Jungfrau, Dymphna Cusack

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By coincidence I’m reading Jungfrau straight after All Passion Spent. Both are modernist works by women authors, both pose the question, Should intelligent women marry or pursue careers? (and both see the question as either one or the other), APS came out in 1931, Jungfrau in 1936, both writers were in their thirties, but…

Sackville-West was at the height of her powers, living not just England but in Bloomsbury, and with a number of novels over the previous decade under her belt; Cusack (1902-1981) so ten years VSW’s junior, was in Australia, a school teacher, first out west in Broken Hill then in Sydney, with limited exposure to the modernist movement sweeping England, Europe and the US. And this was her first novel. And then there’s class – Sackville-West was the daughter of a baron and the wife of an MP; Cusack was the daughter of store keeper, Catholic, and though employed, was much closer to the Depression which amongst other things, depressed wages and limited the distribution of new books.

Sackville-West’s writing is sublime, Cusack’s is awkward. Lady Slane in APS finds herself married at 18, steamrolled by her parents and her husband, but as she comes to love Henry she willingly subsumes her self for the sake of their children and his career. Only after their long marriage ends with his death does she allow her real self to emerge. I think by presenting the story in this way Sackville-West is asking: Is this what you would do? It’s certainly not what she did herself. Cusack’s three women are already in their mid to late twenties, in careers, unmarried, none of them Vicereine of India surrounded by servants, but living small, comfortable lives in bed-sits in inner Sydney. Their question is: How do I deal with love?

The three women are Thea, a dreamy, pretty teacher, Eve, a doctor and devout Catholic, and ‘Marc’ (short for Marchesa) a red-headed, bohemian, psych student/social worker. Thea is friends with Terry who wants to marry her, but she is in love with a 49 year old English professor. Eve is friends with another doctor, John. Marc, may be ‘loose’, or maybe she just flirts a lot; Eve is angry that she doesn’t wear a bra. Cusack adopts the point of view of whichever protagonist she is dealing with at the time.

Eve is actually quite a sympathetic character and her rigid Catholicism creeps up on us. Thea is the ‘jungfrau’ of the title, virginal and childish (Cusack makes too much of the Swiss mountain of the same name, having Eve come up with a clumsy metaphor about a lover taking the trouble to ‘climb’ Marc only to find other men had been up before him on the funicular railway).

A lot of the early part of the book is setting up discussions about relationships. Each of the women take their job seriously but what they are talking about and thinking about here is their relationships with men. Eve, who works in a maternity ward, has opinions very similar to Miles Franklin’s (and Cusack’s next novel was written jointly with Franklin) – that chastity is to be valued and that the consequence of marriage is endless child bearing.

Thea has chaste little meetings with her professor in the grounds of the uni and is consumed by her growing infatuation. Marc meets an Antarctic explorer at a party, becomes close to him, and says she will sleep with him before his upcoming two year expedition, but, only if he has complete faith in his ability to trust her –

“There’s only one worthwhile relationship as far as I’m concerned, and that’s the chosen companionship of two perfectly free people. We’d never have that till you had faith – in both of us.”

Eve goes from an exhausting shift on the wards to mass and reflects on chastity (to contrast with what follows). Thea has one perfect night with the professor. Marc has dinner with her explorer. We’re at the halfway point, and the novel is about to change direction.

Thea drops round to Eve’s to ask for help, she’s pregnant. Eve is devastated, spends a sleepless 24 hours crying at Thea’s loss, and planning how to help her have the baby. They meet. Thea is incredulous. The help she wants is an abortion, which Eve is morally unable to perform.

Thea drifts, for weeks it seems, then goes to Marc who arranges for her to see an abortionist, but she loses her nerve at the last minute and runs out of his office. Jungfrau is apparently “the first psychological exploration of women’s sexuality and aspirations” in Australian fiction, and the remainder of the novel deals mostly with Thea’s internal monologue.

A decade later Cusack gave up modernism for social realism, writing with Florence James the gritty war-time (WWII) story of women working and quite actively sleeping with one or more men, Come in Spinner. In that novel, and in a number of others of that time, there is a “backyard” abortion which ends in the death of the pregnant woman.

So does Cusack answer the question I ascribed to her at the beginning? I think she does, partly anyway. Single women clearly should work. But. They also are driven to pair bond, and that means marriage, eventually.

 

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau, first pub. 1936 (in the Bulletin), Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Melbourne 1989. Introduction by Florence James. The cover painting is by Grace Cossington-Smith, “Interior with Blue Painting”, 1956.

see also:
Australian Women Writers, Gen 3 Page (here)

All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

All Passion Spent

I have eight or 10 Viragos I bought in a job lot years ago and never got round to reading, well not until this week when one of you, Karen (Booker Talk) talked me into making a start. As you can tell from the excerpt I put up this morning (as I write)  this is wonderful writing, the very epitome of English modernism.

