Elizabeth Jolley, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

ANZLitLovers Elizabeth Jolley Week June 4-11 2018

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Wikipedia: date, photographer not stated

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) gets a chapter in Hughes-d’Aeth’s account of Western Australian Wheatbelt writers, Like Nothing on this Earth (2017) mostly on the strength of her most famous novel, The Well (1986). I wrote an essay on The Well for my degree, maybe 12 years ago, but it has been lost in moving house and at least two computer upgrades. Disappointing. I like to reuse my material and I had spent a season carting grain in the area where the book is set just a few years earlier.

Jolley, who had grown up in “the Black Country of the English Midlands”, moved to Western Australia with her husband and three small children in 1959. Hughes-d’Aeth says that although she had been working on stories and novels all her adult life, her formal career as a writer dates from the late 1960s – her mid 40s – when she began to have stories published in Westerly and Quadrant. Her first novel came out in 1980, her second, The Newspaper of Claremont Street – which draws on the author’s own life in Claremont and her search for a patch of land in the country to call her own – in 1981. The Well, 5 years later, was her seventh.

The Jolleys purchased their 5 acre hobby farm in 1970, at Wooroloo, 60 kms out of Perth in the Darling ranges. Hilly and well treed country in the main, on the Great Eastern Highway out of town, and still 50 km short of Wheatbelt country. Her account of the purchase and her feelings for the land are in Diary of a Weekend Farmer (1993).

Jolley first became acquainted with the Wheatbelt in the 1970s when she was roped into supporting an initiative for the Fremantle Arts Centre where she was giving classes in creative writing, which involved her in sending out books and supporting material to discussion groups in the country then in meeting with the groups as a travelling tutor. Jolley was obviously fascinated by her long, lonely drives

All the miles of wheat in all directions, folded and mended in places, are pulled together as if seamed, by little dark lines of trees, as if they are embroidered with rich green wool or silk on a golden background. In the design of the embroidery are some silent houses and sheds. Narrow places, fenced off and watered sparingly, produce a little more of the dark green effect. At the intervals, there are unsupervised windmills, turning and clicking with a kind of solemn and honest obedience. [Jolley, A Small Fragment of the Earth]

Jolley referenced her little farm in her first collection of (linked) short stories, Five Acre Virgin (1976). The first story to have a recognisable Wheatbelt setting was “The Long Distance Lecture” which appeared in 1979 in her second collection.

The road is well made and the wheat is standing in that golden stillness just before the harvest

contrasts with

… the township at dusk seemed to be a desolate scattered poverty; a shabbiness of blistered little houses, stacks of poles and empty drums gathered near a closed petrol station, and a wheat silo alongside a deserted overgrown railway line.

The paddocks and the townships it seems standing respectively for life and death. Jolley always seemed to see the Wheatbelt in gothic terms, beauty underlain by isolation and death, and overtly models this story on Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1907) in which a man travelling in arctic wilderness waits too long to stop and build the fire which might save his life.

She expanded on the literary lecturer in the Wheatbelt theme in the novel Foxybaby (1985) but it is in The Well that she brings the Wheatbelt to life.

Hester Harper has grown old on her father’s wheat sheep farm outside an unnamed town which is probably based on Brookton on the edge of the Wheatbelt closest to Perth. The Harper property is one of the larger farms in the district and Hester has proved a competent manager. But when she takes on a young woman, Katherine, as a servant/companion and her father dies, she abandons her roles as farm manger and pillar of local society in her infatuation for Katherine, gives up her homestead to the Bordens and their brood of sons, and takes up a little cottage on the edge of the property.

Coming home late from a dance, Kathy driving, they hit a shape in the dark, a man, a man who has broken into the cottage and stolen it later turns out Hester’s wad of cash. Hester dumps his body in the disused well they use for rubbish and from there it gets very gothic indeed.

For Jolley the endless fields of wheat are both isolating and lawless, providing a space, as in many of her works, in which women may operate free of men, free of authority. Veronic Brady, nun, writer, and ABC Commissioner points out “the tension in [Jolley’s] characters between the wish to exclude masculine agency from their lives, on the one hand, and a need, on the other, to find something of themselves in this masculine agency.” [Brady, Elizabeth Jolley, New Critical Essays]

Let me finish with a quote from Jolley, who despite drawing so heavily on her own experience insists, like Miles Franklin after My Brilliant Career, and countless others, that her work is fiction:

My fiction is not autobiographical but, like all fiction, it springs from moments of truth and awareness, from observation and experience. I try to develop the moment of truth with the magic of the imagination. I try to be loyal to this moment of truth and to the landscape of my own region or the specific region in which the novel or story is set. I have always felt that the best fiction is regional. [Jolley, Learning to Dance]

I know not everyone agrees with me, but “loyal to this moment of truth and to the landscape” (and good writing!) is what I most look for in a novel and it is what Jolley delivers in spades.

 

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Like Nothing on this Earth, UWA Press, Perth, 2017

see also:
Hughes-d’Aeth on the Wheatbelt (here)
Hughes-d’Aeth on Jack Davis (here)
my review of The Newspaper of Claremont Street (here)
ANZLitLovers Elizabeth Jolley page (here)

 

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All My Love, Anne Brooksbank

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The best image I could find

As if I didn’t have enough books in my own TBR – mere hundreds – I borrowed this one, a gift from my Henry Lawson fan brother and his young family a quarter of a century ago, such a long time ago, such a short time, mid-life crisis time for me and my young family, from my mum when I was there recently.

