The Pea Pickers, Eve Langley

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

Brona of Brona’s Books has set herself an ambitious schedule for AWW Gen 3 Week for which I am extremely grateful. First up she has written about one of my favourite authors, Eve Langley, and her first and most famous novel.


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My first illness was that one most common to the children of the poor…a bad education and, like the bite of a goanna, it was incurable and ran for years.

Ethel Jane (Eve) Langley was born in Forbes on the 1st September 1904. After her father, Arthur died in 1915, her mother, Myra moved her small family back to Victoria…

In 1924, Eve and her sister June … travelled and worked around the Gippsland countryside as farm labourers and pickers for the next four years. She kept a diary during this whole time of her doings, her thoughts, poems and stories. Read on …

There is a GAN, revisited

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I mentioned recently that I had seen Jonathan Franzen named as the Great American Author, on a 2011 Time cover I think, and that has led me to revisit the subject of the Great Australian Novel. There is a GAN was one of my earliest posts, and on re-reading I find there is not much I wish to change, at least not in what I say, but two books I have read since then (April 2015) cry out to be included. So my top 10 Great Australian Novels are now –

Voss (1957), Patrick White

Such is Life (1903), Joseph Furphy

The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright (review)

Benang (1999), Kim Scott (review)

The Pea Pickers (1943), Eve Langley (review)

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead

The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland (review)

An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin (review)

The books I had to make room for were The Swan Book and Benang. Everything Alexis Wright writes is soaringly original, invested with poetry, love of language and Indigenous culture. That is true too of Benang though some of Scott’s other works are more prosaic.

And I’ve included too Eve Langley who in 2015 languished in the long list, not so much for The Pea Pickers, which I love, but for her whole body of work, 4,200 pages, largely unpublished, but samples of which Lucy Frost (ed.) used to produce Wilde Eve.

Dropped out were My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, who when young was an original, inventive, exuberant but still thoughtful writer; Loaded by Chris Tsialkos who I think is only a middle ranking author in middle age when I thought he might be much more; and The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler, a work which I still rank very highly but which perhaps is insufficiently mainstream to be one of the ‘greats’.

Voss clings to top spot. White, I get the feeling, is being treated as less and less relevant, but he was a giant of Modernism, in Australia and in the world. Each of his works on its own has substance and his body of work more so. He teaches us how to write and how to write about Australia. Coincidentally, the Voss cover comes from a SMH article Australia Day 2015: Jason Steger picks his top 10 (here).

Furphy is White’s opposite, a working man, a man of the bush, an autodidact, the author of a single work. And yet what a work! Its fiery, mad prose anticipates James Joyce by a quarter of a century.

Stead, like White has a significant body of substantial work. I’ve named The Man Who Loved Children, though my favourite is the thoroughly American Letty Fox: Her Luck (and I still have a couple of big ones left to read). Looking back at the list I see that I have largely avoided romances – just An Australian Girl at no. 10 – is that prejudice do you think? Perhaps I should have named For Love Alone.

That question applies too to Henry Handel Richardson. The Fortunes trilogy is certainly a fine work and made Richardson’s reputation but Maurice Guest is probably more thoughtful and better written.

The question for Dark is, Is The Timeless Land trilogy a great work or ‘merely’ an important one? It is such a landmark in our acknowledgement of the prior rights of Indigenous people in Australia that it is hard to judge its qualities as literature. But Dark’s qualities as a writer and early modernist were made apparent (to me) when I reviewed Waterway last year.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is another work important for being a landmark. Urban, industrial, postmodern, it marked a step up from pre-War social realism.

Which brings us to one of my favourites, An Australian Girl, a very C19th romance with lots of German and moral philosophy in an Australian setting.

And still I haven’t found room for Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, or as Steger reminds me, Elizabeth Harrower, nor for Peter Carey whose Oscar and Lucinda at least, deserved consideration, nor for another Steger choice Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

I look around my shelves, as I often do, and realise that just as I left out Langley last time, this time I have left out (again!) Gerald Murnane. The post can stay as it is but if I were to pick one of his works it would be Border Districts, an intensely thoughtful work about memory, but again, I haven’t read them all.

The question I have in my mind though, is who among our young, and even not so young writers might challenge for inclusion on this list. Or a different/related question, after The Swan Book what is the best novel so far of the C21st? I’m inclined to say Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. Or is it, like The River Ophelia, too narrowly focussed to be a ‘great’. And do I even read enough new releases to be able to offer an opinion. Probably not!

Australia Writes, T. Inglis Moore ed.

