Drawing Sybylla,Odette Kelada

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Odette Kelada is a lecturer in creative writing, with a PhD in literature researching the lives of Australian women writers. Drawing Sybylla, winner of the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript, quite obviously draws on Kelada’s background teaching post-modern writing and on her researches.

‘Sybylla’ of course references the heroines of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, two young women with the same name, one the author of a mock autobiography of the other, each mistaken for the other and for Miles; but Sybylla is also from the “Greek Σιβυλλα (Sibylla), meaning prophetess, sibyl. In Greek and Roman legend the sibyls were ten female prophets who practiced at different holy sites in the ancient world.”

Sibyl Jones stands on stage reading from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) a short story in which the writer, forced to remain in her bedroom, descends into psychosis and imagines herself and other women to be trapped inside the patterns of the wallpaper. The I of Drawing Sybylla is seated on the stage behind Sibyl Jones, drawing:

I pick up my pen and dribble ink onto the page. Flowers grow either side of the red margin. Monstrous petals with goblin faces leer from the middle of them.

From her random scribblings and leaking pen Sybil’s face emerges – “Now the figure I have drawn peers out from the ropes of vines” – names herself Sybylla, takes us on a journey through time. “I have landed in a red country, red dirt, the land of girt by sea, a great island between Asia and the Arctic (sic). Gold rays of a hot sun burns the eyes.”

Lucy, 1901. We become a young woman with a strict mother, brighter than her brothers but not permitted to share their tutor, scribbling at night on scraps of paper, contemptuous of women romance writers, “I’m going to write about my own country for a start … I’m going to write about the bush like Lawson and Joseph Furphy.”

[Lucy is a Miles Franklin figure, although younger, and this is, deliberately of course, set in the year of the publication of My Brilliant Career, but Kelada is wrong to go along with the characterisation of C19th Australian women writers as ‘Anglo-Australians’ and writers of mere romance.]

Sybylla leads us on:

‘Did you like Lucy? In walking through the gaps between the words of The Yellow Wallpaper, we have crept behind the pattern. Lucy is only the first of the women we must meet who have been lost inside it.’

Vera 1929. A young woman, a poet in Sydney Bohemia, in a cafe on the night of the Artists’ Ball shows Jack a poem she has written. Jack asks, “Are you going to be topless, Vera?”.

[I don’t recognise ‘Vera’, apparently the daughter of poet and alcoholic Christopher Brennan. I have read that women could only enter the Sydney art scene at this time by offering their bodies to the men. Jack “down from Brisbane” is probably Jack Lindsay (son of Norman).]

Layers upon layers. Sybil on stage reading The Yellow Wallpaper. Sybylla her ‘shadow’ leading us behind the wallpaper. We travel with her through land and sea. Peer into the water for the stories of women writers.

Stella 1932. A history teacher in her mid thirties is given cause to reflect on Captain Cook’s reception when he raised the Union Jack at Botany Bay. She asks the school’s indigenous charwoman who of course does not know. At home she must care for her aged parents, Father home from the Great War, only able to write late at night, and getting letters from ‘Nettie’.

[‘Stella’ refers to Miles Franklin, but also to Marjorie Barnard who I think also had the care of her parents. To confuse us, Kelada brings in Flora [Eldershaw] as a sister. Dates are all over the place, so: Miles was 53 in 1932 (Barnard was 35) and ‘Father’ would have to have been over 40 in 1914. And so on. Jack Lindsay, above, was in London in 1929. But the author is having fun with these constructs, while making her case about the difficulties facing women writers.]

We move on. “We are passing through a dark time. The Depression is over but the war has started. Nothing can touch us here. It is beyond the horizon.”

Eve 1954. A caricature of (American) middle class life, dinner parties and martinis, incongruous in Australia. A wife and mother whose ‘scribblings’ interfere with her wifely duties, whose husband controls her drinking, but still she is led astray by ‘Judith’, her muse.

[I have no idea who this might be, though I think Kelada has seen too much American TV. Australian middle class life in the 1950s was much poorer, even for doctors’ wives].

Sybylla pushes a little girl on a swing, high into the sky. When we see her again she is …

Susanne 1979. Susanne is a good Catholic girl who goes up to uni with a bursary to study teaching, moves to Arts, falls into the women’s movement, has unhappy experiences with men, takes a woman lover, goes down to Melbourne to stage a play at La Mama.

