The Devil’s Pool, George Sand

Holbein Plowman
Hans Holbein, The Ploughman (1525)

George Sand (1804-1876) was an influential (female) French writer and feminist, though I have no idea whether she was widely read in English before the C20th (Wiki says The Devil’s Pool was first translated in 1847). I wrote about Sand previously as the subject of Elizabeth Berg’s fictionalized ‘autobiography’, The Dream Lover, and have long had the intention of reading some of her work.

Sand grew up on, and became the owner of, her grandmother’s estate at Nohant in central France (Wiki). Since 1952 the house and gardens have been a museum. The Devil’s Pool (1846) was written relatively late in Sand’s career and refers back to the time of her childhood on the estate, a time which she regards as before modernization, particularly of course before rail made cross-country travel accessible to rural communities.

The novel begins with a contemplation of Holbien’s picture (above) of the devil driving a team of plough-horses, from his series ‘The Dance of Death’.

Shall we look to find the reward of the human beings of to-day in the contemplation of death, and shall we invoke it as the penalty of unrighteousness and the compensation of suffering?

No, henceforth, our business is not with death, but with life. We believe no longer in the nothingness of the grave, nor in safety bought with the price of a forced renunciation; life must be enjoyed in order to be fruitful.

We shall not refuse to artists the right to probe the wounds of society and lay them bare to our eyes; but is the only function of art still to threaten and appall?

We believe that the mission of art is a mission of sentiment and love, that the novel of to-day should take the place of the parable and the fable of early times, and that the artist has a larger and more poetic task than that of suggesting certain prudential and conciliatory measures for the purpose of diminishing the fright caused by his pictures. (The Author to the Reader)

So the story begins:

I had just been looking long and sadly at Holbein’s ploughman, and was walking through the fields, musing on rustic life and the destiny of the husbandman ..

At the other end of the field a fine-looking youth was driving a magnificent team of four pairs of young oxen ..

A child of six or seven years old, lovely as an angel, wearing round his shoulders, over his blouse, a sheepskin that made him look like a little Saint John the Baptist out of a Renaissance picture, was running along in the furrow beside the plough, pricking the flanks of the oxen with a long, light goad but slightly sharpened. The spirited animals quivered under the child’s light touch

These are Germain and his son Petit-Pierre.

So it was that I had before my eyes a picture the reverse of that of Holbein, although the scene was similar. Instead of a wretched old man, a young and active one; instead of a team of weary and emaciated horses, four yoke of robust and fiery oxen; instead of death, a beautiful child; instead of despair and destruction, energy and the possibility of happiness.

On the Librivox recording I heard the author say that she was surprised her work was regarded as ‘revolutionary’ but I can’t find the quote. I think the ‘revolution’ is that she has taken the old genre of Pastoral Romance with its lords and ladies and fairies and replaced them with ordinary peasant folk, and in doing so has written one of the prettiest little love stories I have ever read.

Germain, who is 28, has been some years a widower with 3 children. He lives and works on his father-in-law’s farm, and is I think effectively a partner in the business, along with his late wife’s brother. His father and mother in law have decided that he needs to re-marry, his sister in law is pregnant and they need another woman in the house to manage Germain’s children.

There is an amusing discussion on Germain’s great age and how he needs a sensible and mature wife and not one of the flighty young girls from the village. Father in law has in mind the widowed, childless daughter of a friend, who has a few acres of her own and who lives in a remote village beyond the woods, some ten miles distant. The journey is planned for the following Saturday and Sunday, and a poor widowed neighbour asks Germain to take with him her 16 year old daughter, Marie, who is going to a nearby farm as a shepherdess. On the day, Petit-Pierre inveigles his way into going with them.

I won’t tell you the story of their little trip, and their problems getting through the forest of the Devil’s Pool, but if you can, download the Librivox version, it is an absolute delight listening to Marie talk. She is one of those young women born full of common sense who have so often had to rescue me from my congenital idiocy, and I am more than a little in love with her.

Germain’s ‘intended’ turns out to be a flibbertigibbet and Marie’s employer a lecher and so they return home. All else turns out as you might expect.

 

la_mare_au_diable_ezwa_librivox.jpg

George Sand, The Devil’s Pool, first pub. 1846 as La Mare au Diable. Gutenberg English translation here. I listened to a Librivox recording.

Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers has a collaborative blog for George Sand (here) to which this post has been added. Lisa has my father’s copy of La Mare au Diable (I don’t read French) and reviews it over the course of three or four posts, starting (here).

