Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska

Drusilla Modjeska (1946- ) is an Australian writer and academic, born and bought up in Hampshire – there’s a comment somewhere that Jane Austen posted her mail in a market town nearby – and university educated in PNG and Australia.

Poppy (1990) is a fictional biography of her mother, and of her mother’s influence on her, though I didn’t realise that it was fictional until I began this review and read Modjeska’s ‘My Life’ on her website. Despite, I’m sure, having read a number of reviews on other blogs over the years.

Modjeska’s first book was Exiles at Home (1981) which was the basis for my write up of AWW Gen 3, and I also have, unread, the anthology, Sisters (1995), but I haven’t read any of her – other – fiction (Wikipedia has Poppy under ‘Novels’).

Reading, I was impressed, willing to compare Poppy favourably with Brian Matthews’ Louisa, my gold standard biography (sorry MST), but “fictional” … now I am up in the air. The style is biographical, there is none of the sizzle of my other gold standard, Normal People, perfect autofiction. And the introspective elements, the views of the daughter through the eyes of the mother, can either of these be trusted, how are we to know to what extent they are self-serving?

I just don’t find Poppy – the name Modjeska assigns to her mother – particularly interesting as a fictional character.

You will say that the things that this fictional author in Modjeska’s place writes about her mother, her mother’s catholic priest lover, her father, her sisters, herself and her lovers would be impossible in a biography at this little distance from the events described/invented. You might even say that the then young, well 40-ish, academic Modjeska was subverting our expectations by using the forms of biography for a work of fiction.

Miles Franklin, for instance, wrote a series of ‘autobiographical’ fictions – My Brilliant Career, My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos – and by comparing them, with each other, with her other works, and with what we know of her life we can learn a great deal about her, as a person and as a writer. Should I do all this work for Modjeska too? I think not. Poppy will have to stand alone.

So when I read through what I’ve written, as one does a letter before it is posted, I realize that it is the story of the life I live off the pages of this book that pleases me, the glimpse of a present and daily reality I never intended to reveal.

I will describe the work, and say that I read it with a great deal of interest, as an insight into a difficult life and the effect it had on the daughter. I struggle to say why I feel so betrayed discovering that it is all (or part, but which part) made up. When Modjeska writes ‘my mother did this, I felt that’ I cannot help but accept it as truth, that’s the way the biographical form works. Yes, we write routinely ‘all biographies are fiction’, but they purport to be true, and that’s the difference. Here, the made up bits cast doubt on the whole.

Poppy, the daughter of a rich scrap metal dealer, and an uncaring mother (‘China’) marries Richard, an upper class lawyer. They raise three girls in the south of England where Richard can commute to work; Poppy has a breakdown and spends a number of years in a sanatorium; the author is sent away to school. Poppy gets out; Richard leaves her for Cicely; the author marries straight out of school and moves with her husband to Australia (Sydney – the two are treated throughout as synonymous).

Poppy gets closer and closer to Roman Catholic priest Marcus, becomes a probation worker, opens a home for deliquent boys, visits Sydney, goes on a pilgrimage to India, visits Sydney again, collaborates throughout, somewhere between unwillingly and resigned to being misunderstood, with the writing of this biography. Marcus dies of cancer. Poppy dies of cancer.

I’ve written all of the above with a chapter to go. It’s called Friends, and while the underlying theme of the book is Poppy’s search for a meaningful, spiritual life – against Richard’s failure of understanding and Marcus’ controlling and self-serving certainties – this last chapter is of the finding of friendship in love.

Whatever has happened to me, or has not, with husbands (de facto and de jure), continuity and security have been built on the excellence of friendship; and when I look at Poppy’s life I can see that this was so for her too. Yet these connections between women are taken for granted, a backdrop to the real business of life: Husbands, children, jobs. It takes only the slightest change of focus to see that these neglected intimacies, independent of more passionate demands, can offer the terms on which we best learn to be ourselves.

