Honour & Other People’s Children, Helen Garner

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Honour and Other People’s Children are novellas of 56 and 100 pp respectively. The front cover of my copy looks like the one above but adds “by the author of the best-seller, Monkey Grip”. Monkey Grip (1977), a fictionalisation of Garner’s experiences as a single mother living with a drug addict in inner Melbourne, was Garner’s first novel, coming out when she was 35, and after she was sacked as a teacher for writing an article about discussing sexuality with her students.

So this is Garner’s second. Rather slight, just slices of life – I guess her publisher was pushing her to take advantage of her initial success – with interestingly, more distance between the author and her protagonists than in her other works. Garner is of course famous for writing about herself and her friends, only loosely fictionalized, but if she is in these stories then she’s not so blatant about it. Though perhaps it’s just that they are both in third person.

Honour

Honour is the story of Kathleen, Frank, Jenny, all thirtyish, and Flo aged 6, told from Kath’s point of view. Frank has left Kath and Flo to live with Jenny and now he wants not just a divorce from Kath but for Flo to live with him and Jenny.

The setting of course is the inner suburbs of Melbourne, around Melbourne Uni, in the 1980s when gentrification was well underway in Parkville and Carlton, but not so much in North Carlton, North Fitzroy and the nearer parts of Brunswick, and beyond them, not at all.

Sometimes when you read Helen Garner you can work out, almost to the street, where she/her protagonist is living, by where she walks and the trams she takes. This story feels like Brunswick, once working class, ‘modernized’ by Greeks and Italians in the 60s and 70s before they moved on and out to bigger suburban houses, then taken over by young, Anglo bargain hunters. In fact, to get completely sidetracked by geography, it must be West Brunswick:

The house was at the bottom of a dead-end road with narrow, yellowing nature strips, and a railway line running across its very end like stitches closing a bag… Its facade, a triangle on top of a square, was slightly awry and painted the aqua colour favoured by Greek landlords.

In the late 60s when I first came to Melbourne, Brunswick Rd, Dawson St and all the other east-west roads that crossed that line had big white wooden gates that were opened and closed by a railway man in a little wooden hut; Brunswick was industrial, with factories and transport depots; and the Sarah Sands‘ customers had all lived through the Battle of Britain and if you went there on a Saturday night for the singing and dancing you could imagine Lancaster bombers overhead.

By the 80s that was just about all gone, Brunswick was seedy residential, and in Garner’s work implied rather than described, but unmistakably Melbourne. I digress. Kathleen and Frank have been happily separated for some time and both are surprised that he wants a divorce.

‘You see’, he began in a gentler voice, with his head on one side, ‘I’ve always thought I’d go on being related to you, for the rest of my life.’

Golly, that strikes a chord! The story meanders round a bit, establishing the connections between Kath and Frank, and the very knowing relationship Flo has with Kath. Kath and Jenny as you might expect have an awkward relationship, but Flo dreams that they might all live together. And in Garner’s world of share houses and cooperative living it is possible that they might. As the story ends Flo has persuaded her two mothers to sit facing each other on a seesaw:

It rose without haste, sweetly, to the level, steadied and stopped. They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless.

Other People’s Children

The second story has a completely new cast and is about the difficulties rather than the possibilities of shared living, about a share house in Fitzroy, say, which Garner contrasts with another house in Prahran, south of the river, where they just can’t do it right.

Scotty is a school teacher unhappy with her lumpy body, committed to cooperative living, but bossy with it. Ruth is a deserted mother of two with a complaisant daughter and a feral young son. Scotty and Ruth had lived in a happy, noisy women’s share house but the lease had run out and the best Scotty could find for them was this smaller house. The other tenant is a musician, Alex.

In the Prahran house Madigan, an inarticulate, unemployable, “great lump of a fellow”, has a ‘room’ which is a actually “a converted shed that sagged against the back fence”. His housemates are hippies. “The women worked at odd things, tolerated the three children of one of them, cooked huge, ill-assorted vegetarian meals, and listened respectfully to the opinions of the men, all of whom were musicians of one stripe or another.”

Madigan is a musician too, plays the mouth organ. The point of the story, I guess, is Ruth working up the courage to break free from Scotty, but the climax is a pub gig, Madigan up front leading Alex’s band and Scotty drunk, dancing: “… Madigan working away at the centre microphone … peeling off high, sheer ribbons of sound. Everyone was dancing.”

The last time I lived in a share house, in Drummond St, Carlton, next door to the police station, I was in my early 20s and the Young Bride and I were just back, unemployed, after a year in Queensland. I was chasing driving jobs, but the others were student teachers, on bursaries, primly middle class, house-sharing an economic rather than a political option, for us as well as them, and YB and I were soon in a little house at the coal yard end of Alfred Crescent.

The women and men of Garner’s households are a decade older, sharing is how they live. Garner knows them and dissects the tensions of their lives with wit, finesse and pellucid prose.

 

Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children, McPhee Gribble, 1980 (Cover pic of Penguin edition, 1982)

Map of inner Melbourne (here). Brunswick is at the top and Prahran bottom right. Carlton isn’t named but is the area immediately to the right of Melbourne Uni in the centre. Google maps is very poor at showing railway lines, but the line to the northern suburbs (the Craigieburn line?) runs from south to north up the centre of the map.

