This month’s post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge is of a similar period to my last (Gertrude the Emigrant), the 1850s through to the 1870s, though the letters were in fact not collected and published until the 1950s and only after being severely pruned and polished. Which is what you might expect, but in fact the extent of David Adams’ editing was not largely understood until quite recently.
by Bill Holloway
Rachel Henning (1826-1914) came out to Australia, in the wake of her brother Biddulph and sisters Annie and Amy, for the first time in 1854. Torn between England and Australia, she eventually settled in Australia, writing regularly to her sisters, particularly Etta who remained in England, all the while.
Her letters were offered to the Bulletin by her family almost forty years after her death. Edited by Bulletin editor David Adams into a continuous narrative and illustrated by the Bulletin‘s most famous artist, Norman Lindsay, ‘The Letters’ when published in 1954, was an immediate and ongoing success. Read on …
Drusilla Modjeska (1946- ) is an Australian writer and academic, born and bought up in Hampshire – there’s a comment somewhere that Jane Austen posted her mail in a market town nearby – and university educated in PNG and Australia.
Poppy (1990) is a fictional biography of her mother, and of her mother’s influence on her, though I didn’t realise that it was fictional until I began this review and read Modjeska’s ‘My Life’ on her website. Despite, I’m sure, having read a number of reviews on other blogs over the years.
Modjeska’s first book was Exiles at Home (1981) which was the basis for my write up of AWW Gen 3, and I also have, unread, the anthology, Sisters (1995), but I haven’t read any of her – other – fiction (Wikipedia has Poppy under ‘Novels’).
Reading, I was impressed, willing to compare Poppy favourably with Brian Matthews’ Louisa, my gold standard biography (sorry MST), but “fictional” … now I am up in the air. The style is biographical, there is none of the sizzle of my other gold standard, Normal People, perfect autofiction. And the introspective elements, the views of the daughter through the eyes of the mother, can either of these be trusted, how are we to know to what extent they are self-serving?
I just don’t find Poppy – the name Modjeska assigns to her mother – particularly interesting as a fictional character.
You will say that the things that this fictional author in Modjeska’s place writes about her mother, her mother’s catholic priest lover, her father, her sisters, herself and her lovers would be impossible in a biography at this little distance from the events described/invented. You might even say that the then young, well 40-ish, academic Modjeska was subverting our expectations by using the forms of biography for a work of fiction.
Miles Franklin, for instance, wrote a series of ‘autobiographical’ fictions – My Brilliant Career, My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos – and by comparing them, with each other, with her other works, and with what we know of her life we can learn a great deal about her, as a person and as a writer. Should I do all this work for Modjeska too? I think not. Poppy will have to stand alone.
So when I read through what I’ve written, as one does a letter before it is posted, I realize that it is the story of the life I live off the pages of this book that pleases me, the glimpse of a present and daily reality I never intended to reveal.
I will describe the work, and say that I read it with a great deal of interest, as an insight into a difficult life and the effect it had on the daughter. I struggle to say why I feel so betrayed discovering that it is all (or part, but which part) made up. When Modjeska writes ‘my mother did this, I felt that’ I cannot help but accept it as truth, that’s the way the biographical form works. Yes, we write routinely ‘all biographies are fiction’, but they purport to be true, and that’s the difference. Here, the made up bits cast doubt on the whole.
Poppy, the daughter of a rich scrap metal dealer, and an uncaring mother (‘China’) marries Richard, an upper class lawyer. They raise three girls in the south of England where Richard can commute to work; Poppy has a breakdown and spends a number of years in a sanatorium; the author is sent away to school. Poppy gets out; Richard leaves her for Cicely; the author marries straight out of school and moves with her husband to Australia (Sydney – the two are treated throughout as synonymous).
Poppy gets closer and closer to Roman Catholic priest Marcus, becomes a probation worker, opens a home for deliquent boys, visits Sydney, goes on a pilgrimage to India, visits Sydney again, collaborates throughout, somewhere between unwillingly and resigned to being misunderstood, with the writing of this biography. Marcus dies of cancer. Poppy dies of cancer.
I’ve written all of the above with a chapter to go. It’s called Friends, and while the underlying theme of the book is Poppy’s search for a meaningful, spiritual life – against Richard’s failure of understanding and Marcus’ controlling and self-serving certainties – this last chapter is of the finding of friendship in love.
Whatever has happened to me, or has not, with husbands (de facto and de jure), continuity and security have been built on the excellence of friendship; and when I look at Poppy’s life I can see that this was so for her too. Yet these connections between women are taken for granted, a backdrop to the real business of life: Husbands, children, jobs. It takes only the slightest change of focus to see that these neglected intimacies, independent of more passionate demands, can offer the terms on which we best learn to be ourselves.
