Triple Choice Tuesday (and other stuff)

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My 85 yo mum is finally moving from the family home to a retirement village a couple of suburbs away in eastern suburbs Melbourne, so I spent last week over there helping her to come to grips with moving – it’s her 12th or 13th move but the first one without dad – and packing up dad’s books. I now have a (physical) TBR which I will never finish, an astonishing number of books about Australia in WWI, a lot of books in average condition which my grandfathers had been given in their schooldays, and a small number of books dating back to the C18th.

Other online friends have been doing it hard in similar situations recently, but my father had a ‘welcome’ death a couple of years ago after being almost completely paralyzed by a stroke 18 months earlier, following 25 years of active retirement on a good income and surrounded by grandchildren. He was very protective of his books and this was the first time I had set hands on all but a few of them. I will probably post more when the boxes arrive here and I start opening them, but for instance I am now the proud owner of a very early (1930s) Mickey Mouse which he had as a child and which I had never seen before. And in case you’re worrying on her behalf, mum has three other sons nearer-by to help on moving day and, to the extent their wives allow, to rescue other family treasures which might else be lost through this necessary downsizing.

Being in Melbourne meant I also got to catch up with Michelle from Adventures in Biography whose (first) book is nearly done, and with Lisa (ANZLL) and spouse, for the first time, for a pleasant lunch and to exchange books. We may have set each other a challenge as she is expecting me to find the good in David Ireland’s recent The World Repair Video Game and I have presented her with Joseph Furphy’s Rigby’s Romance which was excised from the more famous Such is Life.

All this activity – and of course I had a son and plenty of friends to lunch with as well – meant that I got behind in my writing. And work didn’t help by expecting me to run up to Kalgoorlie almost as soon as my plane landed back in Perth. However, I have done the reading for my next couple of posts – a Kim Scott, and a really obscure Catherine Helen Spence I came across in Yarra Cottage Books, Warrandyte – and I thought today I would use up the ‘offcuts’ of a post which I did for Reading Matters after Kim, a London-based Australian who has been blogging forever, wrote asking me to contribute to her on-going series, Triple Choice Tuesday.

Her letter asked for a short personal history plus “three books under the following categories, and explain why you’ve chosen them”:  

A favourite book
A book that changed your world
A book that deserves a wider audience.

I thought that would all be pretty easy and knocked out an answer on the evening of the day she wrote. In fact, my only problem was that I was spoiled for choice. From when I was little, I had my own bookcase, and every book had its place on the shelves. I could lie in bed and recognise each book and recall the story it told. So I had lots of favourite books, and I have continued adding to them in the fifty years since, so that they threaten to overwhelm my whole apartment, not just my bedroom.

Even now, revising this before pressing Publish, I realise I completely failed to consider another long time favourite – one which my father had as a boy also, though I didn’t know it – Kenneth Grahame’s 1895 evocation of a childhood summer, The Golden Age. Anyway, I hung on to my answers for a while and of course ended up rewriting them. Here then are two which ended up on the cutting room floor.

A favourite book: Beau Ideal by PC Wren

Beau Ideal was the first of the Beau Geste trilogy I owned, though I subsequently accumulated a whole shelf of PC Wren novels with their grey cloth covers from second-hand bookshops in the sixties and seventies. Wren’s old fashioned mix of honourable behaviour, British stiff upper lip, militarism and class consciousness obviously had something to say even to me – a draft resister and an anarchist/socialist – but what got me, what gets me every time, is that Beau Ideal is a love story, the story of the hopeless love of a ‘nice American boy’ for Isobel, who is pledged to John Geste, and who for Isobel’s sake must go back into the Sahara to find John who is a prisoner of the French Foreign Legion.

A book that changed my world: The Iron Heel by Jack London.

I was introduced to Fabian socialism by my librarian at Blackburn South High in fourth form (year 10) but a year or so later Nana, my father’s very prim and proper mother, gave me The Iron Heel, thinking no doubt it was another harmless adventure story like London’s White Fang. It is in fact both the first great dystopian novel and a communist analysis of the inevitable end of Capitalist democracy through the rise of the Oligarchy, the Iron Heel, overseeing the destruction of the middle classes and the splitting of the working class into a small, privileged caste of tame-cat unionists and a large underclass of impoverished under-employed (sound familiar!), and so I was converted to revolutionary socialism, which for a while during those Vietnam War years seemed not only logical but achievable.

The novel takes the form of an autobiography written by the wife of the leader of the revolutionaries, recovered and annotated centuries later when the Revolution has finally succeeded and ushered in the Brotherhood of Man. London makes a very unconvincing woman but it’s still an important novel and a “truer prophecy of the future than Brave New World” according to George Orwell.

