Waverley, Walter Scott

Waverley by Walter Scott — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs ...

My father was an old fashioned man, an Anglophile until he actually went there, in his forties, and discovered he preferred Europe. So, although I was never permitted to read his books, he made sure I had copies of Scott’s Ivanhoe and Waverley from a young age. Now he’s gone, in my study and in my lounge my rude Australians stare across at his hardback, embossed pocket versions of Scott, Dumas, Hazlitt’s Essays etc., etc. with their tiny print and prayer book paper. Though for safety’s sake I’m doing this review from a Penguin paperback, 491pp and still in 8 point maybe. I may go blind.

I think it may be said that Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Walter Scott (1771-1832) were the progenitors of the modern English novel. I’ve been discussing off and on in these pages the writers who came before Austen, and there’s a lot to like in the writing of Fanny Burney (1752-1840), Austen’s immediate predecessor, but Austen’s clear writing and exact descriptions of everyday upper middle-class life, mark a clean break with those who came before her. In the same way, Scott’s historical fiction, in its adherence to known events, the absence of melodrama, and in the easy flow of its plot lines, if not in the actual writing, was a major step forward.

Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense & Sensibility in 1811, followed by Pride & Prejudice in 1813. Scott began publishing poetry around 1796, and by 1813 he was sufficiently well respected to be offered the position of Poet Laureate (of the UK). Brought up in Edinburgh and on the family estate on the Borders (of Scotland and England) at Sandyknowes, Scott had an abiding interest in Scottish folk history and Waverley (1814), his first novel, is a fictionalised account of the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

Like Austen, Scott the novelist was anonymous – to protect his reputation as a poet he said. In his Introductory to Waverley he  refers to himself as ‘the author of Waverley’, and so he was known until 1829 – by which time he had published 20-odd novels – when he acknowledged what was already well known, with a revised edition of Waverley whose prefaces and introductions amount to 50 pages.

I have written previously on Scott’s view of Austen as a new direction in literature (here and here), and Sue/Whispering Gums has only recently discussed Scott, Waverley and Austen (here), but I would like to set out my own views (not that we differ) before, hopefully, going on to Ivanhoe. Scott wrote in the original Introductory

By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November 1805, I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners …

and goes on at some (excruciating) length to describe the sort of scenes the reader will not find in his work – neither Udolpho, nor “mysterious associations of Rosycrucians and Illuminati”, nor damsels reduced “to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a rout”.

Then in the General Preface to the 1829 edition he says he had initially thought of writing a romance in the style of The Castle of Otranto (the first Gothic novel) but the success of his narrative poem the Lady of the Lake and some local knowledge led him to begin Waverley –

I had been a good deal in the Highlands at a time when they were much less accessible, and much less visited, than they have been of late years, and was acquainted with many of the old warriors of 1745, who were, like most veterans, easily induced to fight their battles over again, for the benefit of a willing listener like myself.

and so the genre of Historical Fiction was born.

The history with which Scott’s readers were familiar is as follows (and if you want dates, look them up). The Stuarts (Stewarts until Mary adopted the French spelling), kings of Scotland became the royal family of England when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth (Tudor). Parliament and the Stuarts were at loggerheads throughout 1600s, and eventually, in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 Catholic James II was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary, and her husband William of Orange, followed, on William’s death, by Mary’s sister Anne. After which, the Elector of Hanover, some sort of second cousin, was called in from Germany and a string of Georges were King (the last Hanover was Queen Victoria).

Politically, Whigs supported the Hanovers and a constitutional monarchy and Tories were for the restoration of the Stuarts. The novel commences with Edward Waverley’s father, a prominent Whig, and his childless older brother, Sir Everard, a Tory. Edward is Sir Everard’s heir, and is largely brought up by him.

Edward’s father gets him a commission in the army, and he is posted to Scotland, where he takes leave to visit his uncle’s friend, Bradwardine, who has a property in the Lowlands. From there he goes on an excursion to the Highlands, to recover Bradwardine’s milk cows stolen by raiders and then on to Glennaquoich, the home of local chieftan MacIvor. At each stop there is a beautiful girl – Bradwardine’s daughter Rose, the cattle thief’s daughter Alice, and MacIvor’s sister Flora, brought up in the French court, but now living in splendid isolation and praying for the return of the Stuarts. It is Flora Edward falls for but she cannot give him her heart in return as he is an officer in the King’s – her enemy’s – army.