I must say I am tempted to let Modjeska have her cake and eat it too; to let her be Lalaj, her mother ‘Poppy’, her lovers ‘unnamed’ and G and Thomas; to let her hide behind ‘fiction’ and nevertheless let this be her own coming of age; to accept her account of 1950s and 60s England, to accept that the pressures and difficulties she describes are the pressures and difficulties she grew up with.
Today, January 26, 2022, marks 234 years since, well, since a few shiploads of British soldiers and convicts moved their base from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour. That the foundation of Sydney is now conflated with the foundation of the nation of Australia is no surprise to the rest of us watching as a series of Prime Ministers, from Howard to Morrison, in defiance of the Constitution, increasingly live in and govern from (and for) Sydney.
And it’s probably fitting that a nation built on the lies of Terra Nullius and ‘peaceful settlement’ should now be blessed with a Prime Minister whose continuous lying has been so comprehensively documented.
One aspect of ‘peaceful settlement’ in white settler histories has always been that Indigenous populations just seemed to fade away, so that by the 1850s there were very few Aboriginal people left in (white) settled areas. This, ‘the passing of the Aborigines’ became both accepted myth and an excuse for inaction. The blame being generally ascribed to the introduction of European diseases, and despair.
In particular, Sydney and its environs were left wide open for white settlement by a smallpox plague in the local Indigenous population in 1789.
An extraordinary calamity was now observed among the natives. Repeated accounts brought by our boats of finding bodies of the Indians in all the coves and inlets of the harbour, caused the gentlemen of our hospital to procure some of them for the purposes of examination and anatomy. On inspection, it appeared that all the parties had died a natural death: pustules, similar to those occasioned by the small pox, were thickly spread on the bodies; but how a disease, to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers, could at once have introduced itself, and have spread so widely, seemed inexplicable.
Watkin Tench, Transactions of the Colony in April and May, 1789
It is now clear that this was an act of Genocide.
Here are the facts:
No one on the First Fleet had smallpox. Smallpox hadn’t been eradicated but vaccination (variolation) had been developed in China in the 1500s and introduced into Europe in the early 1700s.
No person among us had been afflicted with the disorder since we had quitted the Cape of Good Hope, seventeen months before.
The British weaponized the use of smallpox against North American First Nations people in 1763 (a decade before the great North American epidemic), giving blankets and a handkerchief contaminated with smallpox to Native Americans during an extended military campaign to quash an uprising against colonial rule.
“Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”
General Amherst, British Commander in Chief, North America (and later, Governor General)
A surgeon with the First Fleet, Dr John White, was carrying vials of smallpox (scabs, which were used for variolation).
It is true, that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles; but to infer that [the outbreak] was produced from this cause were a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration.
Whatever Tench supposed – and his protestations indicate that deliberate infection had at least been considered – some of the military with the First Fleet had served in the North America campaign and not all of them were as friendly towards the local population as he was.
In a paper in the international journal History of Psychiatry, Raeburn, Doyle and Saunders “describe evidence supporting the theory that smallpox was deliberately unleashed by the British invaders”; and that the outbreak began with the kidnapping of Eora man Arabanoo, on 31 Dec. 1788, using the distribution of ‘gifts’ as a distraction.
Following exposure to the smallpox virus, it takes one to two weeks for symptoms to appear. Our theory is the epidemic had been spreading for several weeks before the British became aware of it, and it may have originated from the gifts handed out when Arabanoo was kidnapped about 12–13 weeks earlier. This theory is supported by Aboriginal oral history from the Manly area.
Raeburn, Doyle, Saunders
This outbreak led to the deaths of between 50 and 90% of the Eora and related peoples in the Sydney basin. Being deliberately caused would make it just the first in a long chain of ‘dispersals’, poisonings, and murders by white Australian settlers and police.
Nakari Thorpe, Olivia Willis, Carl Smith, ‘Devil Devil: The Sickness that changed Australia’, ABC RN, 18 Aug. 2021 Toby Raeburn, Kerrie Doyle, Paul Saunders, ‘How the kidnapping of a First Nations man on New Year’s Eve in 1788 may have led to a smallpox epidemic’, The Conversation, 12 Jan 2022 Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1. here) (2. here)
My usual focus is my home state of Western Australia, as you may see in my Aboriginal Australia page, (here) and in particular the section titled ‘Massacres’.
Kim Kelly is an Australian author, who grew up in Sydney, found her first vocation as a book editor and her second as a writer of fiction. She doesn’t give us her age and I won’t bother guessing. Over the course of her writing career, she had a publisher, lost her publisher “as interest fell off”, and began self publishing. Now, in her latest (Sept 2021) newsletter she writes, “All of my independently published novels – eleven of them – have been removed from sale in Australia and New Zealand to make way for beautiful new Brio Books editions from Booktopia.”
