Back to Bool Bool, Miles Franklin

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Back to Bool Bool (1931) is the sixth and final novel Miles Franklin wrote as Brent of Bin Bin, though it was the third of the three initially published by Blackwoods (see here). Now I’ve read them all, it’s difficult to understand Blackwood’s decision, as Back to Bool Bool makes frequent references to the stories that precede it, particularly Cockatoos, but also to Gentlemen of Gyang Gyang. Prelude to Waking, as I’ve already discussed, although nominally a Brent of Bin Bin book, forms no part of the family saga.

The ‘back to’ of the title (we don’t have any noun for back to’s other than back to, do we?) references the celebrations surrounding the centenary of white settlement in the township of ‘Bool Bool’ – the name Franklin uses for Talbingo, her birthplace in the southern NSW ‘high country’ -based loosely, according to Roe, on the (nearby) Tumut centenary celebrations in 1924.

The ‘back to’ is used as a device to reunite characters/descendants from previous books in the series. It takes place in the year following Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang and 20-25 years after Cockatoos. Coolooluck station at Bool Bool is the home of Erik Labosseer, brother of Sylvester at Gyang Gyang Plains. Labosseer is the name Franklin uses for the Lampes, her mother’s family. (Sylvester’s principal property is on the NSW western plains, as was Franklin’s uncle Gus Lampe’s, and in researching this review I read in Roe that Franklin visited him there, at Peak Hill near Dubbo, in 1905).

I wrote in my review of Cockatoos that “Ignez [Milford] and some of her more serious friends gather out of the reach of bothersome aunts and parents to discuss books and to read excerpts from their own writings.” Ignez is of course Miles, loosely fictionalized. The two most important of her friends are her cousins Dick Mazere and Freda Healey. They are dobbed in to their parents for skipping work, and maybe even behaving immorally, by Dick’s self-righteous older sister Blanche. By the end of Cockatoos all three have escaped overseas to become writers.

Back to Bool Bool begins with two ships returning to Australia. On one, a luxury liner, are, separately, a Major-General who is descended from both the Poole and the Mazere families; Mollye, a famous opera singer; and Judith Laurillard, an actress.

Maj.-Gen. Sir Oswald Mazere-Poole, KCMG, MP, seeking adventure, his wife staying behind in London, was watching the last of his fellow passengers board:

A graceful figure swathed in veils, carrying bouquets … This must be the actress. “Not heavy enough in the brisket for a caterwauler,” was his summing-up, redolent of early environment.

[A woman] of splendid height, with pale-blue eyes and florid skin, who walked with swinging gait, taking all glances auspiciously without affectation … This was the Australian, if he knew anything. Her size and features protruding from beneath the fashionable skull-cap proclaimed one of the Brennans of Bool Bool … inevitably Molly, descendant of Timothy and Maria of The Gap, one of the old pioneering families.

On the other ship, a transport for migrants – “assisted passengers – people pushed off their densely populated native island because no longer necessary to feed either manufactories or battlefields” – are Dick, now a poet, and Freda, a go-getter who has been working in the USA. They become friends on board without realising they are cousins until they meet again in Sydney.

Both the Healeys and the Mazeres have retired from their farms at Oswald’s Ridges to cottages in Sydney, as had Franklin’s parents in real life. Dick’s mother has died and his father has remarried, his new wife content to leave the housekeeping to her unmarried step-daughters Blanche and Philippa, both in their 40s. Franklin is scathing about the house-proud Blanche’s devotion to make-work, taking out, you must feel, some of the frustrations she herself felt about having to live at that time with her mother.

There is also a younger sister, Laleen who, wishing herself to become a writer, looks to Dick as a bulwark against Blanche’s insistence on practicality. Here Freda, who has come over for dinner, gets Laleen to come outside to talk,

“It doesn’t take much persuading for Laleen to leave work to others.” Blanche’s voice followed, infuriating Laleen.

“I’d easily do the work if you’d get out of the way.”

“While I’m the one in the position of responsibility I must see that things go right.” Blanche’s housekeeping was never done under a bushel. Certain of her indispensability, she was everywhere, bustling, and fault-finding if possible.

This quote reminds me that Franklin appears to have added something to her writing, maybe she’d been reading Christina Stead. Anyway, she sets up “walls of speech”, not monologues as Stead does, but long unattributed scraps of conversation, often at cross purposes, which are very effective at conveying the impression of a crowded room.

Everyone I’ve mentioned so far (except the actress), and many more I haven’t, meet at the Mazere’s in the months before the back to. Mollye, who is mostly away in the country on a concert tour, takes an apartment in the city and makes it available to Dick as a quiet place for him to write, away from the annoying Blanche. Sometimes Freda or Laleen meet him there. Blanche follows them suspecting immorality.

