Lisa has reviewed the 2002 scholarly edition of Devanny’s working class classic to provide a lucid account of both the novel and its theoretical underpinnings.
Last week there was a substantial donation from an Australian mining magnate to the bushfire relief effort. While all donations are much needed, reactions varied, from approval of the philanthropic gesture, to outrage that our economic system enables an individual to be in a position to give away $70 million. Read on …
I’ll tell you a secret. All the time I was reading this, I thought I was reading a Thea Astley. And it was only when I got to the end and idly looked at some biographical details that I discovered I wasn’t. I don’t have any excuse, Jessica Anderson’s name is there plain as day as they say, on the cover, but I had no reason (I thought) to look at it.
Astley (1925-2004) and Anderson (1916-2010) are of the same generation; both from Queensland; both moved to Sydney, and both continued, I think, to write about Queensland. I was mildly surprised as I was reading by the gentle subject matter – an old woman reflects on her life; when I was expecting something much more savagely political, like A Kindness Cup for example.
The old woman, Nora, is older than the author – no, I’m not revisiting the path I took last week with The Weekend – and I got the impression her age was about the same as the year, ie. that she was born around 1900, in a typical ‘queenslander’ weatherboard house, on stilts, 14 steps up from the ground, in one of Brisbane’s many riverside residential suburbs. Her father, whom she does not remember, dies when she is six and she lives with her mother, older sister, Grace, and brother, until he is killed in the trenches in France (which my grandfather, another Brisbane boy survived) along with Grace’s young man, and most of the neighbourhood boys.
Nora’s life has four distinct phases: growing up in Brisbane, bursting with sexual tension but no sex; a childless marriage in Sydney, where she and her husband find a flat with the bohemians on Potts Point until he is able to move them into his mother’s house in the suburbs to see out the Depression; divorce, a shipboard romance with a married man, an abortion, the end of sex, years in London sharing a house with two other women and the landlord; and the return in old age to the empty family home in Brisbane, Grace having married late but now dead.
Nora’s recollections are partly her own, partly the result of being cared for on her return by a couple who had always lived nearby and so had known her and her sister since childhood, and partly recollections of stories she had told her housemates in London. In fact, she had so often told and laughed over the stories of her unsuccessful marriage to Colin Porteous, that “Perhaps the real man has been so overscored by laughter that he will never be retrieved”.
Anderson was adamant that Tirra Lirra was not biographical, though the bohemians and old houses on Potts Point were drawn from life. There is one other character in the novel and that is Olive Partridge, Nora’s schoolfriend who becomes an author. The two meet up in London before the (Second) War, and Olive goes on to Austria. I was wondering as I read if Olive contained aspects of the author, thinking Astley, or of a friend, but no one springs to mind. Anderson herself was in London in 1937, but I don’t recall her being mentioned by other Australian authors in London between the Wars and in any case it was only in the 1960s, in her forties, that Anderson had the freedom to begin working on novels.
This is a slight novel, 141pp, and in fact began as a 20,000 word novella which publishers persuaded her to expand. It’s theme is Nora’s frustration, sexually, artistically.
One moonlit night, coming home across the paddocks from Olive Partridge’s house, I threw down my music case, dropped to the ground … I unbuttoned my blouse, unlaced my bodice, and rolled over and over in the sweet grass. I lay on my back and looked first at the moon, then down my cheeks at the peaks of my breasts…. I must have been less than sixteen.
… though I was quite aware of the sexual nature of the incident I don’t believe I was looking for a lover. Or not only for a lover… If that sounds laughable, do consider that this was a long time ago, and that I was a backward and innocent girl, living in a backward and unworldly place. And consider, too, that the very repression of sex, though it produced so much that was warped and ugly and cruel, let loose for some natures, briefly, a luminosity, a glow, that I expect is unimaginable now.
Later, we discover that Nora’s only other ‘sexual’ experience is with a boy a few years younger, who “teases” her, whom she allows to tease, when they are left alone, by jumping out at and grabbing/caressing her. It is some years before she marries, and when she finally becomes comfortable with sex her husband tells her to lie still and not carry on like a harlot. Sinking into depression in her mother in law’s house, not permitted to work, Nora is only saved by Porteous offering divorce and a small settlement. After that there is just the one shipboard romance, and then nothing.
In parallel, Nora sublimates her artistic talents in embroidery and later in dressmaking, and only on reflection sees what she might have achieved.
This is an interesting work to bear the ‘Independent Woman’ tag because Nora’s suppressed sexuality is not so different from Miles Franklin’s Sybyllas, Sybyl, Ignez et al*. Young Nora feels the rising sap, as they did. MF’s women flirt but hold themselves back from contact. Nora falls into marriage and finds it horrible. MF, I think, would feel vindicated.
Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1978 (my edition is the later Penguin, with the cover above)
*The Sybyllas are from My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, Sybyl from On Dearborn Street, and Ignez from Cockatoos (all here).
Queensland is the odd state out. Australian states typically have one large metropolitan centre, with 70-80% of the total population, plonked down around a convenient port, and a mostly empty hinterland. But Queensland’s rural-metro split is much closer to 50:50. And that makes a real difference.