This spurred me to check out BorrowBox and, as I write, I am up to the last chapter of Her Last Words (Kelly’s tenth, published 2020, but set a few years earlier). And to be clear, I am enjoying it very much.
What I want to discuss is how we define “middlebrow” or “general” fiction, and how we separate out Literary Fiction, which is the general concern of this corner of the blogosphere – though of course we all condescend to dip our toes from time to time in genre fiction which may or may not be Literary. And before Kim starts firing bullets at me across the continent, let me say that while I get the impression that she, maybe for financial reasons, aims at the “general” market, there is absolutely no difference in quality between Her Last Words and say, Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, let alone other authors mysteriously taken up by the literati – you knew I’d say Jane Harper, Evie Wyld, Peggy Frew and so on.
It is germane to this discussion that the great majority of reviews on the Australian Women Writers Challenge are for works/authors you and I don’t bother reading and which of course sell in quantities that make every literary author green with envy. So what is the distinction?
Some of it is clearly class and/or education. Let us say that General fiction is aimed at middle class women for their entertainment; and Literary fiction is aimed at upper (by education rather than wealth or birth) middle class, men and women, for their … improvement.
Literary fiction should be marked by innovation in writing and in subject matter. However, what passes for Literary fiction most of the time, as the Miles Franklin Award demonstrates year after year, is just entertainment for the slightly better educated.
Her Last Words is a Rom.Com/Police Procedural/Medical Drama. At its centre are two characters, Penny, a senior book editor, and John, an actor, friends, both thirtyish; and a Sydney suburb, Bondi, slightly shabby, famously beachside. Having Penny in the industry allows Kelly many opportunities to vent about publishing (in particular, the wankers in corner offices profiting from the labour of tireless senior book editors), and to write about writing.
There are plenty of other characters – Fizz, an aspiring writer, Penny’s best friend and John’s partner; Jane, Fizz’s flatmate and definitely The Villain; Rich, an Irishman who owns a not very successful Bondi bookshop; Viv, a (sixth generation) Chinese-Australian doctor with colourful hair and shoes; a police detective whose name I forget; a failed banker/druggie; a truck driver even, whose truck facilitates a suicide.
As in life, there are interlinking plots. John and Fizz have a falling out; John gets very ill; Penny deals with an unsatisfactory job; Jane passes off someone else’s manuscript as her own and is on the way to becoming the next big thing; there’s an unexpected death; romance blooms, but very slowly.
The characters are well drawn, we love them, or hiss the villian, appropriately. Bondi is a character in its own right. It’s a long time, 25 years maybe, since I’ve been there, and it’s probably been gentrified out of sight. But Kelly evokes it beautifully and lovingly. She doesn’t live there now but surely she must have in the past.
I had hoped to get hold of an ebook so as to write a proper review with quotes (and properly spelt names) and all, but I guess they have been temporarily lost in the transfer of rights to Brio. which is launching all Kim Kelly’s books next month.
You may remember that a couple of years ago Kim won the wadholloway award for blogpost of the year (2019) for a post about the inappropriateness of Holocaust Fiction. She was probably writing Her Last Words at the time. Penny, who puts in a great deal of unpaid and unappreciated overtime dealing with unsatisfactory manuscripts, has ongoing issues with one in particular which features a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany offering sex to a soldier in the SS, what she, appropriately, labels Holocaust Porn.
Between Penny’s job, Jane’s shot at the bigtime with a stolen ms, and the Irish bookseller, there is a lot of bookish, not to say, literary, talk. Which, for me, makes this a Literary work. And there is a meta element to it, an underlying discussion of its own Rom.Com.ness, culminating in the final chapter ‘Semi Traditional Rom.Com. Denoument’. If there is a weakness, it is its length, getting on for 400pp. In the General market big is better, I’m sure, and Her Last Words sags a little around the middle in a way an experienced editor, like Kim Kelly say, might have ruthlessly excised for a different market, ie. us.
I hope Neil@Kallaroo whose tastes I largely share, reads this and gives us his opinion, I hope you all do. With different marketing Her Last Words could easily have been Australia’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, It deserves to be read.
Kim Kelly, Her Last Words, first pub. 2020. Due out 12 Oct. 2021 from Brio/Booktopia. Available now from Audible.
The Silence (2020) is an Australian mystery by an English woman which I came to via a review and author interview on an American blog – Grab the Lapels (Melanie). Author, Susan Allott spent a few years in Sydney, as a teenager I think, but homesickness got her and she’s now back in England. She says that between having an Australian husband and her own time here, she became interested in and angered by the policies which led to the Stolen Generations. In my opinion Allott has managed to write a book which is both interesting and entertaining in itself, and which manages to discuss the issue of the taking of Aboriginal children without assuming to speak for the Indigenous community which these policies were intended to destroy.