The author, Anne Brooksbank (1943- ) wife of the late Bob Ellis, commentator and script writer whom I still remember vividly with Mungo MacCullum and John Hepworth (and Sam Orr, Michael Luenig, Morris Lurie how could I forget) in the Nation Review (1970-81) “lean and nosey like a ferret”. Sorry, I shouldn’t define a woman by her husband. Brooksbank has a number of novels to her credit, many film and tv scripts, some I think in collaboration with Ellis, and has recently rewritten All My Love as a play which seems to be touring Western Victoria as I write.

All My Love (1991) is the story of the romantic relationship of Australian poet Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) and the iconic Henry Lawson (1867-1922). Gilmore’s ADB entry says ” Her account of an unofficial engagement and Lawson’s wish to marry her at the time of his brief trip to Western Australia (May-September 1890) could be accurate regarding dates, but there is no other corroborative evidence. There was clearly, however, a close relationship between them in 1890-95, but it was broken by his frequent absences from Sydney. Mary’s later comments on his career were always somewhat proprietorial but the extent of her influence on his literary talents and her contribution to his literary education remain unsubstantiated.”

The words ‘fiction’ and ‘novel’ pop up regularly in accounts of All My Love on the net, but nowhere in the periphalia (there must be a word) of the book itself, though right from the first chapter it is clear we are in the territory of historical fiction rather than even ‘imagined biography’ – there are no footnotes or endnotes and the letter young schoolteacher Mary Jean Cameron (Gilmore) gets from her mother is so full of framing information (about Louisa Lawson and Dawn) that it could not possibly be real.

Brooksbank doesn’t say where Mary was, but it was Silverton in outback NSW in 1889. She describes the drive into Broken Hill (also not named) with the coachman shouting Adam Lindsay Gordon ballads to his horses, and then the train rides to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney as Mary takes the long way home (map) to spend Christmas with her mother who had some years earlier left her husband in southern NSW, and Mary as the eldest to care for her siblings, and “gone off to work as a breezy and often inaccurate journalist for a Sydney paper”.

On her first day in town Mary is introduced to Louisa Lawson, even taller than she is, nearly six feet, is commissioned (ordered) to write an article about miners’ women, and is told by her mother and Henry’s that they are to meet.

In the third chapter Henry goes off to meet that “wretched young woman”. That is, while still in the third person, the viewpoint switches to Henry, and so it alternates for the rest of the book. The meeting is of course awkward (Lawson’s deafness is not mentioned till later). Still, they go for a walk and he shows her the ‘real city’.

Henry, who couldn’t spell, and in fact was in real life defensive about not having had much of an education, would bring his poetry to Mary to correct, and “seemed quite glad to relax into the role of being instructed, and it bothered her that he did. He had clearly been ordered about by his mother for most of his life …” Mary herself had already had a few poems published and began to write more, “in competition”.

Henry on one of their walks takes her to rooms above a Castlereagh St bookshop where he has a few drinks and recites (bellows) Sons of the South and she meets William Lane.

There is some discussion of their differing attitudes to Aborigines. Henry “had been brought up the child of poor selectors who saw the Blacks as a lost and inferior people” whereas Mary had been taught by her father who had known and learnt from the local Wiradjuri. Mary’s early nurse was a Wiradjuri woman but “there was secret approval given from Sydney for the wiping out of the Blacks … I never saw her again.” This would have been in the early 1870s, around Wagga. (“The allusion to massacres by Mary Gilmore here and elsewhere and other oral traditions suggest there were further killings of Wiradjuri from the 1870’s on.” Wiradjuri Heritage Study by Wagga Wagga City Council).

Mary gets a North Shore (Sydney) school for 1890 and the two meet most days, until Louisa, angry with Mary’s mother, attempts to force a separation by sending Henry and his brother Peter off to the WA goldfields. Henry responds by proposing to Mary, but she is not ready. (What is it with Henry and the WA Goldfields? The next time he heads off, in 1906, he rushes into marriage with Bertha and even then doesn’t make it past a camp on the river at East Perth and soon returns home).

Mary takes a room at Louisa’s and Henry is soon back, but not soon enough. Louisa has been intercepting his letters to Mary and she has lost heart and moved away. “In the months that followed, and the year after that, Mary heard of him from time to time. Heard that he was raising a few eyebrows with his drinking …” Years pass. Henry gets sent out west by the Bulletin, “You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here. Men tramp and beg and live like dogs“(HL). William Lane sails for Paraguay. Louisa prints Henry’s first book [Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894)] and while he is out delivering it, he and Mary finally bump into each other again.

But. Despite clearing up the heartbreak of the missing letters, he’s a drunk, he’s sleeping with the bookshop owner’s plump young step-daughter (Bertha), and she’s off on the next ship to William Lane’s Cosme in Paraguay.

There, Mary marries the uneducated bushman, Will Gilmore and they have a son. Cosme fails. Sailing home (the long way again) via Patagonia and Liverpool they are invited to stay with the Lawsons,  by then living in London, and are persuaded by Henry, and Bertha’s doctor, to take the mentally unstable Bertha and her two children back to Australia with them, an horrendous journey. Bertha is jealous of Mary and says so loudly. The ship breaks down, and they are joined in Bombay, where it is being repaired, by Henry unable to remain in London without his children. He takes a separate small cabin for himself in which, on the way home, for the first and only time Brooksbank imagines them in bed (based on a Mary Gilmore poem: “I lifted up his head/And laid it on my breast“).

And that’s just about it. A fascinating subject which Brooksbank never really succeeds in bringing to life.

