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 …

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Sister Sorrow, Rosa Praed

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

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Jessica White, whose Hearing Maud about Rosa Praed’s deaf and abandoned daughter Maud will be published by UWAP in July (I may get to go to my second book launch party) has chosen a late Rosa Praed novel for AWW Gen 2 Week. A few paras down she refers to Praed’s “bestselling feminist novel” The Bond Of Wedlock, which I reviewed (here). Thank you Jess.


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Praed’s oeuvre stretches from 1880 to 1931, so she slots easily into Gen2. In the late 80s and early 90s she was at the height of her fame, but I’ve chosen her penultimate novel to review, because I need to revisit her works ahead of the edits for my book. This has turned into a minor essay full of spoilers, so if you plan to read the novel, you might want to shelve this until afterwards. Read on …

 

Girls Together, Louise Mack

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

 

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Sue (Whispering Gums) has posted a review of Louise Mack’s follow up to Teens which I reviewed yesterday (here). Between them they provide a fascinating insight into 1880s and 1890s Sydney, when university was a real possibility for the first time, at least for those young women whose parents could afford it.


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Well, that was, surprisingly, genuinely enjoyable. Louise Mack’s Girls together is a sequel to her novel Teens [], and features protagonist Lennie (Elinor) Leighton. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given I know something about Mack, through my Monday Musings on her and my review of her debut novel The world is round, but it was, because … Read on …

The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorehouse (ed.)

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The cover painting above is Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife (1945) from a trip he made the previous year and his drawing A Drover’s Camp near Deniliquin (1944). Deniliquin is in NSW, 80 km north of the Victorian border at Echuca. I have often been through that way, heading east to Conargo, Jerilderee, Wagga or north to Hay, Hillston, Bourke and on into outback Queensland, and drovers and their mobs of sheep are still a common sight. Twenty years ago, destitute, I seriously considered the merits of getting an old truck and a plywood caravan and travelling at walking pace as the sheep in my care grazed the back roads and byways of the Riverina. As it happens Milly saved me, for the time being anyway, and that’s a story for another day.

Drysdale always claimed the naming of his painting was unconnected with the title of Australia’s most famous story, but many have sought to connect the two, not least Murray Bail, who in his own The Drover’s Wife (1975) claims that the big bodied woman is his (or more strictly, his dentist narrator’s) missing wife.

In this book Frank Moorehouse brings together a whole collection of this, his own and other writers’ stories and essays – on some of which I have already written (Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer, The Drover’s De Facto) – to make a fascinating whole.

Let me attempt a brief chronological overview (Moorehouse’s book is arranged thematically). The undoubted source of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (read it here) is his mother, Louisa’s early married life in the bush near Mudgee, NSW, her husband often away droving and prospecting. Louisa chucked it in in 1886 when Henry was about 19, moved to Sydney, bought a newspaper, and became a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She was a loud forceful woman, Henry was not, and a great story teller.

Moorhouse includes an essay by Louisa, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889), see above, which discusses many of the elements of hardship and isolation which Henry includes in his story. Henry’s The Drover’s Wife first appeared in the Bulletin in 1892. Two years later Louisa used her presses to publish “a poorly printed collection” of Henry’s stories entitled Short Stories in Prose and Verse. Then in 1896 Angus & Robertson brought out a more comprehensive collection, While the Billy Boils.

Academic Ryan O’Neill demonstrates how the Bulletin‘s house style moulded Lawson into one of world’s great short story writers. He argues that the influence of the Bulletin‘s and Lawson’s “Bush Realism” was to be hugely influential in Australian short fiction into the 1960s. Moorhouse looks at iterations in the text to interrogate Lawson’s attitude to race. So, the B in Blacks is capitalised for the first time in the version the Lawson’s printed, but is subsequently discarded, while the comic King Billy intercedes between the drover’s wife and the Black midwife, Mary only in later versions and, according to Moorhouse, only after Lawson got feedback from his cronies down the pub. In a separate essay Matthews argues that Lawson was gay.

Lawson’s genius was to both write within the Bulletin format and to rise above it, subtly – and not so subtly in The Drover’s Wife – spreading his mother’s first wave feminism, while all the time being upheld by men as the messiah of mateship. Men sought to emulate his laconic style, from Vance Palmer to Roger McDonald, but he was also influential with women, not least Miles Franklin and Eve Langley.