At the end of six weeks incommudicado in Glennaquoich, Edward discovers his father has been disowned by the Whigs,  he has been dismissed from the army as a deserter, and all his family are counted as supporters of Prince Charles Stuart who has landed in Scotland and will shortly march on Edinburgh.

Edward leaves Glennaquoich, and after various injuries and misadventures, is imprisoned, rescued by Highlanders and conveyed to Edinburgh where he swears allegiance to the Pretender. Over the course of a few days Edward is outfitted in MacIvor tartan, meets and is rebuffed by Flora, and finally one late autumn day sets out on the great adventure.

When he had surmounted a small craggy eminence, called St Leonard’s Hill … [the valley below] was occupied by the army of the Highlanders, now in the act of preparing for their march… The sort of complicated medley created by the hasty arrangements of the various clans under their respective banners, for the purpose of getting into the order of march, was in itself a gay and lively spectacle.

The leading men of each clan were well armed with broadsword, target and fusee, to which all added the dirk, and most the steel pistol … But in the lower rank to these, there were found individuals of an inferior description, the common peasantry of the Highland country, who, although they did not allow themselves to be so called … bore nevertheless, the livery of extreme penury, being indifferently accoutred, and worse armed, half naked, stinted in growth, and miserable in aspect.

Disaster isn’t immediate. The English are engaged at Prestons, outside Edinburgh and flee. Charles holds court at Holyrood for some weeks while his forces lay siege to Edinburgh castle. Both Flora and Rose are amongst the ladies of the court. Discussing Romeo and Juliette, Flora makes clear to Edward that he would be sensible to transfer his favours from ‘Rosalind’ to ‘Juliette’.

Edward is an odd hero. He does not much like the trade of soldiering, he enters Charles’ service in a pique, and while he is honour bound not to change back to the English side, it is clear that he wishes to, or rather that he was peacefully back home on the family estate. And the Flora/Rose situation is an analogy for that. Edward is told more than once that he causes problems by not knowing his own mind.

It barely needs saying that things don’t go well for the rebels. However, Edward survives. Scott sets Edward’s history within well-known historical events, but rarely describes much more than Edward’s part in them. And he describes lovingly the countryside and people, whom he obviously knows very well.

I was interested in what languages were spoken. An English officer comments, “the Lowlanders talk a kind of English little better than the Negroes in Jamaica” and Scott generally transliterates this, with footnotes for unfamiliar words. The Highlanders speak Gaelic, and very few of them except the chiefs seem to have any English. But most of Edward’s conversation is with educated men and women and so there is not an awful lot of dialect to endure.

Did I like it? Yes I did. There is not the sheer joy in reading that you get with Austen, and Edward is sometimes more wishy-washy than you’d like, but his story is well, though archaically, told.

 

Walter Scott, Waverley, first pub. 1814. Penguin Popular Classics (pictured), 1994

Bruny, Heather Rose

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Tas]

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Bruny is a political thriller set a couple of years in the future – after the next US presidential election, which the present incumbent wins, and by which time Rose thinks our own “head of state” will be a king rather than a queen – in little, out of the way Tasmania. As a follow up to The Museum of Modern Love it is, initially at least, a disappointment. How could Heather Rose, the author of one of the finest literary works of this decade, descend to writing a thriller? Money? Maybe, but if so, if I were she, I would have used a different name, kept ‘Heather Rose’ as the literary brand, and used say ‘Robert Galbraith’ for pot-boilers, well that name’s taken, but you get my drift.

But I think rather, that Rose’s ambition might have been to write a literary political thriller, and while I don’t think she quite carried that off, by the end I thought she came a lot closer than I expected, and along the way discussed a lot of interesting politics that doesn’t generally see the light of day in novels. That said, I wasn’t thrilled with the politics of her ending – the idea that it might be a good thing for a cabal of dedicated democrats within the CIA to intervene in Australian politics.

The newspaper reviews almost universally categorise Bruny as political satire: “a literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit”, which is just plain illiterate. Rose’s latest is in fact just one of the many recent works of Australian literary fiction to approach our present state of desperation through Science Fiction – extrapolating from today into an imagined, dire future.

