Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Brona’s Books: Austen in August

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Some impressions on re-reading (listening to) for the nth time the great Jane Austen.

I don’t remember all the books that were set for English Expression in my matric year – Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man; Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh; Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice are the three that stand out. Of the others, there were eleven in all I think, three were American which for confused political reasons I refused to read, and three were Russian which I didn’t read because I wasn’t reading the Americans (I said I was confused). The night before the exam I sat up in bed and re-read P&P just for the pleasure of the love story and I’ve read and re-read Austen ever since.

If you’re wondering, I failed Eng Exp, but seeing as I got firsts in Physics, Chemistry and Pure Maths, Melb Uni Engineering didn’t care, Trinity College didn’t care, and the headmaster of Mudsville High, Mudsville, Western Victoria had an excuse not to make me dux, so everyone was happy (except my father, so win-win all round really).

1. Why do I and so many others read and re-read Austen? I’ve already said I’m a sucker for a classic love story, so that’s no.1; then there’s the precise, spare writing; the sly wit. After that, as we get to know Austen better, some of you will say characters we love. I don’t really, though I have a soft spot for Lydia and Mrs Bennet (In high school I totally identified with Mr Bennet); then there are themes, descriptions, issues – there’s always something.

2. Sense and Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels published, in 1811 when the author was 35. The first draft had been completed as early as 1800 so, under the title Elinor and Marianne, it had circulated amongst her family and friends – effectively been workshopped – for more than a decade. This of course allowed her to refine her language and her plot but also gave her freedom to experiment and, I think, to play up to her audience, to include jokes about pet topics.

3. It is an opinion generally held held and easily supported that the theme of S&S is the advantages of one and the ridiculousness of the other. The cult of sensibility which obtained amongst young women of refinement prevailed from Regency times right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t just tight corsets making women swoon, it was the idea propagated by novels that the correct response, for a woman, to any adverse turn of affairs was firstly an excess of emotion, and secondly to fall down unconscious. Austen’s earliest long fiction, Love & Freindship (here), is a spoof on young women in novels and this carries over into S&S. It’s interesting that Elinor who throughout the novel is the embodiment of sense, is finally allowed when she learns that her lover is free, to give into sensibility, albeit behind closed doors.

4. I have not seen it discussed elsewhere but we should at least consider S&S as YA. Elinor and Marianne are respectively 19 and 16. Austen repeatedly makes fun of Marianne’s opinions which are fixed in a way that only teenagers’ are. We, the older reader, don’t ever really believe that Marianne won’t grow out of her tremendous distress at the failure of her first love affair. And we feel for Elinor who must deny her own feelings and act beyond her years to support her sister in the physical/emotional absence of their mother.

5. The two principal young men, the sisters’ love interests, both behave very badly, lying directly or by omission about prior commitments. Austen I think lets them both off lightly. Willoughby, whose belated apology is long, tedious and unnecessary to the plot, gets some undeserved sympathy from Elinor – undeserved but believable. I have daughters, I know how they respond to D & Ms. I’m not sure Edward even apologizes, he is freed when Lucy runs off with his brother and promptly rides to claim Elinor whom he had no right making up to in the first place.

6. This reading, by Sarah Badel for the BBC, reflects something I often think about when I’m reading/listening to/watching Austen and that is I think that our own social crawler instincts – our willingness to accept the gentry’s evaluation of ‘nouveaus’ – end up making some characters more vulgar than Austen intended. This dates back at least to the Olivier P&P (movie) where Mrs Bennet is portrayed as out of her depth in ‘polite’ society and Mr Bennet, as shamed and mocking where I think Austen intended him to be amused and tolerant.

All this gets back to class. Walter Scott wrote at the time (here):

… the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard.

To the extent that class analysis is tolerated these days I think that we would grade Austen’s world as ‘upper middle’. Austen did portray a great deal of class mobility, not from the working classes whom she rarely bothers to name (the woman who cares for Marianne when she is ill is “Mrs Jenkins’ maid”), but from the well-off, ordinary middle – people in trade – into the gentry, the idle well-off. That said, I think the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne, should be seen respectively as grasping and silly rather than lower class.