[Susanne is everywoman. All the men she meets are 1950s stereotypes. I know when I started this blog I wrote I am not a feminist, but that’s only because I believe socialism means equality for everyone. After the 60s guys were trying as hard as their girlfriends to do sex right. Any woman who thought she should “lie back and think of England” wasn’t being fair to herself or to her partner.]

The journey has been hazardous to say the least. I hope they are out, those women – Lucy, Vera, Stella, Ruby, Eve … Susie. I hope they feel the fresh air on their skin and breathe in their freedom.

I have a theory about lecturers in Creative Writing who write novels, and that is that they try too hard to be  post modern, stories within stories predictably leaking into each other. But Kelada has a lighter touch, is playful as well as purposeful.  And if at times I felt I was the dart board in a game of darts, still it was a book I enjoyed reading (and decoding).

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Wikipedia

Odette Kelada, Drawing Sybylla, UWAP, Perth, 2017

See also: Theresa Smith, whose review (here) led me to this book, and her interview with the author (here) which as you will see in the comments, I had overlooked.

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Author Interview, Justine Ettler

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Image from Amazon.com

Justine Ettler (1965- ) is the author of The River Ophelia (1995) which is being re-released, as an e-book and print-on-demand, and of Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996). She has been absent as an author for a while and it’s great to see her back. I took the opportunity to send her some questions, I’m sure you’ll love her answers.

Q. What reading did you/do you enjoy and what ended up being influential?

A. These days I like reading English classic novels—Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Mrs Gaskell, occasionally some Hardy.

Back then, Kathy Acker was an important influence in terms of TRO, it was from Acker that I got the ideas of naming the protagonist after myself and of borrowing and parodying other characters from other books. I liked her work, there was a lot of power and inventiveness in it but I wanted to write a book with more narrative that would be more compelling. I actually met Acker when she came to Australia in the nineties it was so amazing when she said, without my prompting, that she loved The River Ophelia, she really understood what I was trying to do. That I’d taken aspects of her work but inserted them into a more narrative framework.

I also read and was influenced by Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour, Catherine Texier’s early material, Ellis I’ve talked about elsewhere but American Psycho is a book I’ve loved/hated. I was also reading a lot of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Freud and of course, Bataille, and de Sade. Some of these books made me angry, others were inspiring.

Q. When you wrote The River Ophelia and Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure – and in passing did you write them in the reverse order? Was it your publisher who made the choice to publish The River Ophelia first? – you were doing post-grad work in American Lit (is that right?). What was the subject of your thesis?

A. Yes. I wrote Marilyn while doing my BA at UTS, it was my first novel, and it was my publisher’s idea to publish in the reverse order. I guess they were thinking about the way debut writers get more media attention and they thought they could do more with TRO but I actually think publishing them in the order they were written would have been better for me in the long term.

I wrote TRO while I was researching my PhD. There just seemed to be an overspill from all that reading, material not suitable to a conventional dissertation comprised of a series of essays. The thesis was initially on the American writers I’ve listed above, with the addition of Jay McInnerney, and it was partly a defence of American Psycho which then was ignored by scholars and much maligned for its misogyny. I had read Liz Young’s work in Shopping in Space and found it quite brilliant and inspiring. Now of course Ellis, partly as a result of Harron’s clever film adaptation, has been redeemed and has outshone many of the other writers of that time and the final draft of the PhD has been an attempt to reinstate what the feminists were saying because in all the subsequent scholarly defences the misogyny in the novel, and it is there, has been lost. I felt there needed to be some kind of balance.

Q. I haven’t read American Psycho (or seen it – I avoid violent movies) but if I understand you correctly, you believe Ellis’ writing about violence towards women was pornographic in intent not condemnatory (I’ve been reading your 2014 essay ‘Sex Sells, Dude’. I’ll put a link to it in my post (here)). Am I right in my (limited) understanding?

A. In terms of the pornography in AP, it’s more the misogyny in the pornography and the way the pornography is fused with some of the absolutely all-time nastiest stuff I’ve ever read so that for the reader the experience of one becomes inseparable from the experience of the other. My thesis was an attempt to place the mass media feminist critique and the scholarly defences side by side and say both were true and that neither worked without the other.

Q. The publicity material for the re-release talks about domestic violence, is that a reframing of your objectives for The River Ophelia? I saw Justine – your protagonist – as seeking out ill-treatment. That doesn’t justify Sade of course, but I thought you were writing about a frame of mind, a self loathing, in women arising, in this case, from her father’s psychological mistreatment of her, which leads to her seeking more ‘punishment’.

