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

 

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Aphra Behn

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For some reason the writers of my childhood, all British of course, all regarded being ruled by Kings as natural, desirable and romantic and being ruled by themselves as unthinkable, and this was particularly the case in relation to the English Civil War (1642-1651). I’m thinking of Children of the New Forest, all those Bonnie Prince Charlie stories, and the execrable Scarlet Pimpernel, which we were expected to read (uncritically!) in high school. I’m proud to say that I was an unnatural child and took the side of Cromwell and Robespierre, and of even more obscure figures like Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers.

Which is by way of coming to Aphra Behn (1640-1689) who was a novelist, a feminist and, sadly, a royalist.

I am of course slowly(!) making my way through Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel. At this rate WG will be able to start her reading some time next year and still beat me to the end. Spender writes that when she started Mothers she thought she would find that Behn was the first woman writer, but as we saw in an earlier post she was able to push that honour back another half century, to Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish. Spender still claims that Behn was the first woman to earn her living by writing, but she also makes that claim for Wroth.

Excesses of all kinds were forbidden during the Commonwealth, but the opposite was true under Charles II following the Restoration in 1660. Theatre flourished –

The popularity of the stage and the revitalisation of drama – and ‘immoral’ and bawdy drama at that – reflected the shift in interest and taste, and suggested new realms of literary possibility.

Aphra Behn’s writing reflects these times and mores, but Spender argues that ‘immorality’ also gave the male literary establishment the fig leaf it needed to ignore her. So, despite her 13 novels (and reams of plays and poetry), Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe 30 years later, is generally credited with the invention of the novel. Behn was also accused of having no Latin or Greek, but as she herself pointed out, neither did Shakespeare.

Behn’s early life is unknown but it seems she sailed to Suriname in the West Indies – the setting for her most famous work, Oroonoko – in the late 1650s or early 1660s; returned to London in 1664; married Mr Behn, a merchant who died or departed soon after; was a spy for Charles in the Netherlands in 1666; incurred debts for which she was briefly imprisoned; began writing poetry and then comic verse plays, the first of which, Forc’d Marriage was produced in 1670.

She turned to writing novels after wearing out her welcome in the theatre – her plays often attacked prominent Whigs (politicians seeking to impose limits on the power of the King). Spender says this was a natural progression as there were only two playhouses in London, so limited opportunities for production, and dramas were often circulated as scripts.

This meant that Aphra Behn was quite used to thinking of the presentation of her dramatic stories in printed form. It also meant that the reading public had been prepared for prose stories in print through their familiarity with published plays.

Behn was a successful professional writer who both anticipated the desire of her public for bawdy romantic comedies and was still able to present the issues that interested her – the abolition of slavery, the lives of ordinary people, and a woman’s perspective on relationships rather than deeds.

 With her representation of the world which is distinctly not that of the dominant sex, Aphra Behn symbolises the nature and extent of the omissions while women are excluded from the literary canon. In her choice of subject matter, her commentary, and her style, she illustrates some of the differences in outlook between women and men; even her sense of humour – which frequently makes men the butt of the joke – contrasts markedly to the forms to which we are accustomed, and in which it is the humour of men that prevails.

Spender gets angry a lot. Justifiably I know, but wearing.

… when Aphra Behn became the first woman to seek commercial publication, she plunged right into the problem that has plagued women writers ever since. The problem of having to obtain the approval of men.

Behn believed and wrote “that justice called for a single moral standard for both sexes”, but remained aware that men’s occupation was obtaining a paid place in the world, while women’s was obtaining a man who could support them. Spender does not say “Behn’s first novel was …” but provides a list of works by and about her which goes on for two and a half pages. From it I gleaned that her novels were –

The Adventures of the Black Lady (1684)
Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, a True History (1688)
Agnes de Castro, or The Force of Generous Love (1688)
The Fair Jilt, or The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688)
The Unfortunate Bride, or The Blind Lady a Beauty (1688)
The Lucky Mistake (1689)

The Novels of Aphra Behn (1905) includes all the above plus –

The Nun
The Lover’s Watch
The Case for the Watch
The Lady’s Looking Glass to Dress Herself By
The Lucky Mistake
The Court of the King of Bantam

That’s twelve novels, Britannica adds –

Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683) an epistolary novel of which Spender writes “Attributed to Aphra Behn, but not included in her ‘Works'”.

