You know that I am fascinated by intertextual geography. So, for instance, last month’s AWWC subject, Ada Cambridge, on her first excursion into the bush, was caught up in exactly the same loops of the Murray River in 1870 as Tom Collins (Such is Life) a decade later.
Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) is one writer who intersects many others. The journey around northern Australia she describes in The Great Australian Loneliness criss-crosses the paths of a number of notable Australian writers and books. She hitches a lift with Michael Durack, father of Mary (Kings in Grass Castles) and Elizabeth (“Eddie Burrup”), in northern WA (and later becomes friends with both, and her son Robert maybe becomes Elizabeth’s lover); she hears about the Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls in a pub in Marble Bar, and their epic walk home to Jigalong; Daisy Bates owned a cattle leasehold near Jigalong, to which she had famously driven cattle south from Roebuck near Broome, 900 kms north (“3000 Miles on Side-Saddle”); Hill later catches up with Bates at Ooldea in outback South Australia and does the work on Bates’ papers which leads to the publication of The Passing of the Aborigines; four or five years earlier, Katharine Susannah Prichard had been at Turee Creek, a couple of hundred kms south west of Jigalong, writing Coonardoo; later, Hill and Henrietta Drake Brockman travel in Hill’s ex-army amoured personnel carrier to Kalgoorlie to catch up with KSP who is there writing her Goldfields trilogy.
Then there is the mystery of who did Kim Scott’s aunty (Kayang & Me) see driving an apc across the Nullabor to meet with Daisy Bates? Hill’s condemnation of Aboriginal slavery in the WA pearling industry; Chris Owen’s excoriation of the Duracks’ complicity in Aboriginal massacres in Every Mothers’ Son is Guilty; Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’ account of her family coming in from the desert (Pictures from my Memory) – she was at school for a while at Karalundi mission where Daisy, one of the Rabbit Proof Fence girls was working, in 1972; and of course, Robyn Davidson’s journey by camel across the desert (Tracks) whose beginning and end points, Alice Springs and Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay, mirror those of Hill, who started from Hamelin Pool and ends her account two years later riding a camel into Alice Springs.
This is all by way of an introduction to my review this month of The Great Australian Loneliness on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site. Read on …
Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born in Brisbane, where she attended a Catholic girls school, got a BA at University of Queensland and studied to be a teacher. Let’s say that takes her to 1946. In 1948 she married and moved to Sydney, where she taught high school. Yet nearly all her fiction is set in coastal towns and cities north of Brisbane. Girl with a Monkey (1958), her first, is set entirely in Townsville.
I assume she, as does Elsie, her protagonist, spent a year or two teaching ‘up north’. The Oxford Companion says she “taught in schools in Queensland and NSW until 1967”, so that’s a start. It also says “Astley’s first novel appeared a decade before women writers began to make a large impact on Australian writing ..” I’m not sure where that leaves Prichard, Stead, Dark, Tennant, Cusack et al, nor for that matter Miles Franklin and Henry Handel Richardson.
I have other reference books but they have nothing to add and none of my seven Thea Astleys contains more than the briefest bio. So let’s guess that Astley, like Elsie, taught primary school for two terms in Townsville and then spent at least the remainder of the year (1947, “today I am twenty two”) in a three teacher school south of Gympie (around 100 miles north of Brisbane).
River gasped and sucked lazily at sugar barges somewhere behind the broad street and shops, river that curled tightly in through the mangroves and on out past its artificial breakwater limbs to the warm reef waters. Cootharinga, its ugly granite escarpments sharp with sun and shadow, threatened the sprawling acolyte at its foot. From the silent and empty footpaths haze curled up under the tin awnings, lifting with it some coolness from the day …
Townsville, well into the tropics, is of course hot – ranging from pleasantly warm in winter to hot, steamy and frequently wet in summer – and Astley captures that feeling well, with a flow of words demonstrating the attention she has given to Modernism, and her mastery of it. We none of us talk much about Patrick White, but he was a big influence on Astley and she appears to have sought both friendship and mentoring from him.
In his early years White was not much regarded. His third and fourth novels, An Aunt’s Story (1948) and The Tree of Man (1955) were acclaimed in the US and UK but it was not until Voss (1957) that he was widely noticed at home. Presumably by then Astley was well into Girl with a Monkey whose origins most likely begin in her 1947 or 48 writing journal. I wonder if there is a literary biography.
