The Dream Lover, Elizabeth Berg

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The Dream Lover (2015) is a fictionalized life, written in the first person, of celebrated French novelist George Sand (1804-1876) who was of course a woman, born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. I’ve been listening to it over the past couple of days and have constructed this review from my memory of the story, relying on Wikipedia for dates and names.

Ironically, in her memoir Histoire de ma Vie (1855), Sand writes, “I would not want to tell my life like a novel. The content would be overwhelmed by the form.”

Sand was the author of 60 or so novels and two memoirs. As well as I can gather, her themes were adultery, sexual satisfaction for women, and the unfairness of marriage laws which vested all of a woman’s property in the husband. She went about publicly in men’s clothes, lived separately from her husband, conducted a number of ‘scandalous’ affairs, and hinted at being bi-sexual, particularly in her relations with the actress Marie Duval.

I am always looking out for antecedents for the strong anti-marriage theme in the writing of C19th Australian women novelists and feminists like Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Gaunt and Rosa Praed, and Sand interests me in this regard. I’m not sure how much of her work was translated into English, though I’m sure she was well known. Berg quotes passages from Sand’s work and what I presume are genuine letters, particularly in relation to her views on sexual politics, but again does not suggest any influences.

The novel begins in 1831 with Aurore leaving her husband Casimir Dudevant and their two children at their country home Nohant – which she had inherited from her grandmother along with a substantial fortune, but which he controls – to join her lover in Paris and to set out on her career as a writer. We move ahead in two parallel streams – her career as an independent adult going on from that point, and her childhood and young womanhood leading up to the separation. The writing is good, but not excellent, and the story itself is fascinating. As we switch back and forth between the timelines each episode is dated but still with the potential to be confusing, especially listening and not paying full attention, for instance Aurore dealing inexpertly with a suitor in one timeline and dragging a lover into bed in the other.

As briefly as I can, the story is that her well-born father Maurice Dupin was an officer in Napoleon’s army. While serving in Italy he falls in love with Sophie, a courtesan, whom he marries secretly against his mother’s wishes. They have a daughter, Aurore and subsequently a son who is born when Sophie joins Maurice in Spain (I guess at the beginning of the Peninsular War) but who is sickly, particularly after the long trek back to Nohant in central France (about 300 km south of Paris) and soon dies. Maurice dies not long after, in a riding accident. Sophie does not get on with her mother in law and accepts an allowance to go and live in Paris while Aurore is brought up as a lady by her grandmother, and is educated by Maurice’s old tutor.

Aurore is probably a bit wild. She gets her first taste of men’s clothing riding around the countryside in trousers and a loose shirt. Her grandmother reacts by putting her into a convent school run by English catholic nuns in Paris where she spends a relatively happy couple of years until she is 16 and it is time to put her on the marriage market. Her grandmother dies and Aurore becomes mistress of the estate until at 19, she marries Dudevant and he begins to run it down.

Berg pictures her as inexperienced (of course) in bed but also unresponsive. Nevertheless they have a son, Maurice, and then a daughter, Solange, though by then Aurore has been experimenting with lovers, so Solange’s paternity is uncertain.

Dudevant offers Aurore no comfort intellectually and she is frustrated by his stewardship of her estate. After eight years they separate and Dudevant gives her an allowance (out of her own money!) to live in Paris. Initially the children stay with their father and the parents take turns living at Nohant.

Aurore and her lover Jules Sandeau jointly write Rose et Blanche (1831) which is published under the pen name Jules Sand. The following year she writes Indiana, using the pen name George Sand, which name she adopts for herself from then on (that is, people now call her George). She has a job as a theatre critic and starts wearing men’s clothes because only men are allowed to sit in the cheap seats down the front.

The problem of women achieving satisfaction is a running theme in her early novels, and Berg has her spending one never repeated weekend of sensual delights with Marie Duval at Nohant where Duval teaches her the uses of all her ladybits. This seems to make life more pleasant both for her and for the many subsequent men in her life.

Divorce was abolished in France by Napoleon, but after four or five years of independence Sand and Dudevant negotiate a legal separation in which she regains control of Nohant and custody of the children. Sand is in any case already a prolific and commercially successful author and so though her stated sympathies are with the poor, her upbringing and lifestyle put her firmly with the rich and famous.

We go on. Maurice is a good boy, Solange is a handful. George is friends with Franz Liszt and stays with him in Switzerland in time to meet baby Cosima (The Young Cosima, Henry Handel Richardson). Liszt introduces her to Frederic Chopin, and Sand and Chopin live together for the decade 1837-47, eventually separating when Chopin sides with Solange over Solange’s impetuous marriage to August Clésinger.

In 1848 Sand is an enthusiastic supporter of the February Revolution marking the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the (short-lived) Second Republic. I think though that with the return of Empire under Napoleon III she finds it politic to retire to the country. She continues to entertain and in later years becomes friends with the reclusive Flaubert, twenty years her junior. She dies at Nohant in 1876.

 

Elizabeth Berg, The Dream Lover, Random House, 2015. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 2015, read by Emily Sutton-Smith

Google Books has some interesting critical studies of George Sand (here) including modern introductions to Story of my Life and Indiana.

Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers has set up a collaborative blog for George Sand (here) to which this post has been added.

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Old Blastus of Bandicoot, Miles Franklin

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Miles Franklin was a fine literary stylist as the opening lines to Old Blastus attest:

It was in those days, so lately fled, when horseless carriages were a curiosity beyond the seaboard. Some young bloods had made the journey from Sydney to Melbourne in one as the most enterprising adventure at command following the picturesque performances of the Boer War, and had thereby rendered themselves as glamorous as minor fighter pilots of later years.

However, by 1931 when Old Blastus of Bandicoot came out Franklin was 52 and only just beginning to achieve critical success, as Brent of Bin Bin, after decades in the wilderness. Commercial success was something else, as these were Depression years and in any case British publishers paid a discounted rate for sales in Australia (Franklin’s publisher was Blackwoods of Edinburgh). Old Blastus, the first novel to be published under Franklin’s own name since Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), arose out of one of her many unsuccessful attempts to write and have staged a play in London in the years after the War, and is dedicated “to Annie, May, Leslie, Ethel & Ruby who first heard this story in its original dramatic form”.

Shockingly, my 1945 Australian Pocket Library edition is ‘by Miles Franklin, Author of “Bring the Monkey”, “All that Swagger”, “Joseph Furphy” etc., etc’. No mention of the famous My Brilliant Career! Franklin was prominent in the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Jill Roe writes, “FAW plans to ensure the survival and development of Australian literature when the war [WWII] was over took several forms” including the Australian Pocket Library which had print runs of 25,000 “an astonishing figure”. There is more (here) in this 1946 essay from the University of Toronto Quarterly:

The Commonwealth Literary Fund, since 1908 an active force in furthering the cause of Australian culture, aided by an annual government grant of about $15,000, agreed to underwrite the reprinting of standard, out-of print books, in cheap editions, in order to alleviate the book famine. Arrangements were made with publishers, an Advisory Board selected twenty three initial titles, and in 1944 the first of the reprints began to appear.

The book famine was the result of paper shortages during the War. Other FAW authors to have books published in this series included M. Barnard Eldershaw (The Glass House), and Frank Dalby Davidson (Man Shy).

Despite the silly title – and Franklin’s neologisms while they sometimes add colour, more often act to prevent her writing being taken seriously – Old Blastus is an interesting and often amusing account of farm life in Franklin home territory, the plains south of Goulburn, NSW now home to Canberra, in the first decade of the C20th.

Interestingly, to describe the country she re-uses a phrase from Ten Creeks Run: “Over the nearer rolling widths the spire of Canberra church came to view in its Plain, and Mount Ainslie”, rendering it this time as: “all the way across the rolling treeless plain guarded by its lone English spire, till leaving the shouldered masses of Black Mountain and Ainslie …” And she’s still fussed about her young heroines kissing: “‘Oh, people don’t kiss unless they’re engaged or something deadly,’ laughed Dora, her light words disguising her fluttering pulses.”

The story begins with Old Blastus, William Barry, upset that one of his neighbours has brought back the district’s first automobile after a visit to Sydney. “Nothing had so titillated the neighbourhood since Mabel Barry ‘went wrong'” which is a clue to the reveal at the end. Mabel is Barry’s oldest daughter. She was “thirty-seven and looked forty-five, and thought of nothing but work”. Dora, the Miles Franklin figure, is the younger daughter, verging on 18. “She sang with natural ease and her voice was much admired by those who heard it raised in the tuneful Weatherly melodies.” Of course she rides like the wind, and is sometimes allowed to ride unaccompanied “contrary to custom” into Queanbeyan for singing lessons. In case you haven’t been keeping up, Miles Franklin was both a horsewoman and a singer and so are all her young heroines. The other family members are Mother, and Arthur, a brother ten months or maybe fewer Dora’s junior. And there’s another clue.

Barry lives in a state of feud with his neighbours but Dora is oblivious to what is openly discussed by everyone else, and admires not just the car, but also the car-owner’s son, Ross Lindsey. Dora is restless, her father forbids socialising, she lacks occupation, does not really think she’ll make it as a singer, nor “did she feel capable of writing a book as that other girl, about whom everyone, even the old bushwhackers, made such a fuss” (Miles herself, of course!).

The situation is brought to a head when Ross is injured near the Barry property and has to be put up for a week while he recovers. Barry is forced to be polite to the Lindseys, Mrs Barry entertains hopes of resuming her old friendship with Mrs Lindsey, Dora sees enough of Ross to entertain hopes of her own, Ross’s older sister Kate and Dora’s absent older brother Bob resume contact after a 17 year hiatus, and Mabel begins to see a way for her and Arthur out of their unrelenting, and unpaid, drudgery.

Then follows a bazaar during which Dora sings to Ross’s accompaniment. Dora is a hit and is asked to stay with other young ladies in town. Barry is losing control:

What on earth was he to do? The idea that Dora might be able to hold her own – her own virtue, be safe within her own cleanly courage, did not occur to him. His idea was to guard her by main strength. His previous experience of freedom for daughters had been disastrous.