Bruny, Heather Rose

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Tas]

46194329._SY475_.jpg

Bruny is a political thriller set a couple of years in the future – after the next US presidential election, which the present incumbent wins, and by which time Rose thinks our own “head of state” will be a king rather than a queen – in little, out of the way Tasmania. As a follow up to The Museum of Modern Love it is, initially at least, a disappointment. How could Heather Rose, the author of one of the finest literary works of this decade, descend to writing a thriller? Money? Maybe, but if so, if I were she, I would have used a different name, kept ‘Heather Rose’ as the literary brand, and used say ‘Robert Galbraith’ for pot-boilers, well that name’s taken, but you get my drift.

But I think rather, that Rose’s ambition might have been to write a literary political thriller, and while I don’t think she quite carried that off, by the end I thought she came a lot closer than I expected, and along the way discussed a lot of interesting politics that doesn’t generally see the light of day in novels. That said, I wasn’t thrilled with the politics of her ending – the idea that it might be a good thing for a cabal of dedicated democrats within the CIA to intervene in Australian politics.

The newspaper reviews almost universally categorise Bruny as political satire: “a literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit”, which is just plain illiterate. Rose’s latest is in fact just one of the many recent works of Australian literary fiction to approach our present state of desperation through Science Fiction – extrapolating from today into an imagined, dire future.

Bruny is the name of a largish island, about 50km long, south of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, and separated from the mainland (ie. Tasmania) by a narrow channel. It has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents but many Hobart people maintain shacks on the island for weekend getaways. The premise of the novel is that an extravagant suspension bridge, supporting a 6-lane carriageway, is being built to the island with $2bil from the Commonwealth government, ostensibly to bring in more tourists.

The novel begins with terrorists attaching explosives to the supporting pylons and bringing one of them down, before escaping in a sophisticated stealth speedboat. The protagonist, UN conciliation specialist Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is contacted by the Premier of Tasmania, her brother John “JC” Coleman, and the Leader of the Opposition, her sister Maxine “Max” Coleman – yes, a little bit of satire there about Tasmania’s incestuously close population, but that’s where it ends – to come home from New York and smooth over opposition to the damaged bridge being rebuilt in time for the next election.

There’s a lot of character development, not as much as in a novel about relationships, but plenty given that it’s a plot-driven rather than a character driven novel. Astrid Coleman is a divorcee, with two university aged children, after a long, unsatisfactory marriage to a Jamaican man. JC’s wife Stephanie is the perfect political wife, but with hidden depths. Max is single. JC by the way is Liberal and Max Labor. Their parents are both dying but are an interesting presence throughout. There are various slimy political types. Then there’s Dan, bridge foreman and honest Aussie bloke. And there are various Greens and protestors who initially seem important, but mostly fade out as the story proceeds.

The tension, to the extent there is any tension, is to do with the Chinese. To what extent has the $2bil been sourced from China? What are China’s ambitions in and for Tasmania? Entities connected with the Chinese government have been buying up large tracts of farmland and housing. They have paid for Hobart airport to be extended so that fresh milk may be freighted direct to Beijing. The first payoff comes with the announcement that bridge rebuilding will be facilitated by Chinese workers, the thin end of a wedge that permits Australian mines to also import cheap Chinese labour (ignoring that there is already a large iron ore mine in WA, Cape Preston, with its own secluded port facilities, all owned and manned entirely by Chinese). But above all, what is motivating the Tasmanian state government? What’s in it for JC?

I’ve watched the government do deal after deal that’s bad for Tasmanians. Most everything done here in the past hundred years has made future generations poorer. Tasmanians have voted for it, believed in the rhetoric, and called it progress. What does Tasmania have to show for all those lost forests? All the polluted waterways? The overrun national parks and lost wilderness? There are tourists swarming over every last inch of the place. And now we’re going to lose Bruny too. One of the last truly remote, beautiful, liveable places in the world.

The bridge is resurrected. Coleman moves among all the players, calming them down, gathering information. Election day approaches, and with it the official opening of the bridge. The more Coleman learns the less happy she becomes. A hurricane makes its way down the coast …

Along the way Rose gets in digs at unsatisfactory husbands, election funding (non-)disclosure laws, Tasmania’s family-owned gambling monopoly, salmon farming trashing Tasmanian waters, and some words of love for MONA (ironically, funded by a successful poker professional). It’s a good read, but not important, not in the way that The Museum of Modern Love was.