Bruny is the name of a largish island, about 50km long, south of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, and separated from the mainland (ie. Tasmania) by a narrow channel. It has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents but many Hobart people maintain shacks on the island for weekend getaways. The premise of the novel is that an extravagant suspension bridge, supporting a 6-lane carriageway, is being built to the island with $2bil from the Commonwealth government, ostensibly to bring in more tourists.

The novel begins with terrorists attaching explosives to the supporting pylons and bringing one of them down, before escaping in a sophisticated stealth speedboat. The protagonist, UN conciliation specialist Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is contacted by the Premier of Tasmania, her brother John “JC” Coleman, and the Leader of the Opposition, her sister Maxine “Max” Coleman – yes, a little bit of satire there about Tasmania’s incestuously close population, but that’s where it ends – to come home from New York and smooth over opposition to the damaged bridge being rebuilt in time for the next election.

There’s a lot of character development, not as much as in a novel about relationships, but plenty given that it’s a plot-driven rather than a character driven novel. Astrid Coleman is a divorcee, with two university aged children, after a long, unsatisfactory marriage to a Jamaican man. JC’s wife Stephanie is the perfect political wife, but with hidden depths. Max is single. JC by the way is Liberal and Max Labor. Their parents are both dying but are an interesting presence throughout. There are various slimy political types. Then there’s Dan, bridge foreman and honest Aussie bloke. And there are various Greens and protestors who initially seem important, but mostly fade out as the story proceeds.

The tension, to the extent there is any tension, is to do with the Chinese. To what extent has the $2bil been sourced from China? What are China’s ambitions in and for Tasmania? Entities connected with the Chinese government have been buying up large tracts of farmland and housing. They have paid for Hobart airport to be extended so that fresh milk may be freighted direct to Beijing. The first payoff comes with the announcement that bridge rebuilding will be facilitated by Chinese workers, the thin end of a wedge that permits Australian mines to also import cheap Chinese labour (ignoring that there is already a large iron ore mine in WA, Cape Preston, with its own secluded port facilities, all owned and manned entirely by Chinese). But above all, what is motivating the Tasmanian state government? What’s in it for JC?

I’ve watched the government do deal after deal that’s bad for Tasmanians. Most everything done here in the past hundred years has made future generations poorer. Tasmanians have voted for it, believed in the rhetoric, and called it progress. What does Tasmania have to show for all those lost forests? All the polluted waterways? The overrun national parks and lost wilderness? There are tourists swarming over every last inch of the place. And now we’re going to lose Bruny too. One of the last truly remote, beautiful, liveable places in the world.

The bridge is resurrected. Coleman moves among all the players, calming them down, gathering information. Election day approaches, and with it the official opening of the bridge. The more Coleman learns the less happy she becomes. A hurricane makes its way down the coast …

Along the way Rose gets in digs at unsatisfactory husbands, election funding (non-)disclosure laws, Tasmania’s family-owned gambling monopoly, salmon farming trashing Tasmanian waters, and some words of love for MONA (ironically, funded by a successful poker professional). It’s a good read, but not important, not in the way that The Museum of Modern Love was.

 

Heather Rose, Bruny, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

And that’s Bingo! The books I reviewed for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth were –

Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Result [Vic] (here)
About Canberra [ACT] (here)
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend [NSW] (here)
Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River [Qld] (here)
Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing [NT] (here)
Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey [WA] (here)
Peter Goldsworthy, Wish [SA] (here)
Heather Rose, Bruny [Tas]
Keith Cole, Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission [Free] (here)

Wish, Peter Goldsworthy

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [SA]

Wish

Last week Sue/Whispering Gums’ Monday Musings was on the subject of deafness and Australian writing, and the very small number of works dealing with disability. Coincidentally, my next read for #ausreading month was Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (1995), set in Adelaide, SA, which is on the subject not exactly of deafness but of communication by Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

Goldsworthy is (apparently) a well-known and respected Australian author, though not one of whom I was aware, and the subject of a glowing overview in the Introduction to this Text edition (I wonder what it says about Australian readers’ relation to Text Classics that the publisher gets a much bigger billing than the author or the title). Still, I found Wish uncomfortable reading, too long and boring in parts, and a protagonist who at times made me squirm – which may be my problem and not the book’s!

