Drawing Sybylla,Odette Kelada

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Odette Kelada is a lecturer in creative writing, with a PhD in literature researching the lives of Australian women writers. Drawing Sybylla, winner of the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript, quite obviously draws on Kelada’s background teaching post-modern writing and on her researches.

‘Sybylla’ of course references the heroines of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, two young women with the same name, one the author of a mock autobiography of the other, each mistaken for the other and for Miles; but Sybylla is also from the “Greek Σιβυλλα (Sibylla), meaning prophetess, sibyl. In Greek and Roman legend the sibyls were ten female prophets who practiced at different holy sites in the ancient world.”

Sibyl Jones stands on stage reading from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) a short story in which the writer, forced to remain in her bedroom, descends into psychosis and imagines herself and other women to be trapped inside the patterns of the wallpaper. The I of Drawing Sybylla is seated on the stage behind Sibyl Jones, drawing:

I pick up my pen and dribble ink onto the page. Flowers grow either side of the red margin. Monstrous petals with goblin faces leer from the middle of them.

From her random scribblings and leaking pen Sybil’s face emerges – “Now the figure I have drawn peers out from the ropes of vines” – names herself Sybylla, takes us on a journey through time. “I have landed in a red country, red dirt, the land of girt by sea, a great island between Asia and the Arctic (sic). Gold rays of a hot sun burns the eyes.”

Lucy, 1901. We become a young woman with a strict mother, brighter than her brothers but not permitted to share their tutor, scribbling at night on scraps of paper, contemptuous of women romance writers, “I’m going to write about my own country for a start … I’m going to write about the bush like Lawson and Joseph Furphy.”

[Lucy is a Miles Franklin figure, although younger, and this is, deliberately of course, set in the year of the publication of My Brilliant Career, but Kelada is wrong to go along with the characterisation of C19th Australian women writers as ‘Anglo-Australians’ and writers of mere romance.]

Sybylla leads us on:

‘Did you like Lucy? In walking through the gaps between the words of The Yellow Wallpaper, we have crept behind the pattern. Lucy is only the first of the women we must meet who have been lost inside it.’

Vera 1929. A young woman, a poet in Sydney Bohemia, in a cafe on the night of the Artists’ Ball shows Jack a poem she has written. Jack asks, “Are you going to be topless, Vera?”.

[I don’t recognise ‘Vera’, apparently the daughter of poet and alcoholic Christopher Brennan. I have read that women could only enter the Sydney art scene at this time by offering their bodies to the men. Jack “down from Brisbane” is probably Jack Lindsay (son of Norman).]

Layers upon layers. Sybil on stage reading The Yellow Wallpaper. Sybylla her ‘shadow’ leading us behind the wallpaper. We travel with her through land and sea. Peer into the water for the stories of women writers.

Stella 1932. A history teacher in her mid thirties is given cause to reflect on Captain Cook’s reception when he raised the Union Jack at Botany Bay. She asks the school’s indigenous charwoman who of course does not know. At home she must care for her aged parents, Father home from the Great War, only able to write late at night, and getting letters from ‘Nettie’.

[‘Stella’ refers to Miles Franklin, but also to Marjorie Barnard who I think also had the care of her parents. To confuse us, Kelada brings in Flora [Eldershaw] as a sister. Dates are all over the place, so: Miles was 53 in 1932 (Barnard was 35) and ‘Father’ would have to have been over 40 in 1914. And so on. Jack Lindsay, above, was in London in 1929. But the author is having fun with these constructs, while making her case about the difficulties facing women writers.]

We move on. “We are passing through a dark time. The Depression is over but the war has started. Nothing can touch us here. It is beyond the horizon.”

Eve 1954. A caricature of (American) middle class life, dinner parties and martinis, incongruous in Australia. A wife and mother whose ‘scribblings’ interfere with her wifely duties, whose husband controls her drinking, but still she is led astray by ‘Judith’, her muse.

[I have no idea who this might be, though I think Kelada has seen too much American TV. Australian middle class life in the 1950s was much poorer, even for doctors’ wives].

Sybylla pushes a little girl on a swing, high into the sky. When we see her again she is …

Susanne 1979. Susanne is a good Catholic girl who goes up to uni with a bursary to study teaching, moves to Arts, falls into the women’s movement, has unhappy experiences with men, takes a woman lover, goes down to Melbourne to stage a play at La Mama.

[Susanne is everywoman. All the men she meets are 1950s stereotypes. I know when I started this blog I wrote I am not a feminist, but that’s only because I believe socialism means equality for everyone. After the 60s guys were trying as hard as their girlfriends to do sex right. Any woman who thought she should “lie back and think of England” wasn’t being fair to herself or to her partner.]

