kneeling with his face in her lap. They were of course kept separated from then on.

Boyd doesn’t appear to like women much, and in this case he ascribes no agency to Helen, or at least only views this and subsequent incidents, via a single-minded focus on Dominic.

The Langtons re-migrate back to their English estate, where Dominic falls in love with and becomes engaged to marry the daughter of a neighbouring Lord, whom Guy is sure is completely unaware of the relative poverty that lies before her. Back in Melbourne, it is announced that Helen is engaged to marry a middle class blockhead, heir to Australia’s richest wool properties.

Dominic is one of my favourite characters in literature – high minded, often ridiculous, ready to give all for love. Martin Boyd as Guy is more interested in ascribing his various faults and characteristics to this or that bloodline threaded through all the inter-married cousins. But Dominic stands out nevertheless, and so does Helen, despite Boyd’s failure (or inability) to give her a pedestal. And what also stands out on rereading is the endless summer of their adolesence – in Melbourne at the very height of its time as the world’s richest city, on the beach, on their horses in the golden green forests of those two covers above, and even on the Langton estate in England.


Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man, first pub. 1955 (my ed. Landsdowne 1967, with a purple cover, presumably a school’s edition as it was a set text for (Vic.) Matriculation English in 1968). 191pp. Cover above taken from Perry Middlemiss’ blog – Landsdowne, 1978. Cover detail from “The Milkmaid” by Julian Ashton.

Martin Boyd, The Cardboard Crown, first pub. 1952, revised 1954 (my ed. Landsdowne, 1974). 168pp. Cover detail from A Summer Morning’s Tiff by Tom Roberts.

Just as I finish proof-reading and generally tidying up, 6pm-ish WST, I see that Brona has also posted a review of A Difficult Young Man. I’m off to read it and you’ll find this in your inboxes in the morning (Tue). I noticed Brona wrote Helena, not Helen, so I checked, and she is right. But I have thought of Dominic and ‘Helen’ for 55 years now and I can’t bring myself to change.

Whispering Gums reviewed A Difficult Young Man back in 2010. Lisa/ANZLL reviewed When Blackbirds Sing in 2016 and includes a link to her review of Brenda Niall’s biography of the Boyd family.

I find myself constrained in this series by the books I have on hand and the time I have to read them. I had hoped to read Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh for March, but it is too long, too dense and I have yet to even get it down from the shelf.

So I thought how about a John Wyndham. I seem to have neither The Kraken Wakes nor The Day of the Triffids, but I do have The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) whose story I remember not at all. Read a Wyndham, any Wyndham, and we might see (on Mar. 30) why he is everyone’s (every old person’s) first SF.

For subsequent months I have in mind some or all of:
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles
Jack London, The Iron Heel
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Georges Simenon, Act of Passion
Jane Grant, Come Hither Nurse (jointly with Doctor in the House?)
Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil
William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch
there will be additions and subtractions, I’m sure.

Even Cowgirls get the Blues, Tom Robbins

Melanie/GTL has been at me for some time to read Tom Robbins, especially Even Cowgirls and also his memoir Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life (2014); based on the partly mistaken belief that we are of similar generations and footloosedness. Partly mistaken because Robbins (b. 1932) is almost exactly the same age as my mother. An excusable mistake maybe to one so young as Melanie.

Even Cowgirls get the Blues was Robbins’ second novel, published in 1976, making it one of a number of novels which were iconic to boomer hippies but whose writers were actually of the previous generation. Two others which come immediately to mind are Catch 22 (1961) written by Joseph Heller (1923-1999) and A Woman of the Future (1979) by David Ireland (1927-2022).

Boomer hippies’ motto was ‘Free Love’ which a) wasn’t practiced anywhere as much as we pretended, nor as much as it appears to be today; and b) meant guys getting everything they’d ever dreamed of without giving much back in return. Robbins’ and Ireland’s upbringings in earlier, stricter times shows, as they adopt ‘free love’ in their fiction with prurient glee.