A book that deserves a wider audience: The Pea Pickers by Eve Langley

I was always going to choose The Pea Pickers which will one day be acknowledged as one of Australia’s four or five great novels.

To see what I did write for Kim, go to Reading Matters (here).

PC Wren, Beau Ideal, John Murray, London, 1928
Jack London, The Iron Heel, Penguin Classics, 2006, first published 1908
Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers, Imprint Classics, 1991, first published 1942 (Review)
Miles Franklin, My Career Goes Bung, 1946 (Review)
Catherine Martin, An Australian Girl, 1890 (Review)

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Wilde Eve, ed. Lucy Frost

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Wilde Eve (1999) is a memoir of Australian author Eve Langley’s years in New Zealand before and during WWII, constructed by Lucy Frost from Langley’s voluminous and previously unpublished writings. The writing is as luminous and poetic as her two novels, The Pea Pickers (1942) and White Topee (1954) (my review of both), giving the lie to the oft repeated claim that her later writing was dense and unreadable.

Langley was born in NSW in 1904 and her sister June was born a year or so later. Their father died when the girls were young and Myra their mother,  disinherited daughter of a well off Gippsland family, moved them back to Victoria where the girls completed their education at Dandenong High.

I guess the first thing that we think of in connection with Langley is that she and June,  using the names Steve and Blue, wore mens clothes and worked as itinerant farm labourers during the Great Depression. And the second is that she was or became mentally ill, committed to an asylum by her husband,  later dying alone and unnoticed in 1974 in a hut in the bush near Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains. The effect of the latter is that for all the joyful lyricism of her writing, I find it impossible to read her without feeling her impending descent.

After working for a number of years in Gippsland and with a new fiancee (‘Ray’ not Macca), at the beginning of 1932 Langley sailed for New Zealand to rejoin her sister and mother. Throughout this period Langley had poetry published in the Bulletin and other literary magazines and maintained, or attempted to maintain, comprehensive journals. From the 1940s onwards she used the material from these journals to produce a series of autobiographical novels, 12 in all. We often discuss the continuum from autobiography to memoir to autobiographical fiction and it is clear her later works at least, which include great chunks of her journals, can reliably be classified as memoir.

Langley’s works were titled as follows:

The Pea Pickers

White Topee

Wild Australia

The Victorians

Bancroft House

The Land of the Long White Cloud

Demeter of Dublin Street

The Old Mill

Last, Loveliest, Loneliest

Remote, Apart

Portrait of the Artist

The Saunterer

All, apart from the last which finishes abruptly, are of equal length, about 400 pages. The first five cover Langley’s years in Gippsland and the following seven are the source of the writing in Wilde Eve (which at 300 pages is therefore about 10% of the available material).

Interestingly the author (Langley, not Frost who supplies only a short introduction and afterword) addresses us from a number of viewpoints. Firstly, 20 or 30 years later writing in the past tense describing events in the 1930s and 40s, then inserting journal extracts written at the time, and finally and only occasionally, interpolating from her present, the 50s and 60s, as she says “the age of the atom bomb”.

Langley doesn’t feel that Steve is a suitable name in NZ and “got down to calling myself Eve and training Mia and Blue to do the same” and got down too to (mostly) wearing dresses. Eve looks for work for Ray but is distracted, moves on, is interested in meeting Maoris, is interested in women, “I thought that I should like to lie dreaming between the flowerless hills that are her breasts”, until inevitably she falls in love, with Luigi, who abandons her when she falls pregnant (the baby dies – unrecorded in this memoir – aged 3 months).

And all the while there is her evocative writing: “I sit inside the caterpillar train and read Lawson, who hurts me with his slow deep words. From time to time I drop him onto my green-coated lap, just as one lets fall a work of which they are weary, or as one drops a letter that has hurt.” (Going up to Wellington to apply, unsuccessfully, for work). But also there is her increasing dependence, so at odds with the spirit of The Pea Pickers, and, hanging over all, that dreadful future.

In 1936 she meets the art student Hilary Clark, and sets her cap at him, so that by 1938 she is pregnant with their first (girl) child Bisi, they are married and living on his income as a labourer and part time art teacher, or as much of it as he doesn’t drink, and what little she can get for her poetry. Over time they struggle with poverty, Hilary often stays out partying. Eve is supported in her work by Bulletin poetry editor Douglas Stewart and sometimes by Ruth Park who is working at the Auckland Star. June, no longer ‘Blue’, is sometimes around. They have another child, a boy, Langley, and Eve is left very ill. The war starts. Eve is opposed but Hilary appears ambivalent.