To me, despite the location, it doesn’t feel a lot like Astley’s later works, but then I haven’t read them all. In fact the book it most reminds me of is Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). There is the rush of words, the same focus on one young person over one short period; but third person rather than first, and without the slanginess, in fact Elsie is superficially at least, rather proper; but a similar commitment to understanding the ambivalent feelings both Holden and Elsie have about sex.
What the novel does is take us through Elsie’s last day in Townsville, from waking in her hotel room – a passage really with doors at either end against which she has stacked her luggage, chairs to keep out inquisitive men in the night – through breakfast; a walk down to the railway station to buy a ticket on the late train south; visits in the suburbs to say goodbye, pickup her things; to her old school for her books; lunch with an ex boyfriend, Jon; an unwelcome encounter with her current boyfriend, Harry, who knows in his angry heart he too is ex; tea with a school teacher friend; a last minute rush to catch the train; to unsuccessfully evade Harry.
That’s it, just a novella, but full of thought and description; little jumps back to other significant days; mysteries that remain mysteries, her distance from ‘home’, a birthday telegram torn into scraps; her catholicism, fervent at school, now fading, but present still in her virginity, in her assessment of men, boyfriends only as potential husbands.
Jon admits “tearfully” to having once visited the brothel, but drunk and against his will. Elsie is bitter not at his visit but at his weakness, wishing –
That I could see you striding strongly to your damnation in the tiny cottages at Rising Sun. That you should have no one and nothing to blame for your sin. That you could achieve sin and contrition and penance entirely on your own. She felt, as all women do even in the earliest years of puberty, a cold and fully developed maturity that frightened her.
Harry is stronger, but rough, a ditch digger, with nevertheless the implication that there is more to him – maybe like many working class men he never got the education he deserved. All the summaries start ‘Elsie was lonely …’ but that’s not right, she takes up with Harry because there’s no pretence, because she has held herself on a tight rein for years – you suspect she spent her university years living at home and going to Mass. As with Miles Franklin’s heroines before her, you can feel Elsie holding herself out then pulling back.
Harry’s strength of purpose, his potential for violence frightens her. In fact the suitcases against her hotel door are symbolic of her belief that the potential for violence in all men – perhaps not without reason – frightens her, but she is nevertheless determined to remain in control.
An excellent, thoughtful novel, both in its writing and in its probing of the author’s inner life as she, for a year or two anyway, begins to experience independent womanhood.
Thea Astley, Girl with a Monkey, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1958. 144pp.
Thank you to Sue (WG) for sending me her copy, hard to get now, but available from Allen & Unwin’s A&U House of Books print on demand division. I found the print quality perfectly readable, not too small (and at the other extreme, I dislike books with ‘YA’ typefaces) and if the margins were minimal then I’m not a marginalia-ist in any case.
There are no covers of this book on the web, that I could find, so I had to photograph my own, which as you can see has plastic over the dustjacket, courtesy of my father I guess who gave it to me 10 years ago. First edition, very good condition, I hope the kids look after it.
Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) was born in Levuka, Fiji during a tropical storm. ‘..natives gazed in awe at the baby the hurricane had left in its wake, “Na Luve ni Cava,” they exclaimed. “She is a child of the hurricane.”‘ This sets the tone for this autobiography, which for all that KSP is a competent writer, reads like a journalistic colour piece.
Thirty years earlier, Prichard’s father’s family had migrated to Australia on the same ship, the Eldorado, as her mother’s family, the Frasers. My mum’s family, the Nixons, came to Melbourne the same year, 1852, on the Castle Eden (Out of Plymouth. The Eldorado sailed from Liverpool). Both the Prichards and the Frasers stayed in Melbourne (the Nixons went up to the gold fields at Maldon) and began inter-marrying.
KSP never asked her father about his young years. He said that he was “apprenticed to a saddler and ran away when the job didn’t suit him.” In any case he read widely and began writing. Around 1868 – and Prichard is infuriating in not dating much of what happens in this book – Tom “went adventuring to the South Seas, and returned to Melbourne after many years”, perhaps 15, during which time he had owned and wrecked a schooner and “become a person of some importance” on Fiji as editor of the Fiji Times.
