Bloodfather, David Ireland

fourtriplezed  The author of this guest post is John who comments here and posts on Goodreads as Fourtriplezed. He wrote to me recently about my 2019 David Ireland project: “I have read all of Ireland’s novels up to City of Women and am at present half way through Bloodfather. I have The Chosen and World Repair to go and then I am a completist.” He has since completed Bloodfather of which he says: “I thought it a work of art. I suspect I am on my own there lol.”


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As the baby was born on a butchers slab his mother sang religion. He was the leader, she the led. The baby, unless there are exceptional circumstances, is the great dictator in all households. The baby’s aunt Ursula said that when the baby arrived in the house ‘A lord of atmosphere had taken up residence’…. Aunt Mira asked, “ ‘Who’s a bornless child then? Here’s a fine kettle of kitsch. What’ll he be when he grows up? A gifted bus driver with a stern view of things?’ A few Sherries shut her up.” Author David Ireland is an observer of the human condition.

The writer can get the reader hooked by words. The word “God” is one such hook. That one word plays a part in the life of the baby, Davis Blood. From the beginning he is imbued with his mother’s songs of religion, Aunt Ursula through her thoughtful dialog with her gifted young nephew and Aunt Mira with wordplay that challenges him. He listened to them all. This young boy was listening from the time he was a babe through to his endeavour to discover his inner self at the ripe old age of 16.

If one is looking to read a Bildungsroman along the lines of the customary life of a young man then they will be disappointed. Ireland writes of this boy as a sponge of all that is around him. Sport and girls? Yes a little but so tiny as to be almost missed. Learning is beyond important in this Bildungsroman. The reader looking for the predictable should read no further. This is a deep look at the boy as an individual struggling with what makes him what he is and what he intends to be. He is learning from all sources be that physical, scholastic or spiritual. This is a pursuit, a pursuit of a hopeful future.

Hope is the key to what is Ireland’s most optimistic of novels. There is a strange uplifting demand of the reader to get inside the boy’s thoughts and be part of the world around him. From birth to his 16th birthday he is no ordinary child, he is listening and learning. He is both objective and subjective with his thoughts, be that his need for his individuality or his requirements for spirituality. The words of this book demand that the reader take that journey. Read and ponder.

Most of Ireland’s previous novels had the inner city ramparts as a constant. The closed walls of Puroil, Merry Lands and The Southern Cross Hotel were inner city and tribal. This is different; rural with descriptions of an almost homely paradise surrounded by nature. Did his readership want that? Maybe not. He failed to have another book published for nearly 10 years. His readership had passed him by. They had found new literary fashions. So be it.

This is a long read and not for the fainthearted. It will not be for everyone so I do not recommend it. But then who cares, I loved it.

 

David Ireland, Bloodfather, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987

Other David Ireland posts/reviews:
Fourtriplezed’s David Ireland shelf on Goodreads (here)
David Ireland (here)
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
John writes: I am of the opinion that Ireland, as a writer is not right wing, nor left for that matter. I take on-board your thoughts about Burn but must respectfully disagree. Burn as a novel morphed from a play he wrote called Image in the Clay. He wrote of that play “No opinions are presented: my interest in aborigines is no more than anyone else’s, except that they are people. That is my interest” and in my opinion that was the same for Burn and all his other works. He, from what I have read elsewhere, was describing a situation that he witnessed while working out west [in NSW] just after WW2. Burn is a strange novel in that it is more conventional in delivery than the rest of his output.
The Glass Canoe (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)

Bring the Monkey, Miles Franklin

Bring the Monkey by Miles Franklin (English) Paperback ...

Miles Franklin, whose champion I am meant to be, is sometimes a terrible writer and this is one of those occasions. She tries very hard to be ‘cute and succeeds only in being annoying. This was a stage she went through and she (largely) got over it.

From the end of her ‘enthusiastic beginner’ stage which saw all her best writing and ended with Some Everyday Folk and Dawn in 1909 when she was already 30, to the beginning of her straight ‘bush realism’ phase which begins with the first Brent of Bin Bin novel 20 years later, Franklin had only one novel published, The Net of Circumstance (1915) by Mr & Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau, which sank without a trace, and a mountain of unpublished plays and novels.

Over that period, which of course includes her service in the First World War (here), Franklin experimented with her style, beginning with On Dearborn Street, written around 1915 and not published until 1981 and ending with two ‘Mayfair’ drawing room comedies written in the 1920s. They were Merlin of the Empire published as Prelude to Waking by Brent of Bin Bin in 1950, and Bring the Monkey published in 1933 after the success of the first three Brent of Bin Bin novels and the relative success of Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931) under her own name.

I would like to have said more about the gestation of Bring the Monkey but my reference library is home and I am not, though I might still update this review at a later date for my own satisfaction if for no one else’s.

The Miles Franklin character is Ercildoun Carrington (Gerald Murnane too is fascinated by the name Ercildoun – see Border Districts), a thirtyish middle class woman who moves into the flat of her elegant best friend, Zarl Osterley, to help care for her new monkey, Percy Macacus Rhesus y Osterley. This business with names just goes on and on. Zarl is invited to a house party at Tattingwood Hall in Supersnoring, by Lady Tattingwood the second wife of Swithwulf George Cedd St. Erconwald Spillbeans, the sixteenth Baron Tattingwood, to see a movie made by Tattingwood’s second son, Cedd Spillbeams starring the platinum blonde American actress Ydonea Zaltuffrie.

Ydonea – which is a really tiring name to keep in your mind, I mostly thought of her as Oneday – is heavily bejewelled courtesy of an Indian Maharajah. Her retinue consists of her mother; Mammy her Black maid, who affects a southern accent; 3 Pinkerton men to guard the jewels; and Yusuf, an Indian chauffeur (late in the story E admits that Yusuf is Hindu and that it is racist to call him Yusuf, which is the generic (Muslim) name for all Ydonea’s Indian chauffeurs).

E, who is the narrator, goes down to Supersnoring as Zarl’s “dago maid” in charge of Percy. As do Zarl’s friend Jimmy who is Ydonea’s pilot, and another man, the strong silent type, whom we only know as the Elephant Hunter.

Before she became Lady Tattingwood, Clarice, an heiress in soap, whose fortune was needed to keep the Hall going, had had an affair with WWI hero Captain Cecil Stopworth MC resulting in a daughter who is being brought up by Stopworth’s mother. By the time of this story, which is set around 1930, Stopworth is a senior policeman in Scotland Yard.