There’s lots going on. Mollye is keen on Dick, Dick is keen on Freda, Freda is planning a fling with the Major-General, Laleen is keen on Mollye’s secretary Nat, Nat is keen on all the girls. Dick has taken up Christian Science, which I think Miles was introduced to by Vida Goldstein in Melbourne in 1904, and we are subject to some preaching. Miles, always happy to praise herself in the third person, is prominent in her/Ignez’s absence. Freda says to Dick:

Do you remember when Ignez Milford used to take us to She-Oak Ridge to write in the old cockatoo days of Oswald’s Ridges? I used to love you with all my childish affection.”

“I used to worship Ignez in the same way, I guess.”

“How long did you remember her? You were nearer maturity.”

“Faded in the stress of events. She was a brave, vivid creature.”

“Not coarse enough to battle from an environment so removed from art. My own case has been similar. Let’s hope Laleen escapes.”

Franklin still skirts around sex, but for the first time, with Bernice in the previous book and Freda in this one, we have principal characters with ‘a past’. Bernice gets married off, but in Back to Bool Bool, Freda and the Major General plan an affair which they discuss at some length.

Gradually, all the actors, including for some reason Judith Laurillard, make their way to the high country for the week of celebrations. Dick has an extended stay on Coolooluck about which he has dreamed throughout his exile, and is roped into writing something for the back to; Mollye of course is to sing; Nat whips up local musicians into an orchestra; Peter and Bernice from the previous novel make a cameo appearance.; Laleen is universally acclaimed as the latest Emily Mazere, the beauty who drowned on the eve of her wedding to Bert Poole (way back in Up the Country); Laleen and Nat announce their engagement.

The denouement, when it comes, is signalled early, is sidestepped, we breathe a sigh of relief, and then it crashes in, from another direction altogether, and we are devastated.

 

Miles Franklin, Back to Bool Bool, first pub. Blackwoods, 1931. This edition, Angus & Robertson, 1956

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin Central (here)

Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, Miles Franklin

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Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (1956) is the fifth Brent of Bin Bin novel chronologically, though it was the sixth and last published. The ‘Gyang Gyang’ of the title refers to the station (grazing property) Gyang Gyang Plains where the action is set – the ‘Gentlemen’ are the workers on the station – which is in turn named for the ubiquitous gang-gang cockatoos.

I read this and the final Brent of Bin Bin novel, Back to Bool Bool, on my kindle while I was away – they’re not formatted (or proof-read) very well and I ended up reading in landscape to make the lines wrap properly. I will review this one direct from kindle but have located via Abe Books good copies of both – I’m a book collector at heart, just masquerading as a reviewer – and should have them in my hands before I review Back to Bool Bool and wrap up the series.

Apart from Prelude to Waking, which I can see now forms no part of the high country families saga either stylistically or by subject matter, the Brent novels were written in the order I have discussed them, in the latter years of the 1920s. Jill Roe writes that GGG, full name Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang: A Tale of the Jumbuck Pads on the Summer Runs, is the novel of Franklin’s return to Australia, “and should be read as such”. In February 1928 Franklin, who had returned from England the previous year to care for her parents in Sydney, “caught the night train for Cooma and beyond”, to spend time with her Lampe (Labosseer in this series) uncles, firstly at ‘Gooandra’ in the Monaro high plains north of Kosciuszko, then for two months on the western slopes of the Great Divide, at Talbingo where she was born. Here she wrote both GGG and the first draft of Back to Bool Bool.

That she was there shows in both her detailed descriptions of the country, the setting for GGG is based on Gooandra, and in the knowledge she displays of the then dominant wool industry.

Gyang Gyang Plains station is maintained by Sylvester Labosseer to provide summer feed for sheep from his ‘home’ property in central NSW. The living conditions are relatively primitive, but summers in the highlands are mild, and since the death of his wife, Labosseer has preferred to spend much of his time there. Peter Poole, his foreman, is a grandson of the legendary Bert Poole (Ten Creeks Run) and apart from a tendency for unexplained ‘walkabouts’ is a true chip off the old block. The villain of the piece is Cedric Spires, a womaniser (of course) who appears to have a hold over Poole and is his rival for the affections of …

Bernice Gaylord, an artist (and a beauty), who had been the lover of another artist in Paris until he left her and broke her heart –

had reached a dead end which she mistook for the end of all things. The doctors spoke of a strained heart and hinted at TB, a diagnosis welcome to Bernice. it camouflaged her secret and explained the suspension of her career to her family and the Australian public interested in her unusual promise, which had suddenly dried up.

This is as close as we get to a Franklin figure in this novel. Roe writes that MF too had returned to Australia with supposed health problems that were really a cover for stress.

Gaylord, who is Labosseer’s god-daughter, has been invited to spend the summer at Gyang Gyang Plains while she recovers her health. Camping out on the side verandah, walking and riding around the property, she not only recovers her health, and develops a healthy interest in Peter Poole, but also recovers her motivation to begin painting again.

This is an excuse for Franklin to get on a hobby horse she has hitherto concealed – naturalism in art:

There were those who maintained … the Australian atmosphere could not be painted, it was too brilliant; the life could not be convincingly told in fiction, it was too monotonous and lacking in that kind of action which the elementary reader calls plot. The need was for painters and novelists, as well as the ungifted, to break out of  the established rut … a fresh contribution must be made to technique.