 

Anne Brooksbank, All My Love, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1991

see also:
My review of My Henry Lawson by Bertha Lawson (here)
My review of Louisa by Brian Matthews (here)
Janine, The Resident Judge’s review of A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson by Kerrie Davies (here)

Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker

Michelle Author
Michelle Scott Tucker

Michelle Scott Tucker’s first book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is due out, in bookshops everywhere in a day or so. She has been kind enough to grant me interview while I scramble to produce a review. Meanwhile, check out Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review here.

 

Q. So first up, I think you went from school to university to the Commonwealth Public Service. At what stage did you decide to become a writer.

A. Yes, that’s right. After uni (in Melbourne) I moved to Canberra and worked in Australian government policy roles for over a decade, then moved back to Melbourne and into consulting (mainly for government clients). Essentially, I’ve always written for a living. And despite what you’ve heard about government writing, I think my various day jobs gave me a solid grounding in how to turn complex issues and ideas into readable, accessible prose. But I was in my mid-thirties before I realised that writing was always the part of my job I enjoyed most, and that writing – for its own sake – was something I wanted to pursue. And I’ve probably only been confident enough to call myself ‘a writer’ for the last year or two. Getting a publishing contract definitely helped!

 

Q. Your book is a biography of Elizabeth Macarthur, who came out to Sydney on the Second Fleet and was instrumental in establishing the wool industry here in Australia. How did you light on her as a subject? Did you intend all along to demonstrate that she had agency, that she was not just John Macarthur’s wife?

A. One of my government jobs involved (briefly) working with women farmers in outback Queensland. I was young and pretty green, and they were very kind. They explained that there was no such thing as ‘a farmer and his wife’. In reality each farming couple were both farmers, and usually part of a farm family. Although the farm work might be split along gendered lines, the women’s work was just as crucial to the financial viability of their farms as the men’s.

I studied history at uni, and speaking with those outback women made me wonder why farm women seemed to be missing from the Australian historical narrative. So I started doing some basic research, stumbled across Elizabeth Macarthur’s story and found it absolutely compelling – there was so much going on! So yes, I definitely and deliberately set out to demonstrate that she was far more than just someone’s wife.

 

Q. Some time ago I saw a piece in which you imagined from Elizabeth’s point of view the birth and death of (I think) Elizabeth and John’s first second child, while they were still at sea on the way here. Did you ever consider writing this whole work as Historical Fiction? And in the context of this question, how much have you looked into the theory side of modern biographical writing – the mixing in various proportions of documented fact, disputed facts, speculation, authorial research, fiction to cover the gaps and so on.

A. The book opens at sea aboard a convict ship, on a stormy Southern Ocean, with Elizabeth Macarthur giving birth prematurely. No part of the scene is imagined, or fictionalised. The historical record is clear about the premature birth of the baby girl, and her subsequent death, about the ship, about the storms, and even about Elizabeth’s prayers. We know nothing about Elizabeth’s subsequent grief, and I say so.

Nor is any other part of the book fictionalised or imagined, and although occasionally I provide commentary, or speculate about something, it’s clearly flagged as commentary or speculation. If there are disputes or gaps in the historical record (and there are always gaps) I flag them too, and leave the reader to decide. Essentially, I abide by the code that historian Clare Wright calls ‘not making shit up, ever’. In the book, I’ve selected words very carefully so that every sentence is as accurate as possible. But, that said, I do use all the narrative tools associated with fiction to ensure that I present the facts in a compelling, interesting and accessible way. As a result, I seem to have written a history book that reads like a novel.

I do love reading books and articles about writing and especially about writing biography. I also enjoy reading lots of different kinds of biographies, including those that describe the author’s research process. But I’m really not a fan of including fictionalised scenes in non-fiction narratives. It’s distracting, and rarely adds to my understanding of the subject. If I want the fictionalised version, I’d rather read a historical novel (and I do read lots of those, too). For myself, I wasn’t ever tempted to go down the historical fiction route, not when the real story was so interesting anyway.

 

Q. We your loyal followers have been following the progress of Elizabeth Macarthur for years now on your blog Adventures in Biography. On 4 Jan 2015 you wrote, “I aim to spend 20 minutes every day working on my Elizabeth Macarthur biography.  And slightly less time in my hammock swing …” How did that work out? How long had you already been writing by then. And how long before that had you been thinking about writing?

A. Like all my New Year resolutions, that ’20 minutes a day’ one lasted less than five minutes. Although probably slightly longer than the ‘do more exercise’ or ‘be a nicer person’ resolutions. I have a family, a job, and plenty of things on. I write when I can, in the cracks of my life, so to speak. I started working on the book when my children were tiny, so the actual start date is lost in the baby-haze, but maybe about 12 years ago? I’d do some research, do some writing, do some more research. Some years I didn’t write more than a chapter. But in 2016, once I had a contract, and therefore a deadline, I started writing a whole lot more.

 

Q. When you told me that you had started a blog, in June 2014, I of course started reading it – the first blog I ever read – and also the blogs that you followed. They were/are a fascinating mix of literature, history, and biography and I have followed much the same blogs ever since. I am sure your interaction with these bloggers has been both enjoyable and informative, and we have loved sharing in the progress of your work. What would you say as a writer about being a blogger, that is, does the interaction contribute to your writing, or your thinking?

A. Starting a blog, and being part of that online community of bloggers, has made a huge contribution to my writing – and thinking.