It is germane to the story that Zarl is given the room adjoining Lady Tattingwood’s, E sleeps on a camp stretcher next to Zarl, and Stopworth, who still carries a flame for Lady T, and is supposedly down to guard Y’s jewellery, is given the next adjoining room.

There’s lots going on, and the build up takes far too long. MF probably wished to demonstrate that she was smarter than the average detective fiction writer, but if so she failed. There is a little of the Independent Woman theme – Zarl enjoys romances, but not marriage, and makes her way as assistant to explorers and scientists in out of the way places – and a bit, not too much as there is in On Dearborn Street, about women remaining pure. The platinum haired Ydonea is portrayed as no dumb blonde when it comes to managing her business of being a bankable, newsworthy celebrity.

There’s a lot about how popular the monkey is; Tattingwood makes E an indecent proposal and is stuck with a pin for his troubles; there’s a film screening during which some diamonds go missing; Jimmy also goes missing; lots of guests are out and about that night due to problems with the lobster salad; some of them see a ghost; Stopworth is murdered; Lady T last seen crossing Zarl’s room to her former lover’s door is found in a coma in Lord T’s dressing room with a broken arm; someone throws a dagger in the dark at the place where E’s camp stretcher should be; Yusuf goes missing; Jimmy sends a telegram to say he has gone on a round the world flight in Ydonea’s plane, financed by the sale of one of Ydonea’s diamonds.

Neither E nor the police solve the mystery of the other missing diamond, nor the murder. In the last few pages there is a confession including to a death we weren’t even thinking about. I must admit the second half held me much more than the first.

 

Miles Franklin, Bring the Monkey, first pub. 1933. Available on Project Gutenberg Australia here

see Mile Franklin page (here)


The cover at the top is from … I didn’t write it down, but someone taking advantage of it being out of copyright no doubt. That below is as close as I could get to the original. And “Illustrated by Norman Lindsay”!

Is this Lindsay do you think? From Gutenberg which is meant to be the first edition.

Bring The Monkey. by  MILES FRANKLIN - First Edition - from Time Booksellers (SKU: 98877)

Sydney, The Endeavour Press, (1933). . First Edition; 8vo; pp. 248; numerous b/w illustrations throughout; original red cloth, title lettered in black on spine and front, spine faded, previous owner’s inscription to front free endpaper, minor browning to endpapers, otherwise a very good copy. Illustrated by Norman Lindsay.

Biblio: AU$115.00 (here)

My Ántonia, Willa Cather

***My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918) | Bean's Book Blog ...

Well, I’ve read the three now and I’m clear The Song of the Lark is my favourite. Clear too that while they each cover the life of one strong woman, over the same period, 1880-1910, in more or less the same small part of America’s western prairies, they barely constitute a ‘trilogy’.

My Ántonia (1918) is ostensibly the story of Ántonia Shimerda, the daughter of a Bohemian family come to take up newly opened farmland near (fictional) Black Hawk, Nebraska, in the same uncultivated red grass prairie country as O Pioneers!, where Cather grew up. But this one is hardly a novel at all, nor even the story of Ántonia, but rather Cather’s autobiography very lightly fictionalised as the memoir of one of her schoolmates, Jim Burden.

As one blogger I came across wrote: “For a book about Ántonia, there was very little of Ántonia – not enough for me to build a picture of her personality.” She also wrote: Verdict: Ahem. Sorry. Boring. which is harsh, but not that far off the mark.

The story is framed in a brief Introduction where the author recounts running into Burden and the two agree to write what they remember of

a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom both of us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

Though in the end it is only Burden’s account we hear.

Encyclopaedia Britannica says: At age 9 [1883] Cather moved with her family from Virginia to frontier Nebraska, where from age 10 she lived in the village of Red Cloud. There she grew up among the immigrants from Europe—Swedes, Bohemians, Russians, and Germans—who were breaking the land on the Great Plains.

Cather in the guise of Jim Burden writes: I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in [Black Hawk] Nebraska.

Jim travels in the care of farm worker Jake, and on the train with them is a family of Bohemians who get off at the same stop, and who as it happens are taking up the property next door to Jim’s grandfather’s.

ON SUNDAY MORNING Otto Fuchs [the other farm worker] was to drive us over to make the acquaintance of our new Bohemian neighbours. We were taking them some provisions, as they had come to live on a wild place where there was no garden or chicken-house, and very little broken land.

And so Jim meets Ántonia, a few years his elder, and they become firm friends running free across the prairie whenever there is no work. The Shimerdas live in what is little more than a hole in the ground. The father a furrier and musician back home, has no aptitude for farm work, which is increasingly left to Ántonia’s older brother, Ambrosch.

Antonia had opinions about everything, and she was soon able to make them known. Almost every day she came running across the prairie to have her reading lesson with me… [and] to help grandmother in the kitchen and to learn about cooking and housekeeping.

Jim himself does very little farm work, just the chooks and the milking, consistent with him just being Cather in pants.

Cather’s descriptions of the plains and its people are what has made these books live for so long, but the first two and especially The Song of The Lark have a dramatic intensity that My Ántonia lacks altogether. It simply drifts along, first I did this, then I did that.

Though, for the first year and especially that brutal first winter, it’s nearly all we did this, we did that as the Burdens help the Shimerdas survive. Jim starts school, then as Cather’s family did, the Burdens move into town. Mr Shimerda has died, and there is more physical and emotional distance between the friends, especially as Ántonia, Tony now, takes on more outside work both for her brother and for their neighbours.

Since winter I had seen very little of Antonia. She was out in the fields from sunup until sundown. If I rode over to see her where she was ploughing, she stopped at the end of a row to chat for a moment, then gripped her plough-handles, clucked to her team, and waded on down the furrow, making me feel that she was now grown up and had no time for me.

There is very little discussion of the fact that Ántonia at 15 or 16 must have had very different interests to 11, 12 year old Jim. He – who remains a bachelor throughout, as Cather herself stayed unmarried – is clearly romantically interested in her but not so much she in him. In fact the relationship is only believable if you turn Jim back to what he really was, an infatuated schoolgirl.