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Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Ruby Langford Ginibi

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934 -2011) was a  Bundjalung woman from the NSW north coast. Last week I said Hetty Verolme (here) was the same age as my mum, well so was Ruby Langford. and three Australian women couldn’t have had more different lives. We just need a Toorak or North Shore matron to complete the circle, though of course there would be points of similarity as well as difference. So mum and Ruby grew up in rural communities, with not a lot to go round in those years before and during WWII, did well at school but left early and were soon saddled with young children.

Ruby’s oldest, Billy was born the same year I was and Pearl a year later. Seven others followed, to other fathers, and while mum and dad like most of white Australia, working class and middle class, began to leave post-Depression poverty behind in the 1950s, that was not true of Ruby and her fellow Kooris. Indeed, as I read this book there seemed to be many times until her children were all grown that she seemed to be going backwards.

Ruby’s mother and father separated when she was six. Her mother went to Sydney and raised a new family and it was a long time before Ruby regained regular contact with her. For a while she and her sisters Gwen and Rita were ‘mothered’ by Aboriginal clever man, Uncle Ernie Ord, then her father took them to “Aunty Nell and Uncle Sam in Bonalbo“. She lived an ordinary country life in Bonalbo, which she always looked back on as her home town, her father seeing them occasionally while working away, and a mysterious self-contained Aboriginal stockman who was sometimes in town turning out to be her grandfather.

Ruby describes herself as always having her nose in a book, and a good student but at 16 she left home to join her father and his new family in Sydney and began working as a machinist, sewing shirts. Of course she becomes interested in boys and is soon pregnant. This is a warts and all autobiography, an Australian classic, and another view of Sydney and NSW working class poverty which we are familiar with from the works of Kylie Tennant and Ruth Park. Ruby lists her husbands and we see each of them as real people, but they are also a type – rural workers without trades, drinkers, womanizers and violent when drunk.

At each setback, the man finds work fencing, burning off, labouring, Ruby establishes a home – in a hut or a tent – keeps the home clean, the children fed, pitches in with the outside work, has another baby (gets to spend 2 or 3 weeks in hospital) and then one day the man doesn’t come back, or comes back drunk and belts her.

I felt like I was living tribal but with no tribe around me, no close-knit family. The food gathering, the laws and songs were broken up, and my generation at this time wandered around as if we were tribal but in fact living worse than the poorest of the poor whites, and in the case of women living hard because it seemed like the men loved you for a while and then more kids came along and the men drank and gambled and disappeared. It happened with Gordon and later it happened with Peter [Langford], and my women friends all have similar stories. Neddy [Nerida, her best friend] and I have talked about it often as we get older, and how it’s not always different for our daughters and their kids, but those stories are for later.

There are glimpses of hope – that is I, the reader, thinks she may grasp an opportunity to move towards a middle class life – she is an early member of an association formed by Charles Perkins and is appointed editor of their magazine, but is gone before the first issue; and she wins a prize with a short story. But that is it, she descends into urban poverty and welfare dependence, her children start getting into trouble, Pauline dies, struck by a car, Billy dies next, Ruby begins to drink heavily and becomes morbidly obese. Another son is victimised by police, fires a gun, is beaten and charged with resisting arrest, is jailed, escapes, is recaptured, beaten etc. etc. On release he settles down, buys a house, the solicitor steals his money, he gets into fights, is victimised by police, fires a gun …

Ruby gives up the grog, joins a women’s group, starts writing, gets interested in Aboriginal affairs, in particular the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. As I have said elsewhere and as Ruby Langford documents here, Aboriginals have mysterious accidents when in the hands of police who of course are always found to be not at fault.

Slowly she becomes aware of Koori success stories as well as the failures. Her sister Rita has trained as a teacher and works in teacher ed. At the top of her list of books that shouldn’t be taught is We of the Never Never, Mrs A. Gunn.

Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988) made Ruby Langford a success story in her own right and she went on to honorary degrees and four more books. I hope I haven’t given the impression she had an unhappy life, she lived and – so she writes – enjoyed a life of considerable exuberance and love. If you haven’t already, read this book!

 

Ruby Langford Ginibi, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988

 

 

The Children’s House of Belsen, Hetty E Verolme

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I’ve made known before my ambivalence about Holocaust stories (here) and won’t repeat them, but this one which in any case is not new, was worth listening to and adds to our understanding of the huge variety of places and backgrounds Australians come from.

Hetty Verolme (1930 – ) was born a year or so before my mother and they are both now probably happily and comfortably retired in Melbourne, but their experience of the War was completely different. While mum was attending school in the Mallee and living in relative if frugal post-Depression comfort on the meat, milk, eggs etc of my grandparents’ farm, Hetty Werkendam was confined with her parents, grandparents and two younger brothers, Max and Jack, to the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, her father paying all he could raise to the SS in a vain attempt to have the family sent to neutral Portugal in exchange for German prisoners of war.