The first Collected Novels (with a Life) came out in 1696 and others subsequently in 1771, 1886 and 1905, so I’m not sure how Behn managed to be omitted from the canon. Wilful blindness probably, as in Australia with Spence, Praed, Cambridge, Martin. Vita Sackville West wrote a biography in 1927 – Aphra Behn, The Incomparable Astrea – and Virginia Woolf wrote glowingly of Behn in A Room of Ones Own (1928).

The Nun may in fact be two novels – The Nun, or The Perjured Beauty and The Nun, or The Fair Vow-breaker – they, along with The Fair Jilt, portray convents as little more than brothels and are, according to Spender, laugh out loud funny.

Oroonoko, a short novel which was also made into a popular play, draws on Behn’s experience of Suriname (sometimes disputed but almost certainly genuine) with detailed descriptions of flora, fauna and scenery. Oroonoko had been a prince in Africa, he and his wife are enslaved and transported. He escapes, kills his wife rather than allow her to be tortured, is captured and hacked to death (So no happy ending, then!). Sackville-West suggested, “Oroonoko resembles those seventeenth century paintings of negroes in plumes and satins, rather than an actual slave on a practical plantation.” But,” Spender writes, “nonetheless we are provided with a horrific portrayal of slavery. There is no doubt we are intended to deplore its practices.”

Project Gutenberg (here) has the works of Aphra Benn in six volumes plus Love Letters. Looking on Goodreads, Penguin Classics has published at least Oroonoko and Love Letters.

 

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986

The Awakening, Kate Chopin

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No, I don’t understand the cover either. Shades of the gratuitous breasts on the cover of Anne Brooksbank’s All My Love (here). The painting above is “Antes del Baño” (Before the Bath) by Ramon Casas, a Catalan Spaniard, doubly or triply inappropriate for a buttoned-up, French-American heroine who takes her ‘baths’ in the sea.

To get back to where I meant to start, I have begun downloading audiobooks from Project Gutenberg (here). The first was Silas Marner and this was the second. The books are read by volunteers for LibriVox and so far have been uniformly good. It’s not completely straightforward, the books must be downloaded a section at a time (as MP3 files in my case), named, and copied to one directory per book on a USB drive so I can play them via the USB port on my truck radio, you Apple nuts can experiment for yourselves. In the case of The Awakening each section was 5 chapters, each with a different reader, all women, four American and two French. This caused no problems at all. The next book I downloaded was Howards End (I was wondering where the apostrophe would be, but there isn’t one) which has one reader but 44 chapters, which took quite a while to download, name, copy etc. The readers name themselves at the beginning of each section but do not appear to be named on the Project Gutenberg site.

Ok. The Awakening is beautifully written, is yet another example of the anti-marriage theme in C19th women’s writing, and suffers from unthinking racism throughout. It’s a book I’ve had in my TBR for many years, so I’m glad to have finally got to it. I have the Penguin Classics edition pictured above which contains as well 12 short stories and an Introduction by Sandra M Gilbert, an English professor. Don’t read the Introduction first as it completely destroys the ending.

Gilbert says that Chopin (1850-1904) was born to parents with Irish and ‘aristocratic’ French antecedents, grew up in affluent circumstances in St Louis, Missouri, was a voracious reader in English and French, was an acknowledged belle, supported the Confederate side in the Civil War (1861-1865), married at age 20 a cotton trader/plantation owner in Louisiana, and had six children.