In town the Burdens’ next door neighbours, the Harlings, a big prosperous family, come into the story and eventually Ántonia comes to work for them as housekeeper, leading the story in a new direction, the doings of Ántonia and her friends, collectively ‘the Hired Girls’, young migrant women not too proud to work in service to support the farms of their families. Those girls, Tony, Lena, Tiny, the Marys are free to go out in the evenings, to listen to music and dance, and Jim is often out his bedroom window to join them.

Life goes on, all the interest is in the detail and the descriptions. Jim goes to College in Lincoln, as did Cather. Lena comes to town as a dressmaker and the two often go to the theatre together. One performance is of a Dumas play related to La Traviata. This is of course La Dame aux Camélias (Camille in American)

The actress who played Marguerite was even then old-fashioned, though historic. She had been a member of Daly’s famous New York company, and afterward a ‘star’

Research points to this having been not Sarah Bernhardt, my first guess, but her predecessor Clara Morris.

We hear Ántonia has gone off to marry her sweetheart, a railway man, but she is soon back, pregnant, hidden away on the farm. We finally catch up with her 20 years later, happy, married to a fellow countryman, a farmer’s wife with a dozen children.

Read it, the descriptions are wonderful. If I describe it as America’s A Fortunate Life, then Australians at least will know what I mean.

 

Willa Cather, My Ántonia, first pub. 1918.

see also:

Liz, Adventures in reading, running and working from home,
My Ántonia Readalong (here)
O Pioneers! (here)
The Song of the Lark (here)

Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

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Miles Franklin Award: read the list of winners and weep. Too Much Lip is not a bad book. Once it got going somewhere after the halfway mark, it even had me interested. But the year’s “novel of the highest literary merit”? What a joke. I have no doubt it was given the award by ABC-quality middle of the road, politically correct judges for exactly the same reason as they awarded The Hand that Signed the Paper, to show how cool they were. They were hip with right wing East Europeans back then – and only back-tracked when the right winger turned out to be an Anglo – and they’re hip with lippy Black women now.

Did the judges who gave Lucashenko last year’s prize even read Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth?  Of course they didn’t. They were in too much of a hurry to get back to the latest Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver. The Miles Franklin sad to say has become a reward for story telling and mediocre writing. Look no further than 2014 when Evie Wyld’s All The Birds Singing won ahead of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book which may well be the great Australian novel of the century.

So, Melissa Lucashenko is not literary in the way that Murnane, Wright or Kim Scott are, and she’s not satirical in the way that Marie Munkara is. But she tells a story. She is a Bundjalung woman of the NSW north coast, as is her protagonist Kerry Salter, and the patois in which the book is written is presumably the usual langauge of that people, though I’m guessing Lucashenko is an educated woman, as the patois sometimes feels a bit forced.

At the beginning of the novel, Kerry Salter, a 30ish Aboriginal woman, and her partner in crime and love, Allie have robbed a bank in Qld. Kerry escaped but Allie was arrested and gaoled. Allie feels abandoned and declares the relationship over. Kerry on a stolen Harley Davidson, with a backpack full of money, heads over the border to her family’s country in the hinterland of NSW’s north coast beaches.

Revving the throttle, she looked straight in front of her, down a long gravel driveway to the house that jack shit built. It huddled beneath the spreading arms of a large leopard tree. Same old fibro walls. Same old roof with rust creeping into a few more panels each wet season,

In the house are Kerry’s mother Pretty Mary, a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken, once a fine athlete, now an unemployed drunk, prone to unpredictable violence; his anorexic, teenage son Donny, who lives mostly in his computer games; Pop, her grandfather, dying now, a former Golden Gloves boxer and farm worker for the Nunnes, the original white settlers; and Elvis, their old dog. Kerry has other siblings, Black Superman a gay civil servant in Sydney, and Donna who went missing aged 16 20 years earlier and who has never been found. And there are various Uncles, Aunties and cousins in the surrounding towns.

There’s a silly plot: Jim Buckley the local real estate developer and mayor, sees the backpack on the back of Kerry’s bike and takes it for himself. Kerry stays on at her mother’s but despite being stoney broke makes very little attempt to get it back. There’s the central plot: Buckley has rezoned land he owns so that a prison can be built on it. The land for the prison is adjacent to a bend in the river and an island that has always been regarded by the Salters as their own. The race is on to get the surrounding land recognised under Native Title law or to get Buckley indicted for corruption before clearing commences. And there’s a parallel plot, Martina has been transferred from Sydney to work in Buckley’s real estate office. Martina was ambitious and successful in Sydney, but there’s another reason she’s unhappy to be transferred up north.

And of course there’s a love interest plot. Steve, a former shy, skinny schoolmate of Kerry’s now has the whole six-pack thing and is back in town to open a gym. Kerry, who forgets that she prefers women, and Martina, both get the hots for him.

This all takes a while to pull together, and there’s other stuff, a friendly local cop, the bogan white family next door, Pop’s funeral, Pretty Mary’s fortune telling. The novel gathers strength in the second half as the various plots come together, and as the effects of past traumas, White on Black, Black on Black, are seen to play out.

I have no doubt that the detail of Aboriginal lives lived on the outskirts of town, and the language used to express it, is authentic, but that doesn’t make it literary. In the end, Too Much Lip is not much more than just another middle of the road small town family drama.

 

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip, UQP, Brisbane, 2018

Other (more positive) Reviews:
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)

Song of the Lark, Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark (1915), the second in Cather’s ‘Prairie’ trilogy is set, initially at least, in Colorado, the adjoining state to the south and west of Nebraska, the setting of the first, and further into the high country I guess, in a little railway town she names Moonstone, in desert country of wind blown sandhills, not country I’d ever heard of before in relation to Colorado.

Winter was long in coming that year. Throughout October the days were bathed in sunlight and the air was clear as crystal. The town kept its cheerful summer aspect, the desert glistened with light, the sand hills every day went through magical changes of color. The scarlet sage bloomed late in the front yards, the cottonwood leaves were bright gold long before they fell, and it was not until November that the green on the tamarisks began to cloud and fade. There was a flurry of snow about Thanksgiving, and then December came on warm and clear.

Thea the heroine, 11 years old when we meet her, is a flaxen haired ‘Swede’, one of seven children, her father, Kronberg a Methodist* pastor in a town of Swedes, Germans and American Baptists, though there is unusually for the times this far north a Mexican enclave too. There seems no connection with O Pioneers! except that Mrs Kronberg has a farm in Nebraska, from her father, on which she has tenants.