In short, over summer Gaylord produces a portfolio of portraits and landscapes that ‘revolutionise’ Australian painting.

We could point Franklin towards the late C19th Heidelberg school of Australian Impressionism (who would be brave enough to direct her gaze to more current movements like cubism or surrealism!) and towards those writers roughly contemporaneous with Streeton et al whose work redefined realism in Australian writing – Lawson, Baynton, Rudd, Furphy and, yes, Franklin. But now, a year or so short of 50, she really was a very old fashioned woman.

Franklin proceeds by “possuming”, that is discursively or by story telling, with plenty of description, at which she excels. Here, Gaylord gets inspiration:

She walked out in the dew-drenched tussocks under the gums standing like snow queens in perfumed bridal dress. Never was such colossal yet honeyed loveliness for miles, and miles, and miles, She was out of herself with joyous excitement.

The men on the isolated station are all fascinated at having a beautiful woman in their midst; the publican’s daughters do their best to put forward their own attractions; various rural catastrophes threaten and are averted; as in all the best romances, true love is achieved at the last possible moment.

In 1928 Franklin submitted GGG to the Bulletin‘s novel competition for that year* under the further pseudonym ‘by Australian Born’ and that was the last that was seen of it for nearly 30 years.

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Gang-gang cockatoo, photo JJ Harrison

Miles Franklin, Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1956

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin Central (here)


*The joint winners of the 1928 Bulletin prize were A House is Built by M. Barnard Eldershaw and Coonardoo by KS Prichard.

Travels in Greece, Charmian Clift

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Charmian Clift (1920-1969) was a well-loved writer, though more by women than by men probably, famously married to journalist/author George Johnson (1912-1970). The two met at The Argus in Melbourne in 1946 when Clift was a fledgling reporter and Johnson was an editor and renowned war correspondent. They began an affair, for which they were sacked – mostly because Johnson was already married but also, I think, because they were not discreet.

They moved to Sydney, Johnson secured a divorce, they married, and they began co-writing novels, winning a prize with High Valley in 1948. Next stop was London in 1951 after Johnson obtained a prestigious position there with Associated Newspapers. But after only a few years they moved again, to Greece, with the intention of living as cheaply as they could, as full time writers of fiction.

Clift and Johnson were ten years in Greece, one year on the island of Kalymnos, close to the Turkish coast, the remainder on Hydra where they used all their savings to purchase a house. They had two children, a boy and a girl, Martin and Shane, born in Sydney, and another son born on Hydra. Clift wrote about living on Kalymnos in Mermaid Singing (1958) and about their first year in Hydra in Peel Me a Lotus (1959). Travels in Greece (1995) is a combination of the two.

Johnson had had little early success as a novelist, tending to rush his writing, and was probably happy to co-write with Clift, to take advantage of her greater attention to style and detail, although he continued also to produce novels on his own, finally achieving critical and financial success only after the end of their time on Hydra, with the fictionalised account of his boyhood, My Brother Jack (1964). Johnson, followed later by Clift and the children, then moved back to Australia. Clift was a script writer on the ABC TV series of My Brother Jack which aired in 1965, and began writing columns for the Sydney Morning Herald, soon achieving a large following.

In 1969 Clift, who like Johnson, had a drinking problem, suicided with an overdose of pills. Johnson’s entry in the ADB (here) says that Clift may have feared what Johnson might reveal in the second part of his fictionalised biography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) which came out a month later. This implies firstly that Clift had something to fear, presumably Johnson’s jealousy of her real or imagined affairs on Hydra, and secondly that she had not seen any earlier drafts of Johnson’s novel, which you would think unlikely, given their former collaboration.


At this point it occurs to me that the subjects of this and my previous review both died by suicide. If you are thinking along the same lines then I strongly suggest you talk to someone about it. I had a shot at it myself, as a young man, when my first marriage failed, and as it happens I was found and resuscitated. I have since had occasion at different times to rely on family, friends, workmates and counsellors, and they have all helped.*


Clift and Johnson’s time-out began on an impulse. They had often talked, when “outside in the Bayswater Road the night was the colour of a guernsey cow, and on the pavements the leaves lay in a sad yellow pulp”, about chucking in the London grind and moving to an island:

Perhaps if that very day we had not met, by accident, a friend newly returned from Greece who had asked me to come into the BBC to hear a radio feature he had made on the sponge-diving island of Kalymnos …

It burst like a star, so simple and brilliant and beautiful that for the moment we could only stare at each other in wonder. Why the devil shouldn’t we just go?

So we did.

We had no means of communication other than sign language, and we had a bank account that didn’t bear thinking about. Still, we thought we might be able to last for a year if we managed very carefully and stayed healthy. We had for some years published a novel every year or so, not very successfully, but we thought that it might be just possible to live by our writing when our capital ran out.