I must say I am tempted to let Modjeska have her cake and eat it too; to let her be Lalaj, her mother ‘Poppy’, her lovers ‘unnamed’ and G and Thomas; to let her hide behind ‘fiction’ and nevertheless let this be her own coming of age; to accept her account of 1950s and 60s England, to accept that the pressures and difficulties she describes are the pressures and difficulties she grew up with.

Otherwise, what was the point of writing it?


Drusilla Modjeska, Poppy, Penguin, Melbourne, 1990. 316pp.

An Accommodating Spouse, Elizabeth Jolley

A couple of years ago I wrote of Elizabeth Jolley’s Milk and Honey “I am flummoxed by this book, Jolley’s third [of 15], which doesn’t feel like an Elizabeth Jolley at all”. Recently I have been reading Jolley’s later works, and Kim at Reading Matters has reviewed The Orchard Thieves and that flummoxed feeling persists/needs to be interrogated.

Jolley’ last five works were –
The George’s Wife (1993) – my review
The Orchard Thieves (1995) – Kim’s review
Lovesong (1997) – my review
An Accommodating Spouse (1999)
An Innocent Gentleman (2001)

It is obvious I expected Jolley to always write autofiction, but the last of those appears to have been The George’s Wife. It seems Jolley has another mode, not fantasy, but maybe a dreaminess at one remove from reality, which applies to Milk and Honey, to her later works, and to a lesser extent to a couple of others, The Newspaper of Claremont Street and The Well which have at least some grounding if not in Jolley’s life then in her geography.

An Accommodating Spouse is written in the third person, but is entirely the thoughts, memories and actions of one man, “The Professor” (of Literature) on the occasion of the twenty first birthday of his triplet daughters. You immediately ask, do I condemn Jolley for writing as a man? No, I do not. When a women writes as a man I as a man learn a lot about women, what women think about men. You however, being mostly women, can only ask does Jolley think the same things about men as I do?

As with The Orchard Thieves and Lovesong, there is very little sense of place, and in fact, less than in those two, which at least seem to provide glimpses of Perth. I think we may infer, from trips undertaken by his daughters and by the Professor’s mother, Lady Carpenter, that we are overseas from England and presumably in a city in Australia, but certainly no more than that.

The professor has a twin sister, whom he hardly knows and who plays no part in the story; he is married to Hazel and Hazel’s twin sister lives with them –

Neither of the sisters could be described as pretty or even good-looking, rather they possess a particular energy and an unusual sense of humour which takes over from time to time. Hardly humour, he tells himself whenever he recollects, if he has to, one of their frolics. There was one night when Chloë was in the bed instead of Hazel.

Chloë doesn’t respond when he strokes her and that’s the end of that. As I said, he and Hazel have triplets, now attractive young women. The professor has a woman on his staff, Florence, who has professed her love for him at some time in the past. They arranged to meet but at the last minute he had to go shopping with Hazel, and the opportunity was if not lost, at least postponed indefinitely as Dr Florence took in a female ‘companion’, Bianca. Hazel seems aware of this thing between her husband and Dr Florence and maybe even sets them up.

There are also two boys, 10 and 12 but also referred to as ‘twins’, who are meant to be adopted by Dr Florence and Bianca but who end up spending weekends with Hazel (and Chloë) and the Professor. Why they do and why they are in the story, I don’t know.

In a comment on modern youth, though not any modern youth I’ve ever met, on the night of the twenty-first the band and all the daughters’ guests declare themselves (without prior warning) to be vegetarian and teetotal.

Chloë reaches, with her muscles, into the freezer for a spinach quiche, and Hazel puts out a jug of iced water. The Professor, relieved, steps into the protection of his own thoughts and his wishes for Dr Florence to arrive. Or rather he wishes to slip away from the nightmare of scattered guests who do not seem to know any party behaviour, especially the triplets and their special guests.

At the end of the book Hazel has a tear in her eye, but says (ostensibly of the lawn which has suffered during the party), ” she is sure there isn’t anything between them which can’t be managed.”

