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 rich 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 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)

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Tasma

Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 (1788-1890)

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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.

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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.”

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

Waterway, Eleanor Dark

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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).

Little Women, mostly

Journal: 034

Book Cover

You guys all grew up reading Little Women I’m sure. Milly did, and Gee says that she and Psyche did, though I don’t remember giving it to them, but I didn’t. No sisters, no copy in the house. So I read/listened to it for the first time just a week or so ago and thought the first sentence of my review was going to be “I couldn’t find a way into reviewing this book which you all know by heart – no trucks!” BUT. In Part II, Chapter 23* a distressed Jo steps out into traffic without looking, into the path of a … truck. I pictured a costermonger’s barrow

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though Websters suggests any “strong horse-drawn or automotive vehicle for hauling” so I’m not sure what Alcott intended.

*I wrote ‘2/23 truck’ on the back of my hand because that is my notebook when I am driving, but Ch 23 is actually in Part I, and now I can’t find the quote.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote Little Women in two parts, which came out in 1868 and 1869. It is generally regarded as fictionalised autobiography and as a novel for children. I’m sure most of you read it at around 12 or 13 but it seems to me to be directed more at young women getting ready for adulthood and marriage.

At the beginning of the novel Mr March, father of the little women of the title, is away at the American Civil War, as a chaplain (on the Union side) so the year is around 1862. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter came out in 1850, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first, Mary Barton, was published in 1848, all of Jane Austen’s had been out for 30 or 40 years, but the two works which Alcott has Jo reading are The Vicar of Wakefield (secretly, for amusement, when she’s meant to be reading sermons to her wealthy, aged aunt) and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, both dating from the previous century. I wish just one author would write, “I rushed down to the bookshop for the latest xxx”, Dickens maybe, who was then at the height of his popularity. Of course the work which is central to Little Women is the older again Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (1678), another “first novel written in English” (here).

There is of course nothing I can tell you about the book itself. I found it a bit preachy but am used to that strain of Christian duty in books of that time; and I probably preferred Anne of Green Gables (1908, I hadn’t remembered it was so ‘recent’). I would though like to say a little about ‘the Independent Woman’. Jo speaks at length about the advantages of being unmarried and of course she famously refuses to marry the boy next door. Alcott herself remained unmarried, supporting herself as a governess and writer (her family’s connections with Thoreau, Emerson, the Underground Railroad are fascinating (wiki) and I would like to read more).

“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poor Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it, solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it. Well, I needn’t be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner, and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it, but…” and there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.

Americans, it seems to me, are afraid of independent women and even strong characters like Marge Simpson and Roseanne eventually bow down to their husbands, so I was disappointed but not surprised when Alcott not only married Jo off to the older Bhaer but made Bhaer, not Jo, the principal of Jo’s school.

At nine they stopped work and sung as usual

Project Gutenberg has a generously illustrated version (here). The illustration above is “At nine they stopped work and sung as usual”, by Frank T Merrill (here).

That’s a scrappy review, I know, but I wanted to say something about it. Now I am listening to Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot which is a fiction about an amateur Flaubert biographer – really just an excuse for talking about Flaubert, and about what we can say about writers – which I am finding both interesting and enjoyable, and about which I might write a similarly scrappy review. If I get time. And there’s the rub. I’m stuck in Melbourne. Again. After only one day home in Perth. Here, mum is in hospital after a hip replacement (she’s quite well thank you, though tired). B3 is down to see after her and picks me up from the truckstop in Dandenong each day when it’s clear there’ll be no work, and drives me up to mum’s hospital (Knox).

Meanwhile, back in Perth it’s all happening. Kim (Reading Matters) has just come from London to live and work; Nathan Hobby has handed in his PhD thesis* and is now facing the world as “full-time parent, part-time writer, part-time librarian”; and Jess White is visiting us for the launch of Hearing Maud. Hopefully I will shortly catch up with them all.

see also: Melanie/GTL’s recent post on US women’s comedy (here)

Recent audiobooks 

Katharina Hagena (F, Ger), The Taste of Apple Seeds (2013)
JD Robb (F, USA), Brotherhood in Death (2016)
JD Robb (F, USA), Apprentice in Death (2016)
Truman Capote (M, USA), The Grass Harp (1945)
Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom (M, USA), The Ascension Factor (2012)
Ann Barker (F, Eng), Ruined (2009)
Ben Bova (M, USA), Moonrise (1996)
Louisa M Alcott (F, USA), Little Women (1868)
Lisa Jackson (F, USA), Innocent by Association (1986) DNF – I stopped reading this book, and would advise you to never read this author, when the heroine was kidnapped and fell in love with her abductor. Why women authors advocate violence as a way of winning women is beyond me (in my own defence, I was expecting a crime thriller not a modern bodice ripper).