7. I have not mentioned the funniest and most quoted lines in S&S, as Elinor and Marriane’s sister in law talks their brother down by stages from his original intention to give his sisters a thousand apiece from the money he has inherited from their father, to a general intention to be of assistance to them in finding somewhere else to live; and I’ve probably assumed of my readership a familiarity with Austen which you don’t all have, in which case I apologize and suggest you make up the deficiency immediately.

 

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, first pub. 1811. Audiobook: BBC Audiobooks, 1996, read by Sarah Badel.

Previous Jane Austen posts –
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here
Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here

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Dear Mr M, Herman Koch

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I’m not an ignoramus when it comes to contemporary international literature, but just about, so was not aware of Koch nor his “International bestseller The Dinner” before listening to Dear Mr M last week. It’s an impressive work, my library had a hard copy, so here’s a review.

Herman Koch (1953 – ) is Dutch, has written 9 novels and according to Wikipedia he writes and acts in satirical movies and tv shows. The Dinner appears to have been made into separate Dutch, Italian and US movies, none of which I’ve seen. This novel, his eighth, published as Geachte heer M in 2014, was translated by Sam Garrett. Luke Daniels’ reading was excellent though his strong American accent took some getting used to.

Too many authors since postmodernism became fashionable have responded to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1967) by inserting themselves into their works, by writing about themselves writing about …, by conflating the work being read and the work within the work being read, and so on, all the time crying out “Look. Here I am. I’m not dead” [more’s the pity!]. Dear Mr M as you might have guessed, is such a work and all I can say is it’s very well done. And in any case is not as meta as some reviewers make out.

M is an ageing author, a decade older than Koch probably – I didn’t get the impression it’s a self-portrait, though it probably contains some self-mocking elements – whose best work is behind him. Still, he presses on, writing, giving talks and attending functions whose description adds a comedic element and probably earned him some enemies in what must be the relatively small Dutch literary establishment.

The protagonist, Herman, lives in the apartment below M. In a really effective bit of writing, the author uses the first person when Herman is talking or thinking about himself, the second person when Herman addresses his thoughts to M, and an omniscient third person when other characters are being observed. The most important of these are M himself; M’s young wife; Laura who was Herman’s girlfriend at school; and Jan Landzaat, a history teacher who disappears.

This disappearance leads to Dear Mr M being labelled as ‘mystery’ but I think that is a mistake, this is a literary novel whose subject is writing and being written about. M turns out to have been the author some years earlier of a bestselling ‘true crime’ novel based on the disappearance of Landzaat, in which he posits that the history teacher, who had been briefly Laura’s lover, was murdered by Herman and Laura when he called on them at a remote cottage owned by Laura’s parents, to persuade them (or himself) that he was no longer infatuated.

M is unaware that Herman, forty years later, is now his neighbour, in fact is not sufficiently aware of Herman to recognise him in the street, and is certainly not conscious that Herman is stalking him, or as it turns out, successfully stalking M’s wife to get closer to him.

Unlike most postmodern novels the novel which the author in the novel has written doesn’t become a second stream leaking into the first; instead, we return to the originals, Herman and Laura and their friends and teachers, on whom M’s novel was based and so gradually, and in parallel with Herman’s pursuit of M, we build up to and eventually pass beyond Landzaat’s disappearance.

There is a little joke which the author carries on about Landzaat’s name, based on zaat=seed=semen I think, though the Dutch word for seed seems to be not zaat but zaad. Not important I suppose, but having got this far I just had to look it up.

Herman eventually gets close enough to M to ‘interview’ him about his book. M says he believed the murder of the teacher was spontaneous, but that this wasn’t interesting enough for a work of fiction, so he made it premeditated.

But in your book the idea came up beforehand. And not just after the teacher came by the holiday home.
“It was difficult. I struggled with the motive. Or let me put it another way. I simply couldn’t believe that they would have done it just like that. And of course, just like that wasn’t interesting for a book. In dramatic terms. Dramatically speaking, a murder is better if it’s planned beforehand.”