Right-wing Labor governments alternate with very right-wing Liberal-National governments; the police force is institutionally racist (I believe no Qld policeman has ever been convicted of killing a Black person (more here)); Queensland is Australia’s bible belt, though that seems to be spreading into suburbs Australia-wide, not to mention the Lodge; climate-change denialism is rampant: – institutionalized water-theft from inland rivers; widespread land clearing, coastal mangrove clearing; coal mining and fracking for gas prioritized over agricultural production; sugar cane farming and coal ports destroying the Great Barrier Reef.
And yet it is a beautiful place with lovely people (who invariably ask you to agree to 3 impossible things before breakfast – usually concerning God, greenies and commos).
So, my last trip: crossing back over the poor, dead Darling at Bourke; up through Cunnamulla (if you haven’t yet, see the movie), Charleville, Roma, Injune. Drop down into the Carnarvon Gorge National Park, 180 km of cool, tall timber (yes, some clearing) one of my favourite spots in all Australia and I don’t see the best of it from the road. Into Central Queensland coal country. My first delivery to a mine near Nebo, then over the Great Divide to Mackay and up the coast to Townsville.
They weren’t ready for the second delivery, so I left my trailers at the depot and went off for a shower, a sleep, a day off, shopping. No secondhand bookshops that I could see. I asked at Mary Who?, where I bought Islands and The Old Lie, and the lady there said that as far as she knew they were all gone.
Late in the afternoon I headed up the coast again, too late to see Hinchinbrook Island bright green in a brilliant blue sea as you come over the last hill, but still a presence in the dark, then on through Innisfail and up into the range.
Parking for the night in a tourist centre car park and in the morning out into the morning mist and lush greens of the Atherton Tablelands.
Loaded and tied down 92 round bales of hay with the help of Tim and Matt, young contractors from Toowoomba; headed south on the inland road (map): Mt Garnet, Charters Towers, 370 km of ‘development’ country, looking perenially newly cleared – I think the scrub keeps growing back – to Clermont and so back through Emerald, and on to Roma, turning east to Miles then south to Condamine where I parked up for the night in the main street, walked to the pub, was offered a shower before I thought to ask, truckies are special in the bush, and sat down to vegie pasta and wine.
Years ago Uncle S and Auntie M – mum’s younger sister – and their kids, my cousins, left Sea Lake for a larger, only partially cleared farm at Tara, southern outback Queensland brigalow country which had broken a lot of hearts according to my father, whose own father had gone broke as the town chemist in nearby Chinchilla during the Depression. The drought is breaking hearts today, though there’s still water in the dams, hence my load of hay, not for the property now farmed by cousin George, but for a couple of his neighbours. They took a trailer each, no mucking about, just got the tractor out and pushed the bales off into rough heaps beside the track.
The second delivery, to TJ – 50ish, dirty blonde hair, ice blue eyes, hard man – was way back off the road, dirt track winding through the scrub for a kilometre maybe, then an old weatherboard house, verandahs all round, surrounded by tired garden, abandoned trucks, tractors, cars, somnolent pig dogs chained to truck bodies I’m sure they could drag behind them if sufficiently aroused. And goats.
TJ’s father had been a horse breaker and brumby catcher. There was on old Leyland Beaver, just outside the shot above, which had roamed the west of the state, towing a road train of single deck crates, bringing horses in to the property and out to all the rodeos. TJ and I made a few miles, truckin’ in olden days, and then got on to the subject of the dances which country towns in our youth held Saturday nights, for everyone from 12 to decrepitude. I’m still laughing every time I think of a young TJ hugged to a matronly bosom, only the back of his head still visible, feet barely touching the ground as he was whisked around the floor.
George’s brother, a fellow truckie, had seen where I was heading on Facebook, and invited me to stay the weekend. The long weekend, Queens Birthday, as it turned out. So I headed to Toowoomba, left my trailers in the road train assembly, parked my truck in his driveway, well one of them, it’s a big house, and settled down for a couple of days of drinking, TV, and rugby – met more of his neighbours in a couple of hours, watching the League Grand Final in a next-door multi car garage/men’s shed, than I’d met of my own in 50 years.
My cousin’s wife’s from Tara. Knows TJ. Says he’s a manager in a government office in town.
Jacqueline Winspear (F, Eng), Birds of a Feather (2004) – Crime
Kurt Vonnegut (M, USA), Cats Cradle (1963) – SF
David Leavitt (M, Eng), The Indian Clerk (2007)
Lorenzo Marone (M, Ita), The Temptation to be Happy (2015)
Nayomi Munaweera (F, Sri/USA), Island of a Thousand Mirrors (2012)
Amitar Ghosh (M, Ind), Sea of Poppies (2008)
Ruth Rendell (F, Eng), Thirteen Steps Down (2004) – Crime DNF
Karen Robards (F, USA), The Fifth Doctrine (2019) – Thriller
BV Larson (M, USA), Tech World (2014) – SF
Hilary Mantel (F, Eng), Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985)
Peggy Frew, Islands
Claire Coleman, The Big Lie Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey
Hope Farm (2015), shortlisted for the 2016 Stella, is one of those worthy books that travel around with me but which for some reason I resist reading. Luckily, last Tuesday, its time came. I finished the Total Devotion Machine review, reached into my bag for the next cab off the rank, hesitated over Junkie – 3 SF/experimental in a row?; Lily Brett – but so soon after New York?; and so spent the rest of the day, not unhappily at all, with Peggy Frew.