KSP’s mother, Edith Isabel Fraser was born in Melbourne and was brought up in the Fraser family home, a rambling. colonial style house in ‘North Road’ (probably East Brighton). She would have been in her teens, maybe 15, when Tom left and approaching 30 when he returned to marry her. They lived on Fiji for another three or four years, during which time Edith bore three children, Katharine, Alan and Nigel, and then returned to Melbourne, initially to the welcoming Fraser house, and had more kid(s).
I’m not interested in all the cute things young Kat did as a child, just the influences that made her a writer, and her father’s restlessness which spoiled her education. In the late 1880s (I’m guessing) Tom Prichard was editor and feature writer for the Sun, the family lived near grandmother’s, and KSP began school. Tom’s next job was in Launceston, Tasmania. The family lived well, and happily – illustrated by excerpts from The Wild Oats of Han (1928), clearly the story of her childhood, and I think, her first novel, though not the first published. When that job failed, the Prichards were sold up and returned to Melbourne, again, to live on the charity of the family, until eventually Tom found work again.
KSP’s first short story had already “appeared in the children’s page of a Melbourne newspaper” and on her return to Melbourne, another, That Brown Boy, won a prize.
Although Father did not take my efforts at story writing at all seriously, Mother began to give me books to read which, no doubt, she thought would develop any literary talent I might have.
She gave me Tennyson’s Idylly’s of the King, Keat’s Endymion and other poems, Longfellow’s Evangeline, Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, some of Scott’s and Dicken’s novels, Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.
There is no mention of her reading let alone being influenced by the generation of Australian women writers who preceded her, although by the 1890s Tasma for instance was very well known with Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1889); Ada Cambridge was also writing in Melbourne; as were Catherine Martin and Mary Gaunt; Rosa Praed was well known, at least in England; and you’d think the wonderful Clara Morrison (1854) by Catherine Helen Spence was still around.
And with the turn of the century we have Barbara Baynton and Miles Franklin. But only minor novelist and poet Mary Fullerton gets a mention, later on, when they meet in connection with the suffrage movement.
After a spell at home helping Mother with a new baby (Bee/Beatrice) KSP wins a scholarship to South Melbourne College, for two or three years up to matriculation (Miles Franklin was angry about her schooling). She was happy at school and did well, editing the school magazine in her final year (following on from ‘Elsie Cole‘ whom I had to look up). The following year, instead of preparing for university, she again stayed home, with her mother who was ill, and then at age 19 “I went off … to be governess to a doctor’s children in South Gippsland [at Yarram, east of Melbourne]. It was an adventure into life, away from books.” This was to be the location for her first published novel, The Pioneers (1915).
My next governessing took me to a station in the back country of New South Wales. The story of this was told in Letters from the back of Beyond, written on the station … the New Idea paid £20 for them. A fabulous sum it seemed in those days…
The Letters are nothing if not a revelation of how young and foolish I was. They even referred to the aborigines* as “niggers”, unforgivable to my way of thinking later, and showed no understanding of the rights of working people, merely reflecting a station-owner’s attitude towards strikers..
You get the impression that KSP, much as did Nathan Hobby half a century later, thought her ‘life’ was worth three volumes, and so we make our way easily through becoming a journalist, travelling, working in London, the onset of the War, meeting Hugo Throssell VC and then, all of a sudden, the second and third volumes, marriage, Perth, novels, communism, Hugo’s death, must be be packed into a final chapter.
An entertaining read, informative about her early years in a chatty way but which left me wishing she’d at least written the second volume, about her middle years and the literary and political theory which informed her writing.
I know you all want to know. I checked in with Nathan Hobby and he wrote back: “The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard due out April . Currently in proofs, takes many months to print a hardcover .. I must have read CotH more times than any other book in my life”
Katharine Susannah Prichard, Child of the Hurricane, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1964. 266pp.
see also: Nathan Hobby’s review (here) Other KSP reviews, AWW Gen 3 page (here) That Brown Boy (here). The Federalist, Launceston, Sat 15 April 1899, by ‘Katharine Tudor’
I’m working, in Melbourne loading to go home. The photo above is me getting loaded last week in Perth. Apparently the wreck – it appears to have blown a steer tyre and dived off the road into a culvert – was worth buying and bringing over for parts. And I’m organised, I have/had reviews ready for Monday and Thursday posting through to next week. But, you my friends keep posting AWW Gen 3 relevant reviews, so I’ll put this up on Saturday (at the moment I’m typing on Tuesday) with the appropriate links.