It is an important factor in the denoument that Herman and his friend David get hold of a cheap 8mm movie camera and use it to make short films of pranks they play on others, including a teacher, and of Herman’s parents who are about to separate, which they edit together into a silent ‘movie’ titled ‘Life before Death’. Herman also films a teacher who has died at his desk and, later, Landzaat before he disappears.

This, the relationships of Herman and Laura and their friends, their antics at school and at Laura’s parents’ cottage, Laura’s seducing and soon after, dumping their history teacher to get Herman’s attention, the teacher’s falling apart, would have been an interesting story even without the metafictional elements. Herman’s pursuit of M (to what end I am even now not sure) and M’s day to day travails as an once-esteemed author, culminating in a fist fight between tuxedoed writing rivals at a gala night – shades of Denmark’s Nobel committee – take it up another notch. Highly recommended.

 

Herman Koch, Dear Mr M, first pub. as Geachte heer M, 2014, translated by Sam Garrett, Picador, London, 2016. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio, read by Luke Daniels, 13 hours.

Alien Son, Judah Waten

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As a boy in the bush one of my great freedoms, especially when I was 13 or 14, was to go on weekend camps with 3 or 4 other boys from the Macarthur scout troop to Mt Eccles (now Budj Bim), to the sandhills of Yambuk on the wild coast west of Port Fairy, or just to a paddock along the Eumeralla, with no adults to stop us eeling, swimming, caving (Mt Eccles is a volcanic crater with a bottomless lake and extensive caves) or just sitting around a fire telling tall stories. I loved the Scouts (and they taught me to tie the knots I’ve used ever since as a truck driver). At the end of 1964 I attended the national Jamboree at Dandenong, a much more ordered affair than I was used to, and we boys from Western Victoria shared tents with boys from Caulfield. And there I had pointed out to me a boy who was a Jew! I’m sure there was more than one, but the point is that up till that day Jews for me were figures from books. It was a couple more years before I read Alien Son (1952) but it is no surprise that it was seized on by educators as an introduction to the Jewish immigrant experience in Australia.

Judah Waten (1911-1985) was Jewish, Russian, Communist and of course Australian, known to all school children of my generation for this account of his growing up in Perth and Melbourne after the First World War.

Waten joined the Communist Party of Australia while still at University High, was expelled in 1935 for ‘petty-bourgeois irresponsibilities’, rejoined and was expelled a couple of more times before making it to the national committee in 1967-70, but resigned in 1972 after the CPA went all hippy, and joined the pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia. He devoted much of his life to communist and Jewish activism rather than holding down a steady job, though ironically he was employed by the Tax Office during WWII, wrote 8 novels, 3 memoirs and an important history of the Depression.

As a critic Waten penned some of the earliest essays on migrant writing in Australia. From 1967 he reviewed widely for the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Australia Council writer’s fellowship (1975) and posthumously the Patrick White award (1985). He served (1973-74) on the Literature Board of the Australia Council and was appointed AM in 1979.

His significance to Australian literature as a Jewish-Australian writer, a communist writer and a writer on the migrant experience remains considerable despite the limitations of his restrained realist style. (ADB)

You can imagine that these days he would be more likely to be deported (he was born in Odessa) than to be awarded an AM.

During the whole of Alien Son, which takes the form of a series of linked, boyhood reminiscences, Waten resolutely refuses to give names to locations or dates to events. The first chapter, ‘To a Country Town’, begins “Father said we should have to leave the city.” You will have to take my word for it that “the city” is Perth and the year maybe 1916. The country town I can only guess – it is a few hours by horse and cart out of the city and does not appear to involve crossing the Darling Escarpment so I will hazard Gin Gin, 80 kms north.

Later, when they leave WA and move to Melbourne by boat, again the cities aren’t named but are easy to visualise as the ship leaves Fremantle, calls in at Adelaide and docks in Port Melbourne.