Before becoming a blogger myself, I came across ANZLitLovers and vividly remember nervously posting a comment for the first time. Lisa, the blogger behind ANZLitLovers, was immediately welcoming and supportive and that motivated me to keep exploring the literary blogosphere. It’s a terrific place to learn about and discuss Australian (and other) books.

Through my own blog I’ve made contact with some really lovely people, and their encouragement really did mean (and still means) a great deal to me. We’re friends now, and I occasionally see some of them offline too. A few were directly helpful, for example: Dr Marion Diamond (Historians are Past Caring) generously pointed me towards relevant research information that I’d have never found on my own; and Bernice Barry, a published biographer, shared some incredibly useful insights about what to expect from the publishing process. Twitter and Facebook, in their different ways, have also provided me with useful and interesting connections.

 

Q. If starting writing was the first big step forward, was your acceptance into the Hard Copy programme the next big step? The perspective from the outside was that it of course gave you confidence and practical ideas but there also appeared to be quite a bit of ongoing fellowship and support.

A. My first big step was the culmination of lots of smaller steps. I entered small competitions and didn’t win. I submitted pieces to literary magazines and received lots of rejections. I applied for a fellowship and was shortlisted (the Hazel Rowley). Then I applied for a residential fellowship (to Varuna) and was accepted. Each step drew on what I’d learned from the step before.

Acceptance into the ACT Writers Centre 2015 HardCopy program was a terrific next step; I learnt a huge amount that year and, as you say, gained a valuable friendship group of other non-fiction writers. But the big break was meeting with (and getting incredibly positive feedback from) publishers and agents at the end of the program. During that process the woman who became my agent, Jacinta di Mase, offered to represent me. That was the real break – scoring a top-class agent. Thanks to her efforts, I subsequently received generous offers from seven different publishers for my unfinished manuscript. That’s when it all started to feel real, and I really did start to think of myself as a writer. That feeling also made it easier to carve out more time for writing.

 

Q. Finally, your blog is often overtly feminist, for instance in addressing the inequality of opportunity for women writers compared to men. Would you say that Elizabeth Macarthur is informed by feminism? Or that it is consciously part of a feminist project to redress the balance of male and female stories in histories?

A. Yes, Elizabeth Macarthur is definitely informed by feminism and yes, it is an attempt to redress the balance. The Australian historical narrative is full of white men working (mining, exploring, soldiering, etc).  The Australian historical narrative is also full of white men failing (and there’s perhaps a PhD thesis in this for someone). Bourke and Wills: fail. Ned Kelly: didn’t end well. Even the Gallipoli campaign – the men themselves may have been heroes but it seems to be that not every Australian realises we actually lost that battle.

Elizabeth Macarthur was an interesting, intelligent successful woman who played a crucial role in Australia’s colonial history. Hers is not a household name – but it ought to be. And it’s a bit sad, really, that merely writing about a female historical figure remains a feminist act, but it’s true.

 

Thank you Michelle. I should have my review of Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World up early next week (here).

Michelle’s website (here) includes a link to her blog and dates for author talks/book signings (under News & Events).

Vanity Fair, Thackeray

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William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was born in India while his father was employed by the East India Company, was shipped back to England to start school on his father’s death in 1815, and during a short stopover at St Helena had the ex-Emperor Napoleon pointed out to him (wiki).

During his lifetime he was apparently second only to Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in the ranks of great Victorian novelists, though really only Vanity Fair (1847-48) of all his works has endured. He regarded Dickens as a ‘sentimentalist’ and himself as a ‘realist’ though in fact he made his reputation as a satirist, and his authorial interpolations in this novel hark back to novelists of the previous century like Fielding (here).

I have never studied this period, between Jane Austen (who died in 1817) and the early Australians who began writing novels in the 1850s and 60s (here), so was keen to begin filling in the gap, though I have still to write anything about Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott who remained influential (with guy writers anyway) throughout the nineteenth century.

Vanity Fair, all 18 31 hours worth! playing on the truck speakers as I drive, is to some extent Historical Fiction, in that the events it describes take place three to four decades before it was written. And in fact it overlaps by a decade the last years of Jane Austen’s fiction. This provides considerable interest as both authors discuss the lives of the wealthy middle class, although from radically different angles. Austen from the point of view of the landed gentry interacting with upwardly mobile naval officers and merchants, Uncle Gardiner in particular; and Thackeray from the point of view of stockbrokers and entrepreneurs only one or two generations removed from the slums, whom he satirises for aspiring to gentility, and their sons in Wellington’s army or the East India Company.

In this novel without a hero the central character is Becky Sharp of whom I have often heard and never before met. We first see Becky on her last day at Miss Pinkerton’s where she had been a tutor and her late father before her, drawing master. She is going with her friend, final year pupil Amelia (Emmy) Sedley for a couple of week’s holiday before commencing as a governess with Sir Pitt Crawley.

I could take the next 800 words and still not give you a lucid summary of the plot, but here is a very brief overview. Becky’s mother had been a dancer and Becky had lived very rough indeed until accepted at Miss Pinkerton’s. She angles first for Emmy’s fat, well-off brother, Joseph, home from the East India Company, without success; goes to Queens Crawley where the dissolute Sir Pitt uses her as a secretary and his young daughters are ignored; looks for a while like she might become companion to Sir Pitt’s wealthy sister; is found to be secretly married to Rawdon, a captain in the guards and Sir Pitt’s younger son; the aunt disinherits Rawdon.

Meanwhile Emmy is promised to her childhood sweetheart George Osborne, a lieutenant in a line regiment and is secretly loved by William Dobbin, George’s friend, a captain in the same regiment and whose fathers look down on each other in their capacities as merchants and stockbrokers.