 

Heather Rose, Bruny, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

And that’s Bingo! The books I reviewed for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth were –

Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Result [Vic] (here)
About Canberra [ACT] (here)
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend [NSW] (here)
Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River [Qld] (here)
Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing [NT] (here)
Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey [WA] (here)
Peter Goldsworthy, Wish [SA] (here)
Heather Rose, Bruny [Tas]
Keith Cole, Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission [Free] (here)

Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Qld]

 

Image result for tirra lirra by the river

I’ll tell you a secret. All the time I was reading this, I thought I was reading a Thea Astley. And it was only when I got to the end and idly looked at some biographical details that I discovered I wasn’t. I don’t have any excuse, Jessica Anderson’s name is there plain as day as they say, on the cover, but I had no reason (I thought) to look at it.

Astley (1925-2004) and Anderson (1916-2010) are of the same generation; both from Queensland; both moved to Sydney, and both continued, I think, to write about Queensland. I was mildly surprised as I was reading by the gentle subject matter – an old woman reflects on her life; when I was expecting something much more savagely political, like A Kindness Cup for example.

The old woman, Nora, is older than the author – no, I’m not revisiting the path I took last week with The Weekend – and I got the impression her age was about the same as the year, ie. that she was born around 1900, in a typical ‘queenslander’ weatherboard house, on stilts, 14 steps up from the ground, in one of Brisbane’s many riverside residential suburbs. Her father, whom she does not remember, dies when she is six and she lives with her mother, older sister, Grace, and brother, until he is killed in the trenches in France (which my grandfather, another Brisbane boy survived) along with Grace’s young man, and most of the neighbourhood boys.

Nora’s life has four distinct phases: growing up in Brisbane, bursting with sexual tension but no sex; a childless marriage in Sydney, where she and her husband find a flat with the bohemians on Potts Point until he is able to move them into his mother’s house in the suburbs to see out the Depression; divorce, a shipboard romance with a married man, an abortion, the end of sex, years in London sharing a house with two other women and the landlord; and the return in old age to the empty family home in Brisbane, Grace having married late but now dead.

Nora’s recollections are partly her own, partly the result of being cared for on her return by a couple who had always lived nearby and so had known her and her sister since childhood, and partly recollections of stories she had told her housemates in London. In fact, she had so often told and laughed over the stories of her unsuccessful marriage to Colin Porteous, that “Perhaps the real man has been so overscored by laughter that he will never be retrieved”.

Anderson was adamant that Tirra Lirra was not biographical, though the bohemians and old houses on Potts Point were drawn from life. There is one other character in the novel and that is Olive Partridge, Nora’s schoolfriend who becomes an author. The two meet up in London before the (Second) War, and Olive goes on to Austria. I was wondering as I read if Olive contained aspects of the author, thinking Astley, or of a friend, but no one springs to mind. Anderson herself was in London in 1937, but I don’t recall her being mentioned by other Australian authors in London between the Wars and in any case it was only in the 1960s, in her forties, that Anderson had the freedom to begin working on novels.

This is a slight novel, 141pp, and in fact began as a 20,000 word novella which publishers persuaded her to expand. It’s theme is Nora’s frustration, sexually, artistically.

One moonlit night, coming home across the paddocks from Olive Partridge’s house, I threw down my music case, dropped to the ground … I unbuttoned my blouse, unlaced my bodice, and rolled over and over in the sweet grass. I lay on my back and looked first at the moon, then down my cheeks at the peaks of my breasts…. I must have been less than sixteen.

… though I was quite aware of the sexual nature of the incident I don’t believe I was looking for a lover. Or not only for a lover… If that sounds laughable, do consider that this was a long time ago, and that I was a backward and innocent girl, living in a backward and unworldly place. And consider, too, that the very repression of sex, though it produced so much that was warped and ugly and cruel, let loose for some natures, briefly, a luminosity, a glow, that I expect is unimaginable now.

Later, we discover that Nora’s only other ‘sexual’ experience is with a boy a few years younger, who “teases” her, whom she allows to tease, when they are left alone, by jumping out at and grabbing/caressing her. It is some years before she marries, and when she finally becomes comfortable with sex her husband tells her to lie still and not carry on like a harlot. Sinking into depression in her mother in law’s house, not permitted to work, Nora is only saved by Porteous offering divorce and a small settlement. After that there is just the one shipboard romance, and then nothing.

In parallel, Nora sublimates her artistic talents in embroidery and later in dressmaking, and only on reflection sees what she might have achieved.

This is an interesting work to bear the ‘Independent Woman’ tag because Nora’s suppressed sexuality is not so different from Miles Franklin’s Sybyllas, Sybyl, Ignez et al*. Young Nora feels the rising sap, as they did. MF’s women flirt but hold themselves back from contact. Nora falls into marriage and finds it horrible. MF, I think, would feel vindicated.