Currently reading

Eleanor Dark, Waterway


*Nathan Hobby: 100 word version of my thesis, sounding more scholarly than it is in reality: ‘Astir With Great Things’ is a biography of the early life to 1919 of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), an Australian writer and political activist. Critically engaging with Prichard’s autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, the thesis builds a fuller account of her early life with archival material. The thesis narrates Prichard’s literary development and the writing of The Pioneers and Black Opal. Exploring Prichard’s political radicalisation against the backdrop of World War One, the thesis also considers the intertwining of Prichard’s personal life with writing and politics, including the effects of her father’s suicide and her brother’s death in the war.

City of Women, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976),  A Woman of the Future (1979) and City of Women (1981) are his fifth, sixth and seventh novels. Before came Burn (1974) a fictionalised life of an Aboriginal VC winner which I found unbearably racist, and after came Archimedes and the Seagle (1984) which I found twee first time around but which I suppose I must one day attempt to re-read.

I mention the three together not because they make up a trilogy but because thematically they form a triangle of intersecting issues. So, The Glass Canoe is a series of linked stories about the drinkers in a working man’s hotel, basically an exploration of the culture of (white, Australian) blokes. A Woman of the Future is a surreal story from the point of view of one young woman –

… sketches of her moral upbringing and of a dystopian suburbia in which her neighbours suffer an inexplicable wave of biological mutations.

She is compelled to explore and observe the limits of her organism, including sexual free will in which masturbation, incest and masochism each have their place.

Bonny Cassidy, Sydney Review of Books, May 2018 (here)

In City of Women Ireland again attempts a woman’s point of view, this time an older woman, Billie, who lives in a flat in central Sydney, a Sydney from which men are barred from entering by (female) armed guards. The story is very similar to The Glass Canoe, both in structure – a series of linked stories about drinkers at The Lover’s Arms, and in the celebration of a love who is effectively off-stage.

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Sydney CBD 2019 (not much changed since 1981) (c) Google Maps

The Lover’s Arms is in Cathedral St, on the right of the map, at the bottom of the yellow freeway section. Billie’s flat is a little further south, near William St (the thick white street running east-west) and must be quite high up. Strictly, this area is Woolloomooloo, once an old working class area around the wharves, and the CBD proper is on the other side of the parks (I think. I’m not a Sydney person).

Out of my window … I look across to the brown cathedral [St Mary’s], the deep green foliage of the Sydney Domain, below me to the school, across again to the steel-blue harbour, the pastel colours of the Woolloomooloo terraces.

Billie mourns her missing love, Bobbie, in a series of asides in which we see Bobbie both as daughter and as lover. She has been adopted by a leopard whom she also names Bobbie so she may continue to use the name. She walks Bobbie around Sydney on a leash and takes her to the Lover’s Arms, and talks to her almost constantly.

I think it is very unlikely that Ireland is attempting to use this format as a way of better understanding women. Rather, by putting women in the position of men, he is again shining a light on Australian working men’s culture, as he did in The Glass Canoe and more famously in The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (which I must re-reread and write up next).

Billie was an engineer with the Water Board, made redundant, and is now at 62, a therapist. Bobbie studied engineering to work with her but has gone away.

My engineer is at the back of beyond. I thought I held her like a bird in my hand, happy to be there.

The women drinkers are tough old birds, or sometimes young, with a wide range of strange illnesses..

Donna McDevitt is a miser, a woman of great debility… she’s eighty-seven… Doctors had treated her at various times for head bounce, foot fester, labial pus, tongue crumble, lung quake, hand bunching, nipple destruction: she was a walking catalogue of decay.

Billie tells their stories – do they build? It’s hard to say. We gradually form a picture of an inner Sydney where all the manual labour is done by women, where women have walked away from husbands and children, where renegades will sometimes go ‘outside’ for sex with men and are shunned, where marriages are between women, and children somehow come about, where women get men “into trouble”.

The unifying story in the background is that there is a rapist, Old Man Death, who abducts women and cuts them, depositing his semen in the cavity and then sewing it up. What is the point of this? Who knows. Perhaps it is Ireland releasing his inner misogynist. It certainly involves a fair amount of gratuitous violence.

The Glass Canoe ends with the redevelopment, gentrification of the men’s pub, the Southern Cross and likewise the City of Women seems to come to an end too. Not with the closure of the pub but with the ageing and dying out of the women. Ireland has been describing a period in time now past, when drinkers were tribal, barely troubled by outsiders. By 1981 Gough Whitlam had been and gone but Ireland’s drinkers still seem to be of the generation that voted futilely for Arthur Calwell.*

 

David Ireland, City of Women, Allen Lane, Melbourne, 1981. Cover illustration and design Helen Semmler (the cover illustration goes on round the back, ie. to the left, but I couldn’t find an image of it).


* The election of the Gough Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 marked Australia’s coming of age as an interesting, multi-cultural nation. Whitlam’s predecessor as Labor leader, Arthur Calwell had enforced the white-Australia policy as Minister for Immigration in the Chifley Labor government, before heading into 23 years on the opposition benches.