The principal character of the novel is Isla, who in 1967 is a four year old whose parents, Joe and Louisa, have come out from England and settled in an ordinary northern Sydney beach-side suburb. While her mother works, Isla spends all day with Mandy, their next door neighbour. Joe is a construction supervisor in the city and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic, while Mandy’s husband Steve is a policeman whose only job, seemingly, is to drive his ‘truck’ into the outback to take Aboriginal children from their families.
And for those, like our Prime Minister, who like to claim that this stuff only occurred way back in the past, I should point out that the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board authorised the taking of Aboriginal children up till 1969. That is, there are Indigenous men and women, who were born at the same time as the Prime Minister, and in the same state, who were stolen by people of his and our parents’ generations.
The story proceeds on two timelines in parallel, and via the viewpoints of all five main characters. The second timeline begins in 1997 when Isla, who is working in London, returns to Sydney to stand by her father who is a person of interest in the belated police investigation into the disappearance of Mandy who, it turns out, has not been seen for 30 years.
I’m guessing Allott has chosen ’67 and ’97 to fit in with Aboriginal ‘Protection’ ending at the end of the ’60s, although this does make The Silence Historical as well as Crime Fiction. Particularly in the 1967 timeline, there will be a radio on in the background with Harold Holt defending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Sydney Opera House under construction and so on, to remind us of the period.
In the earlier timeline Louisa is unable to deal with her homesickness, nor with Joe’s drinking and violence, nor his inability to understand, and despite being pregnant, she flies home to her mother (at a time, the author says, when flying was still expensive and relatively unusual. My grandparents went ‘home’ by sea in the early 60s but flew for other trips later in the same decade*). Allott says she originally intended Louisa to be the principal character so she could discuss her own homesickness, many years later, but the Stolen Generations part of the narrative took over.
Isla feels a distance between herself and her mother and is much more comfortable with Mandy who has no children of her own, and likes it that way, but is happy to have Isla around her feet or to take her down the beach at the end of the street. Mandy has to deal with Steve’s distress each time he returns from a trip which has resulted in another Aboriginal child being dragged from its mother’s arms to be put into care, and also with his unhappiness at their having no children of their own. I must say Isla remembers a lot for a four year old. All I can remember is some very big blocks in kindergarten.
‘Steve’s back!’ Isla held onto the back of the couch and sprang up and down, her backside in the air. ‘He’s back, Mandy!’ Mandy stood at the window and looked out. Steve had parked up already, and the truck was filthy, as always. Mud-caked wheels; brick-red dust at the fenders. The windscreen was covered in muck but for the small double-arc of the wipers. Steve turned the engine off and slumped over the steering wheel, resting his head on the bridge of his hands. Mandy’s stomach turned. ‘Here we go,’ she said, as he lifted his head. She stepped away from the window, afraid to catch his eye.
Australian writer, Sara Dowse commented recently in Whispering Gums about crime fiction: “.. when it’s done well it’s often where you find the best characterisations, and the feeling of place and time.” That was in the context of a Gary Disher novel, though my own examples would be Ian Rankin or Camilla Läckberg. This novel is not of that standard but Isla and the four adults are well defined and we understand them better as the novel progresses, though this is less true of the locations, which are relatively generic.
This is not a classic whodunit, but 1997 Isla works her way around indifferent policing to prod her parents and the hard-to-find Steve until she and we get some idea of what happened to Mandy and why. I’m not sure Allott got 1967 Australia exactly right, but in the end I found the novel both plausible and interesting.
Susan Allott, The Silence, The Borough Press, London 2020. 350pp.
*The era of cheap international flights began for Australians in 1971 when Qantas introduced into service its first Boeing 747.
Peter Corris (1942-2018) must be our best known crime fiction writer, especially his Cliff Hardy novels of which this is one, the tenth as you can see, of 44. Looking through the list I can see that I’ve listened to a few, but this one happened to be on my shelves so I thought I would add it to Kimbofo’s month. In passing, his Wikipedia entry tells me Corris was married to AWW Gen 4 writer Jean Bedford, and that he had a PhD in History with a thesis on the South Seas Islander slave trade (into Queensland).
The Cliff Hardy novels are set in Sydney, Corris’s adopted home city (he was born and educated in Melbourne). Hardy’s home is an old terrace house in the inner-west, off Glebe Point Rd I think, which I used to know a little bit as B2 had a house there, 2 storeys, 11 ft wide and with a sandstone cliff at the end of the backyard. Although the novels are generally read independently, over the course of reading them you get some familiarity with his home life.
In The January Zone (1987) Hardy is late fortyish, so the same age as his author, divorced, alone, Helen his lover back living up the coast with her husband and daughter. He has a military background of course, in his case service with the Australian Army in Malaya; and is scruffy and anti-authoritarian and all those other cliches of modern detective fiction.