What is the point of the story? That a dreamy professor of Literature, lost in his Classics, must come to terms with his scantily (and sometimes un-) clad daughters who, it turns out, are doing a bubble bath commercial shoot in the middle of their party? Maybe. But anyway I enjoyed it.


Elizabeth Jolley, An Accomodating Spouse, Penguin, Melbourne, 1999. 255pp.

see also:
Lisa/ANZLL’s Elizabeth Jolley page (here)

The Whispering Wall, Patricia Carlon

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Reviews always come with a rush at the end of each Week but I’m especially pleased that Jessica White has come up with yet another new-to-me author, Patricia Carlon, who lived all her life with a secret, that she was profoundly deaf. Jess has written a memoir of her own deafness, Hearing Maud (2019), and also, I think two novels, of which I have read, enjoyed and reviewed A Curious Intimacy (2007).

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It was a happy result that I downloaded The Whispering Wall, because it was an excellent book. I came across Patricia Carlon (1927 – 2002) when putting together the Writing Disability in Australia database – Catriona Mills, now Acting Director of Austlit, pointed it out to me. Carlon wrote fourteen novels between 1961 and 1970 (often 2 in one year! I’m averaging one every 6 years), and after her death it became known that she had been profoundly deaf since age 11. Read on …

AWW Gen 4 Roundup

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

During this week Lisa/ANZLitLovers posted a review of The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories (1991). Because of the year it came out, it contained a number of interesting and relatively unknown stories by AWW Gen 4 authors. Lisa was hopeful that there would be authors she did not know, but no such luck. However it did serve to remind me of a short story collection I reviewed a couple of years ago, The Babe is Wise: Contemporary stories by Australian women (1987).

I’ll put the table of contents down the bottom rather than here in the middle of the post, but the question Lisa has put in my mind is who are Judy Duffy, Lallie Lennon, Carolyn von Langenburg, Vicki Viidikas, Sue Chin, and a number of others? And yes there is a story from our ‘new discovery’ Margaret Barbalet. I wish now I had made this book my Gen 4 project.

We had another successful week – thankyou all for your contributions – and we began, I think, teasing out the ways in which Gen 4 is both different from and a continuation of Gen 3. Social Realism I must say seems to have come to a dead stop, probably with the works of Frank Hardy in the 60s and 70s. Or do you think there are elements of Social Realism in Monkey Grip?

Here’s all the posts for the week, including a few I did in the lead up (generously defined)

The Australian Legend
Australian Women Writers Gen 4 (here)
More Gen 4 Stuff (here)
The Bluebird Café, Carmel Bird (here)
West Block, Sara Dowse (here)
Reaching Tin River, Thea Astley (here)
AWW Gen 4: Postmodern? (here)
Monkey Grip, Helen Garner (here)
Snake Cradle, Roberta Sykes (here)

Lisa Hill/ANZLitLovers
The Visit, Amy Witting (here)
Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital (here)
Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet (here) plus quite a bit of background on Barbalet
The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories, Mary Lord ed. (here)
One Bright Morning, Wendy Scarfe (here)

Kimbofo/Reading Matters
The Orchard Thieves, Elizabeth Jolley (here)

Brona’s Books
Collected Stories, Shirley Hazzard (here)

Sue/Whispering Gums
Monday Musings: Reflections of a 1970s feminist (here)
Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet (here)
‘Epiphany in Harrower’s “The Fun of the Fair”‘ by Emily Maguire (here) [We classified Harrower Gen 3 but WG’s review of Maguire’s interesting essay straddles Generations]

Marcie McCauley/Buried in Print
Rereading Dale Spender (here)

Jessica White
The Whispering Wall, Patricia Carlon (here)

Naomi/Consumed by Ink
The Spare Room, Helen Garner (here)

All these will be listed on the AWW Gen 4 page, along with any others you let me know that you have done (don’t worry about links, just give me names so I can find them) or that you might do in the future. Over on the other side of the world I know Naomi/Consumed by Ink has just read Garner’s The Spare Room and Melanie/Grab the Lapels was not sure if she was going to read Jolley’s The Well. Would love your reviews guys. As I write, a message has flashed across my screen that Lisa has put up one more – goes to look – “Just scraping into the last day of Bill’s week” she begins, which is probably what caught my attention. Wendy Scarfe, I’ll add it now. You’re a champion, Lisa.