Their neighbours being rounded up around for transport to concentration camps, her grandfather mistakenly volunteering to go to a ‘work camp’ (in fact Auschwitz), it was only a matter of time before the Werkendams too were transported, in 1943, to Bergen-Belsen. There – and it is a week or so so since I listened to this – the family were able to stay ‘together’ for a while, mother, Hetty and Jack in a women’s hut, father and Max in a men’s hut, but gathering in the women’s hut until the nighttime curfew. Mother working long hours in the ‘peel room’ attached to the kitchen and bringing back scraps of carrot. Father too having to work and held in a cage for some time for disobedience.

Food is of course inadequate, mostly watery soup and sometimes potatoes. The Germans enforce long daily assemblies in all weathers to maintain their counts of the prisoners but also out of sheer bastardry. This is a ‘solid’ account, told without a lot of emotion, though the facts, like the dead bodies, pile up and have their own force. My initial feeling was that the account was a bit wordy but on reflection I think the word constructions which I found awkward are just reflections of the author’s underlying Dutch language.

Soon father and mother are transported, separately to other camps. The 30 or 40 Dutch children left behind are moved to their own hut under the care of two Polish (and I assume Jewish) women prisoners, in particular ‘Sister’ Luba who, despite Hetty’s initial suspicions, goes to great lengths to secure food and clothing for the children.

Late in the war, the older children are also moved away, but Hetty alone, by then going on 15, secures permission to stay on, in her role as ‘little mother’. She describes the horrors of the other sections of the camp, seen as she walks through it to the kitchen. No gas chambers – though word gets back to them from Auschwitz – but starvation, hard work, sickness and punishments.

She describes a group of women dressed in rags railed in and housed in tents which blow away in a storm. She does not say so but this group includes fellow Amsterdam teenager Anne Frank, soon dead of typhus.

Hetty is herself almost dead of the same disease, which had understandably swept through the camp, when the war ends and the camp is liberated by British troops – the Germans surrender the area around the camp before the end of the war and it is still apparently British territory. The children, clinging to Sister Luba are moved to a comfortable camp where they begin to recover, but are then flown to a school building without facilities in the countryside outside Amsterdam.

The children, and their father are soon reunited. Mother, who has ended up somehow in Sweden is held up for months before she too can return to Holland. Hetty is interviewed for the BBC and elements of her story have been in the public record ever since.

The British on their arrival at the camp found tens of thousands of bodies awaiting burial. Hetty describes them being dumped in great piles visible from her sickbed window. If you have the stomach this Time-Life story includes photos. Pits were dug and SS guards, men and women, were forced into burial details.

Hetty found herself unable to return to school and entered the fashion industry – her father had been a cloth merchant. She migrated to Australia in 1954 and in 1972 was named “Most Successful Migrant”. She was a founder of a trust for the children of Belsen towards which are directed the proceeds from this book. She surprised herself by attending the 50th anniversary of the end of the War at Belsen and found many old friends.

 

Hetty E Verolme, The Children’s House of Belsen, 2000, Audiobook: Bolinda, 2011, read by Deidre Rubenstein

Wikipedia has these as her published works –

  • The Children’s House of Belsen. Published by Werma Pty. Ltd. Perth, Western Australia 2009, 2013 as Trustee for “The Children For Bergen Trust”. ISBN 978-0-9922973-0-5. First published 2000 by Fremantle Press, Western Australia.
  • Hetty: A True Story, Fremantle Press 2010, ISBN 978-19-2136-133-3

see also my ‘Anne Frank’ review: Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic (here)

All That Swagger, Miles Franklin

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Angus & Robertson 1952 ed.

By the 1930s Miles Franklin, in her fifties, was at last established as a writer, both in her own mind with the relative success of the first three Brent of Bin Bin novels published in 1928, 1930 and 1931, and with the publication, under her own name for the first time since 1909, of Old Blastus of Bandicoot in 1931. Permanently back in Sydney from years overseas in Chicago and London, as “spinster-daughter-cum-housekeeper” in her mother’s house in Carlton (Jill Roe’s words) she was also a leading member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers – with Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson – and was often called on to give talks.

In her last years in London Franklin had written two ‘Mayfair’ novels. One eventually came out in 1950 as Prelude to Waking (by Brent of Bin Bin), the other, Bring the Monkey, was published in 1933 but sold only a few hundred copies. This marked the end of an excursion into writing about town-based women, her lived experience since the turn of the century. She had already returned to the Bush where her heart had always been with Brent of Bin Bin, but All That Swagger was to be her great triumph.

Jill Roe believes that this was the book Franklin had to write. The trigger was the death of her father – the novel is a fictionalized account of her Franklin grandfather’s pioneering exploits – but Miles “seized upon the Franklin experience over time as the perfect vehicle for what she wanted to say about contemporary Australia, with its still-uncertain culture and fragile environment.”

Ignoring her commitments to publishers Blackwood for another Brent of Bin Bin novel – Mary Fullerton was told to tell Blackwood that ‘William Blake’ (Brent) was probably in the United States – it took her only a few months, to Aug. 1933, to knock out a rough draft of 400 odd pages and two more to come up with a first typescript.