A. It’s not a re-framing per se, so much as an attempt to nudge the clever reader in the right direction, in terms of my authorial intentions with the text. That the novel deep down is about domestic violence is a clue, a pretty hefty one I should say, to help the reader join the dots and solve the riddle hidden in the text.

It’s interesting what you say about self-loathing and women who seek punishment as a result of childhood trauma. I guess part of the reason Justine behaves the ways she does is because of her childhood trauma that involves not being protected by her father and as a result she grows up unable to protect herself. Justine does have low self-esteem and does feel self-hatred but Justine is also an unreliable narrator. Much of what she describes is part of the way she lies to herself about Sade’s abuse and therefore can’t be taken literally. Sade’s abuse causes a traumatised response in her and she is compelled to stay out of misplaced loyalty and love, because of a kind of trauma bond. But I don’t see her as a masochist, seeking out punishment.

Q. I’ll have put up a review of ‘Marilyn’ by the time you get this probably. I see her as similar to Justine but less intense; more confused and maybe even ‘ditzy’ but without the self-harm aspect that characterizes Justine. I think in an on-line interview in the 1990s you said you saw yourself in Marilyn (rather than Justine). Authors of course reveal themselves in their writing but I’m not asking are these works autobiography. My interest is always ‘are the works authentic?’, do they reflect/draw on the author’s lived experience. (For old authors I also work backwards and ask what does the writing say about the author’s lived experience).

A. Usually a writer’s first novel is their most autobiographical and then I think writers start the process of looking elsewhere for their material. Of course there is part of the author in all their characters. I’ve been a university student and I have had bad relationships. The problem is that a lot of people read TRO as autobiographical because I’d named the protagonist Justine. This was a literary technique as I’ve said. But, and I think this happens to women writers more than men, because my character was very messed up, people started to see me as messed up and that effected the way people saw my writing: it seems to me that women writers can get branded incompetent as writers if they write very messed up characters. I have also experienced sexual harassment so while TRO is authentic, it draws from life like any other novel, it is also completely made up, and what isn’t made up is borrowed and reinvented in true postmodernist parodic style. What I didn’t make up, hadn’t lived myself and didn’t borrow from other texts, I drew from my friends. I have had girlfriends who had been raped, been experimenting with their sexuality and who have been the girlfriends of sex addicts. The real meaning of TRO, like that of AP, is deeply buried in the novel: the novel is designed as a postmodern labyrinth, a riddle the reader has to solve.

Q. My final question(s) is, Where have you been? It’s been a long time, your loyal readers would love to know there’s another novel in the pipeline. Perhaps even the third novel that was promised way back in 1996. And how does the re-release feel? Many authors say they have trouble re-engaging with a work once they have let it go.

A. That’s right, there was a third novel back in 1996, you’ve got a good memory! But I ran into problems with that one to do with defamation. My postmodernism had developed and I was experimenting with using real life celebrities as cut ups for my characters, mixing them in with Shakespeare and inserting the results into a satire about the Murdochs, and, well that one’s still on the cutting room floor, I’m afraid. I’m still working on it, and I think I’ve solved the problem but I’m so busy at the moment writing novel no. 5, and with Bohemia Beach coming out next year and just about to go into editing… But I’ll get there.

That being said, I deliberately pulled Marilyn and TRO from my publisher in 1997 because I hated being bullied and conflated with my character, I loathed my notoriety and felt the people I was dealing with didn’t really have me or my books best interests at heart. So taking back the rights for both books quieted things down for a while.

I’m excited about the ebook edition of TRO, and I really hope that, with the new, careful framing, that this edition will find its true readership and, who knows, perhaps spark controversy and debate for a whole new generation of readers? Maybe readers who want something a bit more psychologically and technically complex say than 50 Shades…. Not that there’s anything wrong with 50 Shades, I mean, it’s just that narrative and psychological complexity really interests me and, I hope, will interest my readers.

 

Thank you Justine! I can’t wait for Bohemia Beach, though I hope we also get to see that post-modern take on the Murdochs, themselves pretty post-modern with the truth.