Emmy’s father is bankrupted; George is forbidden to marry her; but with the connivance of Becky and William does anyway; and is disinherited. They all go down to Brighton in Jos’s carriage. Napoleon escapes, war breaks out, and in May-June 1815, in the days before Waterloo, they make their various ways to Brussells. There’s lots and lots more, centred around Becky and Rawdon living on Becky’s wits and Rawdon’s card playing, living well on nothing per year as Thackeray puts it, and describes in some detail as many novelists don’t what misery this causes amongst the lower classes who provide the services and don’t get paid.

There must be a century and half of scholarship around Vanity Fair on which I have chosen not to draw, so these are just my own impressions. I see the ‘Fair’ of the title as reflecting not what we might think first – a field full of merry-go-rounds and amusements – but more a marketplace, as in a horse fair. Thackeray refers repeatedly to ‘Vanity Fair’ in the text as though it were conceptually at least a place, a place where the aspiring middle classes trade furiously for advantage, selling their sons, their daughters, their honour.

The final question I wish to consider is, Is Becky Sharp an early Independent Woman? She certainly has an independent spirit, was taught early by her parents how to deal with (the non-payment of) creditors; cheerfully as a young woman seeks employment – and refuses to do one scintilla more than that for which she has been contracted. She approaches the idea of marriage with the repulsive Jos Sedley calculatingly and without sentiment. It comes as a surprise then to find her married almost without explanation to Rawdon Crawley, though she deals with his predictable disinheritance with characteristic cheerfulness. Thackeray discusses the disadvantages of not having a mama to do her marriage-dealing for her, which reminds me of early Australian author Catherine Martin:

We sometimes forget that the freedom of choice in marriage which is permitted to women of the Anglo-Saxon race has the effect of making some of them regard the institution on cool business principles. It is an ‘arrangement’ made by themselves instead of by the mothers, as in France. [An Australian Girl (1890)]

Becky is cold-blooded in her self-promotion, and in her mothering, and Rawdon is happy to do what he is told. Thackeray makes it clear in his oft-declared imperfect understanding of women that he doesn’t like her particularly, especially in comparison to the milksop Emmy. He has Becky solicit and receive gifts from her husband’s superior officers, and if she doesn’t actually go to bed with them that is probably more reflective of the morals of Thackeray’s mid-Victorian period readers than of Becky’s own. If she were a Rosa Praed heroine she would have ditched Rawdon by the half-way mark and married into money and a title.

 

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, first published in Punch over 19 monthly episodes, London, 1847-48. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by John Castle, 2008


Sun. With about three hours of the book left to go I am having an unexpected couple of days off. If I happen on any surprises between now and posting on Tues morning, I will let you know.

Mon night. The big surprise was to see that the novel takes not 18 but 31 hours. After a long day’s work I still have “three hours” to go, Dobbin has grey hair and still pines after Amelia, Jos has grown prosperous in India, and Becky and Rawdon … well for those of you, like me, who haven’t seen the TV series, that would involve spoilers.

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Yesterday (Sunday)I had to drop off granddaughter and friend at the movies (Black Panther) and came home via Crow Books. A couple of you, Lisa Hill and Kate W probably, have spoken of the cheering properties of book-buying, not that I need cheering, but I was positively elated to come across this near perfect 1958 hard back edition of The Pea Pickers for just TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS. More so as the boring Patrick White next to it, which I already own, was $55. As you can see I picked up a few others which were on my list (and a couple which weren’t).

 

After, Nikki Gemmell

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Nikki Gemmell is an important Australian author. A true statement but I feel the tugging of “, I think”. I’m not sure that the literary world in general agrees with me, though her wikipedia entry, maybe written by a fan, says:

In France she has been described as a “female Jack Kerouac”. In 2007, the French literary magazine Lire included her in a list of what it called the fifty most important writers in the world – those it believed would have a significant influence on the literature of the 21st century.

Here, in Oz, her uncompromising inner views of women attempting to make a path for themselves in a hostile world and the staccato poetry of her language are no match for say the boyish charms of her contemporary, the people’s favourite Tim Winton.

Gemmell’s early novels are, in order, Shiver (1997), Cleave – originally published as Alice Springs (1998), Love Song (2002) and The Bride Stripped Bare (2003). I get the impression that she is gradually stripping away all extraneous action, increasingly focusing her attention inwards on women finding their way in a sexual world, and experimenting as she goes with the language to express that. [That is a para from my earlier review of Love Song (here) – not quoting, just reusing].

Her subsequent novels have been The Book of Rapture (2009), With My Body (2011), I Take You (2013) and there have been a number of works of non-fiction. Which brings us to After (2017) a memoir written in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide.


In the fraught world of euthanasia, I say this: if the perpetrator’s family cannot, by law, be involved in the wishes of the person wanting to die, then you’re condemning that person to a horrendously bleak and lonely death.


We begin in the morgue, in an ante-room, Nikki and her brother Paul, the older brother Andrew  choosing to be absent, remaining absent throughout, about to ‘identify’ their mother’s body – a redundant ritual now you’d say, though Gemmell doesn’t – the police with them supportive but also closely watchful, alert for signs, for evidence, that a crime may have been committed, that the obvious suicide, by an overdose of pills in the comfort of her lounge room, may have been ‘assisted’.

