Remembrance, Faith Richmond

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Faith Richmond is strangely invisible on Google. As best I can gather she is (or was) an illustrator and writer, born in New Zealand in about 1935 and who, as she details in this memoir of her childhood and adolescence, grew up in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne.

I trust the ‘Imprint’ imprint and buy them on sight, it’s a good way of getting hold of Australian classics. I paid $6 for this one, I don’t remember where, carried it with me for a long time as reserve reading, and am sorry that I was disappointed in it. What follows is my best attempt at a fair review.

It’s a pity my father’s not still around, as he too grew up in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne and at more or less the same time, and he might have enjoyed the recollections. Remembrance is subtitled, though not anywhere prominent, A Daughter’s Story and that is what it is, a story of growing up seen through the prism of the author’s relationship with her parents.

Richmond’s father and mother were hippies before hippies were invented, bohemians maybe although not obviously belonging to any arty community, but definitely non-conforming. Father is a university lecturer, in Philosophy maybe although it’s never made clear; mother is ‘artistic’, a gardener, and an active communist.

Faith has a sister two years older and a baby brother. There is another, older brother, adopted from a ‘shelter for fallen women’ who is mostly ‘away’ – perhaps in a reform school. It is never said why and towards the end of the book, after a long absence, he turns up leading a normal life with a steady job and a young wife.

The story underlying the whole of the book and all of the author’s growing up is that father is manic. In the beginning this is just eccentricity

… sometimes he reminds me of the Charlie Chaplin film we saw. He puts on brightly coloured clothes – once he wore my sister’s yellow tutu from the ballet – and strides around making loud speeches. It seems to be at special times he does these funny things. And it’s not very often. I asked my mother on one occasion if it was his birthday that made him so happy and she looked angry and said his birthday was six months away.

Gradually he begins accepting medication, kicking against its deadening effects, takes to his bed with ‘flu’, becomes unemployable, works gardening jobs for the council, gives one private, failed ‘symposium’, and finally is committed.

I never warm to the author, she holds us at arm’s length though that may not have been her intention. Everything is described but nothing is felt. There is none of that teenage exuberance that illuminates My Brilliant Career for example, and in fact there are similarities with Miles Franklin’s much later My Childhood at Brindabella. Both are written with theĀ  hindsight of older age and in both the child is too knowing and the descriptions too adult.

The older sister has a teacher who encourages her to write, but he has a weakness for flowery prose and the whole family conspire with the budding writer to come up with ever more elaborate phrases for her essays. The problem is that the author herself, unconscious of the irony, writes in exactly this way. So she writes of herself at 11

As I lie there watching the chiaroscuro of quicksilver shadows on the wall beside me, the evening brings to life a day several weeks ago when my father sat reading in the darting shadows of the prunus tree.

In Brisbane they live in Auchenflower near the university, the author attends kindergarten, primary school, the family takes a day trip by train to the beach at Sandgate – the first time I went in a Brisbane train I was locked in! No door handles! you had to lower the sash window and open the door from the outside. They’re different in Queensland. In Canberra they live first in Turner then in a farm house by the fields that became Lake Burley Griffin.

The author attends Canberra High, then when they move to Melbourne, to a little house in Caulfield with a back yard and an orchard, MacRob Girls where she’s unhappy until her father gets her into University High where she is still solitary but at least fits in. Mother takes menial work as father’s income falls off, and the girls too get jobs. There is a lot of description of the War and immediate post-war years but I’m afraid Richmond never really brings it to life. Not for me anyway.

 

Faith Richmond, Remembrance, Wm Collins, Sydney, 1988. Cover picture, Flowerpiece on a Table, Grace Cossington-Smith