I have written before that Franklin gave up on her feisty independent heroines to write a novel that men would approve of – though I can’t find any evidence that she ever said this out loud – a story of men taming the Bush, mainstream Oz Lit, and when the novel came out in 1936 they did approve and were at last willing to praise her.

The saga begins in the 1830s in County Clare, Ireland. Free-thinking (ie. non-religious) Danny Delacy, whose Trinity College-educated father runs a small school, persuades Catholic Johanna, the daughter of the local ‘squire’, to elope with him to Australia.

Danny gains employment with a squatter on the Goulburn plains (inland of Sydney) but he is determined to be a land owner and all the best land is taken. Eventually he is assisted by his employer to take up a “sliver of land” on the Murrumbidgee.* “The new place was called Bewuck by the blacks for the hauls of cod they caught in the fish hole, almost in front of the homestead.”

The land is heavily treed and must be cleared. “Guarding the illusive land were throngs of giants – the stateliest trees on the globe. Delacy was like an ant in the aisles of box trees and towering river gums, but he attacked them as an army.” Johanna makes the best of her primitive house and begins having children. Although Franklin’s stories generally include a central matriarch, Johanna, while fitting the bill, takes second place to Danny.

Later in the novel as Johanna dies and Danny declines into old age the spotlight shifts not to their sons, and certainly not except briefly to their daughters, but to their grandchildren, cousins Clare Margaret and Darcy, both surrogates for Franklin herself. Clare Margaret the idealised bushwoman Franklin might have been had her father remained in the mountains; and Darcy, whose ineffective cow cocky father and domineering disappointed mother enable Franklin to express her unhappiness with her own situation both growing up and now, at her mother’s beck and call.

The Brent of Bin Bin novels are based on Miles’ mother’s family who had extensive holdings in and around Talbingo on the opposite, western slopes of the Australian Alps. The Franklin family appear in these novels as the Milfords, and Agnes ‘Ignez’ Milford is effectively Miles herself. As far as I can see though, the Milfords and the Delacys, both fictional, both based on the Franklins, have completely separate stories (I expected bits of Up the Country and Ten Creeks Run to cross over into All That Swagger but it doesn’t happen).

Although squatting was by the 1840s technically illegal, the NSW government took no action other than to charge an annual fee and to mandate that small parcels of land must be released to settlers. Danny aspires to virgin land in the Alps –

He could never ascend from his gorges to the higher land of Quebarra or Glenties without exalted emotion. He would gaze towards the Australian Alps and collaterals, extending for eighty or a hundred miles around the translucent horizon, and feel as a poet drinking from the fountain of inspiration. There lay a land to be wrought to the heart’s desire. With this attitude of the visionary was interwoven the need for energetic action. In the rare moments when he sat with Johanna before retiring he talked of going up the Murrumbidgee with his surplus stock and settling in a valley the blacks called Burrabinga.

Miles Franklin has her shortcomings and this novel is just a straight recounting of one family’s beginnings, generating little narrative tension. But Danny and his mates, fellow struggling squatter Sandy Urquhart and publican Hennessy, his sons Robert, William and Harry are all well realised, as are Johanna and her older daughter Della. There are many supporting characters, so many that following marriage prospects and side stories – for instance that of Bella Rafferty who rises from a hovel to become first a servant then wife of a squatter – is hard work. Later generations, around Margaret Clare, are rushed; Miles’ feminist concerns are snuck back in by roundabout routes, but they’re there; the renditions of Danny’s philosophical musings in Irish brogue are bearable, Johanna’s scoldings are often amusing; and above all the descriptions of country and horsemanship are outstanding.

I won’t give you the ins and outs of the story, the opening up of Burrabinga; Danny lost for months, losing a leg on a journey out into the plains; Burrabinga abandoned, reclaimed; the establishment of a great breed of horses; Danny’s banishment from the marital bed; (son) Robert’s adventures in manhood etc, etc right up to a pioneering England-Australia flight by a fourth generation Delacy in the 1930s. But allow me one more excursion.

We are all, rightly, becoming concerned with how Australian literature takes into account Indigenous points of view. Franklin in her writing is sympathetic to the plight of ‘blacks’ but appears to subscribe to the then widely (and conveniently) accepted dying out thesis. In the middle of the book she writes of the second generation marrying, starting families, “All were behaving in a way becoming to an empty continent where population was in demand.”

I get the impression there was a general acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights in ‘liberal’ circles at this time of writing. As a case in point, Eleanor Dark’s A Timeless Land was published just five years later.  Franklin ascribes to Danny a viewpoint acknowledging prior and ongoing occupation of ‘his’ land. In the early days local Ngarigo people came each year to Bewuck to fish for cod and Danny would pay them a bullock to slaughter for their land, though it is clear the people soon stop coming. She also mentions that Danny did not approve of nor take part in any shootings – which we are learning were far more commonplace than previously accepted. Danny also ‘adopts’ two Aboriginal children who fill a place somewhere between retainers and friends for the rest of their lives.

My verdict: still well worth reading.