The journey has been hazardous to say the least. I hope they are out, those women – Lucy, Vera, Stella, Ruby, Eve … Susie. I hope they feel the fresh air on their skin and breathe in their freedom.

I have a theory about lecturers in Creative Writing who write novels, and that is that they try too hard to be  post modern, stories within stories predictably leaking into each other. But Kelada has a lighter touch, is playful as well as purposeful.  And if at times I felt I was the dart board in a game of darts, still it was a book I enjoyed reading (and decoding).

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Wikipedia

Odette Kelada, Drawing Sybylla, UWAP, Perth, 2017

See also: Theresa Smith, whose review (here) led me to this book, and her interview with the author (here) which as you will see in the comments, I had overlooked.

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Coming Rain, Stephen Daisley

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I’ve written before, especially in the context of other bloggers’ reviews of Stephen Orr’s The Hands, that I don’t like (modern) books about blokes in the bush. They seem to me the literary equivalent of a Holden ute flying multiple flags on Australia Day.* However, I listened recently to Coming Rain (2015) and thought that I would discuss some of the issues it raises for me. Unfortunately, the next book I listened to was a ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ detective story, Mr Jelly’s Business (1937) set in almost exactly the same Western Australian wheatbelt location, and the two became so mixed in my mind that I’ve had to re-read a paper copy of Coming Rain to unsort them.

Coming Rain is textbook Australian Legend, two itinerant workers in the 1950s head a hundred miles or so out into the wheatbelt from Perth in their old Ford truck to do a spot of shearing. What Daisley thinks he brings to this tired old trope, I’m not sure. Certainly not the few Aboriginal words he throws in for political correctness, nor even the parallel story told from the point of view of a dingo bitch which at least adds a touch of White Fang (Jack London), or more pertinently, Dusty (Frank Dalby Davidson).

The two workers are Lew McCleod, in his twenties, and ‘Painter’ Hayes, in his sixties. Lew at age 11 was taken to work with a shearing crew and Painter, who had known his father, took him under his wing. In the following decade Lew never runs into his father nor goes back to see his mother.

We start off with some gratuitous sex for Lew and then a ‘charcoal contract’ near Boddington (in the jarrah forest south of Perth), which I guess sets the scene, before an all-night drive out along the Great Eastern Highway to the edge of the wheatbelt, which would be somewhere between Merredin and Southern Cross (respectively 260 and 360 km east of Perth) in their 1939 Ford truck.

They are to shear 1200 sheep – about 3 days work under normal conditions – for the Drysdales, remnants of an old pioneering family, John, a widower and his private school-educated 19 yo daughter Clara, who are unable to afford labour for the shed and plan to bring the sheep up to the yards and pick up and sort the wool themselves. Which would be fine with so few sheep, except they don’t bother every day, leaving the men to pick up their own fleeces. The property is improbably mostly wheat, this year at least, in those days more labour intensive than sheep, and during the greatest wool boom in Australia’s history, when the whole of Australia up to the Tropic of Capricorn was swarming with merinos.

The Drysdales have been notorious for not employing ‘blackfellas’ and indeed in earlier days, for clearing them off the station altogether. “‘Old man Drysdale and Dingo Smith persuaded them to move down south to round Boddington just after the first war,’ Painter said. ‘Never came back’.” Why Daisley nominates Boddington, which is way south and on the far side of the Darling ranges, I’m not sure, when the Noongars of this region mostly congregated around the regional centres of Merredin and, closer to Perth, Northam and Brookton (when not forced into Native Settlements at Moore River and Carrolup).

Lew and Clara manage to surmount their class and educational differences and engage in a spot of skinny dipping, followed by … well you get the picture. The dingo dips in and out of the story, has a bit of followed by … herself and looks for somewhere to have her pups.

Dingo Smith reappears late in the piece, living in a nearby mining ghost town with all the shops and houses still standing like a model pioneer village, which may have been true in the 50s, though these days old mining towns are just a signpost and a few vague shapes in the ground. (I said between Merredin and Southern Cross because Southern Cross marks the end of the wheatbelt and the beginning of the Goldfields.)

You know I don’t get historical fiction, not the rehashing of things which are familiar to us and are little more than an opportunity for an author to display his research. So it is not enough for Lew and Painter to cook their own dinner, they have to do it on a ‘green Metters stove’, with food from their ‘Coolgardie safe’ (I’m sure we said ‘cool safe’). Daisley has looked up a whole heap of sheep terms – ewe, wether, two-tooth, hogget – implying in the process that all the flock are in their second year. When a truck passes by on the highway it has ‘a powerful American motor’ though most American trucks in those days had petrol motors and a ‘large articulated truck and trailer’ was far more likely to be British.