On the death of her husband in 1883 she returned to St Louis and began writing – first “delightful sketches of her life in ‘Old Natchitoches‘”, then novels. The first, At Fault (1890) was derivative, particularly of Jane Eyre. The second, The Awakening (1899), was received so badly for its discussion of women’s sexuality that Chopin basically stopped writing. Gilbert argues that Chopin was writing not just in the tradition of the Brontës and George Eliot, but in an end of century atmosphere of eroticism and women’s independence created by the New Woman movement and writers and artists such as George Sand, Zola, Beardsley and Oscar Wilde.

The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife, an American from Kentucky, who has married into properous middle class, Francophone New Orleans. The setting is first Grand Isle, an island near New Orleans (map) in the Gulf of Mexico, then the French Quarter of New Orleans itself, then finally, briefly, Grand Isle again.

The racism – in the telling, not in the conscious actions of the protagonists – begins early.

Some young children were out under the water-oaks playing croquet. Mr Pontellier’s two children were there – sturdy little fellows of four and five. A quadroon nurse followed them about with a far-away, meditative air.

Why couldn’t Chopin write ‘Mary, the nurse followed …’ ? Because no-one who is African-American, except the old woman who becomes her house-keeper, is named. The nurse is always “the quadroon”, other servants “mulattos” or “coffee-coloured”.

There is much academic discussion of racism in The Awakening with one writer concluding,  “Chopin is guilty of oppressing these characters for their color in exactly the same way Edna is being oppressed for her gender.”

Grand Isle was formerly the grand home of Mrs Lebrun which, on the death of her husband, she turned into a guest house with cottages around the main house for families, but with central dining room and lounges. During the summer Mr Pontellier, who seems to be an investment banker, goes up to town during the week while Edna and the children (and the ‘quadroon’) stay on Grande Isle. She is generally in the company of the older Lebrun son, Robert, who every year is infatuated with one of the wives, but she has or makes friends among the other guests, particularly the beautiful, plump, and fecund Adèle Ratignolle – “There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams” – and the crusty spinster pianist Mlle Reisz.

Without going too much into the plot, this is the story of Edna’s gradual increasing awareness of her position as a dependant, of her sexual awakening, and of the movements she makes away from her husband. Robert goes away, to a position in Mexico City, and Edna back in New Orleans visits Mlle Reisz to read Robert’s letters to her, but also falls into the ambit of a seducer, Alcée Arobin. Lots of readers, then and now, get excited about the sex, which puzzled me, I must be dense. The nearest I found was:

[Arobin] did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle seductive entreaties.

Mr Pontellier (before Arobin comes into the picture) worries about the increasing distance between him and his wife but nevertheless goes to New York on an extended business trip. His mother takes the children back to her farm and Edna is free to pursue her own interests. I will say no more except that The Awakening contains one of the loveliest images in the literature of the Independent Woman:

“… when I left [Mlle Reisz] to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’ Whither would you soar?”

A wonderful book! I’ve been wondering what I would do if I were a young African-American English student and this was a set text. I think that I would read it, but I would hope that the teacher led a discussion of the racism, and that Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, was also set.

 

Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 1899. The Awakening and Selected Stories, Penguin, 1984, 2003. Project Gutenberg Audiobooks (here)

AWW Gen 2 Week

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Frederick McCubbin, The Pioneer, 1904, NGV

The second generation of Australian writing, as I see it, covers the period 1890 to 1918. HM Green, who as I discussed earlier, divides my Gen 1 into two periods, 1788-1850 and 1850-1890, heads his account of this period Third Period 1890-1923, “Self-conscious Nationalism”.

In Australia the spirit of the nineties and early nineteen-hundreds… took the form, in the literary as in the social and political worlds, of a fervent democratic nationalism: it was based upon a broad social consciousness, a feeling of mutual relationship, that found its most characteristic expression in Lawson’s doctrine of mateship.

The writing, dominated by the influence of the Sydney Bulletin, could be called Bush Realism, an intense effort to portray Bush life in all its details, paralleled in the art world by Australia’s contribution to Impressionism, the Heidelberg School.

AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019, will be an opportunity to discuss women’s writing, representations of women, and the role of the Bulletin, in the ’90s and up to and including the Great War. This is a very fertile period for discussion with women’s suffrage, Federation, the anti-conscription movement, the war itself. But perhaps, except in general terms we might leave those to another time.