Next year we’ll ‘do’ AWW Gen 5, which is to say everyone who’s left. Ok, Australian women who began writing in or since the 1990s. A very important part of Gen 5 is the rise of Indigenous Lit to the leading edge of Aust.Lit generally, so that is a discussion I want to have, but without cutting across Lisa’s longstanding commitment to showcasing Indig.Lit each July (coinciding with NAIDOC Week).

The Babe is Wise: Table of Contents

My Hard HeartHelen Garner
ScarsJudy Duffy
The Plain Clothes ManLyn Hughes
A Lover of Nature and Music and ArtBarbara Hanrahan
MaralingaLallie Lennon
Whatever it TakesMeredith Michie
Brown and Green GiraffesOlga Masters
The GameJudith Woodfall
The DugongJudith Wright
IncubusMolly Guy
My Sister’s FuneralRobin Sheiner
The Test Is, If They DrownKate Grenville
Behind the GlassSue Hancock
TravellingJoan London
Hitler’s DriverCarolyn van Landenburg
Hibakusha’s DaughterFay Zwicky
The Midnight ShiftGillian Mears
Marie and SuzieMarianne Szymiczek
TongueJanet Shaw
Judith. 510 PiecesJudith Lukin
IreneGeorgia Savage
Vegetable SoupCarmel Killin
Darlinghurst PortraitVicki Viidikas
Bella DonnaMary Anne Baartz
Buttercup and WendyCarmel Bird
As Time Goes ByBeverley Farmer
In Defence of Lord ByronIlona Palmer
Write Me, Son, Write MeThea Astley
The MincerMargaret Barbalet
Scratch at the Dark SoilSue Chin
My Father’s MoonElizabeth Jolley

Rereading Dale Spender

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Canadian writer and blogger Marcie McCauley knows that I am a fan of the Australian literature theorist and feminist, Dale Spender, and so she has contributed a piece on her own love for and reading of Spender over many years. Just to get a plug in, I don’t think Marcie has got hold of the book pictured, which was central to my own reading, so my review is (here) but don’t read it until you have read Marcie’s.

Bip-ColourBuried in Print

Bill would want me to state her spec’s clearly, I’m sure. (It’s probably a little late to please him: I’m walking a fine line.) Dale Spender was born September 22nd, 1943 in Newcastle, New South Wales although she would later be associated with Brisbane. (I wish I had a photograph here: Bill would.) Her aunt was Jean Spender, who wrote Australian mysteries (some of them were racy, according to Wikipedia!) and her uncle was a politician, Percy Spender. Read on …

Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

This obscure (to me) book and author was chosen by not one but two of our most eminent reviewers – as no doubt many of you have already seen. The reviews themselves and the discussions which followed have been very illuminating. Sue/Whispering Gums’ review follows here, but it contains in its first para a link to Lisa/ANZLL’s. And of course they will both be linked from my summary and from the AWW Gen 4 page.

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Barbalet might have been part of the Canberra Seven, but she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Tasmania, and went to university back in Adelaide, before living in Canberra for many years. Blood in the rain is set in Adelaide and environs, and its descriptions of place reminded me at times of Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus, although the style is different. It might be just me, but I had a strong sense of Patrick White’s intensity in Barbalet’s book, particularly in the weight of her descriptions. Read on …


Collected Stories, Shirley Hazzard

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

I’m not sure I’ve read any Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus maybe, years ago. And I remember being a bit bemused that a novel about the Great Fire of London by a writer based in New York should win the Miles Franklin (2004) but I understand she regards herself as Australian and has maintained connections here. Bron has her Collected Stories and has chosen to look closely at the first two short stories Hazzard had published.