What had put me off of course was the name, I’m rarely in the mood for a rural idyll. Hope Farm is the name of a run down farm rented by hippies in – I’m guessing – Gippsland, the Strezlecki Ranges east of Melbourne. Thirteen year old Silver and her mother Ishtar are taken there by Miller, one of an endless succession of men briefly put on a pedestal by Ishtar (the better to see their feet of clay?).
The story is framed as a fortyish Silver looking back on a troubled childhood …
That was last Wednesday week. And there I ran out of time.
I remember a bit more, Ishtar an intelligent woman with a reading difficulty, her story childishly written, running alongside Silver’s as we gradually learn how both women got to be where they are now. Life for the orphan Silver a series of insecure dependencies from foster home to Ashram to hippiedom and rural, communal living. Reminiscent of Helen Garner of course, but Garner who is quite clear on the rules and difficulties of urban share houses, never quite says how she got there in the first place.
Fascinating for me, as these people and more particularly their theories were very much in the air when I was in my twenties. I chose a different path, shared housing a convenience rather than a way of life, but at different times at least considered going bush and scratching out a living.
“And there I ran out of time”. I was a few days in Melbourne because Dragan, back from two months furlough, had found me some loading ex-Perth where Sam had none, but had then found ways to divert me all round Victoria and southern NSW while he rushed his own trucks in from Adelaide and Sydney to grab the available freight and leave me stranded.
Still, I had a pleasant weekend with Mum, got some reading and writing done. Got a promise of a load home from another carrier and by late Wednesday was on my way. Missed sweet (?) sixteen’s birthday. Parked up Saturday arvo. Friends, the Longvales, old family friends from the very first days our kids were at kindy together and on through primary school, high school, functional and dysfunctional teenagerhoods, weddings, divorces. Friends who one particularly messy year had taken Lou in when Milly and I couldn’t, had my flat for a few weeks, and so I stayed with Milly. Not long enough to wear out my welcome.
On Sunday we had a family dinner at Clancy’s in Freo, where the kids have plenty of space to play. Kimbofo should have come, she lives just across the road, but sadly was unwell. Tuesday we had dinner with the Longvales. Otherwise it was a quiet few days of cryptics, quiches, left over birthday cake, wine, more cake, and good vego cooking.
A mate with a few acres in outer suburbia had earlier offered me parking for my truck and trailers; Dragan looked away when I dropped in with paperwork; his sister requested my fuel card. Without words an era in my working life came to an end.
On Tuesday I secured a part load to Mackay, north Qld; thought I had another, high paying load to Kununurra in the far north of WA which would have involved a trip around the top; there were difficulties with it being oversize; it fell through, was revived; fell through again. And meanwhile between socialising and not being able to settle down, I was neither writing nor reading much. Not much except American politics as their “president” begins spiralling towards an early exit and almost certain jail.
A Toowoomba-based carrier I had been chasing for ages came good with a load for my back trailer; the Kununurra load came up again and I regretfully knocked it back; and today, Sunday I’m in Port Augusta on my way to Mackay and Townsville, diagonally across the continent, for the first time in eighteen years. Ok, my seven hours break is up, I’d better fire up and get moving. (map)
Up and over Horricks Pass, too narrow and winding for B Doubles but legal and an hour quicker than the alternative, through the Flinders Ranges, through Peterborough, old railway junction town of lovely stone cottages and shop fronts and out onto the endless desert plains of red dirt, saltbush and acacia.
I’ve stopped again at Broken Hill, to get this off, will sleep somewhere short of Cunnumulla tonight and around Clermont tomorrow. Who knows what my next review will be. Not Lorna Doone whose words fill today and all of tomorrow probably, the damp green fields of Devon a strange contrast to the Australian outback. But something will come up, it always does and I have to have a day off before the end of the week.
Graham Greene (M, Eng), The Quiet American (1955) – Lit.Fic.
Kurt Vonnegut (M, USA), Galapagos (1985) – SF
Nina George (F, Ger), The Little Paris Bookshop (2013) – Contemporary
Amitar Ghosh (M, Ind), Sea of Poppies (2008) – Contemporary
BV Larson (M, USA), Tech World (2014) – SF
RD Blackmore (M, Eng), Lorna Doone (1869) – Classic
Peggy Frew, Hope Farm William Burroughs, Junkie
Connell & Marsh ed.s, Literature and Globalization
Ponderings of a retired Tasmanian, photographing, animal loving, book reading, travelling, motorbike riding penguin, growing old disgracefully, who still loves old Penguin books and sharing our world with others.