Right now I am at the half way mark of the book. I opened the file for this review as I began to read because it is so easy to copy quotes across from Project Gutenberg and not have to go back looking for them. From what some of you say I could do that with an e-reader too, but I don’t. Thea has grown through six years of country town life, closely described, taken music lessons from a drunken old German who has eventually had to leave town, left school a year early to teach piano, and now a railwayman in his thirties who has planned to marry Thea since she was 11 has died and in his will left her $600 for her education in music, not in nearby Denver, but in Chicago.

There Thea has found a home with a German widow and her widowed daughter, and a teacher in Harsanyi, a young married Hungarian. Thea is very intelligent, very uneducated, and immensely determined. Harsnayi, himself a talented performer, who has been teaching her piano for some months has only just discovered that Thea sings soprano in the church choir, and he and I have had tears in our eyes for a whole chapter as he slowly realises just how wonderful, and how untrained, is her voice.

A kind of happiness vibrated in her voice. Harsanyi noticed how much and how unhesitatingly she changed her delivery of the whole song, the first part as well as the last. He had often noticed that she could not think a thing out in passages. Until she saw it as a whole, she wandered like a blind man surrounded by torments. After she once had her “revelation,” after she got the idea that to her—not always to him—explained everything, then she went forward rapidly.

So I do not know yet how this novel is going to work out. O Pioneers! was the story of two impossible loves, with its background Alexandra’s growth as a woman and businesswoman. At this stage Song of the Lark has no story at all but is a character study of an independent young woman, set against the characters of her mother in particular, and her father, and the men in her community who are her only friends.


I never use all the quotes I mark, but I’ll share this one because I think we Australian boomers who’ve grown up with waves of migration will sympathize. In Moonstone Thea is friends with a Mexican singer, Johnny, who has just told Thea and her brother Gunner that some Mexicans keep snakes in the house to kill rats and mice:

“They call him the house snake. They keep a little mat for him by the fire, and at night he curl up there and sit with the family, just as friendly!”

Gunner sniffed with disgust. “Well, I think that’s a dirty Mexican way to keep house; so there!”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps,” he muttered. A Mexican learns to dive below insults or soar above them, after he crosses the border.

There is another resonance for Australians and that is, right at this time, Miles Franklin a country girl who had dreamed of a career as an opera singer until her voice was ruined by poor training, is living and working in Chicago and singing in church and union choirs.

https://historylink101.com/art/JulesBreton/images/498099.jpgThe Song of the Lark, 1884, Jules Breton

Thea begins to find her way round Chicago, to the museum where she falls in love with this painting, to concerts, learns to deal with tramcars, crowded streets, dirt, hostile winds off the lake. Harsanyi knows his limitations and passes her on to Bowers, less sympathetic, but the best teacher of voice. After a year Thea begins to understand her own power.

Home for the summer holidays she attends a dance in the Mexican quarter which becomes an impromptu concert. Her old German friends nearby are wakened by the singing

There was silence for a few moments. Then the guitar sounded fiercely, and several male voices began the sextette from “Lucia.” Johnny’s reedy tenor they knew well, and the bricklayer’s big, opaque barytone; the others might be anybody over there—just Mexican voices. Then at the appointed, at the acute, moment, the soprano voice, like a fountain jet, shot up into the light. “HORCH! HORCH!” the old people whispered, both at once.

Thea’s older sister and brothers are disgusted with her for mixing with ‘that kind’ and she knows that this is no longer her home.

In the second half of the novel Thea is a woman, enormously talented and determined, taking that step, or those steps, from student to the edge of stardom. You wonder who Cather was up close to, to be able to write with such detail. It doesn’t have the dramatic power of Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest, but it does have very nearly as much music. There is a man in Thea’s life, Fred, the musically-inclined son of a beer baron, and early on she goes away with him, to his ranch in Navajo country, lovingly described, then to Mexico, outside of this novel so to speak, where she learns what we already know, that Fred is married. Her time as a student and young singer in Germany is also outside the story and we rejoin her in New York, where she is just beginning to be a success, where she is still friends with Fred and where she is joined by the very first of her admirers and supporters, Doctor Archie from Moonstone.

Much as I am hypnotised by Cather’s powers of description, I wondered for a long time where this novel was going. But Thea as a country girl of unusual gifts, and Thea as a young star are in the end each so fully realised, and each is so important to the understanding of the other, that I don’t regret a single word (and I hope you don’t either of this very long review).

 

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, first pub. 1915. Painting by Jules Breton in The Art Institute Chicago (here). Cover painting on the Penguin edition, no I don’t know either.

see also:

O Pioneers! (here)
My Ántonia (coming)


*I don’t know how Rev. Kronberg ended up in a Methodist church. He came from the Swedish community in Minnesota and remembered enough Swedish to be able to minister to his countrymen in a little community outside Moonstone. His friend Larsen in Chicago to whom he sends Thea is a minister in the Swedish Reform Church.

O Pioneers! Willa Cather

O Pioneers! - Wikipedia

Liz Dexter of Adventures in Reading etc. is holding a read-along of Cather’s My Ántonia which she has set for 13-19 April (2020, just in case you’re reading this some other year) so I decided to make use of my unlimited self-isolation free time to read and review the whole trilogy –

O Pioneers! (1913)
The Song of the Lark (1915)
My Ántonia (1918)

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia but grew up in Nebraska, frontier country on the high plains, where her father unsuccessfully attempted to farm in the early days of settlement for 18 months before moving into town and becoming a real estate agent. Willa’s mother had been a teacher, and Willa after starting school late, went on through high school to university (Nebraska-Lincoln). That would have been around 1890. University for women in Britain and Australia began in 1881, it would be interesting to know when women were first accepted into university in the US. Cather initially intended to be a doctor but soon dropped science and did a BA in English. She went on to make a career in magazine journalism though she taught Algebra and English for a while in high school.

There is some discussion of her sexuality. My understanding is that very few women declared themselves to be lesbian at that time, even, perhaps especially, those who lived together as did Cather and her friend Edith Lewis. (Sylvia Martin discusses this in Passionate Friends). I raise it because Alexandra, the central character of O Pioneers!, is the closest I’ve come to an Independent Woman in (old) American Literature.

Cather’s first novel was Alexander’s Bridge (1912), a Librivox recording of which which I began listening to last year but I couldn’t stand one of the readers. O Pioneers! was her second. The versions I am reading of this and the subsequent two are from Project Gutenberg. None of them seems very long, novella length really, but I can’t tell for sure.