Dora sneaks off to attend a ball in the Lindsey’s woolshed. Her father catches up with her and drags her home, the old kitchen is in an uproar:

“Father came roaring over to Chesham Park.”
“Chesham Park!”
“With a buggy whip as if I were a slave in a harem.”
“That’s what you will be if you go the ways of harlotry.”
“He called me dreadful bad names before everyone and tried to thrash people with his whip as if he was drunk.”
“I pray God I was not too late. By God if I was …”

Franklin has been painting Old Blastus as all bluster, and although no-one actually gets whipped, Dora does get pushed to the ground. I’m not sure Franklin appreciates just how violent the old man’s behaviour is. None of her other (fictional) fathers is like this but it is possible her model was Steele Rudd’s rambunctious ‘Dad’. She was surely aware, and probably envious, of how financially successful Rudd had been with his ‘Dad and Dave’ books.

Lisa (here) and Sue (here) have been discussing bushfires in their recent reviews of Karenlee Thompson’s Flame Tip: Short Fictions and it’s a bushfire which is the climax of Old Blastus. Barry is obsessive about keeping his land cleared, and ploughing and burning firebreaks. Lindsey is rather less so, with long grass right up to the flash new homestead. The scene in the Barry kitchen is brought to an abrupt end when it becomes known that a fire on the boundary of Lindsey’s Chesham Park, driven by rising winds, threatens to engulf the whole community, though not before Dora finally learns Mabel’s secret.

Franklin’s writing is at its best in her descriptions of the fire and the efforts to control it:

… the fire seemed to carry in the air, or to start of spontaneous combustion, straight towards the Lindsey home paddocks. Flames ran up green gum trees as if they were tinder and sent crashing blazing tops in a vast shower of brands and sparks to set alight hundreds of yards around.

Old Blastus is the hero of the hour. Various love lifes are resolved. The community rope in a visiting Lord to present Barry with a car of his own. Mabel leaves Bandicoot for the first time in 17 years and the family find they miss her.

Old Blastus of Bandicoot was a popular book in its day, and a favourite of my father’s as it happens, probably because Franklin combines her always lively writing with likeable characters and a believable plot, which was not a combination she always achieved.

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Miles Franklin, Old Blastus of Bandicoot, First pub. 1931. My copy (above) Australian Pocket Library ‘by arrangement with the Commonwealth Literary Fund’, Melbourne, 1945

For a list of all my Miles Franklin reviews and posts go to Miles Franklin Central (here)

Great Australian Girls, Susan Geason

 

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Before you tar and feather me, ‘Girls’ is Geason’s word, not mine, although  she attempts amelioration with ‘and the remarkable women they became’. And how Ned Kelly, or a female Ned Kelly – do they look like woman’s eyes to you too? – got on the cover I am not sure.

This 1999 book is a collection of biographical sketches of Australian women who shared “qualities like courage and determination, the strength to face adversity and obstacles and still fight on.” The idea of course, although Geason does not say so in her short Introduction, is to provide positive role models for girls when our histories, and the daily press, are so full of role models for boys.

As you might expect, the older stories are of more interest to me, some of the later stories might have been articles in the Women’s Weekly.

Mary Reibey (1777-1855) This is the most extensive account I’ve read of Reibey, who vies with Elizabeth Macarthur for the title of Australia’s first businesswoman. Mary was born in Lancashire into a middle class family. Her parents died early on and she was taken in by her grandmother and educated at Blackburn Free Grammar School. When she was 13 her grandmother died and rather than enter an ‘orphanage’ (a parish poor house probably) Mary ran away, stole and attempted to sell a horse, and although for a short while successfully posing as a boy, was eventually transported to New South Wales as a female convict on the Royal Admiral in 1792. Geason says as “part of the Second Fleet” but I think she is wrong about this, and in fact I think she relies too often on her general knowledge instead of looking things up, as for instance when she says “after a fast run across the Pacific … sailed through Sydney Heads”. In fact sailing ships came from England from the other direction, via Cape Town and the Southern Ocean.

On arrival in Sydney Town, Mary wasn’t selected from a line-up of new arrivals as a ‘wife’, but two years later, at age 17 she married Thomas Reibey, a ship’s officer with the East India Company. Reibey became a prominent businessman, firstly as a farmer on the Hawkesbury, then as the owner of small ships servicing his fellows on the Hawkesbury and subsequently the coastal and Pacific Islands trades. Thomas was often away and Mary was active in running the business, as she continued to do after his death in 1811, growing in prosperity and respectability for the next 40 years.

Geason mentions Mary Reibey’s diary, though not in her extensive list of sources, but here it is at the Mitchell (NSW State Library).

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) was born on her parent’s property, Oldbury, in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Her mother, an educated woman, daughter of a barrister, took over the property when her husband died two months after Louisa’s birth. There followed eight years of  moves and disruption, not to mention a disastrous re-marriage to an alcoholic, before Charlotte finally had James Atkinson’s will executed in her favour. The lesson Louisa learned from this was the one preached by many of my other Independent Women: “a woman without money and friends was at the mercy of men. Marriage was not the answer… A woman had to gain the skills and knowledge to earn her own living.” Charlotte before her had been an author – of the first children’s book published in the colony – and an amateur botanist. Louisa took up botany at an early age and at 19 started producing nature notes and drawings for the Sydney Illustrated News, and subsequently as ‘A Voice from the Country’ in the Sydney Morning Herald. With her friend Emma Selkirk she made long excursions into the Blue Mountains searching out new plant species –

On horseback, with their long skirts hiked up like trousers, the two would pick their way up and down steep ravines, through dense forest and undergrowth… One of their favourite haunts was the fern gully at the Kurrajong waterfalls, where they discovered several new ferns.