178d3c9b3c81ff378159e63c4ba1500a Brona’s Books

A Foreword by Zoe Heller claims that Hazzard ‘emerged with her distinctive talents fully formed.’ When I realised that I would have no chance of finishing all these stories before Bill’s Gen 4 week, this comment focused my reading onto the first two stories she wrote. Just how ‘fully formed’ was she?

Heller states that Hazzard’s stories were not the ‘typical literary artefacts of their time‘. Her characters were recognisable from that period but by ‘their rigorously elegant style…less so‘. Read on …

The Orchard Thieves, Elizabeth Jolley

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

As someone whose adopted home is Western Australia I have very fond feelings for Elizabeth Jolley who emigrated from England, made WA her home, and became one of Australia’s most loved authors. I wouldn’t attempt to apply any isms to her writing, but she wrote throughout the Gen 4 period and she wrote beautifully. Kimbofo, who has also made her home in WA, has reviewed one of Jolley’s later novels.

67d05341da6fa91687faea183a380b4b Reading Matters

The orchard thieves of the title of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novella aren’t bad people stealing fruit trees but two little boys who pinch fruit to gobble up when they are staying at their grandmother’s house.

This rather delightfully told story is essentially about inheritance and taking what you think is rightfully yours — perhaps prematurely – Read on …

Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Today seems to be Janet Turner Hospital day. Whispering Gums posted a review of JTH’s short story ‘The Insider Story‘, a discussion ensued about Orpheus Lost which we had both reviewed and lo, Lisa was also working up a review of Orpheus Lost from her reading notes, so here it is,


This was a gripping novel.  Leela, from ‘Paradise Land’ in the US Bible Belt meets Jewish-Lebanese Mishka Bartok from the Daintree Rainforest, and they fall in love.  They are both students in Boston: she’s doing the maths of music and he’s doing the music of the Middle East.  They make a lot of passionate love. Read on …

Monkey Grip, Helen Garner

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Monkey Grip (1977) is famously Helen Garner’s first novel. It comes mid-generation, marking a clear point of no return, a clean break with with Australian writing’s past. If any one novel represents AWW Gen 4, then this is it.

When I first read Monkey Grip I saw it in the tradition of the Beats – Kerouac, Burroughs, and as I read more widely and time passed, of Kathy Acker and Irvine Welsh, leading on to Australia’s brief Grunge movement in the 1990s – Ettler, Tsiolkas, McGahan. With this re-reading, I don’t resile from those connections, but I’ve also read a lot more Garner. This is more than just living poor and taking drugs, this is Garner’s deep connection to co-operative living, to co-operation between women, to caring for others, and of course to autofiction.

The book it now reminds me of most closely is her fictionalised account of her friend’s treatment for late-stage cancer, The Spare Room (2008).

In December 1972 Garner, who was then 30, was fired from her job as a teacher for talking dirty to her 11-13 year old pupils: ” …the words some people think of as dirty words are the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex. So I’m not going to say “sexual intercourse”, I’m going to say “fuck” and I’m going to say “cock” and “cunt” too, so we’d better get that straight. Is that OK?”

Joseph Steinberg writes in an ALS article that “the terms of Garner’s firing inform the countercultural realism of her first novel Monkey Grip (1977), which is unabashedly fluent in, and indeed narratively yearns for, various forms of the four-letter contraband that got her sacked in the first place.” He quotes Kerryn Goldsworthy: “[male] reviewers were made uneasy ‘by frank, serious, knowledgeable utterances about sexuality made by a woman’ in Garner’s early novels and sought ‘to query her status as a literary author: in a word, to sack her’ (again)”.

In Monkey Grip, Nora – who stands in for Garner – is a single mother, with a five year old daughter, Gracie, living in share houses, old workers’ cottages in nineteenth century terraces around the CBD and Melbourne University (both presences which are felt but hardly ever mentioned); if I’ve got it right, first in Fitzroy, then near the Victoria Markets, and then back in Fitzroy.