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My late father’s books are an endless resource, more than I’ll ever read, not before I retire at least and by then I’ll be too tired. I’ve shelved them with mine, not so ordered as Lisa’s, so I come upon them at odd times. The bookcase on my left as I write – jarrah shelves roughly knocked together by an old family friend of Milly’s late mother, years ago when she was a widow with six school age children – contains mostly stuff from when I was studying, Miles Franklin, her contemporaries, Lit. theory, but I found` there today Australia Writes (1953), a compilation of short stories and poetry “written or published since 1950” and which Dad must have got second hand (for $6.00, compared with the original price of 19/6 – 19 shillings and 6d for all you youngsters, or just under $2.00).

The title page says “Edited for the Canberra Fellowship of Australian Writers by T. Inglis Moore”. Moore (bio here) writes in the Foreword –

Within its diversity the fiction … holds characteristics common to contemporary Australian writing. It turns frequently to the countryside – perhaps because writers feel that the true traditions of Australia lie in “The Bush”. It is marked by vigour and sincerity. The feeling for social justice is pervasive. The outlook is upon a workaday world; over it we could hang the roadside sign: “Men at Work”.

Men at work indeed, of the 30 short stories, six are by women – Flora Eldershaw, Dorothy Harrison, Ethel Anderson, Kylie Tennant, Elyne Mitchell, Henrietta Drake Brockman. I didn’t count the poets, but it’s more or less the same, Judith Wright, 5 or 6 other women and 30 men.

Eve Langley’s there:

A youth, kicking the self-starter of a
motor-bike sends
A vast vibration out to the sun, and it
returns his shadow in rain.
Out from the sun startles the line of
things, and the flying cars
Set their undertones in a dark and
silver note upon the line.
(This year before it ends)

Drake Brockman’s is a puff piece about Miles Franklin; and Tennant’s is a funny, queer, all right – strange story, a slice of many lives during a flood in Narbethong (not the Narbethong NE of Melbourne I don’t think, but one on a river with a dam upstream).

The story I’ve chosen to review is The National Game by T.A.G. Hungerford, a West Australian writer about whom I wrote earlier this year (here). His ‘national game’ is not Australian football as I expected but a two-up game in the national capital.

WG do you recognise this landscape?

Eastside Camp squats on the top of a red gravel hill and droops in untidy folds of unpainted wooden buildings down the slope to where a road skirts the willow-lined river… Behind it is the sky, and in front of it the road and river, and the lush greenness of the lucerne flats. Dotted with red and white cows, they stretch almost unbroken to Duntroon and the aerodrome.

Map (here): The camp may have been near Mt Pleasant, in the centre of the map. Lake Burley Griffin was not filled for another decade. I can remember visiting Nana and Pop, Dad’s parents when the lake was just paddocks as Hungerford describes.

Two men, Ransome and Kernow, an Old Australian and a New Australian, a Pole, called a ‘Balt’ by the Aussies, are workers on a project, maybe Civic (Canberra Centre), which was completed in 1961. Hungerford imagines what it might be like to be in Kernow’s head, dealing with the vagaries of slang and the latent hostility of ‘Old’ Aussies, who complain about foreigners taking their jobs, despite, as Kernow points out, there being a chronic shortage of labour.

Ransome offers to take Kernow to play two-up:

“I’m going up the game – up to Ainslie.”
“Game?”
“Yeah, the game. Swy – two-up, you know, with the pennies? At Limestone Hostel. They run a big one there in the scrub, behind.”

They play, Kernow wins, wins big, and they are chased home by some sore losers. Hungerford’s point is not the outcome of the game but to discuss aspects of Australianness by shining a ‘New Australian’ light on it. Kernow offers Ransome half his winnings, but Ransome demurs: “No Paul … we don’t do things like that here – you won it and it’s yours. Whack it in the kick.”

Kernow (note that Hungerford makes no attempt to give him a typical Polish name. Too hard.) is unhappy that he is not accepted by Old Australians even after two or three years and proposes using the money to return to Germany (Not to communist Poland!) but Ransome persuades him he has enough with his savings to buy some land.

To buy some land! His hands clenched hard about the the wads of notes they held; not the rich black soil of Poland, farmed and loved for hundreds of years by his father and his father’s father, but the wild soil of this wild, wide country that would have to be tamed, and coerced, and then, with love, brought to yield.

It’s an interesting book of our white picket fence past, those last few years before the ‘sixties’, womens lib, the anti-war movement, multiculturalism. Aborigines are, and would remain invisible for many more years. They get one poem, Nomads by Roland Robinson, and maybe a second, The Ancestors by Judith Wright of which I could make not head nor tail: “in each notched trunk shaggy as an ape/crouches the ancestor, the dark bent foetus …”

I should give it to B2, to mark his birth year.

 

T Inglis Moore (ed.), Australia Writes, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1953