O Pioneers! is divided into five parts spread over a couple of decades. All the most important characters are introduced almost in the first scene.

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain.

A little ‘Swede’ boy maybe five years old in a coat and flannel dress is sitting in the street crying. His kitten is up a telegraph pole and won’t come down. His sister, 17 or 18, “a tall, strong girl [who] walked rapidly and resolutely” calls on their neighbour’s son, three or so years younger than she, for help. And so we meet Emil, Alexandra and Carl. Carl goes off to harness Alexandra’s horses and Emil wanders into the saloon to play with a “city child .. dressed in what was then called the “Kate Greenaway” manner, and her red cashmere frock, gathered full from the yoke, came almost to the floor. This, with her poke bonnet, gave her the look of a quaint little woman”. This is Marie, a Bohemian (Czech), aged 8 or 9.

The different national backgrounds of the settlers are in themselves fascinating. There are communities of protestant Swedes – Alexandra herself remembers when her father worked in a shipyard in Sweden – and Catholic French. The Bohemians, of whom there are only a few in this area, are also Catholic. We had very little of this in Australia, pockets of Scots and Irish of course, Germans in South Australia, and Chinese left over from the goldrushes who took up market gardening. As with Australian wheat-sheep country, the standard block size appears to be one square mile, 640 acres.

Alexandra, Carl and Emil return through the snow to their respective parents’ farms. Alexandra’s father is dying and he charges her with the ongoing management of the farm, for her and her and her hard-working but less bright teenage brothers.

Carl’s father can’t manage the harsh conditions and takes his family back to civilisation (Chicago or Pittsburgh). Alexandra takes stock of how earlier settlers did down on the river and persuades her brothers to mortgage their first property, which their father had managed to pay off before he died, and to begin buying up properties and to adapt their farming to the conditions.

Years later, Emil has gone through school and on to college. His two brothers are married and the property holdings have been split in three, between them and Alexandra. They are all prosperous thanks to Alexandra’s innovations.

IT is sixteen years since John Bergson died. His wife now lies beside him, and the white shaft that marks their graves gleams across the wheat-fields. Could he rise from beneath it, he would not know the country under which he has been asleep. The shaggy coat of the prairie, which they lifted to make him a bed, has vanished forever. From the Norwegian graveyard one looks out over a vast checker-board, marked off in squares of wheat and corn; light and dark, dark and light. Telephone wires hum along the white roads, which always run at right angles.

Alexandra still unmarried, has built herself a substantial homestead, and still writes to Carl. Marie lovely and vivacious, has married a surly fellow countryman, and they have bought Carl’s father’s old property, next door to Alexandra. Marie is about Alexandra’s only close friend.

Carl comes back for an extended visit. Alexandra is fronted by her farmer brothers who are concerned that she might marry him and not leave her property to their children

“The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title. If anything goes wrong, it’s the men that are held responsible… We worked in the fields to pay for the first land you bought, and whatever’s come out of it has got to be kept in the family.”

Alexandra breaks with them. Carl goes away gold prospecting in the Yukon. Emil is in love with Marie, and goes off to Mexico. He comes back and it all ends calamitously.

Cather’s writing is exquisite, you can feel the ice in winter and hear the birds sing in summer. You really feel for Alexandra, growing older and lonelier. I hope the next two books are as good.

 

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, first pub. 1913

see also:

The Song of the Lark (coming)
My Ántonia (coming)

Wizard of the Crow, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938- ) is a Kenyan who was imprisoned for a year in 1977 for staging a play seen as subversive, and has since lived in the West, first in Britain then in the US, as an author and academic (Wiki). Wizard of the Crow (2006), his seventh novel, was written in Kikuyu, which he grew up speaking, and translated into English by the author, though the characters in the novel apparently speak Swahili, the official language of most East African countries. When they switch to English the author generally says so, but also puts the phrase in italics. Occasionally (not very often) the author leaves some language untranslated.

Wizard of the Crow is a long way outside my normal reading, and is also enormous, 760pp, divided into six books and lots of short chapters, so let me make it clear at the outset that I enjoyed it, not unreservedly, but a lot, to the extent that some nights I found it unputdownable.

Set in the fictional African dictatorship of the Free Republic of Aburĩria, a former British colony, the novel is an allegory for how we all think the worst African countries are run, but contains within it some interesting though limited character development around Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, the young man and woman who together are the Wizard of the Crow. The style is one might say a mixture of absurdism, African spiritualism and magic realism, but without the poetry of the best Nigerians.

The author speaks, declaims to us really, from on high, an omniscient observer and commentator, though some passages are carried by another narrator, AG, the policeman who initiates the myth of the Wizard of the Crow which Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra feel bound to carry on, as a sort of hiding in plain sight.

The President of Aburĩria is Ruler and his principal, rival lieutenants are Machokali and Sikiokuu, who respectively have had their eyes and ears grotesquely enhanced the better to see and hear Ruler’s enemies. And a lot, too much maybe, of the book is their sycophancy to Ruler and their scheming to get the better of each other. And yet late in the book Machokali is disappeared and Sikokuu demoted so that they play no part in the ending.

Out in the real world, Kamĩtĩ has been fruitlessly seeking work in the capital, Eldares, for three years after returning from India with degrees in Business, when he applies at the offices of Tajirika’s construction company. Tajirika goes through the motions of giving him an interview, but only in order to humiliate him by getting him to prove his proficiency in English by reading the sign saying ‘No Vacancies’. Nyawĩra, Tajirika’s secretary speaks kindly to Kamĩtĩ. He goes off, is caught up in a demo, he and another protestor are pursued by the policeman AG, who loses them on the plain outside town where, he believes, they turn into a single spirit. The second protestor turns out to be Nyawĩra who takes Kamĩtĩ home. They know the policeman is close, so Kamĩtĩ puts up a sign saying Wizard of the Crow to frighten him off.

“I knew they were not thieves; they were devils, djinns of the prairie, sent by the Wizard of the Crow to trick me to death. Woe unto me! I am now bewitched.

And so the legend is born with AG spreading it through all the bars. Belief in the legend delivers its own efficacy, and soon the Wizard is being blamed or given credit for every miraculous occurrence.