We solve the murder, Boney catches the late train to Kal and on to the Trans and across the Nularbor. Oops, that’s Mr Jelly. Try again – Mates stick together, a woman gets in the way, things are hard in the bush … that’s probably both of them. Read Coming Rain if you have to, our antediluvian judges are still giving awards to this tired old pap. I’ll still try Stephen Orr, because you ask me nicely, but I really don’t have much time for back in the day when men were bronzed, even ironically.

 

Stephen Daisley, Coming Rain, Text, Melbourne, 2015. Audio version Bolinda Books, read by Paul English.

Lisa at ANZLL who is far more to be trusted than I am, liked it (here)

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*Holden ute (Wikipedia)

Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman

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The doctrine of Terra Nullius was the ex post facto justification for British settlement in New Holland (Australia); basically, the continent was regarded for legal purposes as uninhabited. That it was occupied by and subject to the laws of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for tens of millenia was not accepted into Australian Common Law until the Mabo decision of 1992 – a decision which ‘conservative’ governments have been at pains ever since to read as narrowly as possible in order to protect the interests of the miners and graziers who are their principal constituency.

Claire Coleman, the author of this recently released fictional exploration of the doctrine, identifies as Noongar, the indigenous peoples of the south west corner of Western Australia, where Terra Nullius is set. This is her first novel, written while travelling around Australia in a caravan according to this interesting profile (here).

Coleman, like multi-award winning author Kim Scott, is specifically of the people of the Ravensthorpe/Hopetoun region [the Wilomin] and in the interview references a memorial acknowledging the massacre of her family’s ancestors near Ravensthorpe (see my post The Cocanarup Massacre, here) which is also important in Scott’s writing, particularly Benang and Kayang and Me (reviews here and here).

The writer she most reminds me of though is not Scott but Charlotte Wood. Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (review here) is almost a parable, timeless, although probably in a near future, and placeless, set in a generic ‘outback’. As well, the writing of both has a certain flat, unemotional quality suited to the dystopian scenes each is describing.

“The best way to sneak in a statement without people realising is through sci-fi. The best novels are controversial. I wanted to make a connection, so that people sitting on the edge will fall off it.” (Coleman)

The first half of Terra Nullius feels as though it is set a hundred years or more in Australia’s past and it is not until we are half way through that we are made to realise that it is not. Likewise the scrub country which is the novel’s setting has no real place. Perth and the small town of Jerramungup (half way between Albany and Esperance in southern Western Australia) are the only towns mentioned, but they are not important; and the scrub country of the novel borders on the desert, although Jerramungup is in reality separated from the Western Desert by hundreds of kilometers of scrub and temperate woodlands.

The novel consists of a number of stories, told in parallel, which gradually come together [the pedant in me struggles with parallel stories converging]. Jacky runs from a Settler farm where he had been working for no wages and was unable to leave, ie. was a slave. He has only vague memories of being taken from the bush as a child to a mission where he was trained for servitude. Sister Bagra runs the mission:

Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them… Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.

The Head of the Department for the Protection of Natives, known to everyone only as Devil, finds “nothing to like about the job except the satisfaction he received from helping the Natives to help themselves. Natives raising their own children to the primitive ways they lived before he came was unacceptable, they would have to be elevated.”

Esperance runs a camp in the scrub on the edge of desert, her ‘hut’ a single sheet of corrugated iron, her people a motley collection united only in being pushed off their lands by the advancing Settlers.

Sergeant Rohan makes up a party of young Settlers to recapture Jacky, none of them competent trackers, and always on the edge of running out of water as they struggle from one reported sighting to the next.

Jacky finds his way to the mission, breaks in, not for food although he is starving, but for information. A young nun comes on him in the dark, tells him to head east, that he was taken from Jerramungup.

Two young nuns appear to be defying Sister Bagra. Someone has written to the authorities to inform them that Native children reported as absconded may have been mistreated and died. An investigator is coming from ‘home’.

A trooper takes part in a massacre:

Johnny was with them as they chased the terrified, fleeing survivors, in the almost dark, in the glowing red light of scattered coals from campfires, in the light from burning humpies. Some of the Native men grabbed their primitive arms and tried to fight back but men with ancient weapons cannot stand against men with modern guns. They were gunned down… Johnny ran with others of his troop, guns empty – who could be bothered reloading? – running buoyed by their laughter, knives in hands slitting throats and piercing bellies.

but is sickened, as well he might be, and deserts into the bush, meeting up with and being accepted into a party of Native marauders.