 

Melanie at Grab the Lapels who always does great interviews has beaten me to the punch by half a day (here)

Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia, Picador, Sydney, 1995 (review)

Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Picador, Sydney, 1996 (review)

Miss Herbert, Christina Stead

 

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Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife) (1976) was the twelfth of Christina Stead’s 13 novels – if you count her first, The Salzburg Tales as a novel, which I do, or 14,15,16,17 depending how you count The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas (1965), but anyway it was the second-last published; and the second set mostly in Britain. Cotter’s England was the first (not the ‘only’ as it says in Wikipedia, today at least) and For Love Alone, probably the most biographical of her works, ends up there as well. In fact, Miss Herbert in a way continues on from For Love Alone in that it uses the everyday details of Stead’s struggles to support herself in London before and after WWII, on the fringes of the publishing industry.

Christina Stead (1902-1983) was born in Sydney, moved to London, where she met her life-long partner Bill Blake in 1928. They lived for a while in Paris, spent the war years in the USA, sailed back to Europe in 1946, initially to Belgium. In 1948 Stead was in England working on Cotters’ England and some time after, but certainly by 1952, began work on Miss Herbert, which remained unpublished – I don’t know why – until 1976.

Miss Herbert is an odd book, or at least a book about an odd woman as she makes her way through her adult life. In some ways it is as though Stead set out to write an English Lettie Fox  (1946). Lettie Fox is a young American woman who knows what she wants – sex and marriage – and sets out to get it. ‘Miss Herbert’ wants to get married, to become a suburban wife, but has no real self-awareness and falls into sex almost by accident. The writing does not have the virtuoso quality of Lettie Fox or even of Cotters’ England but that is not to say it is not well written, but rather that it reflects very well the unreflective and maybe even stolid mental processes of its protagonist.

I should say the ‘Miss Herbert’ of the title begins life as Miss Eleanor Brent. Herbert is the name of an old county family from whom her mother is descended. Eleanor feels herself to be a Herbert and later in the novel when she is in need of a name this is the one she adopts. The novel starts with a reunion of school friends, old girls of Miss Appleyard’s academy. Some of the girls have gone on to university or commenced careers but Eleanor, living on a small allowance from her father

… was different. A nobly built beauty, playingfields champion, excellent student, loved at home, admired at school and by men, she had been happy and confident always. Her future was planned too; she was “an engaged girl.” But with all this, she was unsettled; she was only quite happy with women friends.

Her fiance, Robert, a doctor, is in a hospital ‘up north’ making his way through residency and so on. Eleanor takes a world cruise, becomes engaged to one or two other men while she’s away, and on her return lives with a young colonial businessman for a month in his London flat.

But she felt too active and intelligent for the idle mistress life and began taking correspondence lessons in writing with a Mr Beresford Banes who ran a Fleet Street literary agency.

She resumes her engagement with Robert and telling him that she is on a walking tour, gets menial work in a country hotel where she makes out with all the men, before returning to London, to a student hostel, getting by on odd writing jobs. And all the time talking about sex and free love with her girl friends, having men back to her room, holding herself out as inexperienced. Later, I had to re-read these early pages because when Eleanor, at age 30 or so, does finally fall into the suburban marriage she had dreamed of, she blanks out any recall of these encounters or holds them out to herself as innocent.

Eleanor is fascinated by the relationships of her friends, particularly those in de facto marriages or with long-term sexual partners, questioning them without regard to their embarrassment, maybe reflecting on her own status, as it was around this time, after many years living together that Stead and Blake were finally able to marry. Eventually she breaks with Robert for the last time and becomes engaged to Heinz, a Swiss who is an organiser for her mother’s church or religious society (I never did work out exactly what it was). She admits to him that she has had one or two lovers and he wants to know what they did, she must do for him what she had done for them. When he admits to lovers of his own “she ran wild with men, resentful and jealous: a fury burned in her; for a moment she wanted to go to the devil, roister, never marry – her heart burned. She would never marry the wretch.” But she does.

And settles down, has children, a girl and a boy, works hard in the house her in laws had bought, lodgers in the upper floors for a little extra income. Over time Henry – he insists on Henry rather than the foreign ‘Heinz’, dreams of a distant knighthood – works more and more away from home until at last he tricks her into going to live on her brother’s farm and claims to have been deserted. She never thinks of herself as not married, even when Henry begins to suggest divorce, but looks again to writing and to supporting herself and her children as a reader for publishers.

Life drifts on. She moves back to London. Me are still interested in her but she seems to have got out of the habit. Late in the piece she thinks she has fallen in love with her daughter’s boyfriend:

In the night, awake, she rose and fell, like a floating swimmer, on easygoing great waves of voluptuous joy, while thinking, Not for me, no,no, it’s all nonsense; it’s all past, not for me, no longer; how can it come now when it never came? It’s an illusion.