Father and Mother are almost stock figures from Jewish emigrant literature, Father a rag and bone man, Mother resolutely stay-at-home, pining for a lost Europe, really lost with the Great War and the 1917 Revolution, though neither gets much of a mention.

Waten’s politics seemingly play little part in the choices he makes of which stories to tell though later stories concern an Aboriginal family living in their street (in Melbourne), and a strike, leading to a lock-out, on the wharves. Although Judah roams widely around the surrounding suburbs, with his mates and with his father, Waten’s big concern is his mother who is determined not to fit in.

[Father] was no sooner in Australia than he put away all thoughts of his homeland and he began to regard the new country as his permanent home …

It was different for Mother. Before she was one day off the ship she wanted to go back. The impressions she gained on that first day remained with her all her life. It seemed there was an irritatingly superior air about the people she met, the customs officials, the cab men, the agent of the new house. Their faces expressed something ironical and sympathetic, something friendly and at the same time condescending … she never forgave them for treating her as if she were in need of their good-natured tolerance.

Wherever they go, in the WA country town and later in the inner suburbs of Melbourne (North Carlton), Father and Mother find community with fellow Jews, but Judah, who I don’t think is anywhere named, becomes increasingly Australian and this is disappointing in a way as the book becomes just one of a number of similar Australian memoirs, for example TAG Hungerford’s (here) which are as well much more evocative of time and place.

Still, when we were at school it was important that we come to terms with the huge and ongoing waves of post-WWII immigration and reading and discussing Alien Son was a small but significant part of that.

 

Judah Waten, Alien Son, Angus & Robertson, 1952. Sun Books (with a gold cover if I remember my old school copy) 1965. Picador, 1993 (pictured above. Cover painting, Yosl Bergner)

Honour & Other People’s Children, Helen Garner

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Honour and Other People’s Children are novellas of 56 and 100 pp respectively. The front cover of my copy looks like the one above but adds “by the author of the best-seller, Monkey Grip”. Monkey Grip (1977), a fictionalisation of Garner’s experiences as a single mother living with a drug addict in inner Melbourne, was Garner’s first novel, coming out when she was 35, and after she was sacked as a teacher for writing an article about discussing sexuality with her students.

So this is Garner’s second. Rather slight, just slices of life – I guess her publisher was pushing her to take advantage of her initial success – with interestingly, more distance between the author and her protagonists than in her other works. Garner is of course famous for writing about herself and her friends, only loosely fictionalized, but if she is in these stories then she’s not so blatant about it. Though perhaps it’s just that they are both in third person.

Honour

Honour is the story of Kathleen, Frank, Jenny, all thirtyish, and Flo aged 6, told from Kath’s point of view. Frank has left Kath and Flo to live with Jenny and now he wants not just a divorce from Kath but for Flo to live with him and Jenny.

The setting of course is the inner suburbs of Melbourne, around Melbourne Uni, in the 1980s when gentrification was well underway in Parkville and Carlton, but not so much in North Carlton, North Fitzroy and the nearer parts of Brunswick, and beyond them, not at all.

Sometimes when you read Helen Garner you can work out, almost to the street, where she/her protagonist is living, by where she walks and the trams she takes. This story feels like Brunswick, once working class, ‘modernized’ by Greeks and Italians in the 60s and 70s before they moved on and out to bigger suburban houses, then taken over by young, Anglo bargain hunters. In fact, to get completely sidetracked by geography, it must be West Brunswick:

The house was at the bottom of a dead-end road with narrow, yellowing nature strips, and a railway line running across its very end like stitches closing a bag… Its facade, a triangle on top of a square, was slightly awry and painted the aqua colour favoured by Greek landlords.

In the late 60s when I first came to Melbourne, Brunswick Rd, Dawson St and all the other east-west roads that crossed that line had big white wooden gates that were opened and closed by a railway man in a little wooden hut; Brunswick was industrial, with factories and transport depots; and the Sarah Sands‘ customers had all lived through the Battle of Britain and if you went there on a Saturday night for the singing and dancing you could imagine Lancaster bombers overhead.