I am used to Hardy sloping around the streets of Sydney in his battered old Ford Falcon doing sleuthing stuff, but this novel jumps the shark a little – and it surprised me to find it was relatively early in the series – with Hardy acting as bodyguard (“security consultant”) to Labor politician, pacifist and Assistant Defence Minister Peter January during a trip to Washington to appear before a Senate Committee into the Russian threat in the Pacific or somesuch.
Hardy doesn’t want to be a security consultant but is persuaded when he’s present when a bomb goes off in the Minister’s office and a young intern is killed (and is barely mentioned again). And yes it pisses me off that a Federal Minister’s office is in Sydney. A constant stream of Sydney-based Prime Ministers over the past 30 years has incrementally moved the seat of government, not to mention the PM’s residence (I’d bomb Kirribilli if I could), away from Canberra in defiance of the Constitution.
January, so he fits in with every other male politician, pretends to be a lecher to divert attention from the fact that he’s actually going about with the wife of a senior Liberal. Hardy has the hots for Trudi, January’s secretary, though when his big opportunity comes he thinks of Helen and keeps his pants on (sort of).
She collapsed and I got properly onto the bed and held her. After a while she reached down and pulled the sheet up over us. “How do you feel now?” she said. “I want you.” I was still hot and hard. “Better we don’t,” she murmured. “This way you’ll remember … something different …” “I’ll think of the Queen.” She smiled and curled herself up.
A sniper takes a shot at Trudi before they leave Sydney; someone attempts to run the Minister’s car off the road on the way in from Washington airport; an assassin electrifies the microphone, killing the warm-up speaker at a January rally; January is a media sensation (the first Australian media sensation in the US since the PM’s wife wore a dress with a slit all the way up the side back in 1971). So you can see what I mean about jumping the shark.
Politicians around the world are struck by the brilliance of the junior Minister’s plan for peace in our time. Back home there’s a kidnapping, men playing merry hell with shotguns, more deaths, all the stuff you see every day in your morning newspaper. Not. The January Zone is more Action novel than Detective, very Sydney. I probably should have read a Peter Temple instead.
Peter Corris, The January Zone, Unwin Paperbacks, Sydney, 1987. 205pp
It’s Saturday as I type and I’m on the road home. But an email has come in (or to be honest, I have just checked yesterday’s emails) from Neil@Kallaroo. We’ve done very well with Eleanor Dark this week. Here you go Neil, the space is all yours.
Let’s cut to the chase. I read about one third of The Timeless Land before I gave up. That’s not a reflection on the book so much as a reflection on what I enjoy reading. Once upon a time I read a book from cover to cover, but there are so many books to read, so nowadays if I’m struggling I give up and move on.
The Timeless Land is the first in a trilogy about the European settlement of Australia. It is told from many viewpoints, such as Governor Arthur Phillip, Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Trench of the Marines, the Reverend Mr Johnson, Andrew and Ellen Prentice, convicts, and the indigenes Bennilong and Barangaroo. There are plenty more!
The different viewpoints expose us to the many issues around the settlement, from concern with the food supply, convicts trying to escape, and interactions between Europeans and First Settlers. The story progresses chronologically, with minimal flash-backs, and even though the viewpoint changes frequently, it is not hard to keep track of what is going on.
So why did I struggle with the story?
I guess I knew the plot already, though not the nitty gritty. So there was minimal novelty to engage me. The writing is a bit dry and academic (possibly as a result of Dark’s extensive research), and there wasn’t much witty repartee to humour me. I didn’t crack many smiles.
I was uncomfortable with the thoughts and actions attributed to the indigines. One phrase in particular caught my eye:
“Arabanoo, who was so gentle and so patient that he hardly ever beat his wife.”
Ouch. Did indigenous husbands beat their wives regularly? I know that alcohol currently contributes to domestic violence (universally!), but I am not at all sure wife-beating was a feature of the indigenous population in 1788. Mind you, Dark has a rather sly comeback:
“Bennilong, therefore, had felt no pity for the woman, but he wondered why she had been so held up to the execration of the whole tribe instead of being privately beaten by her husband in the normal way.”
And finally, I struggle with historical fiction in general. Is it fiction or faction?
So should you have a read of The Timeless Land? If you are looking for something light and fluffy, with witty repartee and plenty of action, probably not. But if you are interested in a warts and all approach to the problems of settlement, offering more than a European-centric story, then definitely have a go. Hopefully you can make more progress than I did.
Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land, first pub. 1941. Cover image Collins, 1960
see also reviews of: Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (1) (here) Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (2) (here) Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur (here) James Tucker, Ralph Rashleigh (here)
Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was an important chronicler of the lives of Sydney’s underclass, perhaps not so popular as Ruth Park, but with a grittier style and a better understanding (Park and Tennant were both of the middle class, but Park’s depictions of the people of Sydney’s inner suburbs tended towards patronising, whereas Tennant’s were genuinely sympathetic and tempered by her early association with the Communism).