But it passes, she’s fifty after all, “Soon I will have my pension and then I am going to write the story of my life; then I will really get down to it; and it will open some eyes.”

 

Christina Stead, Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife), Random House, New York, 1976. Virago Modern Classics No. 97 (pictured above), 1979

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead page (here) for a full overview of Stead and her work, including links to reviews by Lisa, me and others.
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters,1989 (Biography – here)


The British did it hard in the decade after World War II, with shortages of many basics and ongoing rationing. Sue at Whispering Gums a week or so ago discussed Australians sending food parcels ‘back home’ (here), and I noticed this in Williams while looking up background material for this review:

Christina’s family back in Australia helped her in those ration-stricken times in England. Her cousin Gwen and her sister Kate sent parcels of tinned meat, woollens, dripping and other essentials to her and her friend, Anne Dooley [the model for Nellie in Cotters’ England]. Christina wrote to Gwen in June 1949 that “… for those who need it most, the hard constant workers, the food is grievously, wickedly insufficient. Meat, that strength-builder, is in terrible shortage.”

 

Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Justine Ettler

Justine Ettler’s 1995 best seller The River Ophelia is in the process of being re-released and I’ve been asked if I would like to conduct an author interview. Of course I would! In my researches I came across an open on-line interview with Ettler from about 20 years ago in which one Kate W was a participant. Did you get anything out of it Kate?

I was offered a choice of formats – not including an open chat session, thank goodness, which looks like a mess. My preference would be to sit down over a glass of wine, but us not being in the same cities, that’s out of the question, and anyway would I remember to write down her answers. I get tongue-tied on the phone with strangers, so that leaves written questions. As part of the process, I thought I would re-read Ettler’s Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure which was published the year after The River Ophelia but which Ettler says she wrote first. And so, this review.

Marilyn’s a blonde very-Marilyn-with-a-touch of Meryl Sydney girl who has a crush on an older Wall Street type – Twentiethcentury Solomon Fox jr – she’s seen on daytime tv. Trying to contact him in New York through directory assistance she’s put through instead to Lisa who works in a downtown bookstall while waiting for an off-off-Broadway break.

Virginia, a girl she meets at New Year’s Eve party, persuades Marilyn that they’ll fly to New York together the next day, leaving behind her boyfriend hairy snail Lawrence, and her lovers Miller and Durrell.

[She] stares off into the hazy middle distance reluctant to hear her life so far reduced to what sounds like a reading list for an adult education course in modern literature and female sexuality …

Years ago I went through an Anaïs Nin phase so these are familiar names, though I assumed the Lawrence went with Durrell when Ettler may have intended D.H.

Virginia stands her up at the departure lounge – gets a super secret job offer she just can’t refuse – and Marilyn sets off on the 31 hour flight on her own, or on her own except for an I-don’t care-if-I’m-a-lousy-hack-air-hostess-because-I-know-I’m-Bette-Davis-where-it-counts who keeps sneaking looks in Marilyn’s new diary, as do we, and forgetting to feed her, but helps her interpret her dreams and slips her some drugs and so the time passes until Marilyn finds herself on the kerb climbing into a taxi, and giving an address to a black driver with lots of gold jewellery who asks, as does everyone she meets, often even before she speaks, are you Ostralian?

It seems Crocodile Dundee (1986) has “finally put Ostralia on the map”, though Ettler’s a bit pissed off by Americans? Australians? who read it as “a harmless fairytale”.

“Meanwhile Twentiethcentury Solomon Fox coaxes his body towards his first bowel movement of the day” which is his principal preoccupation, even more than making money from movements in the market, or Garbo, his girlfriend with God-are-they-silicon? tits; while Marilyn who has concussion from when the taxi dropped into an enormous pothole, tries to make sense of being dropped off at Liz’s flat in a run-down apartment building, coming to on a creaky slashed badly sprung vinyl sofa-bed under a dirty blanket to which she reverts in coming days to recuperate.

This is one of those books you read for the writing and for the atmosphere, but if you really don’t want to know how Marilyn ends up, then skip down to the last para.

We spin off into days of partying, random encounters, Marilyn spiralling ever closer to Twentiethcentury. Virginia reappears, disappears forever, and suddenly …

 …it’s the end of Twentiethcentury Fox and the end of the world and the end of her allergy and the end of TV and the end of herbality.