Stewart alerts her to the 1941 Prior Prize, £300 for an unpublished novel and Eve begins working from her journals to compile The Pea Pickers, scraping for every penny, and sometimes feeding her children boiled weeds. But for someone who wanted to be – who is currently writing a manifesto for – a woman in the bush, as independent as a man, Langley is surprisingly happy in motherhood and marriage. “Then thoughts of marriage, good and eternal, cleansed me, and I drew the great curling head of Hilary towards me….. As wild as the tempest beating on the glass was my desire to tell him of my love.”

A few weeks ago I reviewed The Drums Go Bang, a relentlessly upbeat memoir of the early days of the marriage of Ruth Park and Darcy Niland, covering the same period and much the same circumstances, although in Sydney rather than Auckland. But when that novel ends with Park winning the 1946 SMH prize we know the desperate times are behind her and success beckons. When Wilde Eve ends, Langley too has won, though sharing her prize with two others, but the money is spent, a third child is on the way, Clark has stopped painting, and gives up his teaching work, his last connection to his dreams of being an artist. They talk of their life together. Hilary says, “That one day you came to my studio, and that I realized here was a mind absolutely unique, that I was determined to never let it go, and so I married it.” But Eve wants to be loved as a woman. They climb into a boat with their children. And there her account ends.

In her afterword Frost tells us what happens next. They live in the boat for some months, Bisi is almost fatally injured by boiling water in the galley during a storm. Clark takes advantage of his conscription into the army to abandon them. Eve is declared an unfit mother and Clark comes back just long enough to have her committed to an asylum where of course she is given shock treatment. After seven years she is released and resumes her life as a writer but only White Topee is ever published.

An afterword of my own. I am stuck up the bush waiting, 2 days so far, to be unloaded. I will post this now, Thurs afternoon, but must wait until I get home at the weekend (hopefully!) to put in any links or even to do a proper proof reading.

 

Lucy Frost ed., Wilde Eve: Eve Langley’s Story, Vintage, Sydney, 1999

See also Sue at Whispering Gums on Australian Literary Memoirs.

Eve Langley wrote two novels

Eve Langley (1904-1974) wrote two novels covering the painful search of her heroine, “Steve”, for love and independence in rural Victoria in the 1920s, and ten* further novels which remain unpublished.

The Pea Pickers (1942) commences in June (1924?) with two sisters 18 and 19 years old, who live with their mother Mia in an old cottage in Dandenong (then a country town 30 km southeast of Melbourne), looking for work in Gippsland (eastern Victoria):

Mia had encouraged us to wander; made restless by long hard years of gipsying through the Australian States, she found peace in urging us out to follow the echo of the aboriginal names of towns that had tempted her when she was young. And of all the provinces, Gippsland, she said, was the most tradition-haunted. (1942, p.4)

They take men’s names – “Now that we’re going to Gippsland, we said, we must put off our feminine names for ever.” – and wear men’s clothes not as a disguise, which was illegal at the time, but consciously, to participate in the life of the bushman, in the myth which, after Ward, we call the Australian Legend, and which they knew from their mother’s stories and from the writings of Lawson, in particular. Later in the novel she writes:

Some day, I shall write fully our life together, with its tragedy and comedy. But better than that, I shall write of Australia and bring lovers to her so that they shall fill the land with visionaries. (p.250)

The older sister, the narrator, takes the name “Steve” after Steve Hart of the Kelly Gang: “So I am Steve. We spoke of this new person as a long, crooked-moustached fellow who didn’t care much for women and was sure to end up living alone, a hatter, in the scrub …” (p.7) and her sister, not able to be “Jim”, her first choice, for that was a name reserved for “good old mates”, is ironically named “Blue”, for the night cart driver’s assistant.

The men they worked for, and the men and women they worked and socialized with, were mostly accepting of the girls’ purpose and never treated them other than as, albeit eccentrically dressed, women (though the same cannot be said for officialdom, and the police in particular). On the girls’ first Saturday night in the bush they were invited to the home of fellow workers: “then with that peculiar dim whirling mixture of smells, hands, smiles and defiance which dazes us when another sex enters the room” (p.23) some young men come in and “Down I fell, in love.” And throughout both novels there is this tension between Steve falling in love, firstly with Kelly Wilson, and subsequently and more importantly, with “Macca”, and her struggle to maintain her identity as an independent worker and poet in the bush.