 

Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1978 (my edition is the later Penguin, with the cover above)

*The Sybyllas are from My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, Sybyl from On Dearborn Street, and Ignez from Cockatoos (all here).

 

 

 

 

 

The Weekend, Charlotte Wood

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [NSW]

44232338._SY475_.jpg

The Weekend is a novel about three 70ish women cleaning the beach house of their dead friend. And the thing is, I’m within 2 or 3 years of their age and Charlotte Wood (1965-  and looks younger on Facebook) isn’t. Wood no doubt has all or some of mother, mothers-in-law, aunts, friends, colleagues to draw on, and I’m sure she gets women, but I don’t think she gets 70, an opinion I also had about another much lauded novel, Extinctions by Josephine Wilson.

On the other hand, towards the end one of the characters muses:

People thought when you got old you wanted your lost youth, or lost love, or men or sex. But really you wanted work and you wanted money.

Well, she got that right!

I loved The Natural Way of Things and I was ready to love The Weekend, but that’s not the way it has worked out. Wood has a clear, not particularly literary, style of writing which suited TNWoT, with its compelling story line of young women in indefinite detention for being the victims of men they trusted. The Weekend is the story of just three women, at the other end of their adult lives – or so Wood would have us believe though I personally am looking forward, like my parents and grandparents, to a couple more decades of activity – but again without men at this time, and having been with men they should not have trusted as much as they did. It’s a smaller story which needed better writing and character development to carry it off.

The protagonists are Wendy, a public intellectual, Jude, a retired restaurant manager, and Adele, an actress. They all live in Sydney, and the novel opens with them making their separate ways to the fictional community of Bittoes on the Central Coast (the rocky and spectacularly beautiful coast between Sydney and Newcastle, 160 kms north), where their lately deceased long time friend Sylvie had a beach house, which they had often used together and separately, and which they have been asked by Sylvie’s partner, now safely home in Dublin, to clean up for sale.

Wendy lives comfortably off the sales of her erudite books, and plans to write more. She is overweight, and a bit stereotypically, is sloppy in her person and in her housekeeping. She has an old car, which breaks down on the way to Bittoes, and in which she is trapped while “road trains” roar past, while her old dog pisses on her lap. Wendy, now a widow, had been in a loving marriage for many years, and has two children, by an earlier marriage, who appear to blame her for something.

Jude is uptight and bossy and has been the mistress for 40 years of a banker whose principal relationships are with his wife and children and grandchildren. She has no presence other than as a storm cloud around which the others navigate.

Adele, is small with a good body, is still amazingly supple, hasn’t been offered a part for more than a year, is or was in a relationship with another woman, and is also stereotypical in her narcissism and dependence on others.

She would wear black, very simple – or no, charcoal. With some stylish sleeve detail, but fitted so that you could see her figure, which was still really very lovely. People said that to Adele often. You have a lovely figure. Which meant, you have terrific tits. For your age.

I think the author’s intention was to explore the notion of friendship, not a subject to which I have given a great deal of either thought or practice.

The thirties were the age you fell most dangerously in love, Adele had discovered, after the fact. Not with a man or a woman, but with your friends. Lovers back then came and went like the weather … No, it wasn’t lovers but friends – these courageous, shining people – you pursued, romanced with dinners and gifts and weekends away. It was so long ago. Forty years!

Wood appears to confusing my generation with hers. Baby boomers were too busy, and too poor, in their thirties, with partners and children, to be “romancing” friends.

Anyway, the three women spend the long weekend over Christmas, cleaning, or not cleaning, reviewing their lives, being bossed about by Jude, bickering, and briefly, relaxing on the beach. Adele bumps into a rival, more successful older actress at a restaurant and invites her and her 40 ish producer partner to dinner. Where everything comes to a head, including the weather (Wood shows some restraint, and doesn’t throw in a bushfire).

The air was all electricity. They were suspended, Wendy pinned on the couch, Jude and Adele each separate, adrift. None could reach the other. The door was still open and the rain swept in; darkness had swallowed up the room.

Nothing is resolved, the dog doesn’t die. Wendy feels vaguely she must do something to find out what it is that so bothers her children about their upbringing. Adele has no visible means of support for the coming year. Jude we don’t know enough about to care. The late Sylvie, whose absence might have been expected to be the centre of the novel, barley makes a showing. The friendship, having lasted this long only through inertia, would seem to have nowhere to go.