Back in Liz’s apartment everything’s a crazy bustling confusion of Liz and her sisters and her flatmates and all of their I’m-so-pissed-off-about-being-evicted boxes and suitcases and Marilyn’s strangely reassured when she finds Liz in the middle of it all hand-blow-drying real potato French fries and then when Liz asks about Twentiethcentury with a knowing look beneath her dyed natural hair Marilyn shrugs and says:
‘Oh well,’
And they both sigh and sip on their Coronas and gulp down shots of tequila.
And then Liz says:
‘Let’s get this show on the road kid.’

 And just like that, Marilyn is back in Sydney.

Marilyn is not intense in the way that The River Ophelia is. It has a lighter, trippier quality and there is an occasional suspension of causality which reminds me of some of the more ‘way out’ of Golden Age SF writers – PK Dick, Sladek or Sheckley. I’ve put this into a question for her (Ettler) and I’m sure she’ll answer ‘nope, nope, nope’ and cite someone I’ve never heard of, but hey, the reader is king. Right?

 

Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Picador, Sydney, 1996

see also: my review of The River Ophelia (here). Author interview (here)

 

Caroline Chisholm, Sarah Goldman

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Caroline Chisholm, or to give it its full title, Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force, How one extraordinary woman helped shape a nation, is a new biography of the woman who single handedly changed (for the better!) the way the Australian colonies dealt with the huge influx of workers, especially women, we needed up till the gold rushes of the 1850s. The author, Sarah Goldman is a journalist – a tv news producer – who lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog. This is her first book.

Goldman believes that earlier biographers have focused on Chisholm’s work and her Catholicism at the expense of revealing her as a person. While adhering to the facts, she says, Goldman has at the beginning of each chapter “imagined scenes that related directly to incidents covered within the subsequent pages.”

Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales … had been surprised when Caroline Chisholm had been ushered into the room, even wondered if he had misheard the name. Instead of the frumpy, bespectacled matron in plain gown and white cap that he had expected, he had been confronted by a handsome, even stately young matron, fashionably dressed and wearing a very fetching bonnet. [Introduction, Sydney 1841]

Caroline Chisholm was born in 1808 in Northampton, England. Her father, William Jones, by then 64, had started out as a farm labourer but was now a prosperous property owner and ‘hog jobber’. He died six years later, leaving Caroline an investment property with substantial rentals. Caroline’s mother, with a number of other children to support, promptly offloaded Caroline onto another Northampton women and then to boarding school where she seems to have obtained a good education. Later, Caroline names another (maybe the same) Northampton woman, Sarah Laws as her mother in the 1851 census.

Caroline early decided on a career in charity. In 1829 she turned 21 and became mistress of her own fortune, but only for so long as she remained unmarried. George Sand whose life we looked at a couple of weeks ago was at the same time in France in exactly the same position – the laws in both countries (most countries probably, I think this also comes up in Anna Karenina) gave complete control of a woman’s property to her husband.

A year later, thirty year old Lieutenant Archibald Chisholm, a Scotsman and a Catholic, returning home on furlough from ten years with the East India Company, met Caroline in Northampton and asked for her hand in marriage. She refused. Only relenting when he acceded to the condition that she retain the freedom to pursue her own objectives. Caroline, brought up Protestant, then converted to Catholicism.

I covered Chisholm’s life and work in some detail in my earlier review of Mary Hoban’s 1973 biography (here), but to give a ‘brief’ recap – Caroline followed Archibald to India where she established a school for the daughters, often mixed race, of ordinary soldiers; then, on his next furlough, they went to NSW, where Caroline took on the problem of female bounty migrants having no support on arrival. She stayed on in Sydney while Archibald went back for another five years in India, touring NSW extensively, escorting groups of young women to positions in the country and conducting an extensive survey into opportunities for rural labour. Here Caroline ventures into Australian Legend territory:

… travelling with the girls on the wagons or, later, riding her own horse, Captain. Her expeditions went “as far as 300 miles into the far interior, sometimes sleeping at the stations of wealthy settlers, sometimes in the huts of poor emigrants or prisoners; sometimes camping out in the bush, teaching the timid awkward peasantry of England, Scotland and Ireland, Protestant and Roman Catholics, Orangemen and Repealers, how to “bush” it.”

By the time Archibald returned, Caroline was well known and highly regarded, and her opinion was sought by – and more often pressed on – the fledgling Legislative Council.

