Today’s Monday Musings is Part 2 of my two post series discussing Nettie Palmer‘s article, “The novel in Australia”, that was published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927.
As I did in last week’s post, I’ll use her headings to share her view on Australia’s great novels.
A novelist abroad
Here she discusses Australian writers who wrote their novels while living overseas, Australians being, as we know, good travellers. It’s no surprise that her choice of the best known novel written while its writer was abroad is Henry Handel Richardson’s* Maurice Guest (1909), which is a “brilliant story of music-student life in the Leipzig of the ‘nineties”. (This is another languisher on my TBR pile).
Palmer then tells us about Richardson’s Australian trilogy, The fortunes of Richard Mahoney, which she wrote mostly from her home in England though she “revisited Australia about 1912 to verify impressions”. Palmer’s article was written before the third book in the trilogy was published, but here she is on the first two:
The writer’s knowledge of the period – costumes, food, and customs – is immense but the “Fortunes” is never a mere costume novel: there is character all through. All Henry Handel Richardson’s novels, even those whose setting is wholly Australian, are better known in Europe than here, and are discussed at length in German and Scandinavian literary encyclopaedias and reviews. In America too, they have received deep attention. Victoria is fortunate to have found such a chronicler, more fortunate than it knows yet [my emphasis].
Cultural cringe, or because Richardson was based overseas? Whatever the reason, recognition of her work did increase through the century. The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Richardson, written in 1988, discusses her reputation briefly, and touches on the unevenness of her reputation – overseas and in Australia.
Palmer concludes her article by looking at contemporary (to the late 1920s, that is) novels, and names a few she deems significant.
Katherine Susannah Prichard’s works, she says, “are the fruit of an intense devotion to her subject matter. Her gifts are mainly two: first, that of brilliant impressionism, then a rare power of writing group-scenes.” In Black Opal, for example, the opal miners are “standing about chaffing each other and discussing the universe, every man of them alive”. She says there are similarly vivid scenes of groups of timber-getters in Working Bullocks. “Such scenes”, she says, “are too difficult for most novelists, who shirk them: yet they enrich a book immensely and the reader feels that our everyday life is full of unsuspected charm”.
Palmer then writes something rather strange (to me anyhow). She comments that each of Prichard’s books is located in a different place – the tall-timbers of South-east Victoria (presumably The pioneers, which I’ve reviewed), the opal fields of Western New South Wales, and the saw-milling country in the south of Western Australia. She says:
(Reading over this list of regions I can only feel how wretchedly inconvenient our Australian names are: a mere mention of latitude and longitude! Are we too big to think about? It will take many years for many of our names to become easy and vivid.)
What does she mean? Those names are purely geographical descriptions. The pioneers is, yes, set in south-east Victoria but this region does have a name – Gippsland – which it has had since the nineteenth century. I don’t think I’m on Palmer’s wavelength here at all.
Anyhow she concludes this section with the statement that there’s “little space left for some recent Queensland books” (because, of course, The Brisbane Courier is a Queensland newspaper). She names Zora Cross, whose books “put on record the changing years of a South Queensland [ha!] district” and M. Forrest, whose novels “have that special quality which readers of her verse would expect – a power of painting in words the rich details of Queensland’s unexplored landscapes”.
As I read this article I pondered what criteria Palmer was using to define quality novels. Good characterisation, meaningful realism (if that makes sense), and a capturing of Australian identity seem to be what she was looking for. Fortunately, she has a go at answering this question herself in her last two paragraphs.
Firstly, she says that:
the most satisfactory definition of a good novel seems “the revelation of character through narrative,” but the character need not be only human. There is also the character of a country.
She then suggests that good novels break new ground, with the author “giving part of himself away, revealing his personal vision of ‘men, coming and going on the earth'”. On this point of innovation, she quotes Randolph Bedford, who appeared in Part 1 and who, she says, satirised the idea that “the average publisher loves words written to a formula, to please a reading public which dislikes anything new”. Bedford apparently said of this public:
It loves to read some old friend it recognises, so it can say, “How original it must be, because I know it so well”.
Oh dear. Have things changed do you think?
Palmer then presents her own definition of “a more genuine kind of originality” – and it’s to do with the difficulty of making “Australian life and character their theme”. She concludes:
Some day, when a novel about life in Indooroopilly seems as natural as one about Piccadilly, we shall thank those who turned the first sods so fruitfully.