That brings up the question Why? Nearly everyone who comments here will have seen them already. Well, firstly just to reference them all in one place. But also, because the few people who comment – and I think that is about 15 here, 20 max. – are only a tiny proportion of the people who read blogs. It constantly astonishes me how tight, and how relatively small, the community of people who read and comment on each other’s blogs is.
The three posts are:
Whispering Gums: Elizabeth Harrower, The Long Prospect (1958)
Harrower, it seems to me writes in a similar vein, and similar settings, to Eleanor Dark. Modernist, Sydney, Middle-class life.
“Oppression and tyranny, power and manipulation in human relationships are the stuff of Elizabeth Harrower’s writing, at least in my experience of it, and so I found it again in her second novel The long prospect.” Read on …
Reading Matters: Dorothy Hewett, Bobbin’ Up (1959)
Hewett is an interesting author, very mainstream Gen 3, a Communist brought up middle class (on a Western Australian wheat farm) writing about the working class, and I’m glad Kim chose to review her.
“.. not really a novel; it’s more a collection of short stories focused on a bunch of diverse characters, all female, who work together at a woollen mill in Sydney during the 1950s.” Read on …
ANZLitLovers: Modernism, a Very Short Introduction, by Christopher Butler … and Christina Stead
Now, this post is dated Nov. 2016 so don’t ask me why it was in my head to include it in this spot. But having got this far, and given all our discussions of Modernism in relation to Gen 3, I commend it to you.
“So, to Modernism, A Very Short Introduction first of all, because Christina Stead is a great modernist and most of us could use a little help in understanding her work. Alas, she does not get a mention in this little book of only 102 pages, so you will have to make do with my interpretations and extrapolations…” Read on …
And because I can, one more truck photo
It’s Saturday now, or near enough, and I’m on the way home, pulled up for the night 300 km from the WA border. I’ll be home Sunday, touch wood, and once I’m unloaded will take a month’s holiday, or at least, 2 weeks iso then two weeks with whichever of my family make it over to celebrate my daughter’s wedding.
If the government is going to censor the ABC, our national broadcaster over the use of ‘Invasion Day’, not to mention spending $10 mil on advertising its preferred ‘Australia Day’, then you can guess which side I am on.
Australians will know Watkin Tench as an officer well inclined towards the local inhabitants of the Sydney region and as the best-known chronicler of the first days of white settlement (here and here). I had occasion to re-read my reviews of his accounts in connection with Neil@Kalaroo’s well received review of The Timeless Land, and extracted the following dates. The first fleet arrived in Botany Bay on 18-20 Jan, 1788; moved to neighbouring Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) on 26 Jan; and proclamations were read declaring the eastern half of New Holland (Australia) a British colony on 7 Feb.
Australia became a nation on 1 Jan, 1901 – though still a subsidiary of London within the British Empire; white women became full citizens at the following national election, in 1902; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands people were admitted to citizenship in May 1967.
But we choose the day which celebrates the foundation of Sydney and the dispossession of the Eora, Cadigal, Guringai, Wangal, Gammeraigal and Wallumedegal people initially, and eventually, of all the Aboriginal nations.
So it’s apt for today that I re-use the cover image from my – or more correctly, Neil’s – last post. And, it’s a good image too for this summary of what has been an excellent Week, by participation, by variety of books discussed, and by my favourite part of the week, your engagement with the discussion of underlying themes.