In 1846 the Chisholms returned to England, setting up a base in the poorer part of London and Caroline began advocating for and organising female and family migration to Australia from Britain and Ireland (then in the grip of the Great Famine). There she met Dickens and elements of her survey appeared in the first issue of his magazine Household Words. He was later to satirise her unfairly as Mrs Jellyby* in Bleak House. The establishment of the Family Colonization Loan Society in 1850, and her being only the second woman ever to give evidence to a committee of the House of Lords, made her one of the best known people in Great Britain.

The Society chartered and, later had constructed purpose-built ships, including the Caroline Chisholm which was unfortunately commandeered for troop transport to the Crimean War. Archibald was despatched first to Adelaide, then to Melbourne, where he was subsequently joined by Caroline, to act as the Society’s agent. The Chisholms settled in Victoria, in Melbourne and then Kyneton, but the wave of immigration associated with the gold rushes of the 1850s meant that her work was no longer of such importance.

She was able to persuade the government to establish ‘shelter sheds’, accommodation for families walking between Melbourne and the Castlemaine/Bendigo gold fields, and continued to advocate for an Australian ‘yeomanry’ – family based farms to replace the huge runs taken up by squatters and worked mostly by single men.

Despite her Catholicism, Caroline Chisholm both advocated and practiced multi-culturalism. Attacked by the Protestant preacher John Dunmore Lang for bringing out Irish Catholic girls, Caroline retorted, “I have lived happily amongst pagans and heathens, Mahometans and Hindoos – they never molested me at my devotions, nor did I insult them at theirs; and am I not to enjoy the same privilege in New South Wales?” [reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1846]. Later in Victoria Chisholm was to speak up in the same way for the largely reviled Chinese (I devoted a second post to Chisholm’s views on race here).

In straining to create historical women heroines we sometimes find they are given more prominence now than they were then. The reverse is true of Caroline Chisholm, and of many women authors, whose considerable reputations and influence at the time have not been brought forward by (male) historians. When you think about it, it is nonsensical that school students learn more about the failures of man-heroes Burke & Wills and Ludwig Leichardt than they do about about the successes of Caroline Chisholm, Mary McKillop or Catherine Helen Spence.

In this biography Sarah Goldman presents Chisholm as a powerful early practical feminist, making her way in a man’s world, creating opportunities for women and for families (though at the expense of some neglect of her own), with the unstinting support of her husband. I’m not sure Goldman gets very far behind the public face, though she (rightly) gets angry discussing Dickens and others dismissing Caroline as plump – as well she might be after eight children – and matronly.

The short imagined scenes are an interesting idea to provide an introduction to each chapter, but I was disappointed to find (in the End Notes) that one, where Caroline out in the bush with a dray load of women immigrants is held up by a bushranger, is totally imaginary. Overall however this is a powerful and very well documented work.

 

Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)

Author interview (here)

Other biographies:

Mary Hoban, Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake (1973). My reviews here and here.

Carole Walker, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)

Rod Stinson, Unfeigned Love: Historical Accounts of Caroline Chisholm and Her Work, Yorkcross, Sydney, 2008

Chisholm, Caroline, ed. by John Moran, Radical in Bonnet and Shawl: Four Political Lectures; and Little Joe. (Australia: Preferential Publications, 1994 and 1991)

M. Kiddle, Caroline Chisholm (Melb, 1957)

Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852)  preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).

see also the website http://mrschisholm.com/


*I originally wrote ‘Mrs Jellybelly’, a Freudian slip picked up by Professor Melanie (Grab the Lapels) below.

 

A Question of Death, Kerry Greenwod

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Three decades ago Kerry Greenwood modelled Phryne Fisher – now well-known with her own ABC tv series – on my own favourite fictional hero Simon Templar, the Saint, because “I wanted her to be a female wish-fulfilment figure”.

From all the Phryne Fisher detective stories I have listened to I can tell you that Phryne was an artists’ model in Paris and subsequently an ambulance driver in the Great War; that she grew up in poverty in the Melbourne working class suburb, Richmond until her father unexpectedly inherited an earldom and a fortune; that over time she accumulates a household – in her fine home near St Kilda beach – of a lady’s companion rescued from an orphanage, two highly intelligent adopted daughters whom she sends to school, an older couple who fill the roles of housekeeper/cook/driver/handyman, and a lover from the Little Bourke St Chinese community (or perhaps she’s his concubine); and she drives a red Hispano-Suiza (the Saint drives a Bugatti).