Clift’s writing is straightforward and clear, bringing to life the people they live amongst, and mixing in lots of geographical and historical background. Her own family we don’t get to know so well. George it seems is generally upstairs typing while Clift gets on with the shopping and cleaning, or he’s with her down at the local bar, and the kids are off playing. I enjoyed both accounts, but the first, Mermaid Singing, more than the second, Peel Me a Lotus. The former has a friendlier feel, as Charmian and the islanders, with the utmost goodwill, learn to understand each other and become friends. So much so that, at the end of the book, it comes as a bit of a surprise when they decide to move on.

Surprisingly, disappointingly, there is nothing at all about Clift’s and Johnson’s collaborative writing, or indeed about Clift’s life as a writer, at all. From that point of view, Park and Niland’s lightly fictionalised account of their first year together as struggling writers in Sydney, at about the same time, The Drums Go Bang (my review), is both more informative and more entertaining.

The people of Kalymnos are friendly, but seemingly without personal boundaries, living as they do (did!) in houses with a single bedroom and one sleeping platform for maybe 10 people. Locals wander in and out of the Clift/Johnson house at will, all the family’s activities are observed by hordes of children, it is not possible to walk anywhere alone, without people making it their business to be your company.

Peel Me a Lotus begins with Charmian pregnant with their third child – only ever called ‘baby’, as far as I can tell – on Hydra, having purchased a two storey house from the many empty since the glory days of the previous century, but waiting for the interminable renovations to be completed before moving in, and waiting desperately for the return of the only half-way competent ‘midwife’, before giving birth.

This book is more concerned with the activities of the other expats – not Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t arrive on Hydra until not long before the Clift/Johnsons leave – though George and Charmian still have friends in the local community. Clift is concerned that the charm of the island is being lost as it becomes a summer holiday destination for Athenians, as well as the latest resort for the usual suspects attempting to live cheap.

For it is now apparent that the yearly passage of the smart, penniless, immoral, clever young people – Creon’s ‘bums and perverts’ – has had its inevitable effect. This beautiful little port is to suffer the fate of so many little Mediterranean ports ‘discovered ‘ by the creative poor… We are watching the island in the process of becoming chic.

You will be pleased to hear that ex-Mrs Legend and I found, and the Greeks we spoke to agreed, that Hydra is probably still the least spoiled of the tourist islands. Perhaps the town, pop. 3,000, is too small to ever become a major tourist destination. Hope so!

These are interesting and well-written books with just one discordant note. Lisa at ANZLL in a recent review (here) on Clift’s newspaper columns published as a collection of essays after her death as Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967 (1990) said that Clift had disappointingly expressed the view that she had left school at fourteen because there was nothing they could teach her that would be “of the slightest use”. It was obviously a view she held seriously, leaving her children to the vagaries of Greek village school education, in fact, on the evidence of this book, not paying them much attention at all.

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Hydra, 2017. I believe the cave where Clift and her kids swam is just outside this photo, to the right

Charmian Clift, Travels in Greece, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1995. Previously published as Mermaid Singing (1958) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959)


I’m now home after a marvellous trip, my first and only probably. On the evidence of this past month, if I were to spend that ‘mythical’ year in Europe it would be in Paris, where I could pick up the language, where there is so much to do, and from where the whole of Europe is accessible by Fast Train network. Returning to earth, I have a couple of books left to review, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers written while he was living in Hydra; and Cave of Silence (2013) by Kostas Krommydas, recommended to me by a friendly lady bookseller on Santorini.


*Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia1300 78 99 78

Prelude to Waking, Miles Franklin

Preludeto Waking

Prelude to Waking (1950), the fourth in the Brent of Bin Bin series, is in many ways an anomaly. Stylistically it belongs to an earlier period of Franklin’s writing; none of the (relatively few) characters is connected with the families of the earlier novels; and it is set in England. Even to the extent that Australia plays a part, it is the NSW western plains, not the southern highlands.

It is difficult to imagine how Miles Franklin survived, as a writer, the quarter century between the extraordinary success of My Brilliant Career (1901), which she wrote as a teenager, and the success of her first two Brent of Bin Bin novels, Up the Country and Ten Creeks Run, written when she was nearing fifty. And yet she wrote continuously throughout that period. In the novels written immediately after My Brilliant Career, but not accepted for publication until many years later, rewritten as My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos, her youth, her growing ability as a writer, and above all her optimism after that initial success bubble through. Slowly, that optimism must have faded into a grim determination.

Franklin read widely and thought about her craft. After leaving Australia in 1906 she attempted to adapt her idiosyncratic style to modern trends, not the avant garde (Joyce’s Ulysses came out in full in 1922) but at least to mainstream middle class English and American writing. Prelude to Waking is a ‘Mayfair’ novel which Franklin had been working on in the mid 1920s, and is her second novel with a male narrator after On Dearborn Street (unpublished till 1981) which she wrote in 1915 at the end of her Chicago years. Prelude must have been important to Franklin as her insistence on including it in the Brent of Bin Bin series held up the publication of the final three books in the series for another twenty years.