By the 80s that was just about all gone, Brunswick was seedy residential, and in Garner’s work implied rather than described, but unmistakably Melbourne. I digress. Kathleen and Frank have been happily separated for some time and both are surprised that he wants a divorce.

‘You see’, he began in a gentler voice, with his head on one side, ‘I’ve always thought I’d go on being related to you, for the rest of my life.’

Golly, that strikes a chord! The story meanders round a bit, establishing the connections between Kath and Frank, and the very knowing relationship Flo has with Kath. Kath and Jenny as you might expect have an awkward relationship, but Flo dreams that they might all live together. And in Garner’s world of share houses and cooperative living it is possible that they might. As the story ends Flo has persuaded her two mothers to sit facing each other on a seesaw:

It rose without haste, sweetly, to the level, steadied and stopped. They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless.

Other People’s Children

The second story has a completely new cast and is about the difficulties rather than the possibilities of shared living, about a share house in Fitzroy, say, which Garner contrasts with another house in Prahran, south of the river, where they just can’t do it right.

Scotty is a school teacher unhappy with her lumpy body, committed to cooperative living, but bossy with it. Ruth is a deserted mother of two with a complaisant daughter and a feral young son. Scotty and Ruth had lived in a happy, noisy women’s share house but the lease had run out and the best Scotty could find for them was this smaller house. The other tenant is a musician, Alex.

In the Prahran house Madigan, an inarticulate, unemployable, “great lump of a fellow”, has a ‘room’ which is a actually “a converted shed that sagged against the back fence”. His housemates are hippies. “The women worked at odd things, tolerated the three children of one of them, cooked huge, ill-assorted vegetarian meals, and listened respectfully to the opinions of the men, all of whom were musicians of one stripe or another.”

Madigan is a musician too, plays the mouth organ. The point of the story, I guess, is Ruth working up the courage to break free from Scotty, but the climax is a pub gig, Madigan up front leading Alex’s band and Scotty drunk, dancing: “… Madigan working away at the centre microphone … peeling off high, sheer ribbons of sound. Everyone was dancing.”

The last time I lived in a share house, in Drummond St, Carlton, next door to the police station, I was in my early 20s and the Young Bride and I were just back, unemployed, after a year in Queensland. I was chasing driving jobs, but the others were student teachers, on bursaries, primly middle class, house-sharing an economic rather than a political option, for us as well as them, and YB and I were soon in a little house at the coal yard end of Alfred Crescent.

The women and men of Garner’s households are a decade older, sharing is how they live. Garner knows them and dissects the tensions of their lives with wit, finesse and pellucid prose.

 

Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children, McPhee Gribble, 1980 (Cover pic of Penguin edition, 1982)

Map of inner Melbourne (here). Brunswick is at the top and Prahran bottom right. Carlton isn’t named but is the area immediately to the right of Melbourne Uni in the centre. Google maps is very poor at showing railway lines, but the line to the northern suburbs (the Craigieburn line?) runs from south to north up the centre of the map.

Eyrie, Tim Winton

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In mid 2003 I was working out of Newman carting concrete sleepers for a new iron ore rail line. There was accommodation supplied but I was staying with ex-Mrs Legend who had been living and working up there for the previous 15 months. As it happens she was getting ready to leave and showed me the accounts for a Fremantle vegetarian cafe she was interested in – I do sometimes, infrequently, use my accounting degree. Only after I said I could see some problems did she tell me that she had already bought in.

The cafe was in the bottom floor of Johnson Court, a ten storey, State Housing-built block of flats in the centre of Freo, where her sister, M lived. Milly battled away with those problems for years, moving to bigger premises nearby and establishing the cafe as a successful (and still ongoing) business. But the long hours wore her down, halved her weight till she was just a shadow and eventually she sold out to her chef and went back to mining.

A few years later, living again in Newman, she bought a flat on one of the upper floors of Johnson Court and then when she moved back to Perth and bought a house I bought it from her and one day in the not so distant future will retire there, surrounded by restaurants, book shops, the Luna-SX art house movie theatre and working wharves.