 

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

Other Reviews:
Kate, booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)

Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, Tasma

Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 (1788-1890)

Uncle Piper

When Uncle Piper came out, in 1888 it was very well received and writers of the time likened Tasma to George Eliot (1819-1880). My own impression was to note the similarities with Elizabeth Gaskell  (1810-1865), maybe because I have read her more, and more recently (here).

The similarities are in the frequent references to church and religion, a questioning tone, though Tasma seems more Agnostic than Dissenter, the predominance of female over male interests, and a general overall seriousness. Some critics mention Jane Austen, but Tasma does not have the great JA’s lightness of touch, or whimsy.

The novel is set in Melbourne, fictional Piper’s Hill is in South Yarra, a wealthy Melbourne inner eastern suburb; a ship approaching Melbourne; and in ‘Barnesbury’, Malmsbury, a minor gold mining town on the highway (and railway) from Melbourne to Bendigo.  The period is the 1870s when Melbourne was the richest city in the world, following the gold rushes of the 1850s, and before the land boom and recession of the 1890s. The author mentions in passing Europe preparing for war. It is likely Tasma was in Belgium with her mother during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), so maybe she is referring to this or more generally to German expansionism.

Uncle Piper, now in his sixties, had come out from England as a young man, prospered as a butcher and then as a land speculator, and built himself a mansion in extensive gardens, with a tower from which he is able to see across the intervening suburbs of St Kilda and South Melbourne to discern with his telescope ships coming down the Bay from the Heads (map – Piper’s Hill is between Melbourne and St Kilda, beneath the ‘o’ say).

Piper has a son, George by his first marriage, and step daughter, Laura and much younger daughter, Louey by his second. Laura and Louey also have an older brother, a curate in London. Louey’s mother died in childbirth but Piper has promised to raise Laura as his own. Laura in young womanhood, accepts her step father’s support but not his rules and they are at daggers drawn, so when Piper realises George and Laura are in love he is seriously angry.

The cast is extensive and it is difficult to say if any one person is the protagonist, or even if we get to know any of the characters particularly well, though I like Laura, and it is likely she is the character Tasma has drawn to be most like herself. She and George are free thinkers. She is intensely loyal to George. She infuriates her step father by being beautiful, colourfully dressed, and by showing him the most studied indifference (Daughters! Who’d have them!). Laura and George also believe, theoretically anyway, in Free Love, which they discuss at length when Laura refuses to marry George on the grounds that he is not competent to support her if he is disinherited.

Piper’s sister was left behind in England where she married, above her station, Cavendish, an impoverished aristocrat. They have two daughters, the good, handsome Margaret and the thoughtless, impossibly beautiful Sara. They have lived poorly for many years on gifts to Mrs Cavendish from her brother, and at the beginning of the novel are at sea, outside the Heads, emigrants to Australia where Piper can more easily support them. Also on the ship is a curate, the Rev Mr Lydiat, who is of course Laura’s brother, coming out to minister to the colonies after wearing himself out in the slums of London.

The Cavendishes move into their own wing of the Piper mansion and the girls and their mother are introduced to a life of wealth and ease. Margaret though is insistent on supporting herself, and becomes Louey’s governess; Mrs Cavendish is induced to take over the reins of an extensive household; Sara – who has already rejected Mr Lydiat – keeps one eye on George, despite his humble birth, and another on the main chance, a title, a return in triumph to Europe; while Mr Cavendish chafes at being supported by ‘a plebian’, talks vaguely of a government job, and researches fanciful family trees. He is clearly a type Tasma has met and doesn’t like (Notice that she occasionally talks directly to the reader).

Mr Cavendish’s aristocratic nature was not devoid of the commonplace tendency I once heard attributed to husbands in general – [that wives are] to be petted and made much of when things are going well, and to be severely knocked about when anything goes wrong.

The plot is simple enough but what Tasma does, brilliantly and in detail, is describe the fluctuations in mood as the various young people form and reform alliances. Mr Lydiat still has hopes of Sara; George has all his hopes, for rescue from debt and marriage to Laura, riding on a horse he has running in the New Years Cup; Mr Piper has every intention of forcing George to marry Sara; Louey is distraught that her family is coming apart; Margaret is headed for spinsterhood while quietly pining after Mr Lydiat.

On the night before he is to take up a position in Barnesbury, Lydiat makes a fool of himself in the conservatory with Sara. Laura decides to go with him to give George and Sara space. There is a day in the sun at the races …

I won’t give too much away, but Louey takes the train to Barnesbury to be with her brother and sister; there’s an accident; all the family except Sara and her father rush to Barnesbury where they are all crowded into one little cottage. There are happy endings during which Tasma very much enjoys herself giving Sara her comeuppance.