Although the ‘AWW’ in the title is of course Australian Women Writers I think we should also discuss the outbreak of men’s nationalistic writing, led by the Bulletin, which gave rise to the dominant myths of Australianness, and which formed the baseline for all subsequent discussions of Australian writing. Men on their own in and against the Bush is the generally accepted theme of this period, but we have already seen that bush-women were equally alone, facing the extra hardships of childbearing and child rearing, not to mention predatory men. There is also a further myth that began in this period, although it wasn’t generally recognized until the 1930s, and that was the myth of the Pioneers, men and women working together to carve out a space for themselves from virgin country (and it is only recently that we have begun contesting that “virgin”). Miles Franklin believed that she (under her own name and as Brent of Bin Bin) and Steele Rudd were the founding writers of this myth.

In the subsequent, post WWI period, women writers focused on social realism, often in an urban setting, and I have used this to distinguish Gen 2 writers from Gen 3. In particular, I place Miles Franklin (1879-1954) in Gen 2 and Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) in Gen 3. As a sort of aside, and a follow-up to last week’s post on bush-women, I found this in the Bulletin Vol 57 No. 2946 (29 July 1936), on the release of All That Swagger:

Miles Franklin (a note on one point of criticism) –

“I am grateful to one reader of this MS who complained that too much prominence is given to childbearing. This shows that the effect of real life has been achieved. No doubt every old pioneer mother would have cordially agreed as each year found her in heaviness and weariness enlarging her brood until it reached a dozen, or seventeen, or a score; but in those days there was no redress. In a land sans serfs the women not only bore but had to rear and clothe, and frequently to educate, their children. There was some drinking in bars, and belligerence and roystering in mining camps, with carnal indulgence with a few trulls to enliven the unattached men and make livelier tales, but pioneering in this empty land was largely and respectably carried forward by women and children. It was a slow, unspectacular process, demanding stoicism, patience, heroism, fatigue, sheer passivity, pain and childbearing, childbearing, childbearing – above all, childbearing.”

I think we can see why Miles chose to stay unmarried!

The principal texts on this period are:

Nettie Palmer, Modern Australian Literature (1924)
Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties (1954)
Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (1958)
Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife (2017)
Colin Roderick was probably the most influential commentator for most of the C20th, but he is shockingly contemptuous of women.
Feminists who contested the men-centred (men-only, really) myths of the Australian Bush include Kay Schaffer, Marilyn Lake, Gail Reekie, Anne Summers. The Pioneer myth was developed by John Hirst, Judith Godden, Jemima Mowbray (and others, I suppose).

The main male writers were: Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd, Joseph Furphy, AB Paterson, Paul Wenz and poets Henry Kendall, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Maurice Furnley.

Gen 2 women writers:

Agnes Hay (1837-1909) Trove
Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) ADB
Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) ADB
Alice Henry (1857-1929) ADB
Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) ADB
Marion Knowles (1865-1949) ADB
Lilian Turner (1867-1956) Wiki
Mary Fullerton (1868-1946) ADB
Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) ADB
Ethel Turner (1870-1958) ADB
Beatrice Grimshaw (1870-1953) ADB
Mrs Aeneas Gunn (1870-1961) ADB
Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946) ADB
Elinor Mordaunt (1872-1942) ADB
May Gibbs (1877-1969) ADB
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) ADB
Miles Franklin (1879-1954) Miles Franklin page
Louise Mack (1879-1935) ADB
Nettie Palmer (1885-1964) ADB

In and amongst all of the above are the Billabong novels, which I know one of you collects; an Australian grazier writing in French (Paul Wenz, Sous la Croix du Sud (1910)); opportunities to discover the Bulletin and Louisa Lawson’s newspaper Dawn on Trove; two of our greatest novels, Such is Life and Maurice Guest; and more besides, not to mention writers like Baynton and Franklin on whom we have already done a lot of work. Then, though I hesitate to put any extra burden on Nathan Hobby, who has two children under 3, a PhD and a major biography to finish, KSP’s first (I think) novel The Pioneers (1915) seems to fit Gen 2 rather than Gen 3.