In lieu of interrogating this influence Moorhouse has included ten or so short stories which reference Lawson’s story. I have already reviewed The Drover’s De Facto; others include The Drover’s Wife’s Dog by SF writer Damien Broderick; a long story of a young woman’s coming of age, Afraid of Waking It by Madeleine Watts, good but barely relevant; Murray Bail’s story about the woman in the painting; and Moorhouse’s own mock account of an Italian student’s misreading of the Lawson and Bail stories and Drysdale’s painting, which allocates to Australians the extreme affection for sheep usually ascribed to Kiwis.

There are some excellent photos of Drover’s Wifes paintings, images from stage works, notably Leah Purcell’s play (and also stage notes), and a wonderful pair of images titled the Drover’s Wife, Urisino Bore (1958) of drover Ronald Kerr and his sixteen year old wife Mavis, married 39 weeks pregnant (by Jeff Carter (1928-2010)), and again in 2011 after more than 50 years together (and quite often apart, as is the case for all drovers’ wives).

Sue/Whispering Gums has recently re-brought Barabara Jefferis (1917-2004) to our attention and her The Drover’s Wife (1980) is a fitting story to end this review.

It ought to be set straight. All very well for them to spin yarns and make jokes but nobody has written any sense about me. nobody has even given me a name except one and he got it wrong and said I was called Hazel. The drover’s wife, the doctor’s wife, the butcher’s wife. You wouldn’t think of all the countries the one where women are the fewest would be the one where they don’t exist, where men’ll say ‘the missus’ sooner than give a name.

In a chronology I couldn’t quite keep up with Jeffris’ DW is first a kid from the backclocks of NSW who runs off with a dentist [the Murray Bail story]; runs into Henry Lawson – “so I told him a lot. Talked too much – must’ve – because some of it he took and turned into that story about the snake …”, and the story about Mary, the Aboriginal midwife, and the story about the baby she lost – “That was the story I told Mr Lawson a long time afterwards, or at least the parts of it that were alright to tell a man.” Meets and is painted by Mr Drysdale, and then there was Murray Bail “who must have known the dentist”.

What I meant was to tell not so much about me and the drover and the dentist and the rest of them but about how women have a history, too, and about how the Bushman’s Bible and the other papers only tell how half the world lives… We’re not sheep or shadows, or silly saints the way Mr Lawson would have. There’s more to us. More to me than any of them have written, if it comes to that.

But she still doesn’t tell us her name.

Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017


AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019

I’ve put up the first iteration of the AWW Gen 2 page (here) with links to reviews and posts by me, Lisa/ANZLL, Sue/Whispering Gums, Kim/Reading Matters and Brona’s Books – check them out and see what else I can add – and links also to stories and novels readable as pdfs or downloadable to e-readers.


see also:

Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)

Nancy Elin’s review of Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife (here)

All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld

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Yet another woman farmer novel! Just a coincidence. Maybe. I listen to lots of indifferent fiction while I’m driving but the cover of this with its “Winner of the 2013 Encore Prize”, and “From one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists” at least looked promising, even if it gave no hint that it might also be ‘Australian’.

Here are the facts. The audiobook is read by a woman with an Australian accent. The story is of a woman sheep farmer on an island off the coast of England who we gradually come to learn has escaped a traumatic past in Western Australia. She is a strong, tall woman with terrible scars on her back. Some of the WA bits are clearly researched rather than lived. Evie Wyld was born in and lives in England, and this is her second novel.

I listened on the way home from Sydney over the weekend and on my first day off thought I would do some googling. Evie Wyld was born in 1980 in London. Her mother was/is Australian and the family spent some time on Evie’s grandparents’ property on the NSW north coast. And …

All the Birds, Singing was the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin. Who knew!

The shortlist for that year included, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Tim Winton’s Eyrie and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book – which may well be the book of the century let alone the year, what were the judges thinking! (My reviews here, here, here). Still, Wyld’s is a strong novel and a refreshing take on the Independent Woman, most reminiscent probably of Nikki Gemmell’s Alice Springs.