Eastern Hill Charles Troedel

My Thomas Nelson edition has as its front cover a Charles Troedel print of Melbourne in the 1860s. I couldn’t locate a copy so have put up this one of Eastern Hill which includes  St Peters, the highest of high Anglican churches, where Mr Piper maintained a pew “and slumbered therein every successive Sunday.”

And I’ll reinclude a picture from my last post just so I can add Tasma’s description

Carlsruhe Hotel

Hotel Carlsruhe c. 1865. Now Lord Admiral House. “The great bluestone public house, designed for a monster hotel, was completed as far as its first story, but as it was never carried any farther, it naturally possesses at the present time a somewhat squat appearance, with a suggestively make-shift roof, and a general air of having been stopped in its growth.”

 

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, first pub. 1888. My ed. Thomas Nelson, Sydney, 1969. Top picture, reproduction of original frontispiece.

Download pdf version of first ed. (here) The Thos Nelson text is based on the 2nd ed.
Tasma (here)
Whispering Gums’ review (here)

Tasma

Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 (1788-1890)

Madame_Couvreur_-_Tasma.jpg

I’ve been (re-)reading Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1888) by Australian author Tasma, one of many notable women writers wrongly written out of the Australian canon. I read Uncle Piper maybe 15 years ago for my thesis, and may have read it first 15 years before that when Dale Spender, and the Nunawading library, first made me aware of the quality and quantity of works which make up what I have since labelled AWW Gen 1. The problem of reading for my thesis was that I was looking for a particular theme – women attempting to live adult lives without surrendering themselves to men – and so rushed through a work I saw as an ordinary romance.

In doing so I was unfair I see now, to the book and to the author. The 1969 Thomas Nelson edition I am reading contains an excellent introduction by Cecil Hadgraft and Ray Beilby (yes I know, more mansplaining) and I thought I would discuss that today, while I push on with what is proving quite a dense read  and I don’t intend that as a criticism.

Jessie Catherine Huybers was born at Highgate in London on 28 October 1848. She was the second child and oldest daughter to James Alfred Huybers, a native of Antwerp who migrated to Tasmania in the early 1850s.

There in Hobart, Huybers prospered as a merchant. His two sons attended Hutchins School (for rich boys). Jessie’s education is not recorded, but her father’s library when it was sold up in 1887 contained 850 volumes of French and English literature. Jessie was married at 18, in 1867 to Victorian ‘gentleman’ Charles Fraser who was 8 years older, and worked for his brother in law who owned the Montpellier and Riverview Mills* and the Hotel Carlsruhe near Kyneton, and ‘Pemberley’ at Malmsbury (both towns north west of Melbourne on the road to Bendigo).

The marriage was unsuccessful. Jessie spent some years in Europe with her mother and younger siblings, came back, began writing, living with but apart from her husband, returned to Europe, met Auguste Couvreur, a Belgian politician and journalist, was back in Melbourne briefly in 1883, to divorce Fraser who was by then living with his mistress, and subsequently spent the remainder of her short life in Belgium as Mme Couvreur. She died in 1897.

A site maintained by the Tasmanian Government says: “In 1877 she adopted the pen name ‘Tasma’, and began writing. She adopted this pseudonym to honour the colony where she grew up and continued to use it for the rest of her life. She enjoyed success from the start of her writing career and was regarded as a bright new talent, contributing articles and short stories on a variety of topics to the Australasian, the Melbourne Review and the Australian Journal.” Her ADB entry adds, “marriage [to Couvreur] gave her the opportunity to expand her writing beyond the fields of literary criticism and the short story.” And goes on …

In 1889 she published her first novel, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, which remains the best and best-known of all her novels. This and A Knight of the White Feather (1894) are the least autobiographical of her novels. The others, In Her Earliest Youth (1890), The Penance of Portia James (1891), Not Counting the Cost (1895) and A Fiery Ordeal (1897), are in large measure so obviously autobiographical that Charles Fraser must have been recognized in them from one end of Victoria to the other.

Hadgraft & Beilby write (of the 1890s):

That part of Australian society described by such writers as Lawson, Paterson and Furphy tended to be seen as the whole of society. Tasma on the other hand, saw a part (the middle class) and quite accurately recognised it as only being part … In Uncle Piper she opens a window and allows us to look in on a part of the Australian scene that became increasingly overlooked as the belief took hold that the real Australia was to be found only in the bush.