Like Miles Franklin’s heroines Sybylla and Ignez (the Career novels and Cockatoos), Steve is often alone with young men and feels, and resists, the pressure to give in to them. After a day picnicking, Kelly exclaims, “I feel like a bottle of yeast that must soon explode.” But when they part at her gate it is “timidly and shyly, fearing even to touch each other” and Steve exalts:

There was the cold but happy ideal of the virgin in my mind, forever, a joy and a torment to me, and I laughed as we parted, saying, “We conquered … we conquered. Hands and hearts go pure to bed.” (p.31)

They work in the apple and pear packing sheds until the season is over, return home for a short visit, stroking their imaginary moustaches and entertaining their mother with their stories before taking the train north, initially to Rutherglen, looking for work pruning vines and harvesting maize and hops. “We were ready, as the picker is always, to leap out of our tailored clothes and mutilate anything in exchange for a hut and a few shillings a week.” (p.48) But, “amply feminine in our masculine clothes”, they run into trouble for their dress. The farmers won’t employ them because they are women, and a police sergeant bails them up because they are dressed as men. Steve is defiant:

You ask … are we masquerading as boys. No, we are masquerading as life. We are in search of a country … the promised land …” (p.83)

They make an abortive trip into NSW, to Gundagai and Tumut, dodging police on two more occasions, but there is no work and they are forced to return home.

They have left behind in Gippsland not just Kelly but a new mate, Jim, who writes and offers to find them work picking peas, so they take the train once again to Bairnsdale then a ferry to Metung on the Gippsland Lakes. There’s no Kelly at the station to meet them but Jim introduces them to his mate Macca, “a short, broad youth, sandy haired, with many freckles, heavy blue eyes, full lips and pigeon toes” and Steve, once again, is in love.

The girls find a hut to live in, make beds for themselves, from branches and old sacks, and, with Jim living outside in a tent, scrabble for food and for work. Throughout the course of the novel they are in tremendous poverty, living in the meanest huts, often without work, and scrounging, and sometimes stealing, food from their workmates.

Langley is probably the most lyrical writer in Australian literature and much of both The Pea Pickers and its sequel, White Topee is given up to Steve’s walks in the bush and along the shores of the Lakes and the nearby ocean, but she also has a Lawsonesque eye for a yarn, so there are detailed and often amusing descriptions of the girls and their mostly Italian workmates, in the fields and socializing on Saturday nights. But throughout, Steve is working out where she fits in bush life, that is, who she is as an Australian, and what this leaves for her love life.

Jim introduces her to the Buccaneers, a fishing family, and so begins an enduring friendship with Mrs Buccaneer, the “Black Serpent”, a sensuous, fertile, cheerful woman who provides Steve with an alternative view of how to live a happy, female life:

I had now met a woman who would mould me firmly back into the sexual mould from which I had fled, but which I secretly desired with all its concomitants, love, marriage and children. (p.109)

The girls work, moving from farm to farm picking peas and beans, Jim falls in love with Blue but is quietly and politely put in his place (Blue has a beau back home), Macca visits from time to time, the sun shines and the dust rises:

My impatient blood and my poor bewildered mind fought for the meaning of these years. There was no directness in them. No one spoke the truth to me about anything; no one save the Buccaneers, and their truth was that sex and marriage were the only real things. No, I wanted poetry, and love of the earth, I wanted morning, noon and night spent purely with the one I loved. But don’t talk to me of sex I said. I fear it. I know only that there is beauty. (p.134)

The girls wear men’s clothes throughout because that is an important part of what they are attempting to achieve, to live and work in the bush without regard to their sex. Their workmates only occasionally find this unsettling, sometimes attempting to get lucky, and one confused Afgan feels the front of Steve’s shirt to check for himself, unnecessarily, because both girls are buxom. While sometimes they will dress up to the nines, with ties and starched collars, at other times they wear whatever is to hand. Once, walking out with Macca, Steve “was wearing trousers too, like him, but with my usual touch of the ludicrous had added to the outfit a woman’s blouse and a straw school hat of ridiculous droop. A small dark girl, plump and faintly moustached, passed us with an amazed stare.” (p.134)

After a day of walking and talking of love and poetry Macca takes Steve home: “We tiptoed into the hut and lay decorously on the bed.” But she is too excited to sleep and he snores, so she kicks him out and sends him home. The next day they pledge to each other that they are husband and wife, but still she exults in her virginity and Macca, it seems, understands:

“No, Steve, my love for you is pure. I do not need to touch you. I am with you; that is enough. From other women coarse satisfaction may be obtained, but you give the uncloying cleanliness of your mental passion to me, and I am satisfied.” (p.146)

When Steve is away from Macca she longs for him but when he gets too close she pushes him away, as she pushed him out of bed, knowing that if she gives in it will be the end of her independence. Blue is her support in this, her own impending marriage always in the background and always further down the track:

She hated to see me leave her side. She was right in this, knowing full well that through my incurable sentimentality I was weaker and younger than she. With her lay sanity and peace won through a struggle with loneliness; but I fought restlessly to be with Macca… (p.166)

When the season ends, the girls move on, leaving Jim behind, Blue forcing Steve to acknowledge that they had earned themselves a “reputation” by living amongst men. Macca tells Steve he will wait for her and see her again the following spring, but she is not hopeful.