Machokali comes up with a great building project to enhance the prestige of Ruler and Aburĩria, which will need to be financed by the Global Bank. Tajirika, Machokali’s protege, is made chairman of the building committee. Within hours a line of businessmen wishing to pay him bribes has formed up outside Tajirika’s office. Nyawĩra needs help to deal with them all but when she takes down the No Vacancies sign another queue of would-be employees forms. By morning both queues are apparently endless.

Queuing mania spreads throughout the country. The underground resistance of which Nyawĩra is secretly a part repurposes the queues into protest marches converging on the capital. Sikiokuu’s protegy, Kaniũrũ, leader of the youth wing and Nyawĩra’s ex husband is made Chairman of the committee to investigate queuing.

Ruler and Machokali go to New York to seek an audience with the directors of Global Bank. Ruler gets ill and inflates like a balloon. Tajirika gets ill with white-ache, overcome by the desire to be white, powerful and wealthy. His wife Vinjinia and Nyawĩra have him ‘cured’ by the Wizard of the Crow. Various people are detained for questioning or fed to crocodiles. Nyawĩra is blamed for the queuing and becomes a wanted criminal. Eventually it becomes apparent that only the Wizard of the Crow can locate her.

When Tajirika recovers he is suspicious of Vinjinia’s success at running the business and eventually gives her a beating. She goes to the Wizard of the Crow for help and Tajirika is kidnapped by women and beaten in return. Ruler learns of this and is fearful that men’s right to rule their wives is being usurped.

The rumors that Aburĩrian women were up in arms against their husbands, which later spread to all corners of the country, had origins in Kaniũrũ’s investigations. Despite the fact that he had been instructed to do it secretly, Kaniũrũ decided that this scandal was all he need to strip Tajirika of dignity and manhood.

On his return from the US, Ruler admires the skill with which Tajirika and Kaniũrũ have been accumulating bribes and makes them his principal advisors, though both are eventually outsmarted by their wives. Ruler abandons his grandiose building project and adopts the semblance of democracy to placate Western bankers – who are very keen to make sure he does not adopt the real thing. Throughout, Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra are becoming a couple but are often apart.

There’s lots more! All along wa Thiong’o is satirising the subservience of African states to the West, Global Bank’s opposition to Keynesianism, and the complete absence of morals in the African ruling class. Women are generally shown as the only bearers of common sense, while the church acts as a refuge. There is a dichotomy between Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, who personify respectively buddhism and marxism, which is partly but not fully explored.

Narrative tension is provided by the development of the relationship between Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, by the way the myth of the Wizard of the Crow gathers steam, and partly I guess, by the changing political dynamic. I suppose there are other books as ambitious in scope, but not many.

 

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow, Anchor Books, New York, 2006

The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf: Harcourt Brace & Company ...

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an important early English modernist and first wave feminist, and The Voyage Out (1915) is her first novel. I have said before this is not a period I have studied, though I am well enough read in a general sense. My general intention is to make my way through all the best books, and my particular intention here is to achieve a better understanding of Australian women’s works of the same period, ie. Gen 3. The Australian modernists we have looked at to date, Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark, Dymphna Cusack with Jungfrau are all a bit later than Woolf and no doubt influenced by her (after 1922 all modernists are influenced by James Joyce, but it is harder – for a layman – to tell who was influenced by Woolf or DH Lawrence, let alone lesser figures like Vita Sackville-West). Interestingly one important Australian modernist work predates The Voyage Out and that is HH Richardson’s Maurice Guest (1908) which I am interested now to go back and read in this context.

The Voyage Out tells the story of Rachel Vinrace, 24 and never been kissed, set during a holiday of just a few months, undated but in one of those last few years before the Great War, on Rachel’s father’s steamship from London, and then in a grand hotel and nearby villa in an unnamed French possession in South America.

Rachel is travelling with the Ambroses, her Aunt Helen, beautiful, 40, her children left behind, and her uncle, an academic. She has no formal education but is a brilliant pianist, and is forthright and intelligent. It quickly becomes clear to Helen that Rachel, brought up by maiden aunts after the death of her mother, knows absolutely nothing about relations between the sexes, and she determines to take her in hand.

For a while on the voyage out Rachel spends time with the MP Richard Dalloway being (willingly) lectured to about politics and foreign affairs. Eventually he gets her alone in her cabin and of course kisses her. Which she finds interesting and not particularly disagreeable. But the Dalloways are put off at an earlier stop and disappear into another novel altogether.

Rather than travel on to the Amazon with her father, Rachel is persuaded to stay with her aunt, and so the second phase of the novel begins, in some ways a very familiar story, a dozen or so upper middle class English people, with a wide range of ages, say 20 to 80, bound in one place for a fixed period.

Two of the younger set, Susan and Ambrose, are soon engaged and are then set aside to be used from time to time by the author as an example of stock-standard unreflective coupledom. Another young woman, Evelyn, is much more interesting, maybe even standing in for the author herself. She wishes there was a Garibaldi she might attach herself to; there are always things to do, places to see; later she exclaims, “I’d give all I have in the world to help on a revolution against the Russian government, and it’s bound to come.” She is open about having been born out of wedlock, has an undeserved reputation for looseness, is for ever being proposed to, but is never sure that she wants to be married.

Two young men, friends in their late twenties, Hewet and Hirst attach themselves to Rachel and Helen, Mr Ambrose being locked away in his study translating a Greek poet. Hirst is ugly and hugely intelligent, on his way to being one of the great men of his generation. Hewet is a budding novelist. Hirst attempts to forward Rachel’s education, but without much success. He is interested more in Helen and you keep expecting something to come of it though it never does.

Slowly, through a sea of talk and philosophising, Hewet and Rachel find themselves in love.

Evelyn had not spoken, but she had been looking from Susan to Rachel. Well – they had both made up their minds very easily, they had done in a very few weeks what it sometimes seemed to her that she would never be able to do. Although they were so different, she thought that she could see in each the same look of satisfaction and completion, the same calmness of manner, and the same slowness of movement. It was that slowness, that confidence, that content which she hated, she thought to herself. They moved so slowly because they were not single but double … Love was all very well, and those snug domestic houses with the kitchen below and the nursery above, which were so secluded and self-contained, like little islands in the torrents of the world; but the real things were surely the things that happened, the causes, the wars, the ideals, that happened in the great world outside, and went on independently of these women, turning so quietly and beautifully towards the men.