I say all this because Johnson Court is the apartment block Winton calls the Mirador in his 2013 novel Eyrie, set in the period immediately following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. I remember visiting M at that time. She had moved her millinery business to one of those shops on the ground floor and my friend Janet and I had our bikes stolen while we were inside talking to her. We didn’t see Winton, but M says she sometimes saw him around town.

Winton describes both the exterior and interior of the flats accurately, as he does Fremantle in general, its many disturbed inhabitants, its buildings, the South Beach, the river, in great detail and with some contempt, but with one odd item of artistic licence – he turns the block around by 90 deg so that it is front on to Adelaide Tce instead of side on and has consequently much better views over the city to the river mouth, the container port and the sea.

Eyrie might be the novel where the protagonist – Tom Keely, 49, a long time spokesman for the Greens now unemployed and suffering a nervous breakdown – is closest to being the adult Winton himself, not in situation I hasten to add, but in character and background. The story is that Keely has been subsisting for some time on alcohol, prescription drugs and what’s left of his severance pay when his isolation is penetrated by a woman and six year old boy who move into another nearby flat on the same, upper level. The woman, Gemma turns out have been someone he knew in childhood, who with her sister would turn to Keely’s mother, Doris for protection when her father came home drunk and violent, and who had to some extent, at that time displaced Tom’s sister Faith in Doris’ affections – or at least in her attentions.

The Keely’s had moved away from that neighbourhood when Tom was 14. Tom and Faith (and Doris) had gone on to university educations and prominent careers. Tom had married, but had divorced or been divorced by his lawyer wife when she got pregnant to a workmate. In his younger days Tom had sometimes seen Gemma around – at the trashy end of blonde, leggy and beautiful – but without ever speaking to her.

The child with Gemma turns out to be her grandson Kai, his mother, whom Gemma had had at 16 to an unnamed father, a druggie, in prison. Gemma ignores Keely’s indifference and turns to him for company. He in turn begins to feel responsibility for Kai, left nightly on his own while Gemma stacks shelves at the local supermarket.

The themes which Winton uses this book to explore are – of course – families and growing up, but also the difficulties/responsibilities of acting in loco parentis; and failures of communication across the middle class/working class divide.

Winton, like many of Perth’s middle class, is furiously envious that they are out-earned by the working class, skilled and semi-skilled, bogans in mcmansions. In the novel and again in his interview with Kim (Reading Matters) he vents about a woman driving buses on the mines: “It’s absurd that you can make $150,000-$200,000 driving a bus in the Pilbara”. But Gemma is not just working class but on the bones of her arse, and in hiding from her daughter’s violent, drug-dealing partner. She both wants Keely to be attracted to her, to acknowledge that he once lusted after her, and distrusts him for his education, cannot trust him not to look down on her, a situation with which I was achingly familiar during my last, failed marriage.

I had been following some debate about Winton’s most recent novel, The Shepherd’s Hut in Reading Matters which brought me to this in Tony’s Book World:

… Winton throws this brilliant setup away and forsakes this vivid family story to give us entirely something else, and that is where I think Winton loses his way.

Great literature is about character, and Eyrie has the makings of a great novel, but in the end Winton squibs it here too, unable to pull off the ending without throwing in gratuitous elements of action, suspense and gangsterism, making it a different, less satisfactory type of novel altogether.

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Tim Winton, Eyrie, Hamish Hamilton, 2013. Audiobook: Bolinda Audio, read by Michael Veitch (11 hours)

see also:

my reviews of Winton’s The Turning (here)
Kim/Reading Matters: Eyrie (here), Interview (here), other Winton reviews (here)

Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Ruby Langford Ginibi

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934 -2011) was a  Bundjalung woman from the NSW north coast. Last week I said Hetty Verolme (here) was the same age as my mum, well so was Ruby Langford. and three Australian women couldn’t have had more different lives. We just need a Toorak or North Shore matron to complete the circle, though of course there would be points of similarity as well as difference. So mum and Ruby grew up in rural communities, with not a lot to go round in those years before and during WWII, did well at school but left early and were soon saddled with young children.