I wrote to Melanie: This is a novel about young women and it’s focussed almost entirely on those things about young women that men get off on. What distresses me most – and that is not too strong a term – is that he describes Sissy at age 8 (!) casually giving in to being fingered by men car drivers, and later has her describing it (being molested) as a side benefit of hitchhiking.

Before I give Melanie a chance to respond, let me say that this is a postmodern novel with a number of threads all based around Sissy Hankshaw, born in industrial West Virginia in the ‘Eisenhower years’ (1950s), whose mutated thumbs make her a hitchhiking legend.

Melanie wrote back that she was “happy to think about Sissy and her thumbs and her sexcapades this afternoon [I had thought she might be weighed down by the pressures of schoolwork]. I also read an article about a lesbian who was born without a hand and how Cowgirls resonated so deeply with her when she was 17, but now she sees the flaws in it. Nonetheless, she still recommends the book to young women.

Unfortunately, it’s a long time since Melanie read Even Cowgirls, and all she can say in response to my question is: “While I have completely erased from memory the sexual assault on Sissy when she was eight, later, when she is an adult hitchhiking, she is a willing sexual participant, and part of her confidence comes from her thumbs, which are categorized as a disability of which she is proud. In that sense, Robbins is ahead of his time.”

I can never hold the formal definitions of postmodernism in my head for very long, but this is a novel, though it is entirely about young women, which has a male voice, the voice of the author, taking the part of one of the minor characters, though I didn’t notice until he pointed it out; speaking to you the whole time, discussing what he is writing:

Or is the author trying to ease you into something here, trying to manipulate you a little bit when he ought to be just telling his story the way a good author should? Maybe that’s the case. Let’s drop it for now.

But look here a minute. Over here. Here’s a girl. She’s a nice girl. And she’s a pretty girl. he looks a bit like the young Princess Grace, had the young Princess Grace been left out in the rain for a year.

What’s that you say? Her thumbs? Yes, aren’t they magnificent? The word for her thumbs has got to be rococo – rocococototo tutti! by God.

and which has a certain playfulness in its premises – Sissy’s unreal thumbs; the two Clockworks, keeping geological time, which play no part in the story, yet are described at length; Sissy’s sometime employer (a gay guy), The Countess’s fortune built on his loathing of female odours, his feminine hygiene products empire, his beauty ranch in the Dakotas, the Rubber Rose; the rebellion, led by Bonanza Jelly Bean, which sees the ranch staffed entirely by young women who grew up wanting to be cowgirls, who deploy their unwashed bodies to chase off The Countess; a rebellion which takes a darker turn; and finally, the diversion of the migratory path of the endangered whooping crane who, initially attracted by the noisy lovemaking of Sissy and Bonanza Jelly Bean, are eventually persuaded to roost permanently on the shores of the ranch’s little lake.

What have I left out? Sissy’s off and on career modelling for The Countess; the Chink – a man of Japanese descent who has adopted ‘ironically’ the name given to him by the Indians who captured/rescued him when he escaped from wartime internment – who having been initiated into to one lot of Clockworks, has established his own in caves in the hills above the Rubber Ranch; Julian, an Ivy League educated Mohawk New Yorker who has renounced his Indian-ness just as Sissy is attemting to establish hers; who marries Sissy and then commits her to an institution; a pitched battle between the FBI and the cowgirls, over whooping cranes (!).

Of course, before the Hippies was the Beat generation, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, and while they too were taken up by boomer students, and Burroughs at least, was writing into the 80s, they were clearly of the generation before. The bible of the Beats was Kerouac’s On the Road (1951/57). Sissy’s hitchhiking is an homage to Kerouac (by Robbins) and Robbins has Sissy and Kerouac spend a night together, off stage as it were, in a sunflower field from memory, and without ‘going all the way’.

I’m glad Melanie persuaded me to read this work, it’s fun, innovative and well done. And if Robbins shows his age, which he does, then that can be largely taken in good part too – except for implying that an 8 year old can give consent – like looking at the relatively innocent pictures in an old Playboy.


Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls get the Blues, first pub. 1976. 365pp. Audible version, 1999, read by Michael Nouri. 13 hrs