Tell Morning This (1967) is a rambunctious, entertaining novel of the seamier side of life in and around Kings Cross during the latter stage of WWII. This is more or less the same period/locale as that covered by Cusack & James’ Come in Spinner and interestingly they seem to have had similar publication histories. Although the winner of a major prize in 1948, Come in Spinner had to be abridged to get past the censors and a full version was not published until 1987. Tennant writes of Tell Morning This
A brief version of this book appeared in those years when paper was hard to come by and censors unduly sensitive. The choice was to cut by at least a third or to lay the manuscript aside … the remnant, The Joyful Condemned , looked much the same.
From Tell Morning This (Tennant), Say Not to Death (Cusack) and The Drums go Bang (Park) you get a pretty good idea of the housing shortage, and resulting squalid, crowded rooming houses in inner Sydney in the 1940s and 50s. I wish we had the same insight into Melbourne, but as I wrote elsewhere, for a while ‘they’ had all the good writers.
The central characters of Tell Morning This are Rene (short for Irene), a fifteen year old prostitute and David, a medical student and conscientious objector to the War – interesting, because despite my own background in the anti-war movement as a draft-resister, I commented recently that I thought that the Japanese threat was so imminent that if I had been born a quarter century earlier I would have joined up.
Rene was a hefty chunk of a girl with a nose flat across the bridge, good teeth, and hair that was temporarily blonde and curled nearly as high as the storm’s. Its original colour had been a nasty red.
Rene, whose only family is “a bunch of files in the Department”, has been brought up by the McGarty’s, a complicated family of sly groggers and petty thieves you need a spreadsheet to keep up with. David is a quiet, thoughtful good-looking boy whose mother had died in childbirth and his father, a judge, had been shot dead about 15 years earlier. A woman, Terry Lago, got life for the murder but is widely believed to be covering for her career criminal husband who has disappeared.
Imprisonment is the novel’s central theme. Rene and her friends, whose only source of income (and amusement) is to be picked up off the streets by US servicemen, are routinely rounded up for ‘being in moral danger’ and put into youth detention, the pinnacle of which is the infamous Parramatta Girls Training School (which Tennant gives the alias Petworth); David’s cousin Henrietta runs a model detention centre, until she is promoted to Petworth and fails; David spends six months in gaol during the course of the novel, and will have further spells of six months until the War ends (or his spirit breaks); a vindictive doctor, as Terry Lago is approaching release, commits her to indefinite detention in a mental home.
Tennant famously biffed a cop in order to research this novel from the inside, and she seems to have done a pretty thorough job (of the research. I’m sure the biffing was quite gentle). There’s a lot about the power structures, formal and informal, in the men’s, women’s and girls’ institutions; and about different reactions to incarceration. There’s even an evil smelling prison tram which runs between Long Bay and the central courts – the men all chained together must shuffle around in a circle if one of them needs to use the can.
David in gaol refuses to work, in the belief that the work is to assist the army, and so is put into solitary, not the dreaded dark cells, the black peter, but the yards, only half roofed
They shut him, by his own fault, in this narrow cocoon, and from a mild white grub of a boy he was hatching into something that very closely resembled a human hornet. His hatred of the governor, when every morning, the man said: “The magistrate has been delayed. He will be here tomorrow”, was the greater in that he detected real pleasure, malicious pleasure in this delay.
This is a big book, 446pp, with a cast to match. David’s family of do-gooder aunts, the Aumbrys, who live in a fine old house on the North Shore; the McGartys – Grandma bedridden, who brought up Rene till she became too much to manage; her daughter who runs Grandma’s house in the Cross as a rooming house and who has banned Rene; a nephew who runs a pub nearby and another who drives for Sydney’s Mr Big; the Cobbetts who have a shop out in a semi-rural outer suburb and who are connected to Mr Big and to Terry Largo. And then there’s Mr Big’s daughter Margot who wants to join the Aumbrys in do-gooding and who is keen on David.
Of course there are Americans, who in between missions, spend time and lavish money on Rene and all her underage friends, all generally in a state of undress, even when out, and ready to jump into bed. And there’s Marie, a minor character really, who has a baby which Rene loves; who is given a home by the Aumbrys to save her from the Department but which she hates for its boredom, until at last she runs away to Melbourne, is bored there too and comes back to have another baby which she is relieved to discover is white.
Rene and David bump into each other from time time, and each feels sorry for the other. We follow their separate paths, Rene to slowly become aware who her mother is, and David who shot his father; neither looking, but with everyone around them knowing, knowing becomes inevitable.
What a marvellous book. What took me so long to get to it.
