The Babe is Wise, Lyn Harwood ed.

The Babe is Wise

In the bookcase behind the door of my study ar the Viragos I bought years ago as a job lot and am only now getting round to reading. The book at the end stands out or would if I ever shut the door, for being taller than the Viragos and having a pale blue cover. Whether I bought them all at the same time I no longer remember but have come to assume I did. A few nights ago, deciding against The Little Ottleys (for being too long), I pulled out next the pale blue book and discovered it to be an anthology of 31  Australian women’s short stories, published in 1987.

Flicking through, I thought how lovely and young so many of the authors were, and checked their years of birth. Ten to fifteen years before mine. Which brought to mind a discussion I had here or elsewhere with Sue (WG) that the authors of Gen 4, writers of the books which came out when we boomers were young adults, like the musicians we listened to, were not themselves boomers but were born during or just before the War.

Then chasing up a cover photo, I came up with not one but two snippets of history. First, the cover picture is a portrait of Australian author Jean Campbell, painted in 1940 (not 1909 as stated on the title page) by Lina Bryans and now held in the NGV. The title of the painting is The Babe is Wise. The second is from an article by Jean Campbell herself which explains that the painting is named after a novel of that name she wrote in 1939. Incidentally, Campbell is not included in the collection.

Because I see her oft times in our corner of the blogosphere I started with Carmel Bird, Buttercup and Wendy, a cheerful little story about the prettiest girl in Tasmania 1955-59 and how she didn’t marry but made a career and bought a house in Kew (Melbourne) and the discrete part in her life played by her former high school boyfriend –

a boy with ice blue eyes and a very attractive laugh. [They] went together to school dances to which he wore a white sports coat with a pink carnation and she wore an orange skirt beneath which undulated a vast white petticoat edged with rope.

It doesn’t end how you might think.

I’m moving backwards and forwards, selecting randomly. Next is a typical Helen Garner. Her husband leaves, she cries, lives with friends, her daughter bangs her eye, cries “you don’t know how to comfort..”

Robyn Sheiner, a WA woman “with many Aboriginal relatives in the north of the state” imagines herself as an older woman at her sister’s funeral in Broome. The sister has worked all her life as a servant in a convent some distance out of town. The sisters, having a white father, were stolen and handed over to the nuns, and the story reflects on their lives.

Another Aboriginal woman, Kantjuringa (Lallie Lennon) is an Antikirinya woman from northern South Australia. Her story is an extract from her testimony concerning the Maralinga atom bomb tests in the 1950s which were conducted on Aboriginal homelands. She’s just had a baby in the creek bed and these army trucks start going past and “a big war tank – guns sticking out, you know, it was frightening.” A few days later they hear two or three bombs in the distance and see the mushroom clouds, and a few days after that, another bomb, and the smoke is blowing towards them and they and all the trees are covered in dust and soon the kids are getting sick, overheating, the little girls are having fits and the station lady gives them castor oil.

Some of the authors are well known Judith Wright, Kate Grenville, Joan London, Beverly Farmer, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley. Olga Masters I had to look up – she’s got lots of famous children.  Her little story is of a man, his wife just died, who must marry again before he runs out of dishes and clean bed linen.

I think my favourite was In Defence of Lord Byron by Ilona Palmer, a little mix of life in Melbourne and growing up in Yugoslavia, her school friends going to faraway places to build socialism, “or laying a few railway sleepers and getting pregnant in the process”, as her father put it. A story about her, not “a friend told me”; growing into middle age with her husband; dreaming of a man’s bedroom, realistic, his undies on the floor in the corner; “he did not ask me when he could see me again”; a dream realised, or a dream lost?

Thea Astley’s is a disappointing story of hippy stereotypes. I move on to Jolley, a dense story intermingling school days, nursing days, single-motherhood. An extract I’m guessing from My Father’s Moon published a couple of years later.

 

Lyn Harwood, Bruce Pascoe, Paula White ed.s, The Babe is Wise: Contemporary Stories by Australian Women, Pascoe Publishing, Melbourne, 1987. 313pp.