So there it is really. The cultural cringe. This I think has changed.
* Wikipedia tells us she was Iris Murdoch’s second cousin twice removed. A remote relation, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless!
A week or so ago my local Jane Austen group had a guest speaker at our meeting, Roslyn Russell, the author of Maria returns to Barbados. Russell is a local historian who has written this historical novel based on Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park. She is also a lapsed member of our group, so of course we had to ask her to come and talk to us about it. Most of this post draws from my report of her talk, which she titled Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park: Fictionalising the legacy of slavery in Mansfield Park.
Regular readers probably know that I’m not a fan of fan-fiction or sequels of well-known works. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have read any if it hadn’t been for belonging to the Jane Austen Society of Australia. However, having read Deidre Shauna Lynch’s essay, “Sequels” in Jane Austen in context, edited by Janet Todd, I decided that I should relax my “rule”. Lynch convinced me that these books are an important part of our understanding of Austen as a literary and cultural icon. Consequently, I have now read PD James’ crime novel Death comes to Pemberley (my review) and Jo Baker’s Longbourn (my review). Roslyn Russell’s historical novel is my third. In it, she imagines that some ten years after being banished to the country, and upon the death of her companion Aunt Norris, Maria Bertram goes to Barbados and learns about slavery and the abolition movement.
There are, I’m gathering, many different reasons why writers want to write sequels or fan fiction works. For Russell, it was, as she writes in her author’s note, inspired by two passions: her love of Jane Austen and of Barbados. Barbados? How many Australians have been to, let alone developed a passion for, Barbados? Not many, I expect. It was her museum work, in fact, which took Russell to Barbados and there, its history – and particularly the history of its plantations and the practice of slavery – reminded her of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in which the leading family, the Bertrams, draw their prime income from their plantation in Antigua.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and Slavery
Russell commenced by telling us that although most of the characters in her novel are fictional, some are based on real people. Before discussing this further, however, she read the excerpt from Mansfield Park which contains the only reference to slavery:
“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?”
“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”
“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like— I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” (MP)
She noted that this shows Maria and Julia’s lack of interest in the source of their family’s income. She then referred to cultural theorist Edward Said’s discussion of the novel and his statement that it is not appropriate “to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave”. Said, she told us, did not apply 21st century attitudes to his assessment of Austen, but suggested that her work, as that of an author who belonged to a slave-owning society, should be analysed in context and in terms of what she does and doesn’t say rather than simply attacked as being complicit.
Ros then briefly outlined some of Austen’s known or probable connections with plantations:
- the family’s close relationship with her father’s friend, the plantocrat James Langford Nibbs who was also Austen brother’s godfather. Nibbs apparently took his son out to his plantations in Antigua to settle down his unruly behaviour, which rather mirrors Sir Thomas’ taking Tom out to his plantation.
- Austen’s aunt-by-marriage, Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was born in Barbados, though went to school in England.
- Mrs Skeet who is mentioned in Austen’s letters. Skeet is a common name in Barbados, suggesting she had a connection to slavery*.
- the Holder family of Ashe Park, also friends of the Austens. Holder, too, is a common name in the Caribbean.
The title Mansfield Park, itself, could also reflect Austen’s awareness of the slavery issue, as it may have been inspired by Lord Mansfield who was famous for adjudications which contributed significantly to the eventual abolition of the slave trade. (This is the Lord Mansfield who became guardian of his mulatto niece Dido, fictionalised in the recent film, Belle).
Barbados and Maria Returns
Russell then turned to her own book, first addressing the question of why she had set it in Barbados and not Antigua, where the Bertrams’ plantation was. Firstly, she has been to Barbados several times and knows its history. She couldn’t, she said, write about a place she didn’t know. Secondly, Barbados is also the location of a historical event she uses in her novel.
Mansfield Park was written 20 years before emancipation (i.e. the formal abolition of slavery) in 1834. Maria Returns is set about 15 years after MP, and so during the time when the abolition movement was becoming more vocal. Ros explained that the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did not seriously affect the Caribbean plantations: they were “breeding” their own slaves and were essentially self-sufficient. However, the abolition of slavery represented a major threat to their livelihoods, and the plantation families were deeply concerned. By the 1820s the abolition movement was becoming active – mostly among Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists and Quakers.