The girls take work picking hops in the Victorian Alps, around Mt Buffalo. They travel, of course, as men, “two wild-looking, stalwart young fellows with broad chests, black and gold hair and crooked, brilliant faces”, but on arriving are forced to declare, “But we’re girls” (p.186) to avoid being housed in the men’s section. There follows a hard, cold winter with little work and the girls are forced again to scavenge for food. When they seek help from the owner to shift the Italian workers who have taken over their kitchen, Steve’s statement of their case is almost a manifesto:

“You know, of course, what we are. Only as you see us, two wanderers, and women at that. We realize that going about as we do, we can only reap suspicion; yet, unbelievable as it may seem, we are good morally, and have ideals that will some day be more apparent as our generation grows older. That’s how it ought to be, and that is how it is with us.” (p.237)

Then, winter over, “big with work and healthy living, virginal and filled with the bush-genius of our race …” (p.279) they return to the Gippsland Lakes, but Macca is away in the mountains, droving cattle. The two pick peas for a while and visit and sing songs with the Italians. Blue’s wedding is nigh, but, she cries: “Steve, Steve, why have I got to leave you? What days we’ve had together as pea-pickers! I’d rather follow you than marry anyone.” “No Blue,” Steve replies, “You must go home.”” (p.317)

And so, Steve writes, “I was alone.”

White Topee (1954) finds Steve still at Metung, a year or two later (1927), and in more prosperous circumstances as the live-in secretary of a tea planter. The plot is thin and the lyrical style more intense, a prose poem to Australia, to love and to freedom. Blue is home in Dandenong, apparently still about to be married, but, later we hear she is back picking, around Mt Buffalo, and wishes Steve to “ride across the Alps” and join her.

At one level, the Steve of White Topee is an ideal Australian; she smokes and drinks and shoots, has a collection of guns, owns and rides a thoroughbred stallion, is competent at, and employed to undertake, any number of tasks, from mending fishing nets to droving cattle, and lives in idyllic circumstances between the Gippsland Lakes and the rugged bush country of the Victorian Alps. When she is chided for riding to Orbost (about 60 miles each way) she responds, “Ah… keeping up the old tradition. We Australians, you know. Never walk or drive cars when we can ride.” (p.31). But the “old” Steve remains too, reading and writing poetry and pining after Macca; and she knows that both her love and her ideal are, ultimately, unattainable:

The great, cruel continent, Australia, masterless, lay outside the window, brooding over itself. And I loved that continent, I longed to be a man and live in dry yellow glittering gum-leafed gunyahs and labour in pitiless heat. (p.50)

Steve has seen Macca once or twice in passing, but suddenly, in the Spring of 1928 he writes and asks her to marry him. She is terrified, she wants love not marriage, they meet, but “in the end, we could not agree to marry, because I wished only to be alone and worship the past for the sake of it, and poetry.” (p.69) Blue, too, writes, begging Steve to allow her to join her, “No lover, Steve, could love you so wholly and purely as I do.” But Steve is implacable, she wants no ties, “Gently, but heroically, with poetry and blinding prose, I thrust her off. For I loved to be free.” (p.124). And so, surrounded by friends and happy in her work, she writes:

Ah, but I was lonely; the great Australian loneliness, that old disease of mine, swept over me, making my blood slow and painful along my veins. I was lonely and unloved. And worse, far ahead into the future my soul struggled and saw no end of it, no end for ever to my thirst for love. Because, you see, I didn’t want to be loved. Not at all. What I really wanted was to be a man, and free for ever to write and think and dream.

Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1942

Eve Langley, White Topee, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954


*In my dissertation I had Langley writing 5 unpublished novels but Wikipaedia says the correct number is 10 (my later post here)

Whispering Gums covered the Pea Pickers a few years ago. Check out the comments!

There are a couple of biographies of Eve Langley (which I haven’t read). The Importance of Being Eve Langley (1989), an annotated biography by Joy L Thwaite, and Lucy Frost’s Wilde Eve; Eve Langley’s Story (1999), a selected, edited collection of Langley’s previously unpublished writings