I wish particularly to thank Sue/Whispering Gums and Brona/Brona’s Books for their enthusiasm and work. I think between them they may have put up more posts than I did. Here’s the list –
The Australian Legend Late Modernity, and introduction to the Week (here) Kylie Tennant, Tell Morning This (here) Christina Stead, The Little Hotel (here)
Whispering Gums Vance Palmer, The Future of Australian Literature, 1935 (here) Monday Musings: Realism and Modernism (here) ML Skinner, The Hand (here) Dymphna Cusack, A Window in the Dark (here) Monday Musings: Contemporary Responses to Coonardoo (here)
Brona’s Books Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers (here) Ernestine Hill, My Love Must Wait (here) Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Wild Oats of Han (here)
Nathan Hobby Katharine Susannah Prichard in the 1940s and 50s (here)
Buried in Print Eleanor Dark, The Little Company (here)
Book Around the Corner Eleanor Dark, Lantana Lane (here)
Neil@Kalaroo Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land (here)
The Resident Judge of Port Phillip Julie Marcus, The Indomitable Miss Pink (here) Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death (here)
There are two or three reviews pending. Jessica White has stopped packing for her imminent move from Brisbane to Adelaide to read Ruth Park’s “the huge Harp in the South. It’s wonderful!” And she may also later review Marjorie Barnard’s The Persimmon Tree, which was her original intention. I’ll repost or guest post those when they come up.
Sue, last I counted, was at page 82 of an Elizabeth Harrower (20pp last weekend, 2 per day during the week and 50 on Sunday) and I’ll repost that too. All posts/reviews are added to my AWW Gen 3 Page, of course, and any you review during the coming year(s) I will mention as I see them or you bring them to my attention.
I had been thinking about Gen 0 for next year – writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and George Sand say, who may have influenced the thinking and writing of our Gen 1 – but I will give in to the momentum generated by this week and go on to AWW Gen 4. We will say, for now anyway, women writers of the 1960s, 70s and 80s and work on a proper definition during the year. This is the period when Modernism gives way to Post-Modernism, not well understood by me or by many writers – who fall back on the formulas of books about the book being written, novelists in their own novels, and the fashion of Magic Realism.
Thank you again for your participation. If I have missed any reviews, or you have older reviews I haven’t included in the AWW Gen 3 Page, let me know. I really feel like I have missed at least one and for that you have my heartfelt apology.
Now, 10 minutes later (10 minutes after posting, that is) I remember. The Resident Judge reviewed Say No to Death, Dymphna Cusack (and referenced this Week) and late last year she wrote up a life of Olive Pink – a truly Independent Woman in the Outback in the 1940s. Links in the list above.
Look out for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week (July) and Eleanor Dark Week (August), Brona’s AusReading month (November). Is November MARM (Margaret Atwood Reading Month) again? I will try and be better prepared. What have I missed? I was going to have a little dig at Emma’s love of north western USA crime novels, but here’s something a little different – a six week course on writing detective fiction in Wisconsin (here).
Addendum (2): What have I missed? Kim/Reading Matters is hosting Southern Cross Crime Month (here) in March for Aust and NZ crime fiction, AND she is right now writing up a review of Dorothy Hewett’s Bobbin’ Up. Look for it during the coming week.
It’s Saturday as I type and I’m on the road home. But an email has come in (or to be honest, I have just checked yesterday’s emails) from Neil@Kallaroo. We’ve done very well with Eleanor Dark this week. Here you go Neil, the space is all yours.
Let’s cut to the chase. I read about one third of The Timeless Land before I gave up. That’s not a reflection on the book so much as a reflection on what I enjoy reading. Once upon a time I read a book from cover to cover, but there are so many books to read, so nowadays if I’m struggling I give up and move on.
The Timeless Land is the first in a trilogy about the European settlement of Australia. It is told from many viewpoints, such as Governor Arthur Phillip, Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Trench of the Marines, the Reverend Mr Johnson, Andrew and Ellen Prentice, convicts, and the indigenes Bennilong and Barangaroo. There are plenty more!
The different viewpoints expose us to the many issues around the settlement, from concern with the food supply, convicts trying to escape, and interactions between Europeans and First Settlers. The story progresses chronologically, with minimal flash-backs, and even though the viewpoint changes frequently, it is not hard to keep track of what is going on.
So why did I struggle with the story?
I guess I knew the plot already, though not the nitty gritty. So there was minimal novelty to engage me. The writing is a bit dry and academic (possibly as a result of Dark’s extensive research), and there wasn’t much witty repartee to humour me. I didn’t crack many smiles.