Franklin wrote innumerable plays, none of them ever performed, and one other novel, Bring the Monkey, a Dorothy Sayers-type mystery, in England, in this middle period of her writing, before going on to the bush realism style which was so much more acceptable to both her publishers and the Australian public. Roy Duncan in his Introduction to On Dearborn Street writes, “The five works [of this middle period], hidden away and virtually unknown over sixty years, reflect Miles Franklin at her most fluent and uninhibited.” Nevertheless, he describes Prelude as an instance of “interesting ideas embedded in artistic failure”.

In On Dearborn Street the narrator is not much more than a cipher, only there as a foil for Sybyl, the Miles Franklin character, as she works through her difficulties with the idea of marriage. According to Duncan, Franklin’s “larger proposition – which can be seen in terms of her total output – [is] that man is a destructive animal and that woman must save him by leading him to a renunciation of the flesh”. Prelude to Waking has a similar theme but the male narrator is stronger, with the result that we have not one but two ‘Miles Franklins’, the male lead, Nigel Barraclough, and the female lead, Merlin.

Nigel, or Niggeh as Merlin calls him – “Oh, let me call you Niggeh. With your fair complexion it will be a lark and show the dear negroes that we don’t mind” – is writing a Mayfair novel, and the implication is that we are reading the novel which he is writing, but that is never made clear. The novel’s subtitle is A Novel in the First Person and Parentheses apparently implying we sometimes go back to earlier events; and the dedication is “To England’s Genius Cracks” which, despite frequent references to them in the text, was not where the light came in, not for me anyway.

The novel begins with Merlin coming to Nigel’s shabby Mayfair flat in about 1925 to propose that they represent their friendship as a liason. In the subsequent ‘parantheses’ we learn that both are war heroes, Nigel a brave company commander and Merlin “had achieved the Balkan Fronts during some of the first great battles and retreats” (MF was actually vocally anti-war, and a volunteer hospital orderly for 6 months well behind the Serbian frontlines); and both are married to other people. Nigel has a sexy Spanish opera singer wife who so frightens him that he must live in London while she lives in Paris, and Merlin has married an elderly bachelor, Hugh de Courtenay la ffollette , the better to avoid having to marry anyone else.

Franklin has a seeming aversion to plots, or to any plot other than watching the Miles Franklin figure, in this case Merlin, maintaining her independence through numerous proposals; and Prelude is no exception. We go back to 1919, London after the War. Nigel is living in a rooms above a cobbler’s shop, Merlin is running a little cafe (a reference to the Minerva, a cafe owned by women, where MF worked during the War). Merlin’s father Guy, a widower sheep farmer from the Bogan River region of NSW, is living with her while her brother, also Guy, runs the farm. The closest we get to the earlier novels is that Guy sometimes takes his flocks to mountain pastures during times of drought.

Nigel has visited Russia at the end of the War and back in London gives a public lecture with a glowing account of the October Revolution. By this he is rendered unpopular and is sent to tour the South Pacific for a while, including an extended visit to Guy jr. which of course he reports to Merlin and her father (Franklin’s best writing is always of the bush):

Mile by mile we caressed that wide, strange country, whose silence has a voice, and whose eerie beauty, before man has defaced it, captures the senses as does that of no other land I have seen. Out on the ridges I could still see the leaves of the bimby box gleaming like silver; the soft grey waters of the Bogan and Namoi gliding noiselessly past coolabah, yarran and belar in the perfume of the native mignonette; the flower-carpeted plains quivering in the sunlight, undulating to the mirage that ever retreated before the traveller. Already my heart gnawed to be there again.

Nigel, Merlin and Guy are invited by Merlin’s friend Lady Courtley to a house party at Snippington Manor, the de Courtenay home. Taking with them both the cockney cobbler (above whom, as I have said, Nigel is currently living) and the cobbler’s son who is being educated at Eton. While the cobbler teaches various lords trick shots at billiards, Merlin is pursued by the various lords, including de Courtenay’s nephew, who is in turn pursued by Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper, “a wanton, politely called a siren”, and so it goes on.

Meanwhile, Franklin’s politics are all over place. She was always snobbish about her place in the squattocracy and here she seems to be mostly on the side of the aristocracy. If it’s intended to be ironic I didn’t catch it. She, or at least Nigel, is pro the Bolshevik Revolution, but anti the Irish Republicans. As always, she is anti the nouveau riche, in this case War profiteers, and in one place goes so far as to suggest an English Revolution, yet she has Merlin publish an essay extolling the virtues of the British Empire.

I’m not going to recommend that you read this yourselves, I couldn’t imagine anyone reading Prelude to Waking for enjoyment, but it was interesting to see Franklin attempting to progress her craft as a writer, while tying herself in knots with her unfashionable ideas about chaste male-female relationships.

I recently gave in and purchased a Kindle Paperwhite. The Brent of Bin Bin series is available from Amazon as one book, for $1.00 from memory. I found it easy to read, though with some silly spelling mistakes – mostly from b and h being transposed at the beginning of words – but found it simpler to revert to the real book to look up particular passages.