My first edition hardback of Say No to Death (1951) doesn’t have a dust jacket but I imagine that is it above. I was going to write first and probably only edition, until I saw some paperbacks in Images – publishers Allen&Unwin, Seven Seas and Great Books, which implies that it’s out of copyright – and a cover, in English, on a Russian site, pictured below along with an intriguing book I hadn’t previously heard of – Dymphna by Norman Freehill with Dymphna Cusack (1902 – 81).
I didn’t have Cusack down as a Communist, of whom there were a number in Gen 3, but from Images I could see she was obviously published in Eastern Europe and so looked further.
Late in 1948 Cusack consolidated a long-term if intermittent relationship with Norman Randolph Freehill, then chief-of-staff of the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper, the Tribune… In 1949 Cusack, and later Freehill, sailed for Europe. When health permitted, she worked on the manuscripts that she had taken to London, including Say No to Death
A committed social reformer, she interpreted history through the lives of ordinary people and used various forms of popular culture to entertain, inform and educate. She regarded herself, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, as an `écrivain engagé’—one for whom the pen was mightier than the sword. Despite constant illness, she was a brave and prominent anti-nuclear activist in the World Peace Movement during the Cold War era.
If you’re interested in that sort of stuff, ADB also says the play Comets Soon Pass (1943) “was her personal catharsis and artistic reprisal for the defection of her former lover, the novelist Xavier Herbert”.
Before I go on I should clarify what I’m attempting to achieve by looking again next month at Australian Women Writers Gen 3, which covers the period from immediately after the Great War to the end of the fifties. In our first go we looked at the transition away from the blokey Bulletin era of ‘the nineties’, to the new movements of Modernism and Social Realism, and for Communists, Socialist Realism (I won’t question you on the difference, though it’s important), and the rise of a family-based Pioneer legend as a counter to the Bulletin’s misogynist ‘Lone Hand’.
Please, by all means look some more at the pre-War (WWII) period, but I also need to be clear in my own mind about the transition to Gen 4 which occurred after the War. I was born in rural Victoria in 1951 so this is personal. Australia’s eastern seaboard, where 80% of us live, was White. White, white, white. And not just white, but totally, homogeneously Brit. “Home” was England and the only ethnic diversity came from Irish Catholics. Victoria’s remnant Aboriginal population was hidden away at Lake Tyers and it was the same, to a large extent, in the other eastern states until you got into the outback. The writing of the 1940s and 50s represented that and continued on the stories of white middle-class privilege, and of working class hardship and housing shortage ongoing from the Depression years, almost without a break.
Even before the War, migration had commenced with Eastern European Jews, then came assisted migrants in their thousands from the UK, Italy and Greece, so by the 1960s we were a totally different place. Add in the sexual revolution which arose out of/coincided with the Pill, the popular music revolution, the baby boom, the anti-war movement, and you can see why this must be my transition point from Gen 3 to Gen 4.
This, as always, leaves two important writers on the cusp, Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020) and Thea Astley (1925-2004) who published their first novels in respectively 1957 and 1958. I’m going to make a captain’s call and put Harrower in Gen 3 and Astley in Gen 4. My reasoning is that Harrower wrote mostly in the 1950s, she was a modernist, after Eleanor Dark and Patrick White say, and her subject was the monocultural middle class suburbs of Sydney. Astley on the other hand, wrote prolifically throughout the second half of the C20th and her theme was much more the clash of cultures.
So, back to Say No to Death. I have reviewed Cusack’s first, Jungfrau (1936), should have reviewed her second, the spoof Pioneers on Parade (1939) written with Miles Franklin, have reviewed her third,Come in Spinner (1951) co-written with Florence James and also Caddie (1953) for which Cusack wrote the Introduction and which is a memoir written by her and James’ housekeeper when they were living together in the Blue Mountains writing Come in Spinner.
Say No to Death was her fourth, not counting five or six plays which Cusack thought might be her real vocation. It wasn’t one I had planned to read, but was getting – am still – bogged down in Christina Stead’s Little Hotel, and so grabbed the nearest to hand off the shelf of possibles for this Gen3/II introduction. It’s a shame to tell you any of the story at all, as it is much better if the developments come up in their proper place, but yes, I’m going to.
The setting is Sydney, 1947, starting in the crowded suburbs around the Cross, described elsewhere with much more feeling and detail by Ruth Park who had arrived there to live in shambolic rooming houses three or four years earlier with her new husband D’Arcy Niland and his brother. There Jan and her sister Doreen share a one room flat.
The novel begins with Bart Templeton, a soldier who had fought in New Guinea before re-enlisting, returning from a year or so with the Occupation forces in Japan. Jan is at the wharf to meet him, at the back of the welcome-home crowd, ready to walk away if he doesn’t acknowledge her.