 

Miles Franklin, All That Swagger, Sydney, 1936. Published as a serial in The Bulletin after winning that year’s Prior Prize, then as a book, also in 1936, by Angus & Robertson (see my post ‘Prior Prize Winners, All That Swagger’). My edition Sirius Books, 1986.

For all Miles Franklin reviews and other posts on her see my Miles Franklin page.


*I had difficulties with the geography, but I think the first Delacy homestead Beewuk was on the Murrumbidgee south west of (present day) Canberra. Late in the novel Beewuk is resumed by the Federal Government as part of the Australian Capital Territory.

Burrabinga, the property in the Alps, is presumably Brindabella, where Franklin spent her first 8 years, but as far as I can tell it is not upstream on the Murrumbidgee, but on a tributary. (Map The Murrumbidgee is a faint white line running south to north through the centre of the map). Sue/Whispering Gums, can you add any more?

 

 

Elizabeth Jolley, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

ANZLitLovers Elizabeth Jolley Week June 4-11 2018

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Wikipedia: date, photographer not stated

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) gets a chapter in Hughes-d’Aeth’s account of Western Australian Wheatbelt writers, Like Nothing on this Earth (2017) mostly on the strength of her most famous novel, The Well (1986). I wrote an essay on The Well for my degree, maybe 12 years ago, but it has been lost in moving house and at least two computer upgrades. Disappointing. I like to reuse my material and I had spent a season carting grain in the area where the book is set just a few years earlier.

Jolley, who had grown up in “the Black Country of the English Midlands”, moved to Western Australia with her husband and three small children in 1959. Hughes-d’Aeth says that although she had been working on stories and novels all her adult life, her formal career as a writer dates from the late 1960s – her mid 40s – when she began to have stories published in Westerly and Quadrant. Her first novel came out in 1980, her second, The Newspaper of Claremont Street – which draws on the author’s own life in Claremont and her search for a patch of land in the country to call her own – in 1981. The Well, 5 years later, was her seventh.

The Jolleys purchased their 5 acre hobby farm in 1970, at Wooroloo, 60 kms out of Perth in the Darling ranges. Hilly and well treed country in the main, on the Great Eastern Highway out of town, and still 50 km short of Wheatbelt country. Her account of the purchase and her feelings for the land are in Diary of a Weekend Farmer (1993).

Jolley first became acquainted with the Wheatbelt in the 1970s when she was roped into supporting an initiative for the Fremantle Arts Centre where she was giving classes in creative writing, which involved her in sending out books and supporting material to discussion groups in the country then in meeting with the groups as a travelling tutor. Jolley was obviously fascinated by her long, lonely drives

All the miles of wheat in all directions, folded and mended in places, are pulled together as if seamed, by little dark lines of trees, as if they are embroidered with rich green wool or silk on a golden background. In the design of the embroidery are some silent houses and sheds. Narrow places, fenced off and watered sparingly, produce a little more of the dark green effect. At the intervals, there are unsupervised windmills, turning and clicking with a kind of solemn and honest obedience. [Jolley, A Small Fragment of the Earth]

Jolley referenced her little farm in her first collection of (linked) short stories, Five Acre Virgin (1976). The first story to have a recognisable Wheatbelt setting was “The Long Distance Lecture” which appeared in 1979 in her second collection.

The road is well made and the wheat is standing in that golden stillness just before the harvest

contrasts with

… the township at dusk seemed to be a desolate scattered poverty; a shabbiness of blistered little houses, stacks of poles and empty drums gathered near a closed petrol station, and a wheat silo alongside a deserted overgrown railway line.

The paddocks and the townships it seems standing respectively for life and death. Jolley always seemed to see the Wheatbelt in gothic terms, beauty underlain by isolation and death, and overtly models this story on Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1907) in which a man travelling in arctic wilderness waits too long to stop and build the fire which might save his life.

She expanded on the literary lecturer in the Wheatbelt theme in the novel Foxybaby (1985) but it is in The Well that she brings the Wheatbelt to life.

Hester Harper has grown old on her father’s wheat sheep farm outside an unnamed town which is probably based on Brookton on the edge of the Wheatbelt closest to Perth. The Harper property is one of the larger farms in the district and Hester has proved a competent manager. But when she takes on a young woman, Katherine, as a servant/companion and her father dies, she abandons her roles as farm manger and pillar of local society in her infatuation for Katherine, gives up her homestead to the Bordens and their brood of sons, and takes up a little cottage on the edge of the property.

Coming home late from a dance, Kathy driving, they hit a shape in the dark, a man, a man who has broken into the cottage and stolen it later turns out Hester’s wad of cash. Hester dumps his body in the disused well they use for rubbish and from there it gets very gothic indeed.