It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t already have somebody to love. There was Martin, teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack… But he went up north for a fortnight and idly, at the turning of the year, I fell in love with our friend Javo, the bludger, just back from getting off dope in Hobart.

Or as Steinberg summarises: “Nora needs to fuck Javo, Javo needs dope; Nora needs Javo not to need dope, but Javo needs it to need Nora, and Nora needs to be needed by Javo, ‘must learn not to need him’ though he needs her, for when it is her turn to need him he will ‘he will have nothing to give’. ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?’, muses Nora midway through the novel.”

Gracie is an odd presence throughout, bored witless in her first year at school, already able to read, and at home, a Jiminy Cricket, seeing everything, an independent spirit with her own opinions, her own life.

One of the most interesting things about the story telling is the complete absence of back story for any of the characters. You get to know them as they appear on the page, entirely without explanation. Anything that’s not relevant at that moment, you don’t hear about.

Kevin Brophy in another ALS essay writes about Monkey Grip‘s reception over time. Especially early on, male reviewers were unhappy with Garner’s focus on women’s issues; Garner was an author who ‘talks dirty and passes it off as realism’; male and female reviewers, as was always the case with works by women, shrugged it off as a love story; almost no attention was paid to the innovation in both writing and subject matter. Brophy suggests an alternative reading, one which was resisted by nearly every reviewer:

The text proposes that people can throw conventions aside and reinvent themselves and their social relations in a process of change that is self-imposed, liminal, unpredictable and spontaneous. These new possibilities involve the reader in a world where communal living and single parenting can be the norm, where children are relatively independent and have insights to offer on the behaviour of the adults around them, a world where women insist on meeting men as equals. It is a world where a woman can speak and write of sex explicitly, dispassionately, even ‘tastelessly’ in a literary work — an accomplishment long granted to male literary figures. In these and other ways Monkey Grip invites readers to recognise and reassess the conventions by which they take their ‘realist’ fiction and by which they live.

Today, forty something years later, Garner’s autofiction is still controversial. In 1977 it was just plain un-literary.

I haven’t made it clear, but we make our way through a year and a bit of inner Melbourne life; hot summer days at the Fitzroy baths; cycling through Carlton and Fitzroy’s achingly familiar plane tree lined streets; in and out of each others’ share houses; in and out of beds in all the painful permutations of ‘open’ relationships; struggling to a resolution.

One last quote from Brophy:

[T]here is a further, more socially fundamental and political perspective on addiction offered in the novel. The patriarchal value system— the ideology that socialises us from childhood—is here presented as the overwhelming addiction suffered by characters who are wanting to reinvent value systems for social relations.

Garner is a revolutionary, remaking the way we think about living, about bringing up children, about relationships; remaking the way we think about Literature. If you haven’t read Monkey Grip yet, do yourself a favour.


Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin/McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1977. 245pp.

Joseph Steinberg, Helen Garner’s Education, Australian Literary Studies, 28 Oct 2021
Kevin Brophy, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, The Construction of an Author and her Work, Australian Literary Studies, 1 Oct 1992

Lisa/ANZLitLovers is first off the block for AWW Gen 4 Week with a review of Amy Witting’s, The Visit (here) and Sue/Whispering Gums has promised to be on topic in tomorrow’s Monday Musings, and now (Sunday afternoon) I see she’s reviewed a Janet Turner Hospital short story (here) as well.

Re my North America Project 2022, I’m sorry but it’s weeks since I’ve been in the truck so I have not made a start on Their Eyes Were Watching God audiobook. As I have Octavia Butler’s Kindred on my shelves, I am reading that and will put up a review on 31 Jan. Next month is still The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and March is Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (BIP, I know you suggested Salt Roads, thank you, but I decided to go with MR because it is earlier.) I’ll advise other months, including Their Eyes, when I get more organized.