Ros discussed the historical basis of her fiction. For example, at the dinner party in the English village where Maria first meets abolitionist John Simpson, he talks of a trial in Barbados in which slaves were apparently unjustly convicted of and executed for a murder. This trial did occur and is a reason Russell chose Barbados for her setting. The trial was witnessed by James Stephen** who, though he lived a little earlier than our fictional Simpson, is Russell’s model for her character.
Simpson also talks at this dinner about a slave rebellion, led by African-slave Bussa, that occurred in Barbados in 1816. Bussa was killed in the rebellion. Such slave rebellions resulted in plantation owners becoming harsher. Simpson makes it clear which side he is on. This is a wake up call for Maria who:
had not been aware of the strength of feeling in the wider community against the institution of slavery, from which her own family had benefitted so materially. (MR)
After Maria arrives in Bridgetown she meets or hears of other abolitionists, such as the historically real free coloured man, Sam Prescod (who, with Bussa, is now a national hero) and plantation owner Josiah Thompson. Thompson is fictional but, as a former owner who had downsized his estate and treated his slaves-now-servants well, he has historical antecedents. Men who behaved like he did faced hostility from other Barbadians – and so, in the novel, Thompson is a lonely man who is keen to host Maria and her friends at his home. His willingness to import a teacher from England to teach his slaves also has precedents. Maria realises again that she’d never wondered about her father’s plantations, but she begins now to wonder what her father might think about the people she’s meeting.
Ros then spoke about the treatment of slave women by their white owners, particularly in relation to sexual predation. This forms an important part of the story – but I won’t spoil it here. However, she again spoke of historical precedents – not that we really needed any for this one! We weren’t, though, quite prepared for the example she gave us, one Thomas Thistlewood who kept a diary of his plantation life. Wikipedia confirms what Ros told us: his diary chronicled “3,852 acts of sexual intercourse and/or rape with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves”.
Ros illustrated her talk with some wonderful illustrations, including the painting used on the cover of her book, Agostino Brunias’ The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl. She also mentioned some of the sources she used in her research, like Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the blood: A family’s story of slavery and empire.
So, the novel
I enjoyed the read. It is pretty much genre historical fiction rather than literary fiction, so not my usual fare. Russell doesn’t try to emulate Austen, and while her writing is clear, her dialogue can be a little too formal and uniform at times. She includes a lot of information about life at the time, information that Austen herself would not have needed to, and indeed did not, supply. But, of course, this is historical fiction, and modern audiences need background that Austen’s contemporaries didn’t.
Russell spins a credible story, both in terms of the plot she creates and how she develops the characters she draws from Mansfield Park. Maria does change significantly, but Russell convinces us that she could. However, this is historical, romantic fiction, not a fierce novel, so Russell’s more culpable characters, in particular Bertram father and son, are let off more lightly than they deserve. This perhaps mirrors the political reality: after emancipation, the Caribbean plantation owners received in total £20 million compensation, while the slaves received nothing.
What did Austen know and feel about slavery? We’re unlikely to ever know, but in Maria returns Russell has given us some insight into the darker side of life that Austen only hints at.
* Names that are common in slave areas are usually so because slaves tended to take on the surnames of their masters.
** Wikipedia tells that Stephen was great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf.
Maria returns to Barbados
Flynn: Bobby Graham Publishers, 2014
Eleanor Dark was quite a star in Australia’s literary firmament of the 1930s to 1950s, and has left an important legacy, not only in her most famous book The timeless land but also in the fact that her home Varuna in the Blue Mountains is now one of Australia’s most significant and loved writers’ retreats. It’s therefore wonderful that the Juvenilia Press was able to produce a book on her early work.
Unlike the Press’s volume on Mary Grant Bruce, which comprises works that push their definition of juvenilia, Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia fits clearly within their guidelines. All pieces were written between 1916 and 1919, when Dark was 15 to 18 years old. Like the Bruce volume, it was edited by secondary school students and their teacher, rather than the Press’s more usual practice of using tertiary students. (The Press is a teaching press). The decision to use secondary school students is particularly appropriate for this volume as the students come from the school, Redlands, which Dark attended, in her childhood name of Pixie O’Reilly. Research for the volume included the school’s own archives, and all the pieces come from the school magazine, The Redlander. A Foundation Day speech given by the (then) school’s archivist, Marguerite Gillezau, is one of the appendices.