The editors spend some pages discussing the ways in which Tasma and Joseph Furphy represent respectively the end of English Literature in Australian and the beginning of Australian Lit., and posit that the two may have met when both were living in Kyneton in 1867. Tasma was a French speaker, Furphy had a French wife. Both wrote verse and Furphy won a local prize with a recitation of his “The Death of President Lincoln”. Maybe. In Such is Life Furphy is critical of the generation of the popular women writers who preceded him, and in Rigby’s Romance the eponymous Rigby names his horse Tasma.

Tasma, like Rosa Praed, drew heavily on her unhappy marriage to describe young women struggling to escape from a husband who “is often a drunkard, a gambler, a dunce, a coward, emotionally unstable, prone to insanity, dishonest and occasionally effeminate.” Tasma uses her heroines to argue against the institution of marriage, and to discuss the possibility of Free Love (without ever, unfortunately, resorting to it, or surprisingly, to divorce). These are an almost constant theme in early Australian women’s fiction, constantly overlooked.

The 1950s with its idealization of the perfect marriage propagated by American film and television stands between us and a proper understanding of just how un-Victorian, intelligent Victorian women were. The gatekeepers who kept us from reading Come in Spinner or Lettie Fox with their promiscuous heroines, who kept unpublished and unstudied all women’s fiction from before WWI, also kept us, and to a large extent still keep us, from an informed reading of our own history.

 

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, first pub. 1888. This edition pub. 1969 by Thomas Nelson, Cecil Hadgraft & Ray Beilby ed.s

The painting of Tasma above is in the State Library Victoria collection and was painted by Mathilde Philippson in 1890 (here)

see also:

Whispering Gums, Tasma (aka Jessie Couvreur) (here)
Other reviews and essays in the AWW Gen 1 page (here)
Patricia Clarke, Tasma the life of Jessie Couvreur, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994
Patricia Clarke, Tasma’s Diaries, Mulini Press, Canberra, 1996
Patricia Clarke, papers in the NLA (here)
Tasma as seen by the Tasmanian Government (here)
Obituary, Hobart Mercury (here)


*The Montpellier mill at Carlsruhe (here) and the Riverview mill at Kyneton (here) were steam powered flour mills built for pastoralist William Degraves in about 1860. The buildings housing the mills were impressive four story structures of local bluestone.

TheMillMalmsbury_5_1.jpg

One of the surviving mills in this area.

Carlsruhe Hotel

Hotel Carlsruhe c. 1865. Now Lord Admiral House. “The great bluestone public house, designed for a monster hotel, was completed as far as its first story, but as it was never carried any farther, it naturally possesses at the present time a somewhat squat appearance, with a suggestively make-shift roof, and a general air of having been stopped in its growth.”

Pemberley-24-1024x682.jpg

Pemberley at Malmsbury, now a wedding venue (do grooms emerge from the lake in wet shirts?)

Waterway, Eleanor Dark

Image result for eleanor dark waterway

Waterway (1938) is a far more significant work than I realised when my brother (B2) gave it to me to read a few months ago, and I’m going to go into some background to try and explain why I think so.

Before I go on though, about halfway through reading this novel I happened to glance at the back cover (of the edition pictured above) and it completely gives away the novel’s ending. Why a publisher would do that I don’t know, but it spoiled my reading of the book, and I can only advise you to resolutely hold the book face UP.

Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) was one of the women writers who dominated my Australian Gen 3 period – from the end of WWI to the 1950s, a period marked for women writers at least by a concentration on social (and in some cases socialist) realism. Socialism was an important influence during this period, though of course much less so after 1956. KS Prichard was a Communist; as was Jean Devanney; Christina Stead was, though she wasn’t a party member; Kylie Tennant was briefly a party member; there is evidence Miles Franklin hovered between socialism and communism. I’m not sure about Dark, but her husband was socialist and active on the left of the Labor Party.

Prior to my reading this book, Dark’s importance, to me, was her Timeless Land trilogy (1941, 1948, 1953) which imagined for the first time white settlement from the point of view of the displaced Aborigines. The only other of her works I remember reading is Return to Coolamai (1936) and it seemed to me her interest there was in middle class character and interaction. But I can see now her importance in the introduction of Modernism.

Waterway was Dark’s fifth novel. No.s 2 and 3, Prelude to Christopher and Return to Coolamai were both winners of the ALS Gold Medal. Wikileaks says (today anyway) of Prelude that “the storyline is nonlinear and of interest to those interested in the establishment of modernism in the arts in Australia.” It is interesting to guess what books/writers Dark might have been influenced by. Here are some landmarks –

Joseph Furphy, Such is Life (1903)
DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Eleanor Dark, Slow Dawning (1932)
Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934)
Patrick White, Happy Valley (1939)

So Dark and Stead were almost exact contemporaries, with Dark the first to be published, by a couple of years. Stead had the advantage of being in Paris in the early 30s in the circle around Sylvia Beach who published Ulysses, while Dark remained in Sydney. And I think Stead gradually became the more polished writer. Interestingly, both Seven Poor Men of Sydney and Waterway are set in Watsons Bay, just inside the Heads, on the south side of Sydney Harbour.