 

Miles Franklin, Prelude to Waking, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1950. The cover shown above is of my copy, a first edition.

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin Central (here)

Jane Austen: Independent Woman

Jane Austen (1775-1817) English novelist remembered for her six great novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. Engraving.

In my dissertation (here) I wrote: “And it is in the choosing of husbands, rather than of careers, that the Independent Woman is initially manifested, most famously of course, in literature, in Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.”

The last time I ‘studied’ Jane Austen (1775-1817) was in high school, and although I have read all her books and seen all the movies, most recently the Lady Susan story misleadingly titled Love & Friendship, I would not pretend to be able to add to the considerable scholarship which surrounds her. However, the recent post on Northanger Abbey (here) by devoted Austenite Sue at Whispering Gums, and the comments ensuing, has prompted me to discuss those ways in which Austen is (and isn’t) a precursor for the Independent Woman paradigm.

Firstly, Jane was herself independent. After a failed engagement, and likewise for her older sister Cassandra, she and Cassandra were apparently happy to remove themselves from the marriage market and to live in a household consisting of just themselves, their mother and while he was alive, their father. Unlike Miles Franklin, however, or many other early Australian women writers, this is not a solution which Austen advocates for others.

Austen heroines start out ‘independent’ but strangely seem to get less and less so as their author gets older. Austen began writing ‘seriously’ in her early teens, circulating stories within a small circle of family and friends. Her first complete work, Lady Susan is an epistolary novella written around 1794. The eponymous Lady Susan is “the most accomplished coquette in England”, shuffling lovers and potential husbands to maximise the benefits to herself. Lady Susan remained unpublished for eighty years, till 1871. One can imagine it was written to amuse and scandalize her family, and to hone her skills, rather than for public consumption.

Pride and Prejudice, which as First Impressions was the first of her novels to be offered to a publisher, in 1796, abounds with ‘independent women’. This and Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), written about the same time, reflect directly on the author’s life – particularly Jane’s relationship with the presumably more serious Cassandra, and the financial insecurity of the women in the event of the death of Mr Austen.

Elizabeth, in P&P, steers herself by the moral compass, and calmness, of her older sister, Jane. Marianne, in S&S, may be a little rasher but she too is ‘brought to harbour’, so to speak, by Elinor’s steadiness. Then, in P&P we have Lady Catherine de Bourgh, not likeable! but certainly independent, and Lydia, though she is not so much independent as wilful, but all provide examples of how and how not to act. Interestingly, the men – except for Uncle Gardiner – are all weak. Mr Bennet provides no direction for his wife and daughters, Mr Collins is ridiculous, Bingley is easily led, Darcy is too proud, Wickham is a cad.

In S&S, in Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, Austen introduces men who are both upright and willing to provide direction to the weaker sex; and I think these men, the earnest young clergyman and the upright, withdrawn, slightly older man of property, appear, one or the other or both, in all her subsequent novels.

From this point on, in Austen’s writing, it is difficult to make a case for the ‘independent woman’. The next-written novel, Susan, not published till many years later as Northanger Abbey, is famously a spoof on ‘Gothic’ melodrama. In it, for the first time, the heroine, Catherine, is shown as needing and accepting direction from a man, Henry Tilney, a young clergyman, though mainly it must be said, on the hazards of depending too much on the tropes of gothic fiction.

Austen’s subsequent novels were Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. In Mansfield Park the one ‘independent’ woman, Mrs Norris is shown throughout in a bad light, acting only  in the interests, as she sees it, of Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny, the heroine, young and insecure, is entirely dependent on the advice and support of her cousin Edmund Bertram (a clergyman in training).

Emma is certainly independent, but gets set down a number of times by Mr Knightley, for her thoughtlessness, and Austen’s sympathies seem to be with Mr Knightley rather than Emma. When Emma insults Miss Bates (implies she talks too much) at the picnic on Box Hill, Mr Knightley waits till they are on their own then tells Emma:

Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do; a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible.

Catherine, Fanny and Emma all accept direction about their behaviour from men whom they subsequently choose to marry. Independence within marriage, let alone without it, would seem to be a way off.

Persuasion is not so good for my case, as Anne, the heroine, is older (than her fellows in the earlier novels) and less inclined to immature behaviour, harking back maybe to Elizabeth Bennet, though she (Anne) is not so, what is a good word?, forward maybe.

This is a brief summary of my case, and if nothing else, points up the need for closer reading, which I should one day undertake.

 

see also:
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009 (my review)
Whispering Gums’ JA posts here


On Tuesday when my next post is due, I will be in the air, and for the next month, until Anzac day, will be travelling. I will stick to two posts a week, Tuesday and Friday, if I can but no promises. Check out my facebook account from time to time (see the ‘f’ in the sidebar) for photos.