Like other Juvenilia Press editions, this book includes useful extra matter such as Pixie O’Reilly’s school report! There is, too, an introduction, this one titled “Pixie to Eleanor: From a spark to a flame”. It is creatively, and entertainingly, organised under headings taken from the school report – “Making fair progress”, “Very promising indeed”, and so on. The volume is also illustrated with photographs and other images from Dark’s school days – and there is also the list of references consulted.
As with most juvenilia, the pieces here provide an insight not only into the author’s childhood but also into the passions and interests they’ll develop later. Dark went to Redlands school in 1914 (an auspicious year) after her mother died. Although it was a girl’s school – why do I say “although”? – the school did not seclude its students. Indeed the school archivist in her Foundation Day speech said that, since its establishment in 1884, the school “has been aware of the world outside its front gates”, including war. One of Dark’s pieces in this volume is a poem about the First World War, “Jerusalem set free”.
For those of you who don’t know Dark, she and her husband were politically radical – or – socialist in leaning, something for which they were often persecuted. Not having read biographies of her, I cannot say how much of this may have come from the family, but the Introduction says that one writer on Dark, Marivic Wyndham, stresses the importance of the school’s ethos on her development. Wyndham writes that the school provided her “not only with flesh-and-blood models of the new woman and the radical intellectual she eventually adopted, but also with models of community and sisterhood that later featured prominently in her vision of a ‘good society'”.
These values are evident in the piece most dear to my heart, “The Gum Tree’s Story”. I loved this little 2-page piece for three reasons: it contains delightful descriptions of Australian flora; it contains a story-within-a-story about that Australian archetype, “the lost child in the bush”; and it’s an allegory about inclusion rather than exclusion. The story concerns Waratah who wants to organise a party to enliven his drooping companions but wishes to exclude the interloper White Rose. (Is it girlish, that the Rose is white not red, do you think?).
The other story in the volume – there are two stories and four poems – encompasses another theme common to classic Australian literature, the bushranger. Titled “‘Thunderbolt’s’ Discovery”, it tells of young boys on a picnic who play bushrangers – Australian readers will be aware that Captain Thunderbolt was a famous bushranger – and come across an unconscious man who, they imagine, is a bushranger. What I love in this is her description of the bush:
It was very deep in the bush. A clear stream trickled down over the rocks, and there was the faint bush smell of damp earth and fallen gum leaves. Maiden-hair grew thickly, and clumps of pale wide violets and pretty, delicate ferns. Where the stream was at its wildest a huge old tree had fallen across it, and the damp bark was covered with soft green moss. Further up the hillside flannel-flowers and Christmas bells grew among the tall bulrushes, and Christmas bush was already nearly in full bloom.
Dark, it is clear from this and “The Gum Tree’s Story” knew her botany – but I think she evokes it well too, without going overboard as young writers can do.
The four poems speak to different aspects of Dark’s girlhood – from the war to hatred of exams. They show someone comfortable with language and with expressing ideas through them. They also show an ability to mix tone, to work in the serious and the light, in the grand and the more personal, in the fanciful and the real.
Not everyone, I know, enjoys Juvenilia but I am thoroughly enjoying these texts, and the insight they provide into the writers to come. I look forward to telling you about the next one in, hopefully, a month or so.
(ed. Jane Sloan with students from Redlands, Sydney)
Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2013
* The book only costs $12 plus postage, from the Press.
Nettie Palmer was one of Australia’s leading literary critics, not to mention essayist and poet, through the 1920s to 1940s. I have mentioned her several times in this blog, including in my post on Australia’s literary couples. She also mentored younger women writers such as Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. However, what I want to discuss today – and next week – is the article she wrote in 1927, about “The novel in Australia”. It was published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927.
She starts by commenting that the number of “good novels written in Australia has been small”. There are reasons for this she says but discussing those is not her aim in this article. Rather, her plan is to reduce her list of “good” Australian novels to just the best. The result “is a nugget of surprisingly high quality”. And now my plan is to share with you those nuggets that she defined for her readers back in 1927. It makes for interesting and sometimes surprising reading. Here goes, using the headings she did.
Some early nuggets
She names two.
