In the 1970s I was sure that David Ireland (b.1927) would be the writer of his generation, a mantle now surely held by Peter Carey despite how much I have disliked his writing since he moved to New York to be a ‘world writer’. I have said before that I regard Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) as one of our great novels, and I also very much admired The Flesheaters (1972) and The Glass Canoe (1976).
A Woman of the Future (1979), when I first read it many years ago, seemed modern and exciting, and not just to me, it won the 1979 Miles Franklin Award. But it now appears, to be frank, horrible, with elements of exploitation, paedophilia and incest. Nevertheless, it is probably the first attempt by any Australian writer to imagine an explicitly post-sexual revolution future.
Ireland portrays an independent (adolescent) woman in a near future following both the sexual revolution and an unexplained catastrophe which has left the bulk of the population, the ‘frees’, subject to weird mutations, so that access to the privileged classes is governed both by year 12 examinations and by freedom from ‘growths’. The novel takes the form of notes “left behind” by Althea Hunt during her school years in suburban Sydney.
Ireland takes great care to make Althea the strongest, fastest and cleverest of her class, of the boys as well as the girls, but, as she enters adolescence, what the author attempts to pass off as her independence and sexual insouciance is often the most degrading subjugation to the dominant males. At various times when her father is drunk and/or asleep she experimentally handles his penis, plays with it, sucks it, invaginates him and brings him to ejaculation; in year 8 she goes down to the quarry and a boy takes her because “you know it’s got to be some time, well, this is it”; at the beginning of year 9 this boy sells her to an older boy for $40. “… I took the view it was their private transaction. For me it was a passport to experience.” The quarry is the scene for group sex and multiple partners, where the older children feel it their duty (or privilege) to initiate the younger. At school, Althea is f***d by a sports master simply because she is the last girl left in the changing room after gymnastics; and she is soon taken regularly at the quarry by an older man, a local shopkeeper who takes the time to bring her to orgasm; she, and all women, routinely tolerate being ‘felt up’ in crowds, an echo perhaps of a time not so long gone when girls regularly submitted to over-affectionate ‘uncles’; as Althea says, “There was a great demand for our bodies. We girls didn’t put much value on what our bodies represented: they [boys] did that.” Finally, at a year 12 party she is raped/gangbanged while drunk or in a daze, “the eager young animals that had been at me”, she says. In the last few paragraphs she mutates into an animal, a panther, and escapes into the Blue Mountains.
I re-read this novel to see how it intersected with my idea of the Independent Woman, but from the perspective of the 2000s, the woman of David Ireland’s future turns out to be not so independent after all, or at least not in any way Miles Franklin or even Kylie Tennant would have understood, but just a compilation of all the author’s wet dreams.
David Ireland, A Woman of the Future, Penguin, Melbourne, 1979 (reissued in Text Classics)