For Jolley the endless fields of wheat are both isolating and lawless, providing a space, as in many of her works, in which women may operate free of men, free of authority. Veronic Brady, nun, writer, and ABC Commissioner points out “the tension in [Jolley’s] characters between the wish to exclude masculine agency from their lives, on the one hand, and a need, on the other, to find something of themselves in this masculine agency.” [Brady, Elizabeth Jolley, New Critical Essays]

Let me finish with a quote from Jolley, who despite drawing so heavily on her own experience insists, like Miles Franklin after My Brilliant Career, and countless others, that her work is fiction:

My fiction is not autobiographical but, like all fiction, it springs from moments of truth and awareness, from observation and experience. I try to develop the moment of truth with the magic of the imagination. I try to be loyal to this moment of truth and to the landscape of my own region or the specific region in which the novel or story is set. I have always felt that the best fiction is regional. [Jolley, Learning to Dance]

I know not everyone agrees with me, but “loyal to this moment of truth and to the landscape” (and good writing!) is what I most look for in a novel and it is what Jolley delivers in spades.

 

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Like Nothing on this Earth, UWA Press, Perth, 2017

see also:
Hughes-d’Aeth on the Wheatbelt (here)
Hughes-d’Aeth on Jack Davis (here)
my review of The Newspaper of Claremont Street (here)
ANZLitLovers Elizabeth Jolley page (here)

 

All My Love, Anne Brooksbank

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The best image I could find

As if I didn’t have enough books in my own TBR – mere hundreds – I borrowed this one, a gift from my Henry Lawson fan brother and his young family a quarter of a century ago, such a long time ago, such a short time, mid-life crisis time for me and my young family, from my mum when I was there recently.

The author, Anne Brooksbank (1943- ) wife of the late Bob Ellis, commentator and script writer whom I still remember vividly with Mungo MacCullum and John Hepworth (and Sam Orr, Michael Luenig, Morris Lurie how could I forget) in the Nation Review (1970-81) “lean and nosey like a ferret”. Sorry, I shouldn’t define a woman by her husband. Brooksbank has a number of novels to her credit, many film and tv scripts, some I think in collaboration with Ellis, and has recently rewritten All My Love as a play which seems to be touring Western Victoria as I write.

All My Love (1991) is the story of the romantic relationship of Australian poet Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) and the iconic Henry Lawson (1867-1922). Gilmore’s ADB entry says ” Her account of an unofficial engagement and Lawson’s wish to marry her at the time of his brief trip to Western Australia (May-September 1890) could be accurate regarding dates, but there is no other corroborative evidence. There was clearly, however, a close relationship between them in 1890-95, but it was broken by his frequent absences from Sydney. Mary’s later comments on his career were always somewhat proprietorial but the extent of her influence on his literary talents and her contribution to his literary education remain unsubstantiated.”

The words ‘fiction’ and ‘novel’ pop up regularly in accounts of All My Love on the net, but nowhere in the periphalia (there must be a word) of the book itself, though right from the first chapter it is clear we are in the territory of historical fiction rather than even ‘imagined biography’ – there are no footnotes or endnotes and the letter young schoolteacher Mary Jean Cameron (Gilmore) gets from her mother is so full of framing information (about Louisa Lawson and Dawn) that it could not possibly be real.

Brooksbank doesn’t say where Mary was, but it was Silverton in outback NSW in 1889. She describes the drive into Broken Hill (also not named) with the coachman shouting Adam Lindsay Gordon ballads to his horses, and then the train rides to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney as Mary takes the long way home (map) to spend Christmas with her mother who had some years earlier left her husband in southern NSW, and Mary as the eldest to care for her siblings, and “gone off to work as a breezy and often inaccurate journalist for a Sydney paper”.

On her first day in town Mary is introduced to Louisa Lawson, even taller than she is, nearly six feet, is commissioned (ordered) to write an article about miners’ women, and is told by her mother and Henry’s that they are to meet.

In the third chapter Henry goes off to meet that “wretched young woman”. That is, while still in the third person, the viewpoint switches to Henry, and so it alternates for the rest of the book. The meeting is of course awkward (Lawson’s deafness is not mentioned till later). Still, they go for a walk and he shows her the ‘real city’.

Henry, who couldn’t spell, and in fact was in real life defensive about not having had much of an education, would bring his poetry to Mary to correct, and “seemed quite glad to relax into the role of being instructed, and it bothered her that he did. He had clearly been ordered about by his mother for most of his life …” Mary herself had already had a few poems published and began to write more, “in competition”.

Henry on one of their walks takes her to rooms above a Castlereagh St bookshop where he has a few drinks and recites (bellows) Sons of the South and she meets William Lane.

There is some discussion of their differing attitudes to Aborigines. Henry “had been brought up the child of poor selectors who saw the Blacks as a lost and inferior people” whereas Mary had been taught by her father who had known and learnt from the local Wiradjuri. Mary’s early nurse was a Wiradjuri woman but “there was secret approval given from Sydney for the wiping out of the Blacks … I never saw her again.” This would have been in the early 1870s, around Wagga. (“The allusion to massacres by Mary Gilmore here and elsewhere and other oral traditions suggest there were further killings of Wiradjuri from the 1870’s on.” Wiradjuri Heritage Study by Wagga Wagga City Council).

Mary gets a North Shore (Sydney) school for 1890 and the two meet most days, until Louisa, angry with Mary’s mother, attempts to force a separation by sending Henry and his brother Peter off to the WA goldfields. Henry responds by proposing to Mary, but she is not ready. (What is it with Henry and the WA Goldfields? The next time he heads off, in 1906, he rushes into marriage with Bertha and even then doesn’t make it past a camp on the river at East Perth and soon returns home).