Johnny gets ill, is left behind by his mates. Jacky, still heading vaguely east but with no idea of where he is, comes upon Johnny, spares his precious water to revive him.

In her review, Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) writes, “Always have faith that an author knows what she’s doing! As the novel progresses there are odd little incongruities here and there, details that seem like mistakes that an editor should have picked up, until about half way through the novel when the penny drops and the reader’s assumptions fall away…”. What else can I say, except: Well done! Claire Coleman, long may you produce novels as good and original as this one.

Let Johnny, the renegade, have the last word: “Stealing something to eat, that is a crime that would get me flung into jail. Stealing everything, that is just good government.”

 

Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette, Sydney, 2017

 

 

Author Interview, Sarah Goldman

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Illustrations from Caroline Chisholm

Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force by Sarah Goldman (my review) is the recently released biography of one of the most interesting and influential women in Australia’s early history. My review copy arrived with a letter suggesting Sarah would be happy to be interviewed, so I sent her some questions to which she has been kind enough to give extensive answers. I didn’t let on, but this is my first interview.

Q. Personal Stuff: It bemuses me that publishers ‘always’ put in an author bio, “so and so lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog”. The things that affect how I read a work are the author’s gender, age and education.

A. none [that’s what I get for being impertinent!]

 

Q. Writing: This is your first book. I like the writing, it is both fluent and informative. Did you arrive at this point by writing in the course of your work, keeping a journal, writing for publication short stories/essays, or maybe just by writing/re-writing Caroline Chisholm? During the course of writing Caroline Chisholm did you publish any extracts?

A. I’ve written all my life, firstly as a newspaper journalist and then later as a television producer mostly in news. They say of journalists that they know a little about a lot, but not much about anything. Writing this biography gave me an opportunity to concentrate on one, fascinating character and the people and places which became the background to her story. It did take me a time to develop my voice though. In most news writing, one avoids expressing opinions whilst striving to communicate relevant facts concisely and effectively. Writing about Caroline demanded a different style altogether. I soon found that expanding and colouring-in with the facts were both enjoyable and rewarding, particularly as I had such a rich subject and environment to explore. Through the process I was helped by being part of a writers’ group at the NSW Writers’ Centre. Disinterested opinions from other writers are very valuable. Once the rhythm to the writing was established though, I found it quite easy to continue. It was also a thoroughly enjoyable process and one I am eager to repeat.

 

Q. Motivation: Did you always want to be a writer? A biographer? What drew you to Caroline Chisholm in particular?(The more I read about her, the more I admire her).

A. Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a journalist and I honestly enjoyed every moment of my career, whether it was in newspapers or television, in Sydney, Melbourne or London. I vaguely thought that one day I would write a book, but it wasn’t until I started delving into Caroline’s life that I became absolutely determined to write about her. It all started years ago when I mentioned her to my (then) young sons, who knew nothing about her. I began to investigate Caroline so that I could tell them about her and I became hooked. I was busy at the time and put the idea of writing a biography away until a few years ago when I decided to give it a go. I was interested in not just telling what she did and how she did it, but who she was, in effect the flesh and blood woman behind the story. Similarly, I also thought it important to explore the physical and social environment in which Caroline lived because they too are vital aspects of her life. I thought it important to look at her 19th Century world and try to understand it from a 21st Century viewpoint.

 

Q. Process: Had you already started when Carole Walker published, did this give you pause? By your notes you rely on the McKenzie Memoirs, is there much other source material for the early part of her life (I infer there is no birth record naming the mother)? I imagine Chisholm becomes increasingly visible in Trove over time. Was your manuscript or parts thereof workshopped?

Q. I came across Carole Walker’s excellent PhD thesis and then book sometime after I had started my work on Caroline. It did not really give me pause because I soon realised that we were approaching the same subject from two different viewpoints. Another major difference was that Carole Walker’s best research and interest was focused on Caroline’s life and work in the UK. As you have obviously seen from my end notes and bibliography, I have certainly referenced some of her admirable research, but I have also been able to follow other leads. One valuable resource was Edith Pearson’s essay on Caroline which was written after Pearson interviewed Caroline’s daughter, also named Caroline. Elsewhere I found other resources for example the notice of Caroline and Archibald’s wedding in the Northampton Mercury and William Whellan & Co., History, Gazetteer and Directory of Northamptonshire which gave me valuable information about Caroline and Archibald’s neighbours in Northampton in 1831 and the whereabouts of various of her relations at that time and afterwards. Elsewhere I was fortunate to happen upon the log of Archdale Low Whitby, who sailed to Australia in the Slains Castle, Caroline’s first Family Colonization Loan Society boat. The log gives fascinating information of what it was really like to make that journey in the mid-19th Century and, I have the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies to thank for using that wonderful material. Without doubt, both the British Newspaper Archives and more particularly our own Trove from the National Library of Australia were invaluable and truly engrossing sources, both to follow Caroline’s career and that of her various family members.