I was uncomfortable with the thoughts and actions attributed to the indigines. One phrase in particular caught my eye:
“Arabanoo, who was so gentle and so patient that he hardly ever beat his wife.”
Ouch. Did indigenous husbands beat their wives regularly? I know that alcohol currently contributes to domestic violence (universally!), but I am not at all sure wife-beating was a feature of the indigenous population in 1788. Mind you, Dark has a rather sly comeback:
“Bennilong, therefore, had felt no pity for the woman, but he wondered why she had been so held up to the execration of the whole tribe instead of being privately beaten by her husband in the normal way.”
And finally, I struggle with historical fiction in general. Is it fiction or faction?
So should you have a read of The Timeless Land? If you are looking for something light and fluffy, with witty repartee and plenty of action, probably not. But if you are interested in a warts and all approach to the problems of settlement, offering more than a European-centric story, then definitely have a go. Hopefully you can make more progress than I did.
Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land, first pub. 1941. Cover image Collins, 1960
see also reviews of: Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (1) (here) Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (2) (here) Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur (here) James Tucker, Ralph Rashleigh (here)
Christina Stead (1902-1983) is the greatest or second greatest Australian writer (depending how you rank Patrick White) of the inter-War and immediate post-War years. She was born in Sydney, went to London after school and one or two years of uni, and lived and wrote, often in poverty, in England, Europe and the USA, ignored and sometimes positively shunned in Australia , until the death of her husband, the Communist economist William Blake in 1968. She returned briefly to Australia then, on a fellowship to ANU, and permanently in 1974. (See my review of Chris Williams’ Christina Stead: A Life of Letters).
The Little Hotel (1973) is the stories of the proprietors and semi-permanent residents of a down-market hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva, in the late 1940s. As many of the residents are English it is relevant that England’s post-War Attlee Labour government had instituted a Socialist programme, with very high taxes on the well-off, austerity following the enormous expenditure on the War, and many important industries being nationalised. (The English/Australian novelist Neville Shute was just one of many who chose not to live there).
By the end of the War, Stead and Blake had been living in the USA for 9 or ten years, which proved the peak years for Stead as a novelist. But the rise of McCarthyism made it increasingly difficult for them to obtain script-writing jobs and at the end of 1946 they returned to Europe. Briefly to Belgium where Blake had hoped to get work, then London, back to Belgium, then in Oct. 1947 to –
Montreux at the Hôtel de Londres, a Swiss haven that became their home for a couple of years … she loved its charm, its quiet and its scenery, but not the English tourists whom she characterized so well in the novel, The Little Hotel.
Williams, 1989. (p. 172)
Knowing the way that Stead worked, with mss for a number of novels on the go at one time, it is probable that she began working on The Little Hotel in Montreux, while getting the last of her American books – A Little Tea, A Little Chat and The People with Dogs – ready for publication (I don’t think she began researching Cotters’ England until 1949). And then it finally surfaced when she needed a book, or felt the time was right. She had been making approaches to Australia for some time and maybe this book was gentle enough not to offend the delicate sensibilities of publishers Angus & Robertson, who had knocked her back repeatedly in the past.
I found The Little Hotel similar in its almost jaunty style and lack of theme to Stead’s first novel The Salzburg Tales, and nothing like my favourite Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, with its flood of words, which just preceded it by date of setting, nor the gritty Cotters’ England, which followed. The narrator, ostensibly is Mme Bonnard who with her husband Roger, runs the hotel, but in fact the POV which starts out first person, more and more slips over seamlessly to third person when Mme Bonnard is not in the room.
I am very firm. It is the only way to manage these disorderly people. They are just like spoiled children. It’s funny, isn’t it? Here I am, only twenty-six, and I am running men and women of forty, fifty, sixty and seventy, like schoolchildren. The secret is simple. You must have your own rules. We have another simple secret. Our hotel, the Swiss-Touring, which is near the station and near the esplanade, is the cheapest in town for visitors … No one ever mentions this fact, among our guests; but it is the thing that keeps them from boiling over.
The English, all of them retired or semi-retired, are living cheaply In Switzerland while they work out where to go next, and how to get their capital out of England (I think currency movements were severely restricted to prevent a run on the Pound). But there are also European and American guests. The big worry, for all of them, is the Russians who might overrun Switzerland at any time and steal all the gold hidden in the mountains on which the Swiss Franc depended to maintain its value.