The protagonist, JJ, is a late 30s guy, living at home again – in Glenelg, on the beach – with his profoundly deaf parents after the failure of his marriage. Though not deaf himself, Auslan had been his first language as a child, and English only his second and not one with which he is ever entirely comfortable. As an adult he makes his living as a teacher of Auslan, mostly to people wishing to converse with deaf friends and relatives.

JJ’s marriage has failed, basically because he’s withdrawn from it, from both his wife and their teenage daughter. It’s not clear why, though it’s at least possible he is emasculated by his wife’s intellect and drive, and also by his discomfort with his own body shape (fat). At the commencement of the novel JJ, who has been away in the US, is offered a teaching job at the Deaf Institute, by a smart-arse who had formerly been his student.

There is a lot of discussion about Auslan throughout, some of it generated by JJ’s difficult relationship with his boss, who is not a native speaker, augmented by frequent sketches of hand positions. One of the features of Auslan is that everyone has an Auslan name, not just a transliteration of their name in English – which in any case can often only be rendered by spelling. So, the boss’s name, behind his back at least, is Miss-the-Point (the sign is a sweeping of one hand over the head, which you would think he might notice).

Another smug, high-beam smile. I had taught Miss-the-Point his first signs, and he wasn’t about to let me forget it. Some debts are too great to repay, let alone forgive.

Miss-the-Point gives JJ the beginners class in which his two best pupils are a 40ish sexy woman and her older husband, a famous animal rights campaigner. They, soon offer JJ part-time work teaching sign to their differently-abled foster daughter.

So the core of the plot is the triangle formed by JJ, the sexy mother and the daughter, for whom, and for only whom, JJ finds himself re-tumescing. The daughter, who is effectively unable to speak, blossoms as she learns sign. Between them, they choose for her the name ‘Wish’ and for the parents, the names ‘Star’ and ‘Saint’. Wish is past puberty and clearly has a crush on JJ. Star isn’t getting it from Saint, and when Saint goes overseas on book tour duty, makes it clear – in fairly humiliating fashion – that she wants it from JJ who has chucked in his job and is staying over. JJ is engrossed by his involvement in Wish’s progress, he thinks.

I slumped over the sink, wobble-kneed, paralysed. Horror at my actions filled me, the hands of sign-shame rose to hide my face. The noise of my coming would surely bring Wish down the stairs. I couldn’t face her; I could barely face myself.

He flees back to Glenelg, whose grey, almost landlocked waters are the only place he feels comfortable with his bulk

The first heart-stopping shock of cold quickly faded, and I felt only a warm glow as I floated beyond the surf line, sole swimmer as far as the eye could see. Less bouyant without my rubber suit, I was still unsinkable, more walrus than man.

Melanie at Grab the Lapels is conducting a one woman campaign against fat shaming in literature, which has certainly made me think more about representations of body shape. In this context it would be interesting to know if Goldsworthy is a) fat; and for that matter, b) fluent in Auslan.

The story takes a science-fictiony turn, a feature of Goldsworthy’s writing apparently, and maybe an early example of mainstream lit. turning to SF for inspiration, but only in the explanation for Wish’s behaviour. JJ returns. Wish refuses all attempts at communication, but when JJ goes to bed, there’s just one wall between them. It’s all getting too close to actual sex between teacher and adolescent student. I stop reading, at p 305 out of 377.

Sorry. If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself.

 

Peter Goldsworthy, Wish, first pub. 1995. This edition Text Classics, Melbourne, 2013

see also: Lisa/ANZLL’s review of Goldsworthy’s memoir His Stupid Boyhood (here)

 

Every Secret Thing, Marie Munkara

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [NT]

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If ever you felt complacent about our decision as whites to live in this country, then read Munkara, who sweeps complacency away by telling familiar stories about ‘good’ settlers and shiftless Blacks from the Black point of view.

Yes we’re here now, but every decision we’ve made – from the early days, during all the Stolen Generations years, through the 1950s and 60s, when I think this linked collection of stories is set, right up to today with the Intervention, the ongoing denial of proper Land Rights, systemic racism in the Police Forces, the diversion of ‘Aboriginal’ monies to bureaucracy and white businesses, policies deliberately aimed at making it impossible for Indigenous communities to be maintained on Country – serves our interests and harms theirs.