Sounds like the women in Christina Stead’s story ‘On the Road’ in The Salzburg Tales.

Louisa’s major work was an illustrated Australian natural history. In 1870 she sent the ms to famous botanist Ferdinand von Mueller but it was lost in the upheavals of the Franco-Prussian War. She also wrote a number of novels though Geason mentions only the first, Gertrude the Emigrant (1857).

Finally, aged 35, she married, but died a couple of years later in childbirth.

Mary MacKillop (1842-1909). I’ve been meaning to look into the life of Mary McKillop for a while and by this account she was a lively and determined woman. Leaving aside the nonsense of “Australia’s first saint”, she famously established an independent order of nuns, the Josephites, against the bitter opposition of Australian Catholic bishops.

In 1865 the three older MacKillop girls set off to Penola [north of Mt Gambier, SA] to start their school. Mary was 24, Annie was 17, and Lexie only 15. They started out teaching classes in their cottage and the local church.

In January 1866, by donning a simple black gown, Mary became a nun, the school became the Institute  of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and a new religious order was born. When she died, aged 67, Mary ‘left behind 750 nuns teaching over 12,000 children in Josephite schools in Australia and New Zealand.’

Next up are Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) whom I discussed here, and will treat at length ‘one day’ soon; and Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson (1870-1946) here and ditto.

May Gibbs (1877-1969) was born in England and came to Australia when she was four. Her father attempted to farm poor country north of Adelaide before giving in and moving to Western Australia where he farmed first at Harvey, south of Perth, then at Butler’s swamp which is now the (inner) suburb, Claremont. (I once had a boss, a milkman, who remembered when cows were run on the South Perth foreshore). May had virtually no formal schooling, but at 20 she became a student at the new Art Gallery and then at 23 she enrolled first at the prestigious London art school, the Cope and Nichol, then after a brief interlude back in Perth, at first Chelsea Polytechnic then at Mr Henry Blackburn’s School for Black and White Artists.

Back in Perth again Gibbs found some work as an illustrator (eventually losing out to Ida Rentoul) but it was not until she moved to Sydney with her friend Rene Heames that she found consistent success. Bib and Bub, the gumnut babies grew out of her work illustrating the NSW Primary Reader and School Magazine, before popping up in Ethel Turner’s The Magic Button, then Gibb’s own books, Gum-Nut Babies and Gum-Blossom Babies appeared ‘just in time for Christmas 1916. Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie came out in 1918 and the rest is history*.

There follow Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) who went from farm girl to international opera star to crippled by polio; Nancy Bird (1915-2009) pioneer commercial aviator; Linda McLean (1917- ) who wrote a memoir of her hardships during the Depression, Pumpkin Pie and Faded Sandshoes; Dawn Fraser (1937- ) the great Australian swimmer whose working class background rubbed too many ‘amateur’ swimming officials up the wrong way; Pat O’Shane (1941- ) a Yalanji-Kunjandji woman, ‘Aboriginal activist and magistrate’; Irene Moss/Kwong Chee Wai Lin (1948- ) characterised as ‘a fighter for justice’, the Race Discrimination Commissioner wife of the Chairman of Australia’s most rapacious bank (Alan Moss, Macquarrie Bank); Lorrie Graham (1954- ) photojournalist; Beverley Buckingham (1965- ) one of the best jockeys in Tasmania until the fall in 1998 which rendered her an ‘incomplete quadriplegic’; Heather Tetu (1967- ) trapeze artist graduate of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and an early organizer of circus exchanges with China, left unable to perform  after a fall in 1992; Sonya Hartnett (1968- ) writer, whom I reviewed recently (here); Fiona Coote (1970- ) heart transplant recipient; Louise Sauvage (1973- ) multi gold medal winning wheelchair racer; Rebecca Smart (1976- ) actor, Buster in The Shiralee (1987), and Const. Donna Janevski in The Water Rats since this book came out; Tamara Anna Cislowska (1977- ) child prodigy pianist; Monique Truong (1985- ) girl.

Monique is definitely my favourite of the ‘others’. When she was 11, her parents’ Canley Vale (Sydney, western suburbs) house was broken into by a gang of schoolboys armed with pistols. Unhappy with what was there to steal they took Monique with them, eventually holing up in a Parramatta hotel –

[The leader] grabbed one of the single beds for himself, while Monique and the other boy shared the second one, a pillow between them.

In the morning Monique slipped a note under the door and was soon rescued, physically unharmed. However, as might be expected, she needed counselling and her family moved to Queensland, where they feel safer.