Guests and staff are relatively constant, though of course with some turnover, and we get to know a great many of them. At the centre was –
Mrs Trollope and her cousin Mr Wilkins, English people from the East, who had been with us for over a year and who occupied two adjoining rooms. .. next to Mrs Trollope was Madame Blaise, who had been with us the whole winter. Next to her was the large corner room… which Dr Blaise occupied every second weekend when he came over from Basel.
Mrs Trollope’s mother was Javanese, which doesn’t seem to matter in the hotel, but does in wider society, particularly in England. Her marriage settlement with her previous husband has left her independently wealthy. As Mr Wilkins gets more and more control over Mrs Trollope’s fortune he pays her less and less attention. And it is the unveiling and resolution of their relationship which holds the book together.
Madame Blaise is also the wealthy one in that relationship, and it becomes apparent that Dr Blaise’s hold over her is drugs. One guest is starving herself to death, another, with plenty of money, declares himself to be the Mayor of Brussels and is eventually locked up after wandering around the town naked. It’s not a long book, and there is enough going on to maintain interest (isn’t that faint praise!).
In case you’re wondering, after I have forced a lot of theory on you in discussions on Gen 3, Christina Stead was one of the great Modernists, she clearly studied James Joyce and would have met him and many other writers at Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co in Paris in the 1930s. She was a communist, though not formally a member of the Party; she could not possibly have stood the restrictions of Socialist Realism. Perhaps the closest she got to Social Realism was Cotter’s England in the 1950s, just as that period was coming to an end (It’s a long time since I read Seven Poor Men of Sydney).
Christina Stead, The Little Hotel, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1973. 191pp
see also: Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here) My review of Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here) ANZLitLovers’ Christina Stead page (here) which contains links to all our reviews.
Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) is best known for her Timeless Land trilogy, but she was also an important modernist writer, and one of the earliest. Luckily for us, two contributors to this Week, Buried in Print from Canada and Emma of Book Around the Corner from France, have chosen to review Eleanor Dark novels.
Buried in Print
Writers in Novels: Eleanor Dark’s The Little Company (1945) #AWW
It’s a time of “political and intellectual crisis” in The Little Company. Sound familiar?
Drusilla Modjeska’s introduction situates readers in Dark’s depiction of ordinary life in Sydney and Katoomba, in this time of “recession, nuclear threat and more failed expectations” in Australia.
Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark – an intelligent comedy about a community doomed to disappear.
Eleanor Dark introduces us to the inhabitants of Lantana Lane, set in Dillillibill, a rural area of Queensland, the tropical part of Australia. They have small farms and mostly grow pineapples on their land that is not occupied by the sprawling lantana weed.
In this district it may be said with little exaggeration that if you are not looking at pineapples, you are looking at lantana.
Nathan Hobby’s biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, with the working title The Red Witch, is due out from MUP later this year. While completing his PhD with the very meta topic of writing about writing a biog of KSP, he was a frequent blogger. Getting the book finished and being the stay at home father to two young children slowed him down a bit, but let’s hope as the nappy haze dissipates we see him back here more often.
Katharine Susannah Prichard spent the 1940s working on her Western Australian goldfields trilogy, which finally appeared as The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950). It’s a saga that tells the story of the development of the goldfields through the fortunes of one family, and interwoven with folklore, historical events, and technical descriptions. It is Katharine’s attempt at writing faithful to her communist convictions … Read on …
Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was an important chronicler of the lives of Sydney’s underclass, perhaps not so popular as Ruth Park, but with a grittier style and a better understanding (Park and Tennant were both of the middle class, but Park’s depictions of the people of Sydney’s inner suburbs tended towards patronising, whereas Tennant’s were genuinely sympathetic and tempered by her early association with the Communism).
Tell Morning This (1967) is a rambunctious, entertaining novel of the seamier side of life in and around Kings Cross during the latter stage of WWII. This is more or less the same period/locale as that covered by Cusack & James’ Come in Spinner and interestingly they seem to have had similar publication histories. Although the winner of a major prize in 1948, Come in Spinner had to be abridged to get past the censors and a full version was not published until 1987. Tennant writes of Tell Morning This
A brief version of this book appeared in those years when paper was hard to come by and censors unduly sensitive. The choice was to cut by at least a third or to lay the manuscript aside … the remnant, The Joyful Condemned , looked much the same.