Twentieth century English Lit. is not my area of expertise, so I’ve been looking stuff up. One article (locked unfortunately) has modernism beginning with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) ” … experiments with linguistic ambiguity opening the door for many interpretations… explores the corruption of imperialism”. Though the big break with the past was World War I, followed by James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses (1922).

Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West (1892-1962) began writing, and began taking women as lovers, while still at school. In 1913 she married diplomat and politician Harold Nicholson, though both continued to take (same-sex) lovers. They had two children and she followed him to some overseas postings, most notably Persia (Iran) which was the scene for the excerpt. I can’t help adding that Sackville-West had a passionate affair with another married woman and the two husbands felt obliged to hire a light plane to pursue them to France.

In 1922 Sackville-West began a long relationship with Virginia Woolf, documented by VSW’s son Nigel Nicholson in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), during which time it is felt both women did their best work, surrounded by the artists and thinkers of the Bloomsbury Set. Woolf reportedly based Orlando (which I have read but don’t remember) on her friend. Sackville-West had a considerable output in fiction, poetry and non-fiction – I should have remembered she wrote The Incomparable Astrea (1927) about Aphra Benn, who pops up as well in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). All Passion Spent (1931) is the eighth of Sackville-West’s sixteen or so novels.

After 6 decades of marriage and a long and storied career in English politics and diplomacy, Henry Holland first Earl of Slane has died. Freed at last of the constraints of being a political wife, Lady Slane allows her mind to wander. Lady Slane – and only late in the novel do we learn her given name – is in her late eighties, her six surviving children are in their sixties, her grandchildren are grown up and so are her oldest great-grandchildren. For nearly 70 years she has shut down her mind, resisted all thoughts of her early ambition of being a painter, stood by her ambitious husband, and has been the calm if occasionally vague centre of a large and pushy family most of whom she finds she mildly dislikes.

This is not a feminist novel. Sackville-West said so. This is an investigation of how an intelligent and artistic woman was willingly subsumed into the straight-jacket of political wife, written by a woman of the same class but half her age who married a diplomat/politician and wasn’t (subsumed), in fact who married ‘badly’ so she wouldn’t be. Nevertheless, by allowing Lady Slane to reflect on how her life had got her to where she was, Sackville-West intentionally gives us enough information to draw our own conclusions.

The book doesn’t have any chapters but is divided into three sections. In the first, Lady Slane comes downstairs from viewing for the last time the body of her husband to find her four horrible older children have determined that mother is too vague to live on her own and that they will do their duty, and they may need to be recompensed, by letting her live with each of them a few months at a time. For a short while we view this scene through the eyes of Edith, the youngest, who may have been an interesting character in her own right, but this is almost the last we see of her.

Lady Slane however has already been in touch with an agent – in fact the elderly owner, Mr Bucktrout – of a house in Hampstead (which feels separate from London and a bit rural, but which I understand is quite close to the City) in which she will see out her days with her servant Genoux, who was 16 when she married at 18 Slane, then plain Mr Holland (though probably an Hon.). It is telling that it is only in these last days that Lady Slane learns that Genoux was a farm girl with seven siblings, who had been sent from Paris by an agent, to never seen them again.

In Part Two Lady Slane reflects on her married life:

Sitting there in the sun at Hampstead, in the late summer, under the south wall and the ripened peaches, doing nothing with her hands, she remembered the day she had become engaged to Henry. She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days …

Henry had treated her well and given her a fine life, she had been Vicereine of India and the wife of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, but every time she had expressed an idea he had paused to listen then passed on, unmoved – “Henry need make no bones about his creed, she must protect hers from shame and ridicule”.

Part Three, the last hundred pages (of 295), contains what little there is of plot. An old millionaire miser, FitzGeorge, a man entirely without family, calls on her, and callers, including her family are discouraged, makes enough of an impression to continue calling; he was one of the hundreds she had met in India; he had remembered and she had not. They talk and take little walks together. When he dies he leaves her his fortune, and she is able to discommode her family once again.

Right at the end, and it’s a bit neat, her great grand-daughter Deborah, engaged to a Duke, bursts in, lays her head on Lady Slane’s knee and sobs that she has broken the engagement and is going to be a pianist.

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, first pub. 1931. Virago Modern Classics, London, 1983

For another perspective see Karen/BookerTalk (here)

All Passion Spent (excerpt), Vita Sackville-West

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Portrait of VSW by William Strang

After 6 decades of marriage and a long and storied career in English politics and diplomacy, Henry Holland first Earl of Slane has died. Freed at last of the constraints of  being a political wife, Lady Slane allows her mind to wander. Read on …

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting round this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to the earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailled after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression by not one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming aove the surface of the desert and around the trundling waggon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say, “Terrible, the opthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,” and knowing that he was right and  would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and had transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she would also take the missionaries to task about the opthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.

One sentence! I’m half-way through and a review will follow shortly.

 

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, first pub. 1931. Virago Modern Classics, London, 1983