He’d behaved pretty lousily to Jan, he was willing to admit. But what else was a cove to do? He’d been her first man – he’d take an oath on that. She was in love with him; there was no doubt about that either, and they’d had a hell of a lot of fun together. And when he’d gone away without saying a word about marrying her she hadn’t reproached him nor even shown what she felt …
He does acknowledge her, taking up where he’d left off and soon they’re on ten days vacation in a shack on a lake somewhere up the Northern Beaches. Towards the end she coughs blood, a bone in her throat maybe, but we know what’s coming and soon it’s clear Jan has TB.
I still find Cusack’s writing style awkward, but the story itself is good. Bart and Jan have their ups and downs. The public system for isolating men and women with TB is a disgrace, crowded ex-WWI army barracks with a 3 – 6 months waiting list, men sleeping on verandahs, working people dying from want of treatment. I can remember my father being terrified of us kids touching stuff in the street or eating with dirty hands and this is why. Maybe every generation has its Covid-19.
Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death, Heinemann, London, 1951. 324pp
see also Sue (Whispering Gums): Dymphna Cusack, A Window in the Dark, memoir (here) Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (here) Delicious Descriptions: Dymphna Cusack’s Sydney (here)
Talk about getting what you wished for! I wrote a few weeks ago, in comments after Saving Francesca that “I’d be interested to read a Melina Marchetta that covered the next few years, 17,18 through to mid twenties like say Normal People, though perhaps her style would be too gentle.” The Place on Dalhousie is Marchetta’s latest and here is a quote from p.4.
And that’s all it takes. A couple of drinks and she’s back in some strange guy’s room, upstairs at the pub. His calloused fingers find their way between her legs and she realises she’s going to spend another night of her life screwing a guy she doesn’t know. Makes her feel as if she can’t climb out of the bat cave, and the bleakness is smothering.
‘She’ is Rosie, 19 year old daughter of Sicilian immigrants, passing through a central Queensland town (probably based on Theodore, 560 km NW of Brisbane). Her life is a mess. Her mother has died of cancer. Her father who spent years rebuilding the old house ‘on Dalhousie’ in inner western Sydney, has remarried, to Martha, the daughter of German immigrants, and then been killed in a traffic accident. The guy she doesn’t know is Jimmy. They spend the next week or so helping residents deal with a major flood, then go their separate ways.
We move on a couple of years. Martha, forty-ish, is dealing with a stressful job, with being a widow, with a girl upstairs with a screaming baby, with a girl upstairs who won’t talk to her but insists that the house is hers. Her best friend gets her to join a netball team with some of their old class mates, most of whom she has spent the last twenty years avoiding. Marchetta it seems, is big on the bonds formed at school.
Jimmy responds 15 months late to the text informing him he is a father. He is now working on the mines up north, week on, week off. Rosie is not impressed but Jimmy hangs around, couch surfing when he can get down to Sydney, with his own old schoolmates from inner-western Sydney. At some stage my goldfish brain finally catches on – twenty-something Jimmy and Frankie and Tara and so on are the 17 year-olds from Saving Francesca.
Poor Jimmy has to work very hard to convince Rosie he’s worth bothering with.
She holds out the crying kid for Jimmy to take, but he doesn’t. ‘When he gets used to me, maybe,’ he says. Rosie cradles the sobbing baby, but it doesn’t seem to help. And that’s it for the day. No more talking, just a lot of standing around and soaking in the mess.
Martha has a love interest. She has sex with a football hero/older brother of one of her classmates in the back seat of his (presumably dual cab) ute after a funeral, and two or three times after. Yes, they do have homes, they just seem to have a thing about reliving their, twenty years previous, school days.
The football hero guy is also their netball coach, so that makes one plot line. The ups and downs of Jimmy and Rosie being parents and learning to talk to each other, makes another. Then, we get bits and pieces of the lives of the Saving Francesca crowd (whom I read were also in another novel, The Piper’s Son), and of the Sydney inner-west Italian community to which both Frankie (Francesca) and Rosie belong, so there’s plenty going on.
Rosie joins a new mothers group for support from which she and another couple of misfits (ie. non-Anglos) are shunted, and as they get over their prickliness they form a support group of their own. She starts working in an old people’s home and of course that’s the home where football guy, whom she doesn’t know at that stage, places his father. There’s ongoing background hum about a lost Monaro which eventually stretches concidence even further. But mostly it’s just an easygoing story of people and their lives, intertwined in ways that I as a constant moving-onner find both interesting and a bit unbelievable.
No, it’s not literary fiction – I may finally get a mention in the AWCC General fiction round-up (I think I missed out with Jane Harper and Liane Moriarty) – but nevertheless an interesting step up from the schoolgirls of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.
Melina Marchetta, The Place on Dalhousie, Penguin Random House, Melbourne, 2019. 277pp.