Marie Munkara is of Rembarranga, Tiwi and Chinese descent. Born in central Arnhem Land she was sent to Nguiu on the Tiwi Islands at about eighteen months, then down south by Catholic missionaries when she was three. She now lives in Darwin, where she is doing a PhD. Every Secret Thing (2009), which is about a presumably fictional Catholic mission in Arnhem Land, was her first novel.

Munkara doesn’t appear to give out her age, and I haven’t yet read her biographical Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016). But it would be sad if she were the Marigold in these stories, stolen from loving parents, sent away as a baby to be bought up Catholic and trained for service, constantly beaten and raped by her employers, who finally returns to her family only to find she doesn’t fit in.

Over a series of linked and sequential stories we become familiar with the ‘Mission Mob’, the Catholic priests and nuns bringing civilisation and Christianity to ignorant savages; and the Bush Mob, the Indigenous Arnhem Land community who after millennia of relaxed, well fed lives, must be brought to eat flour and sugar instead of fresh meat and bush tucker, to wear clothes in the tropics, and of course to accept the Catholics’ strange pantheon of saints, virgins, spirits and gods instead of their own.

In an allegory for white settlement everywhere, over the lifetime of one generation, the Bush Mob goes from self-sufficiency to despair, disease and dependence. In the end, Pwomiga, one of the senior men, paints himself white and commits suicide to prove there is no life after death –

So began the slow downwards spiral of despair. It wasn’t long before Jerrengkerritirti with his unruly teeth joined Pwomiga because he didn’t want to be in that place any more. And young Seth not long after that. Then the grog came and the winding path of good intentions became a straight bitumen four-laned highway that led even deeper into a world of self-destruction and hopelessness that no-one knew how to fix.

But don’t get me wrong, this is at times a laugh out loud funny book. Munkara is at a loss to explain how these idiots, the Mission Mob, can plonk themselves down in the midst of a happy community, their assertions of superiority accepted or at least tolerated, using their authority to make everyone miserable. But she shows over and over just how ridiculous, how hypocritical they are.

Throughout, there is a surfeit of often good natured sex. The young men and women are at it all the time, two sisters seduce a priest, the priests put the hard word word on the nuns, priests of course take what they want, from girls and from boys, two boys wear their mothers’ dresses and take it wherever they can get it, there is an epidemic of overeating evidenced by the swelling of young womens’ tummies.

In a central series of stories, Caleb seeks a wife. A couple in a nearby mob have an unruly daughter, Juta, pregnant to the boss’s daughter’s fiance. Caleb marries Juta and his family adore their light skinned daughter, Tapalinga.

The mission have responded to the rash of mixed race births by seizing all the babies and sending them to an island mission, the Garden of Eden, to be ‘educated’. Tapalinga, too is taken, reappearing some years later as Marigold, in service since she was seven, flogged and unpaid, “lucky to have the boss fuck her because she was a diseased piece of rubbish that no-one else would want”. The Bishop had told her her mother was “on the streets” and couldn’t support her, but another girl recognizes her and tells her how to find her family. That girl falls into prostitution and dies but Marigold makes her way home only to find that Juta has closed that part of heart to cauterise the pain.

Munkara brings up one or two characters at a time and tells a funny story about them, until you feel you know them all well. But all the time, the Bush Mob is declining, accepting cast off clothes, surrendering their kids to the mission, giving up old ways. It’s a funny book and a sad book, but above all, an essential book.

 

Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing, UQP, Brisbane, 2009

see also:
My review of Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (here)

On Monday (19/11/2019) Jess White wrote that her work on the Wardandi Massacre (my review) has been included in the updated ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia 1788-1930’ map (here). Research for the map “reveals that at least around 8400 people were killed during 311 massacres that took place between 1788 and 1930. About 97 per cent of those killed were First Nations men, women and children. Stage 3 of the digital map project added 41 massacre sites in WA and 9 more in the NT.”

Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Qld]

 

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I’ll tell you a secret. All the time I was reading this, I thought I was reading a Thea Astley. And it was only when I got to the end and idly looked at some biographical details that I discovered I wasn’t. I don’t have any excuse, Jessica Anderson’s name is there plain as day as they say, on the cover, but I had no reason (I thought) to look at it.

Astley (1925-2004) and Anderson (1916-2010) are of the same generation; both from Queensland; both moved to Sydney, and both continued, I think, to write about Queensland. I was mildly surprised as I was reading by the gentle subject matter – an old woman reflects on her life; when I was expecting something much more savagely political, like A Kindness Cup for example.