 

Q. I think you are careful to say when you are ‘imagining’, which is not always the case. What do you think about the fictionalizing of real lives? What influence have other biographers had on your work? Have you read Brian Matthews’ Louisa for instance which is really an extended discussion on constructing a life from insufficient facts.

A. I think that the art of biography is to bring a real person alive as a character so that they are interesting not only on an intellectual level, but an emotional level also. If the reader is engaged with the subject then the enjoyment of the book is so much richer. There are various techniques. I have chosen to use short fiction pieces at the start of most chapters, each easily identified by a change in font. As I explained in the introduction, in each case, the fiction relates to events that follow in the body of the chapter. They were also created using actual facts and evidence, be it direct writings by Caroline or other people such as Charles Dickens or a diarist of the time.

 

Q. Last of all, do you have a new ‘life’ in mind, underway even?

A. Yes, I do have another project in mind, but it is still percolating through my brain at the moment, so I will remain a little coy about it for the time being.

 

Thank you Sarah!

 

Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)

I also referred to:

Carole Walker, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)

Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852)  preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).

 

Caroline Chisholm, Sarah Goldman

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Caroline Chisholm, or to give it its full title, Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force, How one extraordinary woman helped shape a nation, is a new biography of the woman who single handedly changed (for the better!) the way the Australian colonies dealt with the huge influx of workers, especially women, we needed up till the gold rushes of the 1850s. The author, Sarah Goldman is a journalist – a tv news producer – who lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog. This is her first book.

Goldman believes that earlier biographers have focused on Chisholm’s work and her Catholicism at the expense of revealing her as a person. While adhering to the facts, she says, Goldman has at the beginning of each chapter “imagined scenes that related directly to incidents covered within the subsequent pages.”

Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales … had been surprised when Caroline Chisholm had been ushered into the room, even wondered if he had misheard the name. Instead of the frumpy, bespectacled matron in plain gown and white cap that he had expected, he had been confronted by a handsome, even stately young matron, fashionably dressed and wearing a very fetching bonnet. [Introduction, Sydney 1841]

Caroline Chisholm was born in 1808 in Northampton, England. Her father, William Jones, by then 64, had started out as a farm labourer but was now a prosperous property owner and ‘hog jobber’. He died six years later, leaving Caroline an investment property with substantial rentals. Caroline’s mother, with a number of other children to support, promptly offloaded Caroline onto another Northampton women and then to boarding school where she seems to have obtained a good education. Later, Caroline names another (maybe the same) Northampton woman, Sarah Laws as her mother in the 1851 census.

Caroline early decided on a career in charity. In 1829 she turned 21 and became mistress of her own fortune, but only for so long as she remained unmarried. George Sand whose life we looked at a couple of weeks ago was at the same time in France in exactly the same position – the laws in both countries (most countries probably, I think this also comes up in Anna Karenina) gave complete control of a woman’s property to her husband.

A year later, thirty year old Lieutenant Archibald Chisholm, a Scotsman and a Catholic, returning home on furlough from ten years with the East India Company, met Caroline in Northampton and asked for her hand in marriage. She refused. Only relenting when he acceded to the condition that she retain the freedom to pursue her own objectives. Caroline, brought up Protestant, then converted to Catholicism.

I covered Chisholm’s life and work in some detail in my earlier review of Mary Hoban’s 1973 biography (here), but to give a ‘brief’ recap – Caroline followed Archibald to India where she established a school for the daughters, often mixed race, of ordinary soldiers; then, on his next furlough, they went to NSW, where Caroline took on the problem of female bounty migrants having no support on arrival. She stayed on in Sydney while Archibald went back for another five years in India, touring NSW extensively, escorting groups of young women to positions in the country and conducting an extensive survey into opportunities for rural labour. Here Caroline ventures into Australian Legend territory:

… travelling with the girls on the wagons or, later, riding her own horse, Captain. Her expeditions went “as far as 300 miles into the far interior, sometimes sleeping at the stations of wealthy settlers, sometimes in the huts of poor emigrants or prisoners; sometimes camping out in the bush, teaching the timid awkward peasantry of England, Scotland and Ireland, Protestant and Roman Catholics, Orangemen and Repealers, how to “bush” it.”

By the time Archibald returned, Caroline was well known and highly regarded, and her opinion was sought by – and more often pressed on – the fledgling Legislative Council.