Ruby’s oldest, Billy was born the same year I was and Pearl a year later. Seven others followed, to other fathers, and while mum and dad like most of white Australia, working class and middle class, began to leave post-Depression poverty behind in the 1950s, that was not true of Ruby and her fellow Kooris. Indeed, as I read this book there seemed to be many times until her children were all grown that she seemed to be going backwards.

Ruby’s mother and father separated when she was six. Her mother went to Sydney and raised a new family and it was a long time before Ruby regained regular contact with her. For a while she and her sisters Gwen and Rita were ‘mothered’ by Aboriginal clever man, Uncle Ernie Ord, then her father took them to “Aunty Nell and Uncle Sam in Bonalbo“. She lived an ordinary country life in Bonalbo, which she always looked back on as her home town, her father seeing them occasionally while working away, and a mysterious self-contained Aboriginal stockman who was sometimes in town turning out to be her grandfather.

Ruby describes herself as always having her nose in a book, and a good student but at 16 she left home to join her father and his new family in Sydney and began working as a machinist, sewing shirts. Of course she becomes interested in boys and is soon pregnant. This is a warts and all autobiography, an Australian classic, and another view of Sydney and NSW working class poverty which we are familiar with from the works of Kylie Tennant and Ruth Park. Ruby lists her husbands and we see each of them as real people, but they are also a type – rural workers without trades, drinkers, womanizers and violent when drunk.

At each setback, the man finds work fencing, burning off, labouring, Ruby establishes a home – in a hut or a tent – keeps the home clean, the children fed, pitches in with the outside work, has another baby (gets to spend 2 or 3 weeks in hospital) and then one day the man doesn’t come back, or comes back drunk and belts her.

I felt like I was living tribal but with no tribe around me, no close-knit family. The food gathering, the laws and songs were broken up, and my generation at this time wandered around as if we were tribal but in fact living worse than the poorest of the poor whites, and in the case of women living hard because it seemed like the men loved you for a while and then more kids came along and the men drank and gambled and disappeared. It happened with Gordon and later it happened with Peter [Langford], and my women friends all have similar stories. Neddy [Nerida, her best friend] and I have talked about it often as we get older, and how it’s not always different for our daughters and their kids, but those stories are for later.

There are glimpses of hope – that is I, the reader, thinks she may grasp an opportunity to move towards a middle class life – she is an early member of an association formed by Charles Perkins and is appointed editor of their magazine, but is gone before the first issue; and she wins a prize with a short story. But that is it, she descends into urban poverty and welfare dependence, her children start getting into trouble, Pauline dies, struck by a car, Billy dies next, Ruby begins to drink heavily and becomes morbidly obese. Another son is victimised by police, fires a gun, is beaten and charged with resisting arrest, is jailed, escapes, is recaptured, beaten etc. etc. On release he settles down, buys a house, the solicitor steals his money, he gets into fights, is victimised by police, fires a gun …

Ruby gives up the grog, joins a women’s group, starts writing, gets interested in Aboriginal affairs, in particular the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. As I have said elsewhere and as Ruby Langford documents here, Aboriginals have mysterious accidents when in the hands of police who of course are always found to be not at fault.

Slowly she becomes aware of Koori success stories as well as the failures. Her sister Rita has trained as a teacher and works in teacher ed. At the top of her list of books that shouldn’t be taught is We of the Never Never, Mrs A. Gunn.

Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988) made Ruby Langford a success story in her own right and she went on to honorary degrees and four more books. I hope I haven’t given the impression she had an unhappy life, she lived and – so she writes – enjoyed a life of considerable exuberance and love. If you haven’t already, read this book!

 

Ruby Langford Ginibi, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988

 

 

The Children’s House of Belsen, Hetty E Verolme

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I’ve made known before my ambivalence about Holocaust stories (here) and won’t repeat them, but this one which in any case is not new, was worth listening to and adds to our understanding of the huge variety of places and backgrounds Australians come from.