See how Woolf jumps from outside Evelyn to ‘inside’. Without, yet, being stream of consciousness, her writing follows the trains of thought of each of her protagonists, and is elsewhere wonderfully descriptive of the people, the scenery, the weather. The author’s feminism is quietly evident, in Evelyn for instance, but more often, as I discussed with Sackville-West (here), in putting up the conventional view and allowing us space to form our own criticisms. One of the women in the hotel, Miss Allan is employed, a teacher, writing an Eng Lit textbook, but generally all the characters would be at home in Jane Austen, independently well-off, at leisure for months at a time to work through their relationships. It is only after the War, I think, that young middle class women more or less automatically went into jobs – a fact obscured by the mythologizing around ‘homemakers’ in the 1950s.

The last 50 pages – of 380 – are shocking. Beautifully written, as is the whole novel, but completely unexpected. I can’t say why Woolf chose the ending she did, you will have to see for yourselves.

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, first pub. The Hogarth Press, London, 1915. Edition pictured, Harcourt Brace, 1948. My edition Granada, 1981

Covid-19

Journal: 044

Malawian

Covid-19. What else is there to write about?

There is no doubt in my mind that that moron in Washington is going to double the length of the coming world depression and double its severity. Up till this week I had assumed the Covid-19 epidemic would be the same as SARS – someone else’s problem. But it seems not. I can manage the illness, hopefully I would survive, I certainly don’t like the idea of dying breathless. My working life is a mixture of long periods of isolation, with daily instances of unhealthy propinquity (truckstops!). But the coming deep economic downtown will almost certainly do me in.

So far, work is holding up. You guys need stuff in your shops, though that’s not the sort of cartage I do. (Did you know the average age of Australian long distance truck drivers is very nearly 60. We might all drop dead at the same time, and then what will you do? It seems to me the only large cohort of new drivers is Indians, who are buying up trucks (and roadhouses) as did the Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs before them, but not so much the Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese. Don’t know why, though the Chinese immigrants were probably affluent middle class).

Last week I got a load to Mt Beauty in NE Victoria – a cherry picker truck for a guy clearing damaged trees from bushfire areas. Unloaded Tues morning and headed into Melbourne looking forward to a day off, but instead was loaded and on my way without stopping, topped up In Adelaide and was home – a 7,500 km round trip – in a few hours under six days. Then, two phone calls/messages.

The organization Lou works for is as we speak evacuating him from Malawi, and he’s due here Sunday evening. Though in fact, he’s already missed his first connection, his taxi driver got lost he said. And even if he gets there I can’t imagine how chaotic the airport at Doha is going to be – I picture him stranded forever in a JG Ballard Concrete Island situation. Anyway, I’ve been shopping – Leeming IGA seemed perfectly normal except for the absent toilet paper and pasta – stocked up my freezer for him with meat and pizzas, got a (another!) carton of cheap grog, and some movies. He’s looking forward to making his way through my library during his obligatory fourteen days, though the books he’ll enjoy most are the same ones he devoured as a teenager. I’m planning to introduce him to Australian women’s dystopian fiction.

The other news was more prosaic. I have a road train load to Darwin, loading Tuesday, which will keep the wolves from the door for a little longer. If nothing goes wrong. I feel like it might.

I listened to three books this last trip: one a bog standard work of genre fiction, one a surprisingly innovative work of genre fiction, and one a work of genius, maybe genre fiction, which I am listening to for the third time. They were:

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (2009,10)
Margaret Attwood, The Testaments (2019)
Karin Gillespie, Love Literary Style (2016)

The work of genius is 1Q84. I had a whole pile of mystery/thrillers with me but couldn’t bring myself to play them when I could listen to real writing. 1Q84 is enormous, 3 mp3’s or around 27 45 hours and with a not very large cast. Murakami seems to me with this book to have decided that anything he wanted to discuss, he would discuss at length, nothing is cut short. There are two parallel stories which gradually cease being separate: Aomame on her way to complete an assignment leaves her taxi stalled in an elevated motorway traffic jam and climbs down a fire escape to street level during which time the world changes, or she changes worlds, as she slowly comes to realise, from 1984 to 1Q84. Aomame’s assignments are to murder, subtly by a needle to a nerve in the back of the neck, men who are abusing their wives. As we proceed, Aomame’s sex life plays an important part, from a view of her knickers as she straddles the motorway safety rail, to experimentation with her girlfriend at school, to encounters at singles bars, where she hooks up with another young woman, a female police officer, who talks her into a drunken foursome, who becomes her friend and who eventually dies, strangled, during violent sex while handcuffed. Throughout, Aomame maintains her love for the boy who stood up for her in grade school, whom she has not seen since she was ten.

Tengo is a writer and mathematics teacher, physically big and athletic, whose editor persuades him to rewrite a startling new work, naively written, Air Chrysalis, by a 17 year old girl, Fuka-Eri. Eri it turns out is dyslexic and has dictated this story of evil ‘little people’ taking over our world, seemingly from lived experience, to her foster sister.

As the stories converge it becomes clear that Tengo is the boy, now 30, who stood up for Aomame in third grade. Aomame is given the assignment of killing a cult leader who rapes little girls, who turns out to be Eri’s father. He acquiesces in his killing but predicts that the little people will ensure that either she or Tengo will die. Aomame chooses the path she hopes will protect Tengo. And so we go. This is a literary work with a strong story. What makes it literary, apart from the compelling writing, I struggle to express. I’ll have to think about it.


Milly and I go out to dinner. On the way I hear on the ABC that NT is closing its borders. That didn’t take long! I discuss by text with my customer throughout the meal the possibility of getting a permit. Milly on her phone is messaging with Lou. He’s back at Lilongwe Airport. By the time we finish eating he’s in Johannesburg with tickets to Dubai (he’s changed over to Emirates) and thence to Perth. Still arriving Sunday night.


Murukami in 1Q84 is writing about one social stratum in Tokyo, slightly outside mainstream society, he is writing about the connections between works, between 1Q84 and Orwell’s 1984, and between 1Q84 and (the fictional) Air Chrysalis, he is playing games with the intersection between Magic Realism and SF, and he is discussing the boundaries between love and sex. Am I happy with a guy writing so much about sex for women? No I’m not. Is there anything I can do about it? No.