In 1846 the Chisholms returned to England, setting up a base in the poorer part of London and Caroline began advocating for and organising female and family migration to Australia from Britain and Ireland (then in the grip of the Great Famine). There she met Dickens and elements of her survey appeared in the first issue of his magazine Household Words. He was later to satirise her unfairly as Mrs Jellyby* in Bleak House. The establishment of the Family Colonization Loan Society in 1850, and her being only the second woman ever to give evidence to a committee of the House of Lords, made her one of the best known people in Great Britain.

The Society chartered and, later had constructed purpose-built ships, including the Caroline Chisholm which was unfortunately commandeered for troop transport to the Crimean War. Archibald was despatched first to Adelaide, then to Melbourne, where he was subsequently joined by Caroline, to act as the Society’s agent. The Chisholms settled in Victoria, in Melbourne and then Kyneton, but the wave of immigration associated with the gold rushes of the 1850s meant that her work was no longer of such importance.

She was able to persuade the government to establish ‘shelter sheds’, accommodation for families walking between Melbourne and the Castlemaine/Bendigo gold fields, and continued to advocate for an Australian ‘yeomanry’ – family based farms to replace the huge runs taken up by squatters and worked mostly by single men.

Despite her Catholicism, Caroline Chisholm both advocated and practiced multi-culturalism. Attacked by the Protestant preacher John Dunmore Lang for bringing out Irish Catholic girls, Caroline retorted, “I have lived happily amongst pagans and heathens, Mahometans and Hindoos – they never molested me at my devotions, nor did I insult them at theirs; and am I not to enjoy the same privilege in New South Wales?” [reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1846]. Later in Victoria Chisholm was to speak up in the same way for the largely reviled Chinese (I devoted a second post to Chisholm’s views on race here).

In straining to create historical women heroines we sometimes find they are given more prominence now than they were then. The reverse is true of Caroline Chisholm, and of many women authors, whose considerable reputations and influence at the time have not been brought forward by (male) historians. When you think about it, it is nonsensical that school students learn more about the failures of man-heroes Burke & Wills and Ludwig Leichardt than they do about about the successes of Caroline Chisholm, Mary McKillop or Catherine Helen Spence.

In this biography Sarah Goldman presents Chisholm as a powerful early practical feminist, making her way in a man’s world, creating opportunities for women and for families (though at the expense of some neglect of her own), with the unstinting support of her husband. I’m not sure Goldman gets very far behind the public face, though she (rightly) gets angry discussing Dickens and others dismissing Caroline as plump – as well she might be after eight children – and matronly.

The short imagined scenes are an interesting idea to provide an introduction to each chapter, but I was disappointed to find (in the End Notes) that one, where Caroline out in the bush with a dray load of women immigrants is held up by a bushranger, is totally imaginary. Overall however this is a powerful and very well documented work.

 

Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)

Author interview (here)

Other biographies:

Mary Hoban, Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake (1973). My reviews here and here.

Carole Walker, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)

Rod Stinson, Unfeigned Love: Historical Accounts of Caroline Chisholm and Her Work, Yorkcross, Sydney, 2008

Chisholm, Caroline, ed. by John Moran, Radical in Bonnet and Shawl: Four Political Lectures; and Little Joe. (Australia: Preferential Publications, 1994 and 1991)

M. Kiddle, Caroline Chisholm (Melb, 1957)

Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852)  preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).

see also the website http://mrschisholm.com/


*I originally wrote ‘Mrs Jellybelly’, a Freudian slip picked up by Professor Melanie (Grab the Lapels) below.

 

A Question of Death, Kerry Greenwod

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Three decades ago Kerry Greenwood modelled Phryne Fisher – now well-known with her own ABC tv series – on my own favourite fictional hero Simon Templar, the Saint, because “I wanted her to be a female wish-fulfilment figure”.

From all the Phryne Fisher detective stories I have listened to I can tell you that Phryne was an artists’ model in Paris and subsequently an ambulance driver in the Great War; that she grew up in poverty in the Melbourne working class suburb, Richmond until her father unexpectedly inherited an earldom and a fortune; that over time she accumulates a household – in her fine home near St Kilda beach – of a lady’s companion rescued from an orphanage, two highly intelligent adopted daughters whom she sends to school, an older couple who fill the roles of housekeeper/cook/driver/handyman, and a lover from the Little Bourke St Chinese community (or perhaps she’s his concubine); and she drives a red Hispano-Suiza (the Saint drives a Bugatti).