The Independent Woman in Australian Literature

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In my reviews of Australian books, especially those with women authors, I refer quite often to my thesis that, just as Russell Ward identified the ‘Lone Hand’/independent bushman as the basis for depictions of maleness, and by extension Australianness, early Australian women writers had been developing a parallel, though largely unacknowledged paradigm, the Independent Woman.

I undertook my M.Litt at CQU a decade or so ago – it took a while and I should thank again my supervisor John Fitzsimmons for his patience and my tutor Ayesha Hall for her persistence – and, because I do refer to it, I have decided to put up a cut down version of my dissertation as a ‘page’.

I say ‘cut down’, but it’s still 16,000 words, plus links to books that I’ve already reviewed. Read it at your own peril!


 

Abstract

The starting point for discussions of Australianness has long been Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) with its account of the myth of the Lone Hand, from which women are almost entirely absent. Even in the subsequent Pioneer myth, women have only a subsidiary role.

This absence of women has often been decried, but any reading of the large body of literature by and about Australian women, particularly in the first half of the 20th Century, clearly demonstrates that a case can be made for a parallel myth, the Independent Woman, who makes her way without, and often despite, men.

In the first chapter I discuss the development of the Lone Hand myth, its importance to how we see ourselves as Australians, and, particularly, how women have responded to their exclusion from this myth. The remaining chapters are basically chronological, showing how the fiction of each period, and biographies of the women of those periods, can be read in such a way as to contribute to the development of the counter-myth, the Independent Woman.

So, Chapter 2 covers the blossoming of women’s fiction in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the principal women of ‘first wave’ Feminism in Australia. Chapter 3 is devoted to Miles Franklin, her partly autobiographical heroines, and her connections to first wave Feminism. Chapter 4 covers women’s writing between the Wars and up to the 1950’s, and, in particular, the development of Eve Langley’s heroine, Steve, in direct response to her reading of the bush stories and poetry of Henry Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. Chapter 5 is of a similar period to Chapter 4 but is centred on women whose independence carries them into Lone Hand territory and into the deserts of Central Australia. Finally, Chapter 6 discusses some developments in depictions of the Independent Woman since the sexual revolutions of the 1960s.

 

21 February 2011

W.A.D. Holloway


The Independent Woman in Australian Literature page (here)

Letty Fox: Her Luck, Christina Stead

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First edition cover

Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) seems at the beginning as if it is to be an account of the sexual adventures of a young woman in New York in the years leading up to and including the Second World War. I put up the opening page (here) last year for Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead Week. It begins

One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening. In general, things were bad with me; I was in low water financially and had nothing but married men as companions…

This paragraph goes on for more than a page, and the whole book for 500pp, in a sustained tour de force of brilliant writing. But the story does not go on from this opening, rather Letty Fox takes us back, takes us through her upbringing, and her disjointed family, that has led her to being this person.

We have discussed elsewhere in ‘Christina Stead Week’ that Stead uses a writing technique we might call ‘stream of speech’. During the early 1930s Stead and her husband Bill Blake were members of the artistic community around Sylvia Beach and her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., the publishers a decade earlier of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which made extensive use of stream of consciousness, where the ‘action’ of the novel is carried forward by the reader following what the protagonists are thinking from moment to moment – and of course, they are often ‘off with the fairies’. So it is with Stead, except that she uses speech – or sometimes letters as a speech substitute – non-stop for pages at a time. And of course, as this is a first person narrative, even when Letty is not speaking or being spoken to she is speaking directly to us, so that the novel is basically 500pp of direct speech.

Letty as a girl is both precocious and naive. Her 25 yo self who is the book’s author is content to leave most of the exposition to the Letty being discussed so that Letty, who at a very early age discovers from the examples of her extended family that the best thing for a woman is to marry early, divorce, obtain alimony, repeat as often as required for comfortable living, tells us frankly what her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are doing in this regard and how she plans to do it better, and of course at the same time lets us see both how much and how little she really understands.

I wondered if another influence that Stead picked up in Paris might not be existentialism. Letty’s mother Mathilde was a would-be actress whom Letty thinks strikes poses rather than expresses ‘real’ feelings, what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’:

Even when she raised her hands to her ears and cried out, the attitude and pang were perfect; now she had no doubt of herself. In this role, written for her many centuries before, she felt at ease …

When … Mathilde was not worshipping her baby-in-arms, or portraying a female defending her young, or walking up and down with the child in her arms, representing to herself an unhappy and loveless woman, she was sitting in a chair … thinking distrustfully of their future.

The same theme comes up later when a woman admires Letty’s poise, though Letty is more self-aware than her mother:

“Mrs Headlong, I have had really, no experiences, but those I have told you.”

She started, “It’s impossible! Not the way you talk! You seem so very much the modern, sophisticated -” she halted.

I took up, “The overdone young woman, the girl about town? I do; but that’s play acting. My mother was an actress once, don’t forget… I acted little girl, I acted young girl, and now I act knowing girl.”

I suppose I must tell you a little of the substance of the novel, though the great joy is to follow Stead’s writing, or Letty’s speech which is the same thing, as Letty lurches into young womanhood.