 

Susan Geason, Great Australian Girls, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

*Lisa, ANZLitLovers attended the session ‘The Real May Gibbs’ at the recent Bendigo Writers’ Festival

The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Elizabeth Jolley

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Up till now I have read only one Elizabeth Jolley, The Well, which I wrote on during my studies 12 or so years ago. I would have used my essay as the basis for a post, being shameless in my recycling, only I cannot find it. My old 3” back-up discs are not well-labelled. I also have Brian Dibble’s 2008 Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley in my TBR, if only I could get to it.

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) was born and grew up in England, and began training as a nurse before entering a complicated marital relationship with Leonard Jolley, with whom she emigrated to Western Australia in 1959. According to Wikipedia (there is no ADB entry), they lived in the comfortable middle class Perth suburb of Claremont until 1970 when they purchased a small orchard at Woorooloo in the Ranges on the outskirts of the city.

Jolley had always been a writer, mostly of short stories, but remained unpublished until 1976. Shortly after this she began to teach one of the earlier Creative Writing courses, at WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin Uni.). Her first novel, Palomino was published in 1980. The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981), a novella really, was her second.

No one knew or cared where the Newspaper of Claremont Street went in her spare time. Newspaper, or Weekly, as she was called by those who knew her, earned her living by cleaning other people’s houses.

And so we begin. ‘Claremont Street’ is an imagined long street in Claremont, mostly residential but with a very old fashioned mixed-business grocery cum haberdashery store. Weekly lives in an old rooming house at one end, opposite an intrusive block of flats, and her clients live along its length. Weekly, who was brought up ‘in service’, cleans and helps out at dinner parties. At the end of each day she plonks down in a chair in the store and gives off a few items of news.

The story has a timeless feel which makes it difficult to place, but Weekly’s friend Nastasya was a teenager during the Russian Revolution and she and Weekly appear to be similar ages. By the time of the story Weekly is in late middle age so perhaps the setting is the early 1960s, before supermarkets had wiped out all the old grocery stores.

We learn that Weekly and her mother had been in service in England, and had emigrated to Australia when her father was killed in an accident. An older sister goes to work in the wheatbelt and we don’t hear of her again, but Weekly’s younger brother, Victor, who had been doing well at school in England, becomes a young con man, hanging around and taking what he can from Weekly and her mother, until at last, owing too much to the wrong type of people, he too disappears.

Weekly and her mother were in service in a large house. House cleaning was the only work they knew. Between them on swollen feet, they waited on Victor, cherishing him, because they knew no other way. And Victor, as he grew older, made his own life which they were obliged to hold in reverence because they did not understand it.

All the time, as Weekly works and saves, we are on the edge of her thoughts, listening in …

It was if her mother’s sigh persisted through the years, sadly and quietly, in the noise of the leaves flustering in front of the broom. Weekly added her own sigh and then shook off the thoughts. It was such a long time ago now.

Eventually Weekly gets a little car, persuades one client to give her an old car they have for sale, and another client, not to be outdone, to pay for her driving lessons, and begins to drive out into the country to seek out a little farmlet to which she might be able to afford to retire.

The fly in the ointment is that Nastasya, who has been used all her life to be waited on, has moved into Weekly’s room and Weekly doesn’t have the heart to abandon her. Twice they head for the ‘hospital’ (nearby Graylands, formerly the Hospital for the Insane) only for Weekly to turn back. So finally Weekly takes Nastasya with her, to the shack on a few acres in the hills and there she comes up with a solution to her need for isolation and quiet that is as shocking as it is funny.

Jolley’s writing is exquisite and her characterisations are brilliant. She writes with great feeling about what it is to be an older woman, but more than that, she writes with insight on what it is to be, in Australia.

 

Elizabeth Jolley, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 1981. Audio version, The Association for the Blind of WA, 2009, read by Coralie Ellement

The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory

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Home at last! I landed at Perth airport, home from Melbourne, last Tuesday week at 9.30 am and by noon was at work. I’ve driven, unloaded, driven, loaded for ten and half days straight till now I’m ‘out of hours’ and must take a two day break. We haven’t worked like this since the end of the mining boom a couple of years ago. Obviously I haven’t had time to write any new blog posts but I have done plenty of (audio) reading.

When I’m unloading and sometimes when I’m queuing to load I catch up on my news and blog reading and when that’s done I can read a real, physical book – at the moment Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales. Meanwhile, during all that driving, I’ve listened to, amongst others, Amerikanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Pride and Prejudice, The Taming of the Queen, The Road (Cormack McCarthy), and The Drowning (Camilla Luckborg).

Amerikanah – currently the subject of the Mayor of New York’s citywide book group – was a disappointment, just another plain vanilla American novel, with none of the African rhythms of other Nigerian writers, Nnedi Okorafor say, or Ben Okri. The Road was also less than I expected, just ordinary, post-apocalyptic SF. I get the impression that when literary writers move into SF, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is another example, they get far more credit than SF specialists who often do it much better, and here I’m thinking of the relative lack of mainstream appreciation for JM Ballard, PK Dick, Ursula La Guin and so on.

The Drowning, standard – which is to say, good – Swedish crime fiction, brought up a different problem, that is depictions of violence. I can only describe the detailed descriptions of two distinct acts of violence, one sexual and one not, perpetrated on one girl as pornographic. The denoument, involving a split personality, was also less than compelling, but that’s another story.