Mary takes a room at Louisa’s and Henry is soon back, but not soon enough. Louisa has been intercepting his letters to Mary and she has lost heart and moved away. “In the months that followed, and the year after that, Mary heard of him from time to time. Heard that he was raising a few eyebrows with his drinking …” Years pass. Henry gets sent out west by the Bulletin, “You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here. Men tramp and beg and live like dogs“(HL). William Lane sails for Paraguay. Louisa prints Henry’s first book [Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894)] and while he is out delivering it, he and Mary finally bump into each other again.

But. Despite clearing up the heartbreak of the missing letters, he’s a drunk, he’s sleeping with the bookshop owner’s plump young step-daughter (Bertha), and she’s off on the next ship to William Lane’s Cosme in Paraguay.

There, Mary marries the uneducated bushman, Will Gilmore and they have a son. Cosme fails. Sailing home (the long way again) via Patagonia and Liverpool they are invited to stay with the Lawsons,  by then living in London, and are persuaded by Henry, and Bertha’s doctor, to take the mentally unstable Bertha and her two children back to Australia with them, an horrendous journey. Bertha is jealous of Mary and says so loudly. The ship breaks down, and they are joined in Bombay, where it is being repaired, by Henry unable to remain in London without his children. He takes a separate small cabin for himself in which, on the way home, for the first and only time Brooksbank imagines them in bed (based on a Mary Gilmore poem: “I lifted up his head/And laid it on my breast“).

And that’s just about it. A fascinating subject which Brooksbank never really succeeds in bringing to life.

 

Anne Brooksbank, All My Love, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1991

see also:
My review of My Henry Lawson by Bertha Lawson (here)
My review of Louisa by Brian Matthews (here)
Janine, The Resident Judge’s review of A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson by Kerrie Davies (here)

Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker

Michelle Author
Michelle Scott Tucker

Michelle Scott Tucker’s first book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is due out, in bookshops everywhere in a day or so. She has been kind enough to grant me interview while I scramble to produce a review. Meanwhile, check out Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review here.

 

Q. So first up, I think you went from school to university to the Commonwealth Public Service. At what stage did you decide to become a writer.

A. Yes, that’s right. After uni (in Melbourne) I moved to Canberra and worked in Australian government policy roles for over a decade, then moved back to Melbourne and into consulting (mainly for government clients). Essentially, I’ve always written for a living. And despite what you’ve heard about government writing, I think my various day jobs gave me a solid grounding in how to turn complex issues and ideas into readable, accessible prose. But I was in my mid-thirties before I realised that writing was always the part of my job I enjoyed most, and that writing – for its own sake – was something I wanted to pursue. And I’ve probably only been confident enough to call myself ‘a writer’ for the last year or two. Getting a publishing contract definitely helped!

 

Q. Your book is a biography of Elizabeth Macarthur, who came out to Sydney on the Second Fleet and was instrumental in establishing the wool industry here in Australia. How did you light on her as a subject? Did you intend all along to demonstrate that she had agency, that she was not just John Macarthur’s wife?

A. One of my government jobs involved (briefly) working with women farmers in outback Queensland. I was young and pretty green, and they were very kind. They explained that there was no such thing as ‘a farmer and his wife’. In reality each farming couple were both farmers, and usually part of a farm family. Although the farm work might be split along gendered lines, the women’s work was just as crucial to the financial viability of their farms as the men’s.

I studied history at uni, and speaking with those outback women made me wonder why farm women seemed to be missing from the Australian historical narrative. So I started doing some basic research, stumbled across Elizabeth Macarthur’s story and found it absolutely compelling – there was so much going on! So yes, I definitely and deliberately set out to demonstrate that she was far more than just someone’s wife.

 

Q. Some time ago I saw a piece in which you imagined from Elizabeth’s point of view the birth and death of (I think) Elizabeth and John’s first second child, while they were still at sea on the way here. Did you ever consider writing this whole work as Historical Fiction? And in the context of this question, how much have you looked into the theory side of modern biographical writing – the mixing in various proportions of documented fact, disputed facts, speculation, authorial research, fiction to cover the gaps and so on.

A. The book opens at sea aboard a convict ship, on a stormy Southern Ocean, with Elizabeth Macarthur giving birth prematurely. No part of the scene is imagined, or fictionalised. The historical record is clear about the premature birth of the baby girl, and her subsequent death, about the ship, about the storms, and even about Elizabeth’s prayers. We know nothing about Elizabeth’s subsequent grief, and I say so.

Nor is any other part of the book fictionalised or imagined, and although occasionally I provide commentary, or speculate about something, it’s clearly flagged as commentary or speculation. If there are disputes or gaps in the historical record (and there are always gaps) I flag them too, and leave the reader to decide. Essentially, I abide by the code that historian Clare Wright calls ‘not making shit up, ever’. In the book, I’ve selected words very carefully so that every sentence is as accurate as possible. But, that said, I do use all the narrative tools associated with fiction to ensure that I present the facts in a compelling, interesting and accessible way. As a result, I seem to have written a history book that reads like a novel.