The old woman, Nora, is older than the author – no, I’m not revisiting the path I took last week with The Weekend – and I got the impression her age was about the same as the year, ie. that she was born around 1900, in a typical ‘queenslander’ weatherboard house, on stilts, 14 steps up from the ground, in one of Brisbane’s many riverside residential suburbs. Her father, whom she does not remember, dies when she is six and she lives with her mother, older sister, Grace, and brother, until he is killed in the trenches in France (which my grandfather, another Brisbane boy survived) along with Grace’s young man, and most of the neighbourhood boys.

Nora’s life has four distinct phases: growing up in Brisbane, bursting with sexual tension but no sex; a childless marriage in Sydney, where she and her husband find a flat with the bohemians on Potts Point until he is able to move them into his mother’s house in the suburbs to see out the Depression; divorce, a shipboard romance with a married man, an abortion, the end of sex, years in London sharing a house with two other women and the landlord; and the return in old age to the empty family home in Brisbane, Grace having married late but now dead.

Nora’s recollections are partly her own, partly the result of being cared for on her return by a couple who had always lived nearby and so had known her and her sister since childhood, and partly recollections of stories she had told her housemates in London. In fact, she had so often told and laughed over the stories of her unsuccessful marriage to Colin Porteous, that “Perhaps the real man has been so overscored by laughter that he will never be retrieved”.

Anderson was adamant that Tirra Lirra was not biographical, though the bohemians and old houses on Potts Point were drawn from life. There is one other character in the novel and that is Olive Partridge, Nora’s schoolfriend who becomes an author. The two meet up in London before the (Second) War, and Olive goes on to Austria. I was wondering as I read if Olive contained aspects of the author, thinking Astley, or of a friend, but no one springs to mind. Anderson herself was in London in 1937, but I don’t recall her being mentioned by other Australian authors in London between the Wars and in any case it was only in the 1960s, in her forties, that Anderson had the freedom to begin working on novels.

This is a slight novel, 141pp, and in fact began as a 20,000 word novella which publishers persuaded her to expand. It’s theme is Nora’s frustration, sexually, artistically.

One moonlit night, coming home across the paddocks from Olive Partridge’s house, I threw down my music case, dropped to the ground … I unbuttoned my blouse, unlaced my bodice, and rolled over and over in the sweet grass. I lay on my back and looked first at the moon, then down my cheeks at the peaks of my breasts…. I must have been less than sixteen.

… though I was quite aware of the sexual nature of the incident I don’t believe I was looking for a lover. Or not only for a lover… If that sounds laughable, do consider that this was a long time ago, and that I was a backward and innocent girl, living in a backward and unworldly place. And consider, too, that the very repression of sex, though it produced so much that was warped and ugly and cruel, let loose for some natures, briefly, a luminosity, a glow, that I expect is unimaginable now.

Later, we discover that Nora’s only other ‘sexual’ experience is with a boy a few years younger, who “teases” her, whom she allows to tease, when they are left alone, by jumping out at and grabbing/caressing her. It is some years before she marries, and when she finally becomes comfortable with sex her husband tells her to lie still and not carry on like a harlot. Sinking into depression in her mother in law’s house, not permitted to work, Nora is only saved by Porteous offering divorce and a small settlement. After that there is just the one shipboard romance, and then nothing.

In parallel, Nora sublimates her artistic talents in embroidery and later in dressmaking, and only on reflection sees what she might have achieved.

This is an interesting work to bear the ‘Independent Woman’ tag because Nora’s suppressed sexuality is not so different from Miles Franklin’s Sybyllas, Sybyl, Ignez et al*. Young Nora feels the rising sap, as they did. MF’s women flirt but hold themselves back from contact. Nora falls into marriage and finds it horrible. MF, I think, would feel vindicated.

 

Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1978 (my edition is the later Penguin, with the cover above)

*The Sybyllas are from My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, Sybyl from On Dearborn Street, and Ignez from Cockatoos (all here).

 

 

 

 

 

The Weekend, Charlotte Wood

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [NSW]

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The Weekend is a novel about three 70ish women cleaning the beach house of their dead friend. And the thing is, I’m within 2 or 3 years of their age and Charlotte Wood (1965-  and looks younger on Facebook) isn’t. Wood no doubt has all or some of mother, mothers-in-law, aunts, friends, colleagues to draw on, and I’m sure she gets women, but I don’t think she gets 70, an opinion I also had about another much lauded novel, Extinctions by Josephine Wilson.