So we come to The Taming of the Queen. Marion Diamond, who blogs at Historians are Past Caring, joked on another post of mine on historical fiction (no, I don’t remember which one) about ‘feisty, feminist medieval princesses’, but this is in fact the thesis of this recent (2015) Philippa Gregory Tudor romance. Gregory is passionate about the feminist credentials of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, ‘Kateryn’ Parr (1512-1548).

I have listened to other books by Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl most recently, and have enjoyed them for the romance and for their veneer of historical fact. One critic has described Gregory’s books as the Mills & Boon of historical fiction. More or less by coincidence I’ve also listened to Hilary Mantel’s much more respected books of the same period, Wolf Hall and Bring Out the Bodies, so I’m getting to be a real expert.

Historical fiction is in the long tradition of well-known stories being re-told to illustrate current concerns, a tradition dating back no doubt to before Homer as it is a given in oral cultures that stories must be retold to survive. My own “opposition” to historical fiction is to retellings that end up obscuring important aspects of the past. So, medieval history is not important to me and I am happy for it to be used as a canvas for Gregory’s imaginings, just as I enjoy learning what I can of Wellington’s campaigns from Georgette Heyer’s The Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride.

Australian history is important and so I must interrogate why I value Voss and not The True History of the Kelly Gang, why I look down on The Secret River and, yes, A House is Built but not The Timeless Land or That Deadman Dance. Voss, I think, like the many adaptations of Shakespeare, celebrates the original story (in this case the disappearance of explorer Ludwig Leichardt) without replacing it; That Deadman Dance is important for supplying an Indigenous perspective to first contact, as is the much earlier The Timeless Land, though of course in that case Dark, the author, is white. Carey’s Kelly Gang rightfully asserts Kelly’s Irish rebel antecedents but I don’t understand why he gives Kelly a wife or how he imagines 1870s Victoria without Aborigines (and I hate novels written in dialect). The others are in a long line of historical fictions written with modern sensibilities and where the facts may be much better understood from accounts written at the time.

Philippa Gregory imputes to Parr a vital part in the survival of the Reformation in England, and indeed the two main threads of this novel are the feminist and intellectual underpinnings of Parr and her inner circle of Ladies in Waiting, and a virulent anti-Catholicism. I have no religious leanings at all, and if I don’t like the appellation ‘atheist’ it is only because there is no theos from which I am ‘a’, but I was a bit shocked by Gregory’s language. Don’t get me wrong, I agree totally that “men in fancy dress performing hocus pocus” is an apt description of Catholic priests, I just didn’t expect to come across it here.

The background to the novel is that the Reformation had taken hold in England following the teachings of Martin Luther and later, John Calvin. Henry, who had his own disputes with Rome, carved off the Church of England in 1529 with himself as head, though the teachings and practices of the church continued to vacillate between Protestantism and Catholicism (to this day). This is also the background to The Scarlet Letter which I reviewed recently.

Henry has already got through five wives in his attempts to come up with a male heir when in 1543 he marries Kateryn, a 31 year old widow who has up till then lived in the north. Henry, by then 52, is grossly overweight and ill. He has a wound to his leg which will not heal, which threatens to kill him through blood poisoning, which requires constant draining, and which of course both stinks and makes it difficult for him to walk unaided. The descriptions of this are all a bit gross! As are the descriptions of Henry’s attempt at intercourse. Gregory posits that a medieval lady would hold herself remote from the processes of sexual intercourse and describes Kateryn sitting stiffly in Henry’s lap as the poor man attempts to ‘get it up’ without assistance.

Although the practices of the Church of England were largely Catholic, reforms included an end to belief in Purgatory – and of payments to the Church to hasten the progress of the dead through Purgatory – services in English and the distribution of an English language Bible (possibly the Wycliffe version from a century or so earlier). Henry himself seems to have translated at least some prayers from Latin into English.

Gregory describes Parr as taking up the cause of Protestantism when she arrives at the court, of she and her ladies making new translations, particularly of the Psalms, from Latin into English and of suffering from the forces of reaction as she fails to give Henry the (second) male child he so desperately wants, and as Henry comes under the influence of pro-Catholic advisors. Parr corresponded with her stepson (later Edward VI) in Latin and  published three books of prayers and religious reflections in English. In an afterword Gregory writes:

No woman before Kateryn Parr had dared to write original material in English for publication and put her own name on the title page, as Parr did with her last book, The Lamentation of a Sinner.

Spoiler Alert. Despite temporary imprisonment in the Tower, Kateryn survived Henry to marry her lover, only to die a year later in childbirth.

Gregory is not the literary writer that Mantel is but this is still an enthralling story well told, and with more heft than her earlier work, those that I’ve read anyway.

 

Philippa Gregory, The Taming of the Queen, Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Audiobook, Audiobooks.com, narrated by Bianca Amato

 

The Honey Flow, Kylie Tennant

The Honey Flow.jpg
Painting: Black Mirror, Lina Bryans, 1964

Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was a novelist for the battlers. Probably best described as middle class – her father was a clerk and later a company executive; she was educated Brighton College, Manly and subsequently enrolled in Arts at Sydney Uni (which for financial reasons, she was unable to complete); and her husband was a school teacher (ADB) – nevertheless, she immersed herself in depression-era working class life, and her books reflect this.