This is close up and personal, Nikki’s grief is visceral, its depth and immediacy expressed in broken sentences. But. Gemmell is a writer, a producer of literary output. So this is written from the heart, yes, but then rewritten and rewritten, packaged by a major publisher and presented to us to consume. Polished in its unpolishedness you might say. A writer must always say ‘look at how well I suffer’, her greatness being in making us forget that we are not looking at suffering but at a, at her, depiction of suffering.

The sense of abandonment. Here. In this place. The obscenity of that. The shell of our mother, the skin on her face already sinking into the hollows of her skull. Giving her that distinct, distancing, mask of death. It is not Elayn but an eviscerating absence more skull than life. It is our mother. It is not.

Gemmell’s mother found marriage too constricting, had left Bob her worker husband of twenty years forty years earlier, taken Nikki aged then 10, “the court ordered the boys to stay with their father”, left Wollongong for life in the big smoke, changed her name from the prosaic Elaine, “set about turning herself into who she really wanted to be”.

It is not clear that who she really wanted to be was a mother, and Nikki and Elayn bang heads for eight years until Nikki manages to leave home.

When I was young Elayn would fling, ‘No one likes you.’ When I craved prettiness, ‘You’re so ugly.’ When I didn’t measure up in terms of a daughter, ‘Why can’t you be like …  She wanted them but had me, her swotty clod of a thing. That could write.

Elayn hated Bob all the rest of her life and resented that Nikki didn’t. Elayn had been a model, there are photos of her throughout the book, and Nikki isn’t, though elocution lessons did get her into the national broadcaster. Elayn works and buys an old three bedroom flat in Sydney’s eastern, beachside suburbs and reinvents herself as a glamorous theatre goer. Years later Nikki is shocked to find that the flat is a tip inside, all her mother’s declining strength having been expended on external appearances.

Nikki marries, lives in London, has four children, exchanges brief visits with her mother, finally comes home, purchases a house in a neighbouring suburb and spends the final five years still banging heads but making she thinks, some progress. The last of those years is spent by Elayn in crippling pain after a botched operation, and you could hardly blame her for considering euthanasia. But without discussion or warning? In the week of her oldest and loved grandson’s Year 12 exams!

Gemmell is a weekly columnist in the Australian. She must have written something, her bewilderment at her mother’s choice. A chapter is devoted to readers’ responses. I skim it. Dr Philip Nitshke of Exit International tweets:

Nikki, it was empowerment! – your mother joined, #euthanasia PP Handbook, asked Exit forum Qs and imported.

So, Elayn’s death had been planned and kept secret for months. Gemma meets and becomes friends with a doctor who has suffered chronic pain and who with the full support of her children is planning to end her life in Switzerland where it is legal. Becomes more understanding of the problems of chronic pain and her own lack of awareness of her mother’s opioid drug addiction.

Writing this book is therapy, “Six months since the writing was begun, the maelstrom of bewilderment that was this book. Now, finally, stilled.” It’s an interesting work, but not her best. The edgy young woman of the earlier works is now a suburban mum and a Murdoch hack finding some peace in restoring her children’s valued porcelain pieces, smashed in a storm at around the time of her mother’s death, in line with the Japanese philosophy Kintsugi, to embrace the repair of an object as an aspect of its history, using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, which has acted as a metaphor throughout the work.

I checked the AWW Challenge site (here) and found only eight reviews for works by Gemmell – mine of Love Song not there so I’ll have to upset the statistics again (!) and include a back entry – which rather proves my case that she doesn’t receive much attention.

 

Nikki Gemmell, After, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2017

see also: My review of Love Song here

 

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week, contributors

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week 15-21 Jan. 2018

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Still no review!

I, I try not to begin posts with I, but today it really is unavoidable, or if not unavoidable … but why should I use a circumlocution? So: I. I find myself today unexpectedly with time on my hands. I spent yesterday evening loading when I could have been having a Saturday night out, down at the Balmoral maybe with ex-Mrs Legend, eating quinoa and pumpkin – me that is, she eats steak – and catching up on the week past over an immature and overpriced pinot gris, only to find that the customer didn’t need me.

So I thought that I should take the opportunity to highlight the contributions to this week that I haven’t re-posted and which you may have missed. If I ramble a bit it is because the idea only came to me this morning and I haven’t had time to properly think it over. However, if one thing is clear from all that has been written it is that we are surprised by the willingness of C19th Australian women writers and their heroines to rail against the laws and customs that restricted them. I guess this is at least partly because Australia was new, wealthy, with more fluid class boundaries than old Europe, and at the forefront of debate about democracy and labour politics.

But it is also because this period of our history has been deliberately obscured by layers of myths. From where we baby-boomers sit we must view this period, and women’s writing in particular, through the myth of the 1950s – a woman’s place is in the home, a reaction I think to the independence of women during the War, running farms and factories; the big literary myth, the Australian Legend, of men and their mates in the Bush and at war; and the myth of the Victorians – of women bound by corsets and rules to lives of virtue and strict obedience to scripture and husbands.

These books we have been reading blow away these myths. Love of the Australian bush began way before the 1890s and its appropriation by the Bulletin. You can see it in Rosa Praed who was born here, in Annabella Boswell in the 1830s and 40s (also born here) and in writers like Catherine Martin and Ellen Davitt.

Rosa Praed makes a virtue of doing away with husbands, but nearly all the women question the value of marriage, and a few, even if it does not show in their fiction, make their principal relationships with other women – Rosa Praed and Nancy Harward, Catherine Helen Spence and Jeanne Young, Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcombe (discovered for us by MST here).

The most important writer of the period is Catherine Helen Spence who throughout the second half of the century was the dynamo who got first wave feminism moving, in her novels, in her journalism, and in her activism for women’s suffrage and proportional representation.