The Shining Wall, Melissa Ferguson

SF books used always to have SF loudly on the spine and front cover. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more, part of the unwillingness of mainstream writers to be seen as genre (looking at you Ian McEwan) maybe and part also, as in the case of this book, the laudable uptake of dystopian themes in recent Australian women’s fiction, of which I have written before.

SF, although of course it had antecedents in Frankenstein, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is largely a post-WWII phenomenon, rising out of US pulp fiction, short stories and novels of space travel, ray guns and grotesque monsters, dashed off at the rate of two, three, four novels a year for a pittance by (mostly male) writers. I read the sedate (English) John Wyndham at school but really discovered SF in the MU Union library, reading short stories and serialized novels in the pulp magazines Galaxy, Astounding, Analogue etc. and in particular Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil which Galaxy brought out in 6 parts over July-Dec 1970.

SF in the US had an almost cult status – an idea taken literally by L Ron Hubbard, SF writer and founder of the Church of Scientology – with fans and writers mixing at frequent Conventions. Heinlein, who is a good writer, but with a Superman complex (in the Nietzschean sense) became a figure of fun in fanzines (remember when blogs had to be published on paper!), his slight stature contrasting with his muscular, wealthy, high IQ, sex god (and occasional goddess) protagonists.

I write this as a lead-in to the idea that literary values in SF were often sacrificed to speed of writing and the rush of new ideas. To some extent this still continues though the movement has thrown up over time some great writers – JG Ballard, Philip K Dick, Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin and more recently William Gibson – whose merit has been obscured by the SF label attached to their writing. But SF is not unique in this, there are plenty of other genres where literary values are sacrificed to story telling – just look at the popularity in Australia of Di Morrissey, Judy Nunn, Bryce Courtenay etc., etc.

So. The Shining Wall (2019) is an Australian SF novel, without the SF label, in which the ideas and the story are more important than the writing. The author, Melissa Ferguson “lives in Geelong [Vic.] with her husband, two children, two guinea pigs, and one axolotl.” God, that annoys me! And is a “cancer-fighting” scientist, though the ideas in this book don’t particularly relate to her science.

The setting is a near future where Citizens, with perfect health, young bodies and the possibility of near-immortality have retreated into a walled city, City 1, surrounded by the ruins of the suburbs. The underclass, “demi-humans” live in shanty towns outside the walls. Neanderthals, “neos”, have been cloned to work as servants and soldiers. Re-wilders advocate the rejection of anything to do with City 1 and especially the brain implants which serve to both monitor health and act as inter-personal communications devices. Trolls tunnel under the city walls. And there are colonies of free-Neos who have escaped to the bush. Government is a dictatorship privatised out to LeaderCorp which provides both utilities, basic water and medicines, to the Demi settlements, and policing, via mixed squads of ‘sapiens’ and Neos.

We are meant to be involved in the lives of three characters, a Demi, Alida, a teenage girl who with her mother has adopted a younger, stray girl, Graycie; Shuqba, a very straight Neo woman cop who while policing a LeaderCorp ‘hub’ in the settlements befriends Alida and begins to unstraighten; and Ferrassie, another Neo woman, working in a factory turning cockroaches into flour, who falls foul of the authorities and is sentenced to the medical research facility from which no Neo ever returns.

Characterisation is ok, but subservient to plot. The oddest thing is Alida’s speech which is full of archaic Australian slang – littlies, threads, dunny, dosh.

A jigsaw of the front of the mansion appeared through some leaves, all its slick lines and creamy rendering dreamily distorted by the domeshield. Alida’s guts were in a tangle. To top it all off she need a shit. Anxiety was truly the best laxative. She pressed her knuckles into her belly. She’d shit her pants before bolting back into the mansion in search of a dunny.

Rhea darted from one greenhouse to another, peering around at the back door of the mansion and muttering some prayers.

‘Someone’s gonna clock you acting so suss,’ Alida whispered as loud as she dared.

Briefly, Alida’s mother dies and Alida has to work for Freel the local crime lord to make rent. Ganya, his offsider, smuggles Alida into the City where she is Cinderella to a Prince and two Fairy Godmothers. A drug, ‘passenger’, gets her through the sex. After, the two Citizen women ask Alida to have a child for them.

Alida refuses and refuses any further jobs; Graycie gets ill; Alida’s junkie mate is using up all her credits. Shuqba gives her some work, but eventually Alida is forced to acknowledge that Graycie would be better off if she were adopted by citizens.

There are various adventures as City 1 collapses and Shuqba attempts to save Ferrassie and reunite Alida and Graycie. The story’s ok but Ferguson never settles into a comfortable writing style and, for me at least, this was intrusive.

 

Melissa Ferguson, The Shining Wall, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2019

My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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My masters was built around My Brilliant Career, my truck is named after it, I have done innumerable (well, 23) posts about Franklin, but I have never posted a review of this her first and most famous novel. Luckily however, Emma of Book Around the Corner, last year, and now Karen of Booker Talk – who coincidentally, being respectively French and Welsh, bring an ‘outsider’s’ perspective to the task – have stepped up to the plate for me.


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Every time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image.  That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes.  Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.

Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn. Read on …