I have written already on her most important novel, Ride on Stranger (1943) (here) and briefly on the Honey Flow (1956) in my dissertation (here – in Chapter 4, if you really want to go and look), where I summarised it as “the story of a young woman, Mallee, who takes on her late grandfather’s beehives and an old truck, and so takes on also the very male world of itinerant apiarists moving and tending their hives in the NSW southern highlands”.

My Imprint Classics edition has an Introduction by Jean Bedford which is really just a review of the novel itself rather than any extra material about the author or a wider view of the issues discussed or of the book’s place within either the author’s work or the wider Australian literary scene. I was and am interested in The Honey Flow for its heroine’s independence. Bedford is maybe not as impressed as I am, writing:

Little more than cursory lip-service is paid to the wider social issues that informed Tennant’s earlier work. There is an underlying feminist precept – that a young woman can break the barrier of social expectations and succeed in a male world on her own terms – but it is a precept applied specifically to Mallee, and it is part of her individual oddity…

Yet The Honey Flow remains an engaging, funny and rewarding novel, despite its avoidance of the deeper motives and consequences of human behaviour … Mallee is an attractively lonely and gallant figure and we can forgive her face-saving flights into wry humour. (1991)

In my magnum opus, I wrote further, that: “In many ways this is the novel Miles Franklin might have written if she’d stayed in Australia. The setting is Franklin country; Tennant, like Franklin, writes with a breezy style and doesn’t look too far beneath the surface; but unlike Franklin, Tennant, while sharing Franklin’s moral view, is able to look sex in the face and not be frightened”.

The novel begins:

Every time my memory opens its mouth it dribbles roads. Not so much the great bitumen and concrete flanks that cut the mountain spurs and plunge over the edge of plateaus, but bush tracks that suit a kangaroo or a rogue bullock, but look incredible to drivers who have never had to force a great truck loaded with bee boxes or honey tins through the forests, over corduroys where the forestry gangs have thrown down a few trees to make a footing in a swamp, down into steep creek beds, over places with names like Muldoon’s Mistake or The Downfall.

That’s exactly it! Us drivers, we open our mouths and dribble roads. Mallee is a truck driving apiarist, travelling her bees, competing with her fellows for the best sites up and down the east coast. “You sweat and lie exhausted and swear and talk obscenities and live on bread and corned beef and creek water with a little tea to disguise the taste of mud. The professional name for all this is migratory bee-keeping.”

Mallee, and her step-father who travels with her for a while, are script writers for a radio serial and that gives both a certain literary feel to the writing and positions Tennant/Mallee as middle class observer/participants in a working class environment. Mallee inherits some hives, borrows an old Ford truck and sets off for the bush, joining up with the well set-up outfit of the Muirdens, brothers Blaze and Joe, their father and their offsider in the Pilliga Forest in north central NSW. They subsequently journey back down to the Southern Alps – Miles Franklin country – and then up to the Brigalow scrub of south central Qld, following the seasons, the blossoms and water. You learn a lot about what bees need.

Blaze is the male lead, though hardly the ‘love interest’. He has a fiancée back home who is sick of him being away all the time, is a bit of a “ladys man” and anyway, Mallee is mostly too busy to be interested. The setting is the years immediately post-WWII – which is only referred to with the briefest references to men who have been living under canvas – and although we think of the 50s now as a prosperous time, the roads, the rough and ready vehicles, the primitive living conditions in camp are all reflective of a people, a way of living which had been tempered by years of Depression before the War (Are you old enough to remember when a bottle of dry sherry was a cheap substitute for beer? I am, and I can’t touch it now!)

Let me briefly address the points raised in the introduction: Bedford dismisses Mallee’s independence with faint praise, but at a time, the 1950s, when ‘every’ woman was married with 3 children in a little suburban house with a white picket fence, Mallee’s rejection of marriage – like Shannon and Sybylla before her – and her determination to succeed on her own terms is inspirational. Further, the work in classic Australian Legend style is set firmly in the bush, which in many places is lovingly and knowledgeably described, but with a female protagonist.

Franklin rediscovered her muse writing about the exploits of her mother’s and father’s families as pioneers in southern NSW. Tennant, born and raised in Sydney, famously walked with the unemployed and the battlers in the bush during the Depression, she lived the lives she wrote about and it shows. She writes of tying down a load, something I have spent years doing, drive tankers now to avoid:

It was daylight before the trucks were loaded, the ropes braced over, and the last double sheepshank knotted round the metal rod that ran along under the sides of the big table top. [It’s called a “tie rail”, Kylie.]

Mallee, like Franklin’s heroines and Eve Langley’s too, is surprised when her virtue isn’t obvious to others. She “gets a reputation” as did Langley’s Steve and Blue before her, for sharing her hut with men.

Franklin struggled not so much to write about sex, which she didn’t, but to portray relationships which were sexual. Tenant is much more relaxed. Here Blaze has put the hard word on Mallee: :“Would you ever just act human? Would you come over to my tent some night and say, “Well, you bastard, you win. Move over”?” So that night she does, “It would be nice to give Blaze a pleasant surprise. Well, I thought, what does it matter?” But without entering the tent she can hear that he is in bed with another woman. Mallee laughs and walks away. “Dear old Blaze! How I like that man! A heel if there ever was one.”