Henry Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), which is a book I have in my TBR and would love to find time to read. I’m not sure I had heard of it until a few years ago but it keeps popping up in unusual places which has piqued my interest. It has, Palmer says, without elaborating, “a very colonial outlook”.
Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms (1882), which I defy any self-respecting Australian to say they haven’t heard of (though I suspect many of us haven’t read it!). She does elaborate over one and a half paragraphs on this one! She writes that, despite its “truculent title”:
It is one of those rare books that can please on several different counts – as an adventure story, as a sketched historical background, and as a sons psychological novel.
I love that she praises it for its “fine and unexaggerated vernacular, without dropped aitches or other irritating apostrophes to spot its pages”. She sees it as a model for good novels in Australia.
Palmer then says that it was a “long time before the simplicity and naturalness of that book was again reached”, but eventually some more nuggets appear.
Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life (1870), but she does not elaborate.
Mrs Campbell Praed’s (or Rosa Praed as I know and have read her) “easy flowing books now almost forgotten” (1890s). Books being forgotten is, clearly, an age-old problem! Anyhow, she names one, which I haven’t read, Longleat of Koralbyn.Wikipedia tells us that it was first published in 1881 under the exciting (my description!) title of Policy and passion! No wonder it was republished under a different title. I have read Praed’s rather raw The bonds of wedlock (1887). I laughed at Palmer’s comment that Praed’s books are set in Queensland but “the writer shirks the whole problem of making her Queensland live in the readers’ sight”. That could mean a number of things – but the important thing, I suppose, is that she likes Praed’s writing!
Then, though her subject is novels, she mentions short story writers, naming Louis Becke, Price Warung (whose stories I’ve reviewed), Henry Lawson and Albert Dorrington.
She concludes this section with the following:
For many years it has seemed that only short stories would ever be published again (and those only in fugitive form): any novels that appear have had every sort of circumstantial opposition to overcome.
Fugitive form? Does she mean in magazines (like The Bulletin, established in 1880) and newspapers rather than something more permanent like books? I suspect her comment about the difficulty of getting novels published is not totally incomprehensible to writers today?
Novels after 1900
Her choice of novels from the early twentieth century includes a couple of authors I don’t know. Regular readers here will recognise which ones they are by not having seen them mentioned here!
First up, of course, is Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career which she describes as a “bit of ironic auto-biography, set in an up-country township of the drearier sort”. Palmer, from the point of view of 1927, hopes that “some day she [Franklin] will be able to repeat her early success, looking through the opposite end of life’s telescope”. Franklin did achieve fictional success again, in the late 1930s, with All that swagger.
She then names Randolph Bedford’s – quick quiz question: have you heard him mentioned here? – two novels. True eyes and the whirlwind (1903) and The snare of strength (1905). (Don’t you love these titles?) Palmer describes the first as “a novel of the picaresque style, a useful type for expressing the nomadic youth spent by many Australians before they find their life’s work”. Interesting. I hadn’t quite realised just how far back the idea of Australians as travellers extends, but it reminded me that Patrick White spent time jackarooing in Australia, in the 1920s, and travelling overseas as he sought a place for himself in the world. Overall, she says, Bedford’s work “is never without a fine gusto”. Sounds worth checking out.
I’m pleased to see that she also includes in her list, Barbara Baynton and her novel The human toll (1907) which, she says “had a strong, if acrid life of its own … full of bush tragedy”. That’s our Baynton!
And finally, in this group, she names Louis Stone’s Jonah, “a Sydney story of young larrikins, done with sincerity”.
Palmer ends this section with a cry that is surely universal:
Out-of-print, out-of-print – that is what one has to lament about all these books! Many novels deserve to die in their year of birth, but what of those that have permanent quality? We can only beg for new editions.
I will conclude my discussion of her article in next week’s Monday Musings.
This year is Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 25th anniversary. For those of you who don’t know, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Indigenous Australian contemporary dance company that was established – obviously – in 1989. Its artistic director since 1991 has been Stephen Page. His brother, David Page, does the music. These are two very talented brothers who have had their hands in many significant indigenous arts endeavours besides Bangarra, but today it’s Bangarra I want to talk about! Bangarra is apparently a Wiradjuri word for “to make fire”.