Greenwood set her mysteries “in the 1920s – in 1928 in fact, because I had written a legal history essay on the 1928 wharf strike, my father being a wharf labourer”, and claims that Phryne is “a bold creature for the 1920s but not an impossible one. None of the things she does are out of the question for that brittle, revolutionary period.” I would say rather that Phryne is a modern woman – an Independent Woman as I have defined her previously – set in the (very well researched) past deliberately to illuminate the feminist possibilities.

I have been quoting from Kerry Greenwood On Phryne Fisher, which is the first chapter of A Question of Death (2007). The remainder of the book, printed on glossy paper with illustrations by Beth Norling, consists of thirteen short mysteries, interspersed with recipes and a glossary of 1920s Australian slang.

We blogger/reviewers remark from time to time that the short stories in an anthology are not dated and that makes it harder to evaluate the author’s progress as a writer, and that is the case here. Though I’m guessing they’re printed in the order they were written.

The first Phryne Fisher novel, Cocaine Blues (1989), describes how Phryne gives up high society life in London, sails to Melbourne, takes a suite at the Windsor, employs Dot, her maid/companion and begins solving crimes with the aid, of course, of wharfies, communists and returned soldiers, Bert and Cec.

The first story in this collection, Hotel Splendide, is set maybe a year or so earlier. Phryne is on holidays in Paris with a handsome, young single man when she hears the voice of an Australian woman in distress. “She had no reason to remember Australia with any favour. But the voice brought back hot sun, eucalyptus leaves, ice cream made of real cream.” The woman believes the hotel has stolen her husband. Phryne takes control and in a few hours the husband is discovered. The writing is a bit uncertain, a bit twee maybe and I wondered if these stories might by easier to listen to than to read. But the subsequent stories soon settle down to race along with the familiar mix of sex, fashion, humour and mystery.


Absinthe cocktail

Mix one part absinthe with one part lemon juice. Shake over ice.

Drink while reading Baudelaire – Les Fleurs du Mal perhaps. Or Verlaine.


By the second story Phryne is established in Melbourne and is holding a party. None of her retainers is mentioned but Inspector Jack Robinson is. He’s her Claude Eustace Teal if you know your Saint, though more likely to ask Phryne’s help than to regard her as a rival (or uncaptured villain). There’s a preacher – “a nasty wicked hymn-singing hypocrite” – the improbable murder of two brothers, and the handsome, blonde, not very bright Lindsay gets to stay the night.

Soon we are in more familiar territory with Dot at Phryne’s beck and call and Mr and Mrs Butler respectively making cocktails and cooking. The two girls and the Chinese lover don’t make an appearance in this series, though Bert and Cec do in a later story. The interior of Phryne’s house is sketched in but it is not given a location.

Lindsay wakes up in Phryne’s bed and asks her to marry him –

‘Now listen,’ Phryne planted herself on his knees to keep the young man still and took a fistful of the soft, light hair. ‘You listen to me, Lindsay. I am what I am and I behave as I wish and I will not be dictated to by anyone. If I want lovers, I take them. If I do not want to be married, I will not be married and there’s nothing you can do to make me! Do you hear?’

More mysteries are solved, quickly and without fuss. Archbishop Mannix asks Phryne to find Collingwood coach, Jock McHale’s hat (I realise that is a sentence incomprehensible to non-Melburnians). We mix mostly in high society – new rich and old rich. We motor down to Queenscliffe in the Hispano-Suiza.

In Carnival, Phryne’s escort is a bounder. But after a fine time trying out all the sideshows at a fair, Phyrne finds someone else with whom to spend the night, and Greenwood has the genesis of the novel Blood and Circuses.

My favourite story is probably Death shall be Dead, where Inspector Robinson is studying Chaucer at night school, three grinning bodies are found in a burnt out Footscray house and a black labrador named Anubis proves to be both God of the Dead and Guardian of the Hidden Treasure.

Phryne Fisher fans – and Saint fans too, probably – could not help but enjoy this book. It is beautifully presented and as always, lots of fun. And yet still it manages to be political – feminist, lovingly descriptive of working class and underclass life, and satirical of Melbourne society.

 

Kerry Greenwood, A Question of Death, Poisoned Pen Press (Allen & Unwin), 2007

see also:

My review of Trick or Treat from Greenwood’s “Earthly Delights” series (here)

 

Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee

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J.M. Coetzee – the initials stand for John Maxwell, I had to look that up – was born in South Africa in 1940 and there he made his name as a novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. A year earlier he had migrated to Australia and has since become a citizen. We are blessed to have him.

His eighth novel Disgrace (1999) would seem to mark the end of his South African ‘period’. Since arriving in Australia Coetzee has written five more novels, of which Diary of a Bad Year (2007) is the third. In his introduction to the Text Classics edition (2012) Peter Goldsworthy writes of Coetzee that “each of his novels seems almost wilfully different from its predecessors.”