On the other hand, towards the end one of the characters muses:

People thought when you got old you wanted your lost youth, or lost love, or men or sex. But really you wanted work and you wanted money.

Well, she got that right!

I loved The Natural Way of Things and I was ready to love The Weekend, but that’s not the way it has worked out. Wood has a clear, not particularly literary, style of writing which suited TNWoT, with its compelling story line of young women in indefinite detention for being the victims of men they trusted. The Weekend is the story of just three women, at the other end of their adult lives – or so Wood would have us believe though I personally am looking forward, like my parents and grandparents, to a couple more decades of activity – but again without men at this time, and having been with men they should not have trusted as much as they did. It’s a smaller story which needed better writing and character development to carry it off.

The protagonists are Wendy, a public intellectual, Jude, a retired restaurant manager, and Adele, an actress. They all live in Sydney, and the novel opens with them making their separate ways to the fictional community of Bittoes on the Central Coast (the rocky and spectacularly beautiful coast between Sydney and Newcastle, 160 kms north), where their lately deceased long time friend Sylvie had a beach house, which they had often used together and separately, and which they have been asked by Sylvie’s partner, now safely home in Dublin, to clean up for sale.

Wendy lives comfortably off the sales of her erudite books, and plans to write more. She is overweight, and a bit stereotypically, is sloppy in her person and in her housekeeping. She has an old car, which breaks down on the way to Bittoes, and in which she is trapped while “road trains” roar past, while her old dog pisses on her lap. Wendy, now a widow, had been in a loving marriage for many years, and has two children, by an earlier marriage, who appear to blame her for something.

Jude is uptight and bossy and has been the mistress for 40 years of a banker whose principal relationships are with his wife and children and grandchildren. She has no presence other than as a storm cloud around which the others navigate.

Adele, is small with a good body, is still amazingly supple, hasn’t been offered a part for more than a year, is or was in a relationship with another woman, and is also stereotypical in her narcissism and dependence on others.

She would wear black, very simple – or no, charcoal. With some stylish sleeve detail, but fitted so that you could see her figure, which was still really very lovely. People said that to Adele often. You have a lovely figure. Which meant, you have terrific tits. For your age.

I think the author’s intention was to explore the notion of friendship, not a subject to which I have given a great deal of either thought or practice.

The thirties were the age you fell most dangerously in love, Adele had discovered, after the fact. Not with a man or a woman, but with your friends. Lovers back then came and went like the weather … No, it wasn’t lovers but friends – these courageous, shining people – you pursued, romanced with dinners and gifts and weekends away. It was so long ago. Forty years!

Wood appears to confusing my generation with hers. Baby boomers were too busy, and too poor, in their thirties, with partners and children, to be “romancing” friends.

Anyway, the three women spend the long weekend over Christmas, cleaning, or not cleaning, reviewing their lives, being bossed about by Jude, bickering, and briefly, relaxing on the beach. Adele bumps into a rival, more successful older actress at a restaurant and invites her and her 40 ish producer partner to dinner. Where everything comes to a head, including the weather (Wood shows some restraint, and doesn’t throw in a bushfire).

The air was all electricity. They were suspended, Wendy pinned on the couch, Jude and Adele each separate, adrift. None could reach the other. The door was still open and the rain swept in; darkness had swallowed up the room.

Nothing is resolved, the dog doesn’t die. Wendy feels vaguely she must do something to find out what it is that so bothers her children about their upbringing. Adele has no visible means of support for the coming year. Jude we don’t know enough about to care. The late Sylvie, whose absence might have been expected to be the centre of the novel, barley makes a showing. The friendship, having lasted this long only through inertia, would seem to have nowhere to go.

 

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

Other Reviews:
Kate, booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)

Milk and Honey, Elizabeth Jolley

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [WA]

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I am flummoxed  by this book, Jolley’s third, which doesn’t feel like an Elizabeth Jolley at all and in fact reminds me quite a lot of Janette Turner Hospital’s (20 years later) Orpheus Lost (review) – the music, the weird family isolated in a house in the country, the locked up family member.