The story begins with Jake Whyte – an Australian woman – discovering a gutted sheep on her little farm on an isolated English island. For a long time she suspects the local kids but there is a ‘shape’ that moves in and out of the woods. The novel alternates backwards and forwards between England and Jake’s past in Western Australia. In the West she is a rouseabout in a shearing team out from Kambalda. I don’t think Wyld has ever seen shearing or been to the West, but if you haven’t either then you won’t notice. I can’t help myself saying though that Kambalda is a very ‘suburban’ mining town, built in the 1960s and doesn’t have any tin shed pubs.

Just as we are getting to know the shearers, the Australian chapters start moving backwards in time, first by hints, then by descriptions of her earlier life, held as a sex slave maybe by an old man on a remote property between Port Hedland and Marble Bar. And yes, that’s tropical cattle country, not sheep country. The boundary between cattle and sheep was always south of the Tropic of Capricorn and with the decline in the wool industry and the depredations of wild dogs has moved maybe 400 kms further south in the 20 years I’ve been back in the West. But anyway, the old man teaches her a bit about sheep farming which she uses to get her rouseabout job.

It’s too hot, but I like the way my arms feel like they’re full of warm oil, and sweat runs down them in sheets soaking the sides of my singlet. There’s an ache in the bottom of my spine from bending and lifting, but it beats lying on my bed at Otto’s waiting for the day to be over. I catch myself smiling as I throw another fleece onto the table and Denis nods to me, impressed.

It would unwind the narrative tension to say more about the situation she gets herself into with the old man, Otto, but it’s well done.

We go back further. School days in country Wyld has lived in, the NSW north coast. An Aboriginal boyfriend. A bushfire.

Back in the ‘present’, we meet the man she bought the farm off, who has retired nearby but helps her out from time to time, or provides commentary if she’s not in immediate danger; his delinquent son and the son’s girlfriend; and a well-spoken alcoholic she discovers sleeping in the barn and who never quite gets round to leaving. The ‘shadow’ keeps taking sheep. And throughout, the birds sing out or cry warnings. (Evie, there are no kookaburras in Western Australia).

A good book, very good even, but not in the same league as The Swan Book.

 

Evie Wyld,  All the Birds, Singing, 2013. Audiobook: Blackstone, Read by Cat Gould.

Sue, Whispering Gum’s review (here), but she seems also to have mentioned Wyld quite often in the context of awards and women’s writing. If you put Wyld in her search box it brings up ten or so listings. Check them out.

Lisa ANZLL has reviewed Wyld’s earlier After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (here) but All the Birds, Singing must still be on the MF TBR.

Recent audiobooks

Stuart Woods (M, USA), Quick and Dirty (2017)
Helen Sedgwick (F, Sco), The Comet Seekers (2016)
Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (F, Fin), Last Rituals (2007)
Rio Youers (M, USA), The Forgotten Girl (2017)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel.
Frank Moorhouse, The Drover’s Wife (2017)
I’ve been carrying around Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm, but woman farmer! so will start on Mary Grant Bruce, Billabong’s Daughter for AWW Gen 2 Week.

Anchor Point, Alice Robinson

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Alice Robinson is a Melbourne-based author, I can’t tell you her age but she doesn’t look very old (here), and more disappointingly I can’t tell you whether or not she grew up in the country. But this is her debut novel, impressively long-listed for the Stella, after a PhD in creative writing. I worry about novels like this, straight out of school, that the story follows a formula designed to suck me in and I am. But before my criticisms get out of hand, let me say right at the beginning that Laura, the book’s central character engaged me and I was very invested in learning more about her.

In many ways Anchor Point (2015) is a worthy newcomer to the long line of books I have been studying and writing about as I delineate the myth of the Independent Woman, particularly in the setting of the Australian Bush which has been and still is claimed for the archetypal Australian man, ‘lone hand’, larrikin soldier etc.

Although set in the 1980s and 90s – in a fictional location in the foothills of the Alps in north eastern Victoria – Laura’s story embodies in one generation the dichotomy between the pioneering settler of Australian legend on one hand and Indigenous land claims, climate change and land degradation from over clearing, on the other.