I do love reading books and articles about writing and especially about writing biography. I also enjoy reading lots of different kinds of biographies, including those that describe the author’s research process. But I’m really not a fan of including fictionalised scenes in non-fiction narratives. It’s distracting, and rarely adds to my understanding of the subject. If I want the fictionalised version, I’d rather read a historical novel (and I do read lots of those, too). For myself, I wasn’t ever tempted to go down the historical fiction route, not when the real story was so interesting anyway.

 

Q. We your loyal followers have been following the progress of Elizabeth Macarthur for years now on your blog Adventures in Biography. On 4 Jan 2015 you wrote, “I aim to spend 20 minutes every day working on my Elizabeth Macarthur biography.  And slightly less time in my hammock swing …” How did that work out? How long had you already been writing by then. And how long before that had you been thinking about writing?

A. Like all my New Year resolutions, that ’20 minutes a day’ one lasted less than five minutes. Although probably slightly longer than the ‘do more exercise’ or ‘be a nicer person’ resolutions. I have a family, a job, and plenty of things on. I write when I can, in the cracks of my life, so to speak. I started working on the book when my children were tiny, so the actual start date is lost in the baby-haze, but maybe about 12 years ago? I’d do some research, do some writing, do some more research. Some years I didn’t write more than a chapter. But in 2016, once I had a contract, and therefore a deadline, I started writing a whole lot more.

 

Q. When you told me that you had started a blog, in June 2014, I of course started reading it – the first blog I ever read – and also the blogs that you followed. They were/are a fascinating mix of literature, history, and biography and I have followed much the same blogs ever since. I am sure your interaction with these bloggers has been both enjoyable and informative, and we have loved sharing in the progress of your work. What would you say as a writer about being a blogger, that is, does the interaction contribute to your writing, or your thinking?

A. Starting a blog, and being part of that online community of bloggers, has made a huge contribution to my writing – and thinking.

Before becoming a blogger myself, I came across ANZLitLovers and vividly remember nervously posting a comment for the first time. Lisa, the blogger behind ANZLitLovers, was immediately welcoming and supportive and that motivated me to keep exploring the literary blogosphere. It’s a terrific place to learn about and discuss Australian (and other) books.

Through my own blog I’ve made contact with some really lovely people, and their encouragement really did mean (and still means) a great deal to me. We’re friends now, and I occasionally see some of them offline too. A few were directly helpful, for example: Dr Marion Diamond (Historians are Past Caring) generously pointed me towards relevant research information that I’d have never found on my own; and Bernice Barry, a published biographer, shared some incredibly useful insights about what to expect from the publishing process. Twitter and Facebook, in their different ways, have also provided me with useful and interesting connections.

 

Q. If starting writing was the first big step forward, was your acceptance into the Hard Copy programme the next big step? The perspective from the outside was that it of course gave you confidence and practical ideas but there also appeared to be quite a bit of ongoing fellowship and support.

A. My first big step was the culmination of lots of smaller steps. I entered small competitions and didn’t win. I submitted pieces to literary magazines and received lots of rejections. I applied for a fellowship and was shortlisted (the Hazel Rowley). Then I applied for a residential fellowship (to Varuna) and was accepted. Each step drew on what I’d learned from the step before.

Acceptance into the ACT Writers Centre 2015 HardCopy program was a terrific next step; I learnt a huge amount that year and, as you say, gained a valuable friendship group of other non-fiction writers. But the big break was meeting with (and getting incredibly positive feedback from) publishers and agents at the end of the program. During that process the woman who became my agent, Jacinta di Mase, offered to represent me. That was the real break – scoring a top-class agent. Thanks to her efforts, I subsequently received generous offers from seven different publishers for my unfinished manuscript. That’s when it all started to feel real, and I really did start to think of myself as a writer. That feeling also made it easier to carve out more time for writing.

 

Q. Finally, your blog is often overtly feminist, for instance in addressing the inequality of opportunity for women writers compared to men. Would you say that Elizabeth Macarthur is informed by feminism? Or that it is consciously part of a feminist project to redress the balance of male and female stories in histories?

A. Yes, Elizabeth Macarthur is definitely informed by feminism and yes, it is an attempt to redress the balance. The Australian historical narrative is full of white men working (mining, exploring, soldiering, etc).  The Australian historical narrative is also full of white men failing (and there’s perhaps a PhD thesis in this for someone). Bourke and Wills: fail. Ned Kelly: didn’t end well. Even the Gallipoli campaign – the men themselves may have been heroes but it seems to be that not every Australian realises we actually lost that battle.

Elizabeth Macarthur was an interesting, intelligent successful woman who played a crucial role in Australia’s colonial history. Hers is not a household name – but it ought to be. And it’s a bit sad, really, that merely writing about a female historical figure remains a feminist act, but it’s true.

 

Thank you Michelle. I should have my review of Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World up early next week (here).

Michelle’s website (here) includes a link to her blog and dates for author talks/book signings (under News & Events).