Mr Gums and I have been to many Bangarra shows over the years. They are exciting. We love the way they incorporate indigenous themes and movements into the contemporary dance world. Last year’s show was Blak, which comprised three parts – a men’s story, a women’s story, and then both genders together. It was clever and entertaining. In 2012, we saw Terrain, which was inspired by the changing landscape of Lake Eyre in central Australia.
Two performances we’ve seen, though, have been inspired by historical figures – and have also connected, coincidentally, with Australian literature. In 2008 it was Mathinna, the indigenous Tasmanian girl who was adopted by Governor and Lady Franklin. Richard Flanagan told her story in his novel Wanting, which I read before blogging. The other is their current show Patyegarang about the young indigenous woman who befriended and trusted first fleet astronomer-timekeeper, Lieutenant Dawes. She trusted him so much that she shared her culture with him, including her people’s language, which Dawes recorded in his diaries. Their story is told in Kate Grenville’s The lieutenant, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.
Stephen Page explains in the program why he chose this story for their 25th anniversary show:
I wanted to take the opportunity to pay homage to the land on which we have gathered and created dance theatre works since 1989 – the Eora nation; the place we call Sydney.
I believe Patyegarang was a young woman of fierce and endearing audacity, and a ‘chosen one’, to speak, within her clan and community. Her tremendous display of trust in Dawes resulted in a gift of cultural knowledge back to her people almost 200 years later …
What he means here is that Dawes’ diaries, which were “rediscovered” by a researcher in the 1970s, has helped current people recover language and culture that had been lost.
Dramaturg Alana Valentine talks of how she translated Page’s vision into a story. She also quotes Richard Green, an elder and cultural adviser for the project, who said that “Dawes was different, he listened”. Valentine continues:
It is an observation that carries invaluable wisdom for how contemporary Australia might continue to honour the contribution Dawes himself made to reconciliation and respect.
There it is again – the message we keep hearing: Listen!
Musician David Page talks of working closely with his brother, nutting out just who Patyegarang was. He said the biggest question for him was “How close was their relationship?”
So, the show. It runs for 70 minutes without interval. My, how hard those dancers worked. As you would expect, it took their relationship from their meeting through getting to learn to trust each other and share their knowledge to when Dawes departs. The scene opens on the beach with the warm glow of dawn. It’s idyllic. The people go about their business, safe, as they usually do. Then a strange man appears and the story progresses. There’s hunting and gathering, smoking ceremonies, the gradual acceptance of Dawes (danced by the non-indigenous Thomas Greenfield) led by Patyegarang (Jasmin Shepherd) while others are less sure – and of course there’s fighting with the red coats. It’s a work that requires concentration and imagination from the audience – and I’m not sure we understood all the references. I suspect this is because while there seemed to be a clear narrative, the program is framed a little more abstractly, focussing on feelings, spirit, values and politics rather than narrative. It’s a work that would benefit from multiple viewings.
The dancing draws closely from traditional moves – at least from those I, as a non-indigenous person, recognise – but is still contemporary. Much of it is low to the ground, earthy, suggesting connection to country. All this is accompanied by lighting that tracks the day and mood; a simple backdrop of cliffs, which at times gave the impression of the ancestors looking on, and a single large rock representing a place of safety, of meeting; and gorgeous costuming that blends with the earth while suggesting lightness and spirit too. There’s one dance by the women – “Maugri (Generic Fish)” – in which tubular costumes enable them to slip from human to sea-creature and back again in fluid, organic moves. The music is dramatic, evocative – including clapping sticks at times, strains of “Botany Bay” at others, and overlays of the language Patyegarang shared and Dawes documented.
Works like this are inspiring on multiple levels, emotionally, intellectually and politically … it would be wonderful if Australians could (or would) see it.
I have an old-friend-cum-ex-colleague who has been asking me for longer than I can remember to read John Updike. He even, a year or so ago, sent me a link to a Kindle special for Rabbit, Run. I obediently bought it, and I do intend to read it, I do. However, I recently reorganised my Kindle and discovered that I have a TBR pile there of 20 books! How can that be? I hardly ever buy for the Kindle. But, there you are, the Kindle Cloud never lies, so I must have. All this is to say that I realised it could be some time before I got to Updike, so when I saw a story by him appear on the Library of America a year ago, I printed it out! It finally reached the top of the pile and I’ve just read it. My friend is right. I really should read (more) Updike.