Author Jessica White, whose “work of creative nonfiction on Maud Praed, the deaf daughter of 19th Century Queensland novelist Rosa Praed” will be out next year, has already promised a review of Praed’s second last work Sister Sorrow (1916). Two other authors I considered in Gen 1, Mary Gaunt and Catherine Martin, were definitely on the cusp of Gen 2, and we should consider Praed’s later work in this context too.

I guess I’ve run out of excuses not to review The Australian Legend. I should also do Miles Franklin’s biography of Joseph Furphy and finish reading Frank Moorhouse’s The Drover’s Wife. I’ve had it in my mind too to review Verna Coleman’s Her Unknown Brilliant Career about Miles Franklin in America (1906-1915). Then I could always knock off a novel as well. (I wish!)

See what’s available online here in the AWWC database. And you know the drill, let me know in Comments if you have a post in mind, or if you have already done posts in this area (I’ll make up a list of my, Sue (WG) and Lisa’s (ANZLL) existing posts in the next couple of months).

Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer

The Drovers Wife Stamp

Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (1896) is clearly the seminal short story of Australian Lit. against which all other accounts of life in the Bush must be measured. Frank Moorhouse’s The Drover’s Wife (2017) is a collection of essays on ways The Drover’s Wife has influenced and been reflected in Australian writing and painting. I won’t review the book here, not least because I’ve only just started reading it (and thank you B.i.L who gave it to me for my birthday) but what I do wish to explore are two essays within it which go to the heart of my thesis – that there is an Independent Woman in Australian Literature who is a counterpoint to the myth of the Lone Hand/Bushman/larrikin soldier which most Australians see as the only true symbol of Australianness.

Louisa Lawson, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889)

Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) was of course Henry Lawson’s mother. But she was also a story teller, a writer, a poet, a suffragist, a newspaper publisher, and for many years, a drover’s wife. By 1889 when this essay was commissioned by the Boston Woman’s Journal she had been publishing and writing in her newspaper Dawn and its predecessor for more than a year.

… for hasty purposes, my colonial sisters may be roughly sorted into three heaps – city women, country women and bush-women, and it is of the last I will write; for it is of their grim, lonely, patient lives I know, their honest, hard-worked, silent, almost masculine lives.

Bush-women she says may be all day in the saddle alongside the men, then doing “what little had to be done in the house on her return… It would not anyhow be much more than making a ‘damper’ in a tin dish and putting it in the ashes.”

For by bush-women I mean … the wives of boundary-riders, shepherds, ‘cockatoo’ settlers in the far ‘back country’; women who share almost on equal terms with men the rough life and the isolation which belong to civilization’s utmost fringe.

The bush-woman is thin, wiry, flat-chested and sunburned. She could be nothing else, living as she does.

… she will tramp five miles with a heavy child on her hip, do a day’s washing, and tramp back again at night. She works harder than a man. You may see her with her sons putting up a fence, or with the shearers, whistling and working as well as any.

There is one thing the bush-woman hates – it is discipline. The word sounds to her like ‘jail’.

In those remote and isolated spots, man is king and force is ruler. There is no law, no public opinion to interfere. The wife is at the man’s mercy. She must bear what ills he chooses to put upon her and her helplessness in his hands only seems to educe the beast in him.

Louisa concludes that all of the bush-woman’s hopes reside in her daughters – “now wherever a dozen children can be got together there is a school.” The girls surpass the boys, besides, the men always “have the drink washing away their prospects.” These girls, “quick, capable and active … will give us a race of splendid women, fit to obtain what their mothers never dreamed of – women’s rights.”

Louisa’s vision is remarkably similar, no doubt because of its inherent truth, to that of Barbara Baynton (1857-1929), another woman who spent her early married years imprisoned on an isolated back-block.