The most popular (now) and maybe the most enduring writer was Ada Cambridge with her gentle social commentaries. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed Cambridge’s memoir Thirty Years in Australia (here) some time ago and if you are interested in reading it for yourself the AWW Gen 1 page has a link. A reader, Alison Stuart wrote in:

[Ada Cambridge’s] husband was vicar of Holy Trinity Williamstown for many years and she did much of her writing in the lovely old (it was new back then!) vicarage. She is honoured in Williamstown today with the Ada Cambridge Prize at the annual Williamstown Literary festival… As a side note she was a friend of Jeannie Gunn, who is reputed to have written part of We of the Never Never on the verandah of the vicarage on a visit to Ada.

and provides a link (here) to Ada’s web page.

Brona at Brona’s Books and Emma at Books Around the Corner put up reviews respectively of Sisters and The Three Miss Kings (which I also have reviewed, here). Brona writes that Sisters “is the story of four young women coming of age on a rural property in northern Victoria. But it is also the story of Guthrie Carey, a young sailor whose life crosses paths with the sisters at various points.” Cambridge, she says, “tackle[s] women’s issues and class consciousness head-on”. (Brona’s review).

Emma too enjoyed her Ada Cambridge. She writes:

The writer under these words appeared to have a progressive view of women’s place in society. She also refers to Darwin’s theories in passing and we know they were controversial at the time. Her vision of religion is also daring for her century. I had the feeling she was well-read and modern, that she was not afraid to speak up for herself and for her gender, that she was interested in new theories, in progress in social matters as well as in science. She comes out as a woman involved and in advance for her time.

(Emma’s review).

And there’s more. Narell Ontivero’s guest post of course (here) and an essay, Ada Cambridge: colonial writer and social critic (here) by Morgan Burgess, which was posted by AWW Challenge last year.

As is the way of trucking, my customer in Kalgoorlie has discovered they are about to run out of product after all, and I have to get going. But before I do let me point out for those few of you who may have missed them, Lisa’s two posts yesterday arising out of her reading of Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, EE Morris ed.

She has discovered a new writer for us, Margaret Seymour, who was in charge of the house (wife?, housekeeper?) on Alpha Station out Barcaldine way in far outback Queensland in (maybe) the 1860s (here). And she has uncovered Mary Gaunt’s journalism, of which I was previously unaware (here).

Finally, Sue (Whispering Gums) whose review of Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Pipers Hill will be with us momentarily put up this post on Tasma earlier in the week (here).

I’ll put up my final post for the ‘week’, A review of Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush overnight, with a list of all the posts received – I think apart from Sue’s there is one about Georgiana Molloy also on the way – but please, keep submitting reviews and I’ll keep adding to the AWW Gen 1 page.

 

A Marked Man, Ada Cambridge

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week 15-21 Jan. 2018

The author of this guest post is Narelle Ontivero who caught my attention last year with her essay “As Nature Bade Her”: Sensuality in Tasma’s Bush Stories (here). Narelle is a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University in the Writing and Society Research Centre. Her current research explores the relationship between space, gender and identity in the works of Tasma, Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge. Narelle, thanks for taking part.


Across Both Worlds: Ada Cambridge’s A Marked Man (1890)

Cambridge Marked Man

When published in volume form by William Heinemann in 1890, A Marked Man garnered its author, Ada Cambridge, considerable attention. Contemporary reviewers praised the literary style of the novel as “remarkable”, “easy and vigorous” with a perfect blend of “[h]umour and pathos” (The Speaker: The Liberal Review, 20 September 1890: 335). The protagonist, Richard Delavel, is described as “a great and original creation […] one of the most striking and touching figures in contemporary fiction” (Westminster Review, February 1891: 218). And the Manchester Guardian assured its readers in its review that “[w]ith such power and finish Miss Cambridge ought to command popularity of the best kind for anything she will bestow on us in the future” (Manchester Guardian, 23 September 1890: 6). More than one hundred years later, there is still much to celebrate in Cambridge’s successful novel.

A Marked Man is cleverly presented in two parts: The first part is set in Dunstanborough “the ideal English village” lorded over by the aristocratic Delavel family (2). The youngest son of this family, Richard, is a rebellious Oxford seminary ‘drop out’ who impulsively pursues and marries Annie Morrison, “the village maid of romance—the ideal farmer’s daughter” (31). The perfection of this village is often pointed out. Even the “beach at Dunstanborough was spacious and level and firm—everything that a beach should be” (21). Alongside Richard’s romantic pursuit of Annie, Cambridge intelligently draws out many of the class structures and traditions which unfairly governed the lives of nineteenth-century British people.  The reader is warned, for example, that in Dunstanborough “[t]he lower classes knew their place and kept it, dropping the loyal curtsey to their lord and lady and the young sirs and misses, not only in the street but in the church” (2).  But on a more intimate scale, to prove his worth as a true gentleman, and not some common farmer, Richard hastily agrees to marry Annie and is disinherited when the elopement is revealed. As fate would have it, before a fortnight of marriage is through, Richard realises that he and Annie are entirely unsympathetic as a couple, but that they are legally bound to each other in unhappy marriage.