The protagonists in this novel are Austrians, or of Austrian descent, migrants to an unnamed and relatively un-Australian country, to escape the Nazis. I can’t claim any expertise re Jolley, but I have found those of her books that I have read relatively ‘local’, deriving from her living in Perth and owning a little farm in the hills. Milk and Honey (1984) is not like that at all. The atmosphere of the novel is European Gothic and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been started or at least conceived before she left England (in 1959 when she was 34).

Skip-reading Brian Dibble’s biography of Jolley, Doing Life, I see that in the 1960s Jolley was “revising old novels”, including The Prince of a Fellow which became Milk and Honey, and selling door to door –

Jolley felt that, whether selling to the ladies of the Tuart Club or to the women of Swanbourne, Watkins work was essentially awful, but she knew how such work brought her in contact with the sort of people and the kind of experiences she wrote about best. (Dibble, 2008, p.152)

Jacob, the central character in Milk and Honey is a musician, a cellist, and his love interest Madge is a violinist, but Madge is supported by her door-to-door salesman husband, who ends up taking Jacob on as a trainee/assistant, and the products – soaps and bath crystals and so on – that they sell, or more often don’t, are pretty much the products Jolley was flogging for Watkins.

The story is narrated by Jacob, who seems barely aware of what is happening around him. His mother dead, his vintner father sends him as a teenaged boy to live with the ageing Heimbachs, Leopold and his sisters Heloise and Rosa, to go to school, which he doesn’t for very long, and to study music. Leopold has two children, Waldemer who is simple, and Louise, 3 or 4 years older than Jacob. The Heimbachs had left a prosperous life in Austria, escaping first to Switzerland and then on. Leopold’s wife and the children’s mother had been abandoned, without comment, because she was Jewish.

Jacob’s father dies. His uncle and aunt sell the vineyards to property developers and Jacob is wealthy, though much of his money, that which isn’t siphoned off by his uncle and aunt, is kept in trunks at the Heimbach’s. Because Jacob is so unaware, the novel has an unreal quality, and much of what is happening around and to him we have to infer.

Jacob’s principal interest is to have sex with Madge, an older woman in the provincial orchestra in which Jacob plays. All the novel revolves around him finding ways to get away with her for an hour or a day.

Meanwhile, Jacob retaliates to be being teased by Waldemar by punching him, and Waldemar falls down, dead it seems, of heart failure, though it later turns out he has been hidden in the attic where he is cared for by his aunts and (a little too lovingly) by his sister. Louise and Jacob become engaged and subsequently married without any intention on Jacob’s part.

Was I waking? was I dreaming? Of course I remembered I was supposed to marry Louise. It had been arranged that day I became the owner of my father’s land.

I was a bird in a snake’s eye. I had never thought it could be avoided. If I thought anything, it was, ‘Not Yet. Not Yet.’

This afternoon I had been on the point of merging into Madge but now I was married. To Louise.

The wedding night is a fiasco, they subsequently sleep separately, but Jacob is gradually made aware that Louise is pregnant.

The climax builds as Jacob uses his money to attempt to find a way to spend more time with Madge while continuing to live within the constraints imposed by the Heimbachs. Leopold dies. It becomes increasingly obvious that Heloise and Rosa know about Madge.

There’s a fire, foreshadowed from the beginning, when the novel opens with Jacob and Louise living in poverty with their daughter. Louise working in a factory, Jacob working with Norman, Madge’s husband.

As Dibble writes, “There is no end in sight to this tangled web of dependency and deception in the name of love.” But did I like it? Not really.

 


The barbarians are inside the gates. UWA Press, Australia’s second oldest university press, is to cease publishing. Yes, the state (Labor) government continues for now to support Fremantle Press formerly Fremantle Arts Centre Press, but for how long.

Jess White wrote today on Facebook: “This is absolutely dreadful news: The University of Western Australia has decided to shut the doors on @uwapublishing (my publisher!). This press is run by the wonderful, vibrant Terri-Ann White who is a smart & savvy businesswoman, & who produces beautiful books. As well as this, who will publish WA’s stories now??” and links to a story in The Australian (which I will leave you to find, or not, for yourselves).


 

Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1984

Brian Dibble, Doing Life, UWAP, Perth, 2008

More Elizabeth Jolley reviews, including mine, on ANZLitLovers’ Elizabeth Jolley page here