Like Ulysses, Waterway is one day in one city, but from the point of view of an omniscient observer relating the conversations, arguments, thought processes of 16 people from half a dozen houses in this one waterside suburb, as they bump into each other, in the street, in the water and on the ferry to and from the city.

Dark divides her protagonists into thoughtlessly wealthy and philosophers (with not much in between). The philosophers are led by Professor Channon who has two beautiful, intelligent daughters – Winifred unhappily married to rich Arthur Sellman and Lesley, single, who has just become the lover of Sim, the carefree, handsome younger son of another wealthy family, the Hegarty’s. Winifred has a blind daughter, 6 and is in love with her widower next door neighbour Ian who has sons aged 7 and 8. Arthur’s sister Lorna, also beautiful, but vain and thoughtless with it, is determined to marry Sim. Then there are the doctor and his artist wife, Lois; Roger who publishes a failing literary newsletter; and finally Jack, unemployed, living in a shack on the waterline amongst the fishermen, strong, angry and incoherent.

Dark’s philosophy, which is expressed by a number of her protagonists, basically seems to be Christianity without the religion –

“Hang it all, if you gave away every bean you possessed tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the little bit of ‘philanthropy’ that mattered, it would be the freeing of yourself [from possessions].” Roger to Sim.

It’s summer, the day is fine, hot. Those who can, start the morning, or in Lesley and Sim’s case, finish the night before, with a swim in the cove. The workers catch the ferry or drive into town. Winifred and Ian have vowed to stop meeting but manage to be on the beach at the same time so his boys can take her daughter for a swim. Arthur of course is angry and broods that the wife to whom he gives everything wants nothing except divorce.

The afternoon is to see the society wedding of Sim’s older brother and that, though unimportant to all the protagonists, is a focus for much of their activity. Jack falls and damages his hand, ends up in a mob of unemployed which gravitates towards the crowd watching the wedding; the kids go to the zoo; the artist has some paintings in an exhibition; one way or another most of them end up in town to come home on the 10 to 5 ferry.

There’s some excitement and the day draws to a close. It’s very well done and we the reader are involved in the ebb and flow of their thoughts. Sue (WG) of course will ask me how I can allow Dark to write the thoughts of men. Good question Sue. To a large extent the men are stereotypes, particularly Jack, I don’t think Dark is very familiar with the working class. The women are much more interesting. Winifred, Lesley, Lois and even Sim’s mother, Lady Hegarty are thoughtful and intelligent, though none of them is independent in the sense of wishing for a life without a husband.

Dark foreshadows her later work, which may have been inspired by a feeling that the Harbour is a living, breathing organism with a life independent of the white society that has so recently perched around its shores –

And when the invaders landed they felt a soil beneath their feet whose very texture was alien; a hard earth, which smelt not of grass and flowers and hay, the reassuring familiar odours of man’s long habitation, but strangely of an age-old solitude.

Lesley, who is probably the closest to being Dark herself, as the doctor seems based on her (Dark’s) husband, writes stories set in the earliest days of white settlement

By now, fed by necessary research, her mental picture of the city in its infancy had grown so familiar to her that she had often felt when she stepped out again from this quiet room into the daylight … surprised to find it no longer that … straggling settlement of a handful of colonists.

I haven’t really made the case for just how good the writing is, the long streams of consciousness as one protagonist or another reflects. The author herself notes one of her influences –

She thought, “I’m going all D.H. Lawrence! I suppose you have to go through this before you realise how accurately he paints – one side of the picture!” Lesley.

If you like to think about writing, and about Australian writing in particular, then this is a book you should consider. I think Aust.Lit. came of age in the 1930s and it was the women, and I guess Xavier Herbert, who were responsible, and who in a large way formed the base built on by Patrick White.

 

Eleanor Dark, Waterway, first pub. 1938. My copy Imprint 1990 with Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska

see also:
Meg Brayshaw, The Quiet Brilliance of Eleanor Dark, AWWC (here)
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here)
Sylvia Beach, Ulysses in Paris (here)

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week will be in the second week of January 2020 (and there will probably be a Part II in the corresponding week of the following year).