If I haven’t made it clear already, The Honey Flow is written with a light, sure touch and is well worth reading.

 

Kylie Tenant, The Honey Flow, first published A&R, 1956. My edition Imprint Classics, 1991

See also my review of Ride on Stranger (here)

Tennant later wrote the introduction for a reprint of Mary Gaunt’s 1897 novel of another woman seeking independence through bee-keeping, Kirkham’s Find (here)

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Image result for images the scarlet letter

The Scarlet Letter (1850) has long been a favourite of mine, one I had been thinking of reviewing, along with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth as early, and rare, examples of stories about single mothers. So I was happy to find it in my (new) local library as an audio book. We all know the story. Hester Prynne, a young married woman in Boston in the earliest days of the settlement of New England by English Puritans, commits adultery and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for adulteress on the front of her dress for the rest of her life.

The Scarlett Letter is actually historical fiction, that is it was written 200 years after the events being portrayed took place. In a very long and largely irrelevant prologue, Hawthorne describes his own position in the Customs House in Salem, Mass., which was apparently his home town, though he had spent a long time away. In all the material for Americans who must have to study this book at school, there is a suggestion that Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. The premise of the prologue is that Hawthorne discovers some old papers in the attic of the Customs House which tell Hester Prynne’s story.

Hawthorne begins his ”introductory” with “It is a little remarkable, that – though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends – an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public” and then goes on to talk about himself for 40 pages. He should have been a blogger! But don’t get me wrong, I love old fashioned first chapters. My favourite is from Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) which begins (after a long preface): “The Browns have become illustrious by the pen of Thackeray and the pencil of Doyle, within the memory of the young gentlemen who are not matriculating at the universities… For centuries in their quiet, dogged, homespun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English countries, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands.” And so it goes on. It is indicative of the sort of books that I read and gave my children that I advised them that it was always ok to skip the first chapter when starting a difficult novel.

The Puritans, in Boston at least, were members of the Church of England who believed that the English Church, which had separated from the Catholic Church in the 1530s, remained too Catholic in its ceremonies. Up until the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, 21,000 English Puritans emigrated to colonies on the east coast of North America. Brought up ‘low’ C of E as I was, I am sympathetic to the Puritans who were attempting to establish a rules-based society in reaction to the excesses of the Crown – Elizabeth, James I and Charles I. The problem of course is that any set of rules attracts people who enjoy enforcing them.

Boston, founded in 1630, would by 1642 still have been a quite rudimentary settlement, hemmed in between the dark forest and Massachusetts Bay. Salem, which plays no part in this story after the prologue, is 20 odd miles northwards along the coast, and was settled a few years earlier. A later passage illustrates the impression I have of Hester’s gloomy surroundings:

The road … straggled onwards into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect images of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.

The novel proper begins with Hester Prynne being released from jail, holding Pearl, her 3 month old baby daughter. She is led to the town square, refuses once again to divulge who is the father, and is displayed – “pilloried” – for three hours on a platform which has been built for that purpose, although she is not held in the stocks.

Hawthorne seems fascinated by witches and they constitute a minor theme throughout the book. A crowd has gathered to witness Hester’s humiliation, as for an execution:

But in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child … was to be corrected at the whipping post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian… It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows.

Misstress Hibbins subsequently invites Hester, on more than one occasion, to join her and her fellows in the forest.

The “SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated on her bosom” can only have been intended as a defiance of the sentence imposed on her by the colony elders, and also the always bright clothes worn by Pearl, as she grows up, in contrast to the sober clothing of the Puritans. Yet, over the decade or so encompassed by this novel, Hester earns grudging acceptance from her fellows for her quiet, helpful and industrious ways.

The scarlet letter must also have been a very rare punishment, as towards the end, Hester is still been being pointed out by out-of-towners at a local fair.

The novel is an interesting precursor for the (Australian) Independent Woman paradigm. Hester is already married, but the whereabouts of her husband are a mystery. In fact, it is her getting pregnant in his absence that leads to her conviction for adultery. She lives a quiet and virtuous life, in a cottage on the edge of the settlement, supporting herself by her skill at needlework. We discover early on who the husband is, but he holds himself apart, and the lover, Pearl’s father, is not disclosed until near the end. Disappointingly, Hawthorne says very little about Hester’s problems in bringing up a child unaided, other than to say that Pearl is wilful and undisciplined.

The other thing I would say is that I found the writing very formal. More “old fashioned” than Austen and Walter Scott who were a generation older, or Hawthorne’s near contemporaries Dickens and Mark Twain, as I remember them. I am listening to Anna Karenina at the moment and find the flow of C19th writing infinitely soothing, though I suspect that the Tolstoy is a modern translation.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, first published 1850. My edition (not the cover pictured) ‘Best Seller Classics’ from Award Books, USA, undated but maybe 50 years old. “This book is a reprint of the first edition … published in Boston by Ticknor, Reed & Fields in 1850”. Audio version: Dreamscape Media, 2014, read by Robert Bethune.