Laura herself embodies almost from the time her sister Vic is born, when she is five or six, the ‘drover’s wife’ (here) condemned to kitchen servitude and drudgery (although not, in this case, endless childbearing), to support the intrepid pioneer, her father. A servitude she adopts, in the house and out on the property, through the disappearance of her mother when she is ten, through the schooling of her sister, through to her own reluctant bid for independence as the partner of another needy, controlling man in Sydney, and finally to her return to the farm to care for her father and the property when her father falls victim to early onset alzheimers.

The book is written in the third person entirely from Laura’s POV. Her father, Bruce, himself the son of a failed farmer, has bought a couple of hundred of acres of bush which he plans to clear in order to farm sheep. Kath, Laura’s mother, is a German-born potter, who ‘neglects’ her housework and her daughters to pursue her art. Both the housework and the care of Vic increasingly fall to Laura.

Do we feel for Kath? We all felt for Katherine Mansfield last week (Who Does the Dishes?), are their situations the same? Bruce, all pioneers, all men maybe, have this expectation that women will keep house while they get on with the real work. Does Laura feel for Kath? Not really, certainly not after she gets a black eye when she drops one of her mother’s vases. Bruce and Kath spend another night arguing, there’s a storm, the creek floods, Kath disappears. Laura’s own actions are not above reproach (no spoilers!), but she picks up the slack, Bruce brings in men to clearfell the trees, Laura drops out of school and becomes a farmer alongside Bruce.

Her only friend is Joseph, an Aboriginal boy her own age, a token? No, but nearly. He may have been her romantic interest but in the end is not. In fact, this novel is like those movies of the book where a number of characters are conflated into one. Where in real life we might take up with a dozen others before coming upon our partner for life, each of the girls meets one man and that’s it. And poor old Bruce meets no-one.

It is telling that when we finally learn more about Kath it turns out her name is actually Katya, which Bruce had insisted on Australianising. Bruce stands in for all those settlers right back to 1788 who insisted on farming methods brought with them from England. You can only shudder as all the trees are removed, all the way down the hill to the creek, and he even regularly threatens to chop down the ‘canoe’ tree in the yard of their modest house.

The drought years which come increasingly often are a marker for climate change. In the end Laura makes mostly futile efforts to re-forest the ruined land, promises it to Joseph who wants it for Indigenous access, then must renege and sell-up, probably to developers for housing, as her own health declines.

In the last chapter Laura is with Vic, in Vic’s apartment on the 33rd floor, the power out, looking out on a Melbourne ringed by bushfires. Anchor Point, intended as a parable for our times, I guess is that, but works best as a character study of Laura and her relationships – to her father, to her dependent sister, to Luc, her dependent partner, and to her absent mother.

 

Alice Robinson, Anchor Point, Affirm Press, 2015. Audio version – Queensland Narrating Service, read by Ursula Wharton.

See also:

Jessica White’s review (here). And Jess did grow up on the land, in cotton country, cleared and levelled to within an inch of its life.

Lisa (ANZLL)’s author interview (here)

Christina Stead, How to Write a Novel

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Christina Stead (1902-1983) is one of our greatest writers, so her thoughts on the process of writing a novel are of some significance. Neither I, in my review of Chris Williams’ A Life of Letters, nor Lisa (ANZLL) in her review of Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead, A Biography, picked up that in her time in New York in the 1940s Stead taught an extramural course called ‘Workshop in the Novel’ at NYU, in ’43/44 and again in ’46.

I discovered this, in an essay by Dr Susan Lever: Christina Stead’s Workshop in the Novel: How to Write a “Novel of Strife”, and some other stuff which I have provided links to below, while waiting for a load in Sydney, and idly looking around for references to Stead’s (adverse) review of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (1957) published in Friendship, the journal of the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society (from what I can gather from Trove, it is yet to be digitised).

The title references Stead’s speech to the American Writers’ Congress in June 1939, entitled “Uses of the Many-Charactered Novel”, ‘where she argues for a “novel of strife” that offers multiple viewpoints rather than a thesis, leaving readers to make their own conclusions.’

These two instances, the workshops and the speech, are just one indicator of how much we lost by Stead’s decision to live overseas and our failure to embrace her as an Australian writer until well into the 1960s.