Diary is certainly “wilfully different”. It is written in three voices. The first, which occupies the top two thirds or so of each page is a series of opinions, varying in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages. The second is separated from the first by a horizontal line across the page and is the voice of an ageing author, living in an apartment tower in Sydney. The third, likewise separated from the second by a horizontal line, is the voice of his typist, the sexy Anya.

I read, and I will say right here, and enjoyed, the novel more or less as it appeared on the page. So, I would read the opinion piece until I reached a convenient stopping point on the following page. Then I would read the ageing author’s and then Anya’s sections, often, because they were shorter, a couple of pages at a time.

The novel is further divided, beginning with ‘Strong Opinions, 12 September 2005 – 31 May 2006’ with pieces from ’01. On the origins of the State’ to ’31. On the Afterlife’; and then a second section ‘Second Diary’ with softer opinions from ’01. A Dream’ to ’24. On Dostoyevsky’.


When I was young and politically active it was common to engage in debates about peoples, nations, governments and states, the distinctions between which are deliberately obscured in these days of government-induced anti-terrorist hysteria. As always, the class in control of the state apparatus must have an ‘other’ whom we the people are made to fear in order to justify their tightening hold on the levers of power. Coetzee in his first opinion discusses our complicity, but also what he regards as our helplessness, in living (and dying) within the bounds of the state, and cites the film The Seven Samurai as an example of people choosing to be ruled in return for being protected.

The Kurosawan story of the origin of the state is still played out in our times in Africa, where gangs of armed men grab power … Though these African military gangs are often no larger or more powerful than the organized criminal gangs of Asia or eastern Europe, their activities are respectfully covered in the media … under the heading of politics (world affairs) rather than crime.

The second opinion ‘On Anarchism’ begins well but ends in pessimism. We may choose Servitude or Revolt, but there is a third way “chosen by millions and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism …”

And so we go on, from the general to the particular, discussing today’s ‘other’, Islamist terrorists, and how our quietism makes us complicit in the horrors which our governments perpetrate ‘on our behalf’.

Coetzee writes both as an Australian: “The Australian government … has been the most abject of the so-called Coalition of the Willing, and has even been prepared to suffer with no more than a tight little smile the humiliation of getting nothing in return.” And as a (former) South African: “The generation of white South Africans to which I belong, and the next generation, and perhaps the generation after that too, will go bowed under the shame of the crimes that were committed in their name.” And so will we, under the crimes, the indefinite imprisonment of non-white refugees, the war in Iraq, that are being committed in our names.

The opinions drift on to other matters, finally pitching up against God and the afterlife where I am less comfortable, and so on to the second section where they become more or less his random thoughts on life and literature, but well worth reading for all that.


The ageing author while doing his washing in the common laundry room runs into a pretty Filipina and attempts to engage her in conversation. Her name is Anya. She lives in a penthouse apartment with Alan, an accountant/financier. She is about 25 and she has a nice arse. After a while he offers her well over the odds to type up his work for him – a series of pieces for a book with contributions from six notable authors, to be published in Germany, entitled Strong Opinions.

He writes, “The passions and prejudices out of which my opinions grew were laid down long before I first set eyes on Anya, and were by now so strong – that is to say, so settled, so rigid – that aside from the odd word here and there there was no chance that refraction through her gaze could alter their angle.” But it does.


Then, 20 pages in, we start getting Anya’s thoughts too. Though as the ageing author – mostly referred to by Anya as Senor C and later, by Alan, as Juan, under a misapprehension that he is Colombian – reports what Anya says, and as Anya reports what Alan says, it is easy to lose track of whose opinion it is that we are reading.

Anya is bored by the political pieces and encourages the ageing author to write on other subjects, the books he reads and the birds he watches in the park. We think that she is keeping her distance, but later we learn that she is always aware of her power as an object of desire and subtly encourages the author to think that way about her, and right at the end we learn what genuine affection she has for him.

For a while this part of the novel is dominated by Alan’s schemes to steal the author’s considerable wealth, but after a drunken dinner à trois, this all comes to nought and Anya leaves him and moves up north to live with her mother.


Coetzee is obviously an important world writer, but he is also an important Australian writer. He writes yes that life goes on, but also that all the while our government is shaming us, and we would do well to heed him.

 

J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, first pub. 2007. This edition Text Classics, 2012

see also:

Sue at Whispering Gums approaches from a different angle altogether (here)
Kim at Reading Matters says “a great read if you’re looking for something meaty and clever” (here)