Letty’s father Solander, is some sort of merchant banker – much in the same way as (Stead’s husband) Bill Blake – who wooed Mathilde by being so often in her presence that she felt unable to resist him, but after the births of Letty and her younger sister Jacky he starts living separately, a fact which Mathilde struggles to acknowledge, denying for years the existence of ‘the other woman’, Persia.

The matriarch of Mathilde’s family is Grandma Morgan who owns a number of private hotels in rural locations around the USA, but principally Green Acres, the home to which all members of the family routinely return.

For a number of years, while Sol and Mathilde attempt to overcome their differences, Letty and Jacky live partially with their Uncle Hogg (separated from Mathilde’s sister) and cousins on a family-owned farm. Perce Hogg’s housekeeper is his sister, ‘Mrs Dr Goodsir’ after the doctor who had got her pregnant and refused to marry her. Mathilde’s younger brother Phillip is also sometimes in the picture, constantly sleeping with and sometimes marrying young women. At one time later on, both Hogg and Phillip are in jail for refusing, or being unable, to pay alimony. The divorce laws are ferociously complicated, with divorces and second marriages being both legal and illegal at the same time in different states.

Grandma Morgan, herself not averse to romance, with an ex-husband she permits to sleep round the back in the stables, has a beautiful younger daughter, Phyllis who during Letty’s adolescence, must be introduced into the marriage market at the maximum price. Sol’s work takes him to London and then to Amsterdam. Mathilde and the girls follow, ending up in Paris, and Grandma Morgan brings Phyllis to join them there. With a friend, Phyllis makes her way as a chorus girl around Europe until finally the family has to rescue her from Egypt, before she is completely unsaleable. Phyllis returns to the USA and pops up occasionally thereafter divorcing and remarrying.

The last part of the family is Sol’s mother, Grandma Fox, a decrepit and dependent old woman who must also deny Persia, though sometimes living with her and Sol, in order to remain friends with Mathilde (the only person in the story who does not wish for remarriage despite the urgings of her family) and the girls.

Back in the USA aged 15 or 16 Letty is determined to ‘discover’ boys and at the new year’s eve party at Green Acres she does, later telling Grandma Fox, who hadn’t been invited, that she had danced with ‘eleven boys’ and got drunk.

… I was doing the Big Apple. Errol was my partner nearly all the evening, although I danced with a couple of other boys I’d just met, and there were a couple of old guys about forty or fifty tried to make me, and I danced with a couple just to kid them, but I wasn’t really having any; no grey hairs in my beer, I said to myself and I said it to them, too, not quite that, but pretty much that. They got it anyway … Well, we went out and we walked up and down … and we looked in every corner – well, frankly, for a place to neck – and we couldn’t find one place. Everywhere we went there were a couple of kids necking, and even more than necking. Gee, much more. And kids wasn’t always the appropriate word. Finally, we had to sit in a corner of a storeroom right behind the kitchen, where there were already three other couples.

But in the end she “was still as mother delivered me into the world, though how I can’t say.”

When Grandmother Fox dies, she leaves her savings, $5,000, to be divided between Letty and Jacky, and Letty spends much of the next few years both begging for portions of this from her father as she runs up bills, on Grandma Morgan’s accounts, for clothes appropriate to the attracting of boys, and holding it out as a bargaining chip in her negotiations with suitors.

Letty does well at school and is a member of a communist youth organisation where she meets Clays, an aristocratic, impecunious (and married) 30 yo Englishman. She determines to win him and does and gets the permission of her family to marry when she turns 17. They manage to spend a night together but laughably, Letty remains a virgin and Clays goes off to the war in Spain as a journalist before he can finalise his divorce. It’s another six months before Letty spends the summer with a friend of Clays whom she does not particularly like, gets pregnant; he pays for the abortion which Sol organises, and then chases her, and eventually her family, to be repaid out of the ‘inheritance’.

By this time, college seems to Letty to be peopled by “demi-virgins and pimpled youths” and she drops out, taking a secretarial job in the fashion industry, and chasing after men. To be honest, this girl-about-town part of the novel – the last quarter – which brings us into the war years, is also the least interesting.

Letty Fox came immediately after Stead’s two best known and most autobiographical novels,  The Man Who Loved Children (1940) and For Love Alone (1945) and so is something of a departure – a Bildungsroman maybe, but not her own coming of age; and not so much a satire on marriage, as is sometimes said, as a satire on the behaviour of a particular sub-stratum of American society, the cosmopolitan, upper middle class. Of course, a novel will always contain something of the author, and perhaps Letty’s line, “It is impossible to resist the pleasure of love, once tried”, which is pretty much her motto, also represents Stead’s own experience.

 

Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, first published 1946. My copy Imprint Classics, 1991, with introduction by Susan Sheridan.

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead page (here) for a full overview of Stead and her work.
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters,1989 (Biography – Review)
Letty Fox: Her Luck (Excerpt)
Cotters’ England (Excerpt)
Cotters’ England (Review)