I was looking forward to The Testaments, Attwood is a competent writer, if disingenuous about so much of her writing being standard SF. The most disappointing thing is that writers who embrace SF have taken it in new and challenging directions, while Atwood who imagines herself daring for just dipping her general fiction toe in SF waters, is left far behind (I didn’t know it was joint winner of the Man Booker. What a pile of crap!). I’m sure you all know the general story. The epilogue is a paper delivered centuries later at a Gilead symposium. The problem with audiobooks is that people giving boring speeches are really … boring! I didn’t make it to the end.

I’m struggling to recall Love Literary Style now except that I really enjoyed it. Earnest (unpublished) literary author meets untutored blonde bombshell who has accidentally written the outline for a major success. All the tropes of romantic fiction are interrogated as the two budding authors write and discuss writing. Read it. You’ll love it.


An hour ago, Lou had an eight hour flight ahead of him, a very quick changeover in Dubai, and then a similar length flight to Perth. The ABC NT border story (here) has not been updated.

Sisters, Ada Cambridge

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I have written before that I began “following” early Australian women’s fiction around 1990 when my local library (Nunawading, now Whitehorse, Vic) began carrying, and not just carrying but set up a separate display for, the titles then being revived almost singlehandedly by the efforts of Dale Spender, and I discovered some wonderful works in the tradition of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, say, but with a distinctly Australian twist.

The one that sticks in my goldfish mind concerned a woman down from the Riverina, living on the edge of the Melbourne CBD, walking up to the Royal Exhibition Building for afternoon teas during the  Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880. I’m sure this was an Ada Cambridge but sadly am yet to come across it again, though the Exhibition also features in The Three Miss Kings.
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Ada Cambridge wrote around 25 novels over quite a long period, 1865-1914, while at the same time carrying out the duties of mother, and wife of a country C of E vicar in rural Victoria. Sisters (1904) is one of her later works, written in the vicarage of her husband’s last posting, Williamstown which was the original port for the settlement of Melbourne. I have no reason to imagine her marriage was unhappy – Lisa/ANZLitLovers has a comprehensive review of her autobiography (here) – but her theme in this book is that marriage is a decidedly dodgy business, for women anyway.

The story begins – and I had two or three goes at reading the first chapter before giving up and starting at the second – with a wedding and a funeral:

Guthrie Carey began life young. He was not a week over twenty-one when, between two voyages, he married Lily Harrison, simply because she was a poor, pretty, homeless little girl … a lady-help in hard situations, and never had a holiday.

A few weeks of wedded bliss, Carey’s off, returning twelve months later to find himself a father. He sets up a little cottage in Williamstown, collects his young wife from Sandridge (Port Melbourne), 15 minutes across the bay and the mouth of the Yarra (3.8 km. I know because I swam it in a race once. The jellyfish were horrendous and we were greeted with methylated spirits and showers to ease the stings). The wind comes up, the cutter is overturned, the little wife is lost, and the baby saved.

The baby is farmed out, Carey, first mate on a ship trading up the coast and to England, returns to sea. So far, no sisters. He meets a squatter’s son, Jim, in Melbourne and is invited to stay on Jim’s father’s property in the Western District. On a neighbouring station, Redford, are the Pennycuiks, who regard themselves as upper class. This seems to be not so much to do with Victoria’s budding squattocracy as with their antecedents in England, where as it happens, The Pennycuiks of Redford in _____shire were neighbours with the Careys at Wellwood of whom Guthrie was a poor relation.

Carey is worried that the woman caring for the baby is trying to lure him into marriage; he discusses this with Jim’s sister who agrees to take over the baby. In order to lure him into marriage. He escapes on a visit to Redford, where we at last meet the sisters, aged from mid twenties down to teens: Mary, red-faced, plain, competent; Deb, drop-dead gorgeous and very conscious of her status; Rose, your standard middle child; and Frances, still in the school room but about to bloom into a beauty to rival Deb.

Carey falls in love with Deb. Along with Jim, Deb’s godfather Thornycroft, and the dashing, supercilious Claud Dalziell. Carey of course agrees that his baby should be brought up on Redford, where it is greatly doted on but eventually dies of typhoid while the father is at sea.

This is a complicated story and not Cambridge’s best, though Brona (here) enjoyed it greatly. I’ll summarize it quickly.

Mary, who has never had a suitor, sympathizes with Carey about the death of his baby, he kisses her, heads off for foreign parts, is eventually believed to be dead, and Mary lets it be understood that they had “an arrangement”.

Carey returns, is reviled, Mary is forced to admit the truth, throws herself in the dam, is rescued by the local vicar, Goldsworthy, who is both grasping and a little declassé, and who takes this opportunity to become heir to part of the Pennycuik estate by marrying her himself. We are meant to understand that this means for Mary a life of unremitting misery.

Deb is engaged to the playboy Dalziell.

Mr Pennycuik dies, is found to be heavily in debt, the estate is sold to Thornycroft. The three remaining girls take a house in suburban Melbourne. Dalziell, not happy anyway about having Goldsworthy as brother in law causes Deb to break the engagement.

Rose thwarts her sisters to marry Peter, the boy next door (in Melbourne) who is the son of a wealthy draper. In trade! Deb and Frances will have nothing to do with her. You get the impression that the author is as astonished as the sisters that Rose goes on to live a loving, happy and productive life, despite sometimes wearing silk in the morning.

Frances, eighteen and no longer invited to parties, inveigles their rich elderly landlord into marrying her and heads for Europe. She briefly reappears, the subject of rumours concerning Guthrie Carey – who too has mostly disappeared from the story – not confirmed till many chapters later when her husband dies and Carey refuses to marry her because she is demonstrably a loose woman.

Thornycroft dies and leaves his fortune to his god-daughter who after years of poverty is now a millionairess. She too heads for Europe where she and Dalziell, though careful to avoid each other, move and grow middle-aged in the same wealthy, titled circles. Frances, who has married an Italian count, is beneath their notice.

There’s other stuff, nearly all of it based on snobbery about which I am terribly disappointed. Carey ends up squire of Wellwood. Mary’s husband dies and she is happy for the first time in her life. Deb comes home to Redford married at last. Jim ends the book still a bachelor, and now Deb’s farm manager, out in the garden in the night looking in the window at Deb playing the piano for her husband.

 

Ada Cambridge, Sisters, first pub. 1904, Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Melbourne, 1989. Introduction by Nancy Cato. Cover painting: Self Portrait, Dora Serle, 1900.

see also:
Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 Page (here)