From what I could gather in preparation for this post, Hazel Rowley characterizes Stead as grumpy, alienated from friends and acquaintances after using them in novels, and as communist only in deference to her husband, Bill Blake. Yet my reading, both of Williams’ biography and of Stead’s novels, is that Stead was a lively, sexy woman, thoughtful about communism and able to transcend the limitations of socialist realism in her writing as Katharine Sussanah Prichard for instance was not.

Stead did not write many reviews and in those she did, she was mostly interested in the craft of writing. In a letter to a friend, she writes of Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves that “He is a devoted noble soul, etc. but he is trying to spread altar-juice all over Australia’s dark and bloody history”. Rowley writes that this is just the sort of approach that maddened all Stead’s friends, but Lever points out, “it is surely more interesting as an indication of Stead’s way of reading… . We can see it as evidence of Stead’s continued interest in history as shifting forces of power, so that, even in such a throwaway comment, Stead, the Marxist, sought a political reading of the historical background to White’s novel.”

Lever in her essay, with ‘several ring-bound notebooks’ of course notes at her disposal, is able to discuss in detail how Stead relied on real life for her material, and how her genuine commitment to communism came out in her writing.

Stead’s course consisted of 12 classes with headings as you’d expect: Choice of Subject; Making a Start; Kinds of Novels; Characters; Composition …. Unfortunately her notes for the tenth class, Novel of Social Criticism, Political Novel… are missing. Stead bases her teaching on her own by then considerable experience, and on books by communists Ralph Fox (her former lover who died in Spain) and Mike Gold.

In the first class Stead planned to talk to her students about the impulse to write, suggesting that “to express something” was not enough, but that writing needed “to combat something”, as well as “to shape something” and “to express self and others.”

Stead adds that the combination of revolt and the writer’s “interpretation of life” “always end in creation – but first is necessary an analysis of the problem that first attracted attention, of your own small society, and even of yourself in relation to that society.”

For her second class, Stead compiled a list of novels that she thought her students should have read. It is firmly based on the European naturalist tradition of the nineteenth century, including Zola, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust and Hardy… While she does not include Jake Home, a novel she admired by Ruth McKenny (the model for Emily Wilkes in I’m Dying Laughing) she does reference it in the course notes as an example of the powerful use of direct political material. A second list of books about the problems of women’s lives – possibly added because several students as well as the teacher were writing on this topic – shows how European Stead’s literary reading (often in the original French) had been … Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Marie Bashkirtseff and the Goncourt brothers.

Last quote, this time from Stead herself:

A writer will perhaps wish to use his talent to put forward in acceptable form his social or religious beliefs. This is also good form or organization for he he has then only to go to his own people to get his characters …

No, I have to go on. With the next couple of quotes we get to the crux of Stead drawing from life:

A golden rule: always draw from a model: keep sketches, keep notes mental or otherwise of people who will serve as models. Do not be ashamed to ring up a model, you can tell him (or not) as you please … If you are “haunted” by a certain person, use that person [Stead, notes for class on Character]

Stead’s consistent use of her friends as the source of her characters meant that she lost some of them, and she has been portrayed as an angry and even vindictive person in biographies. Yet this kind of advice suggests that she might be better seen as an artist who worked from life as a conscious method, even though that might mean the sacrifice of life for art. [Lever]

There’s much more in the essay, about Stead’s nuanced position on the ‘proletarian novel’ of the 1930s; about her position on women and how she addressed it around this time in For Love Alone and Letty Fox; about how she used her novels to critique individual communists; and her characters and who they were modelled on.

There you are – we can all be marxist writers now. How I wish I could have attended the course. Or that Stead had returned to Australia earlier and taken up a teaching position here as any number of writers do today.

 

Susan Lever, Christina Stead’s Workshop in the Novel: How to Write a “Novel of Strife” (not dated that I could see) here

For links to all reviews, start at ANZLitLovers ‘Christina Stead’ page, here

A Sydney Morning Herald article (3 Sept 2002) a new trove of Stead letters, here

Hilary McPhee, Introduction to Talking into the Typewriter (vol. 2 of Stead’s letters), Melbourne University Press, 1992, here

Mike Gold, Why I am a Communist, New Masses, Sept 1932, here