The story, “The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd”, is told from the point of view of a male member of a group of couples who socialised and holidayed together over many years – indeed from the time their daughters were two or three to now, when they are in their mid-twenties. Well, until they were somewhere in their teens anyhow, because the old crowd is no longer together – not only due to “the children, really, growing unenthusiastic and resistant” to group holidays but due to “the divorces as they began to build up”.
He compares happy times of the past – from his perspective – to the less than exciting or fulfilling things all their daughters are doing now – from his perspective. He also compares the daughters to their mothers – and again, of course, it’s from his perspective. This is the important thing about the story – his perspective. We know nothing really of what the girls thought then or think now. We only know what a now middle-aged man thinks. Should we trust his view? What does the fact that Updike included this in a collection, published in 1987, titled (presumably by him) Trust me tell us about his intention?
Late in the story, the narrator also compares the girls to the “daughters of people we hardly knew”. These daughters “are married to stockbrokers or off in Oregon being nurses or in Mexico teaching agronomy” while
our daughters haunt the town as if searching for something they missed, taking classes in macramé or aerobic dancing, living with their mothers, wearing no make-up, walking up beside the rocks with books in their arms like a race of little nuns.
So, here’s the challenge. From his point of view, there’s something wrong with these girls. They are not getting married, they are not in high status or highly admirable jobs or situations. Well, we readers might ask, why should they be, given that their parents have clearly not set good examples of happy marriages? Indeed, our narrator, who’s in “about the last marriage left”, reveals a wandering eye. We wonder, in fact, whether they may have been swinging couples. We might also ask, though, what is wrong with the choices the daughters are making? Why should they wear make-up? To catch a man? What is wrong with walking “beside the rocks with books”? And, do they want to marry a stockbroker?
I love the complexity of this, the fact that Updike has chosen to tell this story through decidedly subjective eyes, and yet has managed to leave the interpretation surprisingly open. It’s a story, I suspect, that can be read very differently depending on each reader’s experience and point of view, despite some givens in the text.
Before I conclude, I want to mention the style. The tone is intimate – as though the narrator is talking to one of his old friends. He refers, for example, to Mary Jo Addison and “that bad spell of anorexia”, implying we know all about Mary Jo’s problems. There’s also some lovely imagery, such as this description of the young girls with “their pale brushed heads like candles burning in the summer sunlight”. Decorative but not very necessary? Is this how they were treated? And, overall, there’s a sense of disconnect between the narrator’s nostalgia and the reality of their lives. I’m not sure he’s unreliable exactly, but he does seem rather deluded about what role he and his friends may have played in who the girls are now.
“The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd” is such a sly story. It suggests that the daughters are troubled, are somehow wrong, and maybe they are, maybe they’re not, but that is not the real, or the whole, story. And therein lies the lovely irony in the title.
“The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd”
First published: in The New Yorker on April 6, 1981; later republished in his collection Trust me (1987)
Available: Online at the Library of America
Last week, to commemorate the beginning of NAIDOC Week, I devoted Monday Musings to Anita Heiss’s series of interviews with indigenous Australian writers, In conversation with BlackWords. I said then that this week’s post would also draw from the series – and so here it is.
I’m not 100% sure of Heiss’s process, but I think she sent the same set of questions to all writers, and they answered some or all of questions as they desired. I am focusing, in this post, on one of the questions. Seventeen of the twenty writers responded to it. The question is:
What book do you think every Australian should read?
The answers are fascinating. Most, as you would expect, recommend books that would help all Australians learn and understand more about indigenous culture and history, and the books they recommend are mostly by indigenous Australians. But, the interesting thing is that there’s a lot less duplication than I expected. I like this. It suggests the existence of an active indigenous literary culture. No simple, easily defined cannon here! It provides a great list for us all to go to – both now, and when we are planning for ANZLitLovers’ 2015 Indigenous Literature Week.
Anyhow, I thought, when I decided to do this post, that I could tally up the recommendations and list them in popularity order. But, given what I actually found, I have decided instead to simply list them in alphabetical order by author/editor, with the name of the recommender/s and comments where appropriate.
- Berendt, Larissa: Home. Ellen van Neerven called this “A very important book.”