The second half of A Marked Man takes place twenty-five years later in the burgeoning city of Sydney, Australia. Now a self-made businessman, Richard’s sole comfort in his loveless marriage is his daughter, Susan. Together they read Matthew Arnold, question religious precepts, enjoy boating and time at their secluded camp on Middle Head; while driving the ostentatious and principled Annie wild. Notwithstanding the apparent stalemate in the Delavel marriage, the romantic quests continue in the second half. Noel Routledge, an ex-minister without pedigree pursues Susan; and Richard pines after Constance Bethune, his helpmate in his first years in Sydney and “the woman whom nature had intended to be his mate, but whom circumstances had denied to him” who suddenly returns to Sydney a widow (220). It is only once Annie drowns in a boating accident on Sydney Harbour that Richard and Susan are free to marry their respective partners for love.

The novel’s overarching exploration of love, marriage, tradition and modernity is made possible first by the transference to Australia; and, second, by the weight of Annie’s staunch traditionalism. In A Marked Man Australia is a testing-ground in which marital and religious traditions can be challenged and where people like Annie—who doubted “the use of being Mrs Delavel in a wild country where the name had no significance”—become stumbling blocks to the liberal spirit forging the new nation (130). We are told that,

In middle age [Annie] was—what she had been from her youth—the evenest-tempered woman that ever a well-meaning husband found it difficult to get on with […] She had conformed to the customs of a country wherein birth was disestablished like its ancient friend the church, and had no dependent ‘lower orders’ to take off the loyal hat and drop the humble curtsey to it as in the good old times […] Those customs, and all the fundamental changes in social state that they implied, had never ceased to be repugnant to what she called her instincts  […] People and things might change with changing times and circumstances, but [Annie] never changed” (145).

So while Annie’s death is a hefty price to pay to secure the happiness of the remaining Delavels, it is symbolically important for Annie with her ‘Old-World’ values to disappear in A Marked Man.

Of course, it is also through Annie and Richard that A Marked Man questions the British laws that bound men and women to unhappy marriages. As is likely well-known by the readers of this blog, the ‘Marriage Question’ was generating a substantial amount of controversy in the 1890s when the novel was published. And it was certainly an issue addressed by the Gen. 1 writers of this blog series—authors like Rosa Praed, Tasma, Catherine Martin, Catherine Helen Spence and Ada Cambridge, to name only a few.  Marriage as a source of women’s forced economic dependence and sexual labour were two central issues raised and protested by these admirable and talented women writers through their fiction.

In the Australian colonies, the view of marriage was particularly dim. For first wave feminists, it seemed ineffectual to enforce strict marriage laws in Australia where the unattached, roving, drinking and licentious bush man was idealised with fervour. A country where male domestic violence was a common occurrence, and

It was [still] quite common for men to bash up their wives and the strange thing was, if you were to kick a dog, another man would kick you. But if you were having an argument with your wife, nobody would interfere (McCalman, 1984: 26; see also: Lake, 1986).

And where “marriage made no difference to a man’s life [but] all the difference to a woman’s life” who was enjoined to live for her husband and children’s happiness (Magarey, 2001: 37). While there is no abuse in Richard and Annie’s marriage, it is a penance to the former.  And over his entire life there lingers one question: why suffer the bond of wedlock when love is not in it? Richard’s last regret, as he lays dying, is that in fifty years of life, he was only allowed three happy years with Constance, his true love.

Cambridge Marked Man map

In contrast to Annie—who cannot swim or row and only leaves the house to pay social visits—Richard, Susan and Noel are continually moving from Double Bay, on one side of the harbour, to Middle Head on the other.  Their mobility, proficiency in navigating the waters of Sydney Harbour and rowing skills analogise their intellectual and spiritual progressiveness. Indeed, the core complaint of the three ‘black sheep’ is “the inadequacies of that inelastic integument to the growing soul” that longs to be free of customs, practices and beliefs that hold no relevance to its personal life (169).  Susan, of the three, is particularly obstinate and rebellious;

She was full of schemes for a working life; she wanted no bridal tour, she said, and her heart was set on living at the camp, where and her husband [Noel] would be unmolested by the world of fashion, which would surround and absorb them if they established themselves in a brick house (312).

Despite Susan’s tenacity, she materialises and achieves what her father only dreamed of—autonomy in early life, the right to marry for ‘true’ love, and a life unbridled by time-honoured customs. In doing so, however, she becomes the antithesis to her mother, Annie. To the point where their mother-daughter relationship is full of bitterness and misunderstandings, and Annie dies before they reconcile. Though not perfect, Susan represents the ‘next generation’ in her family and the ‘next’ Australian generation. As Elizabeth McMahon (2010) suggests, colonial Australia offered itself as a place where “range of possibilities” was possible, and as a “measured counterweight of the northern hemisphere”—just as Susan is the counterbalance to both her parents (McMahon, 2010: 181).

Then, as now, Cambridge’s most popular novel, A Marked Man reveals important truths about ideals, faith, tradition and rebellion. And, set as it is, across both worlds, it will not fail to capture your imagination. And as Richard would advise Susan, I encourage you to discover these truths for yourself.

 

Cambridge, Ada. 1987. A Marked Man: Some Episodes in His Life.  London, UK: Pandora Press. [first pub. 1890]

References:

Magarey, Susan. 2001. Passions of the First Wave Feminists. Sydney: UNSW Press.

McMahon, Elizabeth. 2010. “Australia, the Island Continent: How Contradictory Geography Shapes the National Imaginary”. In, Space and Culture 13, no.2: 178-187.

Lake, Marilyn. “Historical Reconsiderations IV:  The Politics of Respectability: The Masculinist Context”. In, Historical Studies 22, no. 86 (1986): pp.116-131.

McCalman, J. 1984.Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond, 1900-1965. South Melbourne: Hyland House.