Kay Schaffer, Henry Lawson, The Drover’s Wife and the Critics (1993)

I went straight to Kay Schaffer’s essay because countering her arguments had been an important motivator for my Masters dissertation, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (2011). Basically, Schaffer argues that “Women have been considered to be absent in the bush and the nationalistic bush tradition” and that the Bush stands in for the feminine, abused and conquered by men.

Yes, the tradition excludes them, but women are only “absent in the Bush” because Schaffer, and Marilyn Lake, and Gail Reekie and Anne Summers don’t look for them. I argued in my dissertation and I think I have demonstrated over a number of years on this blog that there is a considerable body of work supporting both the Independent Woman and Pioneer Women as ‘myths’ in their own right, most recently of course our own MST’s Elizabeth Macarthur.

Schaffer manages to dispute The Drover’s Wife, in which Henry Lawson essentially restates his mother’s thesis as a short story, by claiming that the wife is a surrogate man – “That is, she becomes part of man’s battle against the land as a masculine subject”.

So Schaffer claims that there is no myth of independent women in the bush because those women who are portrayed as independent are just standing in for men:

In most of [Lawson’s] stories the characters who struggle against the hostile and alien bush are men, but this is not necessarily the case. The position of ‘native son’ could, in exceptional circumstances, be filled by a woman. That is, the bushwoman can stand in place of her husband, lover, or brother and take on masculine attributes of strength, fortitude, courage and the like in her battle with the environment (as long as she also maintains her disguise of femininity). She could also be called and have the status of a pioneering hero. This is the position of the drover’s wife.

For a few pages she discusses The Drover’s Wife and its ongoing iconic status, variously interpreted. But still she comes back to –

She stands in place of her absent husband. The drover’s wife is a woman. But heroic status is conferred upon her through her assumption of masculine identity.

Schaffer can only support her thesis of men vs the Bush by claiming that independent bush-women are token men. Tell that to Louisa Lawson and Barbara Baynton, child bearing and child rearing on their own in the Bush while still working the properties of their absent husbands.

Kay Schaffer is an Emerita Professor in Gender Studies and Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Arts, University of Adelaide.

Postscript

In January, 2019 I’ll hold an AWW Gen II week – I don’t expect the tremendous response we got to Gen 1 week this year, but I guess I’ll have some time off work, and I think it would be worthwhile to discuss women writers who came of age in the period 1890-1918 and the background against which they were writing, ie. the Bulletin and the Legend of the Nineties. More anon.

 

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

Australia Post – celebrating the sesquicentenary of Lawson’s birth (here)
WAD Holloway, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)
Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)
Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds (review)
Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s Mate (review)
Barbara Baynton, Human Toll (review)

Honour & Other People’s Children, Helen Garner

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Honour and Other People’s Children are novellas of 56 and 100 pp respectively. The front cover of my copy looks like the one above but adds “by the author of the best-seller, Monkey Grip”. Monkey Grip (1977), a fictionalisation of Garner’s experiences as a single mother living with a drug addict in inner Melbourne, was Garner’s first novel, coming out when she was 35, and after she was sacked as a teacher for writing an article about discussing sexuality with her students.

So this is Garner’s second. Rather slight, just slices of life – I guess her publisher was pushing her to take advantage of her initial success – with interestingly, more distance between the author and her protagonists than in her other works. Garner is of course famous for writing about herself and her friends, only loosely fictionalized, but if she is in these stories then she’s not so blatant about it. Though perhaps it’s just that they are both in third person.

Honour

Honour is the story of Kathleen, Frank, Jenny, all thirtyish, and Flo aged 6, told from Kath’s point of view. Frank has left Kath and Flo to live with Jenny and now he wants not just a divorce from Kath but for Flo to live with him and Jenny.

The setting of course is the inner suburbs of Melbourne, around Melbourne Uni, in the 1980s when gentrification was well underway in Parkville and Carlton, but not so much in North Carlton, North Fitzroy and the nearer parts of Brunswick, and beyond them, not at all.