- Carey, Peter*: True history of the Kelly Gang. Jared Thomas said it “alerted me to class struggle – the fact that it is not only Aboriginal people who have endured persecution in this country.”
- Chi, Jimmy: Bran Nue Dae (script). Kim Scott.
- Eckermann, Ali Cobby and Fogarty, Lionel (eds): Southerly, Vol 71, No. 2, 2011, “A Handful of Sand: Words to the Frontline”. Lorraine McGee-Sippel described this as “An invaluable resource of Australia’s First Nations writers … Across all genres, ages and life experiences”. She believes is should be “compulsory reading … in all high schools and universities”.
- Eckermann, Ali Cobby: Ruby Moonlight. Bruce Pascoe.
- Gammage, Bill*: The biggest estate on earth. Kim Scott simply said “an important book”.
- Gilbert, Kevin: Because a white man’ll never do it. Kerry Reed-Gilbert, his daughter.
- Green, Evan*: Adam’s empire. Sue McPherson described it as “a good Aussie story. It should be made into a film.”
- Haebich, Anna*: For Their Own Good. Kim Scott said that it “focuses on south-west Western Australia, but the power relationship it articulates applies across the continent”.
- Heiss, Anita: any book. Lionel Fogarty gave Heiss as an example in recommending “Indigenous-authored books such as those by Anita Heiss.
- Heiss, Anita: Am I black enough for you? Jared Thomas, Bruce Pascoe (my review)
- Heiss, Anita and Minter, Peter (eds): The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. Kerry Reed-Gilbert.
- Leane, Jeanine: Purple threads. Melissa Lucashenko (my review).
- McMullen, Jeff*: any writing. Samuel Wagan Watson.
- Maynard, John: Fight for liberty and freedom. Recommended by himself.
- Munkara, Marie: Every secret thing. Bruce Pascoe (my review).
- Papunya School with Nadia Wheatley and Ken Searle: The Papunya School Book of Country and History. Anita Heiss likes this because it is “accessible to all”.
- Pascoe, Bruce: works by him. Recommended by himself.
- Pascoe, Bruce: Earth. Melissa Lucashenko.
- Pilger, John*: A secret country. Kate Howarth.
- Reynolds, Henry*: any book. Kerry Reed-Gilbert argued that “it’s time for people to know the truth of this country”; Samuel Wagan Watson.
- Reynolds, Henry*: Forgotten War. Lorraine McGee-Sippel said that it “addresses Australia’s selective amnesia in relation to the wars fought between Traditional Owners and the Invaders. Where are our memorials?”
- Reynolds, Henry*: This whispering in our hearts. Jackie Huggins.
- Scott, Kim: Benang: From the heart. Bruce Pascoe.
- Scott, Kim: That deadman dance. Kerry Reed-Gilbert; Bruce Pascoe (my review).
- Scott, Kim: True country. Melissa Lucashenko.
- Thiele, Colin*: Labourers in the vineyard. Bruce Pascoe.
- Weller, Archie: stories by him. Bruce Pascoe.
- Willmot, Eric: Pemulwuy: The rainbow warrior. Dub Leffler.
- Wright, Alexis: Carpentaria. Bruce Pascoe (my review).
- Wright, Judith*: stories and poems by her. Bruce Pascoe.
Every Australian?’ Hmmm … It’s hard to say, and I know mature Australians who have admitted to having never finished reading a book because literature bores them. I can’t answer that question? I’ve never watched a cricket match in my 41 years either … So I must seem weird to people who don’t pick up a book. If I was on a ‘soapbox’, I’d say any writing by Uncle Henry Reynolds or Uncle Jeff McMullen.
But some people can be turned off literature – altogether – by books that are too confronting. And that’s the delicate balance that needs to be dealt by a writer when you’re thinking about audiences. I do believe some writers have no idea that they are either not engaging with an audience or they don’t care? As a writer, on the journey of composing your work or novel or music, you need to consider your audience at every turning point. If you don’t think about the needs of your reader, you are simply writing in a very tight vacuum.
Another respondent who didn’t seem keen to name specific titles or authors was Samantha Faulkner.
I’d like to conclude with her lovely, generous statement. She wrote:
Any book by an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writer. Reading a book by a First Nations Australian writer will identify similarities that connect us, and bring us together, rather than divide us. After all, we live on this beautiful country together.