From Tell Morning This (Tennant), Say Not to Death (Cusack) and The Drums go Bang (Park) you get a pretty good idea of the housing shortage, and resulting squalid, crowded rooming houses in inner Sydney in the 1940s and 50s. I wish we had the same insight into Melbourne, but as I wrote elsewhere, for a while ‘they’ had all the good writers.
The central characters of Tell Morning This are Rene (short for Irene), a fifteen year old prostitute and David, a medical student and conscientious objector to the War – interesting, because despite my own background in the anti-war movement as a draft-resister, I commented recently that I thought that the Japanese threat was so imminent that if I had been born a quarter century earlier I would have joined up.
Rene was a hefty chunk of a girl with a nose flat across the bridge, good teeth, and hair that was temporarily blonde and curled nearly as high as the storm’s. Its original colour had been a nasty red.
Rene, whose only family is “a bunch of files in the Department”, has been brought up by the McGarty’s, a complicated family of sly groggers and petty thieves you need a spreadsheet to keep up with. David is a quiet, thoughtful good-looking boy whose mother had died in childbirth and his father, a judge, had been shot dead about 15 years earlier. A woman, Terry Lago, got life for the murder but is widely believed to be covering for her career criminal husband who has disappeared.
Imprisonment is the novel’s central theme. Rene and her friends, whose only source of income (and amusement) is to be picked up off the streets by US servicemen, are routinely rounded up for ‘being in moral danger’ and put into youth detention, the pinnacle of which is the infamous Parramatta Girls Training School (which Tennant gives the alias Petworth); David’s cousin Henrietta runs a model detention centre, until she is promoted to Petworth and fails; David spends six months in gaol during the course of the novel, and will have further spells of six months until the War ends (or his spirit breaks); a vindictive doctor, as Terry Lago is approaching release, commits her to indefinite detention in a mental home.
Tennant famously biffed a cop in order to research this novel from the inside, and she seems to have done a pretty thorough job (of the research. I’m sure the biffing was quite gentle). There’s a lot about the power structures, formal and informal, in the men’s, women’s and girls’ institutions; and about different reactions to incarceration. There’s even an evil smelling prison tram which runs between Long Bay and the central courts – the men all chained together must shuffle around in a circle if one of them needs to use the can.
David in gaol refuses to work, in the belief that the work is to assist the army, and so is put into solitary, not the dreaded dark cells, the black peter, but the yards, only half roofed
They shut him, by his own fault, in this narrow cocoon, and from a mild white grub of a boy he was hatching into something that very closely resembled a human hornet. His hatred of the governor, when every morning, the man said: “The magistrate has been delayed. He will be here tomorrow”, was the greater in that he detected real pleasure, malicious pleasure in this delay.
This is a big book, 446pp, with a cast to match. David’s family of do-gooder aunts, the Aumbrys, who live in a fine old house on the North Shore; the McGartys – Grandma bedridden, who brought up Rene till she became too much to manage; her daughter who runs Grandma’s house in the Cross as a rooming house and who has banned Rene; a nephew who runs a pub nearby and another who drives for Sydney’s Mr Big; the Cobbetts who have a shop out in a semi-rural outer suburb and who are connected to Mr Big and to Terry Largo. And then there’s Mr Big’s daughter Margot who wants to join the Aumbrys in do-gooding and who is keen on David.
Of course there are Americans, who in between missions, spend time and lavish money on Rene and all her underage friends, all generally in a state of undress, even when out, and ready to jump into bed. And there’s Marie, a minor character really, who has a baby which Rene loves; who is given a home by the Aumbrys to save her from the Department but which she hates for its boredom, until at last she runs away to Melbourne, is bored there too and comes back to have another baby which she is relieved to discover is white.
Rene and David bump into each other from time time, and each feels sorry for the other. We follow their separate paths, Rene to slowly become aware who her mother is, and David who shot his father; neither looking, but with everyone around them knowing, knowing becomes inevitable.
What a marvellous book. What took me so long to get to it.