Sometimes when you read Helen Garner you can work out, almost to the street, where she/her protagonist is living, by where she walks and the trams she takes. This story feels like Brunswick, once working class, ‘modernized’ by Greeks and Italians in the 60s and 70s before they moved on and out to bigger suburban houses, then taken over by young, Anglo bargain hunters. In fact, to get completely sidetracked by geography, it must be West Brunswick:

The house was at the bottom of a dead-end road with narrow, yellowing nature strips, and a railway line running across its very end like stitches closing a bag… Its facade, a triangle on top of a square, was slightly awry and painted the aqua colour favoured by Greek landlords.

In the late 60s when I first came to Melbourne, Brunswick Rd, Dawson St and all the other east-west roads that crossed that line had big white wooden gates that were opened and closed by a railway man in a little wooden hut; Brunswick was industrial, with factories and transport depots; and the Sarah Sands‘ customers had all lived through the Battle of Britain and if you went there on a Saturday night for the singing and dancing you could imagine Lancaster bombers overhead.

By the 80s that was just about all gone, Brunswick was seedy residential, and in Garner’s work implied rather than described, but unmistakably Melbourne. I digress. Kathleen and Frank have been happily separated for some time and both are surprised that he wants a divorce.

‘You see’, he began in a gentler voice, with his head on one side, ‘I’ve always thought I’d go on being related to you, for the rest of my life.’

Golly, that strikes a chord! The story meanders round a bit, establishing the connections between Kath and Frank, and the very knowing relationship Flo has with Kath. Kath and Jenny as you might expect have an awkward relationship, but Flo dreams that they might all live together. And in Garner’s world of share houses and cooperative living it is possible that they might. As the story ends Flo has persuaded her two mothers to sit facing each other on a seesaw:

It rose without haste, sweetly, to the level, steadied and stopped. They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless.

Other People’s Children

The second story has a completely new cast and is about the difficulties rather than the possibilities of shared living, about a share house in Fitzroy, say, which Garner contrasts with another house in Prahran, south of the river, where they just can’t do it right.

Scotty is a school teacher unhappy with her lumpy body, committed to cooperative living, but bossy with it. Ruth is a deserted mother of two with a complaisant daughter and a feral young son. Scotty and Ruth had lived in a happy, noisy women’s share house but the lease had run out and the best Scotty could find for them was this smaller house. The other tenant is a musician, Alex.

In the Prahran house Madigan, an inarticulate, unemployable, “great lump of a fellow”, has a ‘room’ which is a actually “a converted shed that sagged against the back fence”. His housemates are hippies. “The women worked at odd things, tolerated the three children of one of them, cooked huge, ill-assorted vegetarian meals, and listened respectfully to the opinions of the men, all of whom were musicians of one stripe or another.”

Madigan is a musician too, plays the mouth organ. The point of the story, I guess, is Ruth working up the courage to break free from Scotty, but the climax is a pub gig, Madigan up front leading Alex’s band and Scotty drunk, dancing: “… Madigan working away at the centre microphone … peeling off high, sheer ribbons of sound. Everyone was dancing.”

The last time I lived in a share house, in Drummond St, Carlton, next door to the police station, I was in my early 20s and the Young Bride and I were just back, unemployed, after a year in Queensland. I was chasing driving jobs, but the others were student teachers, on bursaries, primly middle class, house-sharing an economic rather than a political option, for us as well as them, and YB and I were soon in a little house at the coal yard end of Alfred Crescent.

The women and men of Garner’s households are a decade older, sharing is how they live. Garner knows them and dissects the tensions of their lives with wit, finesse and pellucid prose.

 

Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children, McPhee Gribble, 1980 (Cover pic of Penguin edition, 1982)

Map of inner Melbourne (here). Brunswick is at the top and Prahran bottom right. Carlton isn’t named but is the area immediately to the right of Melbourne Uni in the centre. Google maps is very poor at showing railway lines, but the line to the northern suburbs (the Craigieburn line?) runs from south to north up the centre of the map.

Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Ruby Langford Ginibi

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934 -2011) was a  Bundjalung woman from the NSW north coast. Last week I said Hetty Verolme (here) was the same age as my mum, well so was Ruby Langford. and three Australian women couldn’t have had more different lives. We just need a Toorak or North Shore matron to complete the circle, though of course there would be points of similarity as well as difference. So mum and Ruby grew up in rural communities, with not a lot to go round in those years before and during WWII, did well at school but left early and were soon saddled with young children.

Ruby’s oldest, Billy was born the same year I was and Pearl a year later. Seven others followed, to other fathers, and while mum and dad like most of white Australia, working class and middle class, began to leave post-Depression poverty behind in the 1950s, that was not true of Ruby and her fellow Kooris. Indeed, as I read this book there seemed to be many times until her children were all grown that she seemed to be going backwards.

Ruby’s mother and father separated when she was six. Her mother went to Sydney and raised a new family and it was a long time before Ruby regained regular contact with her. For a while she and her sisters Gwen and Rita were ‘mothered’ by Aboriginal clever man, Uncle Ernie Ord, then her father took them to “Aunty Nell and Uncle Sam in Bonalbo“. She lived an ordinary country life in Bonalbo, which she always looked back on as her home town, her father seeing them occasionally while working away, and a mysterious self-contained Aboriginal stockman who was sometimes in town turning out to be her grandfather.

Ruby describes herself as always having her nose in a book, and a good student but at 16 she left home to join her father and his new family in Sydney and began working as a machinist, sewing shirts. Of course she becomes interested in boys and is soon pregnant. This is a warts and all autobiography, an Australian classic, and another view of Sydney and NSW working class poverty which we are familiar with from the works of Kylie Tennant and Ruth Park. Ruby lists her husbands and we see each of them as real people, but they are also a type – rural workers without trades, drinkers, womanizers and violent when drunk.

At each setback, the man finds work fencing, burning off, labouring, Ruby establishes a home – in a hut or a tent – keeps the home clean, the children fed, pitches in with the outside work, has another baby (gets to spend 2 or 3 weeks in hospital) and then one day the man doesn’t come back, or comes back drunk and belts her.

I felt like I was living tribal but with no tribe around me, no close-knit family. The food gathering, the laws and songs were broken up, and my generation at this time wandered around as if we were tribal but in fact living worse than the poorest of the poor whites, and in the case of women living hard because it seemed like the men loved you for a while and then more kids came along and the men drank and gambled and disappeared. It happened with Gordon and later it happened with Peter [Langford], and my women friends all have similar stories. Neddy [Nerida, her best friend] and I have talked about it often as we get older, and how it’s not always different for our daughters and their kids, but those stories are for later.

There are glimpses of hope – that is I, the reader, thinks she may grasp an opportunity to move towards a middle class life – she is an early member of an association formed by Charles Perkins and is appointed editor of their magazine, but is gone before the first issue; and she wins a prize with a short story. But that is it, she descends into urban poverty and welfare dependence, her children start getting into trouble, Pauline dies, struck by a car, Billy dies next, Ruby begins to drink heavily and becomes morbidly obese. Another son is victimised by police, fires a gun, is beaten and charged with resisting arrest, is jailed, escapes, is recaptured, beaten etc. etc. On release he settles down, buys a house, the solicitor steals his money, he gets into fights, is victimised by police, fires a gun …

Ruby gives up the grog, joins a women’s group, starts writing, gets interested in Aboriginal affairs, in particular the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. As I have said elsewhere and as Ruby Langford documents here, Aboriginals have mysterious accidents when in the hands of police who of course are always found to be not at fault.

Slowly she becomes aware of Koori success stories as well as the failures. Her sister Rita has trained as a teacher and works in teacher ed. At the top of her list of books that shouldn’t be taught is We of the Never Never, Mrs A. Gunn.

Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988) made Ruby Langford a success story in her own right and she went on to honorary degrees and four more books. I hope I haven’t given the impression she had an unhappy life, she lived and – so she writes – enjoyed a life of considerable exuberance and love. If you haven’t already, read this book!

 

Ruby Langford Ginibi, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988