Greenwood set her mysteries “in the 1920s – in 1928 in fact, because I had written a legal history essay on the 1928 wharf strike, my father being a wharf labourer”, and claims that Phryne is “a bold creature for the 1920s but not an impossible one. None of the things she does are out of the question for that brittle, revolutionary period.” I would say rather that Phryne is a modern woman – an Independent Woman as I have defined her previously – set in the (very well researched) past deliberately to illuminate the feminist possibilities.

I have been quoting from Kerry Greenwood On Phryne Fisher, which is the first chapter of A Question of Death (2007). The remainder of the book, printed on glossy paper with illustrations by Beth Norling, consists of thirteen short mysteries, interspersed with recipes and a glossary of 1920s Australian slang.

We blogger/reviewers remark from time to time that the short stories in an anthology are not dated and that makes it harder to evaluate the author’s progress as a writer, and that is the case here. Though I’m guessing they’re printed in the order they were written.

The first Phryne Fisher novel, Cocaine Blues (1989), describes how Phryne gives up high society life in London, sails to Melbourne, takes a suite at the Windsor, employs Dot, her maid/companion and begins solving crimes with the aid, of course, of wharfies, communists and returned soldiers, Bert and Cec.

The first story in this collection, Hotel Splendide, is set maybe a year or so earlier. Phryne is on holidays in Paris with a handsome, young single man when she hears the voice of an Australian woman in distress. “She had no reason to remember Australia with any favour. But the voice brought back hot sun, eucalyptus leaves, ice cream made of real cream.” The woman believes the hotel has stolen her husband. Phryne takes control and in a few hours the husband is discovered. The writing is a bit uncertain, a bit twee maybe and I wondered if these stories might by easier to listen to than to read. But the subsequent stories soon settle down to race along with the familiar mix of sex, fashion, humour and mystery.


Absinthe cocktail

Mix one part absinthe with one part lemon juice. Shake over ice.

Drink while reading Baudelaire – Les Fleurs du Mal perhaps. Or Verlaine.


By the second story Phryne is established in Melbourne and is holding a party. None of her retainers is mentioned but Inspector Jack Robinson is. He’s her Claude Eustace Teal if you know your Saint, though more likely to ask Phryne’s help than to regard her as a rival (or uncaptured villain). There’s a preacher – “a nasty wicked hymn-singing hypocrite” – the improbable murder of two brothers, and the handsome, blonde, not very bright Lindsay gets to stay the night.

Soon we are in more familiar territory with Dot at Phryne’s beck and call and Mr and Mrs Butler respectively making cocktails and cooking. The two girls and the Chinese lover don’t make an appearance in this series, though Bert and Cec do in a later story. The interior of Phryne’s house is sketched in but it is not given a location.

Lindsay wakes up in Phryne’s bed and asks her to marry him –

‘Now listen,’ Phryne planted herself on his knees to keep the young man still and took a fistful of the soft, light hair. ‘You listen to me, Lindsay. I am what I am and I behave as I wish and I will not be dictated to by anyone. If I want lovers, I take them. If I do not want to be married, I will not be married and there’s nothing you can do to make me! Do you hear?’

More mysteries are solved, quickly and without fuss. Archbishop Mannix asks Phryne to find Collingwood coach, Jock McHale’s hat (I realise that is a sentence incomprehensible to non-Melburnians). We mix mostly in high society – new rich and old rich. We motor down to Queenscliffe in the Hispano-Suiza.

In Carnival, Phryne’s escort is a bounder. But after a fine time trying out all the sideshows at a fair, Phyrne finds someone else with whom to spend the night, and Greenwood has the genesis of the novel Blood and Circuses.

My favourite story is probably Death shall be Dead, where Inspector Robinson is studying Chaucer at night school, three grinning bodies are found in a burnt out Footscray house and a black labrador named Anubis proves to be both God of the Dead and Guardian of the Hidden Treasure.

Phryne Fisher fans – and Saint fans too, probably – could not help but enjoy this book. It is beautifully presented and as always, lots of fun. And yet still it manages to be political – feminist, lovingly descriptive of working class and underclass life, and satirical of Melbourne society.

 

Kerry Greenwood, A Question of Death, Poisoned Pen Press (Allen & Unwin), 2007

see also:

My review of Trick or Treat from Greenwood’s “Earthly Delights” series (here)

 

The Dream Lover, Elizabeth Berg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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