Hetty Verolme (1930 – ) was born a year or so before my mother and they are both now probably happily and comfortably retired in Melbourne, but their experience of the War was completely different. While mum was attending school in the Mallee and living in relative if frugal post-Depression comfort on the meat, milk, eggs etc of my grandparents’ farm, Hetty Werkendam was confined with her parents, grandparents and two younger brothers, Max and Jack, to the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, her father paying all he could raise to the SS in a vain attempt to have the family sent to neutral Portugal in exchange for German prisoners of war.

Their neighbours being rounded up around for transport to concentration camps, her grandfather mistakenly volunteering to go to a ‘work camp’ (in fact Auschwitz), it was only a matter of time before the Werkendams too were transported, in 1943, to Bergen-Belsen. There – and it is a week or so so since I listened to this – the family were able to stay ‘together’ for a while, mother, Hetty and Jack in a women’s hut, father and Max in a men’s hut, but gathering in the women’s hut until the nighttime curfew. Mother working long hours in the ‘peel room’ attached to the kitchen and bringing back scraps of carrot. Father too having to work and held in a cage for some time for disobedience.

Food is of course inadequate, mostly watery soup and sometimes potatoes. The Germans enforce long daily assemblies in all weathers to maintain their counts of the prisoners but also out of sheer bastardry. This is a ‘solid’ account, told without a lot of emotion, though the facts, like the dead bodies, pile up and have their own force. My initial feeling was that the account was a bit wordy but on reflection I think the word constructions which I found awkward are just reflections of the author’s underlying Dutch language.

Soon father and mother are transported, separately to other camps. The 30 or 40 Dutch children left behind are moved to their own hut under the care of two Polish (and I assume Jewish) women prisoners, in particular ‘Sister’ Luba who, despite Hetty’s initial suspicions, goes to great lengths to secure food and clothing for the children.

Late in the war, the older children are also moved away, but Hetty alone, by then going on 15, secures permission to stay on, in her role as ‘little mother’. She describes the horrors of the other sections of the camp, seen as she walks through it to the kitchen. No gas chambers – though word gets back to them from Auschwitz – but starvation, hard work, sickness and punishments.

She describes a group of women dressed in rags railed in and housed in tents which blow away in a storm. She does not say so but this group includes fellow Amsterdam teenager Anne Frank, soon dead of typhus.

Hetty is herself almost dead of the same disease, which had understandably swept through the camp, when the war ends and the camp is liberated by British troops – the Germans surrender the area around the camp before the end of the war and it is still apparently British territory. The children, clinging to Sister Luba are moved to a comfortable camp where they begin to recover, but are then flown to a school building without facilities in the countryside outside Amsterdam.

The children, and their father are soon reunited. Mother, who has ended up somehow in Sweden is held up for months before she too can return to Holland. Hetty is interviewed for the BBC and elements of her story have been in the public record ever since.

The British on their arrival at the camp found tens of thousands of bodies awaiting burial. Hetty describes them being dumped in great piles visible from her sickbed window. If you have the stomach this Time-Life story includes photos. Pits were dug and SS guards, men and women, were forced into burial details.

Hetty found herself unable to return to school and entered the fashion industry – her father had been a cloth merchant. She migrated to Australia in 1954 and in 1972 was named “Most Successful Migrant”. She was a founder of a trust for the children of Belsen towards which are directed the proceeds from this book. She surprised herself by attending the 50th anniversary of the end of the War at Belsen and found many old friends.

 

Hetty E Verolme, The Children’s House of Belsen, 2000, Audiobook: Bolinda, 2011, read by Deidre Rubenstein

Wikipedia has these as her published works –

  • The Children’s House of Belsen. Published by Werma Pty. Ltd. Perth, Western Australia 2009, 2013 as Trustee for “The Children For Bergen Trust”. ISBN 978-0-9922973-0-5. First published 2000 by Fremantle Press, Western Australia.
  • Hetty: A True Story, Fremantle Press 2010, ISBN 978-19-2136-133-3

see also my ‘Anne Frank’ review: Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic (here)